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Development Info Swen Vincke on the making of Divinity: Original Sin 2 at GDC 2019

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Tags: Divinity: Original Sin 2; Larian Studios; Swen Vincke

Swen Vincke gave a talk about the making of Divinity: Original Sin 2 at GDC last month. It's been a year and a half since the game launched, but this talk was far more frank and detailed than previously released retrospectives, with a focus on various challenges that Larian encountered during its development. It turns out that they had severe difficulty coordinating its production, particularly in the areas of writing, scripting, voiceovers and playtesting. It's actually a small miracle that the game turned out as well as it did. The video of the talk is now available on the GDC Vault, and there's also a decent summary of it at USgamer:

In another life, I was a curriculum developer in charge of writing English lessons. Our process early on was to have someone write a lesson, then have everyone make notes on the document, which would then be addressed by the writer. Lessons wound up taking forever to finalize, and we quickly moved on to another process.

I found myself flashing back to those days when Larian Studios founder Swen Vincke posted a screencap of a Google Doc containing notes on the story for Divinity: Original Sin 2. This massive story document was circulated between nine writers and various higher-ups for notes, all of which were subsequently addressed. It didn't go well.

"We were very polite people, and we answered every one of the comments," Vincke said a tad ruefully. Eventually, in order to get the project finished, politeness had to go out the window. But that was only the beginning of a grueling development process for Larian Studios.

It was all part of an attempt to build and improve upon the well-received Divinity: Original Sin, which had been released in 2014. Larian Studios had a cult following before Divinity: Original Sin, but its clever use of environmental combat, customization, and co-op play won it a new group of fans. It was good enough that I put Divinity: Original Sin at number 20 in our Top 25 RPGs of All Time list.

The sequel brought with it further improvements to combat, story, and customization. It included the ability to play as one of several character achetypes, all with their own backstories, as well as original customized characters. It further solidified Larian Studios as a rising studio in the RPG space. But as Vincke explained, it had its share of problems.

Over the course of his hour long talk at GDC, Vincke outlined the challenges that the Divinity: Original Sin 2 development team faced, many of which pertained to the story. Here are some general highlights.
  • Larian Studios was absolutely terrified of Middle-earth: Shadow of War, which was set to be released at roughly the same time as Divinity: Original Sin 2. "We thought they would obliterate us," Vincke said. As it turned out, the opposite was true—Shadow of War struggled to gain traction and was quickly forgotten. But one consequence was that Larian Studios felt pressure to release on time lest it be overwhelmed by other triple-A releases. This meant that the team was still making changes to the script the week of Divinity: Original Sin 2's release.
  • Out of the nine writers that Larian brought on to the project, only a few had experience writing dialogue trees. The rest were classical writers or TV writers. This brought a different flavor to Divinity: Original Sin 2, but it meant that Larian had to spend a lot of time training the writers to the point where they could handle complex dialogue trees. "Scripters would setup a situation, and writers were supposed to expand on that. And then the writers broke all the flags and conditions, and the scripters would complain... There was a bit of stress," Vincke said.
  • Timezones were a huge problem. Larian Studios initially decided to develop every act in parallel, with each studio being responsible for a single act. But a huge bottleneck soon developed as Vincke struggled to review dialogue coming in from Ghent while he was in Quebec. Ultimately, Larian shifted its resources to developing one act at a time, which Vincke says "saved the project."
  • The decision to voice record all of the dialogue was made in early 2017, about nine months from release. Larian Studios contracted out several voice recording studios and setup an automated pipeline to account for the roughly 600,000 lines of dialogue that needed to be recorded. By July, Vincke was making an emergency call to the contractors to tell them that the script had ballooned to more than a million words. Larian hadn't accounted for all the alternative dialogue that still needed to be added to fully flesh out the quests, which resulted in a massively expanded word count.
  • With changes coming in constantly, QA was quickly overwhelmed. "Imagine you're working in QA, and you have a test plan, but your test plan keeps changing because people keep flagging things as ready when it's not ready," Vincke said. Worse, Divinity: Original Sin 2 was incredibly long, with a single run taking up to two weeks to complete. Ultimately, automation saved much of the project, but journal bugs meant that one reviewer gave Divinity: Original Sin 2 a 7 out of 10, dragging it from a 94 on Metacritic to a 93. It was only one point ultimately, but for Vincke, it was a deduction that didn't need to happen.
  • Divinity: Original Sin 2's massive word count caught up with it at launch when Larian failed to finish the Russian localization on time. This resulted in Divinity: Original Sin 2 being review bombed by angry Russians, driving its Steam approval rating down from 96 percent to 70 percent. The team found itself doing damage control on Twitch and elsewhere, finally releasing a beta version of the translation to appease Russian players. "It was our own fault because we changed so many things," Vincke admitted.
All in all, it was a rough development cycle for Larian Studios. But it all worked out in the end. Divinity: Original Sin 2 received critical acclaim when it was released, including a perfect score from USG. Vincke called making a 120 hour game in two years a "huge accomplishment by the team."

