Swen Vincke on the future of Divinity: Original Sin 2, and the pros and cons of open development

Larian Studios' Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a fantastic RPG that Fraser couldn't get enough of.  

I met the developer's founder Swen Vincke at this year's Gamescom and, with just two weeks to go before launch, he seemed calm. I caught up with him again last week, three weeks following Divinity: Original Sin 2's launch, to see how he feels the game is doing, what he wants from its flourishing mod scene, and what it's got planned into the future. 

Swen Vincke

Swen Vincke is the founder of Larian Studios, whose back catalogue includes the likes of Divine Divinity, Beyond Divinity, Divinity 2: Ego Draconis, Divinity 2: The Dragon Knight Saga, and Divinity: Dragon Commander. We scored Divinity: Original Sin a healthy 87 back in 2014, and its follow-up Divinty: Original Sin 2 92 last month.

PC Gamer: How are things at Larian Studios at the moment?

Swen Vincke: Quiet. Most people are on their holidays and [patch 3] is a big one. We're start working on patch four next and slowly people will start returning from their holidays and we're gearing up for our next things. 

I presume these were well-deserved holidays. 

Absolutely. They gave their everything to make the game as good as they could.  

When we met at Gamescom you seemed pretty chilled out for someone who was on the cusp of releasing a game. Were you as calm inside as you appeared outside?

[Laughs] Not really. I actually wasn't planning on being at Gamescom and then a couple of things happened that got me to be there. And then I was there for a day and a half. The madness was at its peak at this point and at that particular time we were focused on bug fixing. Given how large the game is we were trying to get as many players through it as possible. 

According to SteamSpy, you sold somewhere in the region of 700,000 sales in less than three weeks. 

I think we're over 700,000 now.

That's not bad going. 

No, it's not. We could definitely do worse. I mean, we had the early access players before that too. Lifetime total units: 748,000 on Steam, and then you have to add the pre-release ones on there. Wow, that's higher than I thought, that's really good. 

Ahead of launch you must have had forecasts. Where were you expecting to be at this stage, or before Christmas—I guess you've surpassed those numbers now?

Yeah, we have. I was hoping for 500k before Christmas, so we're way above that right now which is really good. 

Did you have any forecasts in the  first month?

No, not really. I figured that if we hit the 500k before Christmas then we were going to be okay. This has been a nice bonus. 

Is there ever a point during the development and testing of such a big game where you realise: Hang on, this is really good, this might do better than we expect?

I think any developer will tell you that, first of all, you fall in love with your game. But then the relationship lasts so long that you start focussing on all the negatives. A very classic phenomena means that by the time you're ready to release, the only thing that you're aware of is everything that's still wrong with it. 

Then somebody reminds you of how much good stuff is in there. We're busy focusing on: We need to fix this, we need to fix that, this is not good, man we need time to sort this, we need more resources to do that', and that basically dominated the conversation over the course of the last six months. But then there are moments where you're playing and you forget you're hunting for bugs and realise: Actually, this is a lot of fun. 

With Divinity: Original Sin 2, this was particularly true. I don't know how many times we redid the beginning of this game. Every time we presented it it was different, and every single time I enjoyed myself. Luckily for us, this seems to have rubbed off on the general gaming audience.   

But then there are moments where you're playing and you forget you're hunting for bugs and realise: Actually, this is a lot of fun.

If you had to pinpoint one specific thing over the course of development—what would you say the most challenging thing about making Divinity: Original Sin 2?

Making sure that everything we were doing with the Origin stories meant you could play as both an avatar and a companion, and you still had the main story that all made sense. We had to make sure everything worked together, where all the different permutations made sense to the player. That was very, very hard. 

That was the biggest ambition of this one. The previous game was criticised on the story front, rightfully so I think. But part of that was because it was so bloody hard to tell the story in the way that we're doing it—giving the player the freedom that they have, and the ability to kill every single person that you encounter. It's a very hard game to make when you say: Okay, here's a protagonist, oops! You killed him. We still have to tell the story. 

One of the game's greatest achievements is its vast amount of voiced dialogue. You said at Gamescom implementing this was a result of shifting its launch date—tell me more about that.  

Yeah, it was because the launch date was pushed back and we saw the opportunity to do the voice recordings. It was very clear that people wanted us to voice everything, despite a number of people writing on the community forums that they didn't care about voiceovers. We looked for opportunities to do so, but there was so much voicing to be done that initially it was not going to possible had we stuck to our original release date. 

But then when we pushed it back to the end of the summer we thought that it would be possible, providing we could find someone who could be creative enough to do it for us… We did and it was very late in the process, it took a whole lot of effort, but I'm really happy that we did it. 

An interesting tidbit of information is that we actually redid the voices at one point. We started recording and eventually realised that the way that we were doing it was not going to work. We were well into recording at this stage and knew that we didn't have too much time. But we knew we had to redo it. The staff deserves every single mention that they get—they did a really awesome job. 

