Land Ahoy

In a previous entry on the joys of making the Divinity Anthology, I mentioned that I was fairly stressed about some re-design work, but to be fair, that was a bit of a euphemism. What I should’ve written was that I was experiencing sheer terror at the thought that we’d made some incredibly big design mistakes with Divinity: Dragon Commander and that there was no way we could still correct them in time.

It became so bad it kept me awake at night (this game is important for Larian), and together with a whole bunch of other shit going on simultaneously, that meant I started to look like the zombie in the boxshot of Divinity II: Flames Of Vengeance.

To understand the problem we were dealing with, I first need to explain a bit about the architecture of Divinity: Dragon Commander.

Dragon Commander: wreaking havoc in the skies. But that is not all…

The main design of the game consists of three phases that interact with one another to make you feel as if you are indeed a real Dragon Commander. The idea is that feeling like a Dragon Commander is fun –  I certainly always wanted to feel like one 😉

Phase 1 consists of a hub where you talk to your crew, councilors and love interests, making all kinds of RPG-style decisions. It’s also the place where you invest in technology research and buy new stuff.  The output of phase 1 is new unit types, new magic powers and favors that you can call upon in the other phases. Phase 2 can be compared to an advanced strategy board game where you decide what unit types to buy and what units will attack which countries. Phase 3 then,  is where you engage in combat in the countries you attacked in phase 2 (or defend against enemy attacks).  Combat takes the guise of a 3D RTS where you can also take control of a hero-unit: the jetpack-wearing dragon which has all kinds of special powers. All phases are supposed to affect one another so that the whole becomes bigger than the sum of the parts.

For a long time, our main problem was phase 3, the combat phase. Balancing the dragon and RTS components was no easy thing, and it took a lot of iteration to come up with something cool. We went from a lot of action to almost no action, all the time trying to blend the control over your dragon with the feeling of also being in control of your fleet(s), and ensuring that what you did in combat had an impact on the other phases.

While the dragon/fleet on its own was already very complicated, getting it right in such a way that it tied in well with the strategy phase turned out to be a far bigger pain than we’d ever expected. Still, we continued developing because we assumed that our skills were sufficiently good to eventually find (or stumble upon) a solution.

My very first agent in the games business, Ben Sawyer, once told me that in any production, there is a moment – typically when a deadline becomes tangible – where it seems disaster is imminent and you feel like you need to start all over. He continued that it’s important to recognize this because if you succumb to the temptation of starting all over, you might indeed end up creating the disaster of having nothing to show at the end of the road.

I’ve had Ben’s moment happen to me a few times before and sure enough, last month it hit me with Dragon Commander. We weren’t making any real progress on linking the phases well together, and to be fair, I wasn’t enamored with how the RTS had evolved either. It all looked very nice, it controlled well and it was even entertaining, but it didn’t grab me the way other strategy games grabbed me. And what definitely didn’t work in my opinion was the link between the different phases. In my mind that made it a complete disaster, but I have a tendency to exaggerate 😉

Ben’s advise was based on the common wisdom that creators have a hard time distancing themselves from their creation. While occasionally you find guys who think they made something of great value whereas in reality it actually stinks, in companies like ours you are more prone to encounter creators who manage to focus only on the faults of their creation instead of its merits. This indeed makes creators the worst possible judges of their own work, because they might have something good without even being aware of it.

Knowing this, I struggled for quite some time about what to do with Dragon Commander. Was I being too critical ? Was it really that bad ? Perhaps it was just lacking polish . That alone can make a big difference.

I hesitated for quite some time and you could even say I suffered from analysis paralysis. My biggest problem was that I realized that if my feeling was right, we’d need quite some backtracking to correct our problems, and that inevitably would have consequences for the entire production.  So I kept on trying to find ways of not having to backtrack, because changing course midway really isn’t a trivial matter, not in the least because enforcing change means surmounting quite a lot of internal and external resistance, and this always causes collateral damage.

But on the other hand, not changing course when necessary is what gets big boats to sink. There are enough examples of that.

My uncertainty about what we were doing became large enough to compel me to freeze a number of production tracks, and I told the team they had to wait until we were sure we were indeed going in the right direction.

We started looking for different mechanics to solve our issues, but because we kept on thinking about production issues and all the work we’d already done, we limited ourselves to variations of things we already had. Unsurprisingly, we only managed to make small improvements, but nothing fundamentally changed.

Then we decided that we should open up our horizons, and we started looking at completely different routes to take. And when I mean completely different, I mean really completely different. At some point, we even contemplated making the game a Master of Magic style game. Imagine that.

