The inspiration behind project E

[In which I discuss that I’m an Ultima fanboy and how that inspires my RPGs]

I’ve been talking a lot about the Ultima VII games these last couple of weeks when pitching project E to the press. I happily abused them to explain where a lot of my inspiration was coming from, and what aspirations we have with our new game.

While talking about Ultima VII, it unfortunately dawned on me again that I’m really not that young anymore. Apparently half the journalists had never played any of the Ultima games, and several of them had never even heard about them.

I was a bit shocked by this, because to me that was like a fantasy book reviewer saying that he’d never heard about Tolkien. Of course, if you think about it, it does makes sense.  Most of these guys were still trying to figure out if Optimus Prime really existed when it was first released, yet for some reason that hadn’t occurred to me.

That didn’t dissuade me from talking about it though.  I consider Ultima VII: The black gate and Ultima VII: Serpent Isle to be among the best RPGs ever made, and in my mind there’s not been a single RPG since 1992 that surpassed them, including those now considered to be the industry benchmarks.

So why was I talking about Ultima VII so much ?

Well, for one, I was trying to explain that when making the first Divinity, my goal was to recreate the feeling I experienced when I played these Ultima games.

The Ultima games gave me a feeling I had never experienced before: that of totally being immersed in a world created by someone else. They were also the games that really got me into this business. I remember vividly the moment where I said to myself – right, this is what I want to do.

Ever since I started making RPG’s, I’ve been looking to recreate for other people the same experience I had with Ultima VII – it really is my drive. Now, in my mind I never succeeded in this but if I can believe the reviews and the fanmails, apparently Divine Divinity somehow struck the same chord for a lot of people. Which was quite motivating of course. The knowledge that even a subset of the original ambitions managed to satisfy players implied that if ever we succeeded in realizing the vision behind those ambitions, we might very well have a very big hit on our hands.

But as it happened, after the first Divinity, I lost track a bit – Beyond Divinity definitely wasn’t as good as Divine Divinity, and I always regretted making that one, even if it got ok reviews. Then the second mistake was made – the joys of console development steered Divinity II far away from the original idea, and so many compromises were made in that game that what shipped was but a shadow of what I had envisioned it to be.

While some of that was rectified it with the release of Divinity II: Dragon Knight Saga, in truth there are only a few gameplay moments in there that come close to the reason I set up this company.

So I explained to the journalists that with project E, I wanted to rectify that. When I’ll be playing the final version of project E, I hope that I’m going to get my Ultima VII vibe back, the method being recreating all of the values present in these masterpieces, and then taking it one step further.

Exactly how we intend to this you’ll discover soon enough, that means latest within a couple of weeks though I expect the news will break sooner. I’m quite nervous about how you all will react,because you’ll see we’re taking some risks, but you’ll also notice that we’ll be on very familiar ground. And you’ll also discover that project E really was a misnomer, it should be project D, but we had that one already 😉

  • Slava Gonakhchyan

    I always thought that Gothic series captured Ultima VII design quite well.
    Divine Divinity was a great game but I did not get Ultima VII feeling from playing it. Although it had unique and refreshing sense of humour.
    I’m interested in your interpretation of Ultima VII values because I don’t want another Ultima game – I can play Ultima VII even today(with the help of exult). That being said I’m waiting more information on project E. It will be awesome:)

    • Tuco Benedicto

      Yeah, despise being action games (combat side), these Gothic/Risen games nailed quite well the sense of wonder, immersion in a lively environment and the delightful quest design that Ultima games were famous for.

  • Ryan Dann

    Risks….. very interesting. So long as this game is deep with story, customization, and has more of and old school rpg feel then most arpg being made these days ill be happy! Cant wait to hear what E is!!! Btw when is the projected release? This year or 2013?

    • Swen Vincke

      When it’s done 😉 Which won’t be this year, but 2013 is very much the intention.

