Baldur's Gate 3 gets a whopping Steam Early Access update today in the shape of Patch 6. The headline goodies are a new Dungeons & Dragons class to play as - the Sorcerer - plus a whole new area to explore: Grymforge.
I'll explore a few of the additions here, as I had a chance to play them at EGX recently, and then lead into an interview with Larian headmaster Swen Vincke, who I interviewed after the show.
Grymforge is a sprawling city in the Underdark, beyond where the current Early Access build ends, and is home to the really rather unpleasant Duergar dwarves. Repeat: they are not friendly, and will fight you without a moment's hesitation.
Grymforge itself reminded me a lot of the Mines of Moria from The Lord of the Rings. It was dark, crumbling to pieces, and filled with death and brutality, and the kind of ominous sounds that come with it. But, there was also dwarven life to be found, and fiery forges roaring.
It's full of wonderful detail, and it's also full of things to do. Particularly important to Grymforge is the idea of being able to go up, floor by floor, within it, but also be able to see down where you came from, and the higher you go, the bigger you realise it is. This is a place designed to keep you busy for a while, as you explore every corner of it, because there won't be another big content drop like this for a while.
The Sorcerer, meanwhile, is as you expect from Dungeons & Dragons, powered by Sorcerer Points and able to use metamagic, which can allow you to do things like twin spells together or even quicken the time it takes to cast them, and more. The two Sorcerer subclasses are Wild Magic and Draconic Bloodline.
If we count the Sorcerer, Baldur's Gate 3 now has eight classes in Early Access to play as. The plan is to have all 12 classes in the Dungeons & Dragons Player Handbook, and if Larian wants to test them, which I assume it does, presumably before launch. This is my hunch, not a commitment. By my reckoning, then, that leaves the Bard, Barbarian, Paladin, and Monk classes.
There's a lot more in Patch 6 besides. Another biggie is something called Weapon Actions, which gives non-magic users new moves in combat, assuming you're proficient with the weapon performing them. There are 12, and they allow you to do things like Brace, to spend your movement speed to reroll your damage dice; Heartstopper, to smash an enemy in the chest and potentially reduce their actions by one; and Mobile Shot, to make a ranged attack after you dash or disengage. They all sound useful and you can have up to three of these.
There's also been a serious graphics overhaul, particularly to the lighting and cinematics, and you should now notice lots of fancy fog about the place. A smaller thing connected to this, and one that delighted me when I saw it, was that characters also now get dirty, sweaty, bloodied and bruised during their adventures. They accumulate these things depending on what you've been doing. Having low hit-points will result in bruising, for example. You wash these off or recover from them when you camp.
Now, here's Swen Vincke.
Hello there! It's good to see you. I had a lovely time with Patch 6 at EGX. I managed to jump off a ledge in Grymforge and break the game in a way the lead systems designer (Nick Pechenin) had never seen before. I was delighted!
I was also struck by how big a place Grymforge is, and how detailed all the little crumbly staircases and cobwebbed hallways were. It's a big patch, isn't it? Do you have any highlights from it?
Swen Vincke: So I've been preparing for a Panel from Hell [...] [and] what we are going to show, and discovering I can do some really cool stuff.
I mean, I played Monster Hunter in Baldur's Gate 3, so I was quite happy. I recruited an evil myconid who has the ability of using animated spores to resurrect a corpse and then it becomes a follower - any corpse. So I figured I'd say, "Well, we're showing them the Sorcerer class so let's try to use two Sorcerers and play a game of monster hunter to see if I can go and hunt monsters and then I can recruit them in my party, and then use these monsters to kill other monsters." And so that became my journey.
So I managed with my two squishy Sorcerers to capture a Hook Horror, and then infuse it with spores. But the artist completely surprised me because [...] it's not just a Hook Horror you resurrect but a Hook Horror with fungi on top of it. The attention to detail that they're putting into this is so insane. The love for D&D is in every single little aspect, so present. And so I felt really happy.
[...] And so I made that the start of my presentation. I thought it was a lot of fun. The game keeps on surprising you in the things you can do by combining little systems with one another that you didn't think of. You just get your own journey, and I think that's the real core of what we're trying to do.
The lead systems person I spoke to said there wouldn't be another big update to BG3 for a while now. Is that right?
