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BALDUR'S GATE II: SHADOWS OF AMN
 
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It is an unlikely home for a king.

This is the thought in your head as you stand on the sidewalk looking at an utterly nondescript office building on 82nd Avenue in Edmonton, Canada. Your quest has taken you thousands of miles, across an international border, to the far northern region of the continent, and now all you can think, as you approach the entrance, is: This is it?

But "unlikely" is perhaps the key word that you could use to describe everything about Bioware. Founded five years ago by two family doctors with no previous experience in designing games, Bioware is now indisputably one of gaming's royal elite. Their collaborations with Interplay's Black Isle Studios have created what is essentially a new role-playing dynasty, and their next move—releasing Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn— is easily one of the biggest events of the year.HOW ABOUT WE JUST GIVE UP? Ray Muzyka, Feargus Urkuhart, and line producer Nathan Plewes gather for a typical bug-report session. As the countdown towards the ship date continues, they must prioritize tasks without compromising on the game's quality or playability.How did this happen? How did a couple of Canadian M.D.s whose only previous programming experience was designing medical software like the "Gastroenterology Patient Simulator" end up at the top of the gaming heap? We braved the hostile American-Canadian border patrol and journeyed up to Edmonton to see them in action.

Complete Control

"The main ingredient of everyone here is that they're passionate about their work," said Dr. Ray Muzyka, who founded the company in 1995 with his friend Dr. Greg Zeschuk.

They would have to be. At the time of our visit, Bioware was in the final crunch period of getting Baldur's Gate II out the door, and, while they were not quite as insane as we had expected, there was still a lot of work to do. For the BG II team, the official office hours for the last couple months have been as follows: Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., and Saturday 12:00 to 6:00. That's 66 hours a week, if you're counting. But they aren't. Many of the team members will stay much later than that, and play the game at home in their "off hours" to seek out as many bugs as possible.

"Almost everyone here is a tester on the game," said Muzyka." I play the game every night for around three hours, from midnight until 3:00 am. I try to find 20 bugs at a time and report them the next morning."

This is the kind of insanity that leads to success.

All these two doctors had between them when they opened Bioware's doors in 1995—other than that Gastroenterology Patient Simulator—was a shared passion for computer games, comics, and, as their first T-shirt proclaimed, "anything geeky." That passion has taken them far.

Bioware's first game was the Mechwarrior-style Shattered Steel, released back in 1996—a decent but not spectacular debut. But the company hit it out of the park in 1998 when they partnered with Interplay's Black Isle Studios to produce Baldur's Gate, a gigantic RPG set in the AD&D Forgotten Realms world. Defying even the rosiest expectations, the game sold over one million copies, brought role-playing and Dungeons and Dragons back into the fore of computer gaming, and established the Bioware/Black Isle team as a major force in the industry. Since that game, Bioware's Infinity engine has been used to fuel three more highly acclaimed RPG's: the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale.

This year has seen Bioware take off even further. The company—now at nearly 100 employees—defied expectations again by developing one of the best action games of the year so far, MDK2. And they recently scored perhaps the ultimate coup—the chance to produce the first single-player RPG set in the Star Wars universe for LucasArts.

First, however, they must get Baldur's Gate II out the door. And now the pressure is on.

Career Opportunities

On this mid-August morning, the Bioware office is busy, but not out of control. Much of the staff, in fact, is not even working on BG II. Offices and cubes are full of t-shirted designers working on NeverWinter Nights (see sidebar) and the PlayStation 2 version of MDK2; and hidden away in his office, away from the prying eyes of journalists, is art director John Gallagher, working on concept sketches for the Star Wars RPG. The relative calm is not what we expected.

"This project is definitely not as stressful as Baldurs Gate was," said co-lead designer James Ohlen. "We have long hours, 12 to 14 hours a day—but we don't have people sleeping over at work. With BG there were longer hours, a lot more stress, and tempers ran higher. We're a more mature company now."

The planning for Baldur's Gate II began immediately after they finished the first game. Muzyka, Ohlen, Gallagher, lead programmer Mark Darrah, Black Isle's Feargus Urkuhart and Chris Parker (see sidebar), and other team members conducted group meetings to plan the sequel. "We started with a list of design suggestions from fans, message boards, and internal ideas from here and Black Isle of all the things we'd like to see in a sequel," said Muzyka. "We had probably thousands of things on the list. We boiled it down to a list of a few hundred items that we felt would add a lot of value—and that list became the design document."

Among those core features were 800x600 resolution graphics, better AI scripting, a better journal, and an annotatable map. On a more general level, they wanted to expand the character and combat systems to incorporate more detailed AD&D rules, tighten the playing experience by eliminating much of the first game's random wandering, and expand the game's settings and storyline into unexpected areas—like the Underdark—that would please the hardcore faithful.

They've been working on it for over a year now, stretching the game engine's capabilities, rendering all new artwork, and creating a storyline and enough subquests to keep you busy, if they are to be believed, for upwards of 200 hours. Now, at the end of the line, the team is exuding the confidence of those who know that they've achieved their goals. "We've done all of it, said Muzyka. "We've put in every single feature we planned on from the beginning."

