There was a ripple of excitement amongst old-school RPG fans at the end of May when it was announced that a raft of D&D classics were heading to consoles, including your favourite Nintendo handheld hybrid. Beamdog, the developer behind the Enhanced Editions of Baldur's Gate, Baldur's Gate II, Planescape Torment, Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights, has plenty of pedigree with these games and has released them previously on PC and mobile devices.
We recently got the chance to ask Luke Rideout, producer at Beamdog, about Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition and the challenges of bringing these games to console over two decades after the original PC release.
There may be players on Switch who aren’t familiar with Baldur’s Gate or its legacy, or perhaps have only heard the name – could you explain a little bit about the game and its history?
Baldur’s Gate was originally developed and released 20 years ago by BioWare as a fantasy RPG set in the Dungeons & Dragons world of the Forgotten Realms. Back in the ‘90s the game was considered revolutionary for its open world design and branching narrative choices that promoted player agency, all while telling a fantastic story. Back in 2012, Beamdog Co-Owners (and Bioware alumni) Cam Tofer and Trent Oster got the rights to re-release Baldur’s Gate with enhancements to bring it to modern devices, breathing life back into the series for gamers of a new generation. Funnily enough, the story of Baldur’s Gate was based on a tabletop D&D campaign that Cam played in when he was in High School, with their dungeon master, James Ohlen, who is well known as Baldur’s Gate’s lead designer. Cam’s character was a ranger called Minsc with his companion hamster, Boo.
It was a hugely influential RPG – in terms of the Switch’s library, what games do you think have taken inspiration from Baldur’s Gate?
There are so many games that draw inspiration from Baldur’s Gate, both subtle and not-so-subtle. It played a large part in defining the genre of modern RPGs, and its successes informed the design decisions made in many games to come. One game that springs immediately to mind, of course, is Pillars of Eternity, to which some very obvious comparisons can be drawn, from the camera perspective down to the tactical, real time with pause combat. The Witcher might seem a slightly less obvious choice, but CD Projekt worked with BioWare back in that era, and licensed the Aurora Engine to make the first game in the series - which is the engine created by BioWare for Neverwinter Nights - BioWare’s answer to the natural progression of RPGs from Baldur’s Gate.
The Enhanced Edition originally released on PC back in 2012 (and subsequently on mobile devices). What were some of the things about the original which needed updating?
Well, as a Windows 95/98 title, originally, our team had to first re-write hundreds of thousands of lines of code just to get it working on modern systems. Beyond just getting it up and running, the goal was to streamline and smooth out the gameplay so, as Trent likes to say, it became the game everyone remembered, not necessarily the game that it was - since games had advanced quite a bit in the intervening years and objectively, when going back to look at the game as it was in 1998, it had a lot of rough edges. The team optimized the game, removing the loading screens (which were slower to load than just transitioning to another screen), fixed scores of bugs, and brought the UI more in line with modern expectations.
Issues like small text are still commonplace on Switch, even in first-party releases. Having already been optimised for touch devices, what were some of the challenges – technical or otherwise – in bringing Baldur’s Gate and its sequel to Switch? How difficult was it to make it work with a control pad?
Of the challenges we faced, small text wasn’t that big of an issue for us, as we supported text scaling from previous iterations. The biggest challenge for us, really, was adapting a very “late ‘90s” user interface, built for mouse and keyboard with nested menus and scores of buttons, to work with controllers that ostensibly have 14 buttons and a couple analog sticks. We wanted to be sure that the game played well, and didn’t feel like a chore to play. We rewrote our movement code to let players take control of the party movement using the analog stick, instead of pointing and clicking, and changed those banks of buttons into radial menus. To make interacting with a game world that had a lot of pixel hunting, we improved highlighting of in-game objects and a system that snaps the cursor to important game elements, like characters, objects and transition points. We had to make a lot of design decisions to solve issues that seem so harmless when you have the fine control of a mouse and keyboard.
