The halo effect

Not so long ago, in fact, just a few weeks ago when I posted my last blog entry, I said that Kickstarter might not be the right route for our future projects. I argued that it’s a limited pool and that it would be wrong for us to fish in it if our games are earning sufficient money for us to invest in our future projects.

I immediately received a few strong reactions, both publicly but also privately about how I got it all wrong, and that in fact I should steer Larian back to Kickstarter. The reasoning is that successful crowdfunding projects send more people to the crowdfunding scene and that benefits the smaller projects. This is referred to as the “halo effect” and one particular bright person compared it to “a restaurant sitting alone or on a block with many others. They all do better with more traffic”.

I have to say that that got me thinking.

This image is now part of Larian's history

Blasting through our Kickstarter goal was a very important moment in Larian’s history and we’re forever indebted to the people who made it possible.

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Thoughts after releasing Divinity:Original Sin and what comes next

Ok,  let’s do this thing. Lots of people have been asking me for numbers and thoughts on the release of Divinity: Original Sin, so here are a few.

Divinity:Original Sin did pretty well. At the time of this writing its Metacritic critic rating is at 87%, it’s user rating at 89% and it’s been at the top of the Steam charts for most of the summer, occupying the nr. 1 spot for around a month.

It has sold well over half a million units by now– mostly from Steam, with 10% from retail.  ”Break even” has been reached, our debts have been paid and we are now in the profitable zone. While not all of the money is for us as we had private investors on board, the game did sufficiently well for us to envision funding our next endeavors with it, meaning we’re pretty happy about its performance.

Divinity:Original Sin was received well by both players and critics

Divinity:Original Sin was received well by both players and critics. It has the highest user score of all recent PC games.

So much for turn-based fantasy RPGs not selling, crowdfunding not working and a developer like us not being capable of bringing a game to market without the help of seasoned publishers ;) .

It’s now been two months since release, so I’ve had the chance to recover somewhat and organize my thoughts.

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The power of crowd funding

It’s now been one year since we successfully completed our Kickstarter campaign for Divinity:Original Sin , one of the most intense and rewarding periods in my game development career.

Now, as we’re approaching the moment where the game is going to be released, I think it’s safe to say that without any doubt, the two smartest things Larian Studios did this year were deciding to put the game on Kickstarter and subsequently deciding to put the game on Steam Early Access.

Having access to a pool of over 60,000 people who supplied us with feedback during development, and at the same time enabled us financially to act upon that feedback, is nothing less but a developer’s wet dream, and we’ve had the luxury of living it.

It’s something for which we at Larian are very grateful and it’s something for which future players should be grateful too, because the game experience they’ll get will be so much better because of all that feedback.

I’m aware that there’s a lot of negative out on the internet regarding Steam: Early Access, but reflecting on my earlier blog entry in which I was pondering whether or not to release Divinity:Original Sin via Early Access, I think the positives for us far outweighed the negatives, and I think our game is an example of Early Access being a boon both for the developer and the players.

Barring a disaster, we’ll be shipping Divinity:Original Sin in 6 to 8 weeks, the target date being the day before the next solstice, June 20th.

I know we lost a lot of credibility in the release date department, but this particular deadline is pretty much set in stone now, if only for the reason that if we postpone releasing again, we’ll be taking turns at the divorce lawyer. Of course there’s also that other reason and that’s that we’re slowly approaching the stage where the game will actually be ready.

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Here we go!

Today is an important milestone in the development of Divinity: Original Sin. Until now, even if we were already heavily into bugfixing mode, we were still incorporating new ideas, systems, and features into the game.

We just released this Kickstarter update which announces that as of next week that period will be over. We will now shift all of our development effort towards reading incredibly sexy reports that start with phrases like “We’re only 3240 bugs away from release – here’s what needs to be done”.

The exception to this will be the end of the game. That part still has some room for us to indulge our creative selves in. Other than that, it’ll be a whole lot of “he and she did this and that and that and then this happened and that’s not how it’s supposed to be.

