Baldur's Gate: Enhanced interview: making a classic better
by John Keefer, shacknews.com, Nov 16, 2012 12:30PM PST
The Baldur's Gate series was a classic for the PC, and the announcement of Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition with updated technology and new content created quite a positive buzz in RPG circles. Now, with the game set to launch in less than two weeks on November 28, we had a chance to chat with Beamdog president Trent Oster about the game's initial delay, the new content, plans for DLC and, eventually, Baldur's Gate 2 Enhanced.
Shacknews: When the release date for BG:EE was first announced as September, you knew that you were adding new content and new characters. What happened along the way that ended up pushing the date back?
Trent Oster: We were a little over confident we could whip the existing Baldur's Gate codebase into a shippable shape in a timely manner. Early in development, we made good progress. Later, we hit a brick wall. We'd try to work with the existing system, it wouldn't work, we'd start spelunking around looking for the problem and the complexity we encountered was off the charts. We'd cut the complexity down and introduce new bugs. We'd fix the bugs, introducing more. We really were in a hard cycle of code cleanup and bug fixing. In September we had a brittle version of the game that simply lacked polish and didn't feel well executed. We worked very hard to fix bugs and improve the game, but the progress just wasn't what was required to make a game we could be proud of. We approached our partners, telling them clearly that we were unhappy with the state of the project and we wanted to extend the ship date. The Wizards people were very supportive and in full agreement, they understood the importance of making a high quality product. It took a while for us to work out the business terms for the extension and that forced us to wait on the delay announcement much longer than we would have liked. As a small developer, funding two more months of additional development and going two months without revenue was a hard call to make, but we are certain it was the right decision.
Shacknews: With the launch two weeks away, what is the biggest thing left on the "to do" list?
Oster: I wish there was only one. We need to get out there and tell people about the game. We need to finish up the last polishing touches for ship. We need to finish our plans for post-release update #1. We need to get the promotional assets out to the fans. We need to start the pre-load and metric the distribution server farm to measure and manage the load. We need to ensure our server support in Europe is up to the demand. Really, we have a massive volume of work and time is ticking away.
Shacknews: You said you had gutted the multiplayer of the original Baldur's Gate. Talk us through the changes and decisions you made to make it a better experience as co-op.
Oster: The original Baldur's Gate made extensive use of Direct Play, which is no longer supported. The DirectPlay systems had a lot of performance and reliability issues in the original codebase and we were able to reduce the complexity and clean up the entire system by nuking DirectPlay from orbit. The BG reliance on DirectPlay required players to engage in a large number of odd work-arounds to get the game to connect up. Our approach was to clean up the networking system and lay out a larger plan for how games could connect up. With the tight demands on our time, we will launch with support for direct connections, with our game matching solution coming online in the near future. I'm most proud of how robust the cross-platform multi-player is. We've had a number of games running in the office across PC's, Macs and various iPad versions. The cool factor of cross-device play is hard to convey, but when you are playing the same game on a tablet that your buddy is playing on a PC it is pretty amazing.
Shacknews: How much thought was there (if any) given to making the game for PS3 or Xbox 360?
Oster: We were approached by Sony to bring the game to PSN, so I counter-proposed what I thought it would cost for us to do it right. For me, to make BG:EE a good experience on a console would require a very heavy redesign for the entire control and input scheme. We're big fans of Baldur's Gate, so we want the game to be great. Without a large scale effort we just could not make a product we could be proud of and Sony decided not to proceed. I believe they wanted to proceed with a quality product, but we just couldn't make the numbers work.
Shacknews: You've created three new characters for BG:EE: Rasaad, Neera and Dorn. What was the thought process behind adding this new content?
Oster: We analyzed the game mix in the main game and asked "What characters would be a good addition?" Dorn came from a concept I had wanted to pursue around a very powerful character who also brought a large negative into the party. I described the concept as "The butcher of Bakersfield" (Running Man movie reference), but the idea was a butt-kicking fighter who added a great deal to the party in combat ability, but really hurt the party in the social game. The idea that people wouldn't talk to them, merchants charged higher prices, enemies coming out the woodwork and so on. Neera came from a desire to make a little more whimsical character and to really embrace what we thought a wild mage should be. She has a great natural talent, but she doesn't fully understand it. She has had a mixture of experiences and while an optimist, she has seen a few pretty bad situations, such as the Red Wizards stalking her. Rasaad came out of our talks around developing a fun to play, but straight laced monk character. His childhood background keeps poking through as he strives to be the man he feels he should be. We're very happy with how all three turned out and I seem to recruit them every time I run a play-through. Keeping everyone happy is a bit of a challenge. Let's just say I spend a fair amount of money in the temples.
Shacknews: Why did you decide to make Neera and Dorn characters as DLC for the iPad version and not PC?
Oster: We wanted to push the price on the iPad and Android tablets as low as we could, but we still wanted players to have a taste of the new content. We made the decision to include Rasaad and the Black pits in every version, but by selling Dorn, Neera, the Voice Over pack and the Jason Manley Portrait pack as DLC, we could do a lower price. We want everyone to get a fair deal, regardless of platform and I think we've hit on a good balance. As a PC or Mac player you get everything for one price, without the complexity. For tablets, you get a lower cost of entry, but you can add the new content if you so desire.
Shacknews: The addition of Dorn adds the Blackguard kit to the game. Are you planning other kits as well?
Oster: We have some plans post-launch for other new kits and additional enhancements, but we are still working out all the complex details around those plans.
