GameCentral talks to the creators of one of the best RPGs ever made, as the award-winning game comes to consoles.
Divinity: Original Sin II is the best game youve, probably, never heard of. 2017 is lauded as one of the best years ever for quality video games, and while many years can go by without us awarding a 10/10 score last year saw three: Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and… Divinity: Original Sin II.
We were far from the only ones to feel that way about the game, but despite its critical response and strong sales the fact that it was PC-only meant that it was never lauded in quite the same way as Nintendos titles. But hopefully that will change when the Definitive Edition is released on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 next month.
We played it very briefly at E3 and it seems that not only does the game do everything the PC version did it actually improves on several elements. So we conducted a phone interview with director of publishing Michael Douse at Larian Studios (who also arent nearly as famous as they should be) about the games success and how such a relatively obscure company could end up making such an incredible game.
Formats: Xbox One and PlayStation 4
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Developer: Larian Studios
Release Date: 31st August 2018
GC: I was all prepared with some World Cup banter [Larian Studios are headquarted in Belgium], but it turns out youre English?
MD: [laughs] We have four offices all over the world, so Im from St Albans but based in the Dublin office.
GC: I have to admit I dont really know anything about Larian or who they are. But Wikipedia tells me youve got over a hundred staff… and now you say four studios?
MD: Were actually 150 people, soon to be 160. But we dont really have a lot of corporate PR. Were just happy swanning around doing our thing. But yeah, four studios: one in Saint Petersburg; one in Ghent, which is the head office; one in Dublin; and one in Quebec, Canada.
GC: I understand youve been with them for a year, so what do you know of the companys history?
MD: I think they started in 1992, a small Belgian team working with a lot of German publishers on hardcore, niche RPGs in that era. And from there it grew, with the support of some publishers and the support of the community. The original game, Divine Divinity, had a very, very strong cult following in Germany and in Europe. And at some point, with 2014s Divinity: Original Sin, it kind of broke out of that Eurocentric niche and into the global market.
And from there weve just been spreading out globally. Weve created sort of a 22-hour-a-day pipeline, almost covering 24 hours a day. Because in each studio the work is not distributed… we dont have artists in Quebec and programmers in St Petersburg, theres a bit of everyone in each office. So when you go to sleep someone in the next office picks up that same work.
GC: So its the empire on which the sun never sets?
MD: Yeah, its almost to that stage.
GC: So its kind of like some indie developers who dont have a central office and they all work remotely, just a little more centralised?
MD: There is some of that trust and dynamism. Its true, there are a lot of studios working from home and this kind of thing and there are parallels with that still. But we have a very, very strong organisational process. Were working on Slack, which is a project management application, as well doing a hell of a lot of travelling – Im travelling all the time to all of the different offices.
And we have our leadership in the company, although its quite creatively horizontal there are leads through which people can communicate. So there is a lot of organisation. I mean, the game sold close to 1.6 million copies now on PC, so its quite successful. And with that comes a lot of responsibility to make sure those development and publishing pipelines are actually sensible amongst all the chaos. And there still is chaos, but it is a creative industry so thats how it goes.
GC: Well, Im glad to hear its been commercially successful, but it was also a huge critical hit.
MD: Yeah, so we have a 93 Metacritic rating, we won a BAFTA for multiplayer, it was one of only 15 games in the history of GameSpot to get a 10/10. So the critical acclaim is there, and the reason its there is because weve got a few words that fly round the office.
One of them is player empathy, which basically means that whatever youre doing or whatever you put out you have to make sure that youre conscious of how players will be receptive of that. No matter how big or small the feature is its really about the players.
And the second one is content is king. Quality of content, quantity of content – everything about the content is king. And everything else kind of comes second to those two concepts.
GC: The first Original Sin hit when there was a general CRPG [computer role-playing game, i.e. games like Baldurs Gate] renaissance, but would you call that just a coincidence? Was that good luck for you or more or less irrelevant?
MD: Its really funny, I think about that a lot, because I think the CRPG renaissance is over. You can see that in the sales figures for some recent CRPGs.
GC: Oh, well that didnt last long.
