The Game Archaeologist: The ’90s BioWare MMORPG that almost was

    
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These days, if you mention “BioWare” and “MMORPG” in the same sentence, it’s most certainly going to be about Star Wars: The Old Republic. Sure, Neverwinter Nights spawned some cool (small) persistent online worlds, and there’s always been this hope for the studio to make a Mass Effect or Dragon Age MMO, but SWTOR is pretty much BioWare’s big entry into the field.

Yet as strange as it is to consider, it almost wasn’t the first MMO that the studio did. In today’s column, we’re going to travel back much further than 2010 to a time when the studio was in its infancy — and considering jumping on board the MMORPG train.

In 1995, a trio of medical doctors — Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk, and Augustine Yip — banded together through a shared love of video gaming to found their own studio. BioWare, as it was called, came into existence, and the doctors and their employees started working on their first title, a mech simulator called Shattered Steel. Sales and reception was decent, especially from a first-time effort, and the team started to look ahead for its second project.

Instead of science fiction and giant robots, BioWare’s follow-up effort was to be firmly in the realm of the fantasy RPG. Everyone at BioWare was hooked on pen-and-paper RPGs and computer RPGs, and the thought of making their own virtual fantasy world was intoxicating.

At the time, BioWare had already signed on with Interplay for Shattered Steel, and that relationship continued through the ’90s. Interplay put up a chunk of change for BioWare to work on a new engine and demo for the at-the-time unknown title.

After a whole lot of work, BioWare came back to Interplay with Battleground Infinity — a demo of a possible CRPG that would deal with a mish-mash of gods from different world religions, including Norse, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman. Players would choose a pantheon and venture forth to make sure their side became the biggest and baddest in the world.

Battleground Infinity was built upon the studio’s proprietary and now-famous Infinity Engine (just in case you ever wondered where BioWare got that name). Instead of an engine that had players move through a tile-based world — which was standard in CRPGs in the ’90s — the Infinity Engine allowed for movement, interaction, and combat across a scrollable background render. This allowed for gameplay that could look and feel a lot like the then-popular real-time strategy games.

β€œBattleground Infinity was going to be about Ragnarok, the Norse end of days,” said BioWare’s Trent Oster. β€œIt was to be a game about all the ancient deities at war. The storyline never really got much development as the early focus was on building a technology prototype, which was hacked together out of a Direct Draw sample app. A rough demo was built showing off the big features (16-bit colour and all unique area art). The Battleground Infinity demo was sent around to many of the major publishers of the day and they all were not interested. Our producer at Interplay on Shattered Steel, one Feargus Urquhart heard about the demo and asked to see it.”

Now here’s where alternate history gets really interesting because when BioWare brought Battleground Infinity to Interplay for approval, it was with a much grander vision in mind. The studio was keenly aware of the rise of MMORPGs like Ultima Online, and it figured that this tech demo could be expanded into a massively multiplayer online world. The thought was that thousands of people could pick their pantheons and go on quests at the same time to battle for supremacy.

However, one of the problems with translating Battleground Infinity into an MMO is that it would be negating one of the Infinity Engine’s best features: the ability to pause in real-time combat to issue commands and assess the situation. It also didn’t help that this small studio had nobody with any experience in the MMO field.

Interplay’s Feargus Urquhart wasn’t quite sure about this direction and the capability of BioWare to pull off something of that scale. Instead, Urquhart offered a counter-proposal. Interplay had just acquired the rights to develop Dungeons & Dragons-licensed games, so why not take the Infinity Engine and use it to make a D&D adventure?

It wasn’t the MMORPG that it had been hoping to get, but BioWare got excited over this prospect even so. The resulting game, Baldur’s Gate, ended up putting the studio on the map thanks to its overall excellence and strong sales. It’s safe to say that this one game single-handedly revived the fantasy CRPG. From here, the studio doubled-down on the specialty of making such games, from Icewind Dale to Planescape: Torment to Knights of the Old Republic.

So while it’s certainly intriguing that BioWare could have taken a stab at an MMO in the ’90s, it probably wasn’t the right time or the right project for such a young studio. And it’s not as if BioWare never got its chance to see if it could make such a game, as development began on SWTOR in 2005.

It’s not too out-of-bounds to think that if BioWare had gotten its shot to make an MMO in 1996, it could have tanked the studio and forestalled the CRPG renaissance of the period.

“Even back then, we were too ambitious,” BioWare’s Greg Zeschuk admitted in 2010.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to 2004! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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