From niche to mainstream
As the project progressed, BioWare began to shape "Battleground Infinity" into something that would change gaming history. In 1998, Interplay's RPG division renamed itself Black Isle Studios, and released "Baldur's Gate" to the adoration of critics and fans alike.
"Baldur's Gate" was not the first D&D RPG; they had been around since the '80s. But "Baldur's Gate" offered something that most other PC RPGs could not deliver: accessibility.
Although you could bludgeon small animals to death with the game's doorstopper of an instruction manual, all you really needed to hit the ground running was the willingness to read in-game information. As you created a character, the game walked you through how a Fighter differs from a Ranger, and why a swordsman needs a lot of Strength while a Wizard needs Intelligence.
Extremely high production values also made the "Baldur's Gate" an attractive point of entry for newcomers. In the style of all today's games, a gorgeous full-motion video set up the game's well-paced story, and each important character had dozens of lines of spoken dialogue. The character models were big and colorful, and looked different depending on how you equipped them.
"'Baldur's Gate' is the whole package: narrative, quests, interesting dungeons to explore and an overarching epic storyline," said Avellone.
Over the next few years, the series would continue with the story-focused "Planescape: Torment," the combat-centric "Icewind Dale" and "Neverwinter Nights," which gave users a toolkit to create their own content.
Due to Interplay's flagging financials, Black Isle Studios went down with all hands on December 8, 2003. Rather than scatter to the four winds, however, the team mostly stuck together and created a new studio, Obsidian Entertainment, before the year was out.
Meanwhile at BioWare, "Knights of the Old Republic" translated the successful D&D video game formula into a "Star Wars" adventure. In fact, the game was based on the Star Wars pencil-and-paper roleplaying game, which ran on the same rules as D&D.
In spite of the commercial and critical success of "Knights of the Old Republic," BioWare wanted to stop playing in universes that already existed and design its own.
That resulted in the hit "Mass Effect" series four years later and "Dragon Age" (the spiritual successor to "Baldur's Gate") after that. These titles ultimately combined everything that made the D&D series so successful with fully orchestrated scores, fully voiced scripts from renowned voice actors and state-of-the-art graphics.
Although neither game used a D&D rule set, the structure of the games was point-for-point what made the previous games so successful: Gather companions, build up trust with your party members, and take a nonlinear adventure where you choose your moral path through a changeable story.
When BioWare turned its attention to "Mass Effect," that left "Knights of the Old Republic II" without a developer, and Obsidian was ready to step in. If "Knights of the Old Republic" was like the original "Star Wars" movie, "A New Hope," then its sequel was "The Empire Strikes Back." A broad, good-versus-evil story with archetypal characters gave way to what Obsidian writes best: moral shades of gray and characters whose nature can change depending on the protagonist's choices.
"Our writing style is a little different than BioWare," said Urquhart. "We often flesh out our companions more … They work on a really cool super-strong central narrative."
"Their development of romance has been one of the standout successes in companion design. It's brought many more gamers into the fold than would normally play an RPG," said Avellone. "They also take a lot of care to try to break new ground in terms of gender issues and characters' different sexual preferences."
Even while plugging away at the "Star Wars" game sequel, Obsidian did not want to let its D&D pedigree go waste. At the time, old gaming warhorse Atari held the licensing rights for D&D video games. Obsidian made deal for them in 2004, and released "Neverwinter Nights 2" in 2006.
Two expansions later, Obsidian hung up its D&D cloak indefinitely and worked on other titles such as the spy thriller "Alpha Protocol" or the "Fallout" spin-off "New Vegas."