Swen Vincke: It will take several months for sure. We're doing this balancing act where we're releasing these updates, but we're also trying to finish the game. And every single update is like release because you have to really tie up and polish everything, and it interferes with release. So it'll certainly be several months.
It's not that it's going to be the last update that we're going to be doing - no, there will be actually multiple updates still coming - but don't expect one next month or in a couple of months. It will take us a little bit of time before we're going to be able to actually do the next update where there's going to be a whole bunch of stuff.
I saw you talk earlier this year about Baldur's Gate 3 now "aiming" for release in 2022. Oh Swen! I was convinced it would spend a year in Early Access like Divinity: Original Sin 2 did, but no! And it doesn't even sound like you're fully set on 2022 either.
Swen Vincke: Ha ha. So, what do we do - what is our job when making this game? It's really trying to create moment-to-moment gameplay that's really good for you and that's rewarding at every single step. It takes an insane amount of time to do this in a game with so much freedom. And we're trying to really reward you if you're going to go on your evil playthrough, or your good playthrough, or your chaotic playthrough. We're trying to give you something at every single step. And just the creation of that is an exponential effort, unfortunately, and so it takes much more time than we expected, I can tell you that!
There's no way back for us. I mean, we've committed to doing it this way so we're going to do it this way. And, yeah, we just discovered it takes much more time. Doing it cinematically on top of it, with the graphical polish that we're putting on it: it's really - it's tough. It's a lot. It's really a lot. But it's cool - when it pays off then it's cool, so it's worth it, but yeah, it just takes more time. The company also had to grow tremendously to be able to make it, much more than we expected. So that's the price of making this type of gameplay, I guess, so it's not as if we're doing it on purpose, being slower.
I was looking at the game's page on Steam and it's quite astonishing how much support you already seem to have with the game. There are something like 40,000 reviews, and "very positive" ones at that, which is a figure only the biggest games on Steam get. How many people have bought the game?
Swen Vincke: I don't think we announced it, but a lot.
Does that support allow you to do more with the game than you thought you initially could?
Swen Vincke: Well certainly it allows us to do it. If nobody would have bought it, it would have been a bit harder, that is for sure. But we're still making the game that we wanted to make. So we said, "Okay, well, we're going to have the same level of freedom that we had in the previous game, we're going to put it in the D&D universe and we're going to make it cinematic. And we're going to make it this vast, diverse, crazy adventure where you can do so much stuff in so many different environments, and we're gonna let you fool around with that." So that's what we're making.
The thing we didn't expect is exactly how much work was going to be converting the entire D&D system and figuring out how to make it work well in a video game, and bring it to the level of visual polish that we're trying to bring, with the level of cinematic support for it. We didn't have a real cinematic pipeline before so we had to invent it as we did it. We realised, 'Hey, this is a bit more work than we thought - it's not just putting the camera down! We're going to have to figure out a lot of stuff here for this to work.'
But [it's] the systems also, right? So if you play D&D, it has 12 classes, so all of these classes need to have their support, they need to play well, they need to interact, and then you have multi-classing and all of those things together. That's a lot of systems that have to interact with each other. And there's a lot of variety from spell to spell to spell, so all of that needs to be supported. The animated spores that I just told you: that's a micro detail on an enemy, on a guy that you can recruit, but that needs an entire system behind it just to make it work with rules and regulations.
[Eduoard Imbert], who's our combat designer, would come in and say, "Don't tell me you're gonna let the Bulette..." which you also encounter - it's like an underground, Underdark shark, and it comes out and it does Jaws movement on you. "You're not going to let that mushroom..." - and he used a couple of adjectives in front of the 'mushroom' - "resurrect the..." - and then a whole bunch of other objectives - "Bulette, are you?"
There's two things that you can do: you can say we don't do that, we just cut it, and that's fine, that's a production decision. Or you say, look, you know, we can and it fits within our scope, so maybe we should just push it and just put that in, and see if we can merge it into interesting gameplay. This is how this game has been growing.
We have a pretty definite feature list of what we want to do, but we just need to go through it. And it's quite large, that feature list. So obviously we cut and we add [...] and the big thing that surprises us is the time it takes us to do each individual item of that list. They're always larger than we expected just because of the complexity of the entire game. But that's okay, I think, because at the end of the day you will have a good game.
You mentioned you're doing all 12 D&D classes there.
