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Baldurs Gate III - the future and past of CRPGs

Baldurs Gate III – the future and past of CRPGs

GameCentral speaks to the creators of Divinity: Original Sin about the future of Western RPGs and headlining Google Stadias games line-up.

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Sony werent the only company that was notable by their absence at E3 2019. Google werent there either, despite their new Stadia streaming service going live later this year and details still being extremely thin on the ground. They did have a small hands-on demonstration at an event a few blocks away but nothing on Baldurs Gate III, the annoucement of which led their pre-E3 livestream.

A new sequel to the most famous computer role-player of all time might seem an odd choice of game to showcase what is aiming to be the Netflix of gaming, but the news was certainly welcomed by fans – especially when it became clear that Larian Studios are making it.

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Larian is the team behind Divinity: Original Sin I and II, the latter of which we awarded a rare 10/10 score. That means theyre already responsible for the best Western role-playing game of recent years and now theyre making a sequel to the best old school one as well.

The only problem is they havent revealed anything substantial about the game at all yet, just the short (and unexpectedly grotesque) teaser below. We met them at E3 hoping for some sort of secret behind the scenes glimpse but instead we got nothing… except for a fascinating chat with Larian founder Swen Vincke and Dungeons & Dragons franchise creative director Mike Mearls from Wizards of the Coast.

We were able to tease out a few hints about Baldurs Gate III, but we also talked about the current state of role-playing games in general – both the tabletop and computer varieties – and why streaming has the potential to open up more niche video games to a much wider audience than ever before…

Formats: PC and Stadia
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Developer: Larian Studios
Release Date: TBA

Before we start recording, Vincke describes how, when he heard Google were working on a streaming service, he actively sought one of their representatives at a previous E3, to see if they could work together.

GC: So, you just went and found someone at E3 to speak to?

SV: I heard that they were launching a new platform and I picked up that it was streaming, so I started chasing them through my contacts and I said, I need to talk to somebody thats in charge of it. And then they came over, because once I told them they wanted to know what we were up to. And from that the entire thing followed through.

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GC: Why was streaming so interesting to you? Why did that pique your interest in particular?

SV: Its the instant accessibility and the ability to… my games are very long, right? I want to be able to invite a friend and I want them to try it out, because people think an RPG is very inaccessible. But when you start playing its actually very easy. So if I send a link to your friend and your friend clicks on it they can instantly play it. Thats a very powerful thing.

GC: I was just at Microsoft and… I bet you know who Julian Gollop [creator of XCOM] is.

SV: Yes, of course.

GC: He was there with his new game and we were talking about similar things. Everyone thinks they wont like strategy games, but as soon as a good one is put in front of them most of the time they do learn to enjoy them. But you have to almost literally force them to play it.

SV: Yes, exactly. We had a tremendous amount of uptake on the console version of DOS2 [Divinity: Original Sin II] when people played it with their partner, because you can have split-screen co-op.

GC: So youre the guy that wanted to create the game so that your girlfriend could play with you?

SV: Yes, thats me. [laughs] But it works, you know, because its turn-based, its slower, so people just pick it up and its easy to explain as well. But you just have to get them in front of the machine and try it out.

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GC: Definitely. The thing I was saying to him [Julian Gollop] was… therell always be RPGs to some degree but I always worry major publishers will just stop making strategy games, like they did with Advance Wars…

SV: I hear you there! [laughs]

GC: And he said, and actually the Total War guys said something similar, that it is a niche but the fans are super loyal. Creative Assembly have been going for 20 years and as long as they give their audience what they want, and keep to a sensible budget, they can do very well.

SV: Obviously its not for everyone, but I think theres a lot more players that would like to play these games if only they got a chance to try them out more easily. We see it at shows and every time theres somebody coming in and dragging somebody else and putting them in front of it and then typically they pick up the game afterwards. So we convert them almost instantly into buyers.

GC: One of the big assumptions about streaming is this idea that theres a great untapped sea of people that would be interested in games if only they werent somehow put off by consoles or gaming PCs. Im dubious about that in general but I can see that being true for RPGs, especially bearing in mind what we just discussed.

SV: So, I was quoted in the Stadia video saying something that I really believe, which is that it democratises gaming. Obviously you have to have the broadband, but once you have it you dont need an expensive console or PC anymore, to be able to play. And the business models that they are proposing are very flexible. Have they talked about [whispers to Mearls]?

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GC: Oh they were definitely talking about that. What did they talk about?

SV: [laughs] I dont think I can talk about that, I need to check what they said. But anyway, theres a wide variety of ways that people are going to be able to interact and play. And uh, my personal real interest is the fact that I can send a link to a friend so that they can click on that and just play straight away.

