I saw the new (and better) Skyrim at Gamescom 2012

[In which I discuss the development dangers of cities in RPGS and reflect on Gamescom 2012]

I started writing this entry as I was booting up for the last day of Gamescom 2012. This edition is one I’ll remember for the thievery going on at our booth and the quality time I spent in a hospital where I learnt that that bacteria don’t care about you being on a deadline (that’s what resulted in the impressively bandaged finger in the pictures of me @ Gamescom)

For the rest, I had a big a deja vu feeling.

This entry is not about Gamescom 2012 though I couldn't resist the temptation to mention that we got some awards

If somebody would’ve told me that I was at E3 instead of Gamescom, I would’ve believed them. In one sentence, my life at this show boiled down to spending almost all of my time at the Larian booth, not seeing anything from the show, drinking too much in the evenings and sleeping so little I felt as if my IQ dropped below zero.

I’m not going to complain though, because we won best RPG of the show with Divinity: Original Sin on JeuxVideo.com and were nominated best strategy game with Divinity Dragon Commander by Destructoid. For a small studio like us, that’s tangible success. That said, I don’t want to talk about trade show life again  because I’ve done that already here and instead wanted to share some afterthoughts on a conversation I had at the show with a fellow RPG developer regarding making Skyrim like RPGs.

Said developer has been doing the rounds with a video of a very ambitious RPG that clearly wants to be a Skyrim killer. Now I’m no big fan of these enormous systemic simulations, preferring instead handcrafted dense worlds with rich backstory, but I recognize that if done well and coupled to a powerful character development system, games like Skyrim can offer players a lot of fun. The logistics of making an RPG being an active topic of interest for me, it was therefore with real interest that I queried about the size of his world because games like this are reknown for being large.

Predictably  he told me that he planned on having several large areas ,with one area typically containing a few cities and several villages, linked by realistic environments. At the word ‘cities’ I cringed, not because I don’t like cities in RPGs, I do, but because of the work involved in making them fun, and also because I know what they lead to development wise.

I couldn’t help myself and immediately projected the following scenario in my mind: Game will be late, will cost much more than he’s thinking, will require many iterations of the storylines as stuff gets cut, will show scars as a result of the cutting, will probably be pretty unbalanced and all of these things together might mean the game never gets made, which would be a pity because it looks like there’s a passionate nice team working on it. That, or it’ll be extremely boring because these will be the dullest cities ever made.

Since we hadn’t met before, I told him all of this in a more diplomatic fashion, and offered the advise that he might want to tone down his ambitions a bit, sharing some of our own city building experiences. I hope he didn’t take it as me trying to lecture him because I’ll be the first to admit that the Larian RPG production process is fundamentally iterative rather than systemic, but I do think that when it comes to cities & RPGs the issues are universal and not easily solved.

The problem with cities is that you want something interesting to happen in each house, and the streets need to look alive, which is only possible if you put a bunch of characters there who are involved in some kind of activity. You also want those characters to react somehow to what you’ve been doing in the world, and if you’re serious about your RPG, you want them to at least give some kind of illusion that they are interacting with one another. Because you want the player to feel like he’s in a city (as opposed to a village), you need to ensure that there are sufficient houses and characters, but you also need to make sure that the player doesn’t get lost, meaning the best cities contain different zones with different looks (e.g. the cliché rich & poor quarters).

Doing all of this requires a lot of scripting and content, and you really don’t get that much gameplay minutes out of your hard development work, because players typically rush through cities, looking for the next thing to do. It’s also hard to fill up a city’s uninteresting areas with combat, because you lack the space, or because it just doesn’t make sense to have combat in a particular area.

Furthermore, if you want some questing to happen in your city, you typically have to add a dungeon or send the player outdoors to do something, meaning that each part of your city is linked in some way to other areas. This becomes annoying the moment you need to cut something for productional reasons, because it means you have to not only touch the city, but also other areas.

This particular developer however is no fool and has had his share of development experience, so it’s not like he hadn’t thought about the matter. Similar to what we’ve been doing ever since Divine Divinity, he’s organized his storyline/world in such a manner that he can cut large parts ouf it if he doesn’t find the funding or it turns out it’s taking too much time. He’s also being clever about focussing on first finishing one area before starting on the second area. And he has ideas about a tailor in one city using the same scripting in each and every other city, thus cutting down on the production time of the cities because they share content.

While I’m ready to accept that he’s better at organizing a team to make a RPG than I am, he didn’t manage to convince me however that his approach was going to be succesful, for the simple reason that everything he’d mentioned, I’d already tried, with varying degrees of failure. Could be that we’re just very bad, but I don’t think so. Imho cities in RPGs are just plain evil when it comes to making them.

I didn’t counter-argue however.

