Seeking the Golden Path

[In which I wonder what strategy Larian should follow when the next generation of gaming platforms arrives]

Something is bothering me.

Yesterday I received a request for doing an interview, the subject being “Why are you still active when there is such competition as Watch Dogs or Farcry 3

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.

Thinking about the future of Larian always brings out the serious in 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 ?

  • Metoollhead

    Well, I can’t say I have a very wise opinion to give, but there are a few simple truths:

    1. Gaming niches will always exist
    2. Throwing money at a project doesn’t necessarily make it better

    As long as a developer keeps it in mind, and makes a game for a certain crowd while not spending too much money on it, I believe he can make a good living out of it, while still making things he enjoys.

  • http://twitter.com/Bagdadsoftware Christoph Hofmann

    Continue doing what you’re good at as long as you are still having fun doing it and there are people willing to pay enough for it so you can keep doing it.

    It really hurts to see some of my “colleagues” asking such boneheaded questions only to get some idiotic headline-quote or, even worse, a statement to reinforce their already formed “objective” opinion.

    So what would I have asked? Nothing. My article would’ve had an entirely different scope. Looking perhaps on how small publishers/developers manage to still compete in today’s AAA-world despite all the adversities or something in that regard.

  • Guest

    Blizzard has proven time after time that ultra high detail graphics are not needed to create a best selling game. They still produce WoW expansions after 7 years and people still play it despite their outdated graphics.
    Some people have called their first impression of D:OS (unrightfully) a diablo 3 look a like. So it seems to me that those people think that your graphics match up.

    In my opinion, if the game has its heart in the right place, who cares about Watchdogs & Co…

  • Felix Vanderhallen

    Atmosphere is key to make gamers love your game… Especially in the RPG genre. You need to be pulled in from the first second.

    Games like Vampire: Bloodlines, The Witcher 2 and Fallout (1&2) did this. Even though they didn’t all sell well, a game like Vampire:Bloodlines became a cult hit, with gamers like myself really worshipping the individuals behind the game. We know that persons like Jason Anderson, Leonard Boyarsky stand for quality. Their company and brand stands for quality… If you enjoy this love from your consumers, they will be your marketing machine for your titles and will buy your products…

    If you come back tot the question of the journalist, you should change Watch dogs in a game like The Witcher 2. A technically perfect product with a groundbreaking take on morality and emotional storytelling. Is Larian capable of surpassing this level? I think so with the same budget… But Larian needs make a game that makes gamers worship the brand Larian… And the only way tot do that is to release a technically perfect product which fully pulls you in its atmosphere…

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      I would love to make a technically perfect product – it’s not something we ever managed, and I’m not sure we’ll ever manage. The main problem is that  if we think it’s  necessary to make a change something to improve the gameplay, even late in the dev cycle, we’ll always do it – this is contrary to the approach required to make something technically perfect. But it’s not that we don’t try :)

  • Fabrice Lété

    I completely agree with your observation that stepping down from platform to platform as the bar raises is not damage control, it’s a death march. Stepping up is a big leap of faith, but having just read through the book “Gamers at Work” (stories of successful start-up founders in the video games industry), that seems to be the only way to massive success. It’s full of stories of a few guys pulling 100+ hours a week in a basement, signing upfront for three PS1 titles and delivering.

    I recently discussed with a game designer colleague, and we agreed that what we wanted to do the most was not big mainstream games, but “niche” games. I am always wary of the “niche” term because it might sound pejorative, but in my mind it’s not. Catering for a specific audience has lots of advantages, mostly because these people care. And people who care tend to buy, and tend to talk about the games they like with their friends. Of course a high budget niche game is risky, but I think it might pay off a lot more than going full frontal with Far Cry.

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      I agree with the specialist approach – we’ve clearly picked RPGs which isn’t the easiest genre, but the “advantage” is that the complexity of the genre limits competition.  

