Published on January 14th, 2015 | by Patrick Garde0
Interview with Trent Oster of Beamdog
I got a chance to chat with Trent Oster (@TrentOster) of Beamdog, the developer of hit mobile games Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. We named the latter as one of the top Android RPGs in 2014. Hence, we wanted to get to know the team behind it.
We discussed his background, how he got into game development, his favorite games, differences between iOS and Android platform, his thoughts on in-app purchases, and the future of Beamdog.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’ve been in game development since 1995, so this is 20 years in for me. I spent 14 of those years at Bioware. I’ve been a 3D artist, programmer, Director of Technology 3D Department Head, Project Director and now CEO in that time. I”ve lead a development team of over 75 people at peak and I’ve worked with some pretty great people during that time.
When not making video games I love racing sports cars. I have a 1988 (or so) Mazda RX-7 Turbo which has progressed to the point it is mostly custom fabricated parts and not much stock Mazda remaining. The car stinks, rides horribly and routinely scares the heck out of me and I love it.
What made you decide to get into game development?
In the summer of my third year of my computer Science degree I co-founded a computer consulting company for the summer with my older brother and a childhood friend. We serviced/sold computers and computer networks by day and worked on a game idea by night. We made a deal that we would attempt to create a game over the summer and if we completed it before school started we’d all hang on and have a go at becoming game developers. A few months later we started on the concept that became “Shattered Steel” and we hooked up with three doctors to form Bioware. I always wanted to do game development, I remember drawing sprites on graph paper for a “Dukes of Hazzard” video game when I was 12 years old. I did the “General Lee” as a sprite in all eight directions on graph paper with pencil crayons before we even had a real computer. It just had to happen.
Were there any games that influenced you or do you have favorite games that served as an inspiration?
I think every game I’ve ever played has been some kind of influence. My major touch points were X-Com, X-Wing, Doom and the Gold box games. I also learned a great deal from the Ultima series and Ultima Underworld.
After working for BioWare, you decided to leave the company to pursue Beamdog. How did the idea come about?
I found it impossible to succeed in Bioware leading new IP development after the EA acquisition. The constant threat of project cancellation simply destroyed team morale, leading to a number of experienced team members leaving the studio and the eventual cancellation of the project. Remembering the early days of Bioware, I made one last hard push for the project and ultimately failed, so I left the studio to pursue something new. I called up Cameron (my partner in Beamdog) who I had previously worked with at Bioware years before and told him “it is time”. We had talked for years about working together on something and the time was right. At the time the iPhone had just launched and it really painted a picture of how a software store should work. We felt we could develop some virtualization technology to encapsulate PC games and make them as easy to buy and play as it was on the iPhone. We did some research and came up some some solid technology which made the whole purchase to play experience much better. But we underestimated Steam and how quickly they were able to match our benefits. We simply couldn’t compete directly with them as we learned over the next few years. However, we love having our own distribution network and we all use our distribution service every day for distributing new builds of our games for testing and tuning, so we still get great value from the platform and I still like having the ability to sell our games directly to our audience and distribute beta builds to our supportive community.
How was it like working with your former BioWare cohort, Cameron Tofer, in Beamdog?
Cam’s the best programmer I ever worked with. During all my time at Bioware I worked with a lot of programmers and Cam stands out. Cam has this ability to see past the symptoms of a problem and attack the root. He works at an architectural level which allows his code changes to have a very large effect on the game he is working on. I would categorize our relationship as cooperative antagonism. We’re both open, honest communicators and we don’t pull punches when we’re talking, so every idea gets put on the table and beaten to a pulp. The ideas that survive are strong and we back them 100%.
There are a number of game download services online. What makes Beamdog different?
We’ve pivoted Beamdog into only selling our own titles, so the major difference is we only sell four games. If you like the games we deliver and you want to support our work, buying the game on Beamdog is a clear indication of support. We also do public beta tests for our releases we use Beamdog to distribute those tests. We have a great community on the Baldur’s Gate forums at www.Forum.Baldursgate.com and we listen to their needs and work hard to make them happy.
You have also launched Idea Spark Labs. What does it do?
IdeaSpark Labs was the company Cameron and I set up when we first started. We wanted to get something going, with the idea that IdeaSpark would be a container for whatever we came up with, almost like an incubator. Our first concept was Beamdog, so I guess we’ve yet to actually incubate anything as Beamdog is our only venture.
