Introducing the visionary founder of Beamdog, a prominent figure in the Indie game studio community and one of the six co-founders of the iconic BioWare studio. Trent has played a pivotal role in shaping Edmonton’s game industry.
With an innate passion for creating immersive worlds, Trent’s expertise has paved the way for various groundbreaking games, and he was able to revitalize classic games into a new generation. It was a pleasure delving into Trent Oster’s mind and learning more of his remarkable journey.
Check out the MythForce demo and wishlist on Steam.
Starting with the big question: Why did you leave BioWare?
Well, there were a lot of things that came together at one point. We were looking at the economics of it and video games were costing a lot of money to develop and it just kept going up and up and up. The first video game I worked on, the budget we assigned for it was $175,000 but the budget we shipped the game for was $300,000. The last game I worked on at BioWare was Old Republic Online. By the time marketing and everything was factored in, it was almost half a billion dollars.
I’m motivated by a few things and one of them is impact. I want a game that a lot of people play, that a lot of people have fun with, that a lot of people enjoy and it has a lot of meaning to those people. So it’s got to be a combination of critical success but also commercial success in order to have that broader wider impact.
I had been leading a game at the time internally and they essentially said, “We’re looking at the financials and we don’t really want to invest in this going forward.” And I’m like, okay you don’t want to do this game. What do you want to do? And they’re like, can we make it into a Facebook game? And I’m like if you want Facebook games, I’m not your guy.
So it was really kind of an opportunity to say, hey, I can go and I can start a company. And instead of having to make all of these concessions and always trying to please the corporate office, I can just start making games that I want to make.
What are some challenges faced then?
As a game developer, quite often, what you do is make a deal with a publisher, and in exchange, for a share of royalties, they advance you some money but that’s horribly expensive capital. And quite often, there are the newer publishers that come out, and a lot of them don’t last. A lot of them run out of money, they go bankrupt. And if you’re working with a publisher and suddenly they go bankrupt, your revenue stream to fund your game is gone and you need to figure out how you’re going to pay for it.
So we said, How do we get paid? Well, let’s make our own marketplace and we’ll sell directly to our consumers.
Okay, based on that, how do we start making interesting products? Well, why don’t we take some games we’ve worked at historically and we’ll remake them, improve them? So it just made a ton of sense and we kind of moved into that space of enhancing older games, but always in the context of being able to make our own product down the road. And it worked. I mean we were able to build ourselves a really solid financial basis.
What are some games that impacted you today?
Playing the game Doom for the first time, it kind of blew my mind, what you can accomplish. Actually, before Doom was Ultima Underworld, designed by Warren Spector. I don’t really have heroes but I admire Warren a lot. I’ve met him a couple times over the years and had some great talks with him; he’s just a wonderful person and Ultima Underworld was what kind of changed my mind about what computer games could be.
And then Doom took that and made it way more intense. I didn’t know video games could scare the Jesus out of you but Doom took it to that place. And then probably the next one for me was X-wing. I was playing X-wing and it almost made me fail a semester because I was trying to do the Death Star mission. It’s only four in the morning that I can get this done. So I beat the Death Star quickly and stopped playing the game and converted back over to studying and managed to save my semester.
What are some key foundations to make a game memorable or popular?
I think to make a game memorable, it has to have at least a few moments that really resonate with the player. You have to feel like you’ve escaped. Whatever reality you’re in, you’re in another place and another time and you’re experiencing something different. Certain games go about it in different ways. For RPGs sometimes it’s about characters or relationships, sometimes it’s about storyline and plot, sometimes it’s about just the sensations of being in a place like Doom. There wasn’t a lot of story, there weren’t a lot of characters but there were a whole lot of monster closets that things popped out. It was a visceral thing.
When you look back at a game like that now, you’re like God this is so simple. There’s like nothing to it. But back then it was pretty amazing and I think over time the bar just keeps ratcheting up, so everybody’s expectation is based on not only what the previous games did but with the last games they played too.
Also important is the role of storytelling, as a motivator. It’s something that keeps you engaged and keeps you rolling forward. So when you complete objective A, it’s the reason you want to do Objective B. Once you start to get more complicated and more interwoven with the story, and the story becomes more part of the game, the story is not only a motivator, it’s just a core element of the experience. It draws you into the world that you’re in and it gives you context around the actions you’re undertaking that really help solidify that fantasy.
When I look back at Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, what we did was we essentially created fantasy adventure simulators and the success of a fantasy adventure simulator is that you are in a fantasy environment and you’re having an adventure and it feels like you’re there. And if we’re hitting that, we’re definitely succeeding. And to me, story is kind of the glue that binds that experience together.
What was the moment when you realized “I got this” or “I made it” in your career?
I’ve had a lot of pretty amazing moments in my career. One of them was actually being on stage, at the announcement of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition rules. They were announcing the rules and then we announced Neverwinter Nights at the same time. We came out on stage and we were talking about it and talking about what we were trying to do. And it was like a huge room full of thousands of people and these people are just so into it, so excited. So jazzed about what we’re doing. It was pretty awesome.
