RPS: When we first spoke about Original Sin, which was a long while before it came out, the computer RPG scene seemed very different. Do you think that has had an impact on Original Sin’s position or appeal at all?
Vincke: I understand what you’re asking but I have to be honest, I haven’t played many of my competitors yet. We set out a path that we were going to take and we were on that path a year ago – I’m talking about production on our other games. I don’t know if you agree, but I think that Original Sin did new things, not just old things, and we’re heavily into new things with what we’re doing now. We want to keep some of the old but always to build on it.
We’re experimenting with something that nobody’s done before. Our Enhanced Edition itself is something that nobody has done before because nobody has done splitscreen co-op locally on one screen, on console, for this kind of RPG before. It’s something I always wanted to play myself, ever since I first played Spy Vs Spy of all games.
It’s just another thing that fits in with what we do as a studio. We’re continuing in the same vein.
RPS: It makes sense that you’re giving people more ways to enjoy the multiplayer because that’s one of the things that Original Sin does that nobody else seems to be doing. It makes the game feel half-way between a single-player single character RPG and a broader party-based RPG. It’s in an interesting middle ground.
Vincke: The multiplayer is right at the core of the game’s being and it has a huge impact on the singleplayer experience as well. It’s the essence of pen and paper RPGs, right? You don’t play them on your own.
RPS: I hear a lot more talk about the influence and potential lessons from pen and paper RPGs right now than I was hearing even a couple of years ago.
Vincke: Multiplayer forces you to play in a certain manner that is very similar to what you get in a pen and paper RPG. It’s almost like a trick, including the multiplayer, that forces us to put the freedom in there.
I just walked out of a meeting about that other game, right? Somebody was saying, well if you do this one thing in the design, it’s not fair to the other player. I answered them by saying “look, you have to focus on the 95% of cases where the system works, not the 5% where it doesn’t. Otherwise you lose an interesting way of thinking because of a few fringe cases.”
That can mean you completely change the way you organise your quests and worldbuilding. We’ve learned a lot while making Original Sin so we’re much more advanced in our way of thinking about these things. If you maintain the freedom of design throughout, you feel it in singleplayer and multiplayer. We end up doing things that wouldn’t necessarily make sense in a traditional singleplayer game because the multiplayer requires them, and it improves the singleplayer as well.
I’ll give you one example in Original Sin. That rule that you should be able to kill everybody and still be able to finish the game is still very much a thing. I have to fight with designers all the time to keep it but it’s at the very core of how you make a multiplayer RPG the way we’re doing it. But that very rule means that freedom is present. You might not use that freedom, and 99% of players never will, but you know that you can. The fact that you know that makes you feel that your actions matter much more.
RPS: It strikes me that one of the ways Larian design works is that you have these central ideas and rules, and you build from there. Does the Enhanced Edition expand on that? Or was the implementation of your core philosophy already in place throughout?
Vincke: We haven’t added much in that sense, no. Character development is broader, so you can make more types of character, but expanding on those big ideas is very much the focus of the next game. You see, now you’re starting to touch on the systemics that are driving this entire world.
What I’ve seen of Pillars of Eternity – and I’ve only played it very briefly so far – it seems to be very story-focused. On the other hand you have something like Oblivion or Skyrim, which is very systemics-focused. The place that we’re trying to occupy is somewhere in between, with story and systemics working together to create freedom without bottlenecks.
That’s a classic way that stories are told – bottlenecks. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but Original Sin doesn’t feature a single moment where the camera is taken away from you and it’s very hard to tell a story that way, but we do it. And because you can never be sure that an NPC is alive, the only time they can tell you something crucial to the storyline is the moment you meet them. And even then you might have killed them from a distance while you were invisible.
We have to take all of that into account and we’re learning a lot, and evolving in that direction. Some of the things we’re doing now are very innovative and they aid that narrative construction, making you more involved in the narrative while still having all of those systemics. That’s what a dungeon master does!
RPS: Speaking to Josh Sawyer about Pillars of Eternity, he said that part of the design of that game was to simulate the existence of a good dungeon master. It’s a completely different approach but toward the same end. Do you think of Original Sin as a first step toward a new idea or is it just another step along the route you were already taking with the earlier games?
