Swen Vincke, Creative Director at Larian Studios, loves collaborative storytelling, especially when there’s room to get as silly and original as possible.
Vincke and I chat to myself after his GDC presentation, “The Many Challenges of Making Baldur’s Gate 3” and begin by sharing our common desire to play video games together with our partners, whether in person or remotely . I tell him that playing Original Sin 2 online has allowed my partner and I to still go on dates despite living half a country apart. He tells me his own relationship was the reason the feature even existed.
“There’s a split screen in there [Divinity: Original Sin 1] already,” he says. “The only thing was I never played it again because when I finish a game I get so tired of looking at it. And so [my partner] said, “You don’t want to play it with me?” So she played, and she still really enjoyed it, but we never played it split screen. But the intention was that I’d like to play that with someone, and that’s how it came about.”
Vincke came from a small coastal town in Belgium where he thinks people last played Dungeons & Dragons, a game Vincke was fascinated by. Without easy access to the manuals, he began reading the tabletop manuals available at the library and a handful of computer games such as the D&D-based Ultima series. Through them, Vincke realized that he wanted to make his own games just like that.
“It codified your creativity, the ability to dream up an adventure, play into it, dream up all kinds of crazy shit, overcome it,” says Vincke. “I’ll give you an example of the most powerful thing I’ve done with it. I have four kids, and when we went on long car rides, I would play D&D with them. I’m sitting in front of the car and I’m like, ‘Okay, you see a witch in the woods. What are you going to do?’ And that’s how I’ve been rolling dice and cheating in my head, and that’s how we adventure and can spend hours like this… It makes them drop their iPads so they’re not tied to a screen the whole time. And they have a lot of fun and it’s really cool… We’re just doing this through the power of the story and the power of the dice.”
In the two and a half decades of Larian Studios existence, he has had ample opportunity to translate this tabletop storytelling into a video game format through the Divinity series and other projects. But now one of the most well-known tabletop-based RPGs has fallen into Larian’s lap, and the studio’s desire to bring true tabletop storytelling to video games is proving to be a major challenge.
Vincke describes Baldur’s Gate 3 as a “dream project” for Larian, understandably given its history. The first two Baldur’s Gate games were BioWare-developed RPGs set in the familiar Forgotten Realms D&D campaign setting, and while there have been various expansions and enhanced editions since Baldur’s Gate 2 in 2000, there hasn’t been a true third game up until now . Larian seems a perfect fit for Baldur’s Gate 3 with his Divinity track record and has the built-in advantage of early access experience. Both Original Sin 1 and 2 have had long and successful Early Access periods, during which Larian has worked closely with the community to iron out each game’s shortcomings.
As Vincke explains in his presentation, Larian was preparing for his greatest game of all time. The studio spent over a year in pre-production, hiring many new positions and making the best possible predictions of how many words the game would have, how much recording time it would take, what would need to happen to make all the theatrical films, and more.
But ultimately, it wouldn’t be enough on its own, not least because of the enormity of trying to convert the complexity of a Dungeons & Dragons game – where players can do anything they can think of, effectively – into a video game system.
“You’ll often hear, ‘Oh, you have to give the illusion of choice,'” Vincke tells me. “You know that you really have to have a choice, otherwise there are no consequences, it doesn’t matter. And we have this dice mechanic that’s really ingrained that you’ll discover as you play. And so dice success and dice success must play a role. If they don’t, you don’t feel like all of that scrolling and all of those character abilities that you’re leveling up are actually having any impact on the game.”
But developing such a system was even more labor intensive than Larian had anticipated. Baldur’s Gate 3 required all 12 D&D classes, all of which were very different from each other, and all spells and abilities from D&D 5th Edition had to not only work, but feel impactful in the world.
One example Vincke shares is that of a druid: for example, to get the game’s cinematics to work, druids couldn’t talk to a cow for a while if the druid was currently transformed into a cow. You had to turn back into a human to talk to the cow. That made no sense. Why couldn’t a cow talk to a cow? But the fix required a lot of cinematic work to ensure that all cinematic conversations with animals still work when a druid is transformed.
