Interview: Making Divinity: Original Sin II Even More Definitive For Console

The Murder of Feedback Billy

Divinity: Original Sin II launched for PC at the end of last to no small amount of critical praise – our glowing review included. However, this was just the first step for Larian Studios, who decided that, just as with the first Original Sin, they’d continue to work on the game and bring it to PS4 and Xbox One. That’s set to release this week on 31st August with Divinity: Original Sin II – Definitive Edition.

A little while ago now, we sat down to speak with Kieron Kelly, Product Manager at Larian to speak about the game as a whole and the changes they’re bringing to the Definitive Edition release.

TSA: How was the reception to the original game release amongst the community? Obviously it had a great critical reception, but it feels like something that would have played well to the following the first game built up.

Kieron Kelly: From my perspective, I think we’ve done very well with the fans, especially within the PC market. I know from the data that we’re even hitting players that aren’t necessarily die hard RPG fans, so there’s a lot of new people there that are maybe interested in it as something that they hadn’t played before or they haven’t played that often. They’re coming in and I think if we’re going to credit anything, it’s probably the multiplayer and how hard we’ve worked over the last five years and two games to make it more accessible to people.

We’re going to make this 100 hour story, we’re going to make this game that’s really deep with loads of options, but you don’t need to be intimidated by that. You can step in, you can play with friends, you can do it the way you want to do it.

TSA: It does feel, as you’re bringing Original Sin II to console, that you’re getting into a bit of a pattern of how you do this? After two games with a PC release followed by console Definitive Edition, there’s a trend emerging.

Kieron: This one’s ‘definitive’, the last one was ‘enhanced’, which we’re just doing to confuse people!

So, you could say that! We’ve a lot of dedicated fans on console – we know that from the first game – but it’s not like we want to do this staggered approach. If anything we’d want to do a full release across all three or maybe even four…

TSA: So it’s coming to Switch then? [laughs]

Kieron: No, no, it’s just the Switch is always there and if we’re talking the next game in three years, who knows? I literally have a t-shirt that says “No comment on a Switch version,” because at E3 it was such a common question!

I know that we look like we’re developing a trend, but it’s definitely not deliberate. I don’t know how much you know about our studio, but when we released Original Sin we had 35 staff or somewhere along those lines, and it was mostly based out of Belgium. When we launched the Enhanced Edition we were up to about 70 people, and then when we launched Original Sin II, we’d grown to about 120. Now we’re about 150-160 and we’re getting to the point where we could start considering multiple platforms, but because we’ve developed our own engine, because everything we do is frontier work, every time we do something new it has to be converted so it can be ported from PC to console. There is a stage there that we’d like to eventually break.

But if I can speak about it frankly, it’s making us go back to our games. By doing it the way we do it, it empowers us. We know this is a good game and we know it’s going to go well on console, but we can batten down the hatches and not only port it but also put some real time and effort into it, because we know people are going to appreciate that.

TSA: You see it with something like Final Fantasy XV where they’re never finished with their game, it seems. You’re not going to the same extreme, but there is always the ability now to go back to your work and touch it up in a number of places.

Kieron: I think that honestly every game developer would keep tweaking if the bills weren’t piling up, right? Or if the fans were demanding it. Even if you look at games like Dwarf Fortress, that game will always be tinkered with because they’ve got the luxury of not appealing to money or fanbase, they’re just going to keep playing with their design. There’s a way wee can always keep tinkering, but first of all we have a really good game, so we’ve got to be careful with what we change and make sure that whatever we do was actually an improvement.

TSA: It’s knowing how to be Blade Runner and not George Lucas. [laughs]

Kieron: Fingers crossed!

TSA: So what have you gone in and changed? I know that one of the potential hanging points for newcomers was the difficulty.

Kieron: Yeah, so we actually had four difficulty modes in the last one. Explorer was the easiest mode and that was basically nerfed combat and a few buffs in there. We have introduced another new difficulty mode called Story Mode, and the primary difference there is that, as well as a couple of tweaks for difficulty, there are two new skills.

A large part of the economy can be how many times you’ve died and how many times you can resurrect yourself, so crafting and buying resurrection scrolls is kind of a big deal. So if you die during combat, you have to decide if you want to go back and try a fresh approach, or do you revive a couple of people knowing that might weaken you later on. What we’ve done in Story Mode is added two skills: one is essentially a free flee button, so you’re no longer skill based for that and you can just flee the combat and come back, and the second thing we’ve added is a resurrection skill, so instead of having to worry about the resurrection scroll economy you can just resurrect your friends whenever they die.

