Baldur's Gate 3 Interview — David Walgrave Shares Game Details and Reflects on Obtaining the IP from Wizards of the Coast
After getting a look at Baldur's Gate 3, we chatted with Larian Studios about what to expect from this long-awaited sequel.
After watching a three-hour presentation on an alpha build of Larian’s Baldur’s Gate 3 at a preview event in San Francisco, I had the privilege of interviewing Larian senior producer David Walgrave about the Dungeons and Dragons-based RPG which Larian plans on releasing in early access this year.
We chatted about everything; from the game’s tone, inspiration, and relation to previous Baldur’s Gate titles, to the implementation of the Dungeons and Dragon‘s tabletop elements and rulebook. I also asked Walgrave questions about the gameplay I saw, including information on the game’s multiplayer and difficulty settings. Ultimately, the game holds very true to the lore, creativity, and RNG elements that characterize Dungeons and Dragons.
Josh Starr: Both the Baldur’s Gate and Divinity: Original Sin series are regarded as definitive CRPG experiences, but are still quite different games. How much are you looking to reconcile the Larian style with long-time Baldur’s Gate fans? Are you trying to go for a middle ground, opting for something more akin to BioWare’s work, or sticking with what Larian knows and does well?
David Walgrave: Oh, wow. So, obviously we know our own strengths and weaknesses, and we always take our strengths into the next game we develop. So, over the last 10 or so years, there have been certain pieces of technology and philosophy that we identify as core Larian and take into our next project. For example, when it comes to technology, a lot of stuff in our games follow systemics, so it’s really more of a simulation than anything else. We used to do this because we were a very small team, and if you work with systemics, you get a lot of gameplay for free. But we started noticing that a lot of this free gameplay was also creating a lot of fun, and creating a lot of different experiences for different players. So, everyone that was talking to each other about our games had different stories, which is really cool. So, that’s technology.
The way that we organize dialogues from a technical point of view has also been kind of the same for the last couple of years. There is some technology that we have and reuse, and there is also some philosophy that we have and reuse.
One philosophy we call N-plus-one design. This means that if there is a door that’s closed, you need to be able to open it in different ways. You can burn it down, you can start hacking it down, or you can just open it with a key if you find a key. But then a designer will say, “What if the key got lost?” Then you need to be able to unlock the door. “But what if you don’t have lockpicks?” Well, you can maybe jump over it, or maybe you can teleport through it with a spell. We always think of different ways to approach things. Not just doors, also quests. We even stopped calling quests, “quests” because we think of a quest as a simple task like, “Hey, I lost my boots, can you please get my boots?” We don’t do that anymore. We call them situations. That’s from a design philosophy point of view.
…we started noticing that a lot of this free gameplay was also creating a lot of fun, and creating a lot of different experiences for different players. So, everyone that was talking to each other about our games had different stories, which is really cool.
So, there is a lot of Larian that’s going to be in Baldur’s Gate 3. On the other hand, we also like Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2, and certain things that they did in them. They did things that we have been trying for the last few years to do ourselves. For instance, if you like Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2, what you will recognize is not just the Dungeons and Dragons terminology, vocabulary, and ruleset, but also the emphasis on your character, the emphasis on the party, the emphasis on your companions, and the emphasis on how they react to things that you do, how they react to each other, and the relationship between them.
One of the biggest things that we think Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2 players still remember is all of the different companions that can join you. They have very outspoken personalities, and they also react to each other in specific ways. That is something from the originals that we really really wanted to have in Baldur’s Gate 3.
JS: I’d like to touch a bit more on the relationships between characters. In the gameplay presentation we saw, I noticed that many of the characters developed gripes with each other or with the player-controlled-character. To what degree can you improve or destroy the relationships you have with your companions?
DW: Completely. They might start attacking you, which is not actually that bad, because if they attack you then they are still part of the party, I think. But they also might just leave your party, and then they are gone. Meanwhile, on the other end, when they really like you, and the choices you make, there are romance options. So, you can go to the extreme in either direction.
JS: While we are talking about characters, fans have, of course, been asking about the whereabouts of Minsc and Boo, and if they’ll return. Are there any other favorite characters you’d particularly like to bring into Baldur’s Gate 3?
DW: Well, I know that our writers are planning to have cameos with characters that you will recognize from either the previous games or from The Forgotten Realms novels. I have my own personal favorites, but I don’t know if they’ll make it into the game or not.
JS: Have you spoken to any of the original BioWare or Black Isle teams about concepts, and how you might best approach development on a new title? Are any of those developers involved? Are there any plans or considerations to involve the Bhaalspawn or Bhaal, or do you plan to tell a story of your own within the setting?
DW: No, we haven’t. With Baldur’s Gate 3, we are creating a story completely of our own in the Baldur’s Gate setting.