Another time, I got to live demo at a couple of events, E3 being one of them, back in the day and I was up on a stage, we had hundreds of people in the audience watching and we were running through a demo when I’m talking and the demo would sometimes crash and sometimes bad things would happen. And I’d be like, Oh, it looks like it’s gone sideways. Well, it doesn’t matter. I’m gonna keep talking about what we were doing. And seeing how much people really enjoyed video games and really enjoyed the things we built and just having that interaction with them direct and immediate on the spot. I think a big part of it, It’s genuine.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the game industry?
I think globally it still has big growth potential. I don’t think we’ve realized how big that potential is yet. Whatever your first video game was just doesn’t really matter, as long as it gets you thinking that hey, I kind of like that, I actually kind of like playing video games. And my thought is that all these people who have come into playing video games, who never previously considered themselves video gamers, they’re now willing to look at other games. And if there’s an experience out there, that’s accessible enough, that’s rich enough, that’s deep enough that they can get into it and enjoy it, it doesn’t require a ton of insider knowledge.
The other thing is, there’s been a real rush of venture capital funding to jump into the space because of COVID. Everybody was at home, they were playing a lot of video games and the revenue numbers and video games just went skyrocketing up. So while every other economy out there every other industry was flatlining or tanking, video games were booming. So there is a ton of money that came in after that. So in three or four years a lot of those studios will have either died out right or have shipped their first product and I’m intrigued to see what happens, to see how it shakes out.
But building the machine that builds the video game, like building a company and a team and that whole infrastructure to actually be able to execute a video game, is much harder than a lot of people believe. So that’s going to cause some of those companies to fail and the ones that succeed they’re going to get it all. They’re gonna get some things wrong, but they’re gonna survive and they’re gonna get to a shippable game. And it’s gonna be interesting to see what the end product coming out of that is.
Does AI affect the game industry, and if so, how?
There’s huge opportunties there [in AI]. We’re seeing a lot of panic around AI, it’s partly hype and it’s partly real. The truth is AI can blow your mind, you can ask it things and it can answer in an intelligent-sounding way but there’s not really thought behind it, what there is behind it is pattern. It’s essentially based off a pattern of data, here’s an output that most likely represents what you were interested in about that data. It doesn’t understand the underlying intent, and I think until you have that underlying intent it’s not going to be this massive panacea that everybody believes it will be.
I use it like an idea generator, like a whiteboard. A blank piece of paper terrifies me, I don’t know where to make the first mark, I don’t know how to start. But once the first mark is made, I know how to start going and how to start rolling. So I use AI as a tool, I’ll type something into it and it’ll give me something back. And I may be like, Oh, I completely disagree with that, but then it’ll give me a direction, and I’ll start working off. It’s just a really good prompter.
I think AI is going to do some amazing things because when I look at video games and AI and generative AI. I think there are a lot of tasks that are repetitive and boring that we can automate, it’s just not clear how yet.
Let’s talk about your newest game: MythForce
Pretty early on, we settled on the comic book-like, cartoon aesthetic. And we were looking to make a fun approachable dungeon crawler with that art style. All the techniques that animators used to use back in the day to kind of speed up their workflow, a lot of those things really contribute to the look of those cartoons. And so we built the same things into our game, so when somebody looks at our game, they’re like, Oh wow! That looks like an 80s cartoon. And then once you start digging into it, there’s layers upon layers upon layers. So it’s complicated and it’s a lot of work to get that look and that feel as tight as we got it.
There was also a strategic element to choosing MythForce. We wanted to train up our entire company on new technology, so we picked Unreal as a platform. So we were going to do an unreal-based, multiplayer action, melee, combat game. And once we’ve built those skills and that capability within the company, that’s going to allow us to reach the next level. In the next game, we’ll pick some new strategic areas that we want to focus on and we’ll add those to our skill set.
MythForce is really exciting because it’s an intellectual property that we came up with. There’s a lot of cross media interest in it. We talked to a few different groups about doing an animated series with it and it’s actually featured in a current TV series. So there’s a lot of a lot of excitement around an IP that was generated in Alberta. And it’s the same story with mass effect. It’s the same story with Dragon Age. Those two are billion-dollar franchises that were made in Alberta by Alberta people who paid taxes in Alberta.
And then we get all this excitement about The Last of Us, which is a video game that was created in San Francisco that then was filmed up in Alberta. So from our perspective, why don’t we think bigger? Rather than just being happy that we’re the place where they filmed a video game that they made somewhere else, why don’t we be the place where they film the video game that we made here? I think there’s a huge opportunity for that.
MythForce might not be the right one, but I think MythForce is an animated series. There’s a lot of room to cover there. There’s a lot of potential, I think there are a lot of fun things we could do.