What’s wrong with Steam Early Access?

Yes, I know I’m hopelessly late with this update – but I’ve been busy ;)

I do wish you all a happy 2014, and I promise that once Divinity:Original Sin is out, I’ll update my blog more frequently. For now however, my entries will be pretty sparse, just because I’m so swamped.

A thread started on our forums that I thought might be of interest because it touches on the topic of Steam Early Access, something I guess pretty much every developer is thinking of nowadays.

A player named Kamatsu argued against Divinity:Original Sin going on Steam Early Access based on the bad treatment Wasteland 2 was getting. The reason for starting the thread was a Eurogamer preview about Divinity:Original Sin in which it slipped that Larian might be planning to release Divinity:Original Sin on Steam Early Access.

I didn’t actually check how Wasteland 2 was doing but from watching a couple of let’s plays and reading some previews, my impression was that it was actually doing well. And its position in the Steam charts indicated to me that they were making quite some revenue too which I assume will in turn allow InXile to make their game even better.

Somehow however Kamatsu didn’t share my opinion about everything being fine & dandy.

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FUME!

A long time ago, back in the days when I was pitching Divine Divinity to UK press, I came up with an acronym that described what I thought was important in computer role playing games. I engaged in this particular mental exercise because I needed something to tell all those journalists I was about to meet, and I knew that there’d be many awkward moments during which we’d have to patiently wait for a reboot of the game after one its many guaranteed crashes.

And so it came to be that my youthful self invented the FUME paradigm, a pattern against which one can evaluate the likelyhood of Swen falling in love with a RPG, or not. If it scores low on the FUME scale, statements you can expect from me include such gems as “it sucks” or “that shouldn’t have been made”.  But if it scores high on the same scale, I’ll keep on talking about it for ever and ever. Ultima VII for instance did pretty well on the FUME scale, as did Fallout 2. I’d love to include a modern RPG here, but sadly there are none that I played that score as highly as those games did.

The danger exists that that last statement makes you think that I’m one of those cynics that thinks all CRPGs are shit, but that wouldn’t be right. On the contrary, I think there have been many breakthroughs over the last decades in CRPG design – the only problem is just that there hasn’t been a single game yet that incorporates everything I want to see in one game, and production constraints over the last couple of yours seem to have blocked the kind of development I’d liked to see. But even if I’m slightly disappointed with the lastest RPG incarnations, I do remain optimistic about the future, because I firmly believe that in the end progress can’t be halted.

So, let’s have a look at what FUME stands for.

Ultima VII  has a pretty high FUME value 

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Why did we stretch ?

The Kickstarter team tweeted a quote from Faulkner yesterday – “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything good.”. I never read Faulkner so I don’t know if indeed he wrote that or if he intended what I think is intended. In any case, the quote seemed fitting enough to me to start’s today’s blog entry with, because yet again, Larian’s taking a big chance and as always, there’s a few risks involved.

Here’s the thing – We just announced that Divinity: Original Sin is going to be released this winter, in February 2014 to be precise, most likely at the end of February as our aim is to maximize the remaining development time. The relation between quote and announcement may not seem immediately clear, but implicit within the announcement is the message that we’re going to be investing much more in Divinity: Original Sin than we already invested, and thus increase our risk significantly. Releasing in February means we’re adding four to five months of extra development time, and the plan is to have pretty much our entire team work on it, together with a couple of outsourcers. Given that there are around 40 people in our team, that’s quite an increase for DOS’ final price tag.

The financial reasoning behind extending our development even more is that the better the game is, the better it’ll sell, and that it makes no sense releasing something that’s not good enough, within reason of course. It’s the kind of reasoning that keeps the accountant within me appeased, because he does freak out from time to time.

My dominant line of thought however is that I think we should continue to “tinker and toy, hammer and hew” up to the point that feel we have something in our hands strong enough to convince even our biggest skeptic, and that as long as we break even, releasing a strong RPG in today’s environment is something that’ll create a lot of value for ourselves as a studio. Now, as it happens, I know said skeptic personally, and because it’s such a misanthrope, we’ll never manage to please it, but a healthy dose of positive idealism never hurts ;)

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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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Dragon Commander is out now!

I’m very happy to announce that Dragon Commander is out today! It immediately went for the top of the Steam charts and I’m hoping that it’s going to stay there for a little while ;)

I want to thank everybody who made this possible, starting with the team who dedicated so much of their time these last months to make it something we could be proud of, all the people who kept on believing in us, even when the going was tough , and of course all the gamers out there who supported us. I’m  relieved to see that our initial press scores are positive, most of them being between 8 & 9, and obviously I hope it’ll stay that way. I really wasn’t sure how Dragon Commander was going to be received because it’s one of those cases where you have to look at the whole of the thing rather than individual components. I want to explicitly thank those reviewers who gave the game a second shot when they realised something was broken and contacted us, querying if what they saw was normal. Thanks to them we could fix what would otherwise have been quite a disaster ;)

It’s going to be a busy day today for us so I’m not going to linger here too much, but have fun playing Dragon Commander & spread the word. I’ll be back with a longer retrospective on my experiences developing and publishing Dragon Commander at a later date.