  • Arne

    This post is quite disappointing, after another month we got the same question all over again. And it’s a theoretical one: no one can predict what impact DC or DOS will have next year. Will it be a step closer to the rpgtwdta or will it be just enough to survive? It’s obvious there’s no regret of your actions the last years so why bother now I say. At least that facial recording device will come in handy either way. There should now be a budget for better trailers. No excuses. (unless you’re planning on a full body movement capturing set, or whatever it’s called)

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      Hmmm… are you referring to this one ? http://www.lar.net/2012/06/23/the-million-units-manual/

      I guess you have a point – they are touching upon the same subject. Can’t help it I’m afraid – It’s something that’s occupying me for the moment – one of the things about development teams is that any change in direction takes a lot of time, so you need to try to look far into the future, and that’s no easy thing because it’s such a changing environment. 

      Technically speaking, we cannot afford to wait to see what Dragon Commander & Divinity Original Sin are going to do – by then we need to be already busy on our next thing, and as I hope I demonstrated, making the wrong choice can mean certain doom. 

      Because of that, it’s probably worthwhile spending some time on the subject :)  

      • Arne

         In the overlapping time you should try to port your engine. Since it’s already running on Mac (I suppose OpenGLD is being used this time) the easiest one should be Linux (Ubuntu). If I’m not mistaken more and more attention from other companies is drawn to the open source OS. Of course, Linux might not be as stable as Windows or Mac…

        • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

          Engine work definitely makes sense, that’s for sure. But what of the designers, QA, writers, artists etc… ? No, by the time those games are finished, we need to already have something new in the pipeline. 

          • Arne

             Perhaps there are already plans? I remember you telling the cynical brit about The Adventures of Little Dragon Puppets or something like that?

  • http://www.facebook.com/leeroy.shintaho Leeroy Shintaho

    I think a prime example of this is Grinding Gear Games (Path of Exile) – an ARPG made by 18 people. Diablo 3 sold like hotcakes, because it had the Diablo name, tons of internet icons helped hype it up and they had the whole WoW populous. Look at Starcraft 2. Brood War is superior to watch and play and WHY?

    There’s a difference between companies. Some have lots of money and no innovation, others have little money and are incredibly innovative. Some custom levels for Doom are worth more than a lot of small modern games IMO.

  • snippet

    What matters to me is design. It will always outshine graphics. Lots of popular “best ever” games weren’t graphical powerhouses in their time, yet they sold and they are still being played even today.

    You might not sell as much without fancy top of the line graphics, but you also definitely won’t have to spend as much on development and ditch some gameplay elements for the sake of shiny stuff. Far Cry 3 is a tech demo and Watchdogs is a gimmicky scripted action adventure. No one will give a crap about them after a year or two, yet for some reason, many people still fondly remember (and play) not so shiny games. Games like Fallout, Planescape: Torment, Deus Ex, Baldur’s Gate 2 and most definitely Divine Divinity as well.

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      Your point is more than valid – and at the risk of sounding like a tired record, one of the biggest problems with avoiding the top of the line gfx, is press.

  • Sergei Klimov

    Amanita Design is a studio that did not step down from PC, but rather added other platforms to the PC platform: Mac, PSN, iOS. They are a team of less than 10 people, from Czech Republic (so no help from Canadian taxpayers in their case), and they’re going to enjoy a revenue of several million dollars this year due to success of Botanicula; which is not a sequel to any of their previous games, i.e. they were able to both step forward and remain original at the same time.

    I’m not sure that Amanita is bothered by the “big boys” or that it’s looking for a niche. As long as dev team has the real talent, it needs not worry about survival.

    Another example would be Minecraft, of course. Just because of today’s news that it’s selling at the rate of 17.000 units a day on Xbox. It’s a super-small team from Stockholm, where cost of living is high, and cost of doing business is certainly higher than in Canada (no grants from the government, or tax breaks). Minicraft is not even on Steam, because it grew so well without any need for a platform to support it.

    And what’s notch’s biggest issue right now? Creating his next original product. So, he’s another example of how talent provides for its owners.

