Media-and-Learning-Conference-2011_presentation_Swen-VinckeLarian Studios were recently in London giving hands-on access to their two new games set in the Divinity universe, Divinity: Dragon Commander and Divinity: Original Sin. Based in Belgium, Larian Studios are known for their unapologetic portrayal of real life issues. Since they’ve successfully broken away from major publishers, I sat down CEO Swen Vincke in hopes he’d elucidate on the matter of being completely alienated from publishers.

I learned that Divinity: Original Sin was inspired by a want to play a great PRG with his girlfriend, and that in his opinion the small step up in technology between the current and next generations will be a good thing for gaming. What’s it like to be so bold, and exactly what regions are the most terrifying when it comes to the reception of taboo ideas. Swen also revealed why European RPG makers such as CD Projekt Red are increasingly able to turn out AAA polish releases, highlighting some of the major issues in current games development. We also discussed his thoughts on free-to-play – a system the developer compared to gambling.

Admitting that there hasn’t been a truly spectacular RPG in the past 6 years, Swen talks about exactly why that is – and if publishers have crippled creativity just as much as it sometimes seems.

Please note that this interview is a very casual mix of ideas.

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Me: I noticed that with Dragon Commander, you’ve increased the ‘Divinity charm’ of saying things that American developers/publisher won’t say. You’ve got themes of gay and lesbian where you just say them. I’m wondering if that’s a consequence of splitting apart from publishers?

Swen: Yes, that’s part of it. What we did was we took newspapers, and we took topics that we see always coming back. Then we took the political policies – we took them from all over the world – so that means that your ideological, fundamentalists are in there, and your Republicans [ideology, not the actual party], and your Democrats, we have them all. We looked at their programmes; what did they say on this? What did they say on that? Let’s put it in there. People are voting on this stuff. There are governments organized on these issues – so let’s put it in the game.

Me: Some of those quotes I recognized directly [referring to a comment about gay marriage promoting pan sexuality, etc,].

We even talk about abortion in the game – it’s a big topic right?

Swen: Could be. But it’s shocking! It really is. When you confront it like this, it’s still very shocking – but this is stuff that goes on [in the real world], so in a world simulation, it makes sense to talk about it. I know we’ll get heat for it.

Me: Which regional market are most afraid of when it comes to the reception of the ideas portrayed in Dragon Commander?

Swen: It depends on which particular parts. I mean, there’s stuff that I’m really sensitive about. We even talk about abortion in the game – it’s a big topic right? But why can we talk about it in games? So I mean obviously it’s documented in a very soft way, but it’s still “could one race prevent the birth of another race?” So then you’re sitting there, and you’re thinking about it! Could the Imp’s stop the Troll’s from reproducing? You take a softer word for that, and you put it in the RPG – but you put it like this: prevent the Trolls from reproducing: yes or no? This will be the end of their race. And you start thinking about this, and you say “well that’s wrong!”

Me: What I found most interesting was that the ethical decisions have been looked at so in depthly, but there will be some people who just look at the breasts of the Dwarf, and that’s about as far as they go. They get offended at that – regardless of the dialogue, they just see big breasts.

Swen: Ah, it was done on purpose [Swen speaks as though he recognizes the dilemma]. We had a big discussion at the office of Larian – we went through the progress of the breast and anti-breast discussion going on. “Can we not do this?” It’s obviously a joke, because it’s so exaggerated you can’t possibly take it seriously anymore, but the problem is that people may not see the subtlety or the humor in there, so they argument went like: well you know what, we will grow them even more in size – so that it’s really clear. But when you actually talk to the dwarf – she’s actually my favorite character – she’s really funny. She’s a really funny character, and it has nothing to do with her breasts.

Me: Did you leave publishing networks to do that?

Swen: This type of game cannot be made through a publisher. The mix of genres like this, and trying just to talk about all the things that are in there – you will never get that funded by a publisher.

Me: I see your point. Although there are genuinely solid mechanics, mixing that with a whimsical theme almost seems to contradict the depth of the gameplay mechanics. But they’re there – however, marketing that, I can see why the publishers may say “well, shit, how do you market this?”

There are a lot of good Russian RPG’s, they just don’t have any production values at all.

Swen: Ah, yes. Absolutely. Hopefully, as you said, people will try the game and say “oh, actually, you know, this is actually pretty cool!” So we’ll put the demo out there, and just hope people will go and try it. Just in the RPG mode, I can sit there for hours going through the data base of situations and I’m just enjoying myself [quotes quest text and choices] – it’s like a text adventure, just reading the text alone.

