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.