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Interview: BioWare co-founder talks about launching Beamdog and MDK2 HD

Trent Oster was one of the first people who worked at BioWare when it first started and with the exception of a year off from the company he worked at BioWare until his departure back in 2009. While at BioWare he worked on a number of games including leading the development of Neverwinter Nights. Now Oster has launched a new company called IdeaSpark Labs that has already spawned a couple of projects.

One is MDK2 HD, an upcoming downloadable graphical revamp of BioWare's action game that was originally released in 2000 by Interplay. The other is Beamdog, a newly launched PC game download service. In his first interview since the MDK2 HD announcement, Oster talks about his early plans for the game, how Beamdog will be different than other PC game download operations and more.

First, you left BioWare last year after a long time working for the developer. Why did you decide to leave such a successful game developer?

This is actually the second time I have left Bioware. I was one of six original co-founders of BioWare (a long time ago) and left to lead my own studio (I rejoined a year later, with Shattered Steel and we finished the title at Bioware). This time around it was a story of opportunity. As a part of a Bioware/EA in a recession there wasn't a lot of opportunity for new ventures within the company. There are a lot of great people at Bioware and I enjoyed working with them, but ultimately I had to leave to pursue something as big as Beamdog.

You have launched IdeaSpark Labs. Exactly what kind of game development company do you have there?

I think of IdeaSpark Labs as a selfish incubator. We take our best ideas, put some capital behind it and try to create something great. We set up the company and started looking for opportunity. Our digital distribution portal, Beamdog is our first and so far, most exciting project. Really, IdeaSpark Labs is the container for the great stuff we'll be building from here on.

How did the idea for the Beamdog service come about?

The idea for Beamdog came about out of a mix of frustration with the status quo and my business partner, Cameron Tofer's personal experience as an indie developer. We found the existing portals in many cases are just an extension of the retail business model into a digital space. All the systems are still built on the concept of software installation, which we have a hard time justifying in a digital download system. We also found that a lot of Indie developers are treated as second class citizens by the industry as a whole and as an Indie developer ourselves, we wanted to change that. Beamdog is our response to those problems.

There's lots of PC game download services already out there. What makes Beamdog different from these other companies like Steam, Direct2Drive and Impulse?

Our largest difference out of the box is the client. We tried to make a very simple and easy to use application for people to find, buy, download and play games. The Beamdog system downloads the games ready to play, no install, no browsing directories, etc. Our concept is "great Games, Easy" and we really try to follow that credo in our development on the platform. We did a ton of research on technology and approaches, everything from running games in a browser to just a straight download system and in the end, we came back to the player concept. The Beamdog Player allows us to ensure a good quality user experience at all times, all the other approaches left the user experience at the mercy of too many masters.

You just launched the public beta of Beamdog a few weeks ago. What's been the reaction so far?

So far, the reaction has been good. We've been quiet so far, just selling games, fixing bugs and listening to our users. We have a big feedback button on the site for a reason, and we want to know what our customers are thinking. To date our users have been very positive and helpful with the feedback. Now we're ready to start turning it up a notch and bringing more users to the system.
What are your future plans for Beamdog?

Good question. I could answer that directly, but where is the fun in that? What I can say is our plans are big and multi-faceted. I like big challenges and hard fought campaigns, so I'm really looking forward to bringing our platform to its potential. I think there is a lot of opportunity in the digital distribution space and I'm very excited to go after those open spaces where we can become a massive success.

Let's talk about MDK2 HD. First what was your involvement in the making of the original MDK2 for BioWare?

I did about a year of early technical and prototype art on the project and later, a lot of swearing when they pulled half my art team from Neverwinter Nights to help finish it. My business partner, Cam was the lead programmer and producer, essentially the heart of the project, so a lot of our work rests on his shoulders.

How did the idea come about to release MDK2 HD?

We had talked about the concept of graphically updating some of the great games we had worked on and it seemed like a solid idea. We wanted to keep the heart of the title intact, but just fix up the bits that look dated, essentially giving the game an overhaul. MDK2 was kind of a logical target and when Interplay contacted us about a Wii version we quickly signed on for the HD version as well.

We are assuming the "HD" part of the title means that this game will be getting a graphical overhaul for its release. Can you go into detail on what's being revised for this new version?

I can't really go into a lot of detail as we are still going through the various options. All I can really say is that there are a lot of new shader techniques that fit the MDK2 art style quite well.

Will there be any new content or features added to MDK2 HD?

Our main goal is to not mess with the fun. MDK2 was a fun game, and we want to ensure we don't mess with that. MDK2 was also way hard on the Dreamcast version. So hard it is the only game to ever make me break a controller. I actually snapped the Dreamcast controller, popping the VMU across the room when I was playing the Max levels, so some tuning will be in our to-do list. As for new content, Jinkies, I don't have a clear answer for that. We'll play it by ear and see what the game needs when our development nears completion.

Is this a project that you are doing in-house or are you getting some outside help?

In-house. We've been in contact with a number of ex-Bioware folks who worked on the original and a few are lending us a hand on bits, but the heavy lifting is all in-house. We have a team of people who work on the digital distribution portal and another team who are working on the game overhaul, but we're all the same company.

What's the current status of the game and when will it be released?

We're still in talks about the release date, but we don't plan on taking forever. We're motivated and focused, so we've talked about a target of 2011

Are there any plans to go back and revamp any other of Interplay's games for the PC?

Another excellent question. Given the various games I worked on during my time at Bioware and the crop of talented people I know it isn't entirely out of the question. I think a lot of Interplay and Bioware titles would be great for an overhaul.

What other projects do you and IdeaSpark Labs have in mind?

You are just a bucket of good questions, aren't you? We have a number of projects in mind at any time. Our strategy is to first know our goals and second to be agile in achieving those goals. In this business, you have to push hard and make something happen, but just as often, you get blindsided by opportunity. We want to leave maneuvering room to jump on those opportunities.

Finally is there anything else you wish to say about your plans for the future?

I want to make Beamdog into something great. I really enjoyed creating Shattered Steel. I loved Neverwinter Nights, devoting seven years of my life to development on it and the expansions. Now I want to build something with a little less brute force. With Beamdog, the platform is live, generating feedback all the time. With a live platform, the potential to evolve and iterate quickly into new opportunities is unmatched. We have exciting ideas as to where Beamdog is going and some will likely happen. I am just as certain that some will never see the light of day, eclipsed by better ideas. Whatever is better for the users of the service is what we will do.

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