Master of Magic – Master of Mayhem

And then, really only then, did we go back to the original concept, and started wondering, why the hell isn’t this working? Is there something fundamentally wrong with the original idea? Were we that blinded? Or are we just inept at executing it?

And as we looked at the original concept, it dawned on us that there was nothing wrong with it. We had just refused to do one thing because it made our jobs harder, and we didn’t want to take more production risks than we were already taking.

Our mistake was that the entire game was taking place in the air.

Now, it’s not as if we didn’t want to include ground combat from the very beginning, but because of all the AI misery that’d cause, we’d decided to steer away from it early on.  Thinking back, that decision had actually been taken really lightly, without even checking exactly how much AI misery it was going to cause. We’d just assumed it to be a bad idea, based on our previous experiences with the flight/ground AI in Divinity II, and we also didn’t really realize at the time what a negative impact it’d have on the gameplay.

Design wise, the moment we envisioned introducing land (and sea) units again, our problems started to disappear rapidly. And as they disappeared, out of the blue solutions appeared for the other problems we still had. Put differently: by introducing land units, suddenly we could get the entire thing working as planned.

I’m pretty sure that there are designers outside of our studio that would’ve seen this right away, but we were so used to blocking off any idea that required something else than air units, that we didn’t even explore that path anymore.

It was only when our despair became so large and the proposed mechanics to solve our issues became so ridiculously out of this world, that we saw what the core issue was. And once we isolated that, it became just a matter of figuring out how many coders we’d need to solve the technology problem.

A couple of weeks after deciding to try land/air/sea, we had a prototype that incorporated land and sea units. After playing only a few combat sessions, it was clear that this was the key. Protecting a bridge on which you’ve stationed some troops with a battleship far in the sea and some bomb-dropping-balloons hovering over feels so much better than just having aerial units duke it out, and the ability to turn into a dragon takes on an entire new dimension when you’re flying so close to the ground. A couple of design sessions later, the entire game was adapted to incorporate the new style of combat, and suddenly everything was crystal clear. We even managed to integrate the different phases in a very elegant way, something I won’t write about here yet, but instead show in a future video. Most importantly, at least for me personally,I went from a sleepless developer in pain to a sleepless happy developer !

All that pain, just because we’d boxed ourselves in too fast. This could’ve ended in disaster and looking back now I’m happy I didn’t heed Ben’s advise and insisted on reshaping the game. For myself, I vowed to let this be the last time that I allow a technologically “easier” route dictate my gameplay. I really should’ve known better.

But it did have its advantages too. Exploring all those dead ends gave us a good insight into what works and what doesn’t, and I hope we’ll be able to use that knowledge to our advantage in the very near future.

  • Steve

    Other than the creation of unique air, land and sea units (no idea what they would look like in comparison to the air units), would this fair anywhere near the (size, mechanics or gameplay) of games such as, “supreme commander,” “Command and Conquer,” or other medium to large scale RTS games?

    • Swen Vincke

      I hope that when you get to play it, it’ll feel very familiar because each unit will make you think of those games, but you’ll still have a feeling – wow this is cool, why didn’t anybody do that before. Whether or not we’ll manage that, I don’t know, but that’s the ambition

      • Steve

        Absolutely! Thanks for sharing such insightful information. It’s given a much more valueable and trustworthy form of informing and picture of Larian. Keep it up!

  • Jeremy Lash

    Fantastic news Swen; I liked how it looked initially anyway (Reminiscent of i of The Dragon) but this adds a level of depth that enhances things.
    I admire your candidness about the design process and the steps you have had to take. If only other developers were as introspective and self aware! It also sheds light on how communal the whole process is, ensuring everyone is in line with the idea and building towards it.
    Still very much looking forwards. Had to restart Divinity 2 to capture the dragon feel – my old save disappeared when our XBox was stolen sadly!
    Thank goodness for digital purchases at least 😉

  • WotanAnubis

    That’s good to hear. And I’m secretly kind of pleased you’ll be bringing in land and sea maps because… well… aerial maps are kind of empty and, I imagine, get kind of repetitive. I mean… maybe you have clouds up there. Some mountaintops or something. But no bridges to hold, no swamps slowing you down, no high ground to take, not much in the way of natural barriers shaping the map. And if all maps are basically the same… well… that’s kinda dull.

    Still… at this point I’d like to mention Fire Emblem because I love Fire Emblem and this is a good opportunity. In Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn there is one map that takes place entirely in the air, where your outnumbered group of pegasus knights has to fight off a bunch of dragon knights. Apart from the units, the map is entirely empty (because there is no terrain up in the air), which would be dull. To get rid of the dullness, this aerial map has clouds/cloud cover and units on ‘cloud tiles’ get a few minor defence and evasion bonuses. On top of that, the wind is blowing, so at the start of every turn the clouds shift a bit, changing to nature of the battlefield. It’s a small thing, but it helped make that map more interesting.