  • Joshua T Smith

    U7 affected me the same way. I’m very excited to see what’s up your sleeve! 🙂

  • Tuco Benedicto

    “I consider Ultima VII: The black gate and Ultima VII: Serpent Isle to be among the best RPGs ever made, and in my mind there’s not been a single RPG since 1992 that surpassed them, including those now considered to be the industry benchmarks.”

    Believe it or not, it’s the exact same opinion I have about the game.
    Ultima VII plus Serpent Isle it, for me, the unmatched paragon of the whole genre.
    Even with the poor combat.

    So, color me excited about Project E.
    Now, I’m not saying that I expect that much from you guys, but a hypothetical new Ultima VII with the combat system taken from Temple of Element Evil would be my “I can die smiling after playing this” kind of game.

  • Wotan Anubis

    I’ve never played any of the Ultima games either, but at least I’ve heard of them. The way those games (or the earlier ones, at least) handle ‘morality’ always intrigued me since there are multiple ways to be good and sometimes those ways conflict. A far cry from the rather binary Good/Evil choices from Bioware or Lionhead Studios. Or, indeed, the ‘every choice is wrong in some way’ system from the Witcher games.

    For me, though, I must admit, the ultimate RPG is the first half of Vampire: the Masquerade: Bloodlines. It’s got the atmosphere, it’s got the sense of immersion, it’s got great characters and it even has mutliple ways of solving most problems (early on). No other RPG I’ve played has really managed this, although Fallout: New Vegas came close.

    So if Project E will turn out like the first half of Bloodlines, I’ll be very pleased.

  • Dray

    Lar – I’m very interested in Project E because you are so passionate about drawing inspiration from Ultima VII.

    I’ve been saying for years, to pretty much anyone who’ll listen, that Ultima VII & Serpent Isle were the best games ever. I can relate to you when you describe getting lost in the worlds that Ultima created for you.

    I’m not sure exactly which elements of U7 and U7PartII you felt made it most memorable and immersive, but there were a few bits that stuck out for me…

    * the day/night cycle
    * the weather
    * the NPC schedules and the fact that you could pretty much anyone. You’d probably bugger up your changes of finishing the game, but you could still do it
    * the ability to control a party of characters (very important to me)
    * the paperdoll system in the inventory (in U7P2 anycase) so I could actually see the cool stuff I had found on my party characters… like putting a little ring on their finger.
    * the backpack style inventory where everything is pretty jumbled around and you had to search for stuff. Sure it wasn’t as each to find stuff as other RPG’s that had slots for everything, but this was just more immersive
    * the fact that you had to make sure you had some food for your party & appropriate clothing for them
    * needing to have some sleep and being able to pull out a bedroll anywhere
    * the magic system was great! I really liked the ability to use the recall spell on stones to jump back to anywhere
    * the ‘useless’ spells were great. Like the one that set off firework-like lights
    * creating food using magic was pretty cool, so you didn’t have to worry if you couldn’t carry around enough chow for your ravenous party
    * being able to go anywhere from the start of the game. This was very important to me.
    * the amazing soundtrack
    * forging items.. I mean actually doing it, using the bellows, hammer, etc – as opposed to what they did in Skyrim – meh.

    I could keep writing up stuff but you get the picture. I’m hoping that those are the same types of things you found captivating and are planning to build into Project E.

    • Swen Vincke

      You nailed quite a few of the points there that got me (and I imagine countless other players) hooked on U7. 

      I’m not going to pretend we’ll manage to make an as good game as U7, I’m not sure we’re ready for that. What I can guarantee is that we pretty much have all of the ingredients required, and that the ingredient list alone i something I want to play. Now we  just need to find a way to not mess up the resulting dish. If we don’t, I think you’ll be a happy trooper 😉

      On the subject of food btw – I’m still pondering how I’m going to get it  in there and get this accepted by a modern audience –  I vividly remember the frustration it caused, but I also remember the resulting joy once I figured out that it was now within my powers to ensure that my party was never going to go hungry anymore 😉 Not sure players nowadays have the same level of tolerance.The latter also immediately illustrates how we could get it completely wrong – it has been twenty years and players have evolved.

