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Larian On Near-Closure, Divinity's Future, Gender Parity

The Divinitive Interview

Divinity: Original Sin is looking positively divine. Honestly, in the sheer heat of the moment, I might be more excited about it than Pillars of Eternity or Wasteland 2. I already spoke at length with Larian head Swen Vincke during a massive video play session, but that wasn't enough. Afterward, we chatted about everything from the studio's rocky, too-close-to-closure-for-comfort history to the possibility of using Divinity's engine on a non-fantasy RPG to the chances that Larian goes back to Kickstarter. On top of all that, Vincke told me why having gender parity (one male, one female) on his writing team turned out to be the "best decision ever."

Vincke's admirably frank answers to roughly a million questions are below. 

RPS: So you have this gigantic game, and then you’re also releasing an editor to players. Do you think that you’re going to release any more content of your own for the game after you’ve put out the whole thing? Keep building on it?

Vincke: Yeah, for sure. I said so during the Kickstarter. This is not a one-product plan. Our entire strategy is built on this one. We want to get the editor out there, because we realize that if the multiplayer is to be successful, this type of multiplayer, a lot of content is going to be needed, and we can’t make it all ourselves. Obviously we’ll be making new campaigns ourselves. We’ll be adding new skills and new features to the game. We’ll be building the groundwork for an RPG engine. You’re seeing all this stuff now, but it’s capable of a lot more already that we’re not using. It’s a very powerful thing that’s under the hood of this game.

RPS: Is it going to continue being Divinity: Original Sin, or eventually will you say, "let’s design an entire new RPG around this"?

Vincke: That I can’t say. That would be equal to announcing something. For sure, there’s going to be extra stuff in Divinity. It would be very tempting, because anybody can change all the artwork to do other things with it. I can think of a lot of scenarios that you could immediately translate. The Kickstarter said that people could make Planescape Torment with this engine, easily. But with the added twist, they could make a multiplayer version of it, with cooperative multi. That would be really cool, right? You could be Morty… But no, seriously. You could have much more fun that way.

RPS: The content that you guys are going to make, will that be free?

Vincke: If we’re going to make a campaign, no, because we have to pay our team. If it’s going to be a little things, little updates, those are probably going to be free. We had Ego Draconis, talking about Divinity II. We weren’t very happy with that, so we gave Dragon Knight Saga to these people, also, if they had the previous game. We upgraded them for free. We’ll help our existing customers. We’ll let them upgrade. But if it’s a full campaign, we’re going to ask for a little money for it.

RPS: What's the plan for Larian going forward? To keep operating with a 40-or-so-person team and make more games like this? Is that the sweet spot for Larian?

Vincke: Honestly, right now, we want to finish this one. Then we’ll take a holiday. And then we’ll see. It’s been a busy year, because we had Dragon Commander come out also. We had to make a new engine. We started on this in 2010, so we’ve been at it already for three years. Well, early 2011 is better. It was the end of 2010 when we decided to go independent. We’re now at the end of the first part of that road. Now we’ll see what happens.

If the game doesn’t sell at all… I have high hopes that it will sell at least a few units. But maybe we’ll have to do something different. If it’s going to work out the way we hope it’s going to work out, you can be sure that we’ll be building on top of this, and hopefully coming up with a whole bunch of new RPG adventures. Personally, this game will be a success for me if I can come home and sit together with my wife and we can start playing an adventure somebody’s made in multiplayer together. So I don’t know at all what’s going to happen. That would be really cool.

RPS: Conventional wisdom used to say that no one wanted these sorts of games anymore. And you’ve gone from making Ego Draconis, which was much more an RPG fused with an action game to Original Sin. But this is like, by many standards, a niche within a niche. You’re making a very specific type of game. Are you at all worried about a worst case scenario? A small crowd buys it and loves it, and everyone else says, "eh, not my thing"?

Vincke: Yeah. But you know, they’ve always said that about every single game I’ve made. From Divinity 1 onward. They went on to sell really a lot of units. We’ve calculated Divinity II sales at, what, 1.3 million units? That’s not a small crowd anymore. Divinity 1 must be over a million units now if you take the entire life cycle into account. That’s a lot of people already. I refuse to believe that our players currently are the only ones who want to have an evolution of the RPG genre as it existed and that was cut off. It was cut off because it turned out that the action-RPGs sold easier and were easier to make.

