Before They Were Superstars: BioWare

Before They Were Superstars: BioWare

Canadian developers BioWare are known today for blockbuster series like Mass Effect, Dragon Age and the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic.

We don’t care about those today. Today, for our younger/newer readers that may only know them for those franchises, we’re going back to 1995, where it all began.

Unlike most (I’d be tempted to say all) other video game developers, BioWare was founded not by programming or design graduates, but by three people who had just finished medical school: Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk, and Augustine Yip. So when you hear Muzyka and Zeschuk referred to as “doctors”, it’s not a nickname. They’ve earned it.

BioWare was born in early 1995, and it only took the team a year to release their first game on the PC, Shattered Steel, a mech combat title that took more than a few cues from the more storied Mechwarrior franchise. It wasn’t the greatest PC game of the decade, but it was a solid start, the game even boasting a few neat features like deformable terrain.

Normally, it takes a developer a few games to warm up, to really hit its stride, but in 1998 BioWare already knew what it wanted to do with role-playing and story-telling, and was ready to show it. Baldur’s Gate was released on the PC in November 1998 and blew people away, its rich, involving take on Dungeons & Dragons making it one of the most critically-acclaimed RPGs of all time.

Baldur’s Gate also showed that it wasn’t just combat and story that were important to BioWare’s game design: morality played a big part too, players given choices between the “right” and “wrong” thing to do, something that would be at the heart of the company’s titles over the next decade, and which continues to this day.

Yet while Baldur’s Gate was a hit RPG, and BioWare would go on to almost exclusively develop games in the genre for the next 13 years, not every game was about hit points and epic quests.

After releasing a Baldur’s Gate expansion in 1999, called Tales of the Sword Coast, BioWare would work on something surprisingly different: MDK2, the sequel to an action game that had been developed by Shiny, the guys behind games like Earthworm Jim.

Not that this departure mattered; the game was well-received, and gave BioWare the experience with shooting and action that it would draw upon years later when work began on the Mass Effect series.

MDK2 was released in 2000, alongside a Baldur’s Gate sequel, Shadows of Amn. Rather than spin Baldur’s Gate out into a decade of expansions and sequels, just two years later BioWare released a new fantasy role-playing game, called Neverwinter Nights, which while again being based on Dungeons & Dragons (as well as one of the world’s first MMOs) was an all-new story and an all-new game.

That was 2002. A year later, if anyone had any remaining doubts that this was a company that loved itself some role-playing games, they were put to bed when two Neverwinter Nights expansions hit stores along with another game, the company’s first console-orientated title since MDK2: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which was released on both PC and the original Xbox.

Often credited with helping revolutionise Western role-playing games, KOTOR’s mix of fast-paced combat, morality options and exhaustive dialogue laid down a template the company is still following today with its Mass Effect and Dragon Age games. It also catapulted the developer from being a respected and accomplished PC studio into one that would become known to owners of nearly every platform, not just home computers.

Meaning that’s it it for the company’s “early” years. What came after KOTOR would be more big-name hits (Mass Effect, Dragon Age), and even when the company wasn’t releasing hits, it was releasing games that were good enough they probably should have been (Jade Empire and the sadly neglected Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood).

Shattered Steel, 1996, PC/Mac.

Baldur’s Gate, 1998, PC/Mac.

MDK2, 2000, Dreamcast/PC.

Baldur’s Gate II, 2000, PC/Mac.

Neverwinter Nights II: Shadows of Undrentide, 2003, PC/Mac.


  • So people don’t know Bioware for KOTOR, NWN and BG? Funnily enough I thought that’s what pushed Bioware into the limelight and made them renowned. Sure ME and DA are big names as well but I never thought for a second that people weren’t already familiar with their previous big titles.

    Then again, Luke probably needed to fill his quota of tripe.

    • yup the usual crap.

      The console crowd that has only been gaming for 5 years might only know them from Kotor onwards.

      But they were much better in the old days. They peaked with ME1/DAO.

      the other interesting thing is that until ME?DAO they had only ever made a sequel to 1 game(that being Baldur’s gate) Otherwise they handed the franchises off.