Me: There’s a disparity between gamers in the US and Europe – and both regions create very different RPG’s. The differences are incredibly bold.

Swen: Yes, you see them right away.

Me: To me, American RPG’s seem very ideological – they often take a stance – they are very ideological gamers. Be the best of everything; be a hero, be a good person – but their games often are unmatched in fidelity and polish.

Swen: Ideological, that’s interesting… the problem is we don’t have the polish. If we [European developers] had the resources that they have, we would be at least matched. That’s what CD Projekt is also trying. If you can have the polish of what they do, with the core values of what we do… I really think it’s a cultural thing… there’s a culture in the games that we make that you will not find in American RPG’s, and vice versa. I mean, I’ve loved quite a lot of American RPG’s – there were some really good ones in the past; Ultima is one of my favorite RPG’s of all time. There are a lot of good Russian RPG’s, they just don’t have any production values at all.

Me: Do you think European developers aim their games towards older audiences?

Swen: I think European games developers aim their games at themselves. And that American developers aim them towards a ‘target audience’, and that’s a very big difference. I’ve seen this myself – I mean, this one [Original Sin] is made for me and my girlfriend, because we were playing Dark Alliance and I said “ah, I like the fact that I am playing together with you, but there’s nothing to do. It’s just hacking and slashing,” and so from there came Original Sin. If I like it, and he likes it [points to imaginary co-developer, not his girlfriend], then there are probably other gamers who will like it too.

Me: That seems very logical.

Swen: Yeah, but it’s surprising how that logic is ignored when you look at it from a publisher perspective, when you have your stocks, charts, percentages… When you sit into those meetings – you lose your head, right! You’re just following numbers [mocks number crunching and talking about stocks] “who can release an RPG without Facebook intergration!” What the hell? [laughs].

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Me: EA have a phrase they seem to use a lot: “resonate well with the consumer.”

Swen: There’s three things wrong with that. The first thing is “resonate” – what kind of word is that? Who talks about the player as a “consumer,” it’s like a product – what the hell, it’s a game? When you hear things like that – you know… I knew a marketing director from the perfume industry. He’d never played a game in his life, but he was going to tell me what an RPG needs to be. He said “I’ve done my research!” So he came up with a list of things that RPG’s had to have, and I said “what are you talking about?”

People hear these stories – they think we’re exaggerating, but they’re true! We witnessed them! Usually the marketing director is the guy who is going to decide if the game is made, or not. I was in greenlight meetings where my game was well received by everyone, except the marketing director. The others wanted to do it, but the guy didn’t want to do it. That guy hasn’t played a game in his life, yet he’s the one who gets to decide.

[Laughs] Okay I’m making a caricature of it, but this is pretty much what it’s like. Not always, not everywhere – but it’s often the case. There’s been such amount of bad games, so much money wasted if you think about it. Think of all the licensed games – movie licenses – thank god there were a few good ones, but most of them are total crap. Why did they even get made? Because there was an audience for it, and the audience was apparently larger than the hardcore gamers.

The damage that has been done to video games development as an art is enormous. It set back the evolution, the artwork, really by decades.

Thankfully, digital distributors – who are of course in it for the money – shortened the gap, and developers can now really figure out who their players are [without publishers].

We begin to discuss the game, and problems with balancing

Me: It’s fascinating to me because with such solid gaming mechanics, it has an E-Sports vibe.

Swen: That’s what we’re aiming for.

Me: I wonder how it will be received with the Star Craft II crowd?

Swen: Well we alpha tested it at a LAN party, with a hardcore crowd. The feedback was literally lists and lists and lists, but it was all do-able.

Me: There are only 13 units between players, did that mean balancing was easier than faction based units?

I typically believe a game should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Swen: Well, then you have all the upgrades – there’s over 60 upgrades. The upgrades really have an impact. We saw one player upgrade mines for his bombers, which changed the game completely, because they didn’t have an answer technologically to invest in any counter-measures against that.

Me: It’s such a shame, but a lot of gamers now stick to the main AAA releases, because they have a levelling system – they invest only into levelling systems. Why play X when I can level up in Y? That pisses me off, because there are so many great titles that you can just play for fun because they’re great games, and then you have these crap ones that offer you pseudo-rewards, so getting past that will be the biggest problem for marketing it. Many people have thus chosen the free-to-play model. What are your thoughts on that?

