LOS ANGELES—Divinity: Original Sin developer Larian Studios and Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast didn’t show any gameplay from the newly announced Baldur’s Gate 3 at E3 in Los Angeles last week—but they were eager to talk about the long-anticipated project in sit-down interviews.
Ars spoke with Larian Studios co-founder and game director Swen Vincke and Dungeons & Dragons franchise creative director Mike Mearls at a hotel near the convention center. We gabbed about how the game came to be, what it’s like revisiting the D&D license, and more.
Here’s some background: Baldur’s Gate 3 is being developed by Larian Studios, the Belgian game studio behind the recent Kickstarter successes Divinity: Original Sin and Divinity: Original Sin 2. Both of those games took on the Baldur’s Gate formula with a heavy emphasis on emulating table-top role-playing freedoms with Ultima-style systems-based game design.
In other words, Larian has lately specialized in adapting the experience of playing games like D&D with friends to computer RPG games.
The company recently announced (alongside D&D stewards Wizards of the Coast) that it is working on Baldur’s Gate 3, a sequel to the highly influential 1990s computer role-playing game series whose influence can be felt in everything from Mass Effect to The Witcher 3 to Pillars of Eternity.
Adapting a new D&D ruleset
In fact—while they each had some previous exposure—both Vincke and Mearls said that Baldur’s Gate was what really got them into D&D all those years ago.
“I discovered Dungeons & Dragons through Dragonlance, the fantasy books from Weis and Hickman,” Vincke said. “I must have been 15 or 16. So I had the books lying there, and I dabbled in them to get inspiration. But then Baldur’s Gate really opened my eyes.”
Baldur’s Gate 3 is based on the fifth edition D&D ruleset, which Wizards of the Coast designed to make the game more accessible to new people. Vincke said that made his team’s job a little easier than what a still-young BioWare faced in the ’90s.
We asked Vincke about the experience of adapting D&D, to which he replied:
We started by taking the ruleset that’s in the Player’s Handbook. We ported it as faithfully as we could, then there were some number of things that we saw that doesn’t work that well, and so we started looking for solutions to do that. The hardest part—and this is the most interesting part also about it, because there’s a lot of stuff from the rules that actually ports quite well, so—but the most interesting part is the role of the Dungeon Master…
Whatever is not in the book he’ll say “Well, I’ll do this,” and the Dungeon Master says “Sure!” And then he’ll think about what type of check he’s going to make you do, and then that’s going to be what you’re going to roll with, and the entire party will work with that. In a video game, you don’t have that, so in a video game you have to make systems that allow you to do this. And so, coming up with those systems has been a lot of fun, and making them link to the ruleset as it is has been the interesting bit about that.
For his part, Mearls wanted to see Baldur’s Gate 3 tell a story that was distinctly D&D—it’s not just about the ruleset. “Lots of fantasy IP these days have dungeons and dragons, right? So when we can deal with something that is unique to us, I think that’s great.”
To that end, the story of Baldur’s Gate 3 is focused on mindflayers—creatures on the weirder end of the mainstream D&D source books.
Gathering the party before venturing forth
Baldur’s Gate 3 is happening in part as a result of a deal between Larian Studios and Wizards of the Coast—and most onlooking fans declared Larian + Wizards a perfect fit as soon as they heard about it. It turns out those within these organizations felt that way, too.
Mearls recalled an anecdote from a weekly D&D game of Wizards employees:
I was running my D&D game that night, and the players all worked at Wizards of the Coast. So they’re all under NDA, but like I don’t want to just tell them, so I… thought I was being very clever, like: “Hey guys,” everyone’s ready to play, and like, “If we’re going to do Baldur’s Gate 3, which studio would you want to do it?”
All of them, all: “Larian.” They’re like there’s no way that would happen. But if somehow we got Larian to make Baldur’s Gate 3 that would be perfect.
Larian employees were thrilled about the pairing, too. But Vincke took the opportunity to share an amusing anecdote about a team member who jumped to conclusions just a little too fast:
So I told the team that I was working on licensing something, but I didn’t want to tell them what. And they knew that I always wanted to do something out of fantasy, so they assumed it was going to be science fiction, and so somebody saw the words BG somewhere. So the guy assumed that we were working on Battlestar Galactica license. And so he started watching all the Battlestar Galacticas! So when he finally figured out that it was Baldur’s Gate, he threw out all the Battlestar Galactica!
He went on to say that the team is made up of both RPG veterans who remember Baldur’s Gate well and newcomers who are too young to have played it when it came out 20 years ago. Both could bring helpful perspectives, he argued.
The re-turn of turn-based games
That old and new tension is by now part of the Larian formula. When Ars listed its best games of 2017, I wrote that:
Divinity: Original Sin 2 is remarkable because it’s not about reliving the classics. Instead, it extrapolates the trajectory and ambition of groundbreaking games like Ultima and Baldur’s Gate into the present day. The result is a game that seems to answer the question, “What would the genre look like if it had never slowed down to begin with?”
Vincke said that’s exactly what Larian was trying to do. He was irate when recalling that the genre hit a dead end in the late ’90s:
I just never understood the idiocy of not continuing on everything else that was present. We had Fallout; we had Baldur’s Gate. I was a big Ultima fan also, so I didn’t understand why that just had to end there. Nobody wanted to invest anything more—it was just a dry—it was impossible to find investment for these type of games, right?
I mean, like, Beyond Divinity for instance was a turn-based game back in the days, and I flatly got told here at this show, at E3, “You gotta make it real time!” Right? “You have to make it real time—nothing else sells any more! You’re not going to get any single minimum guarantee!” Which is how you fund studios, back in the days at least, if you don’t make it real time.
That was the situation Larian was stuck in for a long time, and some of its middle-years games weren’t that great, to be honest. Fans could tell why, though, and Vincke confirmed it. “We always make the games that we wanted to play,” he said, “and whether or not we succeeded was often a question of financial resources and time and were always the things that we struggled with.”
He said the company turned around “when we basically got rid of publishers.” The financial independence afforded by Original Sin and Original Sin 2‘s success made it possible for Larian to move on to the sequel to the grandparent of everything they’d been trying to make for years.
“We’re not making it for nostalgia reasons,” Vincke clarified, though. “We’re making a new modern RPG for a new era.”
This interview might seem like it’s carrying an extremely positive tone—but as a player of all these games, I personally think that tone is earned.Divinity: Original Sin and Divinity: Original Sin 2 are both outstanding. Many critics called Original Sin 2 not just the best RPG of 2017, but the best RPG ever made—better than Baldur’s Gate, even.
It seems like quite a long time will need to pass before fans of either Baldur’s Gate or Larian’s Divinity series will get to play Baldur’s Gate 3. But until then, there are a lot of reasons for both groups of fans to be optimistic.