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Non Sequitur Fridays

How Baldur's Gate Shaped My Life, Part 3

This post is part of our Non Sequitur Fridays series, which will feature a different Wistia team member's take on a non-Wistia-related topic each week. It's like our "employee of the month" but less "of the month"-y. Max Schnur is an engineer at Wistia. This is the final installment of a three-part series, "How Baldur's Gate Shaped My Life". To properly set the stage, you should also read Part 1 and Part 2.

The Glory of Istar

Istar: The grandest city in Dragonlance lore. A walled city by the sea, holding peasants and merchants, knights, sailors, and the righteous Kingpriest. With countless markets, temples, rich estates, gardens and spires that touched the clouds, it is impressive to imagine. And it would be impressive to behold.

My previous mods had demonstrated raw technical ability, but fell short on quality. I wanted this one to be different. I wanted people to play this game and be amazed.

I'm not known for meticulous planning, so I set into action right away. But before I get into that, I should set the scene.

State of the Scene

By this time, TeamBG, the modding community where I was most active, was well established as the unofficial authority on all Infinity Engine games. But starting with The Darkest Day, there was a string of large mods that were met with, let's say, less-than-positive reviews upon release.

It was more than the players that were upset; there was also a growing divide between modders. Some wanted to continue in the tradition of Dark Side of the Sword Coast and The Darkest Day, super mods that added tons of quests and items but were light on character development. Newcomers and pragmatists thought we should focus on smaller character-driven enhancements to give Baldur's Gate II more depth.

To further the ends of the latter group, a programmer named Wesley Weimer entered the scene with a new program called WeiDU.

A Technical Aside

Heads up—you can skip this section if you're totally disinterested in coding!

Up to this point, we had been using a different tool for in-game dialog called IDU, or Infinity Dialog Utility, which was basically a node-based tree editor. A character says something to you, you choose one of a few responses, and the dialog is different depending on your response. You're basically constructing immutable branches of IF-THEN-ELSE-END. However, because of that immutability, branches are hard to change.

Simplified Node-based Tree Editing:

WeiDU solved that problem by compiling dialog from text files, which read more like a contingent film script:

Shamelessly stolen from a WeiDU Tutorial.

Technically, it's really just exploiting the hell out of GOTO statements. But it was a big step forward for a few reasons:

  1. It became possible to inject new lines into existing game dialog.
  2. It was much easier to modify dialog you'd already written.
  3. Sharing dialog between users meant simply compiling the scripts instead of creating a special package to install a dialog file.

Back to the Non-Technical State of the Scene

WeiDU did something very important for RPG mods: it made dialog a first class citizen.

With it came a new surge of expansions, dubbed "Romance Mods" because they usually added a single character with a ton of dialog--and of course, a chance of romance with the main character. By injecting depth and polish into the core of Baldur's Gate II, the romance mods were very well received by players. And modders too. Their success shook the TeamBG community.

Major personalities from TeamBG defected to the WeiDU scene. Some old-timers stayed put. Each side looked down their nose at the other. TeamBG stalwarts considered the romance mods trivial and boring. WeiDU converts would say the big mods were buggy, shallow, and also boring.

Well, whether or not either type of mod is "boring" is probably up to the individual. But they each had strong points.

My Part in the Scene

For my part, I already had "TeamBG" suffixed onto my name, so I knew where my allegiance was. But early on, I saw the benefits of WeiDU. True to my character, I tried to straddle the fence of the communities. Of course, I was pretty vocal about the failings of The Darkest Day and the merits of great dialog, so I was accepted into the WeiDU community too.

The Team

I knew I wanted to expose the best of both scenes, and to avoid the pitfalls of each. An ambitious supermod with interesting characters, high quality dialog, and a great story, that's what I wanted. And this thing would be big, so I needed a team.

But I didn't know how to find one. Why would I? I just started building stuff. Magic systems, items, storyline, graphics. I was all over the place, but prolific. When my peers asked what I was up to, I riffed off Field of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come." These days, I think that strategy is a little naive. Unlike in Field of Dreams, if you just build it, they will actually have no idea you built it.

Unless you have influence. And lucky me, I already had influence where it mattered.

