I got an email today from a very good creative producer I’ve known for years, commenting on the price point of the Divinity Anthology which we released today.
.”..30 bucks for either digital or boxed?! Are you fucking NUTS? I mean, you/Divinity should receive presents on its birthday, it shouldn’t give away any… I gotta ask what your margin is – and you surely don’t have to answer that. ;)”
The man has a point. But really, it’s been a crazy month, and you’re not going to believe the business logic we’ve been applying… While I don’t know what the end of this story is yet , I can tell you how we got to where we are today and what our hopes and aspirations are. Whether or not these will prove to be vain, we’re about to figure out…
First off, while I’m very happy about what we’re releasing today with the Divinity Anthology, behind the scenes it’s been an absolute hell preparing for this. September 2012 probably cost me a few months of my life due to the way we organized this, and I’m probably not the only one in the office to say that 😉
And it wasn’t as if we didn’t have other stuff to do. There was already considerable stress going on, as I’d been very insistent on having parts of Divinity: Dragon Commander and Divinity: Original Sin redesigned, causing an extra avalanche of work. It’s the kind of thing that happens at Larian from time to time, and in general it’s a bad idea to have anything interfere with this process, because usually these redesign things are quite fragile operations.
Now while individually the tasks of preparing for the Anthology and redesigning parts of DOS/DDC would’ve been enough to keep me busy for quite some time, it got really interesting when I tried to manage both of these processes simultaneously, while also trying to guide my house safely through a complete make-over and looking for a way to tell my 6 month old baby boy that singing at night is not necessarily a good idea.
Tbh, it’s left me exhausted and I’ll openly admit that during the last weeks there were days that I came close to going completely bananas. I can’t remember losing my patience faster than I did this month, which had everything to do with being dead tired, not having enjoyed a calm moment in months. Above all, the thing I longed for the most throughout this period (other than sleep) was time to think, because most of the mistakes made were caused by a lack of thinking things through, and the latter is one of the things I’m supposed to do here at Larian, at least when it comes to setting the directions.
Because time is still limited, I’ll focus this entry on our Anthology release antics and reserve the redesign story for another time, because that one is rather interesting too.
The Divinity Anthology used to be called the Divinity bundle, and it’s been something that’s been in my business plan ever since I realized that in 2012 we were going to be celebrating 10 years of Divinity.
It even became part of my funding strategy for Divinity: Original Sin, and as such the success of the release of the Anthology was considered to be imperative for the success of Original Sin for a long time.
The first problem with the release of the Anthology occurred back in April when we couldn’t find back the “remastered” source code that we used to re-release Divine Divinity on GOG back in 2009. It turned out that the programmer who since then left Larian hadn’t made a correct backup of the code, and at that time we didn’t have anything in place to check the backups.
Tbh, I actually think we still don’t have something in place to do that even today 😉
Because we wanted to make sure that Divine Divinity was compatible with Windows 7 & co, we redid the “remastering” based on a source tree we weren’t 100% sure of. This caused unnecessary QA stress, but we had no choice: it turned out that half the backups from 2002 weren’t readable anymore, or used some kind of backup tool that we couldn’t locate. But we eventually managed, and to test the waters we released Divine Divinity on Steam, which much to our surprise actually turned out to be a great success.
Next came the re-mastering of Beyond Divinity. Here our backup policy (which had evolved between 2002 and 2004) turned out to be a bit more solid, and while we had some fun with getting Russian and Polish running, the war-stories were limited to technical details such as getting our direct3D 6 implementation to run on windows 7 and why you shouldn’t do a binary dump of virtual base classes when creating a save-game format. Nothing out of the ordinary.
With Divine Divinity and Beyond Divinity sorted out, we thought we had taken the biggest hurdles towards creating the Anthology, as Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga was recently released and in good shape with masters available in all main languages.
But then came the decision not to put Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga in the Anthology, but Divinity II: The Developer’s Cut…
To this day, I’m still wondering what I was thinking when I agreed to this, because every single thing I could expect to go wrong when making that decision actually went wrong.
The idea behind the Developer’s Cut was to create a new SKU (the publishing term for a new version of your game, comes originally from Stock Keeping Unit, a unique code to identify the game). And the idea behind that was that it might get us some extra attention at the time of release, sufficient to get attention from those RPG players that didn’t try out Divinity II yet.
We thought long and hard about what we could put in this SKU and came to the conclusion that it would take us too long to put some meaningful content in. Our gut instinct therefore told us that we shouldn’t do it, but then the idea originated to make some kind of a developer’s version of Divinity II.
It’d be a version where we’d share the story of making Divinity II in the form of a documentary, include the design documents & the milestone videos we’d made for the publishers at the time, and the cherry on the cake would be the inclusion of the developer console we’d been using during development. This would enable players to see how we actually looked at the game during development, and allow them to do things only we could do (like flying around in areas you’re not supposed to fly or turning yourself into any creature you could think of). It’d be something we’d give away for free to those who had already bought DKS, and something that might tickle the interest of those who hadn’t.
In short, it was a new SKU created from an old SKU without too much effort, exactly the kind of thing we were looking for, even if – tbh – to this day we still only have a vague idea of what exactly a SKU is, other than what it says on Wikipedia.
So we decided to go ahead with the Developer’s Cut, and thus create an Anthology that would include Divine Divinity, Beyond Divinity & Divinity II: The Developer’s Cut. But saying that you’re going to make a new SKU and actually releasing it are two different things.
