Baldur's Gate III Interview at E3 2019: We chat with Larian CEO Swen Vincke about Baldur's Gate and partnership with Wizards of the Coast
On Swen Vincke's introductory blog post on his website, he blatantly states "There’s a lot of RPG in there. That’s no coincidence. I like RPGs." We do too, so what better person to sit down and chat with about the genre at E3 2019? Coming off of a surprise announcement of Baldur's Gate III and not long removed from the well-received Divinity: Original Sin II, Swen and Larian Studios rolled into E3 with a lot of momentum and goodwill.
We also got a chance to talk to Dungeons & Dragons Creative Director Mike Mearls about working with Larian and how Baldurs Gate III came to be. Together, Swen and Mike discussed their partnership on the new project, the decision to announce the game alongside Google Stadia, the focus on multiplayer, and more.
Swen Vincke is the CEO and Founder of Larian Studios, developers behind the surprise reveal of Baldur's Gate III. Larian was founded in 1996 is known for the Divinity RPG series which includes Divine Divinity, Beyond Divinity, Divinity II: Ego Draconis, Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga, Divinity: Dragon Commander and Divinity: Original Sin.
RPG Site: For how long have you wanted to make a Baldur's Gate game?
Swen Vincke: Well, I know I approached [Wizards of the Coast] back at the end of 2014 some time after Divinity: Original Sin, but as for when the idea first cropped up.. I'm not sure I could actually pinpoint that for you (laughs). They didn't originally bite, but then they approached us back in 2017 if we still wanted to do it, and of course we still wanted to do it!
RPG Site: What does it feel like to finally actually get that chance?
Swen Vincke: There are a couple of reasons why we wanted to make Baldur's Gate III. Dungeons & Dragons is a big thing for us, and there's a certain refreshing thing about having an entirely realized and fleshed out world to pick from and create stories from. Which is literally what D&D is all about. The other thing is that Larian is made up of lots of people who either play D&D or for them Baldur's Gate was their first RPG.
RPG Site: So what do you think pushed Wizards over the edge and accept the sales pitch for a new Baldur's Gate game?
Swen Vincke: Well, you should ask Mike after this, but I think the agency that we put into it was our best sales point. When it comes to D&D, you pick up a role and a dungeon master throws challenges at the party -- who has to both use the rules in the books as well as their own creativity to overcome them. And with the Original Sin games, I think we showed that we could do that: we gave players a number of systems and came up with challenges, but tried to not limit people in any way when it came to overcoming them. Any good game master not only goes with however the dice roll, but also with whatever the players come up with. We treat that agency as non-negotiable freedom, just like in Original Sin where you could kill any major character and the story would somehow still progress.
RPG Site: Does that throughline apply to Baldur's Gate III then?
Swen Vincke: Yes
RPG Site: So you can kill anyone?
Swen Vincke: ..Pretty much. There's always going to be exceptions due to constraints like development time or characters that are gods or already undead.
RPG Site (To Mike Mearls): Is there anything that was pitched about Baldur's Gate III where you guys were hesitant or had to push back in any way?
Mike Mearls: No actually, in some cases it's been the opposite. We sometimes get a pitch where [Larian] will suggest avoiding a change and we have to state that we're cool with them changing things. Our idea is that you can change things, even lore, as long as you show and don't tell why it might be changing. Especially if you can tie it back to the agency Swen talked about. We want to think of it as the player having a role in shaping the story and the lore, not that it's been violated or something like that.
RPG Site: So it's thought of as a framework for telling stories and less of a story being told?
Mike Mearls: Exactly. When I think of D&D, the audience is a pool of players, dungeon masters, and even game designers -- including storytellers. At the end of the day, the best stories are often transformative in some way or another, so we're okay with seeing the world undergo changes. So this idea of casting the IP in iron is outdated to me. People, fans, and players enjoying being part of that, so I think we've been more liberal on the idea than even Larian maybe expected.
RPG Site: Larian has been known to be slightly irreverent or whimsical when it comes to their story-telling. You've got the plunger dart on your logo, and in the opening part of Original Sin you end up teleporting into someone's bathroom using the pyramids. Is Baldur's Gate III going to be a departure from that?
Swen Vincke: Our teaser trailer is a clear indication of the tone we're going for. So it's going for a different tone from what players of Original Sin are used to.
RPG Site: Another difference is that the Original Sin games are turn-based, while Baldur's Gate uses a real-time-with-pause combat system. Is that going to be another change in addition to the tone?
Swen Vincke: Well...we're going to show the combat rather than talk about it. The decision has been made and we're obviously in production, but we want to show the entirety of the game including what it looks like and what it plays like all in one go.
RPG Site: Do you guys have any plans for when we might get to see what you've been working on?
Swen Vincke: Yeah. (Swen then waited for my next question.)
RPG Site: Will players without knowledge of either Baldur's Gate or even Dungeons & Dragons be able to jump into Baldur's Gate III blind?