Swen: I typically believe a game should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And if you’re going to make decisions completely based on the economy then you’re limiting yourself. I used to design gambling games actually, so I’m very familiar with the free to play mechanics, because that’s sort of the same addiction based gameplay – it’s almost like drug dealing what’s being done there, and I’m really not a big fan of it. It might be the only economic way left, but I don’t believe in it.

You have soap series, and you have feature movies – even if there is a soap series coming up, and it’s popular, it still won’t be the only option.

Me: I was asking about DLC, and your Q&A guy said that you guys didn’t want to knock out DLC after DLC?

Swen: No, we don’t. No. With this one [Divinity: Original Sin], we’re giving away the tools we actually used to make the game. How crazy is that? You could essentially re-create something like Planescape with the tools we are giving you with the game – although that would have all sorts of copyright problems, but you could do it.

Me: But what about a full sequel to Divinity II? A full RPG, AAA environment?

DC_Artwork006Swen: We… this is the same engine, right? Those graphics [Dragon Commander, Original Sin] are the graphics of an AAA RPG, I think we can agree on that part. So this means that we basically have the tools to do it. So why aren’t we doing it? The only reason we aren’t doing it is because the cost of creating those things is really, really high. So since we want to be self-publishing we need to put ourselves in a situation where we can support that type of game. It’s pretty much what CD Projekt is doing – pick themselves up, growing like this, taking our own destiny in our own hands, and if we’re successful then hopefully one day we’ll be able to do that.

Me: There are a few European games that have tried to match America in polish – notably Gothic 4 – who got the visuals right, but sacrificed gameplay… which sucked. What can you do to bring a balance between the two?

Swen: I don’t know. We’ll see. You’ve seen my approach [fund smaller games to eventually earn enough to invest in bigger ones]. I mean, I’m tackling it from different angles and we’ll see what happens. I know what we’re capable of.

Me: There’s a MOBA that came out recently, called StarVoid, and within two days of release barely any servers had any players. Paradox Interactive published it – and I tweeted the developer directly, asking what was up? They replied with: “We don’t know, we’re looking into ways we can increase the player base” and that was that. What can you do to get people playing your games?

Swen: That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re doing this. I don’t think there’s been a good RPG in the last 6 years… [We're talking within the context of truly great RPG's]

Me: There have been ones better than others at least.

Swen: Yes, but really good ones? I mean, including myself and including all our colleagues, there’s not a single one of them of them [who can name a truly great RPG]. I talk to developers, we all know what we want to create.

Me: To take one of your games for example – Divinity II, a game I genuinely loved – I get to the end, and I can’t help but think “ah, there should be 6 times more of this.”

Swen: Yes. That’s what we want to do here. The Witcher is the same story. I mean, sometimes it’s like an action adventure game, not an RPG. The ideas are there, but there’s a problem with the execution – but developers like CD Project Red, amongst others, are really committed to making these things better and better. I really think the closing gap between gamers and developers is going to make that happen.

Me: I worry that it’s impossible to make an RPG as in depth as a game like Ultima with modern graphics, because it’s just an astronomic cost.

Swen: It depends what you mean by modern graphics. I call this modern graphics [looks to Dragon Commander RPG renders] and with them it’s definitely impossible. If you’re going to do it with that, then it’s fairly expensive to do so. They’ll all have you believe it [is possible] but with voice recording for every piece of quest text, your desires have increased tremendously.

Thank God it’s not that spectacular, right? They did us a big favor this way.

There are more NPC’s in the first area of Original Sin than in the whole of Divinity II. That’s over 300 NPC’s in the first area alone. So if you really want to add visuals and high quality voice then you will spend a truck load of money.

Me: So does that explain why games like The Witcher – as it went up in graphical fidelity, it went down in depth? That’s why I think it’s impossible.

Swen: Well, never say never. I mean, the facial animations for Dragon Commander were auto-generated, so you’re looking at the result of cheap but very effective facial animations that go some ways to solving one of the problems [high quality NPC interaction on a large scale]. Procedural animation is getting pretty good also so, we’ll see. 

Me: Development budgets are so stretched right now already, will the next generation increase development costs and make it even harder to make a decent game?

Swen: Thank God it’s not that spectacular, right? They did us a big favor this way.

Me: It’s just a two year old PC.

Swen: Exactly, we can manage that – we’re already doing it. Basically the consoles are not doing you any favors, because the progress on PC’s has been hampered badly. And now that we see “oh, it’s a two year old PC!” from a gameplay innovation point of view, it’s a good thing because it allows us to say “well, we can deal with this type of graphics because we know how to do it and what’s required.”