Because the Developer’s Cut included the patched up version of the original Dragon Knight Saga, we needed to browse through all of our existing contracts and get an OK from any previous publisher that might have rights in this, which turned out to be quite a job, worthy of yet another separate blog entry and good for eating up about a quarter of my time – leaving me with a measly three quarters to take care of all the rest.
Other than new contracts, the new SKU also required a new logo, new descriptions that needed be translated in all kinds of languages, new Steam listings, new promo material etc… and the process of getting all of that in place, you’ll never guess it, is worth another blog entry on its own. Suffice to say that even at the time of writing this current update, not all of that is finalized. But I have good hopes 😉
In addition to that, we also had to localize all the new material and because we changed the code of the game, that meant we also had to engage in new rounds of QA. Now, saying ‘QA on a 100+ hour game’ in the same phrase as ‘multiple languages’ is in general enough to intimidate any development director, no matter what his pedigree.
Luckily, the QA part wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be, because the cool part about including the Developer Mode is that you can actually use the cheats while testing. I’m told that Octaaf, our lead QA, can finish the game in 1 hour 43 minutes and 22 seconds. (Matthew, the lead gameplay programmer on Divinity II can do it in 1 minute – he says – by issuing the “oe end “ command in the console 😉 )
That was the development side. But we wouldn’t be who we are, if we didn’t decide that in these days of digital distribution, we’d also want to release a really cool box, just to be a tad different. We’ve been called idiots a few times already for doing this, but at least we’re stubborn idiots.
And of course the box had to be a fancy box, including a 130 page book; all the games; two new audio CDs featuring unreleased music (from, among other things, LMK); posters; stickers; unlockable items for Divinity: Original Sin & Divinity: Dragon Commander; a digital treasure vault with milestone materials; old design documents; plenty of concept artwork and some more stuff that I’m forgetting.
To increase the complexity of the operation, we also figured we might throw in free Steam codes so you would be able to add the games to your Steam collection, which obviously meant that we had to suddenly synchronize the release of the box with having the game on Steam.
And because we really wanted to test the limits, we also decided that such a box wasn’t going to cost more than 29,95€ in retail, meaning that we needed to get the costs of everything in the box really under control.
All this for a company that in the past had released only the simplest of boxes, containing one DVD, one manual and a leaflet, the leaflet having been the topic of many a discussion.
To make a long story short, my business plan had foreseen the box would initially cost 4,5€. We ended up with a box that cost us between 5,5€ and 7€. Now my producer friend knows 😉
You may wonder why the cost is between 5,5€ & 7€, but that’s because I don’t have one single price. I have three, depending on which factory we’re talking about.
You see, we printed in three different factories instead of centralizing everything at one factory, for a reason that seemed very sensible at the time but in hindsight made no sense whatsoever. The idea was that because we worked with local parties in certain territories, we’d use their facilities, and for other territories, we’d organize it ourselves.
If anything, I think that decision caused the most stress and misery of all, because all the box creation problems were multiplied by 3, since we were still coordinating everything and creating all the assets, and now we added a few extra communication layers on top of the process.
But such were the stress levels caused by having too much work and too little resources that we took decisions that we could’ve predicted would cause us more work. We just didn’t have time to think anymore.
If you’ve been reading previous entries in my blog, you can quickly calculate how much we’ll make on a box, and if you then take the development and publishing working hours into account, you’ll eventually (and perhaps reluctantly if you like us ;)) come to the conclusion that with the quantity of boxes we printed (25K; it’s a limited edition), we’re not exactly going to become Rockefellers with this particular release.
I don’t want to calculate it anymore, but I think one of my excel files told me that we need to sell at least 66% of the boxes if we want to break even on the box venture.
So much for using the Anthology to fund Divinity: Original Sin.
Once we realized this, we decided that we really should try to sell as many boxes as we could via our online shop, the Larian Vault, so the decision was taken to upgrade it to version 2.0, something long overdue, and equip it with Amazon-like functionality. Here at least was a chance to create some margin.
That unfortunately added yet an extra layer of development work, requiring the skills of the same team that was working on getting the Anthology out there. You can imagine how they welcomed that addition to their workload!
To make matters worse, we quickly discovered that sending out the boxes via the Larian Vault is more complicated that we’d initially expected. Shipping costs charged by the post office are horrendous, and the fact that the box is so packed with stuff means that it isn’t the lightest thing in the world. And then there’s the actual act of picking and packing, or whatever it’s called. Somebody needs to do it. Of course you can rent services for that, but then the cost of the box becomes really high. So we engaged school kids for the time being, the carrot on the stick being that this is their pathway to a job in the games industry.
Yes, I’m kidding 🙂
So are we really nuts? Well, it’s too soon to tell. Because even if we’re not going to make a lot of money with the boxed edition, maybe we’ll manage to sell a couple of digital copies as well: the result of additional exposure. And maybe the fact that the boxed edition is present in shops will help boost future sales of other Divinity games, because people will pick it up on account of having seen the name of the game a few times already.
I don’t know, we’ll have to see. Eventually however we’ll be able to tell if all the effort was worth it or not, and then you’ll be among the first to know. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, do check out Farhang’s performance – it’s guaranteed to make you smile 😉
And now you know why you didn’t see me post anything here for some time.
And for the record, because my listing of problems here might give you a different impression, I’m very proud of what’s in that box. Not only because we managed to make it in the end, but also because of what’s inside – all of these games were made against all odds, so somehow I guess it’s normal that the creation of the Anthology box also happened against all odds 🙂