Beamdog harnesses Edmonton's games legacy while forging something new
By Michelle Ferguson
Trent Oster will be the first to tell you he owes much of his success to nostalgia. His game development studio is known for enhancing classic roleplaying games (RPGs) from the 90s after all. But did you know he also owes a debt of gratitude to the late Steve Jobs?
In 2009, Beamdog — now the largest independent game studio in Edmonton — was struggling to distinguish itself in an ever-crowded online gaming market. Firm believers in direct sales, Oster and his co-founder Cam Tofer set up a digital distribution platform similar to online PC-games retailer Steam. Despite more than 300 unique titles on offer, Beamdog barely had any sales. This was the same year the iPad launched.
“It’s a big iPhone,” Oster thought when news of the tablet broke. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
So naturally he bought one.
His opinion quickly changed. Not only was the tablet ideal for casually surfing the web or answering emails, but it was perfect for playing tactical RPGs similar to Baldur’s Gate, which Oster and Tofer both helped develop while working at BioWare.
“With a PC you can cook in three or four, maybe five hours of focused, intense gameplay,” Oster explains, “then you need a break. Whereas when you’re on your couch playing [on an iPad], you’re relaxing. You can set it down for a minute, come back. You can just engage in a different manner.”
The pair immediately started chasing down the rights to Baldur’s Gate, and a year later came away with a deal that would allow them to enhance five classic RPGs: Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate II, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment and Neverwinter Nights.
It’s taken years to fully take advantage of this deal. (The plan to make targeted, focused improvements was abandoned two weeks into enhancing Baldur’s Gate, when Tofer was forced to delete more than 300,000 words of code.) But the studio finally released its last Dungeons & Dragons title in 2018 — leaving fans to wonder what was next.
In 2019, Beamdog will release its first unique title: Axis & Allies Online. The one- to five-player game is a loyal adaptation of the beloved World War II strategy board game, Axis & Allies: 1942 Second Edition.
A turn-based affair, it pits the Allies (the U.S., the U.K. and the Soviet Union) against the Axis (Germany and Japan). Players can play solo against a script-based AI, or against a mix of AI and other people in multiplayer. There is also an option to play asynchronously.
“It allows almost that play by email mechanic,” Oster explains. “You can each take your turn when it fits into your schedule, which for older guys like me is an important thing.”
While enhancing the RPGs came with some challenges (about 70 per cent of the original code had to be rewritten and some of it was lost), so did building a unique title from scratch. User interface design became especially important in communicating the game’s complex rules, and the team was forced to build a custom web-based engine to ensure the back end was both scalable and secure.
Except in local, single-player mode, all games are hosted on a cloud-based server, which validates each move. This prevents cheating and opens opportunities for competitive play down the road, explains Oster.
2019 is a big year for Beamdog — with the 20th anniversary of Baldur’s Gate, the upcoming release of Axis & Allies Online and the announcement that all six of their RPGs (the studio also developed an expansion called Siege of Dragonspear in 2016) will be released on Xbox, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch later this year. The triple I (for indie) studio has also doubled in size to include 47 people.
“We’re in a position to do something new and different and exciting,” Oster says about the slow build to Beamdog's first unique title. “It’s really a chance to level up the company.”