The route to the very big RPG that will dwarf them all

Reading this blog, you might get the impression that the only thing I deal with is the financial side of development. Yet, when you look at the credits of Larian Studios games, you’ll discover that I used to be both lead designer and programmer of games like Divine Divinity.

Me selling some of my games - every little bit helps

What happened was that in the early 2000’s, I could get away with me being in charge of most things. But as productions scaled up and teams became larger, I was forced to (very reluctantly) release several of my roles as I was doing more damage than good. My main job became that of being the one outlining the general vision, and overcoming any obstacles encountered during executing that vision.

Since it turned out that financing topped the obstacle list, I ended up focussing a lot of time on the cash aspect of the business.  But to be honest, I hate this part of the job,  it’s not the reason I founded this studio. There really are days when I say, the hell with it, I want to program again, I’m not dealing with this stuff any longer (today is one of those days 🙂 )

But then I remember the ultimate goal, the making of “the very big RPG that will dwarf them all”, and I get on with it, realizing that the side-quest of finding of what Hollywood calls “Fuck-you money” is realy becoming urgent.

The problem is, every time I think we’re close to achieving that point, costs go up, and we need to find more cash, which doesn’t really help.

So, a plan was formed…

Here’s a break-down of what it cost us to make the Dragon Knight Saga

  • 4M € employees
  • 900K€ freelancers
  • 270K€ outsourcing of artwork
  • 200K€ hardware
  • 700K€ software licenses
  • 400K€ localisation

for a total of 6,5M€. That’s a lot of money and as the Dragon Knight Saga was released via co-publishing deals , it also meant that we needed to take care of the majority of this investment ourselves, since the publishers only contributed partially to the funding.

Our modus operandi was to make cash with kids games like for instance Monkey Tales or Adventure Rock, and then spend it on the RPG. This approach obviously worked since we managed to release the game, but in hindsight, I’m sure we could’ve done it for a lot less and with a lot less frustration.

Knowing what I know now, I think we could’ve brought down costs by 2M€, and had this game been made in another country (Belgium has notoriously high labor taxes), we could perhaps have made all of The Dragon Knight Saga for less than 4M€.

So part one of the plan is to try to use our financial resources in a more clever way, applying lessons learnt, allowing us to put more stuff in our future games.

Part two is that instead of spending a lot of effort on non-core games to earn money, we focus on making more core-games.

The reasoning there is quite simple – we noticed that good sales on The Dragon Knight Saga are correlated to good sales of the other Divinities, with people in general enjoying the games. More good Divinity games should therefore make the entire series stronger, and an added advantage is that we are working on making more RPG technology, rather than non-RPG tech, which will help bring down costs in the future, and further accelerate our development cycle.

That’s why in addition to Dragon Commander, we’re also working on an unannounced RPG (which btw is closer on the release horizon than most people think J )

Part three is to earn more revenue per game sold. That’s why we’re going the self-publishing route, cutting out the middle-men, as outlined in a previous blog post. Here too there are extra advantages, because not only do we make more money to fuel our future ambitions, but we also have more control of how our game is released, something we’ve had quite a lot of issues with in the past.

Now if you read of all that, have you noticed what I’ve become ?

I’m a guy that started a game development company because he was inspired by Ultima VII to make huge RPGs, with a vision of a free systemic game-world coupled to a strong storyline and powerful character development mechanics. But all I talked about here was more cost-efficiency, more company focus and higher margins.

Still, I don’t think there’s any other route. To be able  to fulfill the ambition of the “very big RPG that will dwarf them all”, we need to cash-rich enough to disappear from the planet for a couple of years, and focus on doing only that. We need to enter that development with plenty of RPG experience and technology, and we need to know that upon release, we’ll be able to recoup our investment so we don’t go down immediately afterwards because some publisher tells us “so long and thank you for all the fish”.

So we’ll try to make two very good games that will be released in 2012-2013, do this as cost-effective as possible, ensure that what we build will help us in the future, and fight to maximize our revenue from these games, so that perhaps in 2015 you might see the game this company was created for.

At least, that’s the plan. Between that goal ofcourse and where we are today, there’s a huge obstacle course, which brings me back to my current job-definition a.k.a. acting as either a bulldozer or a kangoroo.