JS: With the game being a story of Larian creation, would you say the tone of the game is leaning more towards Divinity or Baldur’s Gate? There’s body horror present in the reveal cinematic, but are you intending to make a darker game than before? What kind of humor, if any?
DW: I think, and it should have become clear from the game’s intro movie, that it’s a pretty dark tone. We also think that it’s full of serious topics; we said this about [Divinity] Original Sin 2, and I think that in Original Sin 2, we introduced pretty serious topics. I think that Baldur’s Gate 3, because of the setting, characters, and themes that we are trying to include, it is going to be very serious and dark.
But as you may have noticed during the presentation, there is also still humor. However, it’s not the typical Larian humor anymore. This is a bit of a different thing. Also, because it’s Forgotten Realms, it has its own lore, it has its own stories and backgrounds, and we’ve got to keep those; we are trying to keep the tone of Baldur’s Gate.
JS: How does the music and art direction complement the dark tone and themes? Are they key things that you try to include early, or something you fit into a developed framework?
DW: I am a producer, so I don’t know too much about art direction. But when it comes to art direction, we do have photogrammetry in the engine now, so the art direction is very realistic when it comes to nature: rocks, trees, and all that. We are also trying to put realism into everyone’s armor and weaponry. So, I think our art direction from the beginning has really been more realistic.
Music is only written after we finish a certain part of the world, and then designers and writers talk to the composer and discuss what is happening in every small region of the world. Then he starts composing stuff that really fits into that section of the world. But music is also very dynamic, so when combat starts the music changes. If you’re losing a battle, music changes. When you’re sneaking, music changes. So, it’s very involved.
With Baldur’s Gate 3, we are creating a story completely of our own in the Baldur’s Gate setting.
JS: How connected are you intending to make the plot of Baldur’s Gate 3 with prequel tabletop module Descent into Avernus?
DW: Very, because everything that Wizards of the Coast writes concerning D&D rules or Forgotten Realms lore is something that we need to know. We need to make sure that we don’t do anything within the game that contradicts the lore. It also makes a lot of sense, not just from a writing point of view, but also from a consumer point of view for Wizards, that what we put into the game is very recognizable.
In Descent into Avernus, something that’s currently happening is that the Tieflings are now refugees and they are fleeing to Baldur’s Gate. Within the gameplay presentation, you could see the Tiefling refugee camp that we explored. That’s something that came directly out of Descent into Avernus.
JS: In general, when people see a new game released with a numbered title, that can be very daunting for potential new players. What is Larian doing to make Baldur’s Gate 3 more attractive and accessible to a new audience?
DW: Obviously, you don’t have to play Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2. Though, it is a sequel. The 5th edition ruleset of D&D in Baldur’s Gate 3 is 100 years after what happened in Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2, so people in the game know that as history. But as a player yourself, you don’t really need to know any of it.
To make sure young people play it, we’ve made the game look very nice. When I first saw these numbers, they were a bit shocking to me because, for some reason, I kept thinking we were making RPGs only for thirty and forty-plus-year-old people. But most of the people that are playing our games are in their twenties. I think that’s because we are using a tried and true formula, and we are introducing it to a new audience. We are trying to make sure that our game looks attractive, that it looks nice, that it looks 21st-century, that it looks appealing.
With Baldur’s Gate 3, when you see the cinematics or something like that, you’re immediately drawn to it. What 20-year-old people might not want to play is RPGs that still look and feel like it’s 1998. There are things that we love from the ’80s and the ’90s, and we are putting those elements into our game, but it’s 2020, and we want to make the game look like it’s from 2020. There are more than 300 people working on this game, and it needs to be a triple-A experience. So, if we limited our audience to this group of 42-plus-year-old-people, then we would have a very small audience.
JS: That tried and true formula you just mentioned is, of course, the Dungeons and Dragons formula, and it’s been stated Larian has been making an interpretation of D&D rather than a straight port of the tabletop systems. With that said, how are you adjusting that formula for the game? How many of the options for races, classes, abilities, etc. are you trying to include? And what kind of flexibility are you hoping to incorporate?
DW: We are actually trying to implement the D&D ruleset as close to the literal meaning as possible. I think that if you know D&D and you play our game, you will recognize about 95% of everything that’s in it. However, some things just don’t work in a computer game, so we approach them from a different angle so that it is still in the game, but in a slightly altered form that works in the game’s format.
For instance, one of the things that we don’t do from the 5th edition is called reactions. When I say we don’t do it, I mean that they are in the game, but not in the way they are in the handbook. When you’re playing tabletop, you actually interrupt someone else’s turn and say, ” I am going to play a reaction.” We don’t do that because that would take the speed out of the combat. We are always trying to make turn-based actually as fast as possible.
However, reactions are in the game, they’re just automatically executed. For instance, if an attack of opportunity triggers, your character will just automatically attack of opportunity. So, the thing is still in there, but we might have changed it a tiny bit.
