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