Developing an inclusive character creator for Baldur’s Gate 3

We met at the beginning of this year Baldur’s Gate 3 Lead character artist Alena Dubrovina talks about how Larian purposefully developed an inclusive character creator for the world of Dungeons & Dragons.

Baldur’s Gate 3 was released back in August to great success, but previously spent almost three years in early access. This soft launch period was essential in incorporating feedback and ensuring that the options offered to players (hopefully) remain relevant for years to come.

Dubrovina explains that the cornerstones that support the creator are “player choice” and “staying true to the spirit of D&D” and mentioned many of the options included in the release version of Baldur’s Gate 3 popped up during early access.

“We learned that we should always keep an open mind and be prepared for anything,” she explains. “The goal was to give players choices that would excite them and inspire them to try some styles that they would like to try in real life but have never dared to try.”

“We wanted something that felt fresh and would at least remain relevant for years to come. Now when I see custom characters being created online, I’m amazed at how cool they all look, how special they look and really stand out from the NPCs you see in the game, which is what we were hoping for.”

An authentic cast for a fantasy opus

Dubrovina talks about how Larian’s approach has changed over the years and says the diverse residents of Baldur’s Gate 3 were initially more stylized, but found that some of these early models “didn’t look right to us in dramatic film dialogue.”

“We had to further advance both our technology and our models to make them more realistic and understandable. After getting the desired visual look, we set up a specific pipeline that ensured a very consistent artistic and technical implementation of our characters, and only then could we create it. “Start thinking about character creation,” continues Dubrovina .

Luckily for Larian, Dubrovina says the world of D&D is “very inclusive” as it offers a lot of room for creativity. It’s hard to argue. Secure, Baldur’s Gate 3 lets players adventure as conventional fantasy heroes, perhaps a hulking barbarian or a magic-wielding high elf, but you can also buck the trend and conquer the world as a horny Tiefling (get your head out of the gutter) or a cocky, loot-glorifying halfling.

Crucially, the creator allows players to make modifications not always possible in other RPGs, allowing them to customize a character’s genitals (by choosing between preset options), identity (male, female, non-binary/ others) and to modify the voice. According to Dubrovina, including these options was about giving players the opportunity to create characters that, while based on Dungeons & Dragons lore, are “relevant today.”

Image via Larian Studios.

“Gender in our game is not defined by your body, your genitals or your voice. We want everyone to be who they want to be and to build their own unique identity. If you want to play as a bearded, non-binary dwarf with a male voice and green hair, why not? When we think about player choices in character creation, we try to look at the choices from the player’s perspective. And for many players, it’s important to choose the genitals they want, even if they don’t. “That has a big impact on gameplay,” she says.

“After all, it’s just a part of your body like any other, and we wanted to be relaxed about it. Make it normal for it to come in all shapes and forms. As for our choice of genitals, originally we just wanted to do two, but as the process progressed, more options emerged with different hair options and shapes. I think we would add even more if we could, but production deadlines started.”

To ensure that some of these options were as authentic as possible, Larian had to enlist outside help. In particular, the studio turned to consultants and outside animators to help recreate black hairstyles that felt lifelike (something video games have been known to struggle with). Dubrovina explained that the development team had no idea how to model next-generation hairstyles when production began.

“We knew in our production plan that we couldn’t afford to wait for our in-house artists to master the skills. So we looked for external partners and outsourced a number of hairstyles so we could learn from them too. Once we had a solid foundation and our in-house artists were up to speed, we expanded and improved what we had,” she continues.

“The challenge with black hairstyles is that they require a different modeling technique. For straight hairstyles, you simply layer and curl the strands themselves, black hairstyles consist of twists and require more volume. And since you’re working with twists in the texture of the strands, it’s a lot less intuitive and can get messy very quickly. On average, Afro hairstyles require more time and effort, but are certainly some of the prettiest hairstyles in the game.”

A high bar with room for improvement

Larian has received much praise for his work Baldur’s Gate 3, including its approach to character creation, but the studio has also been criticized for preventing players from tweaking certain attributes like height and body type while relying on preset faces. Critics say it’s an approach that can feel limiting and leaves some feeling underrepresented.

When we asked why, for example, Larian didn’t allow players to use a slider to adjust their body type to thin or wide, or tinker with their character’s height, Dubrovina accepted that there was room for improvement in these areas: However, he explained that the The decision to avoid sliders and similar tools was made for “character” reasons.

“We learned from our scanning pipeline that small millimeter changes can completely make or break a face. “We realized that if the character creator relies heavily on the sliders, there is a risk that faces will be a bit blank and characterless,” she explains. “We wanted to avoid that. However, there are definitely ways to get it right and we know this is a potential area for future improvement, both for our faces and our body types.”

A selection of presets in the Baldur's Gate 3 character creator
A selection of presets in the character creator of Baldur’s Gate 3. Image via Larian Studios.

It will be interesting to see if Larian incorporates this feedback into future productions, especially if the studio gets the chance to produce another installment in the Baldur’s Gate series. However, for other developers, now is the time to learn. To help other creatives improve their processes, Dubrovina explained that one of Larian’s most impactful decisions was to expand the palette of swatches “so there’s something for everyone.”

“Many breeds have their breed-specific color choices based on lore, but we decided to add an option to also select from the ‘All Colors’ pool, since of course there are exceptions to all the rules,” she added. More broadly, she adds that it’s absolutely “fundamental” for studios to figure out what tools empower their artists.

“Make it easier for them to add those additional choices,” she says. “It is also important to allow for some additional buffer for character creation in the project planning. Two very boring things, but at the end of the day they are the real heroes in proper character creation.”

Isaiah Colbert

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