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How Divinity: Original Sin resurrected a fallen series

At GDC 2015, Swen Vincke, creative director of the critically acclaimed co-op role-playing game Divinity: Original Sin, described how the game brought Larian Studios back from the brink of disaster.

Divinity: Original Sin, the second self-published release from Larian Studios, has become the Belgian company’s “most successful title to date,” according to Swen Vincke, the studio’s founder and creative director. The co-operative role-playing game, which launched in June 2014, was the sixth release in the series, and, according to Vincke, helped re-establish Divinity’s reputation after the preceding title, 2009’s Divinity: Ego Draconis, “our worst title to date.”

In a postmortem talk delivered at GDC 2015, Vincke revealed that Divinty Ego Draconis left the studio saddled with debt and considering whether or not the company was viable. “We started to doubt the future of our studio,” he said. “We needed to look at what we were doing wrong and examine what we had to do to turn things around.”

Vincke explained that he and his team identified numerous reasons that the studio’s previous title had failed. Prinicpally, he said, it was too ambitious and the team's approach too perfectionist. “Not only that: we weren’t in control of our own game,” he said. “We had both publisher interference and insufficient funding for our vision.” These realizations led Larian to create a “resurrection plan” for both the series and studio.

“We decided we had to go independent in order to be more in control,” Vincke said. “In the past we’d been designing games to make sure they would get through a publisher’s green-light process. But this isn’t always the best way to design. We had to make our own technology. We needed to do our own publishing. We wanted to be in control of the revenue from day one. We wanted to control the release date. Every one of our games in the past was released prematurely. This always leads to player frustration.”

According to Vincke the studio had “lost touch with our players” and “forgotten how to communicate with them.” As development on the game progressed, the studio closely followed its rivals and ensured that it only issued press releases and communications when there are lulls in the chatter about other titles.

Moreover, the team decided to incorporate player design suggestions during the game’s early access phase. “Player driven design is worth it,” said Vincke. “We had a choice to either ignore or embrace the feedback; we chose to embrace it. Every day there were long lists of to-dos gathered from our forums and Steam reviews. We had to distil this information into new tasks. It took a lot of energy, and there was resistance from the team at first, but once we started to see the results it became addictive.”

The game cost 4.5 million euros in total, money that was raised from a mixture of investors, royalties from legacy royalties and a Kickstarter campaign (this raised close to $1 million from almost 20,000 backers). The budget increased as development continued, but Vincke believed it was worth accommodating the vision and going "all in" as, in his experience, “releasing broken games will ruin your studio.”

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