Arts·The Artists

How three Edmonton doctors turned their medical software company BioWare into a gaming powerhouse

Their genre-defining game Baldur's Gate cracked the code of how to digitally capture the magic of roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons.

Their game Baldur's Gate managed to digitally capture the magic of roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons

Edmonton is a place far removed from the gaming nexuses such as San Francisco, Vancouver, Seattle and Los Angeles — but it was there that BioWare had its humble beginnings at the University of Alberta's Faculty of Medicine in 1994. During their residency in family medicine, Drs. Greg Zeschuk, Ray Muzyka and Augustine Yip bonded over their love of computer games, comics and classic board games. They began to experiment with medicine-based software, creating the Gastroenterology Patient Simulator, but the creative itch to do something more was too great. On February 1st, 1995, BioWare Corp. was founded in a small room in Greg's basement.

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From medical software to RPG games the re-invigorated a genre, these doctors charted an unlikely path. 1:19

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We were all avid gamers so we knew what we could actually kind of make so we said, 'Screw this, we're gonna make our own medical education tools.'- Greg Zeschuk , B ioWare co-founder

Soon after the release of their first game Shattered Steel, Augustine Yip made the decision to return to medicine and leave the gaming behind. This energized Zeschuk and Muzyka, realizing that for their next project, they wanted to work on something that personally meant a lot to their youth.

We learned there was really no money in it. It was like, 'Well, wait a minute — why can't we now try our hand at games?'- Greg Zeschuk

Dungeons & Dragons is a role-playing board game set in a fantasy world of dragons, orcs and magic. It also happens to be a very common thread that connects a vast number of video game creators' shared experience (Doom, for example, was created during a marathon D&D game played by all of id Software's founders). For Zeschuk and Muzyka, this was unquestionably true and they set out creating a world worthy of their predecessors. Baldur's Gate was born, and the team also worked on a new game engine to run this ambitious title.

It was our greatest geek fantasies come true.- Augustine Yip, BioWare co-founder

BioWare ballooned to over 60 employees (large for the time but miniscule for high-end games today), literally none of whom had completed a game before. Pure passion drove the team. Zeschuk and Muzyka tried to create a workplace that prized creativity and storytelling above all else. And as the company executed a full court press to get the game completed, the two realized that they needed to give up their day jobs in medicine.

The reason we made [Baldur's Gate] was because we were nostalgic. We wanted to pass on that feeling we had — that we're engaged and alive in those worlds — to other people.- Greg Zeschuk

Baldur's Gate was released in December 21st, 1998, and in many ways, it set the template for BioWare's incredible success over the next decade. The pacing and the world building separated it from the majority of RPG games of the time and eventually made it a classic in the genre. This approach would be the same for the massive franchises that BioWare would go on to build — Mass Effect and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic — and prove that triple-A games could be built in Canada.

In 2012, not finding the same fire anymore, both Zeschuk and Muzyka left their posts at BioWare to explore new life experiences. But the impact that they made in the gaming industry is unquestionable.

Watch all ten episodes of The Artists now, a new CBC Arts series about the video game designers who changed the world.

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