      Still, I think we have something good in our hands.

      • Fax Arronax

        I have often wondered why certain RPG developers do not provide a toggle option for old-school hardcore mechanics like food requirements (switching food from a necessity to a simple source of HP, perhaps), so as to accommodate the financial desire to maintain interest from the modern market while still allowing you to build the game you want (and a neglected crowd desires).  Obviously this would require extra time and money, but it would win the allegiance of a sizable community, not unlike Piranha Bytes which has been supported by its niche fan-base despite lackluster mainstream reviews (and companies like Bioware, though not w.r.t. food mechanics in particular, have paid the price accordingly).  Personally I would love to see the food requirements reintroduced, precisely because if everything is so slick and there are no micro-managerial ‘irritating necessities’ then there is no genuine sense of accomplishment (as you mention) – besides which planning food rations etc. is an important aspect of real life expeditions and has an immersive quality.  I like to think that apparent disinterest in such systems is due to the homogenisation and compromise of the modern industry, and that there are lots of gamers who would potentially enjoy the mechanic – they just don’t know it because they have never had the chance to experience it (or experience it in a well balanced game).

        One thing I am curious about – you mention in your January 16 (2012) blog entry that you have increasingly been moving away from the hands-on lead-designer/programmer roles (retaining control over the ‘general vision’.  Is it possible for you to say to what extent you are involved with Project E?  The tone you strike here (and oft praise of U7) seems to indicate that you have special interest and personal investment in this project… so perhaps we might expect to see something purer, in the sense of following more your personal vision than the business compromise, in a similar way to how Wasteland 2 will be uncompromising of Brian Fargo’s?  Alternatively, are members of the Project E team just as strongly inspired by U7?
        Whatever the case, I would add my name to those extremely excited at the prospect of a genuinely U7-ish isometric RPG with many (if not all) the qualities listed above.  This is, as of reading you blog entry, my most looked forward to reveal in the vicinity of E3.

        • Swen Vincke

          Describing my job is a bit hard given that I’m nowhere and all over the place at the same time, but I think it’s fair to say that I’m heavily involved in both the design and the direction of  both Dragon Commander & Project E. My general attitude to delegating stuff is to be as hands-off as possible when I like the way something is going, and to become very hands-on if I don’t like it. The latter can be quite annoying for people in the team, but I work very much from the gut and my credo is that if I don’t like it, chances are our players won’t like it either. I’m perfectly aware of the problems this can cause 😉

          • Fax Arronax

            Sounds like the ‘perfect’ balance!  Thank you for your reply.

      • AlexF

         You could always make it optional, like the hardcore mode in New Vegas. Irrational games have announced something similar (in spirit) for Bioshock Infinite, a 1999 mode for people who liked games like System Shock 2.

      • melianos

        You might wanna look what Eschalon Book 2 made in regards to the food and drink system.

        Basically you have a bar for each, when they are down you get penalties in health (and mana ?).
        But it’s optionnal, you choose at the beginning of the game if you want the need for food and drinks.

        And you might wanna look at Eschalon Book 2 anyway, it’s a really good old style rpg (no Cartography skill ? no minimap.)

      • Metoollhead

         Agree with melianos-

        An added “Optional” difficulty mode at the beginning, where you’ll have to manage food as well would be the best way to go, IMO. Same for resting.

      • Metoollhead

         One other thing I forgot to mention- the recently released Legend Of Grimrock also had food management as an important factor, and IIRC the game was pretty damn successful.

      • Anonymous

        Swen, it irks me when I hear the term “modern audience”. Us hardcore RPG fans are also modern, we’re not old or outdated, just passionate and demanding! There are plenty of young guys (and gals) who want RPGs with depth and complexity. 