GC: I can totally see that. Most people have probably never head of Baldurs Gate or Divinity, they never had a chance to play it and maybe dont own a PC or console anyway.

SV: Exactly, because now you can play on your laptop when youre at work, you can play it on your tablet…

GC: I love using the Switch for complex games, it actually works very well with strategy games. You announced cross-play, didnt you?

SV: Yeah, yes. So, for instance, you can start playing them on PC, then you go to tablet, and then go from tablet to console… wherever, any screen essentially.

GC: Which is perfect for something thats really long and not a superfast action game, where youre going to lose what you were doing.

SV: Exactly. One of the things that we see with Divinity: Original Sin, for instance, is that people play for more than a year in their campaign together with their friends. Its just because they have to figure out the time when they are behind their devices and when theyre playing together. And with something like Stadia you will be able to do it here in the hotel room and the only thing you have to take with you is your controller. And that is very, very simple.

Baldur's Gate III - the city seems to attract trouble

Baldurs Gate III – the city seems to attract trouble

GC: So youre not showing the game here, but when we see it is it going to be something that looks and plays similarly to Divinity: Original Sin? … I never get over how terrible a name that is.

SV: We are aware of that. [laughs] I know. Thats why we licensed the Baldurs Gate name.

All: [laughs]

GC: I think you were talking in the video about how much you loved Baldurs Gate and how youd always imagined what a new sequel would be like?

SV: Yup. So Baldurs Gate, first of all, for a lot of people in my team it was like their first RPG that they ever played. I was actually making an RPG back then when Baldurs Gate was being made, one which was cancelled. But Baldurs Gate is also Dungeons & Dragons. So Dungeons & Dragons is very big for us. Its always been something weve used as a go-to, to look at when youre building your own worlds.

And Ive been reading Dungeons & Dragons since I was a kid. Lord of the Rings was my first fantasy series, the second one was Dragonlance from Weis and Hickman. So thats how I got into it. And when we were thinking about our next game, which we decided wasnt going to be Divinity, Baldurs Gate came very high on the list. It was very easy to motivate the team for it. And here we are!

GC: Okay, so you got the licence from Wizards of the Coast but didnt you have to sub-licence it from BioWare or Interplay or anyone?

SV: No. Interplay were the original publisher, thats right, and BioWare were the developer. But then the rights to Baldurs Gate I and II were licensed by Beamdog, from Atari. Cause there was the entire Atari mess in there. But, yes, our game is based on Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition.

GC: So, does that… hang on. [To Mearls] Didnt you end up buying West End Games?

MM: No, I… are you like an old school role-player?

GC: Well, I was just going to say I never played Dungeons & Dragons but I did play West Ends Star Wars RPG.

MM: Star Wars D6? Classic game! They just reprinted it, they went back and did a reissue of it.

GC: Oh really?

MM: Yeah, that was a fantastic game system. But no, West End are still around. A lot of these old, 80s tabletop games companies, theres a tendency for people who were fans back in the day, who now have money, to end up buying the rights from whoever still has them and they get to own the company they loved as a kid. But a lot of the West End designers ended up at TSR to work on D&D, but our companys never had any direct business relationship.

GC: Oh okay. Well, I was just going to say I never understood exactly how you adapt the rules of a tabletop game to a video game. Id imagine that puts an awful lot of emphasis on virtual dice rolls.

SV: So we take the player handbook and we convert it into video game rules. We look at what worked, what didnt work… and the stuff that didnt work, we adapt it. One big thing that we had to fill in is the role of the game master of course, cause the computer game itself has to be the game master.

So weve had to compliment a whole bunch of things. But as a whole, if youve played Dungeons & Dragons and you start up the game, you will instantly feel at home. Once youve created your character, your abilities, then off you go and you will be in the world of Dungeon & Dragons. Youll recognise it.

GC: The one thing that always surprises me about previous adaptations is how much emphasis they put on the combat. Because to me that was always the least interesting thing about tabletop games. I would usually be the dungeon master and I would just fudge the numbers if it stopped someone suddenly dropping dead halfway through a campaign. The fun stuff was the decisions you made and the conversations, not how lucky you were with the dice. But how do you compensate for that in a video game?

SV: Well, it depends because the random roll of a dice can lead to different outcomes in a story and that can be one of the most interesting things. But it depends how far you develop it. I mean, if youre just going to die on the spot because of a random roll I agree thats not so interesting.

GC: The job of a dungeon master, as I saw it, was to keep the game flowing not be a stickler for the rules.