    Now, Fire Emblem is a turn-based game, not a real-time one, but still… Clouds. Fog. Factory smoke. Think about it.

  • Markus Lundberg

    That must have been such a relief for you guys!

    I think it’s a bit like making a shooter game where you are all standing on one huge flat field. It works for top-down 2D shoot-em-ups like Gradius, but you are limited to what’s on the screen only. Adding the third dimension needs more than just an empty field to work with, otherwise it feels empty or just pointless.

    And about aerial environment, imagine the air fight-scene towards the end of the movie Avatar, and how much those floating rocks add to the scene and sense of speed/scale.
    Do all you can to bring level design into your flying game, just sayin’. Keep it up!

  • arne

    Yes great news indeed. I can imagine how those new features will so greatly improve your work. Trying to guess how ground-sky combat combination will be handled tough. Just don’t wait too long to post that video!
    And I wish you a good night’s rest…

  • Kein Zantezuken

    Ground battles? Well, that is quite a surprise, this is what I didn’t expect at all considering all known data about DD and some latest revelations about air-ground battle system issues in ED/DKS.

    • Swen Vincke

      It was dominantly the X360 requirement that killed us there together with the need to stream.

  • Daniel

    Very good blogpost, great to read that you came up with this interesting solution. I can already imagine flying right above the water at sea battles, that should be epic. 🙂
    I only have a few questions, does this mean there won’t be air battles? Or will there be a few just for the variation it could offer?
    And on the ground maps, how far could you fly up? Or maybe you could make interesting maps like a HUGE cave.
    That’s it, now I just hope the video will be here soon. :p

    • Swen Vincke

      Air to air, air to ground, air to sea (and vice-versa). It’s 3D warfare. As far as how high you can fly, the dragon can pretty much fly over almost anything – the other units have a ceiling.

  • Sacred_Path

    Remember when you had your Ben moment with Beyond Divinity? You should have followed through with it.

    • Swen Vincke

      I know, I still regret it but at that moment, the business environment really was very hostile and I didn’t see a lot of other choices. Check out the developer journal of the Divinity Anthology, you’ll understand exactly how hostile 🙂

  • Pharnaces_II

    How abstracted are phase 1 and 2 going to be from one-another? It sounds like a solid concept to have a hub and a world map for macro and then an actual RTS for micro but what, in my opinion, will make or break the game is how much effort it takes to go from woo-ing a love interest or purchasing research to utilizing the benefits of the love interest and research in the overworld. A lot of hybrid games get more and more annoying to play over time as it takes more and more effort to do basic sets of tasks like creating buildings for units -> creating army -> moving army in any Total War game and that could become a very real problem for Dragon Commander.

    Air to ground combat sounds like a lot of fun and I might actually pick up Dragon Commander even though I’m not a big RTS fan.

    • Swen Vincke

      The idea is to integrate them heavily in the campaign mode. But you can also play campaigns without story, in which case it’s purely strategy map and RTS combat.

  • Darklord

    Wow you guys went through hell! You really deserve this to be a great success after all that. 🙂

  • Farflame

    How do you complement dragon fighting and giving orders to your units? I think its pretty important for the right feel and ludicity of combat. For example:

    – Could you pause combat?

    – While you fly with dragon do you see on screen (display) small icons of all units (or groups of units) and static targets in the whole battle area? Of course I mean icons with vital stats (health bars, damage, and/or icons of performed actions like moving or attacking) ?

    – Could you click on any of these icons to immediatelly switch camera to selected unit/target to quickly see what is going on there?

    – How are you informed about battle situations while you fly with a dragon? Simple voice over (“master, unit XY is attacked”), or voice + flash on the minimap, or voice + new icon on the screen (click to zoom camera there, or click to see text info and minimap flash…) etc. ?

    – Could you order your units to support you while in dragon combat? I mean you click button or push key of command “selected group of units/all units follow me”, then you attack some target and your units follow you and attack all targets you attack.

    – Does your dragon have quick regeneration in combat (if he fly away from enemies)? Or is it more tricky to heal, if he is badly wounded?

    And very tricky question:
    – If your dragon have jetpack, could you switch him to autopilot? 😀

  • Viggo

    Thanks for the post, Swen.

  • m00n1ight

    Swen, I am tormented by one question… Are you familiar with Project Nomads by Radon Labs? Your original concept reminds me of that project.

  • LightningLockey

    I’m so glad to hear there will be ground and water units! It was one thing that had me a bit worried when you originally said Dragon Commander would only have air combat. Anyone know a good steak sauce to go with grilled goblin?