People of the Year 2017: Larian Studios

With Divinity: Original Sin II, the Belgian studio combined both commercial performance with creative excellence - and it did so on its own terms

By Matthew Handrahan.Published Wednesday 6th December 2017, 11:15am GMT

For Larian Studios, it could all have been so different.

When we last spoke to the Belgian developer in 2015, CEO Swen Vincke was fresh from a revealing GDC talk about the production of Divinity: Original Sin; the sixth game in a series that had started 13 years before, and also a bid to break free from publishers by using platforms like Kickstarter and Early Access.

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"You spend two or three years on something, and you know it can be good, and then it's released before it's finished. It's horrible. It's absolutely horrible," Vincke said. "This was the last time we were going to do it. It was our way or it was over."

It very nearly ended anyway. Larian invested every last cent in Original Sin, going "beyond make or break" to ensure the game that was released was the same one it set out to make. Vincke "sold my soul and my body to the bank" to avoid compromise, and Larian ultimately stopped paying VAT, it was blacklisted by the government, and the debtors came calling.

"I disagree with everybody that says this is for a very hardcore niche. I don't think that's right"

"All of that happened in the last months [of development], and even then we refused to release the game. It wasn't ready," Vincke continued. "That was the one thing that went wrong every time in the past. The game was released before it was ready, and that costs you so much more."

Ultimately, that chapter of Larian's story ended well. Divinity: Original Sin was a hit, selling 500,000 units in less than three months, with the studio collecting a larger share of the revenue than with any previous entry in the series. With Divinity: Original Sin II, though, in its 20th year as a studio, Larian achieved an entirely different level of commercial success, hitting that same 500,000 unit milestone in just four days after it launched in September, and passing 1 million sold just over a week ago.

"We had a bumpy ride in our history, and you need to have a bit of luck," Vincke says, speaking to GamesIndustry.biz about the company's selection for People of the Year 2017. "We had a bit with Original Sin, and we had a bit with Original Sin II also.

Swen Vincke, CEO

"Original Sin was a hit, and Original Sin II has sold a lot faster than the first one. But you never know what your competitors are doing. There could have been somebody that came out with the same genre of game, the same type of mechanics, but executed a lot better. You never know about that."

At this point, it's worth highlighting Vincke's modesty regarding Original Sin II's execution. Larian would have merited commendation for successfully taking charge of its own destiny, but we write about it here for doing so with one of the very best games of the year; behind only Zelda and Mario in terms of Metacritic score. For Vincke, though, the only opinions that truly matter are negative.

"I wake up reading reviews, and then once I'm really woken up I click on the red reviews," he says. "It's strange, because it's the dominant topic of discussion: 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, that was a good review, but, did you see they pointed out that?' It's all about how to do better for the next game."

And Vincke is not shy about discussing Original Sin III, which may prove to be the first entry in the Original Sin series on which Larian doesn't need to "bet everything" to realise its vision. Not only that, but Vincke believes it can grow the game's audience further still, improving the way traditional RPG systems and stats are presented to make than more palatable to a wider pool of players.

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"I think there's a larger market than what we're achieving right now, so I think there's still room to expand," he says. "I disagree with everybody that says this is for a very hardcore niche. I don't think that's right. A lot of that is down to presentation, and just getting people to try it for the first time. You won't reach everybody with that, but I think there is a larger group of people that could enjoy this.

"But we have a budget for our next game, and we're going to stick to it. At the same time, we're going to try and learn from our mistakes, because there's a whole bunch of things that we could have done differently and better, and avoided wastage in development.

"There's more than just finances to making a game. There's how you can improve your processes, how you can get more output from the same amount of work. It just gives you more time to make things fantastic."

And fantastic is now the standard. More than just being third to two of gaming's true icons, Original Sin II has been hailed as not just the best CRPG of this year, but perhaps the best of the decade so far. When faced with such praise, Vincke's modesty kicks in once more.

"No, no," he says, chuckling. "I expect that to be the next one."

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