Organic development – how random ideas became strategy

The mind is a funny thing.

As part of my preperation for yet another retail distribution presentation of our games, I was thinking this morning about how Dragon Commander and Project E came tor be, so I browsed through my notes from when both projects started.

I was quite surprised by what I found, because somehow I got it in my head that it was all about vision etc…, but the reality of it is that both games came into existence by accident.

This was in the summer of 2010, and we didn’t know yet that Dragon Knight Saga was going to be pretty succesful , so as usual, I was trying to think of how we could bring in enough money to keep the  studio going and one day manage to make that very big RPG I keep on talking about.

I had just met a couple of the larger publishers who kept on telling me that a) fantasy RPGs were never going to sell, and b) the future for me with Divinity was in making an XBLA & PSN version. Yes, I told you already that you shouldn’t always listen to them, but anyway, at that time it was a remarkably consistent message so I wouldn’t do my job if I didn’t at least think about what they were telling me.

Heading back to the office, I started scribbling down some thoughts. It was more a stream of consciousness than anything else, but I was surprised nontheless in reading them again this morning. Within those notes, lay the seeds of what by now have become two mature games, even if those random thoughts were still far away from what the games ultimately became.

As a background, you need to know that the agency we were working with had been telling me over and over that we could get a very large budget for an original vampire RPG. Being a diligent developer that always listens carefully to what more experienced people tell me,  and out of curiosity, I had quickly put something together which I planned to pitch as our new next shiny RPG.

Other than the three pages of text, the game didn’t exist, but my thoughts were that the idea was a good match with what the larger publishers were looking for. If I noticed sufficient  interest, I figured we might as well make a prototype and see where that got us. This of course was all before the epiphany came of going solo.

Summarized the pitch boiled down to

“Victorian Vampire is a new mature-audience steam-punk RPG set in 1861 in which you take on the role of a young brilliant archaeologist who becomes a vampire against his/her will, and travel the world of the American civil war, Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin and Louis Pasteur in a mad race against somebody who should not have been woken.”

I ran around pitching this to the usual suspects, and remarkably, my agents were right and there indeed was some interest for an original vampire RPG. So heading back to the office, I made my notes – here’s what I found back in my archive, dated  August 12th 2010, just after Gamescom:

Ok – what can you do ?

Vampire idea seems to be working. You need to work it out now, but you might actually make a smaller game out of it, the idea being that you generate quicker revenu out of it, the risk being lower. They’ll only fund if risk is gone, if at all.

Alternative: Self-publish an  item-fever focussed  action RPG baded on Div 2? Boring, so abandon that thought train. What about going back to the roots ?  Top-down, everything that made Divinity 1 cool + all the things you wanted to do but didn’t ? Think about that.

Whatever it is, you’ll need to do this on console too, or it’s not going to work. If on console, you need to put multiplay/coop in.  High risk.

Art deco, art nouveaux is cool though.

And you need to put the dilemma system in. That works.

Don’t do linear, even if you’re tempted to cut costs.

Maybe – Go top-down, go ga-ga on the amounts of enemies you are dealing with , massive damage, including environmental options and make the killing visceral enough (as in explosive rather than ragdolls). Put dopamine releasing X minute reward moments in it on the item fever part.  Power is felt by the amount of enemies you can destroy in one go –victorian setting will really shine here.

Do the guy with the hat and the gun/stick (so he has ranged and melee at the same time, allow him to upgrade those and do cool moves with it) – give him charles babbage/inventor technology for the specials (molotov cocktails, tesla electrical effect…)

Develop it as an IP that can go downloadable but can be extended if publishers show interest. I.e. you develop the base, the stuff that goes on in there, and you come up with a backstory that works for the limited case. On failure to sell, at least you can put it out as DLC.

Detective story ?

So think, can you do a cinemaware style DLC ? Use the victorian vampire setting ? Put that in multiplay, mix in the new choice system ?

Get team to make a victorian street (jack the ripper, foggy street) in which our character (with the hat) deals death and destruction to hordes of foes together with lady other player. Put in new interactive dialogue system, take one very cool situation. Should be sexy. If anything, it’ll look good on collective portfolios ;)

Talk to designers, see what victorian gives, have a look at what we could do top-down. Need new engine though.

Now, fast forward to february 2012 – we’re spending millions again, doing a Cinemaware style full fledged game, Steampunk style, with dragons (that idea came  a bit later) with plenty of choices, and strategy on top of that (that one came even later). We’re also doing the top down RPG.

