Classic Western role-playing games are hard to find these days. The most successful ones are chimeras, like Mass Effect 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, games that graft a role-playing game's quests and statistics onto shooting or action-based mechanics. Even party-based RPG series like Dragon Age can't seem to emulate that thrilling classic notion that every move matters, that if you don't outfit and command your party properly, you will die quickly and in brutal fashion.
Those games all have their pros, but Cameron Tofer and the development studio he co-founded, Beamdog, want to go back to the classics. They want to revisit the realm of top-down, party-based, strategy-packed role-playing games, revered titles like Planescape: Torment and Baldur's Gate. They want to make new RPGs and restore the glory of the classic ones.
"Imagine an alternate universe where instead of going to Oblivion and all that, we kinda just followed Baldur's Gate," Tofer told me on the phone yesterday.
It's a hypothetical future that could still be a possibility, depending on the success of the enhanced editions of Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II, which Beamdog will release this summer for iPad, PC, and other platforms to be announced later this week. If those games do well, Beamdog will move on to what Tofer says will be "the next logical step, whatever that may be."
Baldur's Gate 3? Planescape: Torment 2? Completely new games using a modern version of the old isometric Infinity Engine? It's hard not to salivate at the possibilities.
Still, Tofer has to find an audience first. The vision of a classic-packed future will live or die based on the number of fans that come out to get their paws on these old RPGs.
So Beamdog is beefing up both games. Both Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II will ship with new interfaces, unreleased content, and completely new characters, quests, and kits (classes).
"Baldur's Gate is all about story," Tofer said. "There's a real depth to it all. So we've created not just a character kit, but a character, with a history and story and items... with that you get an adventure. There are new items, new areas to play in."
Both games will come with their respective expansion packs, Tales of the Sword Coast and Throne of Baal. They'll both have multiplayer and each will sell for less than $10 on iPad. They won't be released simultaneously, though—Baldur's Gate II will be out "shortly" after its predecessor launches this summer.
Tofer and his team have also reached out to the prolific Baldur's Gate modding community, some of whom have dedicated years to crafting their own stories and interface improvements for the series. Beamdog wants to work with modders, using some of the old code they've developed over the years, to get the enhanced editions of both games to the point where neither one needs to be modded at all.
The desktop versions of both games won't be changed much, Tofer says. They'll have higher resolutions and full-screen modes, as well as "working" multi-player, but they won't look too different from their original incarnations in 1998 and 2000.
On the other hand, Tofer says the iPad version will be a "radical departure from the interface." The text will be bigger. You'll be able to pinch the screen to zoom in and out. You'll be able to gesture between screens instead of clicking the tab. The whole game might be zoomed in a little more.
"We want to bring it forward, make it nice and swishy and smooth and things like that," he said.
Tofer says that earning the rights to this project has been a long and difficult process. It took the team 14 months to convince Atari, Wizards of the Coast, and BioWare to all get aboard Beamdog's Baldur's Gate campaign. Beamdog doesn't have the rights to any new Baldur's Gate games, but they do have a large chunk of the team that worked on the classic RPG series.
"Everyone's happy with this," Tofer said. "Our plan is to do awesome on the enhanced [edition], and hopefully that will set the stage. It's their property and we're privileged to be able to work on it. We just want to prove ourselves, engage the community, and deliver."
So a Baldur's Gate 3 might be a long time coming, if it ever actually happens. But the team is certainly interested in the possibility. Tofer said it'd likely be a Kickstarter-funded project, pointing to the tremendous success of Brian Fargo's Wasteland 2, which showed the world that people are still interested in strategic role-playing games.
"It wouldn't be a first-person shooter," Tofer said, chuckling. It might not be two-dimensional, but he says it would still be top-down, "hardcore strategy role-playing.
"I think it would look friggin' awesome."