An important lesson

I have these little notebooks in which I write down my thoughts. Every day I fill a couple of pages with new observations, questions and decisions. Whenever a notebook is full, I put it in a drawer, there to stay until the drawer is full at which point I empty the drawer, and put the notebooks in a box. I really don’t know why I bother with it, because I rarely read what I wrote, but I guess it helps me organise my thoughts. It also makes it look like I’m paying attention in meetings I’m not particularly interested in 😉

If you’d take the notebook that says January 2013, you’d see that I listed as major tasks for 2013, the organising Divinity: Original Sin’s kickstarter, releasing Dragon Commander and releasing Divinity: Original Sin. At that time, I only had hopes and aspirations and I really didn’t have a clue whether or not my plans were going to work.

Taking risks is of course part of the metier of running a game development studio, and there’s only that much that you can do to cover your bets. You know certain things will go wrong, you hope more things will go right. So last night, I started thinking about how we were doing compared to what I hoped for at the start of 2013…

I mention Dragon Commander a lot in this blog. If you don’t know what the game is about, it was released on August 6th 2013, and we made this fancy trailer to explain the game

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Steam Greenlight to become the new Kickstarter ?

[In which I muse about Steam Greenlight & a game that’s been in development for 10 years ]

A few days ago I received a mail from the friendly bunch behind the recently released Inquisitor, an old school RPG with a lot of heart & depth, but dated visuals & usability. I promised them that I was going to have a look at it, and if I liked it, do what little I can to help them spread the word about their Steam Greenlight campaign. For those who live on a different planet, Steam Greenlight is Valve’s recently released platform where users can vote if a game is worthy of being sold on Steam.

Does it look old school ? Yes it looks old school. Do I like old school ? Yes I like old school.

Other than Inquisitor looking like a neat RPG, there’s two interesting things that picqued my interest about this and got me writing: Inquisitor has been in development for more than 10 years , and it’s one of the first games in its genre to compete in the newly installed survival of the fittest competitition going on the world’s biggest digital platform for PC games.

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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

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Of Kickstarter & one thing I think game journalists should do

[In which I discuss that I like Kickstarter, point out some of the dangers implicit in the model, and urge journalists to publish links to developer’s online stores ]

In a couple of months it will be 10 years since Divine Divinity was released, and as you can expect, we’ve been organizing a little side-project to celebrate the occasion. Part of my job in preparing for this, is delving into the archives of Larian.

It’s something I hadn’t done in quite a while, and I smiled a lot seeing old pictures, like for instance the ones from our old offices being flooded by Kirill, our brilliant but occasionally forgetful composer, who happened to take a bath 😉

The big flood of 2003 - at 03:00 am we get a call that Kirill stayed late in the office, and something went wrong 😉

Some memories remain sensitive though, and at some point I found myself getting all excited and upset again over something that happened more than 10 years ago.

Surprisingly, it made me think about Kickstarter, online stores and something I think every single game journalist should do.

Here’s the story…

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The million units manual

[In which I discuss that it’s imperative I manage to guide Larian to selling a million units in my self-publishing model if I want to make my very big RPG I’m dreaming about]

I had a big discussion the other day. Somebody was challenging the entire philosophy behind what we’re trying to do – i.e. taking our destiny in our hands and incrementally earning sufficient profit to make the very big RPG that will dwarf them all.

The road we picked is long, very very long, and maybe we're not traveling in the fastest possible manner, but that doesn't mean we'll not get there in the end.

His reasoning was that that would never work, saying that the profits that can be made by a single game of the type we’re making is limited, and that unless we branch out in a variety of different markets, the reality of our burn-rate would always ensure that our funding would be too limited to achieve the vision behind it all. He also said trying to make a cool game wasn’t really a strategy, and accused me of not having any vision for my company.

Faced with such an onslaught of criticism (he had other issues) and seeing that he was very convinced about his arguments being infallible, I didn’t counter-argue that much, opting instead to think the matter through and do a little bit of introspection.

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Should independent developers go to E3 ?

[In which I discuss that independent developers of a certain size need to be at E3, especially nowadays]

As promised, now that the dust has settled, it’s time to find out if our recent little outing to E3 was worth the effort. Specifically, is it something that I’d recommend to other developers like us ? The short of it is a definite yes, but there’s quite a few caveats that you need to be aware of.