Working on the book we’re making as part of the celebration of 10 years of Divinity, I browsed a lot through old notes and emails and one key thing I noticed about Larian is its insisting on making the same mistake over and over: always trying to put too much in one box.

I knew that we had a tendency of doing that, but I didn’t think I realized how bad it was until I found back two emails I sent to a publisher, one written in 2001 and the other written in 2008. Both of these mails used almost the exact same wording and reasoning to explain why the game was going to be late, what features we were going to cut and why they shouldn’t abandon hope.

The truth of the matter was that we were trying to put too much in those games, and it was remarkable to see how we managed again and again to get ourselves into the same kind of trouble for exactly the same kind of reasons, with our defense position being based on exactly the same arguments.

In hindsight, the games probably wouldn’t have been released if the publishers hadn’t been pushing us so hard, but in the same breath you can say that the games wouldn’t have been any good if we hadn’t resisted to the release pressure as much as we did and crammed in as much as we could.

And it’s that last observation which stopped me from trying to convince him too hard that indeed, he was most likely going to face some very hard times because he’s trying to put too much into his game. It would’ve been like arguing against myself, and contrary to several opinions offered by other people to me, I don’t think our trying to put too much in is that wrong.

I even think this type of idealism, this desire to cram a game with every single thing you can come up with, is the part of how you make a great RPG. Sadly of course, it’s also a fantastic route to not finishing them, but if you quell the ambitions at the start, in most cases you might just as well not get started. How many of those well produced (let’s remove any feature we can get away with) but soulless RPGs have we seen pass by in the past, wondering why these games were made in the first place?

It’s no big secret I think that I’m no big fan of the perfectly planned game where there’s buffer upon buffer to take care of any eventualities, where things like variance analysis are used to figure out if each resource if functioning optimally and where the room for iteration is exactly predefined. And since I’m no big fan, I therefore have no business telling this particular developer what I think of his plan, but I’m going to it anyway, because sometimes somebody telling you they doubt something, is exactly what is required to make it happen.

Based on intuition and experience alone, and without having a single clue about what the production plan looks like and what the abilities of his team are, it looked obvious to me that trouble is coming. With the budget available , the maximum I can see done well is a  game with five villages and a goat, a moderate amount of forest and about 20 dungeons.

Now, that might sound harsh because compared to several cities and tens of villages that sounds really small, but  actually, that’s more than enough to create a fantastic 40+ hours epic RPG, if each of these villages is done really well. And because he’ll have been aiming for higher, this reduced world is going to feel much bigger than it is, making it a much richer proposition. As long as he figures out in time that he needs to cut, and that cutting means cutting all the way to the healthy flesh, he’ll be more than fine and release a winner.

So now he can prove me wrong 🙂

  • Arne

    What are your specific suggestions for the Great Strategy of making RPGs then? Or is that part of top secret Larian Vault strategy plans?

    Clearly that was a top-down approach in the past, so what do you prefer now? Bottom-up? I can imagine one would spend a lot of time adding new stuff and keeping all elements cohesive.

    Am I right to conclude you suggest something like a basic plan with ‘hooks’ provided to insert a series of alternatives?
    Please respond, for this is very interesting

  • Arne

    So what is your Top RPG Developper’s Strategy? Or is that part labeled ‘top secret’ and safely hidden in Larian’s vault?

    Clearly the answer a decade before would have been “top down approach”,
    cutting material along the way. But a bottom up approach is absolutely
    not a better way. Am I right to conclude you suggest creating a very
    basic RPG with sort of ‘hooks’ preserved to provide substitution by a
    series of alternatives? If so, would you care to explain this a litle
    further? It’s most fascinating stuff!

    • Arne

      ok believe it or not something’s wrong with either my browser or this site. my posts seem not to have been posted but after several minutes they suddenly are, while by then I already reposted the first one, creating 2 similar posts. it’s quite annoying

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

        Yeah, I’ve had the problem myself – it’s to do with disqus but I didn’t set it up, so I’ll have to ask what’s going on.

        To answer your question – the approach we currently employ is a mix between top down and bottom up. Top down is the vision and out of it flow systems/pieces we’re going to need, without really bothering too much about all the requirements of the world we want to make, because we know there are going to be plenty of changes. But there are always essential pieces (like trees, skeletons, etc…) you can be sure of you’ll have in the end game, so we try to get the content guys focussed on that in order for them not to create too much work for nothing.

        Then we go bottom up, trying to build the bare bones of all systems and get them to talk to one another in specific game area. Once we have most systems operational and the area becomes sufficiently developed, we start to get an idea how long stuff takes to develop. Then we actually modify story/content requirements to accommodate the time/resources left and try to make the best out of it.

