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Swen Vincke talks to the Codex

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Swen Vincke talks to the Codex

Interview - posted by VentilatorOfDoom on Mon 6 February 2012, 16:25:13

Tags: Dragon Commander; Larian Studios; Swen Vincke

Larian Studio founder Swen Vincke was kind enough to waste his precious time answering a couple of questions. Initially the interview was all about Dragon Commander, Larian's upcoming RPG/Strategy hybrid, but then we digressed a bit.

1) Why an RPG/Strategy hybrid instead of, say, another action RPG in the vein of Divinity 2?

It actually just happened. I've mentioned in past interviews that it's a game that just created itself, and that's really what happened. There's no grand market strategy behind it. We were already working on another RPG (the mysterious project E) and from the small prototype from which Dragon Commander started, we just kept on working on it, until suddenly the moment came to decide whether or not this was going to become a full production yes or no. I looked at our bank account, talked to a couple of people, and off we were. Yes, it's a risky project, but there's so much fun ideas in there that if we pull it off, it should pay itself back. After nagging for so long that it's the publishers that block innovation, I would've been quite the hypocrite to block a project which I thought was going to be fun but which didn't fit nicely into one of the established categories for which I'm sure there's a market. Besides, doing RPGs all day long is bad for your health

2) Can you perhaps reveal something about the mysterious Project E? What are we allowed to know already?

Project E has now been in development for over a year. It's taken some time to write all of the engine and production layers that are required for it, and only now do we have something that starts to look like a game. We still have some gameplay choices to make , and once that's settled we should be ready to announce. Probably beginning of next year.

3) You've written a lot about publishers as of late, I almost got the impression that you've become a bit bitter on the subject. What are the real problems you're facing as a company in that regard, how 'independent' are you really after the success (!?) of The Dragon Knight Saga and what are your plans for the future?

I'm not bitter about publishers, I just see most of them as a hindrance. For whatever historic reason they managed to put themselves between developers and players and in the past as a developer there was no real choice but to go through them if you wanted to get your game sold. I don't think that's been beneficial for the evolution and quality of gameplay. I also don't think they should be the ones dictating what gets made and what not. Because that determines what gets played and what not, and imho that should be up to players, not a couple of guys in an office who think they know what players want.

Just imagine that all the money lost on middle-men during the history of videogames was actually used for development. We'd have a very different state of the art.

4) Do you think becoming fully self-published might be a viable and achievable approach?

Yes, we were lucky enough that Divinity II and our other productions were successful enough to set us up for doing our own games independently. We also attracted some investment money to bolster ourselves financially so we could take up the self-publishing role, so now if something goes wrong, we only have ourselves to blame for it. That'll be a very different experience

5) You've published The Dragon Knight Saga on Steam, how well did that turn out for you? Some Steam-sales, especially for certain indie-games, seem pretty stunning judging by the numbers alone but great sales numbers often go hand in hand with very low prices. Thoughts?

You know, we didn't boast about it or send out press releases, but we really did sell a lot of Divinity II's when you add everything up. Definitely a lot more than the original Divinity did in its first years. We even outsold or came close to outselling Dragon Age in some territories. As far as DKS and Steam are concerned, it's been nr 1 on Steam. That also accounts for a lot of units, and you should look at who our competition was at those times. If all the money earned by Divinity II would have gone straight to Larian, we'd be a self-funded AAA developer at this point competing for the top spot, also in terms of production values. So there's hope, and one day we'll get there.

And to answer the second part of your question, I'm of course concerned about the price erosion we've seen on all digital platforms, and we need to be careful that we don't end up like the app store. But in the same breath, the ability to do targeted promotions helps a lot with the backend of the sales curve, and it's something you can't do in retail. Divine Divinity is still selling very decent numbers thanks to Good Old Games, almost 10 years after it's release. In any case, you can rest assured that developers publishing directly on digital platforms make a lot more money than they would if they'd go through a publisher via retail. That alone already makes for tremendous progress. But you may not discount retail either. There's still quite a lot of revenue to be made there. So for the moment, it's a story of both retail and digital, with digital most likely becoming dominant in the future, but not just yet.

6) Concerning Dragon Commander, we've heard a bit about the aerial combat in dragon form as well as the strategic phase. Will there be other aspects to the game in addition to these two? How strong will the RPG elements be relative to the whole?

Depends on your definition of RPG I guess. There's really a lot of choice and consequence where we did our best to bring you situations you'll easily recognize, albeit in a fantasy setting. And we also did our best to attach tangible consequences to these choices. It's not only going to be "will I give npc X the sword or keep it for myself" but rather "Do I consider abortion an evil or a right ? And if I consider it evil, at what point does it become evil ? From the moment of conception, or at a later stage ?". There's various opinions represented in the game , simulating viewpoints we know from our society, and you'll discover that being the guy that decides can be very complicated, especially if you need to deal with the consequences of your decisions. Other than that, there's the equivalent of item & skill fever in things you can do to your dragon and your fleet. There's story and character development. I guess the one thing that's not there and that you'd find in a traditional RPG is the exploration factor as a function of traversing a landscape and looking everywhere for stuff to do. But you get a lot of other things you wouldn't find in such a RPG.

7) You've said that you've finally discovered how dragon combat can work well in a game. What are the main differences between the dragon combat in Dragon Commander and Divinity II?