I personally think that, in the early 2000s, RPGs were cut off, because there were a number of production values that went up, and it was impossible to… Well, it was possible, but it was decided not to do it by the powers that be. So the genre stopped evolving. This was the case for a lot of genres. Now we have the resurgence of the indies. We have Steam Early Access and Kickstarter. Suddenly we have games that nobody would have ever invested in. Like Wasteland 2, for instance. Do you really think a publisher would have put a dollar into that? No. Look at it, how it’s soaring up the charts. That’s conventional wisdom for you.

The guys that have the conventional wisdom, I’m sorry, but I never agreed with them back then and I still don’t agree with them nowadays. It’s easy to go along the beaten path, but then you’re not going to have any evolution in games. You’ll have rehashes of the same thing over and over. There’s a lot of gamers out there, more gamers than ever, and they’re looking for a little bit more intelligent content. That’s where we want to be with this one.

Plus, the fact that I really think that people, when it’s going to release, are going to… The Trojan Horse in this particular case is co-op. Like that guy I was telling you about. His blog entry was exactly what we were hoping for when we envisioned the game originally. He starts playing and says to his wife, why don’t you try it? Then they don’t go to sleep. They keep on playing until the sun comes up. They have their own adventure, a kind of adventure that they probably wouldn’t have if they’d been playing single-player and loading and saving and loading and saving. That’s quite a feat, actually, that people don’t just load the game and continue. They debate with one another. Are we going to a load? That’s pretty cool.

RPS: Do you think that just in terms of your own creative direction, you’re going to stick with fantasy, or do you think you would ever go beyond that?

Vincke: We had quite a lot of concepts. The problem is, once you’ve made a game that’s sold a little bit, you’re stuck in the franchise, right? After Divinity 1, actually, we had an entire concept for a different style of game. And then, no no no, we want to do Divinity II. That’s how we ended up doing it. Because publishers were saying, okay, that’s something that interests us. We’re not interested in the original stuff.

But I’m sure that we’ll do something different. Larian has had some setbacks in the past. We’re not yet on the path where we can be completely free and do what we want. We have to make sure that we still make money and at least break even on the games that we do. With Original Sin, I have good hopes, because Early Access has been successful. Kickstarter has been successful. There are still a lot of people out there who don’t want to touch Early Access because they’re afraid they’re going to spoil the main story, which is a good way to play an RPG, actually. I think there’s still people who are underserved. If you look at the success of other large RPGs that have been… There’s still room for growth for us.

RPS: When you say "setbacks," what exactly do you mean?

Vincke: Every time, it was basically the same thing. We were late. We can’t create a game from design like that. We need to iterate. There’s nothing to be done about it. We’re probably not competent enough, I guess. So we need to iterate. Iteration takes time. And so we had some bad luck, that we were with publishers who ran out of cash. We first had CDV, which was in deep shit. Then we had DTP. They’re also bankrupt. These were the two publishers that we had for the two major games, Divinity and Divinity II.

In both cases, what happened is that the game… Divinity, it’s now called a classic. It was in PC Gamer’s top 100 games. But at the time, when it was released – and it was CDV’s fault – it was a shit game. Because we were taking our time to finish it, and I actually discovered that it had went gold on a press trip here in the U.S. I didn’t even know it had been gold mastered. It wasn’t ready at all. What happened, as a result, it was a buggy release, it had lower reviews than it should, and so I remember sitting there behind my desk, getting saved games and fixing them manually. That was the only thing I could do. I knew there were save problems, and we only had a few programmers at the time. I was lead programmer on Divinity. It was that garage team mentality. So I was fixing saved games.

I was so frustrated that I wanted to quit doing computer games back then, because of that. And then we did Beyond Divinity, which was not our proudest moment, but it saved the company, together with the broadcasting games we made for the BBC, which were really successful. And then we started making Divinity II. There, again, we took our time. It was also our first console project. We had never done anything on Xbox 360. We were a little bit too fragmented, because we were also doing these broadcasting games at the same time. We were doing educational games to bring in money so we could fund ourselves, with a publisher that didn’t have sufficient funding.

So basically, the same thing happened as at CDV. They needed it to come out to survive, because they were in trouble. We could have postponed it. So again, Ego Draconis was… If you look at the Metacritic on Dragon Knight Saga and look at the Metacritic on Ego Draconis, it’s like a 10 percent difference. But it’s the same game. The only thing that changed there is bug fixing.

That’s why you’re not seeing us release Original Sin yet, and why we keep on postponing it. As long we’re finding bugs – and we still have a long list of bugs to squash – we’re not going to release it. If it’s not ready by spring, we’ll just postpone it. We’re not going to release it early. Not this one. So much love and effort has gone into it, and so much hope on our side, that it would be suicidal to release it.

RPS: In facing those sorts of setbacks, how did that affect your creative makeup? Did you have to let people go? Did you keep most of the same consistent core team?