TSA: It’s an interesting approach, but I think there’s still a kind of stigma for people who will always want to play on ‘Normal’ difficulty or one above if you think you’re really good at games.

Kieron: Yeah, well good luck to you on Hardcore!

In that case, there’s two things you could do. If you want to start on Normal difficulty level, definitely start on Classic. Our system is designed where you can flip between difficulty levels anywhere from Story to Classic, so Story, Explorer and Classic you can change on the fly. With Hardcore, because of the fundamental way the game’s changed – the combat’s changed literally with different people in there, different skills, the game’s fundamentally different – the save file is not easy to switch, but if you start the game on Normal and you come up to combat that you’re tired of dying on, you can drop the difficulty level.

TSA: One of the other things is that you’ve rewritten certain parts of the game?

Kieron: Yeah, it’s a big number and it keeps on changing depending on the voice acting, but it’s over 100,000 words that we’ve rewritten and rerecorded. The reason for that is Act 3 – for us it’s the last 20-30 hours of the game, but our fans call it Act 5 sometimes because of the way the maps work, but we’re obviously thinking narratively! Essentially that’s Arx and the surrounding area, which is our large city at the end of the game. What we’ve done with the rewrite is specifically to make sure that,

One thing you’ll notice is that we don’t use cutscenes, we use the odd scene and some bits of still imagery to portray changing maps, which for us is nearly 30-40 hours of content depending on where you play it. There’s very few points where we give you story and deliver bits of lore. Most of what you learn is through exploring, dialogue, books, so you’re learning about the world, the antagonist and protagonist all throughout your interactions, rather than us deliver it to you.

What we noticed was that in Act 3, there’s a fairly large antagonist and without spoiling too much, his name is Kemm. What was funny was that our players would encounter him at the end of the game and they wouldn’t really realise the gravitas of the situation. So a large portion of what we did in Act 3 was that, because of the way we design our worlds and your ability to not encounter certain information, we made sure there was more information to find about Kemm. We’ve done that across the board with Act 3.

TSA: Is this more additive, trying to reinforce certain points, or are you changing how it flows?

Kieron: There’s some differences to origin stories – you’ll see some significant differences to Beast, for example, our Dwarf – and you’re definitely going to see some differences to the ending and epilogue as well, but it was very much about making sure that it was well fleshed out and that most of the decisions you’re making in Act 1 and 2 had an ending that was better communicated and more satisfying to the player.

TSA: With the rest of the game, it feels like you’d already laid a lot of the foundations for it to be on console in the first release. You already had split-screen and controller support, was that deliberated done to prepare for this release?

Kieron: Oh, absolutely.

Some of the stories from Divinity: Original Sin – Enhanced Edition are funny, because when we made Original Sin, the camera was actually at a 45º lock, it wasn’t 360º. That meant that textures and everything else weren’t at 360º, so when we were making it for console, we brought the art team over and said, “We kind of need to be able to spin 360º.” The art team had to go over almost every texture in the game and there were a huge amount of changes to ensure that could happen.

We learned a lot of lessons from Original Sin, and we knew from our fanbase on PlayStation and Xbox that if we made Original Sin II the game we wanted to make it, it would increase our audience and that they’d like this game. We knew we were going to have to make this for console, it’s just that with our team we couldn’t do it straight away.

TSA: Lastly, you brought the game into Game Preview on Xbox One. What did you get to take away from that?

Kieron: It’s been really good. It worked out fairly similar for us to what we did with Steam and Early Access. It’s a shorter timeframe, for sure, but the game is made and we’ve made sure to do the same thing where we don’t spoil the whole game and you only get Act 1. I guess the biggest things for us were that while we knew we had a good controller layout and things were running relatively well, we wanted to make sure that we were using this time to polish that.

We introduced a character called Feedback Billy who you would interact with fairly early in the build where he’d start asking questions about your experience. You could kill him if you want, because the nature of our games, but we used that as a way of avoiding having to do the usual feedback loop through Xbox. We were very conscious that we wanted to get as much communication as possible without frustrating the players.

TSA: You should have made Feedback Billy the final boss of Act 1 in Game Preview…

Kieron: [laughs] He went through some fun iterations, I’ll tell you that much!

A belated thanks to Kieron for taking the time to chat with us. You can catch our glowing review of the original release here, but keep an eye out for our Definitive Edition review later this afternoon, ahead of the game’s release for PS4 and Xbox One on 31st August (PC players will get a free update).

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