Salvaging Baldur’s Gate: the “horror” of getting the original code in shape for the Enhanced Edition

Salvaging Baldur’s Gate: the “horror” of getting the original code in shape for the Enhanced Edition

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition is the attempt of Overhaul Games to recreate and expand upon “the greatest roleplaying game of all time.” Trent Oster, the president and director of business development at Beamdog, has been working closely with Wizards of the Coast and Atari to bring this new, enhanced vision of Dungeons & Dragons to PC, Mac, iOS, and Android. We've talked with Oster about some of the business difficulties behind the updated game, and now it's time to dig into another aspect of this project. The greatest RPG has a secret: it's stuffed full of incredibly inefficient code. “Does the word horror mean anything to you?” Oster asked the Penny Arcade Report. “I've been going through the user interface code a lot lately, and I've found just a ton of duplicates and references to the same pieces of art. So literally it's the same piece of art that will appear 10, 15 times. And you're not sure which version of it is being used by which file.” Overhaul tried to retain as much code as they could, at least initially. That proved to be a headache, and Oster opted for more drastic measures. “I've been taking the kind of nuclear weapon approach to it, which is if you kill them all, then whatever's left, that's the one you deal with,” he said. Cameron Tofer, co-founder of Beamdog, said he was just glad they found anything left from the original code. “Baldur's Gate is a big project, and when you think about what we're actually doing is crazy. We're taking Baldur's Gate, throwing it into a different engine, and moving it to four new platforms on code that's fifteen years old. It's no small task.”

Don't worry, there's only a couple hundred thousand lines of code to fix

“At a time when other games were throwing around a couple hundred assets, Baldur's Gate was throwing around hundreds of thousands of separate assets. It was really kind of its advantage. The disadvantage is that this was done in the timeline of Windows 3.1, Windows 95, so their approach was very colored by that era,” Oster explained. The biggest “trick” up Baldur's Gate's sleeve, Oster explained, was palletization, a process that maps pixels to a palette containing only specified colors. This was how Baldur's Gate handled things like character customization and color swaps on re-used assets. “Palettized stuff pretty much died out in like 2000, and I thank God for that, because it is horrible stuff. But with Baldur's Gate we have to go back and literally fight our way through that swamp all over again,” Oster told the Penny Arcade Report. It's an arduous task to be sure, but Oster and his team have help. Dedicated players and fans of Baldur's Gate have already contributed to Overhaul's progress by pointing out previously-discovered bugs, and more recently, contributing translations during the localization process. “Every guy who's who in the Baldur's Gate community, who's ever made a mod or who's ever made a name for himself, he's on our beta team, and he's working with us right now to make this awesome,” Tofer said. Oster was quick to agree. “It's like a giant reunion on our forums, it's just like everybody who's anybody is in there,” he said. The team sees the fanbase not just as emotional support, but technical as well. “We're treating these guys essentially as members of the dev team… the goal going long-term is we stay engaged with these people. When they find problems or they find ideas on how to make the game even better, we continue to work with these guys. These guys know Baldur's Gate better than anybody on the planet. I think even the original dev team don't know Baldur's Gate as thoroughly as some of these guys.” In terms of sheer numbers, language may be the biggest obstacle Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition has to overcome. Tofer told the Penny Arcade Report that the team had fixed more around 1,000 bugs and errors, many of which were simple typos. “Here's a small example: There's an item, you read the description, it gives you +3 to whatever, but it actually doesn't. It actually gives you a +2,” Tofer said. “So there's little things like that, that from like a grand perspective we're making little fixes, but our job as far as enhancing the greatest roleplaying game of all time is gonna be appreciated. And when we talk about fifteen years from now, this game is gonna be like… polished. It's gonna be like, holy cow.”

You can't beat the feel of a good dose of nostalgia

Code isn't the only thing that's changed since the original release of Baldur's Gate, though. In an age of digital distribution services like Steam–although Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition will be a Beamdog exclusive on the PC–the art of the video game manual and physical presence of gaming has diminished. Oster and Tofer both agreed they didn't want that for their work. When asked if it was important anymore for games to have a physical space occupied in a store, Tofer said, “It's only important to this product.” “I think Baldur's Gate for us is a lot about nostalgia,” Oster said. “I remember cracking open the Ultima 3 box, and it had this fake leather-bound spellbook and manual and map. This is the stuff that you remember 10 years, 15 years down the road after playing the game.” Overhaul is working on plans to release a physical collector's edition of Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition, though neither Oster nor Tofer could offer any details as to what would be packaged inside. Whatever they choose, they want it to have a “real Dungeons & Dragons feel to it,” and their close collaboration with Wizards of the Coast will dictate how that plays out. Recent Twitter updates have hinted at the struggle of releasing a physical product, unfortunately. The game is also coming to Android platforms, and Oster thinks that the game has the opportunity to show that a good game with a dedicated fan base can find success on that platform. “If it's a good game, hopefully people buy it. I view it as a chance for the Android market to gain visibility as a positive place to be.” He stated that this release could show that the piracy debate is “background noise,” and Baldur's Gate 2 could also come to Android if the first game finds an audience. If not? “At that point, we're just going to have to make the appropriate call, I guess.” When asked if there would be a need for an enhanced Enhanced Edition 15 years from now, Tofer joked with the Penny Arcade Report, “They won't even bother, it'll be perfect.” There are even bigger plans as well, with the possibility of a Baldur's Gate 3. “Long term, there's a goal to make a Baldur's Gate 3 on our side, and I know there's interest on the other side, it's just a matter of seeing how successful Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition is and seeing if we can work out deal terms on what it would take it to make it happen.”