    I would agree with both Snippet and Mr. Hofmann that the best strategy for an indie studio is to do what it does best – create kick-ass stuff – and if the heart is there, and the talent is there, all doors will open for such a team. 

    It’s normal for a studio to spend 4-5 years to achieve its first success. Most of the dead indies of late are the studios who’ve been around for 10-15, however, and all I can say to them is, you guys just failed to adapt, you had your chance but you ruined it. So smile, be happy and start up something new. Games development needs not be painful or difficult past the first few years after college. It’s a great industry, a great business, and if something’s not working out, well, change the model.

    A few studios I know of, are looking for funding for their new projects for the last 3-4 years. They complain about difficult markets, they complain about publishers, press, everything, but what I’m seeing is just teams who expect the world to bow… but there’s nothing to bow to, yet. So perhaps they should have been creating small but wonderful stuff instead. Players and teams would be all the happier for it.

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      Amanita does good games within their genre – it just happens to be that RPGs are more work intensive than what they make. You can’t do a RPG with their amount of staff. 

      Minecraft – well, it’s the type of  defining game based on a systemics that happens from time to time. For each Minecraft however there’s a million failures, so  trying to model yourself on that is fairly dangerous I think. 

      I concur that a studio should focus on what it does best, but in our case, we do need to take into account that the type of games we make aren’t the type of games that can be finished in a year or so, even if we’d like that to be true. It’s just not doable.

      And that means we have to look further down the line that guys who can do their thing with small teams. If you’re going to spend 2 years or more on a game, you don’t want to find out at the end of the line that you picked the wrong technology or platform. 

      We’ve seen plenty of examples of good games in the past that died because of this. 

  • http://twitter.com/FishieFlopOog Hasan Ali Almaci

    You keep refering to glorified fanboys as JOURNALISTS, as someone who has been blacklisted more times then he cares to remember by the big publishers for actually doing investigative pieces this rubs me the wrong way.
    They only treat Larian that way because they know they can get away with it, they would never dream of asking similar questions to MS, EA, Activision, or indeed Ubisoft.
    You work independantly on a title that needs exposure while the big publishers have tons of titles that their outlets need coverage off, cut that of and these so called journalists are screwed so they abuse independant studios to look like they provide fair and balanced reporting, to act as if they are not affraid to ask hard questions.
    It sickens me.

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      How about coming up with a universal code of conduct for game journalists, and only show games to the ones that signed it ? ;)

  • Kein Zantezuken

    Well, you already made your name sound after Divinity series in 200x, but what actually gave you better spotlight and reputation is Divinity 2. Personally, I think you are on a quite solid path (+independent) so far. I doubt there will be a problem for you to find big retail publisher for your  next games (if you ever would need one), so basically what you do next is… simply growing up? I’m really bad all this this strategy in the game industry, too much things and variables I’m not aware of, but from my position I always was assuming that you plan to publish DC and DoS and get enough of “resources” to make that dream RPG  you were talking about so much.

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      Growing up :( :)

  • melianos

    So, any plans to bring Dragon Commander or Divinity : Original Sin to the WiiU, as it’s the next console to come out, since it’s the next technical innovation ? Think you could put the “mablet” (their mix of remote and tablet) to good use ?

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      You know, you’re not first one asking that. At this point, my affinity with the Wii is limited to forbidding my kids to play on it and running away whenever one of those dance games is booted up at family parties (the horror :) )

      • Wotan Anubis

         Shame. The Wii is generally derided as a low-tech piece of crap and while it is low-tech, that doesn’t mean it can’t be impressive.

        Take the recent Xenoblade Chronicles. It has huge, expansive open fields full of things to see and many a gamer thinks Satorl March at night is just breathtakingly beautiful.

        Similarly, No More Heroes, for all its many flaws, has an interesting art aesthetic that really sticks with you (mostly with the main characters and the bosses).

        And while I would never call Another Code: R’s graphics in any way groundbreaking or impressive, I do believe its main character emotes far better than most characters in slicker games (like Adam Jensen in Human Revolution – all he’s doing in conversation is crossing and uncrossing his arms).