We’ve been working hard these last few weeks to integrate the last of the features we really wanted. Looking at the net result, I’m pretty proud of what my team has accomplished. We’ve amplified limited means into a lot of gameplay– a testament to the creativity of my team.

You will be able to check out our work as early as next week (most likely on april 3rd 2014) when we upload the beta version of Divinity:Original Sin to Steam Early Access. Or you can watch our twitch tv session, next monday at 18:00 CET where we’ll be showing off the new stuff.

We’re a bit over budget and over time, but I have no regrets whatsoever about that. The game’s quality is a lot higher than any of us originally expected, so we’re very happy about that. Obviously I now hope that this extra push for quality will transform itself into extra sales, because in the end it’s going to be those sales that will shape what opportunities we’ll have for our future RPGs, but even if that doesn’t happen, I’m sure that somewhere along the line we’ll reap the benefits of all the effort we poured into Divinity:Original Sin.

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Educating players

I’m doing the press tour thing again, spending some time in the US, France, Poland and Russia, demoing the game to several media outlets. You can watch some of the output here, here or here. There’s also a big interview with me here in case you want to know about what’s driving us, where we’re hoping to go and where I think RPGs went wrong. More is coming but it’s essentially the same presentation in various incarnations.

I need to admit that I did pretty much everything I could think of to avoid this particular tour. I really didn’t want to go because I was loath to leave my family behind. They already don’t see me much these days and I cherish every moment I have with them. But our young PR manager can be a tyrant and he put a lot of pressure on me to show up at these media outlets.

“Game Informer will never write about us” I told him and he replied “Yep, if the PR manager shows up, that’s for sure, but maybe if you show your face that may make a difference”

I have to commend him because it turns out he was right.

This particular presentation was for RPS and occurred in a shady hotel room

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What’s wrong with Steam Early Access?

Yes, I know I’m hopelessly late with this update – but I’ve been busy ;)

I do wish you all a happy 2014, and I promise that once Divinity:Original Sin is out, I’ll update my blog more frequently. For now however, my entries will be pretty sparse, just because I’m so swamped.

A thread started on our forums that I thought might be of interest because it touches on the topic of Steam Early Access, something I guess pretty much every developer is thinking of nowadays.

A player named Kamatsu argued against Divinity:Original Sin going on Steam Early Access based on the bad treatment Wasteland 2 was getting. The reason for starting the thread was a Eurogamer preview about Divinity:Original Sin in which it slipped that Larian might be planning to release Divinity:Original Sin on Steam Early Access.

I didn’t actually check how Wasteland 2 was doing but from watching a couple of let’s plays and reading some previews, my impression was that it was actually doing well. And its position in the Steam charts indicated to me that they were making quite some revenue too which I assume will in turn allow InXile to make their game even better.

Somehow however Kamatsu didn’t share my opinion about everything being fine & dandy.

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FUME!

A long time ago, back in the days when I was pitching Divine Divinity to UK press, I came up with an acronym that described what I thought was important in computer role playing games. I engaged in this particular mental exercise because I needed something to tell all those journalists I was about to meet, and I knew that there’d be many awkward moments during which we’d have to patiently wait for a reboot of the game after one its many guaranteed crashes.

And so it came to be that my youthful self invented the FUME paradigm, a pattern against which one can evaluate the likelyhood of Swen falling in love with a RPG, or not. If it scores low on the FUME scale, statements you can expect from me include such gems as “it sucks” or “that shouldn’t have been made”.  But if it scores high on the same scale, I’ll keep on talking about it for ever and ever. Ultima VII for instance did pretty well on the FUME scale, as did Fallout 2. I’d love to include a modern RPG here, but sadly there are none that I played that score as highly as those games did.

The danger exists that that last statement makes you think that I’m one of those cynics that thinks all CRPGs are shit, but that wouldn’t be right. On the contrary, I think there have been many breakthroughs over the last decades in CRPG design – the only problem is just that there hasn’t been a single game yet that incorporates everything I want to see in one game, and production constraints over the last couple of yours seem to have blocked the kind of development I’d liked to see. But even if I’m slightly disappointed with the lastest RPG incarnations, I do remain optimistic about the future, because I firmly believe that in the end progress can’t be halted.