      And maybe that’s the bioware we need to go back to. The Guys who trailblaze making their own games and not looking back. I could understand if a secondary developer came and slapped me in the face with the RPG lite ME2. But i expect more from Bioware and lately they haven’t been filling me with confidence

  • i miss Baldur’s Gate, the sleeples nights, the awesome stories, miniature giant space hamsters and the novelty of having all 5 discs lined out in front of the keyboard for quick swaps… aahh the memories, also is my memory deceiving me or weren’t they used to be called black isle back then?

    • If you dont have it anymore its on for… $6 or $10, can’t remember which.

      There’s also heaps of mods for the infinity engine games, most notably interface & resolution mods, nothing nicer than playing something like Baldurs Gate or even better Planescape Torment in 1920×1080

    • I recently started playing Icewind Dale with 5 other mates and we have just 2 chapters left before we move onto Icewind Dale 2 and return to Baldur’s Gate. They’re fantastic solo, but when around a table with coffee brewing they’re something else.

    • Discs out for quick swaps? I found that the reason for most disc swaps was simply to load the map files, and if you had the HDD space you could just copy all the map files to the cache in the install directory and you virtually never had to swap again, it was bliss!

    • Black Isle published BG I believe.

      They also published a rather underrated gem in the same vein as BG and co called Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader.

    • Black Isle was Interplay’s RPG development/publishing arm. They were just the publisher of BG1/2, not the developers. Black Isle internally developed Fallout 1/2, Icewind Dale 1/2, Planescape: Torment and were working on Fallout 3 and Baldur’s Gate 3 before they got canned due to Interplay’s insolvency. At that point a good portion of the former Black Isle staff ended up founding Obsidian Entertainment (KOTOR 2, NWN2, etc.). Prior to that, at the start of Fallout 2 development, 3 of the Black Isle big names left and formed Troika (Arcanum, TOEE, Vampire Bloodlines).

  • First experience of Bioware was KoTOR and then Jade Empire, both excellent games (Jade could’ve used some more polish and content, but it was a great story).

    Looking forward to seeing where they go in the future, unless it’s more overuse of the word “visceral”, or any design philosophy that involves “button” and “awesome”.

  • I can still distinctly remember playing Baldur’s Gate the first time, one of the best games ever. I was utterly addicted to it for months.

    Unfortunately Bioware have been pretty much on the downhill run ever since the EA buyout… I never even finished DA2 because of the amount of game-breaking bugs- they’re fixed now but sadly I have no real interest to return). I’m confident ME3 will be great (the ME2 team was solid), but beyond that…

    • the most heart breaking thing to me, is that while the story in ME2 was fantastic, the radical dumbing down of the RPG mechanics to make it more “accessible” to the mainstream consumer almost ruined it for me

  • “Neverwinter Nights II: Shadows of Undrentide,”
    its neverwinter nights 1 actually. number 2 was done by obsidian and was mega shit.

  • BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights was not one of the world’s first MMOs; that’s a different game by the same name, released in 1991 by SSI for the AOL service. If you know your gaming history, you’ll recognise SSI; Neverwinter Nights, the MMO, was a Gold Box game.

  • Played BG1 and 2 but never finished! (due to various issues that happened in my life and interrupted my play making it difficult to get back into em). But I did enjoy what I played of em. KOTOR and Jade Empire were great games too! Jade Empire was my only xbox game and I traded in my xbox with Jade Empire once the PC version came out.
    NWN was a great game too! That I did finish and I was involved with player made mods and servers. Had heaps of fun there! (and Undrentide was my fav expansion).
    And yes, NWN2 was Obsidian and quite disappointing.

    I’ve played ME1 but found the whole FPS-style combat too much for me (plus that $%#$@$ vehicle) as I’m not a fan of FPS type games in general (yes I know its not quite FPS, its third person, but that’s close enough to me).

    Have enjoyed DAO and DA2. Looking forward to DA3 😉

    • Wait, what? How is FPS close enough to TPS? Unless what you meant to say is you dont like shooters.

      KOTOR1 & 2 are easily in my top games. NWN made me sad as a D&D title that didn’t have proper turn based combat. 🙁

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