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"We're experimenting with something that nobody's done before" - Larian On Original Sin's Enhanced Edition

Better than the original

Divinity Original Sin [official site] is one of the finest and most distinctive RPGs of recent years. That's quite an accomplishment given the level of competition that exists at what is hopefully the dawn of a renaissance for the genre. When Larian told us that an Enhanced Edition of the game was coming later this year we spoke to Larian's founder, Swen Vincke, to learn more about what exactly this massive overhaul entails.

Free to people who own the original release but also releasing as a new game on console, PC and Mac alike, it contains much more than visual polish. Quests have been rewritten, new side stories have been added, splitscreen co-op and controller support are in, and full voice acting has been recorded. We discuss all of that, as well as some of the smaller changes, along with some hints as to what's next for Larian.

RPS: We only know the basics of what you're announcing and that it involves a console version. But I hear that it's more than that and therefore relevant to our interests!

Vincke: Yes. We're doing the console version but it's more than that - it's called Divinity Original Sin: Enhanced Edition and it's probably more enhanced than probably all the other enhanced editions you've ever played. We've gone a little bit overboard with what we've done.

It'll be released as a new game, so Divinity: Original Sin as it was launched will still exist, and then there will be this new version. Everybody who has Original Sin will get the Enhanced Edition for free but there won't be any compatibility between the two versions because, as I said, we went overboard. There's a drastic rewrite of the story, with a lot of new story moments and a much more satisfactory ending, with big new things there. We fully voiced everything, which meant we had to touch up all of the dialogue. We've been recording since the end of December and we're still recording.

And we added a lot of extra stuff in terms of new styles of playing, new modes, new quests that have been added, old ones modified. Anything we could find that was worth doing, we did it. There's also everything that we did with the controller for the console version - that is supported on PC as well, which means you can now play on a couch with splitscreen, through Steam Big Picture for instance.

RPS: The fact that you can do this for free for PC owners presumably has something to do with how successful the game has been in its original form?

Vincke: Yeah, we're nearly at a million players now. There were a lot of publishers that wanted to pay for the console version, which helps. But it's a straightforward decision to give it away for free. We could have charged, given all that we've done, made it a DLC or something, but you know my stance on DLC. I'm not really crazy about that.

It made sense to do it this way. From an economic point of view, it does mean there's a new reason to play Original Sin for new players, but people who have already played will be in for a treat when they go back. There's a lot of extra stuff and a lot of it is different as well.

RPS: So you would say it's worth going back to if I've already played the original for almost a hundred hours. I feel ready to go back but haven't really had a reason.

Vincke: Yes, absolutely. There were things that were off in the original release and I don't like having anything off in one of our releases. We could improve it, and therefore we should, and therefore we did.

There's an image of the game as we pitched it back in 2011 that I think I showed to you, of people playing on a couch with a controller. We started trying out controller support once the game had been released and we've been working on all of this for a year with almost forty people.

The controller implementation was surprisingly smooth and the splitscreen worked also, so we decided we had to do the console version. And we figured if we were doing that, we should improve some of the other things and before you know it, we're recording all of these voices and all of the rest. It's a huge undertaking. The guy who organised the recording deserves a medal.

I was reviewing it the other day and it's a really different experience. I think it's much better than Original Sin.

RPS: When you say that you wanted to go back to fix the things you weren't happy with - when we've spoken before you've mentioned that there were things you had to cut because of time and money. Is this now the game you wanted it to be?

Vincke: We always want more. I don't think we'll go back again. Maybe to fix whatever bugs are still in there or portability issues, but I'm quite content now. I finished right up to the ending and it felt complete. The holes that were there and that were visible have been closed. The middle part, which was one of the weaker parts I felt together with the ending - so basically two-thirds of the game (laughs). We are always very harsh about our own work.

We've done everything we can to make it more fun. The economy has been completely revamped. There's a lot of stuff in there that you might not have noticed was missing but you feel its presence when you play it now. It goes to the very first encounter - that's very different now and that's a signal from the game to you, to tell you that somebody has been thinking about every detail and has consistently worked to improve them.

RPS: I know you can't tell me exactly what else you're working on just now but presumably it's been quite a task balancing this Enhanced Edition and the rest of your workload? Does this reworking feed into the work on the next game in any way?

Vincke: It's a bit of both. We have been postponing the new things because of the Enhanced Edition because as we got ourselves into it, we dedicated ourselves to finishing it off properly. It's always more work than you expect, even when you've done it several times before. It's always more.

But for us, strategically it was important because we now have an engine that as a basic feature runs on Xbox One, PS4, PC, Mac, Linux, SteamOS. It supports multiplayer and local co-op with splitscreen. Has mouse, keyboard and controller support, and has all of these RPG features. It's a very cool thing to build on.

On page two, the CRPG landscape, pen and paper RPGs, nostalgia vs innovation and what comes next.

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.

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