So when I told a 3D graphic artist from Mexico called Exnem about my plans for a Dragonlance total conversion, he got excited and built me a small town. Once I had the graphics for the small town, I had a stage for a demo. With a demo, I was able to attract other modders.

It was simple. I said "Hey, you want to see what I've been working on?" Modders are curious by nature. They say yes. And when you offer them the freedom to realize their vision in a new world, they join up.

I used the show-and-tell strategy to grow the team. Damn, did it work. I ended up with an all-star lineup.

If you've read my previous blog post, you might know that "leadership" and "project management" were now active concepts in my teenage brain. You can see that partially reflected in the organization of the team. Instead of breaking it up by department--e.g. graphics, sound, coding, etc.--it was organized by commitment and self-sufficiency. All the "core" team members were seasoned veterans. Since I was heavy into both engineering and managing the project, those were really the only people who could be on the team. Micromanagement is a time suck. I needed to trust core members to make decisions, to make a quality product, and to do it on their own terms.

The Meat and Potatoes

I could spend a lot of time talking about plot and scripting and all the cool new features we planned to add, but this post would get mighty long! For a taste of that, check out some pages that explain.

One thing I learned from The Darkest Day: Don't code blindly for over a year. In other words, your work should be tested by real players quickly. "Launch early and iterate," as we might say today. With that in mind, we set a short term goal. We would make a demo of one chapter to offer roughly 10 hours of gameplay, and we'd have 6 months to do it.

We buckled down and developed for 5 months. The work was distributed equitably. Six of us could do area graphics. Anyone could do voice acting. DaernX made us an original music score, which was rare for unofficial expansions. The core team members implemented various quests, dialog, systems, and behavior. And everyone was consulted on the main plot, the direction of the game.

We had many passing contributors and supporting team members. If someone made area art but couldn't follow through on a mod, they'd donate it to us. We put out a call for voice actors and had professionals volunteer to work with us.

I finagled an independent study at my school for 3D Graphics, so between that and my Computer Science class, I had roughly 2 hours per day in school to work, on top of the 8-9 hours I had at home each weeknight. I was hesitant to make any time commitments at all. My parents worried I was becoming a workaholic. I think it's pretty obvious I was already there.

Anyway, back to the game.

Throughout development, we spoke with influencers in the TeamBG and WeiDU scenes. We would post screenshots to the chat room, talk honestly about our plans, listen to their concerns. If they were technical people, they could even take a test drive. This all served to create an early buzz. We were working on something big, something new, and we had mind share.

Once the 5 months was up, I declared that our features and quests should be frozen. We went into polish mode, brought in beta testers. One of the major issues of the time was the ever-growing download size of mods. I addressed that with a special install process that decompressed sounds and graphics on installation. After a month, I had an install package that was roughly 90 MB, which would decompress to about 175 MB.

We launched the demo. And this time... it worked.

Response was positive. And believe it or not (I couldn't), it stayed positive. When I search for "Glory of Istar" today, it's a very different experience than The Darkest Day. A few random quotes:

"Well, we already have the first half of it, which IS better than NOTHING at all... You guys ought to take a look at it."

"I am actually enjoying it quite a lot! There are many mini-quests and quite some roleplaying-options."

"I've just finished this mod (the demo version) and I must say I'm very anxious to see more of the same."

"After playing for awhile I have to say I'm pretty impressed with the new graphics and sound. The plot seems interesting and the scripting is better done than most mods."

"Are they going to sell it on CD? If yes I'll buy it!"

Man, that feels soooo much better.

Burn Out

Player response was good, and I was excited.

But I was getting so... tired. I had been modding for 5 years straight. Glory of Istar was finally something I could be proud of, but it was getting harder to force myself to do the grunt work.

Then I did something I hadn't done for 5 years. I disappeared from the scene without warning. I'm not sure what prompted it. But all of a sudden, I couldn't stand to look at the forums anymore, to be in the chatroom.

I forced myself back into it in a couple weeks, told my team I just needed some time off. I worked for another month... then the same thing happened. I disappeared, gone from the scene without a word. At this point I recognized my behavior for what it was: burnout. My brain was fried, my willpower was gone, and I was getting the itch to move on.

I know I had concerns stewing in my brain too. High school was almost over—would I still be modding in college? Neverwinter Nights (Bioware's next RPG, with built-in modding tools) was coming out soon. Would Baldur's Gate mods go extinct? Could I really work this hard on something that would become less and less important?