        By then we’ve typically had already thirty versions of a main story, hundreds of propositions for quests and features, and we have a rich biotope to pick from, or at least, we’ve had sufficient exercise thinking about it within the context of our game world, so progress is fast. Possibly throughout this we’ll iterate over certain systems because we gain new insights, requiring changes all over the place.

        Eventually it converges to something resembling a game and at some point we say, ok, that’s the game. This is what we commit too. Usually lots of stuff gets dumped then, which always causes some frustration.

        If there were two cities in the game, you can be pretty sure that at that point one city at the very least becomes a village 🙂

  • Drym’

    Erf, bacteria? 🙁

    According to me, Skyrim is overestimated: it’s not a bad game, it’s a good game but too ‘sweetened’ (Manichean vision), generic (for quests – environment is better than Oblivion), too easy (elements were removed from Morrowind), awkward gameplay for PC, and not as deep as others RPG from “”little”” [and so honnest] developers (The Witcher, Divinity). So I do not think this is an example to keep in mind … At least, your stories, quests are ‘worked’. It’s better a small consistent, surprising, immersive world, than a huge, empty, generic.

    I think in the future we will have two guidelines: the “business” RPG , even them out every year (like BiowEAre *sigh*), RPG from small developers, these games will be pearls.

    Take care and get well soon!
    Regards.

  • Tuco Benedicto

    I’m going to guess, and of course I don’t expect anyone to confirm or deny, but I think you are talking about that RPG in development by Warhorse Studios, under Dan Vavra’s direction.
    Well, at least what you are describing sounds very close to their declared ambitions for their project.

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      As a rule, I don’t name names if something is outside of the public domain, though sometimes I have to refrain very hard from doing so. One of the purposes of this blog is sharing some of my experiences in the hope that they might be helpful to somebody, and that works best if I use real life examples, but it doesn’t necessitate saying who I’m talking about. You’ll just have to trust that I’m talking about real people here.

      • Farflame

        Im pretty sure that it was Dan Vavra 🙂 and that he wont be offended or something, but ok. Actually he has his own blog. Maybe he will share his ideas about cities in RPGs too.

        Id like to tell two things:
        – Regarding the topic “golden path” – did you thought about doing 1 nice hardcore RPG project together with 1 commercial mainstream (action or FPS) game in the hope to get more revenue to be closer to the budget for your dream RPG project? I dont say its the best way for you, Im just interested what do you think about it. In mainstream action arena you would have cope with more competition, more need for polish and much better graphics so in the end you may find out that the budget is too big and competition of big publisher houses too strong. I think that Dragon Commander and Original Sin are pretty good duo projects if you can bring in good content. DC will attract some strategy and board game players to Larian, while OS aims for your core RPG fans.

        – Do you have a plans to write article about your experience as a leader of development team, especially from your early days in the business? I mean some advice for rookie (RPG) developers how to lead rookie team – how to inspire the people, how to plan the work to be time-effective, how to work with talented but lazy people etc. Your blog is great and I think it may be interesting read. Maybe you could save some people a hard lesson in the future. 🙂

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

          Actually, I figured that the hardcore RPG project was the safe project and DC the dangerous and more experimental one. Imho, both have the potential of breaking through if we don’t mess up.

          As to leading a development team, I’m not sure I can say many interesting things, but writing about it would indeed be a good opportunity to take stock of what I’ve learnt over the years. For sure many of the things I do don’t match the grand theories I sometimes hear about 😉 I’ll think about it.

  • Illusive Man

    With the problem of trying to put too much in, deadlines surely gave birth to great starting games ending in fishtails with players wondering where the rest of the project had vanished ( eventually in DLC or sequel… ).

    I remember you talked about some kind of wall-sized flowchart design previously, but i don’t remember if it include a critical path ?
    You know, a (strong) starting point and a (strong) ending (or two or twelve) linked by minimum points of story development and twists. As production goes on, eventually you could cut anything outside the critical path and still release a whole coherent game which won’t leave too much rear taste of cut-out-of-budget content.

    Could these kind of “Think BIG but go straight, we’ll add everything we can if all goes well.” approach be viable ?

    Anyway, any chance DOS Collector Edition will include the “10 years in the making” Divinity book ? With the board game shipping with the DDC CE it wil be a great addition 😀

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      On Beyond Divinity, we started with act 4 and then did act 1, which in theory would allow us to scale anything in between. We thought that was incredibly clever, and project-wise it did work to a certain extent, but it also resulted in BD being the worst game in the series. The reason for that was that we were so afraid of anything that could cause complications that every time we had to make a decision, we chose the safest route, which often didn’t turn out to be the best decision gameplay-wise.

      As far as, we’ll add it later is concerned, we’ve learnt over the years that that in general means that we’ll never add it. So I prefer adding it early if I think it’s worth it.

