Making time to develop

I have to fight to find time to breathe these days.

Things are moving so fast now and we’re doing so many things simultaneously that my previous concerns over our growth scaring the hell out of me can now be considered to be a big understatement. Still, I’m having lots of fun and I’m damn proud of what we’re achieving here at Larian. We finally figured out when we’ll start announcing some of our new stuff (around E3) and if things continue to progress as they are, I think we’ll be showing a lot between then and the end of the year.

I’m just back from lovely Quebec City where we’ve been interviewing candidates to join our new team there and I’m quite excited about the talents that’ll be joining us. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a candy store when the person in front of me turns out to be exceptionally gifted in his or her craft and indicates he or she’s willing to work for us. The complementing of our team with extra capacity & talent together with having a cool RPG engine to build our future work on is empowering us and I’m anxious to see all the little building blocks come together. Obviously, since we’re in the business of making RPGs, I’ll have to exert some patience, but from where I’m sitting it’s already clear that this will become something special.

Because we’ve picked E3 as the period to announce our next big thing, I can’t say too much right now (otherwise we won’t get the press coverage we’re hoping for etc…) so for today’s long overdue entry, I figured I might tell you a bit about something that’s been bothering me.

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Three stooges posing for the opening of the Larian Quebec office

By nature, I prefer sitting in my cave focussing on my game and if I come outside of said cave, it’s because I want to connect with players to discuss my game. After that, I want to return to my cave and make my next game. Anything that interferes with that process I consider disturbing. I reluctantly learnt to live with having to channel energy in the sales process as that allows me to make the games I want to make independently, but that doesn’t mean I like it.

I often get invitations to speak at events and while I refuse most, I sometimes agree because I think it might be good for the company. Because of the success of D:OS, of late there’ve been more of these invitations than usual. The problem with all these invitations to present is that the more of these you do, the more invitations you get.

I recently spoke at GDC and was also honoured to receive an award for cultural entrepreneurship that received a lot of attention here in Flanders. The net result of those two things was  a bombardment of requests for speaking at events, giving my opinion on matters and opportunities to meet up with people. I didn’t do the calculation but I think that if I’d say yes to everything, I’d probably be busy for at least a few years, just following up.

I already felt awkward in the past for being so aggressive in my triage of mails, but now it’s literally becoming ridiculous. I gave up answering but like most people (I think), now feel bad about it because I in general do try to be nice & polite. But it’s just become impossible. I’ll probably be perceived as an arrogant prick, but I’ll have to live with it because I can’t see any other workable solution other than just not answer all these people, or take a personal assistant just to answer my mails (which I think doesn’t make sense for a game developer).

So if you’re one of those people who’s waiting for an answer from me, please consider this as my apology for not replying to your email sooner because I’m just a regular human being who needs to sleep from time to time too and who also wants to actual make games instead of talk about making them.

Speaking of which, I did a lot of talking about that last game of ours at GDC. I just received  my session evaluation from the GDC board and apparently it was perceived better than I expected myself (they ranked me 22/133). It’s interesting how by telling me my ranking they managed to motivate me to do better next time. At the same time, it’s rather irrelevant as the real number I need to improve is player’s appreciation of our next game.

Which brings me to the crux of my problem. I “lost” at least two days prepping and doing this GDC talk, meaning that those two days weren’t spent on development. This loss of time was something that occupied my mind as I was making my powerpoint and rehearsing and I really needed to convince myself that giving the GDC talk was a good thing. (In the past I have been known to walk out of a GDC Europe presentation because I needed my time)

You see, the other thing I was working on at the same time was the main beats for our next RPG and in my mind they dwarfed the GDC talk in importance. I have the same problem with updating this blog. Every time I want to start on it, I think of something I should be doing on the game, and so that takes priority. I can’t but help that that’s the better thing to do, but experience obviously taught me that if you don’t do the other part, then your company is doomed.

I guess that in the type of job I do, this tension between selling my company to the public and developing is inevitable, but I keep on struggling with finding the right balance. Right now, the way I fix it is by working harder, but eventually I wil run out of stamina, and so I need to find a better more permanent solution. I’m quite curious how other people in similar situations handle this. My current solution really is to work harder and to focus on the 10% of things that make up 90% of what’s important for Larian, but I can’t help feeling stressed about the other 90% of things I’m not doing.