My second burnout wasn't the last. I kept dragging myself back in, as is my nature, hoping the feeling would pass. But it nagged. I continued in that pattern until a month after my freshman year of college.

In college, I was making new friends and my coursework in Computer Science (who saw that coming?) was starting to pile up. Finally, I realized I would never be able to commit to modding like I had before.

I hopped into chat and told my team I was done. Given my recent behavior, I don't think they were surprised. But they were sad, disappointed. They were invested in the game too. These were people who I spent hours upon hours with each day, working, joking around. Not for money, but for our own enjoyment. Hell, one time I even took a trip to England and stayed at Ajoc's house south of London. (His real name is Alex, but that will always feel wrong to me.) They knew me almost entirely over the internet, but they were true friends nonetheless.

I left, and I lost all contact.

Nostalgia

In some sense, it's ironic that, after I finally found the formula to success, I bowed out. But maybe it was that taste of approval I'd been searching for for half a decade. Maybe once I had that, my work was done, and I could leave. Or maybe I recognized that my life would, eventually, need to change. I don't know.

I returned to the scene periodically over the years, lurking. I loaded up teambg.com once or twice a year, checked for activity. A few years passed and I started a "Hi, remember me?" post. The few old-timers who stuck around asked me if I was coming back. I said no, just keeping an eye on you and saying hi.

One day, teambg.com stopped loading. Another year passed and teambg.net was gone too. The bastions of my modding glory days slowly and surely crumbled while I was away. My own domains--dragonlancetc.com, potencius.net--expired one by one. Castles made of sand, man. Castles made of sand.

Looking back, the volume of work I did was incredible. But when I quit, I quit hard. I cut off contact with the community. We didn't have Facebook back then, so I didn't need to unfriend anyone. I deleted all my source files, all my work in progress, all my art archives. Just poof, gone. There are a lot of things--and people--that, ten years later, I wish I had kept. All the loose threads vanished.

In researching this article, I was only moderately surprised to find that the Baldur's Gate community is still very active today. Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II, the Enhanced Editions, were recently released. My old pal Avenger, creator of DLTCEP, also started a project called GemRB that recreates the Infinity Engine with open source technology. The Gibberlings 3 still cranks out mods and fix packs.

It truly amazes me how long the scene has lasted. So while my own work has faded away, it's satisfying to see the footprint it left behind. But one day that, too, will fade.

Glory of Istar, The Game That Almost Was

While I was in this nostalgic daze, I poked around until I found dragonlancetc.com on the Wayback Machine. From there, I sleuthed my way to the Glory of Istar installation files. I installed it and played.

I can't believe it still works. And it's not bad! I controlled my characters awkwardly, exploring a world I built and subsequently forgot. Persecuted ogres and mages. A psychedelic talking moose. A seedy den of gambling and gladiator fights in the basement of the Fighter's Guild. Alivad--is he friend or foe? The temple on the hill. A farm beset by goblins. I played as a kender, and he kept inadvertently pickpocketing people. I forgot we added that! The voice acting, the music, the graphics. It really drew me in.

Obviously, I couldn't just play it. That's not me. I also installed a bunch of modding tools so I could export and archive all the Glory of Istar area art.

And of course, just like old times, I broke my game pretty in a pretty epic way. Now I need to reinstall from scratch.

Old habits die hard!

Today

Now modding is a part of my past, and Max-Ten-Years-Ago seems like a different person, even if I share many of his characteristics.

If I was asked about conflict resolution or project management in an interview, I might talk about those days long ago. But it comes out funny. People don't take stories from high school seriously, and adding video games to the mix doesn't help the situation. Aside from that, it only comes up when people ask me about high school parties, or prom, and I say, "No, I didn't go to any of those things. I was making games."

But as weird (or sad, as I’m sure some of you are thinking) as it sounds, it's also true that I spent my formative years creating and collaborating, and that experienced changed me. Between the critical thinking, artwork, writing, public relations, and friendships from all over the world, I can't think of a better—or more fun—way to do it.

Over five years, Baldur's Gate shaped my life. Ten years later, its effects still ripple into my world. Now I can honestly say, I'm all the better for it.

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