regular-article-logo Wednesday, 29 May 2024

The mother of all games: Settling to rules, a game that baffled an engineer

Baldur’s Gate 3 has a fleshed-out world for every scenario imaginable

Alan Yuhas Published 08.01.24, 07:04 AM

The rules are so complex that an engineer with a PhD was baffled. The setting was the butt of jokes. Combat proceeds at the pace of a courtly duel. And some of the biggest names in video games released competing titles.

But Baldur’s Gate 3, a game that lets you talk to spiders and the dead, slip through cracks as a cloud of mist, reveal invisible foes by splashing them with drinks, bargain with a devil, give your eye to a hag and romance an amnesiac priestess or a squid-faced telepath as you see fit turned into the surprise hit of 2023.


The CEO of Larian Studios had told his team to expect about 1,00,000 concurrent players when it fully released Baldur’s Gate 3, a role-playing game based on Dungeons & Dragons. A few days later, nearly 9,00,000 people were playing at the same time.

Actors soon began to hear from players moved by their performances as a debonair vampire and a green otherworldly warrior, among others. Critics praised the game’s sweeping freedom and the depth of its writing. PC Gamer gave its highest review score in 16 years to Baldur’s Gate 3, which went on to win game of the year accolades in Britain and the US.

The staggering success was no sure thing.

“I did not think that it was going to flop,” said Josh Sawyer, the studio design director at a competitor, Obsidian Entertainment, and the lead designer on Fallout: New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity. “I did not think that it was going to be niche niche. But it was hard for me to see the return on the investment.”

Larian spent six years creating Baldur’s Gate 3, pouring money and talent — its cast of nearly 250 actors includes Oscar winner J.K. Simmons — into a throwback game.

Although role-playing games remain popular, the genre has largely moved on from the turn-based combat and isometric design that was more common when the first two Baldur’s Gate titles were released in 1998 and 2000.

As role-playing games became more like cinematic action games, other genres began adopting their principles. Soldiers in Call of Duty started earning experience points and leveling up, not unlike the gnomes and half-orcs of tabletop games.

But Larian, previously known for its Divinity role-playing series, had an uncompromising vision for Baldur’s Gate 3.

Swen Vincke, the Belgian studio’s founder and CEO, said the company wanted to create a game that would truly let each player have a different adventure based on the branching consequences of decisions, big and small.

“They managed to fulfill the ultimate player fantasy of having influence over the story, often in very dramatic and unexpected ways,” said Sebastian Kalemba, a game director at CD Projekt Red, which made The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Cyberpunk 2077. “I felt that I was discovering the world on my own and had the opportunity to experiment endlessly.”

“For a game with so many old-fashioned features in it, it’s really served to dispel a bit of that so-called industry wisdom about what the audience will and will not accept,” said David Gaider, who worked on Baldur’s Gate 2 and is now the creative director of Summerfall Studios. “People just want good games, don’t they?”

Baldur’s Gate 3 has drawn in millions, including the CEO of Hasbro, Chris Cocks, who said in an email that he had spent more than 160 hours with a half-elf sorcerer named Quincy Tipperton.

Part of the appeal was forcing players to confront the often surprising results of their choices, as well as the random rolls of a 20-sided die.

That also made building the game enormously complicated: the abundant rules of Dungeons & Dragons were not simple to adapt, especially its spells.

“My lead gameplay programmer had to explain to a guy who had a PhD how it works, and he spent an hour trying to explain to him spell-slot systems, because he had to implement it,” Vincke said. “It was crazy. We had many arguments.”

Despite the challenges, the scope of the game grew. Neil Newbon, the actor who plays the vampire, Astarion, called it “a spider’s web madness of narrative nodes”.

A team of about 12 writers developed hundreds of pages’ worth of dialogue, in-game books and descriptions of items and skills, trying to account for whatever a player might want to do.

Actors spent years getting in and out of motion-capture suits, recording more and more lines. Larian said the 174 hours of cinematic material it produced was more than twice the length of Game of Thrones.



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