It’s somewhat surreal, but after a near 20-year absence, classic RPG series Baldur’s Gate is back. Divinity: Original Sin 2 developer Larian Studios and Wizards of the Coast announced at E3 2019 that they’ve partnered to bring us Baldur’s Gate 3 as well as usher in a new era for the franchise. We sat down with Larian founder and CEO Swen Vincke and Dungeons & Dragons creative director Mike Mearls during the conference to discuss their partnership, the return of Baldur’s Gate, the pressures of fan ownership, and more.
“It’s been in the works for over two years now,” Vincke says of the game’s development. “We approached Wizards [of the Coast] in maybe late 2016. We all know what it means to the players, what it means to Wizards of the Coast, and what it means to us to be bringing something so precious to everybody’s memory back to the video game space.”
The original Baldur’s Gate, published in 1998 by Interplay, is one of the most influential and popular game franchises in history. Not only is it regarded as one of the best role-playing games ever made, but it’s often credited as the title that revitalized the computer RPG in the late ’90s. It’s no surprise then that the fanbase has remained passionate in the years since the equally beloved Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn launched back in 2000, though few likely expected the series to return after all this time.
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Living up to fan expectations when endeavoring to bring back such an important series isn’t something Larian and Wizards of the Coast are taking lightly, though they have confidence in their established relationship with their fan community.
“While they know the pressure is on us, they have faith in us,” Vincke says of the studio’s fanbase, which has been an important part of Larian’s development since the days when Divinity: Original Sin was crowdfunded on Kickstarter. “While this won’t be a Kickstarter game, it’s still really important to us to maintain that communication and that level of dialogue with the community.”
In fact, Vincke thinks that this collaboration between a studio and its fanbase is vital when trying to crack new ideas: “When you’re working with a community that has an established idea of what you’re making, whether it be D&D or a CRPG, you really want to break new ground and make something exciting. I think when you’re experimenting with those new ideas, there’s nothing like reaching out to the community. They can think a little more wildly. When you come to them with those new ideas, they really respond to it. It’s a huge part of our development process.”
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Mearls, who has been at Wizards of the Coast for over a decade and led design on D&D 5th Edition, the current version of the tabletop game, is no stranger to trying to improve upon a game that players hold dear.
“We went through something similar [to what Larian is doing with BG3] when we relaunched D&D five years ago with 5th Edition. It was a very contentious time period before we started working on the game,” says Mearls, whose work with 5th Edition goes all the way back to the open playtests in 2012. “At first, people were very skeptical. They didn’t really like the first draft of the game, and there was negative feedback. For the next iteration that was released, we took all of that feedback, listened to it, and applied it, and you could see people going, ‘We complained about this, and they changed it! Maybe they’re actually listening!’ You could see that trust being built up with each release. People started to have confidence in the game. It’s important to talk to people who are fans of the franchise.”
The teams at Larian and Wizards of the Coast have been working closely on the development of the game over the past couple of years, a partnership that is integral seeing as Baldur’s Gate is heavily based on D&D lore, particularly the seminal Forgotten Realms campaign, which is vast. According to Vincke, getting the gameplay in BG3 to be reflective of how the tabletop game feels was of utmost importance to Larian.
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“The game is 5th Edition rules, so we’ve been integrating those,” Vincke says of developing BG3’s gameplay. “While there will be a few tweaks here and there, gameplay will feel very true to 5th Edition. The challenge is how we bring that feeling of a Dungeon Master into a virtual space and make a world that feels reactive with stuff that’s not necessarily in the 5th Edition book because it’s relying on the DM to interpret player action.” That challenge is being met by both teams, as they “explore what it means to bring 5th Edition into the virtual space.”
“When we kicked off the narrative side of things, it just felt like we were kicking off the next tabletop product,” Mearls says of working with Larian. “The Larian narrative team came to work with us for almost a week, and we ended up sending one of our designers over there for three weeks last summer. It didn’t feel like there was any pressure [in making the next Baldur’s Gate game] because it was like we were just making another adventure for people to play.”
While the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons has been steadily rising in recent years, there is still a large portion of fans who will be entering into BG3 having never played tabletop D&D. It’s likely that some of these potential players haven’t even played Baldur’s Gate and are simply signing up for BG3 because they’re fans of Larian’s Divinity games. Vincke insists that, whatever level of D&D knowledge you bring to the game, it’s designed to be an approachable experience.
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“We’re going to make the best CRPG we can make,” Vincke says. “It’s just going to get wider and wider in terms of choice and consequence and depth and immersion. What we’re getting the benefit of with working on Baldur’s Gate is that there is this elaborate toy box of lore and history and depth that’s honestly unmatched, as far as I’m concerned, in tabletop history.”
As for what will be awaiting players in the third entry, Vincke says, “You can expect an epic adventure in a world you may not remember because it’s been a while since you’ve played [Baldur’s Gate], but you’re going to be able to jump right back in there and enjoy that depth that you wouldn’t necessarily get with a brand new adventure in a brand new world.“
With any Dungeons & Dragons video game, there’s an opportunity to usher players who’ve never played tabletop D&D into that world by introducing them to the tabletop mechanics on a platform that they’re familiar with. Mearls is hopeful that, with the success of BG3, we could see a whole new wave of players trying out his team’s tabletop experiences.
“I grew up in the ‘80s, so I remember playing a game called Pool of Radiance that helped me learn how to play D&D. Playing that computer game showed me how the rules actually work,” Mearls says. “Reading a book is one way to learn something, but it’s very different to play a game and experience it first-hand.”
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Mearls says that he’s really impressed with how Larian is “committed to making an accessible game,” an approach that he thinks will help role-playing games move away from the perception that “they’re very difficult to get into.”
“It looks like it’s this very complicated thing, but at the end of the day, what a really good role-playing game is about is what player you’re choosing,” Mearls explains. “One of the things we’ve done with 5th Edition is try to make the rules more accessible, and I think Baldur’s Gate 3 will allow even more players the chance to step in. With D&D, we don’t really feel that there’s a divide between the tabletop games and the video games. If it’s a D&D game, you’re a D&D player. For us, it’s about bringing D&D to as many platforms and genres as possible.”
Further encouraging the cross-pollination of the two team’s projects is a new tabletop campaign from Wizards of the Coast, Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus, which releases on Sept. 17 and ushers the BG story into 5th Edition.
“It essentially updates the history of Baldur’s Gate,” Mearls says of the new campaign. “It covers details, the locations, important people, and includes a complete level 1-13 tabletop campaign. If you want to see the bridge between Baldur’s Gate 2 and Baldur’s Gate 3, that’s the perfect place to go.”
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One of the more fascinating aspects of the return of Baldur’s Gate after such a long absence is that the original fanbase is likely at an age where they’ll be playing BG3 with their children. Mearls and Vincke are delighted by the thought of parents connecting with their kids over this new era of Baldur’s Gate.
“That’s so exciting,” Mearls says. “That’s when I think, as a creator, you feel like you’re having an impact on people’s lives. I have a four-year-old daughter, and the things I want to share with her are the things that are important to me. If someone values your game in that way, that’s so fulfilling.”
“You could even say Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 have raised up a generation of developers who want to make these types of games,” Vincke adds. “So much of our team grew up playing Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, so this is a dream for us to make this game.”
Baldur’s Gate 3 is coming to PC and Google Stadia.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.