        So I guess what I’m trying to say is that the underpowered Wii is a good example that you don’t need to throw tons of money at the latest tech in order to make visually striking game. But you do need to know what you’re doing with what you do have, of course.

      • melianos

        They’ve found some pretty interesting uses for the Gamepad in ZombieU. And I don’t recommend that game for your kids :) (I was talking about WiiU, not Wii)
        http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xrc51h_zombi-u-trailer-de-gameplay-gamepad-e3-2012_videogames
        I asked a UI artist, we unfortunately won’t get to smash zombie kids, even in the nursery.

        The Wii had unfortunately few good games for people who wants to play something else than party games, but the WiiU seems not to follow that direction. And by the way, if you get the chance, try playing Super Mario Galaxy (for working purpose), they made the most impressive use of  3 dimensional “playing field” and gravity I’ve ever seen.

  • thesisko

    The question you’re asking assumes that your customers just pick the most visually impressive game with no regard for gameplay or genre. If that is really what you believe you should make simple scripted action games so that the bulk of your budget can go to visuals and marketing.

    If you’re targeting gamers like me, who are looking for a deep RPG experience, we’re not going to buy an FPS instead just because it has nicer graphics than your game. 

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      Actually, I don’t see why one excludes the other – there’s absolutely no reason why a fantastic deep RPG shouldn’t look as good as the best AAA game. It’s just that nobody had the guts to make it, but the one that does, imho he’ll make  one of the best selling games ever. 

      • thesisko

        Well, the developers doing AAA games don’t seem to agree with you – as the bigger their budgets get the more simplified and shallow their games become. Presumably this is because they think that type of game is more marketable to the larger audience they need to reach to recoup that budget.

        Assuming they are correct, you’d need to find a way to match their visuals without needing to sell their numbers. If you can do that, great, I’d love to see a deep RPG with cutting-edge visuals!

        But my point was that the journalist is wrong – you don’t *need* to match their visuals if your games have other unique qualities. Look at the games Paradox Interactive publishes – none of them have AAA visuals, yet the company is stable and profitable.

  • Ross

    The question I am getting from this is “should Larian begin developing the ‘RPG to rule them all’ immediately after Dragon Commander and Original Sin, with complete faith that they will be big enough hits to fund the ‘master RPG’s’ development?”

    From previous blog posts, it sounds like you have at least a rough quantified idea of how much it will cost to develop the “very big ultimate RPG”, so it’s really a matter of whether the profits from these games will be enough.  Obviously there is a lot of guesswork there and ultimately two options to choose from: 

    1.  Delay developing the “very big RPG” in favor of other projects to help further secure the necessary budget.

    This could mean working on some projects that you don’t like doing (perhaps like poker-like games for gambling companies), but not necessarily.  Assuming have enjoyed what you are currently developing, you could possibly also move on to working on other projects in the Divinity universe.

    2.  Begin development immediately under the assumption profits will be great enough to see the project to completion. 

    This runs the risk that either the “ultimate RPG” will be rushed at the end if funds begin to run low (essentially nullifying it from consideration as the “ultimate RPG to rule them all”).  At the same time, who wouldn’t rather begin their dream project earlier in life?  If you accomplished it earlier, it also opens up many other doors for Larian as a business, assuming the project turned out as ideally as planned, as a game that ground-breaking would undoubtedly also find commercial success.

    There are some positive signs for Larian that the projects will be
    successful.  You have developed a pretty loyal customer base and the
    Divinity brand has proven profitable.  I don’t know just how great sales have been for you, but you should at least be able to look at how your previous products have done and get an idea of what kind of base-level market can reasonably be
    expected.  How well-received it is by critical circles will
    have an impact on that number.  Middling reviews will still merit purchases from your more loyal
    customer base.  In fact, you probably need to really screw up to
    alienate most of them.  Great reviews have the potential to really
    increase those revenues and garner some more followers.  It’s unreasonable to expect Skyrim level sales even if
    your projects are met with universal 98%’s and A+’s because the brand
    has not had the same level of sustained success, but you can bet that
    you will see quite an increase in sales if it does end up being a metacritical darling.  In forecasting your available budget for your next project, it really
    depends on how confident you are in Original Sin and Dragon Commander. 