Larian at E3 - proof that "no sweat, no glory" has its merits - it was hard work but it gave us good results

Traditionally, E3 is an industry-only show and its raison d’être is showing off upcoming games to retailers. The general idea is that you get them excited enough to place large day 1 orders and thus ensure a succesful launch.  To do that, you need to convince them that yours is a big game, and demonstrating some muscle is believed to be a tried-and-true method of achieving just that. Hence the extravagant booths with occasionally outrageous budgets.

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Post E3

[In which I discuss that shows like E3 force developers to think about the essence of their games ]

I’m writing this one from the airport. We’re finally packed up and good to go after what seems to have been a pretty good E3 for us. I have to say, it’s been a long time since I’ve been so exhausted. But I’m also happy.

The road to LA started about 2 months ago for us, and when we began this particular journey, it looked like it was going to be smooth sailing. That didn’t last very long with the first crack in the plan appearing when we realized that in order to be featured in magazines at the time of the Divinity – Original Sin announcement, we’d need to show the demos we wanted to show at E3, one month before the actual show.

You’d think that after having been 15 years in this industry I could’ve predicted that one, but for some reason, the thought never occured to me, and the result of course was that we needed quite a few heroic development efforts to save the day.

Actually, when Tom, our PR agent, told us in april that he scored a visit from PC Gamer to our offices, my initial reaction was to cancel the entire thing. At that time we literally didn’t have a lot to show. Our development had been organized such that it would suffer minimal impact from having to make a demo for E3, but that visit meant we had to somehow cram 8 weeks of work in 3 weeks or so.

It was madness, but in hindsight, I’m glad we did it.

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The pirate in me

I’m ambivalent about the entire crusade against pirates thing. Every now and then it’s  it’s an issue that gets claimed by some publisher because of some new technology that gives them the illusion they’ll finally be able to stop it. Eventually it  boomerangs in their face, and they go hush about this issue. If they care, some poor community manager is then appointed to deal with the consumer backlash, and some other publisher pops on the scene, declaring the war on pirates, and the cycle starts all over.

These guys will find you if you copied a Divinity game !!!

And now we have CD Projekt  – first they make a lot of noise about the fact that their games are DRM  free and that publishers that enforce DRM are idiots ( DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, a fancy word for anti-piracy measures) Now the same CD Projekt makes it back into the press because they hired one of those one-stop-shop lawfirms that promise to use the full force of the law to hunt down  those that make illegal copies of their games, imposing a fine which from what I heard is approximately 40 times the revenue they’d get from an ordinary sale.

As an executive having to pay my employees every month, I understand the reasoning behind wanting to maximize revenue as it costs a lot to make these games. I also understand the business logic – if only 10% of those addressed by those lawyers pay out of fear for the court, the revenue multiplication factor of 40 makes it worthwhile. And it communicates the message to the public that is susceptible to these kinds of threats that pirating their products can bring them in trouble.

But that doesn’t mean I’m pro-DRM. You see, I wouldn’t be in this industry if it wouldn’t be for the abundance of copied games I played when I was a teenager. I built up most of my gameplay instincts playing those games, and being a slow learner, it took a lot of games, some of them being very bad.

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OnLive available on mobile

I like OnLive – seriously, I really like it. If streaming of quality games really breaks through, it might be just the thing we need to make games truly mass market.

If you don’t know what OnLive is, try our game there. Pretty amazing stuff considering everything that is required to make this a reality.

The risk is of course that they’re on the market too soon, and that the necessary infrastructure won’t be in place when it needs to be. Judging from my first royalty reports from OnLive for a game that wasn’t even really adapted to the platform, there’s definitely a market there.

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Flanders and the games industry

I’m having a meeting this afternoon at the Flemish ministry of innovation where they’ll tell my colleague developers and me how they intend to support the local games industry.

The local games industry of course is almost non-existent over here as our socio-economic climate is extremely hostile to the kind of thing we do. High labour taxes, necessary to finance a defunct and inefficient social system, together with good supportive measures for stimulating the games industry in neighboring countries, have made this place probably the worst possible to run a game development studio from.

I once calculated that my average cost per employee is the same as that of a top AAA studio in the USA, except that over there access to investment cash is a lot easier. And don’t get me started on Canada!

I’m very curious to hear what they came up with. It’s a tradition here that the high costs are compensated through subsidies, which politically I disagree with, but economically find that I must use if I want to keep on making games and compete on the global market.

The best option for Larian really would be to move out of here, but local roots are important to us, so I really hope the package they’ll present makes economical sense. There’s so much talent here and it’s a shame to see it continuously leave the country.