Divinity: Original Sin interview: how Larian built an RPG with no wrong choices, and details on its next update

Cory Banks

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Larian Studios launched the final version of Divinity: Original Sin on June 30, after a successful Kickstarter campaign and a long stint in Steam Early Access. The extended beta time paid off: Original Sin has been the top selling game on Steam since its launch. Speaking to PC Gamer on Tuesday, Larian founder and creative director Swen Vincke says the team is "very happy," and though I can tell he's tired, he's still incredibly excited to talk in detail about my progress through the game.

One would expect it's vacation time for the studio, but not yet—Vincke tells me that Larian has a major content update coming for the game, hopefully in the next week, and exclusively revealed plans for new companion AI. Our edited discussion is below, including a few clearly-marked spoilers on early parts of the game.

PC Gamer : How do you guys feel post launch? You said you're still working on the game, but what's the vibe at Larian right now?

Swen Vincke : It's funny because everybody's still so focused on doing the patching that we haven't had time to celebrate yet. Everybody took some breaks to get some sleep, and most of us took a long weekend, but now we're focusing on the patch, and we're going to have our first [release] party next week. It will be a big one, and then we're going to go on a big holiday and then there's going to be a huge party. Right now, actually, everybody's like, "Okay, we released, so we continue to work on it." It's a rather funny feeling to be honest. We're very happy obviously.

PCG : It's the only project that Larian has right now, right? You're not working on anything else.

Vincke : No. This was all-in for us, so we said, "We have one shot at making a good RPG. This is going to be the one, so we'd better not fuck it up." That was basically the attitude, so it was stressing. But we're happy now of course.

PCG : What kind of things are you looking at in the big update?

Vincke : We basically have two types of things. We're doing hotfixes where we see problems that we can fix right away for people, and then the patch will contain some extra content. Balancing fixes. We'll introduce the AI personalities—that was one feature that didn't make it fully for release. [Right now] you only have no personality or random personality, which is rather clunky to play with, or the loyal personality which basically does everything you do. We will add five or six AI personalities, and they have distinct opinions about things, and so it's basically your partner. [And] people will be able to create their own personalities.

They make decisions based on certain type of personality, and it makes the game quite different, actually, because then it's really like playing with a human being, to a certain extent.

PCG : Can you go into a little more detail on the kind of personalities that you're shipping in the update?

Vincke : We'll have a knight. That's what you can imagine. Then we'll have a rascal, a maniac, a judge— somebody who's very judgmental—a priest, and a free-spirit, They basically all have different traits that they prefer.

If you put in, let's say, a judgmental character, who would for instance refuse to hire a companion, that's a very big impact on your game right there. If you role-play through that, that really changes your game. It's something that can happen in multiplayer also, right? It's basically what we're trying to do. This gives single-players the feeling of what you get in co-op multiplayer, when you deal with the actions of somebody else.

PCG : Did you guys have a sense of the right way for someone to try to play this game? Is it really designed for multiplayer or is it designed to be single-player and the multiplayer is just a bonus for people who want to make that commitment?

Vincke : It's been designed from the bottom-up with the multiplayer in mind, under the motto that the multiplayer will make the single-player stronger. That sounds strange, so allow me to explain that.

If you make enough RPG like this, in which the party can split up at any time, and each player can do whatever he wants, there is an enormous amount of contingencies that you have to put in place, or you have to come up with a very systemic system which is pretty much what we've done. You have to make sure that whatever storytelling you're trying to do it will work no matter what the players are going to do.

[Spoilers follow]

Say that you have PetPal, for instance, which lets you talk to animals. And you're trying to find a murderer, so you talk to Murphy, a dog.

PCG : I didn't have PetPal yet, actually.

Vincke : All right. That was an option. You could have talked to him. He would have tell me, "Bring smelly clothes to me," and then you could have pickpocketed clothes from somebody, or you could have stole it from their or whatever. He would have smelt the person who was last in contact with Jake. You have that as an option. That's one of the things that was built in.

Say that you [playing co-op] and I am your other player and I've killed Murphy—just because the dog is annoying me. The game has to be able to handle that and allow you to continue [the quest]. The fact that we had to do that actually makes the single-player much stronger, because all that freedom that you get in single-player for a large part is inspired by the multiplayer part, because we had to cater for it.

[Spoilers end]

When you're playing it in multiplayer you can be rest assured that becomes very unpredictable, what people are doing. A lot of the development effort was actually focused around that. I'm really happy that we've done it, because typically people always say it dumbs a game down, the fact that you have the multiplayer, and I think in our case it actually strengthens it.