There are things that we left out. But usually, that’s just magic spells that are simply too wild because Dungeons and Dragons is so free-form and out there. There is a spell called “Wish” where you can make any wish. You could just tell your dungeon master, “I wish I was a pigeon.” You can come up with crazy ideas. We didn’t put that in. Sometimes, we did put it in, but we just thought of the five most-wanted options.
JS: Touching more on what you were just talking about with spells and game balance, when balancing the power of player abilities and classes, do you try to keep things relatively even, or are you okay with disparities? Lots of options with some better or less situational than others, or a more tightly curated variety?
DW: We are implementing things based on how they are in the book. So, if they are a bit skewed in the book, then that’s how we are going to implement them. What we are trying to do is make sure that every class is a lot of fun, and has many different and unique ways to have fun. For example, implementing the fighter in a computer game is a bit of a challenge because we want them to still have interesting choices to make.
We are actually trying to implement the D&D ruleset as close to the literal meaning as possible. I think that if you know D&D and you play our game, you will recognize about 95% of everything that’s in it.
JS: In the gameplay I saw today, I noticed the game seemed very difficult. Swen appeared to be struggling at points, even though he’s played this segment dozens of times, and already knows many of the different environmental combos. Are there different difficulty options available or is it meant to be a learning experience where you adjust after developing more knowledge?
DW: We will have difficulty settings available. We always do that because as difficult as the game sometimes seems, some people think that they can really cheese anything. Because of the way that the systems and simulations work, you can really use the game against itself. So, some people are really good at that and then start saying, “The game is way too easy because there is so much stuff that I can abuse.” But we really like the fact that people can abuse the systems against themselves. It’s part of what makes the game so cool. But there will also be a story mode difficulty so that you can go through the story without having too much trouble during combat.
JS: During the presentation, there were also a few brief mentions of the multiplayer mode. Could you describe that mode a bit more, and specifically how it differs from the single-player experience?
DW: There are two different types of multiplayer when you start a game. Let’s say you’ve been playing for half an hour or 17 hours or whatever. Your friends can just drop in and out, and they’ll take control of one of your party members. This is very nice because the hard thing about multiplayer is if you always need to start on time, and someone can’t make it that night, then you’re kinda stuck. So, that’s one possibility. Then you also have multiplayer where you say, “Okay, let’s take on the game together from the start.” So, you and your friends – up to four people – basically start together in character creation, choose your characters, and play from there.
In multiplayer, you can basically do all of the same things that you’ve seen. You don’t have to stick together, but it’s recommended because combat is going to be pretty hard. You can do all sorts of things behind everyone’s back. If you’re the first person to start talking to someone, you might have a certain impact on the entire world and the others in the group don’t have a say about that.
Multiplayer within our previous games was actually very popular because you are in a party, and if you have a party member that’s not agreeing with you, you can actually help each other in combat because you both think differently. Multiplayer for us is a big deal because even if you just prefer single-player, all of the things that we are doing to make multiplayer work actually have a positive impact on the single-player campaign because of all of the different ramifications that we thought of. So, we have a convenient drop-in option, as well as a more traditional group D&D experience available.
I didn’t know if we ever thought we would land the IP because we asked Wizards of the Coast five years ago, and they said, ‘No.'
JS: From everything I’ve seen, you guys have created a video game that is very true to the D&D formula. Earlier you stated that you guys were creating your own entirely new story. So, what influenced you guys to use the Baldur’s Gate name in the game? Did you have a specific story idea in that universe? Are you guys big fans of the games?
DW: I think that Baldur’s Gate 3, for all of the RPG developers in the world, is like the golden grill. A lot of people have been asking for it, like, “We want to do it, can we please do it.” So, it’s not strange that it’s something we wanted to do, but we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I didn’t know if we ever thought we would land the IP because we asked Wizards of the Coast five years ago, and they said, “No.”
So, at first, they said no, and then we released Original Sin 2. They played it themselves, and they really liked it. They liked it because they thought that it was a computer game where the freedom of creativity in Dungeon and Dragons really came forward. So, they said, “If anyone can make a D&D game like Baldur’s Gate 3, it’s you guys.” Then they said, “It’s okay, you can do Baldur’s Gate 3.”
We actually work together with them on writing the story. So, Swen came up with the main idea that you have a tadpole in your head and your going to turn into a Mindflayer, but for very big decisions we talk to Wizards of the Coast.
Larian has announced that Baldur’s Gate 3 will enter early access in 2020 before it has its full launch on PC marketplaces and Google Stadia. This isn’t shocking, as they took advantage of early access to help finetune their more recent games like Divinity Original Sin 2.
Editor’s Note: All images were provided by Larian. Some portions of this piece have been edited for clarity’s sake.