Shacknews: The Underdark has always held a bit of mystery. How was the Black Pits dungeon created and what types of discussions did you have about making it stand-alone or fitting it into the story?
Oster: We wanted to build an adventure which really celebrated the strengths of the Infinity Engine gameplay. Early on we decided upon a concept around a gladiatorial pit series of challenges, really focusing on the tactical combat strengths of Baldur's Gate. After extensive consultation with our partners at Wizards of the Coast we settled on the Underdark as a setting and a male drow as the antagonist. Since we wanted to have the party progressing as they moved through the fight tiers this really limited us to a stand-alone adventure. With the freedom of a separate adventure we were able to bring a huge variety to the fights and force the players to switch up tactics to progress. We're very happy with how it turned out. Trust me on this "Fear the fission slimes."
Shacknews: You have said the AI will still be a pain. What types of changes have you made to the AI (if any) to keep up with the new content?
Oster: We've re-done most of the generic AI scripts and for the Black Pits we've done a ton of custom scripting. Any place we've added new content, we made extensive use of new approaches and optimizations to the scripting. We also fixed a number of scripting commands that never worked properly in the original game. The AI has improved, but there are still ways we can make it better going forward.
Shacknews: What will the new level cap be?
Oster: In the interest of keeping BG2:EE balancing in line, we made the hard decision to leave the xp cap where it was, at 161,000 XP at the end of the Tales of the Sword Coast. When we did some play-through experiments, we found the fun of the game disappeared once you became too high level.
Shacknews: Tell us about the voice work. Who did you get for the new characters and what was the audition process like? We know that Mark Meer, who voiced Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect series and did some voice work in the Baldur's Gate games, is being brought back.
Oster: We selected some experienced voice actors for the new characters. Our selection process was to put together a list of characters we needed to record and Dave Chan (former BioWare Audio guy) put forward a mountain of audition samples for us to review. Based on the samples, we provided a short list of actors and the roles we wanted to try them for. With Mark, we had him listed to audition for two roles, but once he started rolling, he asked if could try a few more. He tried out for more than 10 of the 40 plus new characters and we picked him for six. Yes, he is that good and he has a very large range. His goblins are just awesome. His new work in the enhanced edition is much more "enthusiastic" than his former.
Shacknews: Has Jim Cummings had to make an appearance as Minsc?
Oster: We haven't added any new voice work for Minsc. Due to an old agreement, we are limited in terms of what we can do with old characters and new content. For completely new content such as expansions, those limitations don't exist, so we're going to give Jim a call one of these days, but for now, fun must wait.
Shacknews: How much additional music had to be done for the game?
Oster: We did all new music for The Black Pits, the new areas for Rasaad and Neera and we had Sam Hulick compose a new main theme for us. We're very happy with how the music turned out. Sam did an amazing job of adding new music that fits in well with the original music very well.
Shacknews: Baldur's Gate was already a huge game. Each of those characters should add a total of 12 more hours of game play. That's a lot for a $20 price point. What was the reasoning behind pricing the game there and not higher?
Oster: We wanted to fix the price point at $10 for a stripped down version for the tablets and when we added all the content up $20 seemed a reasonable price to us. We believe in creating a good value product for our players and I think the low price will allow us to attract many more players than if we had gone too high. We also had to spec out the price early on in the process, before we had a real idea of how much work was involved. I think with the improvements we've made and are planning on still making this is going to be one of the gaming bargains of the decade.
Shacknews: Have pre-orders been where you expected them to be? Have any numbers?
Oster: In our contract we are blocked from directly discussing terms such as sales numbers, but we've exceeded my original target by half again, so I'm pretty happy. Now we just have to see how sales pan out.
Shacknews: Any update on a boxed or Collector's Edition?
Oster: The concept of a boxed edition is still dead in the water. We just haven't made any progress on the contract front.
Shacknews: Any update on a Linux version? You tweeted that it looked feasible.
Oster: We're getting close on the contract for the Linux version. I'm pretty certain it will happen, but when is the big question.
Shacknews: Now that BG:EE is almost out the door, what planning and groundwork has been laid for BG2:EE?
Oster: We've done a fair amount of planning and some concept artwork. We bounced some story ideas off the folks at Wizards and they gave us some great ideas on interesting content, so we've laid some groundwork. Beyond that we're completely dominated by BG:EE right now.
Shacknews: Since most of the revamp work was done for the original, do you think we'll see a quicker turnaround time with the followup?
Oster: Yes, our plan was always to try and do the heavy lifting early on. BG2:EE should be a shorter development cycle than BG:EE.
Shacknews: What are your plans for DLC? We have a hint on the iPad DLC, but what about PC?
Oster: We think there is a lot of room for more content in the BG series and we're anxious to start exploring new adventures and characters. A big part for us is going to be watching the success or the existing tablet DLC and making content choices accordingly.
Shacknews: Will DLC take precedence over BG2:EE or will you work on them simultaneously?
Oster: BG2:EE will take precedence over DLC. We're under contract on the game, the DLC doesn't have a hard ship date, so it is going to come after.
Shacknews: You had tweeted that Icewind Dale would be a candidate for an enhanced edition if BG:EE is a success. Have pre-orders and fan feedback made that a real possibility?
Oster: The support is there from the fans and the pre-sales. Our partners have expressed an interest in adopting a "wait and see" approach to see the critical and commercial success of the Enhanced Edition titles before deciding to move ahead. We're all interested, but we all have to make the best decisions for our respective companies and properties as well, so we completely understand. We love working with the Wizards people and they've been great partners to date. We're looking forward to working with them in the future. We're hopeful they feel the same about us.