Swen Vincke: Yes, and this is something I think the teaser trailer actually really does a really good job of. If you don't know anything of D&D, you still seem a guy transforming into an alien creature, and then hints of an invasion on a city coming from the sky. You still have a suitable understanding of what's going on. But if you've played Baldur's Gate, you will recognize the city and its landmarks such as the Blushing Mermaid, which is a nearby tavern. You'll recognize the armor as that of the Flaming Fist, and the creature as a Mind Flayer but you'll also notice that the transformation is happening in minutes rather than across seven days. So in both cases, you get a clear story understanding, but one will have more depth than the other. Our job will be then to explain these sorts of things to players without that background.
RPG Site: If I wanted to play any one title before Baldur's Gate III in order to prepare, which one would it be?
Mike Mearls: Well, as it happens, we're actually releasing a new campaign for the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game: Baldur's Gate: Descent in Avernus, which is coming out on September 17 this year. It's the perfect place for the world lore, and also tells what's happened since Baldur's Gate II. It also comes with a writeup of the city, a map showing who's in power and important characters in town. It's a campaign that goes from level 1-13 that starts in the city but then leads into the Nine Hells. Players will get a say whether or not Baldur's Gate is redeemed or damned to annihilation.
RPG Site: Well, apparently according to the trailer, the city is still standing right and not damned to annihilation right? Unless that refers to the Mind Flayers.
Swen Vincke: (Laughs). Well, that's the nature of role-playing, right? It goes back to all the agency discussion from before.
Mike Mearls: Within each chapter, we kinda have to pick "Well this is the nature of what happened in the last game", in order to tell the next one. But within each, we want to give opportunities to make big choices, but obviously, we end up having to reorient and assume a broad outcome in order to serve the next chapter.
RPG Site: So what's the timescale here then? If Descent covers the time since Baldur's Gate II, how long has it been?
Mike Mearls: It's been about 100 years since Baldur's Gate II.
RPG Site: Is there anything specific about Dungeon's & Dragons 5th Edition that you just think is extra neat when it comes to adapting a video game from it?
Mike Mearls: I think the biggest one is the concept of Advantage. In the 5th edition, a lot of complicating dice factors are combined into this idea of Advantage. If a situation is in your favor, you can roll two dice and take the better of the two outcomes. If it's not, you have to take the worse. Instead of asking players to remember and account for every different possible factor affecting the roll, it instead frames the terms more broadly.
RPG Site: So is this something that's been incorporated into design Baldur's Gate III, this Advantage/Disadvantage system?
Swen Vincke: So we're not talking specific mechanics, but however there were two things that I personally liked about the 5th Edition, one was the idea of Advantage, and the other was that of Inspiration Points. Basically, they are a way for a dungeon master to reward a player for doing something really awesome. Advantage and Disadvantage specifically have very natural lead-ins to a video game.
RPG Site: So if a player gathers Inspiration, how can they use that?
Mike Mearls: Inspiration allows a player to automatically gain Advantage on a roll, so the systems tie together. So a lot of players will use it in risky situations after having gained some from the dungeon master.
RPG Site: Baldur's Gate III will incorporate multiplayer, something that both Original Sin games and Baldur's Gate II also supported. Can you speak on exactly how Baldur's Gate III will handle multiplayer?
Swen Vincke: We're evolving from Original Sin II. We're basing ourselves with a bigger focus on the party. You need to gather your party, right? At the relationship level, we probably could have done more in Original Sin II, and relationship between players and the actual party was a very big focus in Baldur's Gate.
RPG Site: Baldur's Gate III was announced at an event for the Google Stadia game streaming service of all things, what was behind that decision as the place to announce it?
Swen Vincke: A couple of reasons. I discovered that Stadia was a thing a year ago at this same show, and I instantly started running after them to get more information on it. You see, when we show off our games at events like PAX, we allow people to play our games in multiplayer. Invariably, when we make our games available to play like this, they then try to buy the game right after. We just had to put the game in front of them and allow them to make first contact. A lot of people when they think of a CRPG they might be afraid of it.
RPG Site: Like it's too daunting?
Swen Vincke: Maybe too daunting, too complicated...but then we get a chance to put it in front of people and show it's not so complicated and simply show people interactions that make sense, and that people just have to go for the flow. With something like Stadia, if I want to have people play it, I just send someone a link, they click on a link and boom, they're playing. Not only that, but we're playing together in a shared game. Automatically, people are playing with friends. And I think that's very very powerful. I think of it as a way to reach a bigger audience without having to flatten my content. And they can play on TV, tablet, anything that they might already have.
RPG Site: Does Stadia mean Baldur's Gate III will be able to be played via both touch and a controller?
Swen Vincke: We are going to have controller support, just like we had for Original Sin I and II. The Stadia has a controller and if you plug in a controller for you PC version, be it GOG or Steam, it will automatically switch over to it.
RPG Site: Are there any plans for Baldur's Gate III to come to other consoles at some point?
Swen Vincke: PC and Stadia are the only things we're focusing on right now.
RPG Site: Thank you for your time!