It's a mix of things - part of it started with the end of Divinity II: Flames Of Vengeance. It felt pretty good to have the illusion of being part of an entire fleet, using your dragon powers to gain the upper edge against impossible odds. But it was a rail experience, an and that wasn't cool. Anyways, from there it was a small leap (though it took us quite some time) to dragon combat in which you were both active in combat but also in charge of the fleet. The other part of it was Farhang, our lead designer, experimenting with bullet time and dragon combat. That somehow felt really good. And the third part was adding the ability to fly at extremely high speeds. When you combined all of it together, you had something that I thought played pretty well.

8) Will there be any ground-based units and structures? If there are, will you be able to attack them in dragon form?

Sorry, still no comment on that. There's a black hole still in our studio and that topic is in the middle of it. Once we've decided, we'll let you know.Or, let me phrase it this way - we're putting castles on the terrain, but want to see how that impacts everything before committing.

9) Will there be character systems for both the human and the dragon form of the Dragon Knight? How does it compare to the systems used in your previous games? Can you reveal any specific details about it?

The human character development is a lot "softer" than the dragon and fleet development systems. Your player character develops by the choices he makes, and that's reflected in how your environment reacts to you. There's no skill tree or character stats as such. Obviously there's a lot of stat & state tracking in the background. Your dragon on the other hand as well as your fleet have full blown skill/upgrade trees.

10) How are the action combat gameplay, strategy gameplay and RPG elements going to interact with each other? Are all of the game's elements connected, and how do actions in one of the gameplay "phases"/"modes" influence the others?

Yes, that's the idea. The choices you make affect the story arcs that are linked to the various factions in the world. Depending on where you take those story arcs, different skills/abilities and upgrades become available and various stats are affected, ultimately all having an impact on your options in combat. Your actual combat performance has an impact on how you are perceived as a Dragon Commander and what options present themselves to you. Finally, the strategic progress you make impacts how the story evolves.

11) In a recent interview you've stated that Dragon Commander will feature more choices and consequences than your previous games. Could you share some examples with us?

This is going to sound cliché because the term choice & consequence has been so over-abused by some big profile titles, but we started designing with the rule that from now on, we want players to have real options in each quest. So, no "shall I accept the quest or not things anymore". For Dragon Commander, right now we have over 300 situations where what you decide, affects the storyline. Here's a simple and innocent example that won't spoil anything: "My princess is an elf vegetarian - shall I force her to join me to a dinner offered by the dwarves where there'll only be meat, knowing that they will take offense if she doesn't eat the boar killed by their king for this very occasion ?". Well, even for that specific occasion, there's a bifurcating arc that further develops on whatever choice you made.

12) I agree C&C has become a bit of a buzzword as of late. Well, having real options in each quest sure sounds good. You've never focused on C&C in your previous games; what caused this change in design direction on your part?

I actually always wanted to have deep integration of choice & consequence in our games, but for some reason (well actually a whole list of reasons), we never managed to do it correctly. So this time, we made sure from day 1 that this wasn't going to happen again, and we made the choice & consequence mechanics so fundamental to the game, that we don't have any err... choice in the matter. We also took our time to prepare the implementation of this properly, an advantage of the self-funded development approach.

13) You also said that the limitation of branching is the visualization of consequences. Could you elaborate on this? How does the need for cinematic representation in modern games influence your job as a designer?

Funny that you ask this - I just wrote a piece on my blog about that. The limitation is the performance acting - if we go full voice, full motion and facial capture - obviously the more dialogue is in the game, the higher the cost, and that's a limiting factor. The RPG systems we now have in place, after doing this for over 10 years, allow us to script pretty much anything we can think off, but showing it all cinematically, that's always going to require quite a lot of effort, and the question is, how far do we go and how much money do we put in it. All the money we put in that, we can't use for anything else.

14) I'm just asking to understand the relations, in a game like Divinity 2 how much effort or resources go into voiceovers, cutscenes (the cinematic aspects of the game) in comparison to the rest of the gameplay?

On a core team of about 40 guys not counting the outsourcing (which brought the total at times over 100), we on average had only 7 guys busy with the actual gameplay, so that gives you an idea of how much effort the production values take. Too much if you ask me, but that's the industry we're in.

15) In a recent interview you've mentioned your design philosophy (?) , FUME (Freedom, Universe, Motivation and the Enemy). Can you explain it and how do you apply it in a game like DC?

So FUME is something I made up when driving towards a UK journalist a long time ago, I don't remember from which magazine. The mission was to convince him that Divine Divinity was going to be cool. I thought about what I considered important in RPGS, and arrived to the conclusion that the RPGs I enjoy the most are all about good character development. To achieve that I figured certain things need to be in place - the freedom to develop your character in a way that fits your preferred playing style (Freedom), motivation to invest yourself in that character (Motivation) and an environment that reacts in a fitting way to how you developed your character (Universe/Enemies). So I said to myself, if I tell him that, and I then show how it applies to Divinity, maybe he'll like the game, because I genuinely thought all those things were present in there. He didn't buy it, but that's another story.

16) Any chance of meeting actual dragon characters? Maybe Patriarch himself? Or even, I hardly dare to ask, Maxos?

I'm not going to give any details just yet, but yes, Maxos is there, prominently.

17) Have you drawn inspiration from other games with dragon protagonists, or gameplay mechanics revolving around dragons, like, for example, 'Drakan' or 'I of the Dragon'? If yes, in what ways did those games influence DC?

You know, I get asked that question really a lot, but I never played either of these. I never played Panzer Dragoon either - I bought a copy when I was in the US for Xbox, not realizing that I couldn't play it in Belgoum because of the stupid region lock.

Thanks to Swen for his time.

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