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THE GREATEST PC GAMES OF ALL TIME

BALDURS GATE
HOW THREE DOCTORS BUILT A GREAT RPG, AND A GAMING EMPIRE. By Dan Griliopoulos
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THE MAKING OF

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INFO
FIRST REVIEWED PCG 65, 89% PUBLISHER Interplay DEVELOPER BioWare REQUIRES 1GHz CPU, 256MB RAM, 3D card LINK baldursgate.com INFLUENCED BY Dungeons & Dragons GET IT FROM gog.com

ts easy to think of your formative games as having sprung from nowhere. But talking to Dr Ray Muzyka co-creator of the seminal RPG Baldurs Gate and co-founder of BioWare pretty quickly disabused me of that notion. There are two groups of predecessors to Baldurs Gate. The first set come from BioWare itself, and the second are the games Dr Muzyka cites as inspirations. To understand BioWare, you need to understand both groups. BioWares founders were Dr Ray Muzyka, Dr Greg Zeschuck and Dr Augustine Yip. All three were medical students and graduated together, but Zeschuck and Muzykas first love lay elsewhere. Both of us were very passionate about videogames, says Muzyka. We played pretty much everything we could get our hands on growing up. Through the 1980s they played on a variety of systems, including consoles and the Apple II. We had a lot of passion and experience playing games, and we brought that to bear on the products we built. Driven towards software development, they pooled their savings and while working as GPs (or in Dr Muzykas case in the Emergency Room of a hospital) they started BioWare. The first products they released had nothing to do with games. BioWares initial output, programmed by the trio, was medical software designed to simulate subsystems of the human body, built while they were in med school. The first program was an acid-based physiology simulator, the second a gastroenterology patient simulator. Kind of entertaining but educational, recalls Muzyka. Though these were the trios first products, they didnt want to stick to doing that. It was tough to sell this educational software to universities, and the market, even back then, was already largely closed to newcomers. They sold the rights to the second piece of medical software to a

pharmaceutical company and looked for opportunities in games. Thankfully, they ran into some talented programmers who already had the barebone engine of a game, which they called Shattered Steel an early mech game. We said that well pay these guys, hire them, and try and get a publisher for it, recalls Muzyka. The doctors had both learned BASIC and assembly code on the Apple II, then trained in Fortran and Pascal at university, but their involvement in Shattered Steels programming was less than their involvement in writing the games backstory in the manual. They started doing what they became famous for: narrative. That, and management. And anything else that needed doing. Basically, were

While working as GPs, they started BioWare


trained as GPs, ER docs, Muzyka says. I was a jack of all trades, and thats what youre doing when youre running a company as well, a little bit of everything. They managed to get the game published by Interplay, after calling around all the major publishers of the time. We actually split the list up into what we viewed as the top ten publishers at the time and just started calling them in 93, 94, 95... after repeated calls from these doctors making videogames, all of them, pretty much, made an offer. It was a bit of a challenge, but our persistence, a good demo and some materials I put together with the team really paid off. In 1996, with the success of Shattered Steel under their belts, the duo moved onto another, more ambitious title: the first fantasy MMORPG, the ground-breaking Battleground: Infinity. I remember in our

first office, Ray says, standing with Greg, and there was no one else there... just standing and drawing some ideas on a whiteboard. Then we started hiring... designer, programmer, artist. Whats that? Youve never heard of Battleground: Infinity? Ah. The concept was of a multiverse of mythical pantheons. We had this crazy little budget, less than a million dollars... we had multiplayer, shards, an MMO by modern definitions. The team made an impressive prototype level using the latest Windows graphics, DirectX 3, and pitched it to publishers. Interplay said yes. However, they had the Dungeons & Dragons licence already sewn up. We said, yeah, we could make that into something thatd be really popular, says Muzyka. Millions of people would have played D&D, so that was our first attempt to align the design with a market that we could reach. This, of course, is what became Baldurs Gate. Asking Dr Muzyka about the inspirations for the game is dangerous. It immediately becomes obvious that he has played every game of that era and this. Tales of Arcania... Bards Tale... Wizardry... Jagged Alliance... He calls out name after name. I put it to him that Zeschuck and he are the perfect examples of Malcolm Gladwells Outlier rule, that they had a huge competitive advantage because of this very early depth of experience in the technology of games. One of the things he talks about in that book is the 10,000 hour rule, agrees Muzyka. Most of the people, myself and Greg included, in the early days of BioWare, probably had those 10,000 hours playing videogames growing up. Ten years of gaming every day as your main hobby. It certainly was true for me, for Greg, and the others. Unlike some of their contemporaries, it doesnt feel like their competitive advantage has been eroded. Muzykas latest obsession is Legend of Grimrock: When I get on a plane, I pop my laptop open and play it for an hour until I land. Its a guilty pleasure. With the project approved, albeit no

Zorbing: popular in fantasy RPGs.

Opening doors was about as interactive as it got, however.

The games inventory. Not made of real rock.

You can also get a widescreen mod now.

