Larian Studios: Risking it All for Jetpack Dragons
“The entire company.” That’s the answer Swen Vincke, Founder of Larian Studios, gave me when I asked him how much he has riding on the developer’s next two games, Dragon Commander and Divinity: Original Sin. There was no hesitation between question and answer; it’s just a matter of fact, something that Vincke has come to terms with. He literally can’t afford to be apprehensive.
Larian is in a unique position. After over a decade of making successful RPGs with the Divinity series, the studio is parting ways with publishers and doing the whole thing on its own. Larian has always been independent in the literal sense of the word, but now they’re going positively indie.
But why now? It’s not as if Larian’s previous games haven’t sold well; both Divine Divinity and Beyond Divinity netted themselves a bunch of awards, and enjoyed commercial success too. They were action RPGs with the attention to detail that is often typical of European games. It was a great mix, and apart from a few shonky sections, the games were mostly excellent. The problem, then, wasn’t with what they were, but with what they weren’t.
“In my heart I always wanted to make something like Ultima 7,” Vincke continues: turn based, a heavy focus on multiplayer, getting deep into the mechanisms of what made those early RPGs so riveting and expansive. But when you propose that to a publisher, eyes narrow and suspicions arise. “Their interest waned very quickly when I mentioned the two words ‘turn based.’”
Original Sin is being ambitious all over the shop. And if it’s not careful, it’s going to make an awful mess.
Which is exactly what Original Sin is: it’s co-op, it’s turn based, and it gives the player an almost astonishing amount of freedom to make choices that, from what I’ve played and seen, aren’t even flagged as such. Miscellaneous loot you picked up ten minutes ago can be noticed and commented on by NPCs, and can even change behaviours and conversation options. You might have thought you were just grabbing a lute to sell as scrap when you next get to town until you meet the brother of the troll you stole it from, who understandably wants to know how you got it.
Throw in a dynamic conversation system that allows both players to have an input, and even more interestingly allows them to disagree, and Original Sin is being ambitious all over the shop. And if it’s not careful, it’s going to make an awful mess. Which is where Larian’s expertise and experience come into play; they know what they’re doing, and more importantly, it’s what they want to do.
Without a publisher standing over their shoulder scrutinising everything the studio does, Larian can make major decisions without having to wade through red tape. Vincke tells me that they barely even considered pitching dragons-with-jetpacks action-strategy hybrid Dragon Commander to a publisher – the idea was difficult for even them to articulate, and the game as it stands now is a mildly disorienting mix of conversation trees, turn-based grand strategy, and something halfway between an RTS and a dragon-based flight sim. The potential for a publisher to get in the way of such a delicate mix of genres was huge.
“We saw there was a problem with the gameplay of Dragon Commander last year,” Vincke explains, “and we scrapped everything and went down the decision tree to figure out where we went wrong, and then changed everything from there. I’m pretty sure that kind of decision wouldn’t have been possible to make, at least that fast, if we were under a publisher. You can easily spend a couple of weeks just preparing a presentation before another couple of weeks waiting for an answer, just to hear ‘no’. People underestimate how much time is lost there.”
We were painfully aware of not having our own future in our hands from a technological point of view.
Without bureaucracy gumming up the works, Larain can make big changes as fast as possible, maintaining momentum and, perhaps more importantly, company morale. Larian has created its own game engine for Original Sin, with self-created tools that make iteration fast and efficient (tools that, incidentally, will be available to the players who wish to create their own campaigns and mods.)
“We knew we wanted to have our own engine; we were painfully aware of not having our own future in our hands from a technological point of view,” says Vincke. And that’s what Larian now has, for better or worse, across the board: the future is in their own hands. The studio is walking the tightrope without a safety net, and Vincke tells me that’s a thrill.
“The quality we are seeing is actually amazing, and that is completely due to the fact that we’re taking our fate in our own hands. We’re doing things we couldn’t have done before. We know it’s a very tough undertaking for a studio as small as ours.” From everything I’ve heard, it’s almost starting to sound like a publisher is just a frustrating investor, getting involved at every level to the detriment of the developer’s process. A necessary frustration, maybe, but one that Larian is happy to get clear of.
That’s not the whole story, of course. As Vincke puts it, “It’s a very inefficient process, but the expertise of people who know how to position a game and communicate what that game is about is valuable, of course. The problem is that expertise is very scattered among a publisher, and often you’re not necessarily going to be in touch with those people.” So it becomes a crapshoot, especially when you’re a smaller developer further down the food chain compared to a publisher’s AAA interests.
All of this becomes a preface to Larian’s move towards Kickstarter, the sudden beacon for independent development. Last Wednesday, Original Sin launched on the website, and in just 24 hours it raised a quarter of its $400,000 target.
Original Sin will be finished, regardless of whether the Kickstarter is successful or not.
“I think if I can leverage our community (and we have a lot of them) we’ll have a successful Kickstarter,” says Vincke. The aim of the Kickstarter isn’t to plug the finance gaps on a faltering project; Original Sin will be finished, regardless of whether the Kickstarter is successful or not. Instead, it’s about pushing the game into territory that would otherwise be out of reach. “Ultimately what we have to say is that in a lot of RPGs, they start well and then start to fall flat and rely on mechanics, then run out of cool things to do because developer has run out of budget and run out of time. We want to avoid that because we really want to make Original Sin the best game it could be.”
All of this sounds a bit like wish fulfilment for Larian. They’re making the games they always wanted to make, and they’re doing it without having to rely on a publisher to front the cheque and potentially compromise the project when they interfere. They’re making two games at once, something they’ve never done before. And the games themselves are far and beyond the most ambitious they’ve ever attempted. For the moment, they’re living the dream.
And the price for that was putting the entire company on the line. Time will tell if the gamble pays off, but for now you’d struggle to find a developer happier to be the master of its own destiny than Larian.
Phill Cameron is a freelance journalist who leaves his PC fan light on every night to scare away the monsters. You can follow him on Twitter and IGN.