The Making Of…

How Lar­ian’s sys­tems-driven epic picked up the CRPG where it left off

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY AN­GUS MOR­RI­SON For­mat PC ( En­hancedEdi­tion: PS4, Xbox One) Pub­lisher/de­vel­oper Lar­ian Stu­dios Ori­gin Bel­gium Release 2014

Lar­ian’s sys­tems-driven CRPG epic

Di­vin­ity: Orig­i­nal Sin had faith in the genre’s for­mer in­no­va­tions

At a glance, Di­vin­ity: Orig­i­nal Sin is just one of the many self-pub­lished CRPGs that hoped to es­cape pub­lish­ers’ say-so through crowdfunding. It shares the nostal­gia train with games like Pil­lars Of Eter­nity and Shad­owrun Re­turns, but where th­ese seem con­tent with res­ur­rect­ing and pre­serv­ing what had gone out of fash­ion, Lar­ian was con­vinced the genre had more to of­fer and took it­self to the brink to prove its point. Un­der con­stant fi­nan­cial stress, the stu­dio didn’t so much em­brace the new as throw it­self head­long to­wards it and pray for the best, gam­bling on Kick­starter, Steam Early Ac­cess and the in­flu­ence of YouTube, push­ing back release dates against con­ven­tional wis­dom un­til it had a game it was proud to call fin­ished. Even then, Lar­ian took to over­haul­ing the whole for an En­hanced Edi­tion that’s free to ex­ist­ing own­ers and, as a re­sult, Orig­i­nal Sin has out­lasted its com­pe­ti­tion in the imag­i­na­tions of play­ers: a sys­tems-driven, co­op­er­a­tive RPG in which smash­ing in a door or in­ter­ro­gat­ing a pet are equally likely to progress your quest, pro­vided that you and your part­ner can agree on which op­tion is best.

Since 2002’s Divine Di­vin­ity (re­named from Di­vin­ity: The Sword Of Lies be­cause, as Lar­ian tells it, its pub­lisher was big on al­lit­er­a­tion), a Di­vin­ity ti­tle has popped up ev­ery two to five years since, re­view­ing well enough but stay­ing largely un­der­ground, pos­si­bly due to the whims of fash­ion or the ex­tra pol­ish Lar­ian was al­ways de­nied. The stu­dio was stuck in a rut, then, and in 2010 some­thing snapped. Even be­fore round­ing off the Dragon Knight Saga, 2011’s en­hanced re-release of Di­vin­ity II, the de­ci­sion had been made to walk away from the pub­lish­ing cy­cle – what­ever the cost.

“It was our mo­ment, I think,” CEO Swen Vincke tells us. “We were a lit­tle bit tired of be­ing in that work-for-hire mode, just making enough to fund the pro­to­type for our next game, sell­ing it to a pub­lisher, and off you go again. That was not a very suc­cess­ful model for us, and we were stuck in a vi­cious cir­cle. So when we started go­ing in­de­pen­dent at the end of 2010 we knew that that was go­ing to be the mo­ment when we were go­ing to ba­si­cally risk ev­ery­thing that we had and see where we could get.” At the same time, Lar­ian was de­vel­op­ing Di­vin­ity: Dragon Com­man­der, a tac­ti­cal RPG in­tended to be a sin­gle-cam­paign Xbox Live game but which grew out of hand, as things tend to at the stu­dio. When time came to fo­cus on Orig­i­nal Sin, the team’s mem­bers were all ex­hausted, and as if de­ter­mined not to make things easy on them­selves, they’d given up wrestling third­party en­gines into shape and opted to build their own tech, un­sup­ported but for cred­i­tors and a trickle of roy­al­ties.

“It was a big risk,” Vincke says, putting it mildly. “We started making the en­gine for Orig­i­nal Sin, and we ac­tu­ally started Dragon Com­man­der on an­other en­gine, which was the Game­bryo en­gine back then, and then dur­ing de­vel­op­ment of Dragon Com­man­der we switched en­gines to the Orig­i­nal Sin en­gine and bun­dled re­sources on the en­gine de­vel­op­ment. It was very tense and put us into a lot of trou­ble for some time, but it was clear that hav­ing con­trol of the soft­ware was go­ing to al­low us to do much more than we would have been able to do with third­party en­gines.”

The value of the in-house tools, de­spite pre­sum­ably turn­ing the fi­nance depart­ment pale, is ap­par­ent upon ar­riv­ing in Orig­i­nal Sin’s first city, Cy­seal, and be­gin­ning a mur­der mystery of bog­gling com­plex­ity. Called to in­ves­ti­gate the ex­plo­sive killing of a coun­cil­lor, you sur­vey the scene, per­haps leav­ing the chest in the cor­ner if you don’t have the key, or per­haps smash­ing it to bits with a club. You could ask around town for sus­pects or, if you have a cer­tain perk, you could chat with the dead man’s dog to see if he can sniff any­thing out. You could build a case against a sus­pect for hours or pick the lock on her back door and snoop about the base­ment.