We didn't talk about quests at some point anymore. We just talked about situations which occurred, that players could encounter, and there was no right or not wrong way of doing it. It was just something that happens on your journey. So my advice to anybody doing an RPG would be, "Make a multiplayer version out of it."

PCG : In Cyseal, all the quests that you're given eventually end up feeling like they're part of one big cohesive plot. Is that another thing that you set out from the beginning to do, instead of giving you forking paths, bringing everything together, even though they feel so separate at the beginning?

Vincke : Yeah. We did it because, again, we had one guarantee, that we always thought, our backers and our community, this is a game which you should be able to play until the very end even if your're killing everybody. Generally it fits that pen-and-paper, systemic approach that we wanted to have, but one of the problems you have then is that we don't know who you're going to kill up-front. We have to make sure that no matter what angle you're going to take at the storyline, at least you'll have an impression that the story has been processed for you, that you're progressing in a certain way.

One of the questions designers have always had to answer here in the office was, "Okay, what happens if you kill [a character]? How will players know how the plot progresses?" I'm not going to say that it's always easy, but there's always what we call the n+1 solution. There's n solutions, and then there's always a fall-back solution. The one that is always going to work, no matter what. A player can stumble upon an answer and make some progress. Obviously, if you kill everybody life becomes hard, but even then you will still find out what to do, and you will be able, from diaries and notes and signs, you will be able to figure out, "Hey, maybe I should go in that direction," and if we did our job correctly that should always work.

PCG : I've seen a pretty vocal minority, I think, but still vocal, group of players who talk about how some of the puzzles tend to be pretty obtuse in the game. The specific example where I found this last night was I was near the end of finding the vial of Leandra's blood and in order to open that small alcove there are a certain number of switches that you have to zoom in and find in the world, and I needed to look up a little bit of help to find it. I'm not going to lie to you or anything, but as I was reading people talking about it, there were people who seemed to think that the solution to that puzzle was pretty obtuse and pretty cheap. Do you have a response to that?

Vincke : You're in hour 57, right?

PCG : Yes.

Vincke : We're making a game between 50 and 100 hours, and for sure not everything is going to be great or perfect in puzzles. It's a puzzle, you know? Certain puzzles are going to be better than other puzzles.

PCG : Would you say that puzzles like that, where the answer is not just immediately given to you?

Vincke : Yeah. That's by design.

PCG : Were you specifically trying to build something that was more "old-school?"

Vincke : People say that it's because we were trying to put it old-school, but the thing is that if you don't put in place certain mechanisms then there's no value in you drawing your character. I don't know. What's the highest perception stat in your party?

PCG : I think my ranger has a nine perception.

Vincke : All right. That's pretty low, actually. If you would have a higher perception you would find plenty of secrets, so lots of puzzles would become a lot easier for you, because you would see little highlights appear in around things which you otherwise wouldn't see. Like, for instance ... Do you want me to spoil you something or not?

PCG : Oh, sure.

[Spoilers follow]

Vincke : All right. You're going to be arriving in Hunter's Edge soon, which is the next village on your list. You're going to be encountering orcs and Immaculates and the story's going to turn darker. If your perception is high enough, you're going to see a trail of blood. If your perception is not high-enough you're not going to see that. That trail of blood can shortcut for you an entire quest line.

There are multiple layers, and you would be surprised at how many there are, and depending on what your characters are there are things that you are going to discover and that other players will not discover, that part obviously being a prime example of that. I don't know how many animal quests you've done, but there's plenty of them, If you wouldn't have had the PetPal ability, all those quest lines would have been different. Doesn't mean that you can't finish the game. You just would have a different storyline, basically. Different adventure and different solutions for it. Same thing goes with characters' high perception. Yeah? They're going to have a field day on certain things.

Did you find the Troll King in Silverglen?

PCG : Yes. I found the spell book in the magician's secret alcove.

Vincke : Okay. All right. Did you find the magician's alcove by chance or by somebody giving you a direction there?

PCG : If I remember correctly I stumbled upon that ridiculous major's hidden area because I was trying to solve another smaller quest, where an imp had pushed his master off a cliff.

Vincke : Your perception was high-enough, I think eight or nine is high-enough, that suddenly that thing appeared there for you, let you go towards a little hatch, which appeared, which, if your perception had been too low, you wouldn't have found that, and you would have had to quest to find out about that.