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      By definition, I have to assume we’re going to be releasing a great game, or at the very least, a game I think is good fun to play. What that’ll translate to on metacritic, nobody knows, but you’re right that it’ll have an impact on sales. 

      Unless we goof up tremendously, I’m pretty confident that we’ll see at least the same amount of sales  we did with our previous games, with the bonus advantage that we’ll actually get some revenue from such sales, because we managed to get rid of some of the bloodsuckers.   

      Whether we’ll manage to grow our audience, I don’t know – the truth of the matter is that at Larian the games that get made have me as a target audience, and so it depends to a large degree on how many players I actually represent. If I’m totally out of synch with our market, it’s going to be all over, but I have good hopes that my secret desires for a RPG correspond to what a lot of people want (even if they don’t know it yet) ;)  

  • Bob

    I think the gaming industry isn’t recession proof.  Times are going to get tougher, not better,
    and we are all going to have to learn how to eat bitter (or at least get used
    to a slow but consistent lowering of our standard of living).  At that time, the dev studios who know how to
    put out better content for less are going to be putting out games while the big
    studios close.  Also, when your budget is
    a fortune, I’m guessing the devs won’t be able to take much risk in
    incorporating new or untried game design, making smaller budget studios even
    more necessary.  I know everyone thinks
    Skyrim is the greatest, but what did it do better than any previous Edlerscroll
    game besides have a worse interface? 
    Sure, it had better graphics, but what about content?  I honestly haven’t played an Elderscroll game
    besides Daggerfall enough to really give an informed opinion, but it seems like
    Oblivion in a different area with better graphics and a worse interface. 

  • AlexF

    There is a gap in the market at this point. Many people see it but it is difficult to fill. On one hand you have small indy projects and on the other big games with huge budgets. There are very few games with medium budgets, marketed with a medium price (20-40 euros). That’s cause a medium budget nowadays could easily be as high as 3-4 million dollars, as far as I can tell. Getting that much money, or even a few hundred thousand dollars, without the support of a publisher proves problematic for most developers. I think I’ve read somewhere that publishers aim for the big success. They don’t fund 20 games in order to make a bit of profit from each of them, They fund 20 games to make huge profit from 1 or 2 of them to cover the losses of the others and make profit overall. So projects with low budgets that target niche audiences that don’t aim for that big success aren’t high on their lists.

    It seems several developers are trying to fill that gab using kickstarter. If they succeed then more may follow or some publishers may get interested in a piece of that pie and actually throw some money around.

    Determining the right price for such ventures could be a problem for consoles because of all the extra money payed to the console manufacturers as well as different pricing conventions they use. I think consoles will become less and less relevant though as people start looking towards the next generation. When that generation comes it will probably be with a leap in game budgets. Better graphics means more money needed.

    I think you need to decide if, for the forseeable future and while you are still building your resources for the very big RPG that will dwarf them all, you will focus on the high end market or try to fill that gap yourselves. There is another european RPG developer that I think may be self-funded (I’ve never seen any publisher tied to their products apart from distribution deals), CD-Projekt Red. They have clearly decided to battle it out with the big boys in the AAA division. Mid budget games aren’t by any way “lesser” games though. Not by a long shot. Larian have shown that you can compete in the high end market with Dragon Knight Saga. Personally I thought it was a terrific game and I liked it more than Divine Divinity. It seems you had to make some sacrifices though. If you want to make games like Dragon Commander and Original Sin, no matter how much I would like for them to be sleeper hits, I think the reality is that the market for them will be smaller.