So is it ok to not reply to people’s mails? Is it ok to refuse things you should feel honoured about because you need time to work on ‘your thing’? Is it ok to be incredibly annoyed when someone sends you a reminder? Can you tell them ? How do people perceive you when you flatly don’t answer them? Do people really understand that you’re too busy? It’s something that preoccupies me these days and I don’t know the right answer. All feedback more than welcome because I’d really like to know the best approach.

  • Felipe Pepe

    Ok Swen, I forgive you for not replying to my e-mails, but make a kickass RPG then! ;)

  • John Wiley

    Seeing as you’re the posterboy of Larian at the moment, that naturally comes at a cost when it comes to your own role within the company. As you said creating games is where your heart’s at, but unless you somehow move the spotlight away from you (at least to a certain extent), the requests are going to keep coming and you’ll continue to walk a thin line between neglecting the outside world whilst creating and somewhat satisfying public demand.

    How about you move some more people forward as the “Faces of Larian” or something? Surely there must be some people in your crew who are perhaps not as experienced as yourself, but who have a knack for dealing with the media/the general public? They might be able to take away a bit of your “public” workload?

    • Katrien Cornelis

      haha :) right now I’m imagining a lot of the Larian people in “that” role..
      Those poor people.I sort of have the idea there are (mbti wise for as much worth you will give it) a lot of INTPs,INTJs,INFJs,INFPs working there.And most certainly if it’s one thing the INTx are ,it’s burrowers :D Or people that retreat to their cave and do fantastic work when being allowed to bury themself in something.

      Be it designing,troubleshooting things,finding alternative solutions..

      But speaking at these events must almost always seem like..deviating them from THE thing they should be doing (professional wise).Although they factored all of the pro’s and cons in.. It can feel like a trick and pony show (i assume?) Ok I did my bit, I explained and talked about something very interesting and helpful for other indie devs out there..Can I now just please go and do the thing I’m supposed to do..that I actually want to do :)

  • Somewhat Swedish

    Perhaps you could set your mail to autoreply to people not on your adresslist, something along the lines of “I have read your mail, but if I haven’t responded within a weeks time I weren’t interested in whatever you were offering” :)

  • Kein Zantezuken

    Absolutely ok, especially if these mails come from social knights.

  • Bruno SALQUE

    Hi Swen, I think it’s normal you feel like that, but you may have to have some community manager who could speak in your stead, as you don’t like it this much … And, it (he or she) would be the one to use the mails, the conferences and everything which goes with Larian developpement, it could tell you “ok Swen, now, you have to attend this one, it’s gonna be great for us” and reply all the too insistant e-mails.

    I’m very glad and happy I helped Larian during the kickstarter, and hope this game success won’t make you “overuse” your stamina. I think you attain a goal where your choices matter (No Torment references) and you may be able to chose someone to unload your already overloaded shoulders of this kind of matter.

    I think you became (and it’s not you choice) something “more” than a game developer … and, you prefer to be the game developer than the communicant … You may want to get someone which is like a “personnal assistant” : you have work for him/her for more than one year, and it will grow …

    Here is my application form (no, just kidding, I’m too busy with my own work or finishing D:OS, I forgott which takes the most time). Cheers, you have built a community and we will understand your silences.

  • Jakob Uhd Jepsen

    I does sound like you need a community/PR manager to screen your incoming requests. Just being hired to answer emails is obviously not a full job, but maybe there is a place for something more. Public relations with the fans and with the press does use some of the same skills, and in all ties more generally into marketing. Surely there is a role for someone like that at Larian.

    Burnout is bad. All gamers know this.

  • Sean Ridgeley

    I advise either quitting the public speaking and such altogether, or only doing it at a certain time of year and/or only doing a set amount of talks, interviews, etc. Find someone else you trust and who is as good at it or nearly to fill in the void, or just have communication primarily between you and players.

    It’s perfectly fine to not answer emails once they hit a certain volume. Either only contact people yourself (and perhaps only by phone), or get an assistant.

    It’s important you find an optimal balance that best serves Larian.

  • http://stephenstrange.com/ Stephen Suelzle

    Sven, I think that the fact that you are asking the question means you are doing the right thing. Ask yourself what you are doing and why you are doing it. Your dedication and passion are obvious to any of us fans and we are the ones buying your games, not an event. Focus on what YOU think is important.

    Didn’t mean to sound preachy, but that is what I think.

  • Washington Irving

    Swen, tell everyone to fuck off and be with your family.