"My lesson is that not compromising on quality is a good thing, but you need to figure out how to make the production work with it or you're going to keep running into problems," Vincke said.
Larian originally intended to create a much larger world for Original Sin 2, which they were forced to cut once they realized the magnitude of these challenges. You can read about that in PC Gamer's writeup about the talk, and there's also another one at PCGamesN. What neither writeup really mentions however is that at around 40 minutes into the talk, Swen basically admits that the game's controversial armor system was a failure and that in hindsight he'd probably have removed it. That sounds like good news for Divinity: Fallen Heroes.
 

The_Mask

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With changes coming in constantly, QA was quickly overwhelmed. "Imagine you're working in QA, and you have a test plan, but your test plan keeps changing because people keep flagging things as ready when it's not ready," Vincke said. Worse, Divinity: Original Sin 2 was incredibly long, with a single run taking up to two weeks to complete. Ultimately, automation saved much of the project, but journal bugs meant that one reviewer gave Divinity: Original Sin 2 a 7 out of 10, dragging it from a 94 on Metacritic to a 93. It was only one point ultimately, but for Vincke, it was a deduction that didn't need to happen.

Salty about 1 point on Metacritic while others consider a 70 a good grade *cough* Anthem *cough*.

What a boss...
 

Bruma Hobo

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I still believe full VO is a big mistake and completely unnecessary "feature", adding a huge cost. I wonder how big a part in overall DOS2 budget VO was.
That would be true if you think of it as a single player game, but Divinity's main selling point today is co-op, it wouldn't be nearly as popular among normies without it, and full voice acting there is actually useful.
 

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Looks like all the Bioware magic went to Larian.

Swen basically admits that the game's controversial armor system was a failure and that in hindsight he'd probably have removed it.

This is quite the flip flop from "Proud of D:OS 2 so I disagree with most of it." Guess he needed some distance.
 
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The reason why this franchise fell apart was that it worked great when every NPC was just a charming Monty Python and the Holy Grail caricature spouting a few quirky and amusing lines. Everything in the game was fast-paced, amusing, refreshingly unpretentious, imaginative and fun. Nothing in any game ever wore out its welcome. Nothing in the game ever took itself seriously. Divine Divinity is one of my favorite games ever to this day. Divinity 2 successfully translated it in 3D.

Starting with Original Sin, everything became slow, plodding, verbose, and more and more pretentious. And I read that Original Sin 2 takes this to a much higher degree. Sorry but I'm not interested anymore. Swen isn't the cool guy making amusing games anymore, he thinks he is the next BioWare. He is just losing everything that made his work so original and cool. He is never going to make lore and a game universe that is profound. He should just embrace his roots proudly.

The only good thing about the Original Sin games is the turn-based combat, but I'm not interesting of going through dozens and dozens of hours of boring, plodding garbage just to get a few good combat scenes. No way.

Every now and then I get the envy of replaying those first Divinity games. Original Sin I just have zero interest in. I cringe just thinking of walking around and having these undending, boring dialogues with all these NPCs that are all more dull than the other.

I think he is embarrassed by the earlier material and only sees the flaws of these games and finds it all amateurish, but I wish he would realize that we don't care. We don't want a "deep RPG", we just want to jump in and screw around in an amusing fantasy world where every character has an amusing story to tell.
 