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longer as an MMO, the team started expanding, up to 70 people a phenomenally large outfit for the time, where teams typically numbered twelve. None of these people had ever worked on a videogame, and many did several jobs. We were based in Edmonton, Alberta, says Muzyka, so there wasnt really a videogames base to draw from. After Baldurs Gate became a hit, we could draw from elsewhere. For example, James Ohlen, the creative lead on Baldurs Gate, Baldurs Gate II, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, SW:TOR... he ran a comic book store and he ran a couple of really popular D&D campaigns in a town north of Edmonton. We said, he can tell stories, so lets bring him in to become a designer. Similarly, their tech designer had never turned a computer on. We knew he was a talented painter and he also carved decoy hunting ducks. We said this guy has 3D skills, he can model. After two months training, he could model, animate, and became an excellent technical artist. They found an artist whose resum consisted of paintings and sketches on napkins. A database designer (and painter) became the lead programmer, who designed a streamlined interface derived from RTS games. A talented concept artist who could draw really fast and needed to, because there were 10,000 screens of art at 640x480. And so on, for 70 people, a company built in the same way the A-Team would build a working tank out of wire wool and tin foil. During this period, in 1997, Dr Yip was bought out of the company. He went back to medicine because at that time we didnt pay ourselves any salary. Dr Yip had a family, so couldnt subsist on no income he returned to Calgary as a full time GP, where he still has a (highly rated) practice. The other two founders ceased practising medicine in the same year. To really bring a D&D campaign to life was the inspiration, says Muzyka, but once we began Baldurs Gate, that was very clearly going to be a singleplayer RPG with co-op multiplayer. To achieve this, they drew on the doctoral duos extensive knowledge of games. From Jagged Alliance, they took the idea of strong characters. There were a bunch of really interesting characters there. Skitz would suddenly go nuts. He felt alive, like he had a personality. We wanted to make
All the best quests start in the pub.

our characters feel like they had personalities as you walked around they would say things and talk back and forth. Similarly, they made use of the pauseand-play mechanism of the hugely obscure Tales of Arcania, because it was the best way of emulating the turns of Dungeons & Dragons combat without losing the core mechanics. Then there was other inspiration, like the dungeons in Bards Tale or Wizardry, the feel of foreboding or exploration, or the open-world mechanic of Wasteland, all kind of alive. The story itself following the children of Forgotten Realms dead god of murder, Bhaal was straight out of D&D. Integrating all these elements wasnt always smooth. Something we learned was to have a clear gold standard for everything early in the project, says Muzyka. In those days, we built everything in parallel. This meant the team ended up redoing the art three times, as the graphical prowess of the engine

It was exciting when we realised it was taking o


increased. Even the animations had to be done twice, because they increased the frames per animation, but hadnt made enough detail the first time around. Because of problems like this, the project slipped. The first adverts promised a mid 97 release, but the game eventually came out on December 21, 1998. It was tiring, certainly the last six months were really, really hard, Muzyka recalls. We missed the Thanksgiving window that you normally hit. But it was exciting when we realised that it was actually taking off, selling millions of copies despite that. Those hard six months also taught the team how to pace development. We made that one of our core values, at BioWare, to make sure we had a sustainable work/life environment. The point when the doctors realised they had a huge success on their hands

came about 18 months later, in the hugebut-now-defunct Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street, London. Back then, they had this chart of PC software, and that was how you sold your products there was no online. I was there with Greg, and I was looking at 50, 49, the 40s... the 30s and 20s... and its not there! Baldurs Gate and Tales of the Sword Coast are both out, and theyre not in the chart! I turned to go when I got to ten, it never occurred to me that it would be in the top ten. Greg grabbed me by the shoulder and pointed. We had number one and two in ALL the UK charts. Holy crap! At the time, Muzyka remembers, my biggest thought wasnt oh, this is great but more what do we do to top this? I used to toss and turn at night because of that. Then we came out with Neverwinter and Baldurs Gate II and I realised Hey. Just keep striving, dont seek an outcome, just keep trying your best to make it better and thatll be satisfying. The last couple of decades have been good as a result. Of the publishers the doctors pitched Shattered Steel to 20 years ago, only one has survived unscathed. Electronic Arts, where the doctors now run BioWare as that companys most critically successful division, employing over 800 staff. Does Ray miss the old, independent days? I definitely have nostalgia for the early days. There is something compelling about being the producer and knowing that this is make or break for your company. Has he ever been tempted to follow the likes of Peter Molyneux back into smallteam development? Theres so many fun things going on across BioWare that I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing our teams building awesome things. Not that Dr Muzyka just plays the games that they make. Ive got a lot of the old games installed, I bought them on Good Old Games and Steam and Origin. The mechanics are dated in a lot of cases, so Im hoping that these Kickstarter campaigns will bring them back in a more modern, accessible way. Is he looking forward to the remake of Baldurs Gate and possibly a Baldurs Gate III, which the reborn Interplay has been hinting at? Ive still got Baldurs Gate installed on my PC. Im also playing a lot of new stuff. While I enjoy nostalgia, I also enjoy the idea of remaking games in a new way. If were looking at Ultima, were looking at it in a fresh new way.
You can almost taste the 20-sided dice.

D&Ds baroque magic system is impressively brought to life.

Much like the UK, the land of Faern has crap summers.

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GAMEOGRAPHY
SHATTERED STEEL (1996)

An impressive first-person mechsuit game, where players engaged in bipedal machinecombat in a world of deformable terrain and many early BioWare quirks. The mech-mounted nuke is particularly ridiculous.
BALDURS GATE II, SHADOWS OF AMN (2000)

Two years after Baldurs Gate, the sequel directly continued the story, following up on the Bhaalspawn and casually killing off many of the first games characters along the way. An updated version has just been announced for release.
NEVERWINTER NIGHTS (2002)

With an all-new engine that was truer to the D&D ruleset, RPG NWN let BioWare run riot with their storytelling, while maintaining the same core character-driven, party-driven combat and dialogue that all their games follow.

We had number one and two in the UK charts

STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC (2003)

The first RPG to make the console audience really sit up and take notice of BioWare, KotOR established the franchise that would culminate in 2011s Star Wars: The Old Republic. It managed to rejuvenate the tired Star Wars universe with a setting four thousand years earlier.
MASS EFFECT (2007)

The sci-fi RPG epic that established BioWare as the storytelling darlings of console and PC, and doubtless (alongside Dragon Age) led to the EA buyout. If youre reading this, you dont need me to tell you who Commander Shepard is.

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