I've just finished watching my 50th "let's play" video of Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition and at the start I felt like a bag of S**t. After watching the mis-clicks and general confusion that abounds when new players meet the Baldur's Gate learning curve (aka the wall of pain) I started to feel very worried. But, in almost every video after a few moments it started to change. The voice of the player changed, the comments about interface disappeared, the rules questions were way less frequent. Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition had worked its magic and they were hooked. You saw a player become enthralled in the world and the characters, getting drawn along by some truly great voice work and an epic musical score. But I have to wonder, could we have engineered a way around the wall of pain?
I've fought this battle ever since we started working on the Enhanced Editions (a name we came up with when our original HD plans were destroyed by lost source art) and it hasn't gotten any easier. On one hand we could have simplified the game and "dumbed down" both the interface and the rules implementation in an effort to make the game more appealing to a "mass audience". On the other hand, is the approach we took, staying with a very deep rules system and the complexity that arises from that base. We made a choice early on that the magic of the Baldur's Gate series was the combination of deep rules implementation and some of the best game writing and design ever done in a western RPG. In some ways I wish we had made the game more accessible so more people could experience the amazing storyline and the breadth of characters in the various plots. When you speak of Baldur's Gate (or BGII) to someone they always have a story of what they did and how a certain key battle or plot point went down in their playthrough. I wish more people could have that experience and carry around their own stories.
My thought on the argument of dumbing down is pretty plain. I think the "Mass Market" is a lie and chasing a vast marketplace is the recipe for bland, simplistic, un-engaging games. I think by picking an audience, getting to know them deeply and building a game for them you can succeed. I think by building a deeper experience which requires some investment from the player leads to deeper engagement, a better gaming experience and the memories which will last a lifetime. On my personal playthroughs of Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition and Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition, I've done some pretty amazing things. I've led a raid on one of the Seven Heavens, wrote the name of my enemy into "Heaven's Hit List", I've unmasked a heretical conspiracy and worked in the service of the greatest lich of the Forgotten Realms. Those experiences required the depth of the rules and the complexity to make them real and the reward was pretty awesome.
We made a choice to show the math and trust in the intelligence of gamers and the reward is the ends of those "let's play" videos where the players voice changes to one of awe and mystery. I can't image that scenario if we had simplifed the game down for the masses.