25 gameplay screenshots of Baldur’s Gate 3
Adding to such issues was multiplayer, multiple languages for the massive volume of dialogue in the game, and the need for accessibility amidst it all: a player who had never touched D&D before should be able to understand Baldur’s Gate 3.
With all that was at stake, Larian realized they couldn’t deliver the game they wanted to make with the team they had. It was either downsizing Baldur’s Gate 3 or massively enlarging the studio to meet the challenge. This is how Larian grew and jumped from 150 to 400 employees in a short time. Larian had the resources to do so, thanks to Original Sin 2’s strong sales, but upscaling brought its own problems. Larian had no processes in place for so many people. The sheer volume of work, teams and individuals quickly revealed weaknesses in collaboration that were not previously apparent. And the COVID-19 pandemic certainly hasn’t helped either, as Vincke said the company’s “fragmentation” necessitated by lockdowns “isn’t necessarily the best thing in the world for fostering creativity.”
Between all of these obstacles, there came a point before Early Access where production almost ground to a halt.
“Every single week we would wake up and be like, ‘Okay, this is the week we’re going to finish this [feature],’” says Vincke. “And then, by the end of the week, nothing had happened.”
At one point, Vincke wondered if Larian should even bring Baldur’s Gate 3 into Early Access. For both Original Sin games, the benefits were very clear: player feedback had made the games better, and they had built considerable goodwill in the community. Larian wanted this for Baldur’s Gate 3 because of its complexity, but was concerned it would be too big.
“You put it in the early access community, go back the next day, you see a lot of things that went well, you see all your bad design choices exposed, your good design choices, you see nobody is talking about it, so re good,” Vincke says of Early Access. “You can try things out quickly, you can see what works and what doesn’t, and when you have to set up as many rules as we had to transform and find out how people would understand and not understand them, it’s such a very useful tool.”
But Larian pushed Baldur’s Gate 3 into Early Access anyway. There were still some hiccups. The initial Early Access launch was bumpy and Larian had to make extensive changes based on player feedback, although Vincke feels that ultimately made the game much better. He admits it was disheartening to see critics post rated reviews of a game that was still going on, although he acknowledges they had every right to do so – Baldur’s Gate 3 was in the wild and eventually sold for money .
But with a better grasp of what he should have done differently leading up to Early Access, Vincke asserts that if he had to do it again, he wouldn’t change his mind.
“I would certainly organize ourselves better than we did,” he says. “There were things I didn’t expect would happen. But the benefits are so clear…you can literally backtrack to why things were done based on community discussions, reactivity you’ve seen, analytics you’ve seen. That’s the beauty of it. And that doesn’t work – I actually don’t know how that works without having a community. They have a team of thousands and thousands of beta testers I guess. But even then it will not be the same.”
Because of the Early Access community, Vincke says Baldur’s Gate 3 is much better able to support the storytelling fantasies that Larian wanted to implement from the start. Based on player feedback, they can answer strange questions that never came up in the design, such as: Can a bear climb a ladder? (Yes.) How about a deep rothé? (It can, says Vincke, and has a very fun animation.)
And more than just the silly campaign stories people tell about D&D, Vincke says that the success of Baldur’s Gate 3 means hearing more stories, like the ones from me and my partner playing over long distances, or from people, who felt their life was better because they experienced the emerging storytelling that Larian made for them.
“To walk around PAX and have people come up to you and say, ‘Hey, this happened to us and it changed our lives. I went through a really shitty time and I played your game. …Games are important and they can make a difference. And if you make a good game it can be more important than if you make a bad game. So success looks like your game matters to people and it makes a difference.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.
https://www.ign.com/articles/baldurs-gate-3-huge-larian-triple-size-shrink-game Baldur’s Gate 3 was so huge that instead of downsizing the game, Larian decided to triple the size