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Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition interview: Trent Oster on building “BioWare 0.6 Mark 2”

Don’t tell him this, but I hold Trent Oster responsible for my warped RPG worldview. His early work as the other co-founder of BioWare is the reason I looked for KOTOR mods to make the game’s combat crueller; the reason I wind up twitchy and bored controlling only one character at a time; the reason I know to expect better stories, better characterisation, better exploration.

Baldur’s Gate was better at those things. That’s why Oster and his team at Overhaul Games upped tools on an Enhanced Edition, with the intention of becoming not BioWare 2.0 but “BioWare 0.6 Mark 2”. The results are released on the PC next Wednesday, and we cornered him for a chat.

PCGamesN: For the benefit of our readers, could you give us a brief history of your time at BioWare? Perhaps flesh out the ‘two doctors’ origin story in the process?

Trent Oster: This could take a few hundred pages.  I'll give you my abbreviated recollection of the early days.

Christmas 1993 – My older brother (Brent Oster) with help from me, built a very basic 3D graphics engine during our Christmas holidays. We decided to make a game that summer while running a computer consulting company by day.
May 1994 - We started work on Blasteroids 3D as a proof we could make a game.  The team was Brent Oster, Trent Oster and Marcel Zeschuk. We sold/fixed computers by day and developed Blasteroids 3D by night.
June 1994 – Greg Zeschuk (cousin to Marcel and childhood friend) drops in and brings a couple buddies who are interested in starting something.
Late 1994 – BioWare is incorporated with six Directors - Greg Zeschuk, Ray Muzyka, Augustine Yip, Brent Oster, Marcel Zeschuk and Trent Oster.
Mid 1995 – We sign a deal with Interplay productions to publish Shattered Steel.
Late 1995 - Brent and I break out from Bioware to form Pyrotek Games Studios.
May 1996 – Pyrotek explodes.  I rejoin Bioware and bring Shattered Steel to Edmonton to finish.

September 1996 – We ship Shattered Steel. I move on to Shattered Steel 2.
Late 1996 - Shattered Steel 2 is killed by Interplay and the team starts on MDK2.
Early 1997 – I move into the role of “3D department head” on Baldur's Gate, overseeing level art development.
Late 1997 – I start work on Neverwinter Nights, alone. The team is built slowly.
Mid 1998 – Panic request from Baldur's Gate team to help with multiplayer testing. NWN is put on hold while Tobyn Mathorpe and I grind away our souls in months of multiplayer testing.  I develop my hatred of UI and excessive clicking.
Late 1998 – Bioware Ships Baldur's Gate.
June 2002 – We ship Neverwinter Nights.
June 2003 - We ship Shadows of Undrentide expansion.
December 2003 – We ship Hordes of the Underdark.
Jan 2004 – Eclipse Engine development starts [later used for Dragon Age].
… time passes …
July 2009 – EA and I part ways.

PCGN: You’ve said you intend Overhaul to work on original RPGs in the ‘90s vein if all goes well with the Enhanced Editions. But your first game was a remake of MDK 2. Why Baldur’s Gate, and why now?

TO: MDK2 HD was a trial project for us on the Overhaul concept. Cameron [Tofer, fellow early BioWare veteran] was intimate with the engine, so we felt it would be a straightforward project for us. It was more work than we expected and we overcommitted to the HD front, spending about double what we had budgeted. We had always talked about Baldur's Gate and the entire time MDK2 Wii and HD were in development we were attempting to secure the BG rights. As a company we know we can do great work in the isometric RPG space.

We've built a great team for creating new content and we have an unparalleled technical understanding of the challenges in developing isometric RPGs. We're big fans of RPGs and we'd like to spend our days making the games we love.

PCGN: Since you started development on BG:EE we’ve seen Project Eternity spring up and do really well for itself, and only this week Guido Henkel’s Thorvalla has appeared on Kickstarter. Both cite the Infinity Engine games as a golden period in RPG development. How do you feel about the competition? And why is the revival happening?

TO: I think the attention Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition received made a bunch of developers sit up and take notice. I think the attention Diablo 3 received reinforced the interest, showing a top down RPG can still be a massive draw. As developers, we all look for a place we want to work and we can do a high quality product. I think the other developers are seeing an underserved market and are going after the opportunity. I'm anxious to play the games they make and we're going to work our butts off to make great games, so it will be a great time to be an RPG fan.

PCGN: Okay, let’s do a Baldur’s Gate fandom test. So you’ve just left Candlekeep minus a foster father. You’re solo in a forest with a troupe of roving gibberlings. Which companions do you pick up, and why?

TO: I bee-line it for Nashkel and pick up Minsc. There is no need for justification. He is Minsc. We wander the surrounding areas, butt-kicking for goodness (getting a few levels under our belts). Minsc starts to go on about Dynaheir (aka Miss identify items), so we go to the Gnoll fortress and rescue her. After that, we return to Nashkel, picking up our new NPC Dorn in an encounter.  Dorn is evil, so we've got some tensions running in the party, but he is a lawnmower of destruction and well worth a bit of whining.

We then pick up our new NPC Neera. Her wild mage abilities are pretty awesome and she has a new adventure for us to pursue. Next, I add Branwen as we need a cleric. The final party member comes as we return to pick up Imoen (who we ran away from right of the start). She's annoying, but as we've leveled up a bit, she fills our required detect traps slot in the party.

