The approaching full release of Baldur’s Gate III has a lot of gamers very hyped, and for good reason. It’s a high-end video game utilizing the ever-popular Dungeons & Dragons system…and it feels like it’s been forever. While fans got an expansion to an old classic with Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear in 2016, there hasn’t been an actual proper stand-alone D&D cRPG since Sword Coast Legends in 2015…and you have to go all the way back to Neverwinter Nights 2 to find one that was well-received.
Why the long layoff in titles and the difficulty in creating a solid game bearing the D&D trademark? With excellent cRPGS like Dragon Age and Pillars of Eternity out there, why can’t the grandparent of all role-playing games follow suit? The answer, in my opinion, boils down to resources, creative restrictions forced by the property, and good old-fashioned corporate politics.
A Slippery License
For starters, Dungeons & Dragons is a license that has usually been controlled by individuals with no real knowledge of the video game industry. First controlled by TSR, which made a habit of hasty and often detrimental business decisions, and then by Wizards of the Coast, which has had far more misses than hits when it comes to digital technology, the license often landed with companies that simply lacked the capability to develop something that met expectations.
Yes, there were successes like Pool of Radiance and Baldur’s Gate, but there were also plenty of buggy, difficult-to-play, and simply unfinished game like the 2001 Pool of Radiance remake. Developing something on a license meant that some financial resources had to be allocated just toward paying for the right to keep working on that property. Combined with tight deadlines, rapidly-changing graphical needs, and the expected length of a computer RPG, and it wasn’t something a young company (which most who acquired the license were) could swing.
Although it inspired many fantasy video games, Dungeons & Dragons was created as a tabletop experience. That undoubtedly played a factor as well. It’s one thing to create an RPG that works well when played on a computer or console; it’s quite another to adapt the oft-clunky mechanics of D&D into a brand new medium while keeping it recognizable for players who expect to translate their tabletop experiences to the screen.
In short, creating a computer RPG is a big undertaking that requires more resources than many companies have. But that’s true of the entire genre, so what is it that makes D&D itself so difficult?
The Things You Can’t Do with D&D
Dungeons & Dragons is a massive property that is only getting bigger as a cash cow for Hasbro. With that success also comes some limitations. While the stories told in the most successful D&D games have a sweeping, epic scope, the company that owns the game often prevents license holders from making major changes to established canon within a given setting. Case in point: the Wall of the Faithless.
In the Forgotten Realms, those who don’t worship a deity wind up trapped in a wall made of faithless souls. It’s a pretty bleak afterlife, and more than a little controversial since the gods of the Realms often prove to be petulant children who don’t deserve devotion. Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer called the necessity of the wall into question and even allowed the main character to rip a single soul out of the wall. But it stopped short of tearing the whole thing down, because the video game was not allowed to contradict published canon.
As it turns out, the Wall was destroyed very soon afterwards when 4th edition D&D reordered the planes of existence. That Obsidian Entertainment didn’t push for the video game to be the canonical place where it was destroyed remains one of the biggest regrets amongst the creative team. But at the same time, they didn’t even ask the question because they expected, based on experience, that the answer would be a resounding “No.”
In writing big, epic, heroic fantasies, writers often want to allow the player to make major changes to the world. A story tends to be more fun when it shakes things up rather than preserving the status quo. Playing in somebody else’s yard, like a license holder working on a D&D game, usually means that you can’t push things as far as you normally would. As a result, really major stories, the type that topple kingdoms, kill off major characters, and see the dawn of a new age, are best saved for somebody who actually owns the setting. That makes working on an original game where the company fully controls the property, such as Dragon Age or Pillars of Eternity, more appealing than being forced to color within the lines using the D&D license.
When Corporations Get in the Way
While aforementioned franchises like Dragon Age only need approval from the company that works on the game, a video game using the D&D license has to get through approval issued from multiple corporations. While none of that prevents a story from being told, it can be a huge pain for creative teams. A minor case in point is the Mask of the Betrayer character Gannayev-of-Dreams. A major example is a game that we’ll never see.
Back in 2007, Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer shook up a lot of assumptions about a game set in the Forgotten Realms. It brought the hero to the land of Rasheman, which was far from the standard Lord of the Rings-style fantasy that had largely dominated the games that used that setting up to that point. It included a variety of unusual companions, including a half-celestial and magical bear. But when it came to introducing a bisexual character, the D&D license holders stepped in and said, “No way.”
Gann was initially intended to be a bisexual romance option, which would have been a first for the Neverwinter Nights franchise. But somewhere in the approval process, Obsidian Entertainment was told to drop that aspect of the character. So a creative decision that would have opened up options for people wishing for non-heterosexual romance options in the game got nixed because of some outdated views of what counted as family friendly entertainment.
A broader example would be when acclaimed writer David Gaider was brought on board to the Beamdog team and spent two years working on an unannounced project. What exactly was the game? We’ll never really know, other than the fact that it used the Planescape setting and involved a mind flayer paladin. Whatever else went down, that game got canceled before it could even see the light of day. Gaider left Beamdog in 2018, with his work (to my knowledge) never seeing the light of day.
Now, projects get canceled, creative decisions get changed. But when there’s more chefs in the kitchen, that stuff happens more frequently. And when you’re a company that relies of producing material on a regular schedule in order to keep the lights on, it can be extra frustrating that your work, small or large, can be changed or canceled with the stroke of a pen.
Now, clearly these issues don’t prevent great D&D games from coming out. Baldur’s Gate III looks fabulous, and early accounts of the gameplay are very good. But if we go another 20 years until we see a Baldur’s Gate IV, odds are that it very likely has to do with the fact that licensed properties add a bunch of red tape, and many companies choose to go their own way with something they own lock, stock, and barrel.
Images: Beamdog, Stormfront Studios, Obsidian Entertainment