Vincke: No, we had to change a few times. From Divinity to Beyond Divinity was my hardest year. We went from 30 to three. That was really hard. We didn’t earn a single royalty on Divinity back then. We had good sales, but, nothing. We did Beyond Divinity and grew back to 34, with whom we made Ego Draconis. Ego Draconis, then there was the problem again with DTP. Several guys left the company. We built it up again with Dragon Knight Saga. Dragon Knight Saga was really successful, and I have to say, the publisher there was a good experience. They really helped us, and Dragon Knight Saga sold a lot.

That helped us become independent. Since then, we’ve built up a core team which is quite solid and consistent, except that several guys have been poached by Ubisoft and other guys that have much more money. We see that sometimes. We’ve seen some good guys to work with bigger companies. Then we have this high tech situation in Belgium, so that’s a problem we have to face.

RPS: When you have those moments, where your team plummets in size like that, especially when it’s just three of you, what stops you from just quitting?

Vincke: The thing is, you have a phrase here in the states. You call it failing forward. As long as you see what’s wrong and you think you can fix it, you should continue chasing your dream. I’m a strong believer in the motto, never give up. Often, if you look at success stories, there’s always a lot of hard work and perseverance and luck. You have bad luck, tough luck, well, next time you’ll have better luck. That’s been my motto and attitude toward making games where I am, in Belgium, which is not necessarily the easiest region to make a game. We were one of the first companies to make commercial games here. We were not a country where you had venture capital or publishers, where you could go to a bank to get money. We had to earn it by doing work for hire and build our studios that way. The advantage, however, is that we’ve been in business since 1997. We’ve become very resilient, and rather efficient also. We have a small team and we can do a lot of things with it. We look for creative solutions.

RPS: Speaking of that, do you see yourself going back to Kickstarter in the future?

Vincke: I think so, because what we’ve gotten from the community there. There’s a lot of advantages that we had. We had a lot of word of mouth, which was worth it on its own. Sites like Rock Paper Shotgun, even, you guys talked more about us since we were on Kickstarter. Before that, we didn’t have that attention, even with publishers. So there’s that. Then the community feedback that we’ve been getting, especially the behind the scenes community feedback, which you don’t necessarily see in the big campaigns like Early Access or on Facebook.

We get really long, detailed emails with really good ideas and suggestions on how to solve things. Or people who say, I really like this game, and here’s what happened to me and what went wrong. You get this dialogue going on, and it’s worth its weight in gold. It’s worth 10,000 QA departments, basically. You have 20,000 Kickstarters. That’s also why we gave the alpha version to all of them. I think that out of the 20,000, 13,000 actually activated their alpha version to try it out, and they gave us feedback, because we’re collecting crash reports and stuff like that. It’s enormously helpful on that front.

The financial side, actually, surprisingly, is the least interesting part of it. Obviously it helps, but it’s not sufficient to drive forward a team of 40 people for so many months. If you do a quick calculation – this is very underestimated – let’s say 5,000 euros for 40 people, that’s 200,000 euros, which gives you five months of work for a million euros. Or even less, more like four months of work. You obviously can’t do that. But the advantages in QA, the advantages from word of mouth, are worth their weight in gold.

RPS: You've delayed the game a couple times, and you've chalked this most recent one up to implementing player feedback. How so? And are the changes really that substantial? For some Early Access/Kickstarter devs, the whole "user feedback" line kind of just feels like lip service.

Vincke: So let me prove it to you. There’s a couple of forums that I follow very closely, on which they discuss our games extensively. A lot of very good ideas are coming from there, so we’re implementing them. We’re getting a lot of feedback as well.

[Pulls up a gameplay segment in Divinity: Original Sin]

So, all of this, all of these rules that you’re seeing, that are determining, for instance, strength and what it does, and this entire system with the action points, where you can stack them and put points into this stuff to get turn action points… It’s really cool gameplay. All of that was not there when we went on Early Access. That’s all the result of following threads on the Larian forums, or on forums like RPG Codex and RPG Watch, where we’re watching what people are writing, what their problems are, and saying, okay, we can fix it that way.

Initially, the biggest problem they had was, I can’t make this type of character. So we looked at how we could give them a system that could make that type of character. It was just stuff that we didn’t think of. Often we don’t do it just the way they write it, but it’s the inspiration for coming up with stuff like this. So now, currently, the player is like, oh, I can make my warrior, I can make my rogue, I can make my ranger, but what if I want to make this mix of character? I can’t. That’s a thing that we have to still solve. That’s one of the examples.