MD: [laughs] But one of the things that really separates us from CRPGs generally is the fact that we have split-screen co-op. Its a game thats designed to be played… I mean our creative director, Swen [Vincke], he designed the game because he wanted a game to play with his girlfriend. And thats really a true story. If you ever meet him youll realise how true that is, the companys run by the two of them.
And this idea of making something tangible that you can sit down and play with friends, its really based on a tabletop philosophy more than it is traditional CRPG roots. It just so happens that theyre quite hand-in-hand in most cases. But there are a lot of things in our games that separates them as well. So I think some of it is coincidence, but we cant deny that we were also part of that renaissance as well.
GC: What seemed obvious when playing the game is that it was trying to play the role of a human Dungeon Master, to try and make almost any eventuality possible. There was so much in the game that was incidental, talking to ghosts and so on, even though it was really involved. You seemed to almost revel in the fact that these significant parts of the game were optional, even hidden.
MD: Yeah, thats the idea. As you say, its pen and paper rules. The idea that you can walk into any situation and interact in any way you want and have a reaction from that. Fundamentally, thats the whole point. But the interesting thing about all that is traditionally in video games this is what a publisher would call junk content – expensive content that nobody sees.
So youre not going to see 99% of the content. But 100% of people will see 100% of the content, spread out amongst them all. And then theyll talk to each other, and then theyll sort of talk about the things they saw but their friend didnt see. So even though one player wont see all of the content, all the players together can talk about all of the content in the game. Because somebody, even if its not them, has seen all of it.
And thats what makes a pen and paper experience really interesting. Because you have these rules and this lore and this rich world. And its just this idea that maybe theres a taste of something else there, or maybe I can take another route over here, or this dialogue option can take me in a completely different way. You dont need to experience all those different ways to know that theyre there, and therefore enjoy them. And I think thats really part of what makes CRPGs so interesting.
GC: I think the trick to any open-ended game is that you always want exploration to be rewarded. You want to feel that youre discovering things that nobody else has seen, that youre almost tricking the game to find them.
MD: Yeah, thats exactly what were going for. We made a game that we almost challenged people, in a tongue-in-cheek way, to go and break. Its one of those games where you genuinely cannot tell if something is a feature or a bug. [laughs]
Which is another reason why we do early access and these kind of things. So you can use your combat skills to solve quests in ways that we cant even possibly predict. Theres no way to predict all of the permutations all of the millions of players will play throughout the game. Which makes the result of that very interesting and very fresh.
The game is a sandbox thats been designed so that you can play with all the tools we give to make really interesting kind of results.
GC: Im a big fan of branching narrative, games like Life Is Strange, and also being able to talk your way of combat. Which is something your game allows and seems not only more realistic but often more… cinematic.
MD: Its immensely important. We have over 1 million fully-voiced, narrated words in our game. Weve got six origin characters that each have their own story, and so branching narrative for us is sort of a given. What we did on top of that is that we have conflicting narratives, so if youre in a party with two origin characters, and they both have two different objectives, at times your objectives will conflict with one another.
So for example, at Fort Joy, if youre playing as Red Prince he needs to find somebody whos a Dreamer and he has to talk to this Dreamer because he needs to bond with him and talk with him. But if youre playing Sebille her personal story says that she has to kill the Dreamer, so even when youre playing together not only do we have branching narratives we actually have conflicting narratives which adds a whole new layer to how they can branch. Which is not something I think another game is doing right now.
GC: Well, I…. no, we cant mention the ending can we?
GC: The other thing is the writing is surprisingly good, for what I originally assumed was a fairly small Belgian team. So who writes the script?
MD: Its funny you say that because the writers are about 50 feet away from me right now.
GC: Oh, the writing is awful tell them.
MD: [laughs] They get that all the time. [laughs] I think we have six writers now, were hiring more. So weve got some writers, weve got our lead writers – our writing director is based in Ghent, our lead writers based in Dublin with most of our other writers. We have a big team of writers writing each of the individual characters, we even had somebody who was in charge of writing all the animals in the game.
GC: So theyre not any particular nationality? You didnt go out and say we must have American writers, for example?
MD: No, no. The only thing is naturalised English as much as possible, but weve got some Belgian writers, weve got some American writers – which are similar in English to Belgian… I kid! And we have Irish writers too. And now we have an English writer.