Me: So the costs won’t go up astronomically, as UbiSoft suspected?

Swen: Exactly. You see the person talking in there [referring to a looping trailer of Dragon Commander], I can show you… I want to show you the animation. [Swen loads a YouTube video of the developers facial capture technology].

This is all facial capture, caught as we are recording voices from actors. We can get very accurate motion for a very cheap price, actually. We can have as many cameras around the actor as we like, and these cameras are very cheap… well… relatively.

Me: Considering that Lizard woman isn’t even human, the amount of expression is very impressive.

Swen: I think you’re going to see the games that you want, it’ll just take some time.

Swen: Yeah, that’s not retouched. That’s how it comes out of the pipeline. This is technology we developed ourselves, and we put it on all the characters [in Dragon Commander]. We’re going to record here in London for the voices, using professional actors. It will cost a shed load, but anyway, we’re going to do it. I don’t have to animate anymore, it can be automated. It starts becoming possible. A lot of it is procedural.

[Swen shows me a video of the lead developer covered in about 8 small silver balls around his face, which track motion and facial animation whilst he records his voice.]

They capture 100 frames per second, and we can put as many on an actor as we want. They’re cheap. Now we do animation as we do voice recording. There’s one problem… the actors cannot have a beard.

Me: Trying to find an actor in London without a beard? Good luck.

Swen: I think you’re going to see the games that you want, it’ll just take some time. Production methodologies are starting to cut costs, so we’re happy the hardware capabilities are similar, because otherwise the only way you can do it is by spending a lot of money on expensive procedures [to invest in new graphical technology].

When I saw the PS4 line-up I was like… graphically, completely underwhelmed.

Me: It was like seeing a trailer for a current PC release.

Swen: Yeah – and then they were showing their social media technology, but that’s not what I was waiting for. Suddenly, I realized “wow, actually we are going to be able to compete on that platform!” So that’s pretty cool.

Me: Are you looking to maybe develop some titles for the PS4?

Swen: God no. Not for the moment. I think Original Sin should be ported, for split-screen, because it’d make perfect sense for a couch experience. But I mean obviously there needs to be more than one Playstation 4 sold.

Me: There should be more than one. Maybe three?

Swen: Well that’s the big question. I personally wouldn’t buy the thing. I hope that the Steam Box wins – or something like the Steam Box – evaporates the rest. It would be good for gaming in my opinion. I don’t think it’s good that we have different platforms anymore, if you think about the money wasted on that different hardware…

Me: Hardware that basically does the same thing. It doesn’t seem sensible that money is spent porting two identical products to two identical platforms [in terms of visuals].

Swen: Yes, exactly. But that’s their core business. But again, it’s stifling innovation.

Me: In Dragon Commander, what have you done to innovate strategies and techniques?

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Swen: We are thinking of more things all the time. For instance, I want to make a modification for the zeppelin where if you upgrade it, you can put it over the Battleship [names of units are not final] and then your Battleship will have sight on the entire map. So, fit your battleship with a nuke, and upgrade your zeppelin – If the other guy doesn’t have anything against that, he’s dead.

But, of course, if he thinks hard he can counter that. He could perhaps say “oh well then I will play with my dragon, I’ll have an anti-cloak device, so I’ll just charm [momentarily take control of] your Battleship. Now you deal with your nuke. The action-counter-reaction is really cool in that game.

Me: So there’s a chain reaction of mixing upgrades and units, and countering those intuitively?

Swen: Yes, it makes balancing really difficult but as I said it’s do-able from player feedback.

Me: What marketing problems do you see here in the UK?

Swen: Well, actually, the UK has a trend at the moment where if it’s not sci-fi or realistic then people won’t be interested. I don’t know why. It’s not like that when you go more to the North. It’s definitely not the case there – they love fantasy. The French they like everything it seems. So here I’ve seen it… the moment I say “Elf” it’s like “what are you doing?”

I used to pitch at Sony at Liverpool, and there they told me that if it wasn’t modern day reality or imaginable reality, I shouldn’t even come. They wanted me to pitch them a modern day RPG, I just couldn’t figure out a good one.

Me: Well you might as well play The Sims if you want a modern day RPG…

Swen: I should have said that! Well, now we’re doing our own thing.

Me: Do you think more developers should leave their publishers?

Swen: I think they all should do it.