  • Stabbey

    You should probably get some other people to help with the PR duties, but maybe spread it out to at least two other people, so no one person gets too overwhelmed with that stuff. Farhang seems to do a good job presenting stuff, for instance.

  • xiansi

    “So is it ok to not reply to people’s mails?”

    Yes.

    “Is it ok to refuse things you should feel honoured about because you need time to work on ‘your thing’?”

    Even more yes.

    “Is it ok to be incredibly annoyed when someone sends you a reminder?”

    How much yes can this universe hold?
    (unless it’s something you previously committed to)

    “How do people perceive you when you flatly don’t answer them?”

    Like a total arsehole who’s too big for their boots. They will take it personally. Which is why you should never reply in the first place.

    “Do people really understand that you’re too busy?”

    Haha, no. If you want something done, ask a busy person…”

    “It’s something that preoccupies me these days and I don’t know the right answer.

    Ignore everyone you don’t already know, or at least know of. Seriously. You guys have ‘arrived’, Larian are PC RPG aristocracy now (for whatever that is worth) and 99.9% of anyone approaching you with a ‘business proposition’ is a shady chancer.

    If your company must engage with the nastier bits of the real world then I can only echo John Wiley from above – hire someone who’s good at it.

  • Yoalq

    hey swen, i can be your assistant/personal pr. Wont ask for too much money

  • Fox

    It can be difficult working in any field with the unprecedented level of accessibility we have nowadays. I think we all know people (and I think many of us are this kind of person) who is effectively always on-call–able to view and respond to emails/messages/whatever immediately, at any time of day or night.

    It can be messy.

    Swen: I strongly advice you simply don’t leave yourself vulnerable to that kind of access. IE, any requests for speaking engagements/interviews/etc., should go through your PR intern/hire/dept., (now that you’re expanding) who should know what is worth forwarding on to you. One of the best ways to avoid making people think you’re being rude or brushing them off is simply to have someone else (politely) do it in your place. You don’t need to have a personal assistant to do this kind of thing–this kind of thing is EXACTLY what the PR folks are supposed to handle.

    …..

    On the subject of your GDC talk (thanks for sharing that link, BTW)… I have to say, I constantly forget that Larian is (or, rather, was?) such a small developer. Only 35 people produced DOS and DC within the span of four years? Good God. You are very clearly doing something very right.

    I do think you kind of brushed over one of the big things you “did right” when developing/marketing DOS–the Kickstarter video updates. Those were, I think, enormously advantageous: first, they were videos on YouTube, which made them hugely accessible to anyone (not just backers); second, the video format made them more accessible to a general audience (they were also short, snappy, well produced and frequently amusing) which further broadened their appeal; and finally, their frequency was such that you were able to maintain a constant “buzz” about the game within the community throughout that portion of development. That really helped generate a LOT of word-of-mouth which, frankly, any RPG without an obscene advertising budget/hype train really, desperately needs.

    (I also want to comment on your iterative approach to game design–it was really apparent in the backer alpha/beta. I would play a bit, then leave for a few weeks and come back, and each time I did everything felt better and better. That, at least for me, really contributed to me spreading the word about the game–because I could see and feel and play as the game steadily got better and better).

    Also, I’d like to express some concern. I don’t run a business and I know very little about game development, but hearing about those financial problems is… worrying to me. I wonder if maybe you shouldn’t be developing two new games simultaneously? I don’t know. Maybe I’ve vastly underestimating how much of a success DOS was. I hope so.

    Finally, I’d like to express a sentiment I think we all share: I cannot wait to see what Larian does next.

  • Aenra

    Keep doing your thing, stop worrying. Nothing of worth outside the cave anyway :)

    The market has grown, so have the carnivores orbitting it. You need not be forced to join the merry go round, time enough for presentations and talks when you have something tangible to show. Until then relax and be yourself.

    (as far as ‘maintaining’ the community? In the meantime? I made a suggestion in our forums. You could help us help you. More presense, less time spent to do it)

    Be well! :D

  • Stabbey

    I finally got a chance to see your GDC talk a few days ago. Long post warning!

    I was a bit caught off-guard to hear that Ego Draconis was your worst game ever, until I realized that you meant in terms of review scores. I played Ego Draconis (PC) and didn’t think it was so bad, although it’s been so long that I don’t really remember all that much which was different. If it’s any comfort though, people consider the Dragon Knight Saga version as really great.

