Sven Winke was not always on top. The founder of Larian Studios, from basic endeavors and an untidy, dark path through an often hectic gaming industry, has gone from running to trade shows to creating one of the most anticipated RPGs of all time with Baldur & # 39; s Gate 3. We talked with Winke about Larian. hard climb to greatness.
Let's start from the beginning. How did you get into video games?
I got sick. I was also very active. I like basketball. It was at my sacrament. So, there was a big party, I went for communion, and now, along with my cousin, I went and drank all the sips of champagne that adults have. Guess who got the kissing disease a couple of days later? I had a really bad case of mononucleosis, so I was stuck at home.
Someone felt sorry for me and gave me my ZX81, which was a 1K computer. I was bored, as in hell, and I was sick, as in hell. I picked up … there was a yellow book – I will never forget it – which was Basic, how to program. Since I went to the arcade, I said: “Well, why am I not doing a game in this Basic thing? Let's see if I can do this. ” And I made my first game.
What was it?
My father was a big game hunter. I tried to make a hunting simulator because it was never at home. I wanted to make a game about hunting him. This was my very first, and the second game was a ski game, because it was easy to do. Then I went to Commodore 64, then Amiga, then PC. I studied programming. I don’t know if you remember a game called Empire. It's like the grandfather of turn-based strategy games, and you had cities. You can earn resources and create units, and this is randomly generated.
Ok, what happened next?
I drove an ECTS that looked like a European version of the E3. It was in the 90s, early 90s. I was bluffing because it was an industry-only event. I had my copies with me, and I got a meeting with Atari, which Jaguar then did. They were also fond of computer games. I spoke to them. When I left there, I was so nervous, I was sick, but I had a promise to sign a contract.
A contract right at the gate?
This contract failed, and then a very difficult period came when we basically tried to negotiate with all kinds of American publishers and essentially abused people's phone lines because ours were cut off because we had no money. We spoke with New World Computing, 3DO. We had this little RPG that we did. At some point, we realized that we should get a pedigree, because no one took us seriously. We said, “Well, why don't we make a very small RTS?” It was a time when everyone was doing RTS. Yes, that was easy. "We will be working on RTS in the evening, and in the afternoon on RPG." We were too ambitious, but we did RTS. This is how we started in 96, 97.
We had an RPG. This is a formula that you find very familiar. You have a group of different characters that you can disconnect from each other, you can play multiplayer, you can go anywhere in the world – Ultima V mixes with real-time combat. It has become very popular. Well, then many things returned to Atari, especially if you were in Europe. They saw that the game was under development. I mean – I do not want to say that it was fantastic in development. They went to E3, I think it was 98, and they came back and said that we should redo everything. I said: “Why should we redo everything?” And they said: “Well, we saw Diablo. We would like to put history in a different universe. ”
We started to do this, and they sent us their developers to help us with production values. What we did not understand was that all the games that they released failed; there was no more money on the other side. They said: "Well, we have no money to pay you." In the end, we got rid of them and did a rebranding [game]. Thus was born the first Divinity. We signed a contract with another German publisher, CDV, which said the game was called Divine Divinity, but I thought they were joking. I thought it was a typo, but I did not want to change anything else. The marketing departments said it was because alliteration was selling well and they had just created the Sudden Kick game. I said, "You must be joking." But they were not joking.
I always wondered how it got that name.
Then came the good times. We had money and a publisher who believed in us. We got a new office, we paid everyone, we paid our debts. It was & # 39; 99, and the game was due to appear in 2001. The producer suddenly appears and says: "I'm here to see if we are going to cancel the game." We were far from ready, and I wrote a letter detailing why releasing the game now was a bad idea – it took another six months, but it came out without our knowledge. I found out about this in a press tour.
It was very hard for us. We were 30 people, and we had to reduce to three people. My nights and days were mainly on heating the office and repairing people's rescue games. It was a terrible time. At the end of 2002, I wanted to leave because I did not know what to do next. In the end, a group of people got together again, we were 10-11 people and started making Beyond Divinity with the intention of spreading ourselves. We brought it to the market – it was not our best game, but it brought money.
