Rebuilding Baldur’s Gate

James Haresign December 8, 2012 - 2:00 pm

Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition is the much-awaited remake of the cult classic. We talk to Overhaul Games’ Trent Oster about the troubles with bringing the old world into the new.

This current generation of gaming has seen a heavy rise in remakes and HD updates of old classics and forgotten gems. But few have dared touch what is considered by many to be the holy grail of a genre. Baldur’s Gate is often considered to be everything RPGs should be, but it’s been a long time since 1999 and the genre has changed quite a bit since then. Trent Oster and Overhaul Games decided to take on the challenge and drag BioWare’s defining game kicking and screaming into the present with the Enhanced Edition.

But with a game of Baldur’s Gate’s age, the problems don’t just come from how different the gaming landscape is, but also the age of the code behind the scenes. “Baldur’s Gate was one of the first Windows 95 games,” says Oster. “As such, it was heavily oriented towards how Windows used to operate. Our biggest fight was the removal of all the legacy Windows code and rebuilding the core of the game so it would run on newer systems.”

Likewise, there were parts of the game that simply couldn’t be rebuilt, meaning Overhaul had to start again from scratch. “We couldn’t get the original UI tools to work at all,” says Oster. “They were built with software packages that are no longer available and they were hard-coded to certain computer names. So we had to build our own UI tools so we could have a more iterative workflow for improving the UI. They allowed us to make art, get it into an editor, position buttons and roughly place where text might go. So we could finally create art, put it in an editor and then generate the files the Infinity Engine likes. “

Builder’s gripe

Re-building these UI tools was only the first half of a difficult job, though. “The second major challenge was just the number of UI screens we had to re-build. I felt the BG portraits were a very important element to the game and as such I wanted every pixel I could get for them… I think there are somewhere well over 100 different screens we had to re-work. It took a long while.”

But the most important thing for Oster was making sure the changes didn’t ruin the feel of the game and make it not Baldur’s Gate, which turned into a “running skirmish the entire project”. Attempts to improve the pathfinding was one of these major points. “We tried a few pathfinding improvements, but as the game cutscenes all use the in-game pathfinding system, most attempts simply broke the game and all the cutscenes.

“We still have a few ideas in this area, but it will take time to make it work without borking the game.  We played with a lot of other variables and whenever it didn’t feel like Baldur’s Gate, we went back.  We love the original game and we wanted to keep the gameplay true.”

Of course, Baldur’s Gate hadn’t sat fallow for all these years. A decent-sized community stuck by it, creating mods and patches, keeping it up to date and implementing some pretty big overhauls of their own. Overhaul didn’t forget about these people, working closely with them on the Enhanced Edition, and sometimes the mod community were able to point the dev team in a better direction than the one originally planned. But this is just the beginning, and Oster aims on really “empowering modders” with this now stable engine.

Well, almost stable. The launch of Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition has brought some teething troubles. As well as few unsquashed game-crashing bugs, there’s also the problem that the servers weren’t quite up to the demand fans had for the remake.  But this last one is probably the best type of problem Overhaul could hope for. “We’re happy(ish) at the load the servers are seeing. Seeing the demand is awesome. We’ve added servers to the network every day and they are quickly at 100% capacity. Our relief at the demand is huge, as we made a big bet with Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition that the fans would be there. They’ve certainly shown up.”

Let’s hope they keep showing up as Oster and co aren’t planning to stop at just reinventing the old. The team wants to take the reins for Baldur’s Gate 3, with Oster saying they’d take the game in a new direction, moving away from the “well told” Bhallspawn saga, and into new territory. Oster’s even nicknamed it ‘BG: Next’, as if to emphasize that Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition was them revisiting the past, but Baldur’s Gate 3 will be all about the future – for both Oster and Baldur’s Gate alike.

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