    Larian is in the unique position to be able to aim for that mid-range market without the need for crowdfunding or a publisher. Personally I think that’s the direction you should go. It will allow you to make the games you like to and especially for RPGs I think there is an audience that starves for something more “oldschool”, something more complex that the oversimplified games we’ve been getting these last few years. Also I wouldn’t worry about the pricepoint. If the product is good and polished it could easily command a 40 euro price. In fact as PC games are moving towards the 60 euros price point (which is outrageous in my opinion, it’s the same as console game price where there are middlemen), a 50 dollar price for a mid-budget game isn’t out of the question.

    There are some important details though. You won’t be able to compete in terms of graphic fidelity with games like Watchdogs so you should avoid that comparison. There are several tricks to do that. For example top down or isometric perspective. You can have great artistic graphics, you can play with lighting, environments, level of detail and make a great looking game, all the while not needing to have Mass Effect like detail on the characters. I’m sure you know many more tricks than I do.

    I have one more suggestion. Now I have no knowledge and experience about this but I would imagine that when a company makes a new console they would give developers incentives for them to bring their games to said console. That may not be the case of course, the way console creators operate is obscure to me but it may be worth a try approaching Nintendo and inquiring about a port of Original Sin and Dragon Commander to Wii U. They may be interested to showcase a variety of titles at or near the console launch and a hardcore rpg like Original Sin may fit their strategy. Also from what we’ve seen their tablet controller could be a much better subsitude for a mouse than typical game controllers, especially for turn based games where speed and accuracy aren’t an issue. That would also serve to showcase an advantage of Wii U over other consoles, I bet they’d like that.

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      What you’re describing is a pretty accurate representation of the strategy we’re following for the moment – if you look closely at DOS & DDC, you’ll see that the presentation style we picked as well as the features we included are such that they don’t require us to do invest gazillions in presentation. This in turn allows us to put in “old-school” values because like you, I think there’s a lot of us that are hungry for these kind of games. As far as market size is concerned, we’ll have to see – both DDC and DOS have a very big potential from what we can see, but of course, we first have to deliver the games – then we’ll see. I wouldn’t be surprised however if eventually they outsell Divinity 2.

      • AlexF

         I do think it would be interesting if you sent an email to Nintendo (about Wii U) or Sony (about PS Vita, it seems they have a problem attracting developers)  that went kinda like this: “We are a self-funded developer, creators of the Divinity franchise. Our last game was Divinity 2: Dragon Knight Saga that went on to be a critical and financial success with a metacritic score of 82. We are currently working on two titles in the franchise that have been announce only for PC. We would be interesting in porting one or both titles to your console and take advantage of your unique controll scheme.” (Wii U has a tablet controller out of the box and PS Vita has a touchscreen and a back panel that is also touch). “However we are unfamiliar with your hardware and are unsure wether there will be an audience for our games among your install base (or projected install base for the Wii U since it hasn’t launched yet). We were wondering about what kind of technical support you could give us to make such a port and wether you can provide incentives to make such a venture financially viable to us.”

        I don’t have a PS Vita and don’t plan to buy a Wii U. I’m a PC guy. The reason I’m suggesting this is that Wii U and PS Vita have some very unique control schemes. Most of the games for them are kinda gimmicky but I think you could find creative ways to use them both to fill in for the lack of mouse and to enhance the mutliplayer experience. Also both consoles are in need of games. PS Vita doesn’t have enough at the moment and Wii U, like any new platform, needs to build a library fast. I’m thinking if you can make a game that promotes their hardware’s unique features they may be more willing to add support, at the least in way of  extra publishity.

  • LightningLockey

    First off, I’d like you to immortalize this last journalist in the next game to ask the main character(s) “Why bother fighting the war when your clearly out numbered?” 

    I think you should ask, “How do we make our games really memorable?  So memorable it would bring our customers back and have them tell new customers about our stuff?  When people hear of a Larian Studios product, they will know it is going to be a good solid RPG.”  I’d use Ultima 7 for an example, I’ve never played it but it has certainly inspired you.  What is it about the Ultima 7, a 16-bit game that is so important to you?  What about it makes you think the latest 256-bit games are not worthy of their “best RPG” titles?