GC: The script is great but the one issue I took with the storytelling, and this is a problem I have with a lot of fantasy games, like Elder Scrolls, is that the top level lore of the world is disappointingly generic. And the cover art was the same – just super generic. Presumably youre doing that to attract fantasy fans but isnt that putting off even more people?
MD: Now this depends on which cover art you mean, are you talking about the original?
GC: Errr… yes. With the sexy elf woman and the dwarf and all that. Is it different for the Definitive Edition?
MD: If its the new one then thats a shame because weve changed it.
GC: [quickly googles cover art] Oh, well thats much better. Wow, that was a quick resolution to my complaint.
MD: [laughs] Well thats good, because when I came to Larian the first thing I did was change the key art. Because I share the concerns, it is a bit generic and it does focus a bit too much on what we take for granted for fantasy universes and its quite derivative. So we created new art thats more indicative of the journey. Theyre more in action poses, they have faces, they have more emotion in the poses.
And in terms of the world-building of the game its a very system-focused game. Its a very gameplay-driven design philosophy at Larian. So all of these things such as world-building and overarching narratives are being improved. And a lot of the improvements are coming through the Definitive Edition, where we fix some of the explanation and the carry-through of the story – especially in the third act. And the epilogue has been completely remade to give you better narrative closure.
So you see, these points that youre making are really the backbone of what makes the Definitive Edition. Because if youve said that you dont like the key art somebody at Larian has said that too. And that means multiply that by a thousand or ten-thousand and therefore that needs to be fixed. So we fixed it.
GC: Good, well done to you. Because in terms of gameplay I think the only real complaint, about the journal and inventory, has also been addressed?
MD: Yeah, we fixed that too. So basically the problem was it was too text heavy, it didnt really milestone what you were doing. If you came back to the game after not playing it for a week you didnt really know where you were. So we completely rewrote and re-scripted the journal to make it much more concise and much more bullet-pointed, to give you all of the information you need about your quest much, much more quickly. As well as the opportunity to add map makers so you can really get a sense of where you are in the world and where to go.
GC: I did play 10 minutes or so at E3 and it seemed to work great. But Im surprised you didnt have any problem getting this to work on even the PS4 Pro or Xbox One X, the split-screen in particular.
MD: The split-screen wasnt a problem. Its our engine, and the engine was always developed with consoles in mind. Its essentially the same engine we used for Divinity II, the 3D one that was on Xbox 360, its just been developed and iterated over years and years and years. So all of those features have always been designed with consoles in mind.
Of course, when were building for consoles we are having to spec to very specific architecture. And thats been a challenge, but its a challenge that just takes a number of people a number of months to complete. Which obviously translates into money, but essentially its just putting good people onto the job and waiting for it to happen.
The biggest issue we had was HDR, and the reason we had that is because nobody at Larian understood what HDR was or why it was important. [laughs] But now we have it and they looked at it and they were like, Oh wow! Okay, now I get. So it was these kind of nice-to-have features that I was pushing for and they finally understood them and saw them and implemented them.
GC: And so the co-op works just like the PC? Both characters can go anywhere they want in the world and theres no rubber-banding?
MD: No, no. Not at all. Were still looking into whether this is true, but youre a journalist so you can tell me…. but essentially it is the only RPG on console that has split-screen. It just is. From what I can see.
GC: Hmm… probably this gen. Diablo III was co-op but not split-screen, and its more of an action game anyway. The closest thing almost seems like the Lego games, which is very much on the other end of the scale when it comes to gameplay complexity! But they are great fun, so thinking about it: why wouldnt someone come along and make something with the same social appeal but a much deeper game? Its a mystery to me why so many seemingly obvious ideas are just left on the table.
MD: Its a mystery to me too but I think a part of it is that CRPGs, if youre really thinking from a fundamentalist point of view, are played in single-player, and they just are. And the amount of R&D you need to put into developing a split-screen RPG of this depth is crazy, to get that working. You cant do it on Unreal 4 or Unity or something like that.
The technology to do it is a big investment, but its an investment that I think is worth it because… its like board games, right? Its a very tangible, tactile experience. The level of interaction you have with your friends and the characters inside of the game, and how that translates outside of the game. It really adds another layer of social depth.