        Just because mainstream console reviewers and casual RPG fans like to have their hands held doesn’t make them more “modern”, it just means they are a different target audience!

    • RyuRanX

      That’s exactly why Ultima VII is my favorite game of all time. Let’s hope Divinity III brings back the elements that made Divine Divinity a masterpiece (isometric camera, point&click combat, interactive backgrounds inspired by Ultima, huge open-world, memorable soundtrack). 
      Divinity II was a decent game, but it felt to much like a console oriented RPG for my taste. Most of the features I liked on the first one were not present in the sequel.

  • Lightinglockey

    I’ve heard a lot about the Ultima series but hesitant since it was apparently the last two Ultima games terminated the franchise.  I’m very fond of Divinity: Sword of Lies (Divine Divinity) to the point I rather call that game by its real name instead of the name you were forced to go with.  I’ve yet to play Beyond as I haven’t really haven’t had the time.

    DKS was ok, there were two things that kept it from being really good.
    1.) Rescuing the miners after the Broken Valley attack…they just ran to their death in poison fog???  The rescue should have been much earlier in the game. (was hoping this would have been patched)
    2.) Rune Handles.  Completed everything and spent 2 hours running around talking to all npc’s until finally asking on the forums what I was missing.  This “show-stopper” was a terrible experience for such a high tension portion of the game.  Would have been a good side quest please don’t ever have anything like this again for the main story line.

    Regardless from the sounds of it, this might top Sword of Lies I’ve been hungry for a game like this.
    And please don’t leave out Arhu and Verdistis.

    • Anonymous

      Why do you assume the miners died? They may not be mining coal, but air quality issues would still be a priority in mines, so they would presumably be able to handle a little poison fog.

      • Lightinglockey

         A “little” poison?  You’ve gotta be kidding the poison killed the trees and destroyed all traces of life!  The area is just totally wasted away.   Besides I can lecture about the health hazards from coal mining as I grew up in such a region where “black lung” makes it even harder to breathe and more likely to die then a healthy dragon in that poison mist.  If a Dragon Knight cannot stand it, then a mere human wouldn’t either.

        I call it the “stubbed toe” of the game, the only part that I really wish they’d fix.  You have the assassins attacking, the mine entrance blowing up to keep the demon thing in there and it would be just nicer to rescue them before Damian attacks.  It just feels really out of place with the flow of the game.

        • Anonymous

          The top of the walls outside were safe. When the miners got outside they either blindly all ran down the ramp until they died, or they saw the poison (and likely knew about it from when it happened and/or talk from the Black Ring guards in the tower) and dealt with it or avoided it to get away.

          Before the attack on Broken Valley the dragon knight didn’t have a reason to keep an enchanted gas mask handy, or learn an equivalent spell. The miners did, particularly because they were ‘mere humans’.

    • Swen Vincke

      No Verdistis I’m afraid, but Arhu, he is very much present…. As a random piece of trivia –  Arhu was named after somebody on our forums who occasionally wrote pretty intelligent pieces. 

      As for the mine – another example of something where the intention was to do much more but we had to compromise because we were running out of time. 

      • Lightinglockey

        I remember Arhu from before Sword of Lies release…I wonder what happened to him.  Its a shame that we couldn’t play a puzzle game as that cat, I’m sure it be interesting.

        Verdists 🙁

        Well that explains why the mine always felt lacking.  Hopefully that is the last time you end up cutting something too short.  It is also why I’m really looking forward to Dracon Commander and Project E because they will be done with the the loving care needed.

  • Tuco Benedicto

    I’m not sure if you care, Swen, but I’d like to inform you that I started a thread about this blog on NeoGAF: 

    Feel free to join the discussion, if you have the patience for it.