    The Murder of Dragon Commander.
    Saying that you murdered Dragon Commander was perhaps not the best way to phrase it. It makes it sound like a completely flawed and broken pile of crap. Now I have posted a long list of complaints and suggestions, but I still enjoyed the game.

    Maybe you did murder it from its original vision, but saying now – 18 months after releasing DC – that you actually murdered it was not a good idea politically. You might think it makes you appear brutally honest about your own failings, but it can also make you seem MORE untrustworthy, not less.

    When Dragon Commander was released, you weren’t going around saying you were unsatisfied with the final product. Obviously, that would have been a boneheaded thing to do, but coming back a year and a half later and saying that you murdered it, that’s the kind of line that can come back to haunt you. People will remember the “murdered” line, and forget that the game was actually pretty well-received at the time.

    I mean, you are currently working on two new RPG’s at the same time, and now I’m sure more than one person will wonder if one of them will be quietly “murdered” when the money inevitably runs short, but will be hyped up just as much. Will one of the new RPG’s stop receiving patches after two months? ‘Murdered’ was probably a case when less honesty and a more politic spin was called for.

    On more positive news, the article about your visit to Quebec claims that you’ve passed 1,000,000 units of D:OS sold. If so, congratulations.

    Speaking of the upcoming Original Sin patch with the hardcore mode, will you have a special name for it to promote the patch? If you really are going to overdeliver, the patch should probably have a special name to promote it. “The Phantom Dungeon Patch” will get a lot more attention – and therefore a lot more sales than “Patch v1.0.763.4”. (I don’t actually believe that you’ll be adding in the (cut) Phantom Forest Dungeon, it was an example.)

    And I’m not sure you should just call it the “Hardcore Mode” patch. That might have mixed results – it would bring in more of the hardcore players that maybe you haven’t reached yet, but it might also make some of the more casual players wary, thinking “well, I’m not a hardcore RPG person, so what’s in it for me?”

    • Fox

      Because of how Steam handles its front page now, the best way to increase awareness is to brand a big patch as “free DLC,” that way it’ll show up in the “New” category on Steam and drive more sales. IIRC, Larian did exactly this with the “Bear and the Burglar” DLC/patch.

  • Licaon_Kter

    Yet no time for the Linux version of D:OS? Still waiting…

  • Endre

    Many-many people face the same problem (me too): we want to do much more than possible.
    IMPORTANT not to feel guilty just because you cannot manage the impossible, ok? You are a man, you cannot work 16 hours a day + see your family + your friends + manage your private things and make everyone happy. This is where priorities come.
    However you are very lucky because your work = your hobby I suppose..
    But please do take some time to relax a bit, otherwise you may burn out and nobody wants that!

    PS: an auto-mail answer is not too much, but maybe better than nothing.. (-:

  • Michael

    I have a similar problem. I think all motivated people do. We devote so much of ourselves to the single one or two things deemed most important right there and then, we forget about the little things that we also need to survive in the long term.

    I can’t really say anything helpful because I’m still trying to balance my own life and my problems don’t involve people mailing me. But I wish you luck. An Auto-mailer that replies quickly saying you don’t have the time to reply, and includes a condensed version of what you just wrote would work really well, I think.

    Whatever you write, considering how well you wrote the piece above, I’m sure you will come across well.

  • Philipp Luders

    As the CEO of the company you should be working on the sales side, you are the face of the company. I can understand that the RPG development side is your passion and first love, but as a CEO you need to go out and sell your product and your company..
    Or you can hire a PR person or make someone a VP who deals with that side of the business so you can continue to do what you love. But in all honesty PR/Sales is currently Larians worst “stat” because you have no one to manage it. If you have enough work in talks/PR events etc to cover a year or two’s worth of time then invest in someone who will become the face of your company and sell it. That will also increase initial sales of any new games you launch because there is more awareness and hype around it. More initial sales mean more revenue quicker which can go to future games since at that point your price point is much higher you can pay off any loans reducing the amount of interest you have to pay etc etc..

    Probably not what you want to hear, but I think you need to hear…

  • Coax

    Warning : long post.

    Larian Studios is a wonderful company with extremely talented and tech-savvy people.
    The
    proof is in the product you delivered. You have also been praised in
    how you continued working on the program after it shipped. You do your
    best to interface with a very critical community of avid and fanatical
    gamers and you listen to their feedback with one end-goal in mind: to
    improve on the product. I can imagine talking to people who are
    raging over a change in stats on an item is not always easy.