  • pawel

    Are you suggesting moving business to another country?
    Also, do you think it’s possible to make a game with more content than Skyrim (with your funds)? I’m afraid, that if you miss that goal, people won’t recognize your achievement. Unless you don’t do it for recognition and fame, but for your own satisfaction 🙂

    • Shahin

      Have you played any of Larian’s games? I’d say their design goals differ pretty significantly from Bethesda’s and there are a lot of people who could care less about the amount of “content” in an RPG that completely lacks any reactivity to your choices and has shallow, lackluster writing. 
      I think Swen wants to make his own dream RPG, according to the design goals he feels are important to him and would be satisfied if it was profitable. I doubt he meant “create a game with wider appeal than Skyrim”. If he wanted to do that, he could probably stick with publisher funded games.

      • Pawel

        Of course, I played the Divinity series. I understand that less content in this aspect isn’t equivalent to game being worse, but the press and most players probably think otherwise. Anyway, I wish Larian  Studios all the best.

        • Benjamin Lindquist

          I really hope that’s not true. At least for me it definitely isn’t. I enjoyed gothic 1&2 a lot more than 3 because there was too much content in 3 that wasn’t polished. I know there were some issues with Jowood and all that but the point still stands. I’d rather play a “smaller” finished and well thought out game than a huge unpolished one.

  • Swen Vincke

    If we didn’t have any family and friends here, the rational thing would be to move out – we could almost make double the games we can make now for the same investment. 

    As far as Skyrim is concerned, luckily it’s not the only way you can make a RPG.

    • Sean R.

      Quality and uniqueness matters much more than quantity in RPGs. Polish sure is great, too…

      • Swen Vincke

        I’m going to pick up on this for my next post – it’s an argument that’s been raging in our offices on and off for the last couple of years, and there’s quite a lot to be said about it.

    • guest

      To be honest I enjoyed DKS more than skyrim. I think Skyrim had a lot of pluses (and was better than oblivion) but at the heart it seemed emotionless and the story never really progressed as you worked through the game. Hum. I play bethesda games but generally they seem stale (heartless?). I wonder if fallout is any better? Anyways that is not to claim DKS was the perfect game; it had its own set of issues but I found it more enjoyable (though I really should avoid bunnies.

      • Arne

        I tried Skyrim for a few hours. I was actually overwhelmed by the amount of quests, characters,… It had actually become a plague, with almost no clear view on what a quest was actually about, which characters were involved into it. I assume this game’s problem is the lack of importance and indeed, excitement on each quest, or perhaps the fact that this whole world is presented in just one piece, from the beginning on. Alltough i did kinda like Fallout 3. Maybe becouse some npc’s did matter to me (like dad or Threedog) whilst in Skyrim they were all just puppets to me, and i don’t remember any of them ever being happy. But those quests are awful. Yeah right, why would you actually go one of those hundreds if you can finish the game in just a few hours. But why would i even be interested in travelling to some greybeards (no i never visited them)? The main quest should capture a player’s attention from the very start.
        I believe there’s still some magic to linear storytelling as long as every part of the story is worth it. Larian did a great job introducing some foolish npc’s (like the chicken rune user and Bellegar) and the funny mindreading moments ánd dialogues (like trading with Willy or insulting Sassan bis) while maintaining the rest of it’s world a combination of darkness and beauty. Rivellon was presented in parts, and i prefer finishing an area before picking up the main trail (which was impossible in Skyrim). Or am i the only one?
        I wish Dragon Commander will inherit this mindreading ability and crazy dialogues style, for this is what separates a true Divinity Game. And i also hope it will have a main quest. I can’t imagine how to do this in a i wonder if this works strategy game, but since the presenter on gamescom cam so proudly presented Dragon Commander as a mixture of genres, i’m sure Vincke will come up to something.
        Together with cd project red this studio continues to be my favourite fantasy developper!

  • Peter

    Funny that Skyrim was mentioned, since Bethesda has quite similar origins like Larian (in fact, Todd Howard is a big fan of Ultima VII himself). Had Larian been in the USA, perhaps you guys would be as big as Bethesda?

    Since you mentioned the high taxes in Belgium, how is it compared to say, Germany? Germany has a lot of indie developers of RPGs and adventures that manage to keep themselves afloat (apart from, unfortunately, Radon Labs).

    • Swen Vincke

      Here’s the worst example I can think of – trying to pay somebody a bonus on top of his regular wage:

      Employer costs

      Social security employer

      Social security employee

      Personal income tax

      Net employee

      So the employee ends up with 24% of what the employer paid if the employer wants to give him a bonus.

      Germany is quite a lot cheaper than Belgium on the taxation front, but it’s fiscally also a lot more stable. 