Let’s talk about Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition. It has an average rating of 4.33 on Metacritic and 4.7 in the Play Store. We also named it as one of the best RPGs for Android in 2014. Did you expect to receive this kind of reception?
We knew Icewind Dale was going to be good. All our previous efforts were shipped under a publishing partner and under a lot of timeline pressure. Icewind Dale was our first effort with just Wizards of the Coast as a partner. We pushed back the project a few times during development to ensure it would be high quality when we shipped and when we were certain of the quality of the game, we made the announcement. We were also working from a much more stable and well tested codebase on Icewind Dale, so the bugs were mostly content related. The Icewind Dale team was mostly made up of former modders who we had recruited over the last few years and they formed a highly functional team, developing, implementing and testing the game as it went from concept to completion. With the combination of great talent, hard work and the patience to ensure a great game we knew Icewind Dale was going to be a great release.
Could you describe Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition? What can Android gamers expect from this game?
Icewind Dale is a party-based role playing game with the 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rules as a basis. The game is challenging and rewards a tactical play style. If you enjoy strategy and role playing it will be a great experience.
What are the differences between Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate?
Baldur’s Gate is much more about the companion characters who join your party and the central role of the player character as the child of Bhaal. Icewind Dale is less focused on the main character from a story standpoint and much more focused on combat.
Were you surprised that Icewind Dale enjoyed more favorable reviews as compared to Baldur’s Gate II?
No, we made an error when we first shipped Baldur’s Gate II on the other platforms. We shipped it early and it had a number of bugs, which we recognize as an error on our part. We made the fundamental mistake of caving to external pressure and shipped the game before we were happy with the quality. We’ve since addressed those issues with the 1.3 Update and we’ve delivered what we think is the definitive Baldur’s Gate II experience.
All of your games are priced at $9.99 on Google Play. How did you arrive at that price?
Fear. Just kidding, When we were pricing the Baldur’s Gate games, we spoke to everyone we knew in the game industry and the overwhelming advice was that $10 was the breaking point. All our peers felt anything over $10 would kill any sales of the game. For the Baldur’s Gate titles we separated the new content we had created into in-app purchases and the resultant costs were inline with the PC costs. For Icewind Dale we made the call that, based on our success with the Baldur’s Gate games at the $9.99 price point we were certain that we had a good gaming value for the cost and $9.99 gave a great gaming value for the money.
Coding for Android and iOS is different. What do you see are the main differences?
For us, about three pages of code. We quickly get the platform stuff out of the way and get into C code as fast as possible. Seriously, our main challenges with Android are the variety of hardware. We have one iOS build that works on all iOS devices. Behind the scenes we have three complete resource sets for Android, one for Power VR chipsets, one for Direct X compatible and one for the newer ASTC texture compression format. Beyond that, the core app / package framework is different on Android, as is the in-app purchase code. Basically, doing Android well with your own engine is a real challenge.
What are your thoughts on in-app purchases (IAPs)? Does it enhance or hamper gameplay experience?
In our case, we use in-app purchases to allow us to offer a great game experience at a lower price point. I think, done well, in-app purchases can allow users a chance to do deeper into a product they have enjoyed. I think Hearthstone is a good example of this. On the other end of the spectrum, I think some apps go way too far and are are not really games, but monetization engines, specifically crafted to manipulate user psychology to the detriment of the user. I think in-app purchases area tool, and much like any tool, it can be executed responsibly or it can be abused and at the moment I think we are seeing a lot of misuse. I respect our users and I want to ensure we offer a good value in every game we make.
What does the future hold for you and Beamdog? Are you currently developing a new game or working on a project?
We plan to make more games. While we’ve had a great run with historic titles, we have a strong desire to step out on our own and develop new stories and new games. We currently have three projects active in the studio and we’re very excited to release them to the world. Some projects are going to take us a while while others, will launch earlier, but we’ve learned our lesson and we’ll launch our games when we know they are the quality our fans deserve.
Lastly, do you want to say anything to our readers?
I’d just like to say thanks for your support. We love making games for you and hearing that you enjoy our work is the fuel that keeps us going.
Thank you for your time, Trent.
Be sure to follow Trent Oster and Beamdog on Twitter. To get the latest news and updates on their games and projects, like Beamdog’s Facebook page or visit their official website. You may also download Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition on Google Play for $9.99.