Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Making of Siege of Dragonspear

This article by Daniel Griliopoulos was originally published as part of Issue 2 of The Familiar. We're republishing the article now that phone and tablet players can experience the exciting story of Siege of Dragonspear. Siege of Dragonspear is now available on Google Play and the App Store.

Siege of Dragonspear started as a concept more than six years ago, when Trent Oster began acquiring the rights to Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, with the first programmers starting work on the project from April 28, 2011. “It was actually straightforward to get permission for more Baldur's Gate content once we had cleared up all the legal issues around the Enhanced Editions,” remembers Phillip Daigle, Siege of Dragonspear Producer and Lead Writer. “The fine folks at Wizards of the Coast were very enthusiastic about the idea once they saw how invested we were in Baldur's Gate and the Forgotten Realms.”

Having brought two Baldur’s Gate video games to modern audiences, Beamdog in 2016 turned its attention to an all-new tale that sits between the iconic titles.

Despite Beamdog’s enthusiasm for new Baldur’s Gate content, the team didn’t immediately start work on the project. “We began discussing Dragonspear in late 2011, although at the time we were still calling it ‘ BG1.5’,” says Daigle. “Our initial idea was for an expansion that bridged the gap between the Enhanced Editions of Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II – it would be a fairly simple two to three-hour adventure that primarily used existing artwork. As we worked on the additional content for those two games, we kept fiddling with the BG1.5 concept, and we had John Gallagher [lead artist on the original Baldur's Gate] do some early concept art for us.”

A cloud-based file repository allowed the artists to share area maps and concept art with the team, while story design began in Google Docs.
Daigle also took the opportunity to bring some previously unused Baldur’s Gate material back to life: “The original Baldur's Gate had a canceled second expansion pack after Tales of the Sword Coast. This was supposed to involve a sinister individual who is trapped in stone, but can reach into the world to influence events. The sages of Candlekeep were to send the party on a quest to retrieve the stone. We took some of these concepts and modified them for use in Siege of Dragonspear.”

An Ancient Code

Sketch of the Temple of Cyric.

While the ideas and concept art piled up, the technical team was faced with the challenge of building an entirely new game based on Baldur’s Gate’s Infinity Engine software. As Beamdog’s CTO Scott Brooks explains, that wasn’t easy, to say the least. “We started with the source code for Baldur's Gate II, which had networking support for serial connections, dial up modems, and IPX networking. It had piles of code to support CD swapping, and had the minimum system requirements of a Pentium 166 with 16MB of Ram. There were lots of things the engine was doing that it didn't need to do any more, and all of that code would get in the way of trying to make progress.”

Brooks spent a lot of time digging into that code to find out what it actually did. Building a version for today’s 64-bit Apple platforms is also a challenge for a 20-year-old, 16-bit engine that was created using assembly code. Even the tools and resources to work with the Infinity Engine are horribly ancient, dating back to the mid-’90s. “We upgrade them where we can,” says Daigle, “but it can still be a real bear to work with such old tools. I'm fairly certain we have a couple of applications that were written in Delphi back in 1996, and if anyone is a programmer, that tidbit will probably spook them.”

Final Renders of the Temple of Cyric.

An unexpected problem was how to keep consistency with the two other Baldur’s Gate games, which are literally from another generation. “It's a real challenge to build new content that looks good, but also looks ‘old’ so that it fits in with the existing content. It's an interesting and very fine line to walk, and it's a challenge that I imagine most teams don't have to face,” Daigle adds. 

Even when they got the engine working, the team still had to decide what to put in, with help from Wizards of the Coast. “As fans of the series, we've always had a lot of wants and wishes for stuff the player could do, and so we had a few ideas that we had been sitting on for over a decade,” says Daigle. “Also, years ago, before Throne of Bhaal was released, the folks at BioWare had put together a list of the most-requested features or scenarios that fans wanted to see in a future Infinity Engine game. They managed to check off a couple of those requests in Throne of Bhaal, and we checked off a bunch more of them with Siege of Dragonspear.”

The Plot Thickens

By mid-2013, Siege of Dragonspear’s plot was sketched out. All Daigle and his team had to do was write it. Not as easy a task as you might think, considering that the two Baldur’s Gate video games contain the same word count as 21 fantasy novels added together. “We were adding the equivalent of six novels right in the center of that,” said Daigle, “so we had to make sure that the new stuff harmonized with the original content.”

The Beamdog team designed and added four new joinable companions to Siege of Dragonspear. “Once we've established what class would play well, we start talking about story ideas for the character,” said Daigle, “We have a round of pitches, some refinements, and then we bounce our ideas back and forth with Wizards of the Coast to make sure we're on target with the lore. We strive to make characters that feel as if they have lives of their own beyond the player, and to really make that apparent.”

The team was keen for players to discover the plot twists for themselves, but at the time Daigle did reveal something for amateur detectives to puzzle over: “The story itself was actually inspired by the description of an item from Dungeons & Dragons. I won't reveal which item it was because that would spoil the plot, but I originally read about it 15 years ago and it has stuck with me ever since as a really cool idea.”

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