Larian Studios Creative Director Swen Vincke loves collaborative storytelling, especially when it’s possible to make it as silly and original as possible.
Chatting with me after his GDC talk, “The Many Challenges of Creating ‘Baldur’s Gate 3′”, Vincke and I begin by sharing our mutual desires to play video games alongside our partners, whether in person or remotely. I tell her that playing Original Sin 2 online has allowed my partner and I to still have one-on-one nights even while living across the country. He tells me his own relationship was the reason the feature existed in the first place.
“There is a split screen in [Divinity: Original Sin 1] already,” he said. “The only thing is I never played it again because when I finish a game I get so sick of watching it. And so [my partner] said, ‘Won’t you play with me?’ So she played, and she always really enjoyed it, but we never played split-screen. But the intention was, that’s what I would like to be able to play with someone, and that’s how it happened.
Vincke came from a small coastal town in Belgium, where he says the last thing people did was play Dungeons & Dragons, a game that fascinated Vincke. Without easy access to manuals, he began browsing through tabletop manuals available at the library and a handful of computer games like the D&D-based Ultima series. Thanks to them, Vincke realized he wanted to make his own games like this.
“It codified your creativity, the ability to come up with an adventure, play it, come up with all kinds of crazy bullshit, work through it,” Vincke says. “I’ll give you an example of the most powerful thing I’ve done with it. I have four kids, so when we went on long car trips, I played 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 so in my head I rolled the dice, and I cheat, and so we go on an adventure and we can spend hours like that… It makes them let go of their iPad so they don’t get locked into a screen all the time . And they’re having a lot of fun and that’s really cool… We just do it through the power of the story and the power of the dice.
Over the two and a half decades of Larian Studios’ existence, there have been many opportunities to translate this tabletop storytelling into video game format through the Divinity series and other projects. But now, one of the most recognizable tabletop 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 tall order.
Vincke describes Baldur’s Gate 3 as a “dream project” for Larian, which is understandable given its history. The first two Baldur’s Gate games were RPGs developed by BioWare within the familiar D&D Forgotten Realms campaign setting, and while there have been various expansions and enhanced editions since Baldur’s Gate 2 in 2000, there is no had no real third game until now. Larian, with his Divinity background, seems a perfect fit for Baldur’s Gate 3 and came with the built-in perk of an Early Access experience. Original Sin 1 and 2 had gone through long periods of successful early access where Larian worked closely with the community to smooth out the wrinkles in each game.
As Vincke explains in his speech, Larian has been preparing for his greatest game ever. The studio spent over a year in pre-production, hiring for many new positions and making the best projections possible for the word count the game would have, the recording time needed, what would need to happen to make all cutscenes, and much more.
But ultimately that wouldn’t be enough on its own, largely because of the enormity of trying to convert the complexities of a Dungeons & Dragons game – where players can do whatever they can think of, efficiently – in a video game system.
“You’ll often hear, ‘Oh, you have to give the illusion of choice,'” Vincke tells me. “You know you also have to really give the choice, or there’s no consequence, it doesn’t matter. And we have this dice mechanic, which is really deep-rooted, that you’ll find out as you play And so dice failure, dice success have to count. If it doesn’t, you don’t feel like all that turnover and all those character abilities that you’re upgrading are having an impact on the game. “
But creating this kind of system took even more work than Larian expected. Baldur’s Gate 3 needed all 12 D&D classes, all very different from each other, and all of the D&D 5th edition spells and abilities needed to not only work, but also have an impact in the world.
An example shared by Vincke is of a druid: for a time, for the game’s cutscenes to work, druids couldn’t talk to, say, a cow, if the druid was currently turned into a cow. They had to change back into humans to talk to the cow. It made no sense. Why couldn’t a cow talk to a cow? But fixing it took a ton of cinematic work to make sure all cinematic conversations with animals were still functional if a Druid was transformed.
25 gameplay screenshots from Baldur’s Gate 3
On top of issues like that were multiplayer, multiple languages for the huge volume of in-game dialogue, and a need for accessibility in the middle of it all: a player who had never touched D&D previously should be able to understand Baldur’s Gate 3.
With all of that in play, it became apparent to Larian that they couldn’t deliver the game they wanted to make with the team they had. It was either a matter of shrinking Baldur’s Gate 3 or massively expanding the studio to meet the challenge. So Larian grew from 150 people to 400 in a short time. Larian had the resources to do it thanks to the way Original Sin 2 sold, but the top end came with its own set of issues. Larian didn’t have a process in place for that many people. The sheer volume of work, teams and individuals quickly revealed weaknesses in the way they worked together that hadn’t been apparent before. And the COVID-19 pandemic certainly hasn’t helped matters either, with Vincke saying the ‘fragmentation’ of business necessitated by lockdowns was ‘not necessarily the best thing in the world to spur creativity’. .
Between all of these hurdles, there was a point before Early Access where production almost stopped.
“Every week we woke up and said, ‘Okay, this is the week we’re going to finish this. [feature]”, says Vincke. “And then at the end of the week, nothing had happened.”
At one point, Vincke wondered if Larian should even put Baldur’s Gate 3 into Early Access. For both Original Sin games, the benefits were very clear: player feedback had improved the games and they had generated considerable goodwill within the community. Larian wanted this for Baldur’s Gate 3 given its complexity, but worried it would be too big.
“You put it in the early access community, you come back the next day, you see a lot of things that went right, you see all your bad design decisions exposed, your good design decisions, you see nobody talk about it, then you’re ‘re good,” Vincke says of Early Access. “It lets you try things out quickly, you see what resonates, what doesn’t resonate, and when you need to put as much rules that we had to convert and find ways that people would or wouldn’t understand them, it’s a very, very useful tool to have.
But Larian put Baldur’s Gate 3 into Early Access anyway. There were still a few hiccups. The initial Early Access launch was rocky, and Larian had to make some significant changes based on player feedback, though Vincke believes it ultimately made the game a whole lot better. He admits it was disheartening to see critics posting graded reviews of a game that was still in progress, although he acknowledges they had every right to do so – Baldur’s Gate 3 was in the wild , sold for money after all.
But with a better perspective on what he should have done differently before Early Access, Vincke says he wouldn’t change his decision if he had to do it all over again.
“I would definitely organize better than what we did,” he says. “There are things I didn’t expect. But the benefits are so clear… You can literally trace back why things were done based on the community discussions, the responsiveness you’ve seen, the analytics you’ve seen. That’s the beautiful thing about it. And you can’t do that – I wouldn’t really know how to do that without having a community. You have a team of thousands and thousands of beta testers, I guess. But even then, it won’t 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 all along. It’s through player feedback that they can answer weird questions that were never asked in design, like, can a bear climb a ladder? (Yes.) What about a deep rothe? (It can, says Vincke, and has a very fun animation.)
And more than the goofy campaign stories people share on D&D, Vincke says the success of Baldur’s Gate 3 means hearing more stories like me and my partner playing long-distance, or people who thought their life was better for having experienced the emerging storytelling that Larian did for them.
“Walking around PAX and having people come up to you and say, ‘Hey, this happened to us and it made a difference in our lives. I was going 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, that may matter more than if you make a bad game. So success seems like your game matters to people and that makes a difference.
Rebekah Valentine is a reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.