    As for your games, what makes them most memorable for me is the interaction, humor, and story.  Personally your on the right track to keeping me a customer.

    If someone were to convert Sword of Lies into an 8-bit game it would still be a very good game to play.  Now that I think about it, the best books have no pictures in the pages.  I’m sure you see where I’m going and already have your answers.  I’ll just wait around while Dragon Commander is finished up :)

  • js-

    As I am directly subsidized by canadian tax breaks (actually, it’s the province’s money, not the federal one), I am very concerned about the profitability/viability of such a system. It’s rather unclear as tax returns are not disclosed but it seems that the balance is positive (if anyone has numbers on this, I am interested). This system has been going on for 10 years and there’s no sign that it will stop any time soon. What hurts the most is that the industry is declining in regions that does not have such tax breaks (France, Australia, or Vancouver with “just” 17% tax breaks). Employment is scarce, investors are reluctant, publishers avoid business, talents run away. Some would say that these subsidies distort the market… It’s not fair competition! But hey, this is free market right? Embrace capitalism! Capitalism is good!  But is it even healthy for the subsidized economies? This system has led to gigantic super studios where one can wonder about the efficiency of these behemoths. Mainly big publishers took advantage of such system. Do they really need it ? They already are the big winners of the 21st century. They own the IPs, they have secured the marketing channels and, now, they are offered cheap labour! It’s funny that gameindustry describe canada as a tax haven. As a matter of fact, Belgium is another tax haven. Digging a bit on this subject, I learnt that several big companies didn’t pay taxes and in most circumstances there are no capital gains taxes or wealth tax for individuals in Belgium. That combined with the heavy burden of a socialist system explain why the taxes are so high for the rest. Bottom line, belgium is fiscally favorable to some but not to game developers.

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      All I’m asking for is an even playing field – the market distortion caused by these tax breaks is fairly large, but that’s a very big topic.

  • AndrewC

    You may know there is a little thing with five rings going on in the UK at the moment. One sport in particular has been enjoying their own golden path – Team GB Cycling has been astounding*. It’s not obvious what you could take from them, but I think there are some things. Funding is one thing, but they also left no stone unturned in making the most of that funding – optimising every detail and timing their peak performance so it would be the most effective.

    I don’t know if software teams have considered the idea of a ‘performance director’ like Dave Brailsford, but I can’t help but think it’s worth making that kind of effort.

    *http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/olympics/19131595

  • Shakti

    1. Don’t bother with the money, a god project will be recognized by others.
    2. Don’t aim at the BIG AMERICAN BUYERS, they dont exist or play COD.
    3. Make the game you allways wanted to make.
    4. Quality of characters, quests, lore and story are WAY MORE IMPORTANT THAN VISUALS.

    • Shakti

       I forgot: 5. Don’t use a publisher.

  • Illusive Man

    Seeing the comments asking for WiiU support reminds me a lot of most “kickstarter process”.
    Players/backers ask for more platform almost every time. PC / Linux / Mac / iOS …

    Larian can adapt to new platforms. D2:ED for 360 was a smart choice indeed. And “polymorphing” it into D2:DKS was a smarter one imo.

    So the next step after D:DC and D:OS release for PC could be having your teams at work on a Mac version, then Linux, then 360 / PS3 / WiiU / etc…
    Doing more wise versions ( with some tweaking on gameplay / UI / graphics and true adaptation to the platform ) and improving the games in the process with patch and/or add-on seems a good way to reach a larger audience.
    With my naive point of view, assuming PC versions will have good sales, it will fund the adaptation to a new platform, which will generate more revenues with less expenses ( vanilla version is already done ) and so on with each new version.

    I bet your engine is cross-platform-friendly and even if it isn’t right now your teams already have ideas for some improvement.