Many things to share!

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On last minute changes & media

It’s pretty hot in the office for the moment, but they say a thunderstorm is coming. I’m looking forward to that. Some rain would be welcome.

I slept about 4 hours in the last couple of days. Better put, I slept 4 hours this morning. And no, it’s not because of Dragon Commander crunch even though there’s quite a bit of that going on.

No, these particular sleepless nights have everything to do with a bad mix of wisdom teeth , inflamed sinuses and nerves that insist on being where they shouldn’t be. It’s a problem I’ve been carrying around for some time and which has the annoying tendency of popping up at the most inopportune of times. Hurts like hell and reduces me to my most animalistic self when it occurs. I really need to get this fixed. It’s better now, courtesy of the terror unleashed by several grams of narrow-spectrum antibiotics on the cell wall of the causative agent. But it was quite a painful trip and it prevented me from functioning normally these last couple of days. Not that I had anything meaningful to do anyway.

Opinions like this and this keep us awake and make us make changes, but that’s not the only thing keeping me awake.

Given my lack of sleep, I offered myself some recovery sleep this morning and so I only arrived in the office around noon. As I entered the office, I couldn’t help but notice that something changed.

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The Pitfalls of Politics & Ethics in Video Games

Not so long ago, I found myself involved in a big discussion about what rewards to attach to a most vile and despicable deed. It’s not a position I’m used to so I couldn’t rely on instinct to sort it out. I have to admit that it really felt wrong to give a gameplay bonus to something  I clearly didn’t agree with, yet at the same time, I couldn’t deny that within the logic of the gameworld we’d created, in this particular instance it made perfect sense to award gold to a player for behaving like a dictator with blood on his hands.

From this discussion sprouted the following piece, written by Jan (our lead writer) & me. The release of today’s choice & consequence promotion video for Dragon Commander felt like the right moment to release this.

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Crunch time thoughts

One of my best friends told me that I really should update my blog. I explained to him that I’m literally working from six in the morning until midnight trying to get Dragon Commander out of the door and that the last thing I want to do in my current schedule is spend what little free or sleeping time I have left writing about work. He shrugged, repeated three times that I should update my blog, and then proceeded on another topic.

Net result: I’m updating my blog. He can be convincing.

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To listen or not to listen

So here I am again – it’s my birthday & I’m the middle of releasing a game. It’s not the first time, and I guess it won’t be the last time either.(*)

Somewhere on our servers there is C++ code of the previous Divinities in which I reflect on the practice of being in the office in the middle of the night when it’s your birthday and whether or not that is a good thing.

It makes for good stories, but I distinctly remember not being happy about it all back then. Luckily, this time there’s a difference.

I’m going home tonight, and it’s going to be at a decent hour.

And that is as it should be.

We made a movie today in which I did the tour of the office, asking developers of the Dragon Commander team about their progress.

While watching it, notice that nobody looks über-tired or stressed out, and that most in the team are actually quite positive about making their deadlines. They’re not acting, because it’s how it is.  In fact, most of the team are in their last weeks of working on Dragon Commander and are then done with their work.

Quite a contrast with the release of our previous games.

There producers were doing everything they could to find extra time, including squeezing the team to work harder and the publisher to move its deadlines. There, emergency plan followed emergency plan, with total chaos as a result. There, our creative ambitions were completely out of synch with the expectations of the  publishers, and conflict became a rule rather than an execption.

Not so this time.

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Being selective

Yes, I know. I am long overdue with this entry. But as it turns out, I too seem to be made  of flesh and bones, and I really needed to slow down a bit. You can only manage that long on adrenaline alone and throughout the last months I’ve been living on awake-time that wasn’t supposed to be awake-time. So now, sadly, my body decided to reclaim some sleep-time and grounded me by giving me the mother of all colds! <coughs> Which in a way is good,because it gives me the time to pen down a new blog entry ;)

For those who don’t know the context of that last paragraph:  We did a Kickstarter campaign, for Divinity:Original Sin. The goal was to collect 400KUS$. We walked away with over 1MUS$ pledged,  a lot of public pressure, and tons of new ideas. It was a lot of work, with little sleep for those running the campaign, but it definitely was worth it and I’d do it again, without any hesitation.

I already wrote a bit about lessons learnt from Kickstarter here, so consider this entry the continuation of that piece, even though it’ more of an open question.

One of the things I started wondering about throughout the campaign was who we should show our games to. You see, I used to think that you should strive for maximum exposure, and try to show your game to anybody who can hold a pen or camera. But after having talked to I guess over 200 media over the last couple of months and seeing their output, I’ve actually come to reconsider that statement.

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 18.55.28

Engagor was gifted to us by a backer. It’s a social media tool that allowed us to track how well our campaign was doing, and it also gave me insights into what media had an impact and which media didn’t. Very cool stuff.

It may sound straightforward, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it makes no sense demonstrating your game to somebody who has no interest in your type of game. At best he’ll get the facts straight, but more than often his writing will be detrimental to your cause. And so the question comes to mind – why do something that won’t do you any good?

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