Role-playing fans are used to risking everything on the roll of the dice, but those gambles are usually reserved for the fictional fantasy tales unfolding on kitchen tables and in college dorm rooms. In 1995, doctors Greg Zeschuk, Ray Muzyka and Augustine Yip rolled the dice in real life when they turned their back on lucrative medical careers and decided to devote their time to making computer games instead. They called their company Bioware, and you only have to look at the games bearing that name today to see if their gambit paid off.
This Christmas week sees Bioware release its first online multiplayer RPG, Star Wars: The Old Republic, while next year brings the third (and final?) instalment in their epic sci-fi saga, Mass Effect 3.
So how did the Canadian code factory reach the top of the RPG tree? Surprisingly, the first game from the newly formed studio wasn't a role-playing game at all, but a 3D action title about combat mechs. Shattered Steel was the title, and by taking advantage of the power of new PC video graphics cards it offered destruction and 3D scope that was beyond the capability of older hardware. Titles like Quake and Half Life were yet to redefine PC gaming, so Shattered Steel's technology earned the fledgling developer a lot of attention.
That attention wasn't enough to stop Dr Yip from returning to life in a white coat, but Zeschuk and Muzyka weren't about to let go of their dream. They wanted to make games inspired by the lengthy Dungeons & Dragons sessions that had seen them through medical school. And they already had the game in mind - Battleground: Infinity.
Don't be surprised if you've never heard of it. By the time the game arrived on shelves it had been taken on by Interplay. The publisher held the video game rights to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons brand, and so almost overnight Bioware went from developing games inspired by the role-playing classic to making an official Dungeons & Dragons game.
Baldur's Gate was the result, and it was an immediate smash. The RPG genre was in rude health in 1998, with The Elder Scrolls, Fallout and Diablo all well established, but Bioware's relative inexperience was balanced with a deep understanding of what made role-playing fun.
Dungeons & Dragons remained the company's bread and butter for many years after, with expansion packs for Baldur's Gate leading into the sequel, Shadows of Amn, following in 2000. Neverwinter Nights continued the studio's D&D heritage in 2002, reviving the classic AOL online role-player for a more savvy internet audience.
While these titles were critically acclaimed and embraced by RPG fans worldwide, they were still very much niche games. Few outside of role-playing fandom were aware of the Bioware name. That changed in 2003, when the company launched its first console game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. At a time when Star Wars fans were torn by misgivings over the prequel movies, and punchdrunk from a slew of half-baked spin-off games, it was Bioware's narrative nous that saved the Jedi. Epic in scale, and with the freedom to explore the galaxy far, far away, it fulfilled the dreams of many Star Wars fans and earned Bioware a promotion to the ranks of legendary game developers.
Buoyed by this success, the company turned its attention to something new, the first original Bioware title since Shattered Steel, in fact. Jade Empire was the game, and it took the RPG framework and applied it to a tale of rival martial arts masters in feudal China. Kung fu combat added a surprising wrinkle to the familiar cloth, but critics noted that the story was a virtual retread of Knights of the Old Republic, with open-palm strikes replacing lightsabers.
Only a few years later, and with a new console generation to play with, Bioware silenced any doubters with the 2007 smash hit Mass Effect. A slick, thrilling space saga with the pace of an action game and the depth of an RPG, it heralded a new era for the developer. Super-publisher EA swooped in to buy the company, and so began a period of blockbuster genre-hopping that is still in full swing.
Blood-soaked fantasy epic Dragon Age found the company recasting the swords and monster tropes of the D&D years in its own style. Mass Effect 2 reached new heights of cinematic sizzle, showcasing an elastic storyline that allowed any of the characters to pop their clogs during the climactic suicide mission. And Bioware even found time to dabble in less obvious areas, creating a Mass Effect spin-off game for mobile phones and developing Sonic Chronicles for the DS, the first RPG to star Sega's blue spiky mascot.
Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka are still at the head of the company they found over fifteen years ago, and their passion for role-playing is still tempered by a desire to innovate and stretch the boundaries of what can be done with the genre. With its ties to the developer's first breakout smash hit, and its desire to shake up the world of MMORPG gameplay, Star Wars: The Old Republic is perhaps the quintessential Bioware experience. Enormous in scale, complex in intent yet an absolute joy to play.
Let the dice roll.