How did you survive at this stage?
Employment allowed us to live to such an extent that we were looking for a publishing deal, but we hated it. We really didn’t like it because we did really stupid things. No matter how it happens, this is a vicious spiral. We started working again for hire, and we were lucky. We convinced a major broadcaster in Belgium to give us a lot of money for what the broadcaster thought it would be a website, but in fact it would be an online game for children. It had a unique format, like the American Idol for children. Children could make films, animations, cartoons and dances in a three-dimensional world, send them to a broadcaster, and then the broadcaster showed them on TV. This was an innovation at the time, and we won awards, sold it to the BBC, and sold to several other broadcasters.
We said, “Why don't we do a big RPG, but this time we finance it ourselves or as much as we can to keep control of IP?” We did not have enough money to do all this. We needed a publisher. We made a so-called cool publishing deal, except that then I was still naive. We tried to create a dragon game that can fly anywhere and land anywhere. We struggled with this and found another publisher who will help us publish this game. We signed it in 2007. It was supposed to be released in 2008. And then comes the [financial] crisis. This publisher was suddenly in incredible financial stress because he had to earn all his money through games like My Little Pony. All these things were not for sale, so they received huge financial losses. They did what the publisher does in these circumstances; they release the game too soon. When [Divinity II: Ego Draconis] appeared on the market, it was not ready. He received s — reviews. Almost killed us. Really dark period for the studio.
Coming out of this dark period, how did you regroup?
I asked myself: “What kind of things are we doing wrong? What are we doing right? "We need to control ourselves, we do not work with other people, because we repeat too much. We want to change this because we like the way we play. If it is not, we change it. That is why we are always late with everything we do – then this was not the norm. At the time you were moving to a game agreement, it was about how to better manage the project. How to plan production and the like. How to check your boxes. The only words that were not mentioned in all these conversations were games! It just didn't work, because we made it out of passion.
Well, this is the part where the story gets good. We said: “We are going to take everything into our own hands; we are going to create our own engine, and then make sure that we have our own team of publishers, and we do everything ourselves. ” That was what we needed to do. From Divinity: Original Sin, Deity came: Original Sin II, and from this came the Gate of Baldur 3. All with our own technology, our own team, publishing ourselves, returning us to our community, which we lost with all these publishers. This allowed us to do what we wanted. We are literally talking to the players about what, in their opinion, sucks. [They] help us fix this. And it was a step that no publisher wanted to take.
So how did the Gate of Baldur come from this?
I wanted to license an RPG system, preferably D&D, preferably Baldur & # 39; s Gate. I contacted them through someone I knew from the industry. They connected me with Nate Stewart, who was the head of D&D, and so I got the kind of exam. Like, "What will you do with this?"
I was like, "I'm the perfect guy to do this." And [then there was] nothing. But we continued to run into each other at every exhibition.
In the end, he calls me and says: “Do you still want to do this?” And I said: “Yes!” He invited me to the center of Seattle, and in a shady bar he presented me with a complete map for Baldur's Gate 3. It was almost everything we talked about. After a couple of weeks, he called me and they said yes. Therefore, we needed to present them a design document when we were making Divinity: Original Sin II.
This whole story is exciting. This is similar to the fabulous story of a gaming studio.
It was not a fairy tale when you were in it. I can tell you that. [Laughs]
What was the most difficult to reach your own path with Divinity: Original Sin?
This is a simple answer, but money. I mean, this is the fuel that drives development. For me personally, I’m a creative guy, the problem is that without money you can’t do anything. Balance your time with finding money to create your games, convince people, and then do your thing and try to keep them away so that they leave you alone to do their job.
