[In which I wonder what strategy Larian should follow when the next generation of gaming platforms arrives]
Something is bothering me.
Now ordinarily, I’d shrug such suggestiveness off as yet another misplaced opinion from somebody uninformed trying to be interesting, but since this was the third time I received a question of this type, it actually got me thinking.
Of course, it’s perfectly possible that I’m not actually dealing with a trend – in each of those three cases it might have been the same journalist asking me the same question in a different flavor. I don’t know, my name/face memory really is that bad. But even if it would be the same guy, my inability to immediately refute his statement and give him 10 reasons why he’d better go and study the lifecycle of leishmania, instead of bothering me with such stupidities, well, that inability disturbs me.
You see, I should’ve had an answer ready right away. That I hadn’t, meant I hadn’t thought the matter through sufficiently, and I think I should have. It’s part of my job after all, doing all this vision and strategy thing. To make matters worse, not so long ago I was making the exact same type of comments to other developers who weren’t adapting to the new state of the art, warning them that they were heading for the graveyard.
Since I was right about several of these developers, it therefore followed that I’d better start worrying when a few guys (or one guy, we’ll never know) state(s) that Larian looks like one of those archers in a time of intercontinental ballistic warfare in a game of Civilization…
The argument why I need to pay heed is painfully simple –big boys are spending big bucks on increasing the quality of their games and thus raise consumer expectations. The little guys can’t meet these expectations so they either disappear or search for other markets, preferably markets where the big guys haven’t spoiled the party yet.
Oversimplifying and slightly misrepresenting things, this reasoning is what lead to the following business strategies being implemented in the past: Quality of X360 too high for you? No problem, make a DS game. Quality too high there too ? Try making an Iphone game. Can’t manage that either ? Well how about HTML5 ? That getting too crowded ? Perhaps it’s time for a serious game? Too tough a market? Have you tried gamifcation? Etc…
I’m only half-kidding, because the track records of many developers who disappeared from that big game-industry-map they send around each year (which doesn’t include Larian for some stupid reason), indeed show that several of them followed the strategy sketched here, and then perished…
Faced with more complicated and thus more expensive development as a result of technological innovation, the survival strategy these developers adopted was to look for the path of least resistance, preferably in growing markets, in the vain hope of making it big there. Admittedly, this worked for some, typically the pioneers, but in most cases it didn’t work at all, especially when inevitably the competition in those markets started increasing.
Larian did exactly the opposite last time we had a generation shift. Instead of turning our eyes to simpler things, we decided to go full monty and dived blindfolded into next-gen-console-development-hell, creating the monster that was Divinity II: Ego Draconis, and eventually polymorphed that into Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga. That we burned ourselves pretty badly in the process shouldn’t come as a surprise, but in hindsight, it wasn’t such a bad strategy.
I deduce this from observing the scarcity of survivors among my fellow independent developers whom I used to meet at such sad events as Game Connection. So something must have set Larian apart, and I think us not abandoning what at that time was considered the forefront of game development was an important factor in this. We certainly became better developers as a result of the entire thing, and the games we’re making now are only possible because of what we went through then.
But that’s the past, and the question our journalist friend had was about the immediate future – what indeed are we thinking, continuing to make games when there are such apparently fantastic games like Far Cry 3 and Watchdogs on horizon, paid for by the Canadian tax payers? Shouldn’t we crawl in a little corner and slowly fade away faced with such brilliance?
One obvious answer is that there are different genres, with each genre having a different audience, and as long as the audience for our genre is there, we’ll continue to be. I for instance won’t be playing Far Cry 3 as I don’t like first person shooters. I probably won’t play Watchdogs either, as it looks like an action adventure to me, and I’m no big fan of how they make those nowadays. At best I’ll look at these games out of professional interest, but it’ll be for work, not for fun.
But what the journalist meant was of course how we were going to deal with the technology angle. He looks at those trailers and demos, sees visual delight, then looks at the games of smaller developers, and decides they are no match for what the big boys are showing.
Yet, there’s nothing I’ve seen technology wise in those videos that my team couldn’t pull off, provided they’d have access to the same budget. What’s impressive about those videos is how much work went into the content of those games. It’s really a matter of the amount of people the developers of said games put to the task, and in the cases quoted, its apparent there were a lot of people working on thisy. But, given the same budgets, it’s possible (and in my humble opinion even probable) that we could even do better than what’s on display. After all, there’s a lot of persistent rumors that there’s a lot of waste going on with those Canadian tax dollars.
So what our journalist then really meant was – what are you doing making games without having the same budgets these guys have?
Well, historically, that’s something that’s been said several times to me, by people much higher placed in the games industry hierarchy than our journalist. Yet Larian’s still here. I think I mentioned already somewhere on my blog that one of the guys that pissed me off the most in this context, was a publisher dude who suggested I’d actually be better off changing industries. In the same conversation, the guy showed what he considered to be his cultural dominance by stating that Belgium had no art history at all. I remember being quite mad about this, but I didn’t bother correcting him. Instead I rewarded him for his ignorance by immortalizing him in Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga as a particular sad character, the dude souldbound to a chicken (if you haven’t seen it, just click the link) Tbh, I still regret doing that – he didn’t deserve it.
Anyway, based on that alone, I could opt to tell our journalist that his point doesn’t have any merit, but actually, that’s not really true. My first game was made on a budget of 50KU$, my last game cost more than 5MUS$ to make – and this happened over the span of 15 years. You can’t argue that it’s inflation alone that fueled this increase in orders of magnitude, and indeed, it can only be the cost of content that increased, because the gaming gods know that not that much progress was made on the actual gameplay front, at least not in the RPG genre.
Making the question our journalist asked, really one in which he wonders if Larian is going to be able to produce content of similar quality like that displayed in the Watchdogs videos?
Or, is this the point where we drop out of the race, and do what countless of developers have done before us– move to “easier” markets ?
Or in soccer terms – are we going to shelve our ambitions of becoming Barcelona one day, and content ourselves with a position in the sub-top?
Of course not.
I checked my roadmap to the very big RPG that will dwarf them all, and nowhere does it say that I should content myself with sub-par visualizations or world simulation, so state of the art content is still on my todo list.
But how will we manage to do that, given the quality of content that could become the new standard ?Now there’s a very good question…
I obviously have a bunch of answers & a strategy in my head, but I’m going to refrain for the moment from posting it here. I’m really interested in what you all think about what the options are for a studio like ours are, thinking a few years down the road when supposedly games like Watchdogs & co become the norm. There’s a zillion things we could do, and we’re for not going to sit idle, but if you could choose, what would you do?
After we finished Dragon Commander and Divinity: Original Sin, what should we do to avoid the fate of all those developers I talked about and instead ensure we can make that bloody big RPG I’ve always wanted to make ?
Or in other words, what do you think is our golden path ?