The free­dom you’re of­fered is vast and some­times baf­fling, and time and again Orig­i­nal Sin asks that you im­pro­vise in­stead of fol­low­ing in­struc­tions. Ev­ery box that lit­ters the scenery can be moved by your char­ac­ters (pro­vid­ing they have the req­ui­site strength); poi­son vents can be blocked; mines can be det­o­nated from a dis­tance; hams can be re­moved from shelves to re­veal se­cret but­tons. This is a pen-and-pa­per RPG with all the dy­namism that a dun­geon mas­ter is able to de­scribe. “Ul­tima VI, and then di­rectly af­ter­wards,

Ul­tima VII and Ul­tima Un­der­world were for me the very defin­ing games that made me want to make CRPGs,” Vincke says. “There were so many good el­e­ments in there that for some rea­son no­body was tak­ing into the next gen­er­a­tion of RPGs. That was some­thing I didn’t understand, and so I gladly used them in my own games! This was the end of the ’90s; there were a lot of av­enues be­ing shut down be­cause there was no more in­vest­ment in cer­tain gen­res. All of the world in­ter­ac­tion, free­dom and non­lin­ear­ity that you had in Ul­tima just made it too com­plex. It’s only now with dig­i­tal dis­tri­bu­tion and de­vel­op­ers like us or Ob­sid­ian hav­ing the free­dom to say, ‘Let’s make an RPG the way we imag­ined them,’ that those av­enues are be­ing ex­plored again. It’s es­sen­tially a con­tin­u­a­tion of an evo­lu­tion that was in progress but was in­ter­rupted for some time.”

It’s a phi­los­o­phy that Lar­ian calls N+1 de­sign, us­ing sys­tems in­stead of golden threads to en­sure there is al­ways a new route for the player to try. Ev­ery new quest that was added had to be han­dled – or at least not bro­ken – by all the me­chan­ics in the game, from an­i­mal whis­per­ing to pick­pock­et­ing, and in­clud­ing the fact that ev­ery last NPC can be killed by the player. Lead de­signer Farhang Nam­dar de­scribes Orig­i­nal Sin’s quests as a se­ries of sit­u­a­tional flow­charts as op­posed to a list of events, be­cause the team can never be cer­tain where you’re go­ing to pick up the trail or solve a prob­lem you didn’t know ex­isted. Though all roads lead to a fi­nal boss fight, Orig­i­nal Sin

“IT’S ONLY NOW THAT DE­VEL­OP­ERS LIKE US HAVE THE FREE­DOM TO SAY, ‘LET’S MAKE AN RPG THE WAY WE IMAG­INED THEM’”

feels like a real jour­ney that you can make how­ever you please.

The aim of all this in­ter­ac­tiv­ity was to nudge the player to re­flect on what they were do­ing, as op­posed to har­ing off af­ter the next quest marker, but when the nudge wasn’t hard enough those of mere mor­tal ken could be left stand­ing about won­der­ing what to ex­plore next. Re­assess­ing the bread­crumb trail was a key part of mov­ing

Orig­i­nal Sin to con­soles, where party- and turn­based RPGs are a rar­ity and Lar­ian feared the mind­set re­quired might have been too big a change for the av­er­age player.

Un­usu­ally for a game that splits it­self into freeroam­ing ex­plo­ration and turn-based bat­tles, the same phi­los­o­phy of choice ap­plies to the com­bat. In fact, Vincke in­sisted that the grid the AI uses to nav­i­gate in com­bat be invisible to the player to sup­port the sense of free­dom. Though de­fined spells are cast from a hot­bar in keep­ing with RPG stan­dards, Lar­ian in­cor­po­rated a syn­er­gis­tic sys­tem of el­e­ments – fire, wa­ter, blood, poi­son, oil and elec­tric­ity – to add strate­gic depth that was nev­er­the­less in­tu­itive.

“Up to this day,” Nam­dar says, “if you cast an oil spill or cre­ate a fire sur­face, it doesn’t look ex­actly the same. There is a bit of a ran­dom fac­tor in there that in­flu­ences the growth of a pud­dle, and the fact that ev­ery turn was slightly dif­fer­ent made this a bet­ter game. At a cer­tain point, we had this chart with what sur­face could change into what – it was this huge flow­chart and, dur­ing a couple of weeks, lots of smaller per­mu­ta­tions crept in there that made the sys­tem more com­plex but also more dy­namic, which really helped the com­bat game­play. I was ac­tu­ally look­ing for it the other day. Ap­par­ently we only had it on the white­board!”