The console releases will include the Beamdog-developed Baldur’s Gate: Seige of Dragonspear expansion – could you tell us more about that?
Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear was Beamdog’s love letter to the series. It bridges the gap between the events of Baldur’s Gate I and II, telling a tale of a war-torn Sword Coast in the wake of the events that transpire in the first Baldur’s Gate, fleshing out a number of questions about some otherwise unexplained changes in the political atmosphere of Baldur’s Gate II, and detailing the journey that lands the player ultimately in the dungeons of Jon Irenicus at the start of Baldur’s Gate II. Thanks to the series’ ability to import and continue playing your character from one game to the next, players can build a character in Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition and play using the same character all the way through Siege of Dragonspear and into Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition. That said, it made a lot of sense to both Beamdog and Skybound Games to combine all three for the console release this fall.
Will the Switch version be making use of any of the console’s unique features?
One question we get asked a lot is whether we implemented touchscreen functionality. It was a hard decision to make, but with the changes made to the game’s UI, and the general finickiness of Baldur’s Gate’s UI under the hood (we are working with 20-year-old UI code), it actually felt like a half measure to leave it in, when much of the original functionality would have been lost. The feature that the Switch does boast that nobody else does and is most exciting, though, is the great feel of the controller scheme, paired with the portability of the Switch, which we support in both docked and undocked modes.
In the past, Beamdog co-founder Trent Oster has spoken plainly about Nintendo’s weaknesses when it comes to its digital business and treatment of smaller developers (and offered some advice as to how it could improve). How different has the process been developing for Switch and working with the platform holder all these years later?
Things change, that’s for sure. I personally spent my share of time developing for Nintendo back in the Nintendo DS and Wii days, mostly for retail games as opposed to WiiWare. I don’t recall many headaches, but that was in Japan where things may have been very different. Working with the Switch on these games, we’ve been really happy with the support Nintendo provides to developers, and haven’t had much trouble at all navigating the waters of development and certification.
The practice of including a code in a box is becoming disappointingly commonplace for boxed retail versions of many Switch games. Patches aside, will the physical release contain both games on the cartridge?
Anyone that’s sick of codes in a box is going to be in for a treat, in this case. With Skybound Games, we’ve put all the base game content plus DLC, all on one cartridge. For those who aren’t familiar, that’s:
- Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition
- Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear
- Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition
- Throne of Bhaal (Expansion to BGII)
- Baldur’s Gate: Black Pits
- Baldur’s Gate: Black Pits II
For a complete trilogy of games and the “wrap it all up and put a bow on it” expansion, plus two standalone challenge mode games, to boot. Likewise, we’re simultaneously releasing the Planescape: Torment & Icewind Dale Enhanced Editions on one cartridge as well (including Icewind Dale’s Heart of Winter Expansion).
Baldur’s Gate and its sequel are just two of a selection of classic D&D games coming to Switch. Beyond this lineup, does Beamdog have any future plans on Switch?
We can’t speak to our more distant future plans, but this year we have a few more D&D titles coming to Switch. Alongside the Baldur’s Gate Pack this fall, Skybound and Beamdog are releasing a two-pack of Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale enhanced editions. We’re also releasing Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition on Switch December 3rd!
Finally, what Switch games has the team been enjoying recently?
There’s a lot of love for the Switch inside Beamdog. We recently celebrated our 10-year studio anniversary, and a good half of the dev team joined in on a round-robin tournament of Mario Kart 8 on the big-screen TVs in the Baldur’s Gate development room. We also semi-regularly have Super Smash Bros. Ultimate tournaments. In the RPG space, members of our team are enjoying The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and good ol’ Dark Souls, among a score of many others.
Many thanks to Luke for his time. The Baldur's Gate: Enchanced Edition and Planescape:Torment /Icewind Dale bundles will be hitting Switch on 1st October in North America and 4th October elsewhere in both physical and digital formats. Will you be picking up that physical bundle? Let us know with a comment below if you're eager to play these classics on-the-go.