Baldur’s Gate for iPad developer: ‘We’re taking it from a curator’s approach’

May 5, 2012

Video game enthusiasts of a certain age all remember Baldur’s Gate fondly.

Developed by Bioware and released in 1998, the game was deemed an instant classic by critics and players alike. Many believe it almost single-handedly revived the Computer Role Playing Game genre—a category of gaming that at the time had all but disappeared in a sea of first-person shooters, flight simulators and turn-based strategy titles.

Taking over 90 man-years to produce, the game was not only a commercial and critical success, but also a significant achievement in the lives of its development team. This past March, Overhaul Games announced that it would release a remake of the game titled Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition for iPad and Windows PCs in the summer of 2012.

TabTimes recently had the opportunity to speak with Overhaul Games’ COO Cameron Tofer about the work involved in adapting a PC gaming classic capable of pleasing the title’s built-in audience as well as a new generation of iPad gamers.

Tofer worked for Bioware as a Programmer/Producer while the original Baldur’s Gate was in production. As such, he has an intimate knowledge of the original iteration of the game as well as the new version due to hit the iTunes App Store in the next few months.

Overhaul Games' COO Cameron Tofer is familiar with Baldur's Gate; he worked on the original for Bioware in the 1990s How did you come to decide to work on the redevelopment of Baldur’s Gate for iPad and PC? Why not put together a new property?

Baldur’s Gate has been on my mind for a long time. 1999 was when it originally shipped, and since then, we’ve always wanted to return to it. Now with the iPad, it seemed more and more that we had to get back to it. Things fell into line for us. It wasn’t by accident though. We’ve been meaning to do this for some time now.

What’s your proudest accomplishment since you started development of the new version of the game for the iPad?

We’ve had some pretty happy moments. We spent a lot of time in the code and, for lack of a better word, butchered a lot of MSC stuff and old Windows junk out of there. I think we reduced the size of the binary by a third almost. It was originally 10MB. We were able to get it down to 2MB or something like that. We’ve made some major changes to it.

Of course, there’s the effort of making it portable too. Now we’re redoing the UI. That’s going to be really exciting because it’ll open the game up to UI mods and all kinds of other wonderful stuff. I can’t say exactly how it’s going to do yet. We’re still iterating it to find out.

With our first passes, we were reworking the UI to be more flexible, where we can start making different changes, and then see where it goes. The benefit in that is that we can do different versions and different themes—we can have a couple of different styles of interface.

Designing for a tablet is significantly different from designing for PC so we’re playing with it to make it really good. I don’t pretend to know exactly the way the interface should be and then make it that way.

The license for the game belongs to Wizards of the Coast. How did you obtain the rights this time around?

It wasn’t easy. It took us well over a year to negotiate.

 We built a relationship with them where we told them that we wanted to take on the project and would treat it with the utmost respect. We’d worked with them in the past on other projects.

We put the case forward that we’re the ones to do it, and it’s developed into a great working relationship.

As for Atari and Bioware, we’ve all had connections with them. It was a lot of work, but it’s been great that we were able to pull it off. The original scope of what we pitched and what we wanted to do to with the project has evolved over time as different opportunities became available to us.

After a while, we were able to settle on what we were going to do, and Wizards had all eyes on what we were doing the whole time. We’ve even contracted people from Wizards. We have a very tight relationship.

When the new iteration of the game is released, how will it affect online businesses like Good Old Games, who are still selling the original version as a digital download for PC?

I’m not sure how that’s going to work. They have the original Baldur’s Gate. Their version’s been cleaned up a little bit, but it still has all of its issues. What they’ll do is between Atari and GOG. It’s not really for us to decide on what’s going to happen there.

How does redeveloping a game like this for a new platform differ from working on a new property?

First of all, we’re taking it from a curator’s approach rather than a “design it, build it and ship it” sort of thing. We’re doing a lot of research as far as what people have been doing with Baldur’s Gate for the last 10 years. Mainly, we’re preserving and fixing the content—bringing it forward.

The challenge is really listening and gathering all of the fan feedback from the past decade and making the right decisions. There’s so much ownership in this product from all of the fans. It’s incredible. The emails that I get daily from people just giving me their stories of how this game has affected their lives, what they’d like to see and that kind of thing are amazing.

It’s definitely a different kind of project from creating something from scratch, beating the marketing drums and hoping that it sells. A lot of what we’re trying to do is incorporate a lot of the core fixes and features that the mod community has found. We’re really trying to support new modding efforts moving forward.

You’re looking to position the iOS version of the game at around a $10 price point. That the game will ship with close to 80 hours of content makes this understandable, but in a market where so many apps sell for 99 cents, do you feel that setting the price as high as you are is risky?

Games are a funny thing. It’s not a commodity; you can’t put value on it, or weigh the game and say what it’s worth. It’s so finicky.

There are definitely scenarios where a game of a perceived value is being sold for less. The notion of perceived value adds risk to it all.

Developers right now are spending too much time trying to avoid risk instead of making really good products. I think the business model needs changing. Designers and critics have their definition of what is a good game, but then players have another. There needs to be better communication, which would affect how games turn out. A new business model would help that.

Outside of fixes and tweaks, will you be continuing to update the game after it’s brought to market?

We’re definitely going to provide post-ship support. We’ve got Baldur’s Gate II code up as well. Both games share the same codebase. We want to fully support our games as much as we can. There’s also full localization for the game. We’re getting close to 16 languages now. That’s going to be done after the initial ship.

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