Clampdown

But how does a company really know that their game doesn't suck? They play it. They test it, over and over, for literally thousands of hours, looking for everything that isn't working, could be better, or just flat out stinks. And this has been the life of the Baldur's Gate 2 team for months now. Playing their own game, endlessly. It's a huge job—and not as much fun as it sounds.

On the wall outside Muzyka's office is a gigantic whiteboard with a chart of every single area and subquest in the entire game. Each area not verified as being 100-percent complete and bug free is marked with an X. On this day in August, there are 52 X's remaining.

Verifying whether things are working correctly is primarily the job of the Quality Assurance (QA) department, who are basically paid to play the game and to do everything they can to try to break it. Along with Bioware's QA department, Interplay has sent a six-person QA team of their own to Edmonton, and they also have four more six-person teams testing the game back in California.

According to QA lead Scott Langevin, each member of Bioware's QA team is assigned an area, and is responsible for ensuring that that area is as bug free as possible—a process that he said takes about a week, on average. More than one QA person will look at one area, of course, because as he put it, "14 eyes are better than two, and each set is going to look at a problem with a different perspective."

Bioware generates weekly builds of the game, along with daily updates, and QA must constantly check and recheck whether problems have been fixed—or if new ones have been created. Every person testing the game—from QA and elsewhere, at both Bioware and Black Isle—fills out a bug report every day, and it's then the unenviable task of line producer Nathan Plewes to compile all the reports into a massive Excel spreadsheet, and then sort and distribute the reports to the appropriate designers and programmers for fixing.

"It's not terribly glamorous," admits Plewes. "There's a large misconception about what it's like to work at a game company. I know that when I first started I was thinking, 'All right! I'll get to play video games!' But this [pointing to the spreadsheet] is what I do all day."

Pressure Drop

The QA guys do get to play the game, but quite often, they're playing the same small area, over and over, for hours on end. As Muzyka describes it, "The QA people don't just verify that the game works and is fun, they have to go all through every scene trying every crazy thing they can think of to break it—attacking the people they're talking to, or casting spells in the middle of a dialogue—and only when they've successfully gone from start to end trying every crazy thing is that area considered 'finished'. Then, we immediately re-test."

The QA team is also solicited for their opinions of the game. It's a known, notorious fact in the games industry that QA departments are often treated as second-class citizens. They're often entry-level employees who are "just" playing the game, and quite often their comments and criticisms are not appreciated, or even listened to by those "higher up"—as all those crappy games on your shelf prove. But this kind of class division does not appear to exist at Bioware.

"We always listen to QA," said designer Ohlen. "They're really representative of the people who are going to be playing the game. If they don't like something, well, no matter how much fun you thought it was going to be, there must be something wrong with it."

The most recent change came with the endgame. "Just a week and a half ago someone here told me the end of the game sucked," said Ohlen. "I asked a couple other people and they thought it sucked too. So I took a general survey and it turned out that everyone but one guy thought it sucked. They all liked the idea of the end, the final battle, but said it went on too long—so I shortened it. When everyone is saying the same thing, you have to listen."

At this late date, however, the team is mostly past any qualitative changes. The emphasis now is on squashing bugs. And there are lots of them. Random game crashes. Impossibly tough monsters. Placeholder sounds (like helicopters) not yet removed. So the 12-hour days continue, the bug reports keep shuffling from desk to desk, and the whiteboard slowly gets those X's removed.

"As this project is winding down, said Ohlen, we're getting a lot of programming bugs that we didn't expect, since this is not a new engine. But we've modified the engine in so many different ways—scripting language, how spells work—that there's still a lot to do.

Programmer Mark Darrah agreed with the others that the situation is far less tense than with Baldur's Gate, and that a new engine would have presented much more serious problems. "The stress is there," he said, "but I've had no major breakdowns yet."

Death or Glory

Throughout our day at Bioware, we witness the same attitude in every department: confidence and optimism tempered only by fatigue and the desire to be done. There's no backbiting. No infighting. After all these hours, no one appears to hate anyone else, or, more surprisingly, the game itself. Of everyone we talked to, only one—Ohlen, the game's co-designer and the one perhaps most familiar with every detail of the game—says he won't play it when it comes out.

Some, like programmer Darrah, are actively looking forward to it. "I didn't play BG because it couldn't run on my machine at home, but I'll probably upgrade so I can play this one," he said. "The programmers have the advantage of not really knowing the story so well—we're just looking at it in bits and pieces."

For Dr. Ray Muzyka, neither the 12-hour days, nor the graveyard-shift play testing (while also trying to finish up an M.B.A.), nor the pressure of trying to live up to the gaming community's very high expectations have remotely softened his enthusiasm for or confidence in the game. "We really like to think of Baldur's Gate 2 as the only game you'll need to buy this year."

It's not arrogance. It's just a sincere statement of belief from a man who knows his company is at the top of its game.

As we leave Bioware at the end of the day and march off to experience the joys of high-alcohol Canadian beer, we are left with this final thought: There is no magic formula to what makes a great game or a great game company. There are only people. Get the right combination of them together, and that's when things start to happen. Right now, there's some serious magic happening up in Edmonton.
 
By Jeff Green, Computer Gaming World   [posted on: Oct 03 2000 12:00:00:000AM]

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