    ( Any similarity with The Witcher 2 development is absolutely intended :)

    The next Divinity instalments ( let’s say Dragon Commander 2 and Divinity
    3 ) could be cross-platforms on day 1, with a larger fanbase. Which means more money coming your way and a further milestone on your golden path.

  • Flash

    I think when one is talking about high quality graphics, there needs to be a distinction between art direction and realism. Almost all of today’s top notch titles define themselves by how realistic the graphics look. Very few titles have tried to actually look good without looking realistic, most of them 2D titles (some recent adventures by Daedalic come to mind). 
    If only the realism would be the defining factor, Pixar couldn’t be as successful as it is. Real films look much better, obviously. Other good examples can be found in the comic book / graphic novel area. Belgium with its grand comic book tradition is a prime example that looking good doesn’t always mean looking realistic. I’m still waiting for a game that looks only half as good as the wormworld saga (wormworldsaga.com), but game developers always try to shoot for realism. I have no idea whether going in this direction would actually save money, or if it’s even possible to pull something like this in 3D (even if I would prefer it, I don’t expect Larian to be ready to go back to 2D). However, art direction to me seems to be a weak point of the current line of Larian games. Original Sin is actually looking worse than the The Sword of Lies.

  • SwiftRanger

    Watch Dogs and Far Cry 3 are created by 400-man strong teams in the Ubisoft-way. That’s a blockbuster environment no-one wants to be in. How on earth do you create something cohesive from that if all those people have an opinion of how to improve the game they’re working on?

    As for what to work on now: keep a close eye on the seemingly lucrative free-to-play market, I got the impression it’s a bubble that’s going to burst soon. There are too many known genres that are swallowed by it and which get watered down by so-called MMO mechanics. If you create something unique in that space though you might be on to something.

    If I’d had the personal choice of making a game I would go for an RTS/simulation, set in a semi-realistic (read: low-magic) medieval world. The Anno- and Settlers-series could use some serious competition and have awful combat parts, Stronghold 3 also bombed because of Firefly’s own inability. It’s an untapped market imo with loads of ways of expanding and improving it. Knights & Merchants 2 or a Knights of Honor 2 or a Divinity-RTS/sim… I’d buy it instantly. Don’t underestimate the lure of these kind of games, they potentially have the same broad appeal for the man on the street as a Call of Duty title.

  • http://twitter.com/DanielVavra Daniel Vavra

    Quality is the answer! Those people who are chasing latest trends are usually those without any ideas and opinion and the truth is, that it doesnt matter on which platform you are if you dont have any idea what to do. If you are making great game, its always better to be on the right platform, but if you are developing some poorly executed rip off, nothing will help you :)

  • tomk

    Hello my name is Tom K. and I want to say something serious from my mind. I would really like to see that Larian Studios make games that just have a personal touch. I love DD and I blindly bought DD2 for xBox360. DD2 just had such bad controls and the game felt like it was still in developement. I know that you can make detailed and inspiring games… Just keep the path and release more classic RPG with nice Storys and great controls. I would love to see that Larian Studios are the folks who make those classic games with modern technology… I would really love to see this.

  • Wyndorel

    Before those kind of considerations, I’ve got a simple question. Why did you choose Original Sin to have a “cartoonish” look? This is quite unsightly or inappropriate at least, and soulless to me… I just can’t immerse myself in a role-playing world that looks like that. :/

    Thus I wonder what kind of public do you aim for. Because your games are quite deep, and moreover this one seems to reconnect with something more “old school” and possibly hardcore I would say. And I think the more mature or devotee RPG crowd it will mainly catch the interest of would rather lean toward a more refined and “serious” atmosphere, to have that feeling of a deep experience in a “truthful” universe (to say, not a grotesque one). Also, if it was part of the decision, I have to point out that I think as Brian Fargo said himself that humor better comes out in a basically serious setting.
    If you look at the kind of games he and his pales at Obsidian are doing, and the success they had on Kickstarter, I guess you can have part of your answer (i.e. more especially, stick to a strong crowd instead of being on the fence or in its underbelly)…