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Tigranes

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I think this has become an Unpopular Opinion, but I still struggle to understand how DOS/2 writing is any good either as funny 4th wall or as a straight pitch. Sure, some funny moments remain, but they're notably with stuff like animals where there's no bigger story involved. DivDiv & Div2 were charming not because all the jokes were uproariously great all the time, but because a mix of funny and mildly amusing stuff was mixed in with a lighthearted tone that didn't take itself too seriously. DOS1 wouldn't shut the fuck up with its metaphysics about spirit realms or some shit and the Gandalf guy with all the main quest lore, and the only saving grace is that it's not as dumpy as the other loredumpy games. I credit Sven with making a serious effort to improve the writing, but hiring a committee of non-games writers didn't really seem to make a big difference for DOS2.

Generally, though, it sounds like classic video game industry stuff, stuff that sinks some while others survive for the next punt.
 
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I think this has become an Unpopular Opinion, but I still struggle to understand how DOS/2 writing is any good either as funny 4th wall or as a straight pitch. Sure, some funny moments remain, but they're notably with stuff like animals where there's no bigger story involved. DivDiv & Div2 were charming not because all the jokes were uproariously great all the time, but because a mix of funny and mildly amusing stuff was mixed in with a lighthearted tone that didn't take itself too seriously. DOS1 wouldn't shut the fuck up with its metaphysics about spirit realms or some shit and the Gandalf guy with all the main quest lore, and the only saving grace is that it's not as dumpy as the other loredumpy games. I credit Sven with making a serious effort to improve the writing, but hiring a committee of non-games writers didn't really seem to make a big difference for DOS2.

Generally, though, it sounds like classic video game industry stuff, stuff that sinks some while others survive for the next punt.

I think it can all be summed up in three words: less is more.

It's like in the Evil Dead trilogy. They tried to make scary movies in the first two, but they realized that people only cared about Ash kicking ass and spouting one-liners, so they made Army of Darkness as a full-on comedy, and it worked brilliantly.
 

TigerKnee

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  • Divinity: Original Sin 2's massive word count caught up with it at launch when Larian failed to finish the Russian localization on time. This resulted in Divinity: Original Sin 2 being review bombed by angry Russians, driving its Steam approval rating down from 96 percent to 70 percent. The team found itself doing damage control on Twitch and elsewhere, finally releasing a beta version of the translation to appease Russian players. "It was our own fault because we changed so many things," Vincke admitted.
Is this the famed "Russian Interference" I've heard about?
 

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I think this has become an Unpopular Opinion, but I still struggle to understand how DOS/2 writing is any good either as funny 4th wall or as a straight pitch.

Nah, your not the only one, I have not played either DOS 1 or 2 past the starting area as the entire package of setting/lore/story/writing seemed so generic, boring and tedious it made me want to go lie down and have a nap. At least with POE there was the 'car crash' fascination that compelled me to keep playing and see how bad it can really get...
 

slowtard

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Slowtard forget, is Vinckie one of the successful happy old dudes who it is interesting to hear from? Or one of the sad depressing old dudes who blames all of his failures on other people and institutional intransigence?
 

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I think this has become an Unpopular Opinion, but I still struggle to understand how DOS/2 writing is any good either as funny 4th wall or as a straight pitch. Sure, some funny moments remain, but they're notably with stuff like animals where there's no bigger story involved. DivDiv & Div2 were charming not because all the jokes were uproariously great all the time, but because a mix of funny and mildly amusing stuff was mixed in with a lighthearted tone that didn't take itself too seriously. DOS1 wouldn't shut the fuck up with its metaphysics about spirit realms or some shit and the Gandalf guy with all the main quest lore, and the only saving grace is that it's not as dumpy as the other loredumpy games. I credit Sven with making a serious effort to improve the writing, but hiring a committee of non-games writers didn't really seem to make a big difference for DOS2.

I don't find bad/good to be the major distinction between the writing of DOS1 and DOS2. Rather, it is intolerable/tolerable, respectively. I will never play DOS1 again, its tedious story and frequently cringey writing overshadows its strengths for me. I won't play DOS2 again for the story, but I won't avoid it either. It has far less cringe, bothers to present some PC motivation, and the origin stories are a legitimately good idea even if the execution is uneven. The tonal issues are a real shame, of course.

Whether the extra writing effort on DOS2 paid off clearly varies from player to player, but for me it was enough to cross a qualitative threshold.
 