So, let’s have a look at what FUME stands for.

Ultima VII  has a pretty high FUME value 

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Why did we stretch ?

The Kickstarter team tweeted a quote from Faulkner yesterday – “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything good.”. I never read Faulkner so I don’t know if indeed he wrote that or if he intended what I think is intended. In any case, the quote seemed fitting enough to me to start’s today’s blog entry with, because yet again, Larian’s taking a big chance and as always, there’s a few risks involved.

Here’s the thing – We just announced that Divinity: Original Sin is going to be released this winter, in February 2014 to be precise, most likely at the end of February as our aim is to maximize the remaining development time. The relation between quote and announcement may not seem immediately clear, but implicit within the announcement is the message that we’re going to be investing much more in Divinity: Original Sin than we already invested, and thus increase our risk significantly. Releasing in February means we’re adding four to five months of extra development time, and the plan is to have pretty much our entire team work on it, together with a couple of outsourcers. Given that there are around 40 people in our team, that’s quite an increase for DOS’ final price tag.

The financial reasoning behind extending our development even more is that the better the game is, the better it’ll sell, and that it makes no sense releasing something that’s not good enough, within reason of course. It’s the kind of reasoning that keeps the accountant within me appeased, because he does freak out from time to time.

My dominant line of thought however is that I think we should continue to “tinker and toy, hammer and hew” up to the point that feel we have something in our hands strong enough to convince even our biggest skeptic, and that as long as we break even, releasing a strong RPG in today’s environment is something that’ll create a lot of value for ourselves as a studio. Now, as it happens, I know said skeptic personally, and because it’s such a misanthrope, we’ll never manage to please it, but a healthy dose of positive idealism never hurts ;)

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An important lesson

I have these little notebooks in which I write down my thoughts. Every day I fill a couple of pages with new observations, questions and decisions. Whenever a notebook is full, I put it in a drawer, there to stay until the drawer is full at which point I empty the drawer, and put the notebooks in a box. I really don’t know why I bother with it, because I rarely read what I wrote, but I guess it helps me organise my thoughts. It also makes it look like I’m paying attention in meetings I’m not particularly interested in ;)

If you’d take the notebook that says January 2013, you’d see that I listed as major tasks for 2013, the organising Divinity: Original Sin’s kickstarter, releasing Dragon Commander and releasing Divinity: Original Sin. At that time, I only had hopes and aspirations and I really didn’t have a clue whether or not my plans were going to work.

Taking risks is of course part of the metier of running a game development studio, and there’s only that much that you can do to cover your bets. You know certain things will go wrong, you hope more things will go right. So last night, I started thinking about how we were doing compared to what I hoped for at the start of 2013…

I mention Dragon Commander a lot in this blog. If you don’t know what the game is about, it was released on August 6th 2013, and we made this fancy trailer to explain the game

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Dragon Commander is out now!

I’m very happy to announce that Dragon Commander is out today! It immediately went for the top of the Steam charts and I’m hoping that it’s going to stay there for a little while ;)

I want to thank everybody who made this possible, starting with the team who dedicated so much of their time these last months to make it something we could be proud of, all the people who kept on believing in us, even when the going was tough , and of course all the gamers out there who supported us. I’m  relieved to see that our initial press scores are positive, most of them being between 8 & 9, and obviously I hope it’ll stay that way. I really wasn’t sure how Dragon Commander was going to be received because it’s one of those cases where you have to look at the whole of the thing rather than individual components. I want to explicitly thank those reviewers who gave the game a second shot when they realised something was broken and contacted us, querying if what they saw was normal. Thanks to them we could fix what would otherwise have been quite a disaster ;)

It’s going to be a busy day today for us so I’m not going to linger here too much, but have fun playing Dragon Commander & spread the word. I’ll be back with a longer retrospective on my experiences developing and publishing Dragon Commander at a later date.

Many things to share!

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