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The History of Larian and Making of Divinity: Original Sin 2 at PC Gamer

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The History of Larian and Making of Divinity: Original Sin 2 at PC Gamer

Development Info - posted by Infinitron on Sat 7 April 2018, 17:11:51

Tags: Beyond Divinity; Divine Divinity; Divinity II; Divinity: Dragon Commander; Divinity: Original Sin; Divinity: Original Sin 2; KetnetKick; Larian Studios; LED Wars; Swen Vincke; The Lady, the Mage and the Knight

There were two extensive feature articles about Larian Studios in last month's issue of PC Gamer, one about the making of Divinity: Original Sin 2 and the other about the general history of the studio. Those two articles are now available online, so it's time for a newspost. The history article is the more interesting one in my opinion, so I'll post an excerpt from that:

Larian Studios is, for now, the Divinity: Original Sin studio. Its last two games, both Kickstarted and publisher-free, are the biggest successes the studio has ever seen. The Belgian developer didn’t go from obscurity to success, however, and it has been designing notable RPGs and strategy games, within and without the Divinity universe, for over two decades.

Founder Swen Vincke picks 1997 as the year when Larian started, and an RTS called LED Wars as the studio’s first game, though there had been some experiments and projects before that. Indeed, one of them, The Lady, the Mage and the Knight, had many of the hallmarks of today’s Original Sin series, 20 years before it made its debut.

“It was an RPG where you controlled three characters and could play in multiplayer,” Vincke explains. “It had all of the values of Ultima VII, which you can recognise today in Original Sin. But we were having a hard time signing it with a publisher, so we decided to make an RTS because everyone was making them and everyone was looking for them. It seemed to be an easy way to make some money.”

The RPG did get some interest from Atari, though, but soon after expressing that interest, it stepped away from PC games, leaving Larian without a publisher or any money. “It’s a running theme in our history,” jokes Vincke.

During the day, Vincke and some of his friends worked on The Lady, the Mage and the Knight, and during the evening they worked on LED Wars. It paid off, and in March of 1997 Larian convinced an American publisher, Ionos, to sign LED Wars. In that same week, they also signed their RPG to Attic Entertainment, publisher of the Realms of Arkania games. Unlike LED Wars, however, The Lady, the Mage and the Knight never launched.

While Larian was working on The Lady, the Mage and the Knight, Attic Entertainment took notice of Blizzard’s Diablo II, which had been doing the rounds at trade shows. The publisher was panicking because Diablo II was a 16-bit game, while Larian’s RPG was 8-bit. That needed to change, Vincke was told.

“We had to throw out everything we had because it was all 8-bit,” Vincke remembers. “They said it wouldn’t be a problem and lent us their artists. Then they came back and told us that we were going to need to make it bigger because it was going to be part of the Realms of Arkania series. They said we’d get a licence and we’d have to convert our story into one that worked for The Dark Eye. So I said, ‘Sure.’”

It turned out that Attic didn’t have the money to fund the increasingly ambitious game they’d requested. In 1999, Larian was left in dire straits, penniless again.

Vincke found himself responsible for a team of 30 people, including some of the publisher’s employees who had been sent over but who were no longer being paid or being sent back. He ended the contract. That year Larian must have made 20 work-for-hire games, Vincke guesses. These were small things like casino games, and he was just trying to keep the lights on. “It was that or bankruptcy,” he says.

Larian got through it, though, and from the ashes of The Lady, the Mage and the Knight came the first Divinity. At the end of 1999, it was sold to CDV Software, a publisher that had just released the World War 2 RTS Sudden Strike.

“Because Sudden Strike was such a success, the CEO of CDV Software decided that every other game needed to be an alliteration,” Vincke recalls. “That was how it ended up becoming Divine Divinity instead of Divinity. Originally it was going to be called Divinity: The Sword of Lies, which, granted, isn’t the best title in the world either, but it was better than Divine Divinity. It won awards for having such a bad title. We talk about Divinity ‘one’; we never call it Divine Divinity.”

Over the next couple of years, Larian laboured on Divinity. The multiplayer component that had been so important to The Lady, the Mage and the Knight was dropped because it was seen as too big a risk by the publisher. It was the largest project Larian had ever undertaken, so there was a lot of on-the-job learning. It launched in August, 2002.

“It was a classic Larian problem: the game wasn’t ready when it was released,” Vincke admits. “We didn’t even know that the publisher was releasing it. I discovered that Divinity was being released when I was doing a press tour for it in the US. We were horribly late with it, at least by a year, but we still needed some time to polish it. So it shipped with 7,000 known bugs, and the initial reviews obviously focused on them. But as we started tweaking it, people started seeing that it was a good game.”

Divinity reviewed well, and it sold well, and Larian got nothing. “We were so excited about signing back in 1999 that we didn’t really pay attention to the fact that we should earn money when a game is sold, so we didn’t earn anything from Divinity. It was a standard contract back in the day, but if you didn’t sell millions of your game under the royalties model it was very hard to earn any money out of it.” Larian had just released a critically and commercially successful game and they were broke. Again. The studio went from 30 people to three by 2003, five months after Divinity launched. It was a dark time, Vincke confesses, and one that pushed him to take a fortnight break in South Africa, where his father lived.

“I sat on the ranch and just stared for two weeks, trying to figure out what to do. When I came back, I convinced the bank to give me a little bit of money, and I convinced a Belgian broadcaster to give me some more. It was to make what they thought was going to be a website, but it turned into a big 3D game in which children were able to make creations. It was like an American Idol for kids, and it was called KetnetKick. Kids could make animations, movies and cartoons in this 3D world and send it to the broadcaster. The broadcaster would then use it in a TV show and would say which kid made it, and the kid would become famous in the 3D world.”

The additional funding allowed Larian to make a follow-up to Divinity, called Beyond Divinity, and release KetnetKick in 2004. The team grew to about 25 people, and Larian’s head was above water again, albeit only for as long as it could keep doing work-for-hire projects. By 2007, however, it finally had enough money in the bank to make a proper Divinity sequel, eventually called Divinity II: Ego Draconis.
Divinity II would have its own share of publisher drama, but the Dragon Knight Saga rerelease would eventually do well enough to allow Larian to make Dragon Commander and Divinity: Original Sin, and the rest is history. You can read about that in the full article.

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