PCG : By trying to solve that smaller imp quest I stumbled into something else that ended-up being a solution for a much bigger quest line. You're saying I did that simply because one of my characters had a high-enough perception?

Vincke : Yes. If perception would have been too low you wouldn't have found it that way. You could have found it in other ways, but this happened to be the way that you discovered it.

[Spoilers end]

We put in these things so that when you have those little victories of your characters being able to defeat something, it feels like something of value, because if we would make everything simplified or like what people are calling "old-school," then we can't create contrasts. Does that make sense to you?

PCG : It does.

Vincke : It is about creating contrasts. It's same thing why the difficulty level is steep. It's like, okay, it's steep because then when you find a way of getting around it you're going to feel good about it, and that's where you get growth.

PCG : You talked a little bit about the update coming soon. Do you have an ETA for when that update will be pushed out to people?

Vincke : We are actually hoping to get it done this week, but we're still hunting something that we haven't found yet. Once we've found that one, everything should be set. I was going over the lists of everything that's in there. It's pretty much all there but it needs to be tested still. Don't make me quote a date because it really depends on testing. If they find something then it comes back and then we have to change it and then goes back into testing. Once it's tested, it's out there.

PCG : Divinity was a Kickstarter project. Then it was also a long-running Early Access game, where people could jump in, play the beta, obviously gave you a lot of feedback. How would you rate the process of making a game with that much community involvement?

Vincke : Tough but worth it. It puts an enormous amount of pressure on you because it's a lot of people who are constantly giving you opinion, but it's worth its weight in gold and it allows you to rise above yourself as a small developer like we are. It would have been impossible for us to make the game that it is now without our community, for sure, so in that sense it's a really cool development, actually.

If you would look through the tracks of the history of the development of this game, especially on the forums there's a big beta section where you can find a lot of it. You will literally see a lot of things taking shape, and being streamlined and more focused as a result of community feedback.

It's not always the best thing for your ego, that's for sure. If you listen to them you really get, literally, a goldmine, and then it's just a question of picking the right things, because obviously there's a lot of contradiction also that you have to filter through, but it's worth it. The patience of these people is enormous.

PCG : Would you say that this is a model that Larian would use again?

Vincke : Yeah, without any shadow of a doubt. Kickstarter was already pretty cool, but then Early Access—I actually almost didn't go through Early Access. We were afraid of it because we went to Kickstarter and there was so much negativity around Steam Early Access, but then as we did it and we tried to do it the way that we thought would be fair to people who bought the game on Steam Early Access, I found it to be probably how developments should be. You're making it for that fraction of your target audience who is willing to participate in development, and if you work together with them you can do much greater things than you can do on your own.

Obviously it's very hard because you have to draw a limit somewhere and at the personal level you also need to draw a limit because this is the games industry. These are gamers, right? So they can be very, let's say, vocal. If you can manage to deal with that your game becomes a lot better. The list of things that they've helped us make better is just gigantic. It's really large. We still have a list of thousands of things that we would have to do for them that we never managed to do, because again there's just so much suggestions, but it's really cool.

PCG : Are they things that you still want to do with the game later on down the line? How long do you see future support for the game carrying on?

Vincke : Quite long. We have the Editor, which is shipping together with it, so that was always part of the vision. If you make a multiplayer RPG and manage to be successful then the Editor is going to give it a longer life-cycle, and we are going to ... It's the same editor that we used to make the game with, so it's not necessarily the most user-friendly thing in the world, but we'll fix that.

It's definitely powerful-enough to make the game, and luckily right now the game is doing well, so I think that we're going to supporting it for a very long time, and that's cool because that's going to help us also, because again we will have people who are using the Editor, it's the same tool that we are using, and more people that are using that thing the better it's going to become, and the better it becomes the better the RPG that we can make, so we will be happy.

PCG : Are there plans for expansions or DLC or massive content updates?

Vincke : We are going to add a number of extra companions. There were planned to be more companions, but just the deadline and production realities, that's too hard to be able to include this, so that's going to come in August, the extra companions. They will be probably more fleshed-out than the ones that are in there now, so a lot of effort is being put into that.

Then beyond that, to be honest, I told you at the beginning of our conversation that this was “all-in,” so we didn't really make any concrete plans. We obviously have lots of ideas, but there are no concrete sense of what we're going to do, so we're going to finish this patch, do a couple of more hotfixes and then probably we're going to take a break, and then I think at that we're going to spend August figuring out where to next, with the RPG that we're going to be making. Then we will announce it with a lot of fanfare and so forth.

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