Vincke: There was no game like Original Sin, thanks to the multiplayer angle if nothing else. The combat was also mixing and borrowing from other games, which worked very well and attracted peoples’ attention, and then they spotted the other things. I don’t think we would have sold an RPG as well as we did if we’d try to point at all the interactive items and the freedom to kill everyone – that’s not what people recognise as a USP. But the combat system being fun and attracting people helped and then people realise that they can fool around with the world and enjoy all of that other stuff.
We were also one of the first of the new wave of turn-based RPGs. Well, I think we were the first it’s just that we took longer than the other guys to finish our game off (laughs). Together with the wave of nostalgia – although we dressed our nostalgia in a new jacket – also helped.
RPS: Does the nostalgia talk ever irritate you a little? You said you were doing new things in Original Sin and I absolutely agree but I think there is a tendency to talk about a lot of RPGs and Kickstarter games as being driven by nostalgia.
Vincke: One rule that we have in games – which is very different to other media – is that people want something different from game to game. At least that’s the case for me and probably for most people. Whereas in movies, if people see the same formula a hundred times they keep watching.
I think if you were just to do rehashes of old formulas it wouldn’t be successful for a very long time. People want something new and different.
RPS: Do you think there’s an extent to which some of the games that inspired Original Sin – and I’ll always talk about Ultima VII, you know that – never really received follow-ups or had their intricacies carried forward. They became dead-ends to an extent so people want to revisit them, which feels like looking back – but it’s actually a form of looking forward.
Vincke: Yeah. We think alike there. Back in the nineties, certain parts of the tree that are game development weren’t explored anymore and were killed off for no good reason. There’s something very strong about some of those leaves. I’m pretty sure that if somebody made a real modern Ultima VII with all of the schedules and day/night cycles and stuff, that would work well. That’s a no-brainer to me. To that extent, I never understood what they’ve done to the Ultimas. I mean…well, don’t get me started (laughs).
RPS: Do you ever think that what you’re doing is too complicated. Are there corners you could cut with some of these core rules and systemic complexities without actually making the game less enjoyable?
Vincke: Sometimes I get frustrated when I see games where you have no interaction and people are amazed by them. All the corners have been cut! You can’t innovate in that way.
If you want to go further, in the quest to make a pen and paper RPG, then you have to ensure that you don’t cut those corners. Because cutting corners means that you’re cutting away freedom. It does make development much more complicated but the more we do it, the better we are able to do it, and that means we’re closer to taking the next step in terms of innovating around player freedom. That’s very much what we’re trying to do. It does give you a rewarding sense as a player because there will be a moment where you try something weird and it works. That’s cool. That’s the greatest reward, realising that what you do matters.
RPS: That’s something that naturally fits with RPGs as a genre. How difficult is it to blend that systemic freedom with a strong narrative though? When I talk to people about Original Sin, we spend more time discussing the mechanics than the characters and events. That’s pretty much the opposite of a Dragon Age conversation.
Vincke: I think that is something we can definitely improve. In Enhanced Edition you’ll find that it’s already better – that was one of the focal points of the work we did there. To strengthen story, put more lore in the background, improve motivation for some characters, including player characters. These are things we could maybe have applied originally but didn’t manage to. Now we have.
There’s still a long road that we can take there and that’s where we’ll be concentrating for the next game. We had two writers for Original Sin and we have seven now. There’s probably an eighth writer coming in which shows where our focus has shifted. A lot of the hires have been made to strengthen our storytelling and worldbuilding.
RPS: The next thing isn’t going to be an MMO, is it?
Vincke: (laughs) No, no, no. Free to play! No. It’s going to be fairly boring, the type of game we’re going to be making. It’s two RPGs and the Enhanced Edition on top of that is a lot on our plate.
RPS: Do you have any interest in working with a license? I’m digging now.
Vincke: Maybe you’ve seen me sitting with people in certain places (laughs). We have talked about licenses but the two things we’re working on now are our own stuff. There are a couple of licenses – one you’ve already mentioned – that I’d work on with my eyes shut. But nothing concrete.
RPS: We’ll talk more about this at Gamescom. When is release for the Enhanced Edition?
Vincke: Definitely this year. We have to go through all of the details for the console releases but it shouldn’t be too long.
RPS: Thanks for your time.