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Project: Eternity
Larian Studios was absolutely terrified of Middle-earth: Shadow of War, which was set to be released at roughly the same time as Divinity: Original Sin 2. "We thought they would obliterate us," Vincke said. As it turned out, the opposite was true—Shadow of War struggled to gain traction and was quickly forgotten. But one consequence was that Larian Studios felt pressure to release on time lest it be overwhelmed by other triple-A releases. This meant that the team was still making changes to the script the week of Divinity: Original Sin 2's release.

How can educated people think that. Does marketing or advertising and all that shit fuck you somehow in the head? There are hundred millions+ players out there. If you do a good game, it fucking will sell. Hell, I didn't even think about picking up Shadow of War, because it is not even remotely in my genre list.
These people see us consumers as "one" and not as individuals. With likes and dislikes.

Ohh gee, I won't release my hardcore milsim ww2 combat simulator because Pokeemon 8 is coming, oh boy!

My fucking head, idiots.
 

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I think this has become an Unpopular Opinion, but I still struggle to understand how DOS/2 writing is any good.
It's not good, what's controversial about it? DoS2 writing is pretty dumb in an unfunny way, especially characters like Malady.

Hats off to Swen for leaving some things in the game just because "players like it" however instead of banalcing them.
 

Tigranes

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Dunno, I just remember saying it like 8 times and people going nuts. Even with the Logic Artists collaboration, I said it's a pity that Logic, who have proven they can do cool settings, are now shoehorned into working with a Divinity setting that at this point is squeezed of all that B-grade charm.

DOS1/2 writing is at its absolute worst when it tries to do any kind of serious, evil, main quest-y, lore-heavy stuff, from Gandalf to Malady, and at its best when you're just sitting around talking to a dog.
 

Shadenuat

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For DoS1 I remember it was "if you're crooked and a bee and think larian is funny it can be funny, but overall larian is gonna larian", for 2 ratman just stated in review that writing is bad and was offended by all the animal cruelty (come on, it's not like any rats were harmed in DoS2?); while most people indeed think that sad dogs are the only good part.

Chickens also, who show you quest objectives on your map.

I gave up on writing somewhere around first NWN-like looping "but thou must" dialogue with Malady.
 

Roguey

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I gave up on writing somewhere around first NWN-like looping "but thou must" dialogue with Malady.

Do you mean like this?
ogianb.png
 
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Sounds to me like virtually all the problems they had could be traced back to the writing. To think that giving a stricter word limit probably would have saved them almost all of this trouble

Makes you think
 

Shadenuat

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They are all traced to pipeline. Suddenly this amount of words becomes 1 million words? Decision to add full vo to RPG, a genre of games which take years to make, 9 months before release? multiple teams through different timezones working on multiple chapters? a lead arguing with 9 writers over the plot?

it is like trying to build a building where lead architect argues with workers layering walls and all workers are from different teams and half of them are deaf and other half is blind.

is there no systemic way of creating a goddamn plan for making a game? no wonder games come out is such a sorry state, this is madness, not development.
 

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Play Divine Divinity again and then DOS or DOS2 again and tell me that either of the latter are more fun and engaging. No way.

DD and DD2 are both brilliant. I backed DOS on the promise of an Ultima 7 spiritual successor and it was utterly tedious. Perhaps I'm just growing old and jaded. Look at this shit, I'm agreeing with HHR.

:negative:
 
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Play Divine Divinity again and then DOS or DOS2 again and tell me that either of the latter are more fun and engaging. No way.

DD and DD2 are both brilliant. I backed DOS on the promise of an Ultima 7 spiritual successor and it was utterly tedious. Perhaps I'm just growing old and jaded. Look at this shit, I'm agreeing with HHR.

:negative:

This is the biggest contradiction with the Codex. They refuse to accept that a game that is easy to pick up and play is anything but "dumbed down". They don't want to admit that the more you add features, dialogue and clutter, the more chances you have to spoil the whole experience, because instead of doing just a few things but doing them right, you end up doing a ton of different things but doing almost none of them well, and for the gamer it just becomes a chore to try to get a grip on your "clever" features and most people just want to have fun and don't want to play something that feels like work. Todd Howard was actually dead on about this and we need to give him credit on this.
 

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