      • Sergei Klimov


        In Russia, if your studio spends $5000 on an employee, the employee walks away with $2650 in cash. Unless he has a “management contract”, in which case he walks away with $4700 out of the $5000 paid. Which sounds great, until you realize that when, say, this employee’s grandfather goes to hospital, it’ll take $10000 in hard cash to green-light an operation, and most likely you’re better off sending the guy to an Israeli clinic after all, which will cost double.

        Social security is a tough subject. A friend of ours, a lawyer from Stockholm, got diagnosed with cancer. In Stockholm, the state took care of every little detail, and she’s now back to litigation and happy times. In a country with lesser taxes, she would have had to pay through her nose to save her life, the operation alone was $74000 in the US clinic, and then you wonder if actually a dev team that feels safe works different from a dev team that feels the need to earn, and use the earning to build a decent life.

        I have to say, there is a lot of crap done just to “earn some money” and best games are done by people who just “feel like telling a story”, and not by those who are chasing the revenue stream. Show me a motivated ambitious designer who wants to create a kick-ass game, and I’ll show you an IGF winner. Show me a developer who wants to be “popular” or “rich”, and I’ll show you the disregard for the players.

        In other words, Larian’s a multi-cultured, game-focused, ambitious team. The people bear high taxes but the people also get full focus just on the games, as everything else in their lives is pretty much OK. I said so many times, Outcast has proven the skill of the Belgian teams – and you can create a new benchmark with the Larian team.

  • guest

    Are you at liberty to indicate the total sales and larian revenues from DKS ? Given your publishing deals that would suggest that sales had to be over 12M for you to break even.

    • Swen Vincke

      Not really – our publishing deals were revenue and cost share deals, meaning that costs are deductible (including in most cases dev costs) from the gross revenue and any remaining profit is then shared according to the revenue share. So in a 50/50 rev share deal, if the game cost 6M€ to make, and publishing costs were 2M€, we deduct 8M€ from 10M€ and share the remaining 2M€ 50/50.

  • Illusive Man

    270K€ outsourcing of artwork ?! Larian lacks artists ?

    So project E is close to Official Press Release. Wonder how you mixed RPG, “Eyes” of something and teleporter stones…

    P.S.: please, don’t hate what you become and don’t become what you hated.

    • Illusive Man

      I just read the DKS manual and noticed there were 16 artists credited as “outsourcing”.
      I guess 270K€ isn’t that much compared to 16 full-time jobs at Larian.

      Funny how Focus’ employee are entitled. No clue about what they were doing…
      It strengthens the black magic aspect of publishing 😀

  • Sergei Klimov

  • Sergei Klimov

  • Slava Gonakhchyan

    I always loved meaningful interactivity of Larian games and sense of humour. For me those two things make the game. The openness of Swen suggests that money is not the goal for Larian. I feel that Larian can make a truly great game(greater than DKS) for it’s niche audience(guys who like the strong points that I underlined). But don’t try to aim as high as Bethesda because for me everything that it’s games has to offer now lies on the surface and don’t invoke emotions as Larian games. But Bethesda’s games make money precisely because of that. Instead try to focus on developing strong points that make your games great. What I mean by that – don’t waste money on voice actors and other stuff for broad audience, try to satisfy your niche.
    Thanks for you hard work.

  • annon

    I am looking forward to dragon commander and the unannounced rpg. I think Divinity 2 was a lot better than skyrim , because the game was longer. I spent maybe 20 hours maybe on skyrm  ( only 3 on  the actual main story) whereas I spent at least 100 hours and beat Divinity 2 three times. I am really hope you succeed  so I can play the awesome game that will dwarf them all.

  • Pavel

    You guys should move out of that socialist hellhole that is Belgium. My own country (Czechland) is a socialist hellhole too and it sucks.

    Anyway I love reading these. Very insightful. I bought Divinity 2 DKS on Impulse (back when it was still impulse) and loved it, and I plan to buy your next games…I assume they will be great fun, and I want to support your desire to make an RPG that will dwarf them all.

    Recently here in Czechland new studio appeared – Warhorse – they consist of veterans (lead dev is Mafia 1 and 2 writer/designer) and are also making a “dream game RPG” – Dan Vavra (the lead) just posted a very interesting blog on the topic of founding of studio – they were extremely unlucky for a year and a half, and then got extremely lucky when they found an investor.
    Anyway, read here, very interesting I think:

  • Tom Hank

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  • Shawn Jones

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