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Beamdog: The Story So Far

Trent Oster might have founded Bioware and Beamdog, but if you went looking for him the best place to look wouldn’t be at a swanky hotel or on an exclusive beach or in a high-powered boardroom. No, you’d be best off heading to Edmonton, Canada, and travel down to the University district, where you’d probably find him in the Next Act pub, munching on a Peanut Butter and Bacon sandwich or a Class Act burger. If he’s not there, perhaps he’ll be in his office nearby with the rest of the Beamdog team, playing through their latest 5th Edition D&D campaign.

The Beamdog team has chosen to be based in this rugged area because they’re sticking to its indie roots – what Oster calls Bioware 0.6 v2. And that doesn’t include splashing out on swanky digs. “Our office is just run-down enough to keep our scrappy start-up feel while not actually fighting rats off at lunch.” says Oster. After fifteen years at Bioware, taking Neverwinter Nights from a one line concept to a five million-selling franchise, Oster feels he “learned thousands of ways not to do things”.

One of those lessons happened in his last five years. Whilst leading the Dragon age Eclipse Engine development, Oster was also in charge of a prototype episodic RPG codenamed ‘Agent’. Its aim was to bring the smarts of James Bond and Bourne to a game, without the violence. “Rather than a gun, your character is a manipulator, a con artist, a surgical tool to head off the problem before it escalates. Our concept was that if you were to run into 20 guys wielding AK47s you would pull out a phone and call the spec ops guys to handle it while you moved around the enemy and went upstream toward the cause of the scenario.” Yet by this time, Bioware had been acquired by EA, and Oster found it impossible to sell the innovative aspects of the game to them – though that didn’t stop him trying. “It was spectacularly soul crushing.”

“My best memories are when we were a smaller company and we were all clearly aligned on what we needed to accomplish.”

That made Oster miss the early days of Bioware. “My best memories are when we were a smaller company and we were all clearly aligned on what we needed to accomplish. I like the impact a smaller team can have on a game. When you become too large, the contribution of every team member is lessened and the ownership people feel is diminished. For me that was when teams were under 40 people.” He was still impressed with the company as a whole – and he picks out senior design people like James Ohlen, David Gaider and Preston Watamaniuk for praise – but for him, personally, he needed to try something different.

So when Beamdog was set up in 2009, Oster put his key learnings to the test. His plan was to use a small team of “great people, listen to the experts, allow them the freedom to succeed and always ensure everyone is on the same page with the vision of what we are making. When you have a skilled team and a clear understanding of where you are going and what you are building, a game can come together better than you can imagine it.” In his view, disasters come when team members ‘go dark’ and communication stops.

Setting up Beamdog was the start of the company’s ‘First Age’, as Oster puts it. It appears that Oster is fond of talking of the company’s Three Ages. It’s not unexpected for a man who’s spent twenty years embedded in arcane lore to talk in mythic terms, but Beamdog really is the culmination of all he’s learned, both fantastical and real. “Our vision is to have a fun game studio to work at, which builds quality games, and listens to our customers with a minimum of bullshit. We work hard when we are at the office, but we don’t do crunch time… I think we also listen to our fans and we’ve hired half our team out of the community, which really helps keep us tight in the loop on what our fans want. I think we’re one of the only non-MMO companies on the planet patching a game three years after the initial release.”

The First Age, then was the creation of Beamdog itself and a self-publishing platform, so that Beamdog could have a means to directly sell its games to its consumers. At this stage, Oster began building the team, along with his longtime Bioware collaborator, Cameron Tofer. “Cam and I each bring close to 20 years worth of video game development experience to our team. We’ve managed to bring in a number of former Bioware team members and fill out some key positions with some amazing people. Luckily for us the local talent pool is quite strong. We are committed to staying small, which means we agonize over every hire to ensure we get a great fit.”

A small team means many people multiclassed, to start with at least. Oster himself describes his job as “Business Development-Producer-Artist-Programmer” but admits his actual hard development skills are degrading over time. “My big hope is my new levels gained are the right skills to take the company forward.” For newer team members, by contrast, Beamdog now focuses on glass cannons, by fast-levelling single class experts, like art director Nat Jones and writer Andrew Foley.

The Second Age of Beamdog was the creation of the Enhanced Editions of Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate II and Icewind Dale, which was a long period involving hard work on all fronts – gaining the licenses, reconstructing the mysteries of the tech, and then rebuilding the engine for modern machines. “Our effort during this point was focused on rebuilding the Infinity Engine from a Windows 95 oriented architecture to a multi-platform engine which allowed the improvement and extension of the existing games.” Given how ancient some of that code was, and out-of-date the tools were, that took quite some time

The Third Age is where we are now, starting with The Siege of Dragonspear, and it’s all about scratch-built content creation. After all the story of Baldur’s Gate has been told, and we all know how it goes – but there are plot holes aplenty. “The idea of a new story I’ve never played before is amazingly exciting. I think the older games are amazing and having new content caters to the existing fan-base, which is more hardcore and more interested in deep content…. (so) we’ve written a completely new story, made all new environments and created well over 25 hours of all new gameplay for fans of the Baldur’s Gate series. We answer the question posed in the Baldur’s Gate II opening cinematic, what were the “dark circumstances” which forced the hero of Baldur’s Gate to leave the city?”

And what of the Fourth Age of Beamdog? Where can the company go from here? “As to what the focus of the Fourth Age will be, I’ll leave that open to the imagination… I have more projects in my head than neurons.” says Oster. “I’m a huge D&D fan, with at least a few ideas for almost every setting. I was a big Dragonlance series fan, loved Dark Sun as a setting and played a ton of Forgotten Realms settings.” That’s enough hints at possible futures to leave us all salivating…

Source: 01_06_Beamdog: The Story So Far

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