SV: Thats the thing that you… [laughs when he realises he was almost going to describe gameplay mechanics from Baldurs Gate III] Im going to go too far into the detail there…

All: [laughs]

SV: So, let me put it this way, player agency with a touch of luck, together, defines how your adventures are going to play out. And the idea is that if you play and I play and he plays and we talk to each other about our adventure, we will have had a different adventure because we will have made different decisions, but the die may have rolled differently also.

GC: The thing I loved about Divinity is how willing it was to let you go off track and there were all these areas and characters and even gameplay mechanics that you might never have even known about if you hadnt looked into it. It seemed much close to a real tabletop experience without being a strict adaptation.

SV: So thats what you want to happen, especially when you have multiplayer because you have all these people that are sitting at the table, each playing their own role. These things interact with each other. Its always chaos. Right? But it is actually organised chaos.

MM: Exactly, like when youre thinking about the role of luck and how that factors into the enjoyment, speaking purely from the tabletop end of things, what weve tried to do in fifth edition is cast luck… rather than being something that just brings the adventure to an end I see the dice as an oracle. So lets say youre playing D&D and you say, I want to open the door. As the dungeon master I would just say you open the door. I dont rule it out because theres no real question. Theres no tension.

But if there was an assassin sneaking up on you, I might roll the die to determine do you hear them or not? Because if I was just to tell you, You dont hear the assassin, you get stabbed in the back, youre dead thats no fun. But if I just decide, You hear the assassin, that might feel a little artificial.

You know Im manipulating events, but if we both watch the die roll and you see a good roll you know you heard him coming because of your characters skill. But the idea is hopefully, in the tabletop space, the die is… rather than bringing the story to an end, its just a way of changing it. So you thought the story was about you trying to open the door and finding out whats beyond, but its really about this assassin thats sneaking up on you.

So its keeping us on our toes and helping to really keep the narrative fresh. And that unexpected element, the chaos, is what then keeps us all engaged because thats what keeps it from being a formality. Clearly the heros going to win, right? Thats too predictable.

GC: Totally. Well, youre not going to answer this, but here goes…

SV: Im very jetlagged so I might.

GC: [laughs] I really enjoyed the combat in Divinity: Original Sin because of the obvious XCOM influence, but because its an adaptation of existing rules does that mean itll be very different in Baldurs Gate III?

SV: Yeah, thats the one that Im not answering. [laughs] I will tell you what the idea is though. So, the reason why Im not saying anything is because combat is something that is so sacred in this, when it comes to Baldurs Gate, so we want to show it to people rather than just talk about it. However, I can tell you what the idea is.

When you play D&D you get thrown challenges that you need to overcome. Some of these challenges require you to go into combat. And to ensure player agency you have to give the player a whole bunch of systems so that they can use them in any way they want to overcome the challenges that are thrown at them. Thats what we did in DOS2 because in DOS2 people come up with craziest ways of winning, unwinnable combat.

Thats also what well do in Baldurs Gate III. Youre going to see combat that is very easy and youre going to see combat that is hard. You have an entire toolbox at your disposal, which goes beyond just a rule set. It also depends on your imagination, so that you will overcome situations in a variety of ways.

GC: Theres always a sort of rule of thumb for me, for a good RPG, and its whether you can resolve a conflict – a major story set piece, not necessarily fighting with grunts – outside of combat.

SV: Yes!

GC: Again, its resolving things in a much more interesting way than just throwing a dice. You can fight someone or you can talk to them, bribe them, use magic or whatever.

SV: So you have… theres a lot of that. I mean, theres really much more than in DOS2.

GC: These are basically my preferences Im talking about, but judging you by your game Im assuming these are things that interest you too.

SV: Baldurs Gate III is based on our tabletop experiences and this is also the reason why were doing it. So when we had the conversation to get the licence I got peppered with questions about what is our vision, what do we want to do? And what we want to do is make you a video game that gives you that tabletop experience where you have the same opportunity for creativity. That is your limitation, which is the thing that we tried to do in DOS2 already. And to a lesser extent in DOS1.

Baldur's Gate III - did you catch all the Easter eggs?

Baldurs Gate III – did you catch all the Easter eggs?

GC: I think youre less likely to agree with this but one thing that puts me off a lot of fantasy role-players is the obsession with lore. The obsession with background detail that in turn creates this kind of po-faced seriousness that makes the characters seem very stiff and unnatural.

SV: Ive got a really good example for you on this one, that I can talk about. [laughs] Because we released the teaser trailer so I can tell you. In fact, I can write you a book about ceremorphosis and the process involved in humans becoming mind flayers and exactly how that works step by step. But really you dont need to know any of that because you just see the end result in the game, right? There are many layers within the teaser trailer. If you know Dungeons & Dragons, if you know your lore, you will have seen multiple things in there. But if youre dont well okay, theres a guy turning into an alien and then theres aliens coming from a flying octopus, great!