    • Swen Vincke

      See, that’s funny. I actually found out about the NeoGAF thread because a console publisher contacted me over it, putting a link in his mail and telling me that he wanted to know about this new RPG we’re making. I thought that was a rather interesting example of how the world is changing.  I never realized NeoGAF has that much influence, so thx for that! 

      Should ever a deal materialize from the meeting now set up as a result of him querying me as a result of you posting, I owe you a dinner at the very least.

      • Tuco Benedicto

        Early beta access to Project E would be fine enough.
        But yeah, jokes aside, NeoGAF is probably one of the most influential gaming forums around today, if not THE most influential.

        I’m essentially a newbie there, as I joined their community barely few months ago, but they have a lot of people working in the game industry that post quite regularly and/or follow their discussions.

        On a side note, would you mind if I’m going quote your reply in that thread? 
        Not sure if it’s an approriate thing to do, so I’m asking to you.

  • Tuco Benedicto

    EDIT: double post.

  • Metoollhead

    Hi there.

    Is “Project E” that Dragon Commander game you’re working on, is it a separate title?

    • Anonymous

      It is a separate title. Dragon Commander (a strategy/action/RPG game) was referred to as Project D before it was announced. Project E is a traditional RPG with a top down camera view (no details on implementation).

      In a forum post more than a year ago, Swen wrote:
      “You can think of E as the original Divinity in a modern jacket augmented
      with many of the insights we gained over the course of they years and
      some new things we’d like to try out (with the caveat that those
      sometimes work, and sometimes don’t).”

  • Arne

     Never heard of it before, but I took a look at … The camera angle isn’t top-down nor isometric, ouch! My brain tissue can’t stand it! You’d better make sure Project E looking nice.
    Just one more question: will Larian head to this year’s GamesCom as well?

  • Fax Arronax

    So it would seem the first previews are out?

    Turn *and* party based (as if we weren’t spoiled enough), with quality (non- post-2000 Biowarean melodrama) Larian quality writing…  who would ever have thought that (right when ‘those-who-should-know-better’ would seem to have left us) the potentially closest thing to a baldur’s gate / fallout /arcanum / ultima 7 successor (save, perhaps, Wasteland) might come from a Belgian developer with a history of both consoles and (albeit encouragingly ultima-esque) hack-n-slash?

    Not entirely what I was expecting in terms of art-style, but the signs (if Google-translate is taken at its ‘word’) are very good indeed.  Presumably activities like ‘engaging an NPC to conversation with one character while using the other to sneak into a cellar’ can be employed by single players (not just those playing cooperatively)?
    I only wish this was coming out in 2012…  I hope it is a fantastic success.

    • Arne

      Nice research, good job! Thanks for that!

    • Katrien Cornelis

       ai..turn based 🙁  I hope the co-op makes it a bit more fun because there have been few not to say no times when I enjoyed turn base gameplay (except irl ofc.)(it’s alla king’s bounty i suppose(not the game ofc just the turn based)  graphs look,erm, well I need more screenshots before I can conclude on that.I’m guessing the interface is still in dev/tweaking mode.. but turn based, respect for that decision,and I’m quite sure a whole lot of people will adore larian for having the guts, but unless they suprise me in an awesome way (which is not impossible,certainly not for you guys) this could be a dealbreaker for me..but still, rooting for my fav game makers

    • Anonymous
    • Illusive Man

      Yep, Top-down, Turn and party based RPG = Christmas time !
      Can’t wait for some videos and more details on the single player mechanics.

      And now we know it’s a prequel named Original Sin maybe Sergei or Swen can reveal what was the Eye-thing they’ve planned before…

      • Farflame

        “Eye of mr.Vincke looking for the first time at awesome Divinity/U7 concept”? 🙂

  • Ean Bearaneck

    No more clunky Ultima VIII-esque jumping puzzles then? 😉

  • Catristine Mystrix

    I personally liked Ultima 9 and Divinity II: Dragon Knight Saga is still one of my favorite games to play. I am really looking forward to Project E!