    I’m a huge fan of the company, so much that I REALLY wanted to work there. I live close by and I
    think I have what it takes. At least I’m sure I could do with relative ease what was stated in the job description.

    That’s
    when I got to experience first-hand that you might have a little
    communication problem. I think whoever runs your backoffice is probably
    completely overwhelmed and needs some help. I’m no Paul Herbert or
    Neil
    Gaiman, but I can write some decent fantasy fiction. I just never
    published anything online. Always kept my writing for myself. Big
    mistake.

    So I applied as a writer. Twice.

    I never received a response- second time around there was an autoresponder that thanked
    me
    for submitting. The autorespond message said something along the lines
    of “when you don’t hear from us within a month, you’re probably not
    selected”. “Probably means I still have a shot”. For months on end I was
    anxiously checking my inbox.

    Until it dawned on me that there
    wouldn’t be a response. While it’s probably ok not to respond to crazy
    requests and speaking engagements, I feel that regarding job
    applications people at least deserve a formal rejection.

    I was
    so happy about my motivational letter that I was sure I was going to get
    invited in for a job interview. How delusional that proved to be !

    Please
    don’t let a job applicant’s hope fade away slowly. It’s a bit cruel. I
    have a fulltime job but I was willing to give it all up and scale down
    in pay just to be part of the Larian team and help build a fantastic
    product. This was my shot.

    “Op een dag vind je de job van je leven ..” and all that :)

    I’ll admit it while being cloaked by the relative anonimity of the internet : I hoped. I dreamed.

    I had started preparing for any writing challenges they would subject potential candidates to by researching Divinity
    lore,
    playing through all the games again, watching the YouTube channel,
    starting a blog in order to build a portfolio, working with the Editor
    tool to create quests and dialog , … I was going to ace this interview
    thing and impress the hell out of them.

    I prepared for a
    career-defining writing performance. So yes I’m disappointed at how it
    played out because I poured a lot of effort in, spending evening upon
    evening preparing and did not get a chance to present myself to Swen and
    his team. I was even considering dropping by the office but then you’re
    THAT guy.

    I have no real experience in specifically writing
    for RPGs so I think some experienced people showed up at Larian’s
    doorstep and got the gig. That has to be it, right?

    I’m a big
    boy and I can deal with rejection. If it’s not meant to be, it’s not
    meant to be. At least reject me and don’t leave me hanging.

    If
    only they had communicated to me a bit earlier I don’t fit the profile, I
    wouldn’t have wasted all that energy hoping for that one e-mail or
    call. Only, I do fit the profile, but they will never know.

    Not answering applicants reflects badly on a great company.

    I
    have the utmost respect for Swen, he went through some incredibly tough
    times with Larian and had to lay off dozens of people. I can only
    imagine what that does with someone. I think he has learned to aim for
    his goal and he just prioritizes. He needs to. They don’t have time to
    deal with all the applicants and see them personally. Paperwork is just
    not a priority. In that way they’re a bit the victim of their own
    success.

    I will be buying Larian’s next game just to support Swen
    and what he is doing at Larian and have moved past the disappointment. I
    just hope they know this is an area of the company that needs work and
    are able to address this.

    Godspeed to you all !

    Still a fan !

    • Slimebeast

      Don’t give up! Especially since you have the privilege to live close by. Just apply there again and show how passionate you are!

      • Coax

        Thanks for the encouragement. I’m building up a portfolio, writing freelance (and for free I might add) for several blogs and websites. I’m also toiling away on a fantasy short story.

        I’m NEVER giving up :)

  • Coax

    Something went very wrong with the formatting of my post. Oh well

  • Peter Enis

    Fuck em’. You earned it, go dark and lead your company like you please. If pieces of the next big thing are coming together, choose proxies of yourself to lead the pending halfyear kickstarter-earlyaccess-qatester-hypemoney-release cycle.

  • Sidiez

    The fact that you want to work more on your game then do speeches or answer emails has actually completely sold me on your company and i will now eagerly await your guys next announcement. You have proven you can make kick butt games i love and now you have proven that you are a hard worker and just want to make epic fun games for people to play instead of just talking and pushing development back(Looking at you Starbound). So i am going to make a mental note about Larian Studios and support you guys in whatever you decide to pursue from here on out.