GC: Did you pick the mind flyer because of Stranger Things? I love that name, its so unashamedly geeky.

MM: No, no! It was just a lucky coincidence.

SV: Well, actually its geeky name is an Illithid. But you dont have to know anything about it to appreciate what it is, right? Its got tentacles, its got psychonic powers. And it also has a tragic story. It used to have an empire that spanned the astral plane and it lost everything. And now its hiding in the Underdark and being hunted by this race called the Githyanki, who actually make it their lifes initiation rite to go kill one of these mind slayers, take the head and bring it to their queen.

GC: So what are some of the secrets that most people wouldnt have noticed from watching the teaser?

SV: Well, I mean if you played the original Baldurs Gate, youll have recognised that the crest of the guard is the Flaming Fist. Theyre a mercenary band that are supposed to maintain law and order in the lower city. You would have seen The Blushing Mermaid in the background, thats the name of the tavern which came from the original Baldurs Gate. Um, were in the lower city, which is as its described.

Theres a symbol you see in the beginning that actually indicates things, so you would recognise it from the lore. And the Nautiloid is out of proportion, which make fans wonder how thats possible. The ceremorphosis goes much faster than its supposed to, its supposed to take seven days. So hows it possible that it goes that fast? So the lore guys, theyll find all of those extra layers.

GC: I did know all that. I was just testing you.

All: [laughs]

GC: Another thing I liked about DOS 2 was that it had a sense of humour, which is not common in RPGs. Is that something you can carry through to Baldurs Gate? Because the originals did have funny characters… Ive just forgotten his name, but the guy with the hamster.

SV: Minsc and Boo, yeah. So theres a different tonality to DOS in Baldurs Gate III, but that doesnt mean that theres no room for humour. I guarantee you that youre going to smile. Im just thinking of a scene I guarantee that youre going to smile at for sure. Its almost impossible not to in that scene.

GC: All right, so just to clarify, you havent said anything whatsoever about the game? Is that right?

SV: Its single-player and co-operative multiplayer…

GC: Oh, you have said that? Have you said how many co-operative?

SV: No, I havent said how many.

GC: And split-screen? You can confirm that, surely?

SV: This game is still in development, right? So theres still certain corners that may be cut. Its using first party technology that hasnt been released yet, so theres still corners that we may have to cut. We will see where we end up with it. But our idea is not to go backwards from what we did in DOS2.

So you can expect all the things that we introduced to RPGs in DOS2 to be present there, but we want to evolve also. We want to add a lot of stuff. Our studio is growing in all directions and we want to create the state of the art in RPGs, because we have lots of ideas of things that we want to do.

GC: I know theres no release date but is there a release year?

SV: We didnt announce anything. What we did say is that we are going to take our time. So it would be very unlikely that its this year.

GC: And can you say anything about console versions? Is it fair to assume theyll be out about a year behind, like Divinity: Original Sin?

SV: That I cant talk about.

GC: Okay, well lets finish up on some general Larian stuff. The companys been around a long time, 20 years or something. It must seem very odd to you, having been toiling away all these years, and then suddenly to become famous and headline Googles big move into gaming.

SV: I know, I know! [laughs] Our big turning point was in 2010 when we said, okay, forget about publishers. Now well do it ourselves…

GC: Because they were interfering beforehand?

SV: Continuously. Releasing games before they were ready. Eh, obviously we were late, but they never really understood what we were trying to do. But my wife told me, Youve got to stop making cult hits! [laughs] But they were all in their own way, quite popular. Most of the games that we made sold over a million units. But we never saw that revenue.

GC: Are you going to continue with the Divinity franchise as well?

SB: Well, we have Divinity: Fallen Heroes coming out. We have an external team working on it right now, which is Logic Artists – a Danish team. So they took all of the tech and they are making this Dragon Commander meets Divinity: Original Sin game where you have tactical battles, strategic decisions, and characters that are interactive and will grow in function based on the decisions you make. So that should be cool. So were not going to drop Divinity, thats for sure.

GC: Are you going to expand the sort of genres that you do, both in a video game sense and in terms of themes and settings?

SV: Weve never made a secret of our ambition to make a very big RPG that would dwarf them all. And so these are all steps towards that.

GC: Youve already done that though, surely?

SV: Not really, not really. Not the thing that I would like to make, these are all steps in the direction towards the Platonic ideal of an RPG.

GC: [laughs] What does that game look like? Is that something that relies on tech years from now or something that could be madeRead More – Source

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