It takes all the time and effort. This is negative energy. I do not know how to make a game other than iteration. I just do not know. I think you need to do this several times before you can understand what kind of game it is. Only then can you do it well. This is not suitable for an accountant. People are still comparing the creation of games with the creation of the house, but this is an absurd comparison. This does not work, and it has always been a problem. Now we are very lucky, because from the time of Original Sin we are free. So that we can do whatever we want. This creates a bunch of other problems, but not as big as those that we had before.
So, what was one of the biggest changes you made to Divinity: Original Sin during production?
It used to be a real-time game. We did it step by step. I see that Yakuza took from our book. [Laughs]
I asked myself: “What are we doing? We make the game in real time because they told us. ” Publishers have told us that you will in no way be able to receive your distribution offers if they are step by step. It should be in real time, blah, blah, blah. We used to think in real time. I was in the shower, I was wondering: “What are we doing? Will we compete with Blizzard to create an action RPG? We cannot compete with Blizzard, we have no resources. But no one else does turn-based RPGs. So maybe this is where we should go. ” And it was a really good step.
Have you ever thought you want to do something other than games?
Actually yes. Initially, I wanted to engage in artificial intelligence, in fact, I spent quite a lot of time on voice recognition. That was my original passion. But the video games that I made for my friends, I got so much joy when I saw that they had fun with them. To this day, that's why I love PAX. I love to sit on the stand and see how people play my games. I tend to look only at negative things that do not work, but I get a lot of joy from their game.
For Baldur & # 39; s Gate 3, how do you encapsulate the entire Dungeons & Dragons system in a video game? Where do you even start?
This is really how we fix books, the system of rules, the feeling you feel at the table in a video game, and how we do it without pushing away people who have never played D&D in their lives. Blending this, I think we found it. You guys have to judge. You cannot make a game without creative risk. You can, but then you just make the same game. We took on a lot of creative risks, more than people expect, I think, given the amount of money we spend on this.
For example, in Divinity: Original Sin II, you can do almost anything. How do you build a rule set that can handle all this?
We try to be very consistent in this. “Systemic” is an internal word. If it is not systemic, it is not included. In fact, we learned about this over time, one of the mistakes we made in our early games was that we were so focused on getting money that we invested systems as tricks. so we were going to convince people to invest in games, right? We learned that if you add something to the game, this should be consistent throughout the game, something that you can always use. If you cannot, do not put it there. Over time, we got better, because one of the criticisms was always [that] that we were very ambitious, but [the games] were poorly executed. What people are starting to discover in D: OS, we just make these systems always work. Whenever we introduce a new system, it should work with existing systems, and if you complete them, you will get such things. That's where the beauty comes from.
One of the developers came to me and said: "I play with my friend, and I do the exact opposite of everything he wants to do." He said: "Another player will destroy the game." I told him: “Don't worry about it. This game has covered you.
So why is multiplayer?
Where I was born, no one had a computer. No one played D&D, but that was the one thing that interested me. My first science fiction books were D&D, Dragonlance, after The Lord of the Rings. They were hidden in the far corner of the library. Nobody really got into it, not as much as you guys here. I always wanted to play with pen and paper. I always wanted to play D & D. When I discovered the RPG, I said: "Well, that's how you should play these things, but at the computer, and you can play with other people elsewhere."
Being able to play with friends has always been an important thing. Almost all of my early experiments were split-screen. The strategy games that I made were turn-based games that you played with different people. I did not have A.I. in fact. It was very natural to do it this way and be able to do it online.
So why did you redo the last act of Divinity: Original Sin II?
Because it was the main criticism. It has become part of the studio’s DNA. We are already so actively interacting with the community as part of early access, and it is natural to continue to do so. We look at what players like and what they don't like. We look at where they are locked, and then try to fix it. This is just part of how to do this. The idea behind this is: “Sorry for you, maybe you did not have a better experience, but I hope you enjoyed it a lot.” Maybe the next person doesn’t have to have the same experience that you can still fix it, especially considering how much love the game received and how much money it made, it was so wrong to leave it like that.
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 release of Game Informer. To see why we love Larian Studios, read our review of Divinity: Original Sin 2.