GC: It frustrates me that local multiplayer is so rare nowadays, considering how intrinsically more entertaining it is than online. If you cant knock the controller out of someones hand when youre playing youre losing so much…
MD: Yeah, in our game we have in-game versions of that. So for example, you can take a vial of poison, dye it red, give it your friend who thinks it a health potion and hell drink it and hell die. So when youre doing that on the couch its a much more kind of…
GC: The other person can retaliate by hitting you!
GC: Was the original successful on consoles?
MD: The original?
GC: Err… Divinity: Original Sin I. But thats the other problem… its not just the old artwork, the games are lumbered with such terrible, forgettable names.
MD: Weve been having discussions about that internally. I mean, the root cause is essentially German publishers. [laughs] Because when youre creating a game like this you create the branding from scratch many, many, many years ago and its Germans that are dictating what it sounds like in their language. So were having discussions about what we do in the future about the name and stuff. But its definitely one of those concerns that we wouldnt say, Hey, thats not true!
GC: [laughs] It sounds like a trivial complaint but Im always berating indie developers in particular for the terrible names they give their games, which must put off so many people.
MD: Youre preaching to the choir! Im a publisher guy, but I definitely see that a lot.
GC: It is always about the marketing. Im a big fan of turn-based strategy games, especially XCOM – which your combat has something in common with, and I foolishly imagined it was going to be a big mainstream hit when they got it working so well on consoles. But of course it was a mild hit at best. But it seems with your games they should be much more successful than they are too, much better known…
MD: Weve done a lot of data crunching, so we know what our market cap is on each console and PC. I think were about halfway through our market cap on PC, we can get another one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half million players I think on PC. But its true. And these kind of challenges, on how to communicate the game on many, many different levels, and dealing with the fact that people think its a CRPG when its really a co-op board game. All of these kind of things are a challenge.
And were growing, were successful, were not desperate. So working these things out with this kind of safe level of iteration, and growing as a publishing team and growing as a developer, its really a privileged place to be in. Because were not scrambling, were just listening and were watching and sort of growing. So I completely agree.
An interesting point about XCOM compared to CRPGs is we actually have more people who are XCOM players than we do that are Pillars Of Eternity players. So those parallels are really there, the data shows us that those parallels are there. But the most difficult thing, and Ill tell you this, is trying to explain to publishing people why the game is such a success. Its not the players.
The players, if you put it in their hands they have a great time, but people who look at this and go, Well, why is this a success? They cant work it out, and they dont realise that its closer to a game like XCOM than it is Pillars and all of these kinds of things. So these are the greatest challenges. Its more on the business side than it is on the community side.
The community really have our back. Its really, really fun to work with everyone on that.
GC: I always despair when I see big publishers trying to pretend their games are something that theyre not, or being almost embarrassed of them. The one that always stuck in my mind is Lair on the PlayStation 3, where they refused to use the word dragon because they didnt think it was cool.
MD: This is why its great working with Bandai, because we can sit down and we can have a conversation with them and we can sort of explain, Heres our data, this is what the analytics say, this is what the community likes, this is the communication we should be using. And they go, Well, that makes sense. [laughs]
And they offer very interesting perspectives as well but certainly with a lot of traditional publishers they just say, This is a CRPG, its success is contrary to what it should be, therefore its too risky. But what people should be realising is that these large niches are actually a barrier to entry. And if you nurture other types of games they could be very big. Rather than doing the inverse, which is market saturation – which is not something we want to do. I guess the short answer is a happy niche.
GC: Youd think they would identify it as an area of growth, and that that would be exactly what they wanted.
MD: Well, if youre too hung up on the CRPG thing, and you see the relevance is over – which I sort believe it may be – then I can see why that would be a blocker. But then you have to think, Well okay, so how do we make a sandbox RPG more accessible? And thats not simplification, its nothing like that, its just communication. Its a board game at the end of the day, and if Mattel or Hasbro can still sell board games to kids now then video game developers should be able to do that as well.
GC: Okay, well its been fascinating talk to you. Good luck with the game.
MD: Thanks very much, good to talk to you.