Through your Kickstarter and Early Access phase you've had a pretty open development cycle—would be players got regular feedback throughout. With the first Divinity being received so well, did this make dealing with expectation easier or harder? 

That's a really good question. Because it puts a lot of pressure on you, that's for sure. But you also can't make diamonds without pressure, right? I think that it's both. It is harder because the moment that the community figures out that they want it and you've said you're going to do it, it's very hard to change course—even if you later discover what you're doing won't work. We did actually change course a few times, but if you explain exactly why you're doing it, most people will listen. You're always going to have some people who don't, but that's just the way it is. 

At the same time, things become easier because you instantly know what's wrong. You put it out there and you don't even have to wait a day, you know right away what's wrong. This type of feedback can be very hard to get, unless you have a large community playing. Another thing that's easier with a large community is that there's a large amount of them and can in turn let statistics speak for you. 

You may have a very vocal minority screaming how badly something is done, but then you have 95 percent actually enjoy what you've done, so you say: Well, we can certainly say that that feature is okay because so many players are having fun with it. If you didn't do that, and that vocal minority were represented by, say, a couple of developers inside your company, you may wind up going in the completely wrong direction. That's where and why I really like the early access model.  

I spent hours in Fort Joy. Someone beat the entire game just under 38 minutes. How is that even possible? 

Well, there's a bug [now removed via the game's latest patch]. Other than that we actually put a couple of shortcuts in there for speedrunners. But they can only do it once they've completed the game in the first place. As a side note, because you can kill everybody in the game, we always have to have fallback solutions. This is a spoiler, I guess…

[Warning: slight story spoilers ahead.]  

… Okay, I'll tell you anyway and you can decide whether or not you use it. I'll put the responsibility in your hands. There's a city at the end of the game, and the guy there uses Death Fog, which you find at the beginning of the game. Skeletons are immune to Death Fog, which we were well aware of, and it's perfectly possible to kill everyone in that city. If you do so, you can still finish the game because you can talk to all their ghosts. It's one of those fallback solutions. 

Having a creature in the game that can bypass the major blockers—such as Death Fog—automatically means that you have a whole bunch of shortcuts, and if you know the fallbacks, you just have to go from fallback to fallback—which is essentially what the [38-minute speedrunner] is doing. Our design approach is going to give you that kind of flexibility. Speedruns aren't good to look at, it spoils the game for you, but it's good to know that it's possible. 

Do you do speedruns of your game?

I do all the time. 

And could you beat 40 minutes?

No. Absolutely not. We do speedruns all the time when we want to test that all the critical paths are working in the game. But 40 minutes? I don't think anybody should want to do that. We're not that concerned about racing through the game, we're more interested in the classic narrative experience. 

This level of engagement underscores community interest. I checked the game's Steam Workshop page ahead of this interview and found there to be 600+ mods out there already [there are now over 700]. Are you looking forward to seeing what people come up with?

We invited several modders into the office during development so that we could tweak the modding tool together with them. They are the guys that released the soccer mod, and they devised a number of more expansive mods which launched pretty much at release because they had the modding tools. It was really cool to see what they could make in one week. One of the things that we're doing now is to start a whole bunch of tutorial videos and we're expanding all of the tutorials. Hopefully we're going to see some cool shit coming out of that. 

For sure you can do a lot of stuff with the engine and they have pretty much everything that we had in our hands when we were making the game. But it takes effort, it's an RPG system so you can't do it too quickly. I'm very curious to see what else they're going to come up with. 

Is there anything that didn't make it into the base game that you secretly hope modders add?

What I really hope is that we're going to see adventures appear. Somebody made the noisy crypt, that was one of the guys that came here, he made a 40-minute adventure. I hope we're going to see more and more of those come up because I really want adventures that we can play in co-op where I actually don't know what the story is. That would please me tremendously. But again there's already loads of really cool stuff in there. 

What have you enjoyed seeing players messing around with most? Fane's face-ripping is great fun, for example. 

For sure, there's a streamer called CohhCarnage who's one of the bigger Twitchers, he played the entire game for 12 or 13 days or so, eight hours a day. And it was amazing to see—how they were figuring things out, things that they were trying to do, the things they were talking about in the chat, it was pretty much on everybody's screens over here. 

That's very rewarding, which I think is the cool thing about Twitch whereby people watching can help contribute to how the streamer is playing.

You've mentioned the patch, however what does Larian have planned in the long run for Divinity: Original Sin 2?

We have a couple of things that are in the works but we'll only announce them when we're ready. There's stuff coming, for sure. 

To that end: It's early days yet, but I assume the success of number two means we're in line for a Divinity: Original Sin 3, 4 and 5? 

[Laughs] We have a couple of surprises planned. But we're going to work on the patch just now, then we're going to work in silence for a little bit so that we can get our shit together and then… yeah, I'm pretty sure there will be at least one big surprise in there.