As you can see I'm mostly a functional player, but I have a hard time with overly negative party members, so no Xan. I'm also very pro-Minsc, so Edwin is a tough loss. I've probably played the game through a few hundred times and Minsc is almost always a constant. Dynaheir has had a few unfortunate accidents in some playthroughs and I've tolerated Xan for short periods; Khalid has done a lot of naked scouting for my party and that never ends well. In the end, I always have Minsc, but every playthrough the other four are always different.

PCGN: Dave Gross, former editor of D&D magazines and author of Black Wolf and Lord of Stormweather, has been working on the story. Baldur’s Gate’s dialogue is characterised by the irreverence and gravity it alternates between, I think. What else do you think is powerful about the game’s storytelling?

TO: The key feature of the game's storytelling is how the story originated as a real pen and paper campaign run by [BioWare old hand, later SWTOR lead] James Ohlen for his friends. Cameron played in the campaign with a ranger named Minsc.The other main characters were all played in the campaign. The rich interaction between characters, the mature storyline - it all came from real gameplay experiences and as such, has a certain feel to it.

The major innovation in Baldur's Gate was the evolving story with interesting and diverse companion characters. The game can have a very different feel, dependent on party make-up.  Dave and Phil (Phillip Daigle, our producer, the other contributor to BG:EE writing) have done a great job of getting the vibe of BG of dark fantasy with injections of pop culture humor.

PCGN: I’ve always considered Baldur’s Gate an evolutionary dead end for BioWare. Baldur’s Gate 2 was wonderful and sorted the structural blueprint for KOTOR and Dragon Age, but wasn’t nearly so open on a grand scale. In BG every blank square on the map represents a new, undiscovered area, and each of those areas holds at least one nasty surprise, self-contained story or easter egg within. Is that something you’ve looked to retain?

TO: We've kind of asked ourselves, ‘What if BioWare went left and focused more on open world areas instead of going right and betting it all on hand-crafted story?’ Our goal with Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition is to capture everything that was great about the original BG and add in some BG2 depth and polish through the new characters and adventures. With our work on BG2, we'll probably to do same, try to inject a little BG1 magic into our new content.

I've been asked a few times, ‘Are you trying to build BioWare 2.0?’  The answer is no, I'm trying to build kind of a ‘Bioware 0.6 Mark 2’.  A small team, oriented at the sweet spot of RPG development with a commitment to making great games as our first priority. Basically trying to recapture the awesome feeling of the early days of BioWare with the benefit of nearly 20 years in the industry to lend us direction. A company with a strong commitment to building empowering, efficient technology and a talented content creation team focused on making amazing games.

PCGN: Low-level DnD has its own particular charm, but can be hugely unforgiving. Have you preserved the game’s difficulty?

TO: Yes. Just this fine morning I had my butt handed to me on the steps of the Friendly Arm Inn. The game will play as it was designed and as such, we encourage all players to save often and take your time progressing through the story so you can put a few levels under your belt early on.

PCGN: You’ve added new areas to the main game and a fifteen-level arena, The Black Pits. How did it feel to slip on the old dialogue and encounter design slippers of a game you worked on 14 years ago?

TO: We've added three new quests to the game, one for each new character we've added, and we built the 15 challenge arena that is The Black Pits. The additions are pretty epic in scope and the execution is great. The voice acting, the writing, the scripting, it all is very high quality and it really adds to the game.

It felt strangely comfortable to slip into the old slippers from the start, but we quickly realized the slippers were made of pokey straw as we ran head-on into old-school workflow issues. We've fixed up some of the workflow for the game, but we've got a thousand new ideas on what to do differently in the future to make it easier to make new content.

PCGN: You’ve been working to get modding working properly again in BG:EE. It featured heavily in Neverwinter Nights too, but is mostly absent from contemporary RPGs. Why do you think modding is important?

TO: I love modding because it allows games which are not judged commercially viable to be made. Modding allows for interested people to get into making games in a very low cost manner and then allows them to experiment in a robust engine and tools environment.

With a mod, a developer can drag your game in a completely different direction and create a completely new game. I point to Counter-Strike, Defence of the Ancients and DayZ as examples of the power of modding to take a game in a completely new direction and really drive the success of the original title.

PCGN: You were still at BioWare during and after its EA buyout. Since then, the company has expanded rapidly and become a ‘label’ applied to some of EA’s newer studios. Meanwhile, the doctors have left to do their own things. There’s a perception among some fans that BioWare have lost their way, and it’s certainly become harder to determine exactly what BioWare is. What’s your take on that?

TO: Bioware to me was always the people who worked their butts off to make great games. I remember the early days and in each game we developed, the whole team worked hard, but a handful of individuals carried the heart of the game. Each team had 3-5 people who everyone else turned to and those people had a massive impact in what the game was. On Baldur's Gate that core was James Ohlen, Scott Grieg and Ray Muzyka. They did amazing things with a novice development team.

I think this model still holds true. I still think there are great people at Bioware and I think they will continue to define what the company is. I think EA has realized the magic is the people and not the shade of blue you paint a building, as they appear to have recently backed off on the branding front. I think the great people at the company will continue to do great things and the great new talent that has joined the studio will step into those key roles, carrying great games on their shoulders.

PCGN: BG:EE is done, but you’ve promised DLC and I hear have already started work on Baldur’s Gate 2: Enhanced Edition. What have you got planned?

TO: We've got a lot planned. We've already built some of it. Basically, if Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition is a success, we want to be ready to give the fans more of what they like. That can take a number of forms, from sequels, to expansions, to DLC. We're small and agile, so we're going to play it by ear and see where the fans take us.

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