The other one is like… You can’t do it in this build, but you’ll see it in the next build that goes on Early Access. Right now, you see previews of what my cone of action is going to be, but if I’m going to do, for instance, this flare here… Let’s do it this way. It’s going to have this, because it has a non-linear path. You can’t really judge where it’s going to be colliding. Next version, you’re going to literally preview the path, which is something they’ve been asking for. I didn’t want to do any quest markers, because I didn’t want to do that kind of hand-holding. They’ve been very vocal about that, though, so now we have map markers in there, which will show you a little. We have more map markers than we originally intended.

Social affinities, which I have been showing you, it’s really deep into the game, but it was definitely not so deep into the game before I would start seeing a common criticism. They were saying, yeah, well, the abilities like lying, the social ones, you can throw them away. They’re dumb stuff. I said, hell no, that’s not going to happen. We had this really big push internally to improve that. Because players were right. They were like half dump stats. We wanted to have more social stuff, so we started putting a lot of extra in it.

This list here, the abilities list, the amount of abilities that were there at the beginning of Early Access was much larger. We dumped a whole bunch of them because they were dump stats. This list, the perks list, we always said it was temporary. But it was temporary because we were still figuring out which ones to put in there. Now we have a huge list of really good ideas, and we’ve gotten them from our community. The traits, the way they were implemented, they didn’t really like it that much, and they were right. We’ve rewritten that system. There’s a lot of community feedback in there. Combat balancing – it’s too hard, it’s too easy – we’re tweaking things like that.

And then, of course, stability. We’re seeing situations like… What is it? We have this thing where… We have several characters, and they point out inconsistencies. And then we have to say, is this right? What should we do? There’s a list I can show you, if you want. It’s being updated. We have a community guy. He just goes through all the forums and sends us, every morning, a list in Excel. This is all the stuff they said on the forums. These are issues. This is a recurring issue. So we select stuff – we’ll do this, we’ll do that. That’s taking the community feedback into account.

RPS: Yeah, no kidding. You mentioned that you have a male-female writing team. That is, sadly, still quite rare in this industry. How has that affected Divinity? Was it a game-changer?

Vincke: Oh yeah. Sarah joined the team as a result of the Kickstarter, actually. She was one of the hires as a result of the Kickstarter. Best decision ever. It’s balanced completely the dialogue writing, which was indeed too male-focused. Now we have this balance going on. You notice in the dialogue, we have a much bigger variety of characters. You get better interaction between them going on, which is more realistic. I’m very happy we did that. If I were to expand my writing team, I’d try to keep that gender balance in there.

It’s very valuable. It’s how the world is, right? 51 percent women, 49 percent men. Original Sin's starting area on its own, I think it’s 700 NPCs or so. That’s the first part of the game. So it’s 600 or 700 NPCs. There are also creatures and monsters involved in the dungeons and stuff like that. I might have misquoted the figure there. But it’s between 500 and 700. Let’s put it that way. All these characters have to have a personality, have traits, talk in a certain fashion, stuff like that. Ultimately it’s just a few lines for your generic NPCs, but still, it’s important.

That’s another one. People were complaining about the quality of the writing initially, but they didn’t realize that there was a lot of placeholder in there. It was dialogue written by designers, who aren’t so proficient in English as our writers are. Now, you see it in the appreciations. People say, it’s getting better and better. Something’s happening here. That’s that round of polish they’re doing on top of it. The discussions that they have, our two main writers, you really see that projected onto the game. I’m quite happy. Again, it’s important, because you can play as two men, as two women, or as a man and a woman.

RPS: Shame it had to come as the result of a Kickstarter, but I'm glad it's working out so well for you! You have the characters holding hands on the main image. Is there romance at the core of the plot, or is that just more of a symbolic kind of thing?

Vincke: You have the affection dials. If you have a high like score, you have the option of taking it further. It happens a few times in the game. If you don’t want to, then you’ll be very good friends. If you want to, then you’ll take it one step further. But the holding hands has nothing to do with romance. You’ll have to figure that out for yourself when you’re playing the game.

RPS: And so are there male-male and female-female romance options, in addition to traditional heterosexual options?

Vincke: Yeah. We’ve always been very gender-neutral in the Divinity games, I think. Divinity 1 had male prostitutes. I think that was one of the first games to ever do that. Our publisher didn’t even know, because we hid it in the city. There was this brothel, and it was really hidden. We got some shit for that afterwards. But you could already do that back then. We don’t see ourselves as the ones making that choice for players. If players make that choice, we offer the system of rules and an environment and a world that tries to be consistent within itself. For the rest, what you do in that world is up to you.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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