Not everyone has fun at GDC. With so many of the industry's key players concentrated in one relatively small area, there is no better time to forge alliances and seek out new opportunities. For many independent business owners a good week at GDC can mean a good year overall, but the opposite is also true. Making the most of that opportunity is a unique burden; a draining mix of excitement, anxiety and stress.
Swen Vincke, CEO of the Belgian developer Larian Studios, has shouldered that burden before, but this year has been markedly, refreshingly different. "It's the first time I've actually been relaxed. Actually, I've never been so relaxed at GDC. Normally I'd be fighting to be able to earn extra budget to be able to continue our game productions. Now, we're more confident. That's a nice feeling."
"The Divinity games always sold well. Our problem was that we were never able to get access to the revenue for them"
The reason for that turnaround is Divinity: Original Sin, the latest game in a series that Larian first started working on in 1999, and by far the most successful. Indeed, that success encapsulates a great many of the defining trends of this precise moment in the industry's inexorable push forward: a combination of fresh ideas and classic style, made possible by money raised through crowdfunding and Early Access, and published independently to digital platforms.
That last point is crucial. Divinity Original Sin was a big hit on Steam, selling 500,000 units in two months, and with a noticable absence of the steep discounting that so many games use to boost their sales. The big difference this time, though, was the size of Larian's cut. For years GDC was about connecting with and securing finance from publishers. Without one in the picture, Larian saw its best return on investment in almost 20 years as an independent developer.
"It was beyond expectations, yes, but it was actually what I've been working towards all this time," Vincke says. "I've been doing this since 2002, when Divine Divinity was released, and those games always sold well. Our problem was that we were never able to get access to the revenue from them. This one sold better than any of the previous ones and we got all of the revenue."
It was a gamble that very nearly didn't pay off. Even with almost $1 million raised through KIckstarter, Divinity: Original Sin was an expensive project for Larian. More importantly, after so many years of bending to the will of those controlling the available budget, Vincke was in no mood to compromise on what he believed the game should be. The combination of those two factors stretched resources to a point where it was no longer possible to guarantee its completion. As he explained in the GDC talk he gave the day before, the game's budget was projected to be €3 million. In the end, Larian needed to find €4.5 million
"It was beyond make or break," Vincke says, chuckling - something he does with endearing regularity. "I sold my soul and my body to the bank.
"It was beyond make or break. I sold my soul and my body to the bank"
"We didn't want to compromise. By the end we stopped paying our VAT, we were blacklisted by the government, the bank called in a loan that we couldn't pay back. All of that happened in the last months [of development], and even then we refused to release the game. It wasn't ready. 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.
"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. This was the last time we were going to do it. It was our way or it was over."
Despite that uncomfortably near miss, Original Sin is the best example we have of what an ambitious studio can achieve with crowdfunding to set things in motion. Larian delivered on all of its key promises, and to a standard that met, and perhaps even surpassed, the expectations of its backers. In return it has gained not only stability as an independent studio, but also a firmer grip on its own plans for the future. Larian is already setting up a new studio in Quebec, Canada, one of the global hotspots for AAA development, and Vincke is keen to bring as much of the expertise necessary to create and publish a game in-house as possible - marketing, voiceover recording, localisation, the lot. Last year was big for Larian, the culmination of a long journey, but it can now be regarded as the beginning of something even bigger.
Naturally, Vincke feels immense gratitude to those that supported Original Sin through Kickstarter and Early Access, and not just because of the money. The constant flow of feedback was like being given access to the game's reviews before it was even released, and worth an extra 10 per cent on Metacritic. That's Vincke's estimate, and while it's impossible to prove such a claim in any useful way, it gives a sense of just how positive a close relationship with your audience can be to the finished product.
But there are limits. Original Sin had almost 20,000 backers on Kickstarter alone, any one of whom had just as much right to voice their feelings as any other. That's a lot of potential critics, and Vincke believes there is a pressing need for developers to make peace with the idea that keeping all of them happy is essentially futile. You need good filters to identify the real issues, you need systems in place to ensure you can address them in a timely fashion, and - most important of all - you need to understand the game you're trying to make with greater clarity and in more detail. The crowd can be enormously helpful, but it can also throw you off course.
"Everybody needs to understand that, if you are creative, you will fail"
"One of the big things I've learned is to be very aggressive, and to prioritise the quality of your game over everything else," Vincke says. "Accidents happen. You have to learn to live with them."
Indeed, Vincke frames this period in the evolution of these new funding models as a learning process for everyone. Not just for the developers, who he believes will become more adept at handling these new responsibilities given time, but also for the audience. Examples of mismanaged Kickstarter campaigns and abandoned Early Access games are now easier to find, but in most cases Vincke feels that the response has been overblown. Mistakes have always been a part of the creative process, and on occasion they can have serious consequences. Kickstarter and Early Access have brought people into direct contact with aspects of game development that were previously hidden. For the most part that's a good thing, but not all of it is pretty.
"Crowdfunding and Early Access will continue to flourish, but there will be disaster stories," he says. "The press has a very important role to play in that, because you can really spin it any way you want."
The conversation turns to Peter Molyneux, who had just been subjected to a broad and vitriolic backlash, from both the press and the public, for decisions made during the protracted development of Godus - a game backed by around $500,000 in Kickstarter money, just over half of what Larian raised for Original Sin. Much of what happened with Godus, Vincke says, has happened on countless other projects, from dropped platforms to missed deadlines to delayed features. Such matters are always regrettable, but very often they are difficult to foresee and, ultimately, avoid.
"I really didn't like what happened with Molyneux. I was upset when I read that. You need to be able to reach for the sky, to dream"
Larian has been in very similar situations in the past, and when it happens your options are roughly equivalent to your resources. In his talk the day before, Vincke was admirably open about a decision to release Dragon Commander - a strategy title being developed in tandem with Original Sin - before the team was happy with their work. There were outstanding problems with its combat system, but, at that point in time and with the money at Larian's disposal, it was necessary to prioritise one project over the other. Anyone looking forward to Original Sin would be thankful for that choice, but if you really wanted Dragon Commander the same decision might feel like a betrayal. In game development, Vincke says, nothing is ever entirely black or entirely white.
"That's why I really didn't like what happened with Molyneux. I was upset when I read that. You need to be able to reach for the sky, to dream. The greatest things in the world have been made this way.
"Everybody needs to understand that, if you are creative, you will fail. Iteration is a huge part of creativity. There are a million decisions that have to be taken, and of course you will end up in the wrong place occasionally. Then you have to backtrack, and that costs money and it costs time. So if you had $1 million and you used that up, you can do two things: you can ship it, which is always a bad idea, or you can backtrack. That's why I don't think Peter Molyneux was treated fairly. You need to move on to new projects sometimes to keep on paying the bills. He didn't say he was giving up, or that development had stopped. It was just going to take more time, and I understand that fully.
"Failure is important for creativity. You need some death and destruction before you can have new life."