  • Gabriel

    Personally I love the feel in a game when you enter a city hub and you don’t have a clue of where to start and you take your time visiting those parts, comitting to memory where is which NPC, shops, stuff like that. Off the top of my head I’m thinking about Vizima in the first Witcher or Sigil in Planescape…

    That being said, I think less is by far better than more, if fleshed out properly. I’m right there with you thinking that if you have fewer towns, say just one city hub, but bursting with interesting detail instead of being just a place you breeze through on your questline it adds a lot more to the immersion.

    Sorry to hear about the thefts really, I dropped by your booth to have a chat with Benoît and loved the artworks you guys had on the walls. Hope it didn’t affect morale too much…

    Best,
    G.

  • Greever

    If you take the correct approach, many interesting cities can be manageable. It comes down to first building a very good toolset for creating cities. Piranha Bytes’ Gothic series has (despite its flaws) always excelled at populating interesting villages and towns, simulating a community.
    I saw a documentary about their toolkit once and they used a system of shedules, professions, interactable objects, tasklists and various other systems that made it real easy to add new unique NPCs.
    To add a blacksmith you basically just had to give him a workstation and tag a bed as his and he would automatically live a blacksmith life: working, sleeping, buy food at the market, converse with other villagers.
    For designers a system like this allows them to very quicky populate entire cities. And if later on there is time to iterate, you can add professions, place the necessary interactable objects in your existing towns and watch your cities become even more diverse.
    Not saying that this community-simulation will work in any game; But if your desire is to go head to head with the likes of Skyrim and fill an expansive world with life, you better make sure you have the tools to very quickly populate areas. This way when you run out of time to do everything you wanted you still have many cities filled with content, it’s just not as diverse as you had originally planned.
    If on the other hand you know from the start you’ll only have a small amount of towns, simply scripting out the areas can save you the time of having to create the entire town simulation pipeline.

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      I understand the mechanics behind getting schedules to work within a city, but does having a schedule make the npc’s interesting ? If each of those smiths has a unique story, that’ll make them interesting. If they’re just going from their workplace to the market to their bed, then they might as well just stand still, at least as far as I’m concerned – makes it easier for me to find them back 😉

      • paladinjedi

        Npc-s don’t necessarily must have a unique story of their own. It would be enough if their dialogue system wasn’t crappy and repetitive (like in Skyrim), for starters at least.

        And yes, cities in Gothic were an example of well made cities. Consider the three guilds of Gothic 1 – they were awesome and realistic, alive. O tempora…

  • AlexF

    It usually is much more interesting to play in a city environment than wilderness. There have been RPGs where cities were very well done like Sigil in Torment, Vizima in Witcher 1, Amn in Baldur’s Gate 2, even Aleroth in Divinity 2. Personally I love cities in RPGs. However there are some things a developer should take into consideration. If you wanna make cities as good as they should be, as you said, you can’t have many of them. One is often enough and more than two would probably be too many. In order to make a city believable and an interesting place for the player, it has to be huge. It has to feel like a city. With the amount of time it would take to make a city good enough, it should be a focal point of the game, like in Torment or BG2. Most of the game should take place inside its bounds (like Aleroth in Divinity 2, the whole expansion took place in the city). If you don’t want that, there is a way to still have a grand city. Just create and have the player visit one or two districts, like with Vizima in the Witcher. This way you give the player the city gameplay while also keeping the city big enough in the player’s imagination.

    In open world sandbox games that’s a bit more difficult. You can’t make the whole game center around one city. Well you can and I think it would be very interesting but I can’t think of any RPG that has done it so far. Usually you have to have great expenses of land doted with villages and cities. And you have to create the whole cities, not just a district, cause otherwise it looses the sandbox feel. Oblivion and Skyrim have failed miserably on this front, featuring cities that were either too small or having very few interesting things to do. Morrowind design was smarter. It only had two large cities. Vivec and the capital of Morrowind in the first expansion. These cities were full of interesting places, people and quests. For sure Morrowind had some settlements bigger than villages and smaller than cities, like small towns. It didn’t try to convince the player that they were cities though. Skyrim does that, they try to convice us that a settlement with 10 houses and 20 npcs is a city. That is a very poor implementation. It would be better to name them towns, have fewer of them and make them more interesting.

    There is another way, a hybrid. You can have open wilderness, towns but make cities that the player can interract with but not enter. Like in Betrayal at Krondor. I’m not sure how people would react to such a presentation in a modern day game but I think it could work. For example when you enter a city have the player able to enter one or two districts and cut the rest off.

  • paladinjedi

    The Citadel in Mass Effect 1 was a good example of a rpg city well done: pleasant sights, interesting, fun quests, memorable characters, very organized map&transit system…

    In lack of better inspiration, developers should at least clone the best who came before them.

    I’d rather play a Gothic 2 clone rather than a Skyrim one, for obvious reasons…