There’s a proud triumvirate of RPGs that inspired Obsidian and 74 thousand fans to make Pillars of Eternity happen: Baldur’s Gate, Planescape Torment and Icewind Dale.
Icewind Dale is the lesser known of the three – but it’s also the only one to benefit from both the concise wit of Chris Avellone, and full use of the refined tactical combat engine BioWare are still now working to better in Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Ask a fan what distinguished Icewind Dale from its ‘90s peers, though, and they’ll tell you about the cold. The frost that seemed to bite through CRT monitor glass and bring the danger and adventure of the Sword Coast’s northern wastes rushing in.
The serial BioWare RPG stewards at Beamdog have two boards in their office: one for committed projects (on which there are three they “haven’t talked about at all yet”), and one for opportunities – which lists around thirty potential games.
At one time, you could find Icewind Dale on the longer list. But it didn’t become an active project until after work concluded on Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition – when Alex Tomovic, one of the contractors Beamdog have recruited from the undying Infinity Engine modding community, pitched it as their next game.
“Tell you what, we’ll pay you guys to go do some spelunking,” Alex was told by Trent Oster, Beamdog CEO and veteran of enough early BioWare projects to know that delving into the Infinity Engine is no small undertaking. “Let’s find out how bad this is gonna be.”
Not bad enough to forget about, was the verdict. In fact, Oster soon began to remember what had made Icewind Dale so much more than a stopgap release between BioWare games.
“Icewind Dale was kind of this left-turn where you just jumped out and it was all about the bashing and combat and winning the fight and wondering what was around the next corner, that was going to be as challenging or even more challenging than what you just fought,” said Oster.
“At BioWare at some points we tried to introduce puzzles that were different. Icewind Dale is like combat puzzles. And they’re just fun.”
Just as BioWare and their publishing counterparts at Black Isle were getting to grips with the possibilities of their engine, so too were their players. They salivated at the chance to spend two hours in character creation – building an entire six-person party from the ‘gender’ button onwards, rolling and re-rolling their stats as they went.
“I think that’s where a lot of the satisfaction of Icewind Dale comes from,” said Oster. “By knowing the rules and by being able to build great combination characters and play them how they’re intended, you can do some amazing things that you wouldn’t think are possible with a party.”
By the turn of the millenium, BioWare had learned to play their henchmen off against each other to produce their juiciest dialogue. But Black Isle’s Icewind Dale, with its player-made party members, didn’t have that. Nor did it have the conversation-filled city hubs that punctuate play in Baldur’s Gate. What it had in great, snowy dollops was something Black Isle had learned on Fallout: atmosphere.
“Those guys were good,” recalled Oster. “To me Black Isle was always about really, really strong artwork, and it still looks phenomenal. It’s just haunting.
“Initially we were pretty intimidated by it, but once we started working with the content we were like, ‘Man, this stuff is so beautiful, it holds up so well’.”
When Black Isle did allow themselves to unsheath their quills, Oster reckons they often outdid BioWare – whose plots were more “convoluted”.
“I always found Black Isle’s writing to be a lot more direct, a lot shorter,” he said. “At BioWare I think we tended to get a little novelistic. Whereas Chris’ stuff was more colloquial, and more accessible.”
Beamdog have unearthed and restored five quests, which constitute four or five hours worth of material cut from the original game. With access to Black Isle’s design docs, they were able to determine which ideas were cut due to time constraints, and which Avellone and friends would probably prefer left buried.
“It’s like going in and finding Tolkien’s notes and trying to write the next book,” said Oster. “It’s really intimidating to start, but you’ve got most of his thoughts for the first third and you’ve just got to finish it up. At the end of it you get something you’re pretty proud of.”
There’s a sense that Beamdog are continuing a tradition that modders have engaged in for a decade – digging through the files of western RPGs and dredging up quests lost in hurried development cycles.
“Often it’s the same story,” agreed Oster. “You’ve got a lot of good plot ideas, you implement all of them, and late in the game you’re like, ‘We’ve only got time to fix 80% of the bugs. So 20%, we’ve just got to cut those off and bury them somewhere’. And that’s what you do.”
Beamdog have implemented a relatively easy-going ‘story mode’ for Icewind Dale, which they say will enable “semi-competent” newcomers to coast through the game’s often-gruelling combat encounters.
They intend to roll back the mode to Baldur’s Gate’s Enhanced Editions – just as they’re pulling spells, character classes and technical fixes from Baldur’s Gate II into Icewind Dale. The end goal is to have all three updated games working as SteamPlay titles on Windows, Mac and Linux.
“It’s this amalgamation of features from Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate II, and now Icewind Dale as well,” said Oster. “You get options on top of options in terms of what you want to do from a character standpoint. For the rules enthusiast you can just make some insane, insane parties.”
Beamdog’s designers and writers have written new quests for each of their Enhanced Editions, too, and put together three mini-campaigns in the last two years – the Black Pits combat trials. Like Black Isle before them, they’ve come to intimately know their setting, characters and combat encounters.
The studio has 16 full-time staff, but can total a dozen when including contractors like Alex – a number comparable to Wasteland 2’s InXile or Divinity: Original Sin’s Larian. Knowing all that, you begin to wonder when Beamdog are going start a project of their own, and take their place in the second golden age of RPG development.
“I feel with the Baldur’s Gate stuff almost like a museum curator, even though I was one of the original guys who was there doing it the first time around,” mused Oster. “We’re doing good work but we’re doing it with borrowed property.
“I’m quite anxious for us to do our own thing and really explore Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying games – the way we’d like to do them now, with a certain progression in games design and how games have moved forward.
“Ultimately my goal would be to build another franchise like Baldur’s Gate.”
The prospect became much more tangible at the end of last year, when Atari’s D&D license finally expired. Beamdog have since worked directly with Wizards of the Coast and enjoy a “great” relationship with the tabletop publishers, sharing progress and database assets in real-time.
“Historically we had some really hard dates in the contract with Atari, and if we did not hit those we were heavily heavily penalised,” said Oster. “This time around it’s just us and Wizards, and it’s so much easier to do.”
The new game that Oster envisions would be based on D&D’s latest edition, which he judges to be a “good blending” of past versions.
“If we wanted to position ourselves in this mini-scale RPG renaissance thing, I wanna be the D&D house,” he said. “Baldur’s Gate was a great story but it’s been told and I think it’s time to start to think about the next great story.”
Oster’s time at EA after BioWare’s acquisition “opened his eyes” to the opportunities awaiting smaller-scale RPG developers.
“I think that’s given me a really great perspective on how to do the opposite of what they’re doing,” he said. “Whilst they’re looking at those 15 million unit sellers, we’re building the right niche games for the right niches. To me that’s what this golden age is about.”
What it’s not about is nostalgia. Oster insists that, like Obsidian, Larian and InXile, Beamdog are picking up old threads dropped by ‘90s RPGs and pulling them in new directions.
“One of the massive opportunities for us is to understand why that nostalgia is there in the first place, and to say, ‘If we had continued and done this and this and this, where would we wind up?’,” said Oster.
“I don’t wanna make Baldur’s Gate III. I wanna make Baldur’s Gate V.”
Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition will be out for Windows, Mac and Linux on October 30.