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.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 is now available on PC, Xbox One, and PS4. You can find the rest of our GDC 2019 coverage here.