The list of things that happened between those notes and now is enormous, but the original seeds were planted there, on the train and in those big publisher meetings, so I guess I need to thank them for that.

My retail distributors are now telling me that Dragon Commander has great potential, but because it has so many new elements, we will need time to explain it to players, so if we don’t that well, it’ll be a catastrophe.They’re also telling me that our top down RPG is exactly what players want, and that the mix between innovation and core shows great strategy on our part.

If only they’d know how this thing got started ;) I didn’t remember anything from those notes and had all forgotten about victorian vampire because it only lived for a couple of weeks.  I’m happy that some of the key phrases written down there are becoming reality, but it also got me reflecting about how games come to be.

In our case, it’s clear it was very organic. But I’m sure there are others out there that do it very systematically, and if we’d have to stand next to one another at some convention explaining how we came to make our games, I’d probably look like an idiot.

  • Pavel

    “Victorian Vampire is a new mature-audience steam-punk RPG set in
    1861 in which you take on the role of a young brilliant archaeologist
    who becomes a vampire against his/her will, and travel the world of the
    American civil war, Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin and Louis Pasteur in a
    mad race against somebody who should not have been woken.”Ok I would love that. Seriously. I am a bit overdragonned, with all that DKS and DAO and Skyrim, however vampire games? The only good one I can remember is Bloodlines. I hope you make it one day.

    • Anonymous

      You nailed it. And I think considering twilight, some new users can be won over.
      But there are so many more worlds to discover, I’m a bit sick of fantasy, modern and contemporary is much more attractive. (or at least something that simulates it) like Arcanum did

  • Wotan Anubis

    Pity the vampire idea didn’t work out. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines was the last really good vampire RPG even though it was a broken, buggy mess. Actually, it may have been the last vampire RPG period.

    In spite of the baffling success of Twilight, no new vampire games are getting made. Kind of a pity.

    Ah well. Yet more dragons is also good.

  • Arne

     I thought people working in game studios were not only talented but also very creative and yet you claim your first indie game idea was kind of an accident… Well, I like it, you don’t start working on ip’s until finally a great one pops into your mind… Dragons with jetpacks!
    I bet DC wíll contain a vampire princess though…

  • martin k.

    I already had an image of whole scene and interface when I started reading the “Victorian Vampire…” sentence. People would sell kidneys for that kind of game. Now, seeing that you are an European studio (no discrimination meant :P ), I don’t think you could fail with the Vampires set in Victorian era.

    With Tesla guns and magic. And steam trains and blade launchers. And all things mechanical and wondrous. And… Well, just make Arcanum with vampires and you’ll be worshiped as god. Seriously.

    • Lar

      Yes, it’s one of those ideas that immediately brings images to your head.

  • http://twitter.com/chautemoc Sean R.

    Definitely looking forward to Dragon Commander, but I want the Victorian vampire RPG too. Yes, yes, very much.

    • Lar

      Not going to happen any time soon I fear – between DC and project E, we’ve got our plate full for this year.

  • melianos

    Are you playing a vampire in Rivelon in project E ? :)

    • Lar

      No ;)

  • Peter

    Dito on the vampire RPG… but especially victorian steampunk setting. I loved the hell out of Arcanum.

  • Peter

    Dito on the victorian vampire steampunk RPG… interestingly the upcoming Dishonored (backed by Bethesda nonetheless) uses a steampunkish setting.

    • Lar

      We pitched it to Bethesda but they weren’t interested.

  • Peter

    It’s funny, reading the article again the detective story, guy with stick used for melee/ranged and the lady companion reminded me of the Crossgen comic “Ruse”. 

  • Xenoz

    Is there any chance in the future you will get back to the idea of a victorian vampire game? I seriously think there is a big demand for a good vampire RPG. The last one was Bloodlines many years ago. Its not a very used idea in RPGs. I personaly would prefer 3rd person over the shoulder, in the vein of Divinity 2 , not top-down, but even that would work. With your new plan to self-fund it would be awsome if you would revisit the idea in the future.

  • Derick

    Larian and Sven:
    You guys need to Kickstart this into existence like Tim Schafer did w/ his project.

  • d p

    Very interesting. I too would like a vampire rpg although id rather dragons. I’m a massive dragon fan, and so few games where you can fly as a dragon that isn’t on rails with limited movement. Just a quick suggestion, when your games are nearer to release you might want to send em to Duncan Harris at http://deadendthrills.com so he can take amazing shots you can use to advertise. If you check the faq he has short section for devs. He also has a contact form. Plz send him your game, i really would love a 2160p rendered screenshot of dragon combat as my background.