Two con­cur­rent main char­ac­ters, bick­er­ing and snip­ing, bring vari­a­tion even to the great reams of text through which con­ver­sa­tion takes place (and which Lar­ian un­der­took to voice in its en­tirety for the En­hanced Edi­tion). A prod­uct of Vincke’s long­stand­ing but al­ways-thwarted de­sire to cre­ate a couch co-op RPG, the lone player can be scup­pered by an ob­sti­nate com­pan­ion feed­ing bad re­sponses to quest NPCs. In co-op, you fight it out amongst your­selves in keep­ing with pen-and-pa­per tra­di­tion.

“Our lead writer, Jan [Van Dos­se­laer], had a hard time,” Nam­dar tells us, “be­cause we switched sys­tems dur­ing pro­duc­tion of Orig­i­nal Sin. It was at first more of a key­word sys­tem like in Ul­tima, so you could ask any­one any­thing, but we got a lot of feed­back and peo­ple really didn’t enjoy it that much; it was a bit too hard­core. But the prob­lem was the tools were al­ready made for this – our writ­ers had to ac­tu­ally make an­swers that in­cor­po­rated the ques­tion in there as well so that it was really clear.”

‘Feed­back’ is a key­word to get any Lar­ian em­ployee talk­ing, and our dis­cus­sion is de­fined by the re­mark­able re­la­tion­ship the stu­dio was able to main­tain with its cus­tomers dur­ing and af­ter Orig­i­nal Sin’s de­vel­op­ment. In 2010, when work be­gan, Kick­starter was an un­known quan­tity, but as de­vel­op­ment pro­gressed and funds dwin­dled, it be­came clear that Lar­ian would have to take an­other gam­ble. It asked for $400,000 and raised just shy of $1mil­lion (helped no doubt by the YouTu­bers brought on­board to spread the word), al­low­ing the team to ex­pand Orig­i­nal Sin’s fea­ture­set far be­yond the orig­i­nal pitch of a “small RPG, su­per pol­ished”. But it was in Early Ac­cess, about which hor­ror sto­ries abound, that Lar­ian and Orig­i­nal Sin ex­celled.

Story-heavy RPGs are not com­mon fare in Early Ac­cess, where play­ers could be put off by an un­fin­ished nar­ra­tive or get their fill and never re­turn. Un­fazed, Lar­ian re­leased the draft first chap­ter onto Steam and prac­ti­cally basked in the feed­back, sell­ing 80,000 units in ad­di­tion to the 20,000 se­cured by Kick­starter back­ers. It was the last surge of fund­ing Lar­ian needed for the fi­nal pol­ish­ing run it had hoped for since Divine Di­vin­ity, push­ing the fi­nal release back again from Fe­bru­ary to June 2014. More than that, the team took pains to ac­count for each scrap of con­struc­tive feed­back.

“I think if you don’t em­brace it com­pletely, it can be a hor­ror story,” Vincke says, “but if you open up and say, ‘There’s an enor­mous amount of hive in­tel­li­gence out there, and if we’re go­ing to in­te­grate that into our de­vel­op­ment, then we’re go­ing to make a much bet­ter game,’ then you’re ba­si­cally set­ting your­self up for suc­cess. You also have to have the stamina to see that through.”

“When Early Ac­cess came out, morale really peaked,” Nam­dar adds. “There were a lot of peo­ple who en­joyed the game and they really liked what we were making. Up un­til that point, we had no idea if there even was any in­ter­est for a clas­si­cal RPG – it was ages since one had come out.”

Though it wasn’t planned at the out­set, Lar­ian leapt at the chance to col­lab­o­rate with nos­tal­gic play­ers in ex­hum­ing the re­mains of the CRPG, em­brac­ing new modes of fund­ing and de­vel­op­ment on a bud­get that didn’t leave any room for fail­ure. Now that CRPGs abound, it’s easy to roll your eyes and sigh at the story of one more Kick­starter suc­cess, but Lar­ian waded in with­out prece­dent – with ev­ery­thing to lose – con­vinced that a sys­tems-driven couch co-op RPG could be noth­ing but fun, but de­ter­mined to lis­ten to what the pub­lic had to say on the mat­ter. The re­sult was a game much richer than any­thing pro­duced in the ’90s, and a new bench­mark for an old genre.

For Di­vin­ity:Orig­i­nal Sin En­hanced Edi­tion, Lar­ian has had to re­work the mul­ti­lay­ered hot­bars and skill books of CRPG tra­di­tion to co­op­er­ate with con­sole con­trollers

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