Swen Vincke: Yeah, we're doing the classes that are in the Player Handbook. They are the ones that are going in. I hope we openly communicated that part because that's what we're doing.
You won't be pulling in any classes, or subclasses, added in new D&D books then?
Swen Vincke: No, that's why we... The Player Handbook on its own is already quite a lot of work, to do it the way that we want to do it, so we're sticking to that. If we manage to get it all right, we will be very happy, because that's a lot - there's really a lot of combinations you can make with it, especially when you add multi-class into the mix. So that's what we want to do for BG3.
Does your Early Access timeline stretching out present any unexpected issues? Are you now, for example, having to look at pulling more stuff from the fuller game to keep players entertained? Did you intend to do Grymforge for example?
Swen Vincke: It was one of the buffer zones that we would release if we figured out that it was going to take longer than we expected.
We're really trying to keep it to Act One content. I know there's a lot of pressure because people want new content - it's logical. But we really want to also deliver most of the content when everything is final, so that you can actually experience it with everything, with all the bells and whistles present.
Right now, when you play Early Access, it's already pretty good, but there's still a whole bunch of things that are not exactly the way that they should be. There's some animations that glitch, some cameras that don't work, you will encounter a bug here or there. There's stuff that's not okay and that we're still working on. So we would not want to release all the content in that way. The majority of the experience with BG3 should be one where everything is in there.
Would you ever pull in content from Act Two for Early Access?
Swen Vincke: I think the development team will kill me if I do that, so we made a solid promise to them not to do that, because otherwise their development work becomes impossible.
When you release something, there's a whole bunch of stuff that you need to do to be able to release it. And because development, really, it's like building a house: there's a whole bunch of things that don't have windows, don't have doors, don't have stairs, but they're already there, and there's all the wires in the walls. And so you don't want people to live there and say, "Hey, this is a hotel room, come and sleep here." You need to close up the electricity and so forth. But every single time you do that, you will have to break it open again afterwards, and so that's what we need to do when we release a patch.
There is content that we want to only release on release, and it's present in Act One, and every single time we release Act One, we have to remove it, or shortcut it, or bypass this building. And then we have more data-miners that are very good [he laughs] that go through it looking for the content that we forgot to remove. We're getting better at it!
So there's work there, there's work to be done.
How many people are you now? How many studios are making this game?
Swen Vincke: Right now it's about 350. So that's in terms of Larian and not counting all the outsourcing companies around it, because that would be, the number, very high. And it's growing. Obviously we're building a team for the future also, to be able to do other things, so it's not just BG3, but right now everybody is on BG3, or almost everybody.
But don't forget that we are a company that makes their own engine, so this is our own engine this [BG3] is running, so that takes a lot of effort. And that engine is not supposed to be just BG3: it's also the engine which we are going to make other RPGs in the future. So we build BG3 on the Divinity engine, and that's basically still the Divinity engine in the background powering the entire thing.
"Other things"?! Are you working on other games besides BG3?
Swen Vincke: Ha ha, Bertie, I can see where this is going! All I'll talk about is BG3 today, for sure.
When I hear you talk about 350 people, I think about studios like BioWare and CD Projekt Red - studios not dissimilar to yours - and how they suddenly grew as they stepped into the limelight. And I worry a little, because they faced significant challenges as they did. Does your growth ever worry you - do you ever think about these things?
Swen Vincke: Of course. Growth is hard. I knew this as a theoretical thing - I heard about it, I read about it - and yet until you experience it and you say, "Bloody hell, what is this...?"
It's pretty hard. It's... interesting. But it can be paralysing when you start realising the problem. I think we're past that phase now. But we had it, it hurt us, and it took us quite some time, and a lot of discussions. And it was hard to have those discussions during the pandemic also. It took us a lot of discussions figuring out what the hell is happening, actually.
What was the "problem"?
Swen Vincke: It's the communication, right? When you have two people and you communicate, you have one line of communication. When you have three people and you communicate, ah, suddenly there's two more extra lines of communication. And so the bigger this gets, the more of these lines of communication that you start having. And then, do you know [the game we refer to as Whispers or Rumours, but that you might know as Telephone]? Yeah, exactly. So the message that comes out at the end has nothing to do with the original message.
That's where I think that's where you stop for a second because then you have to figure out okay, well what are we going to do? Because first you get frustration, like, 'This is happening,' and then you start figuring out what you can actually do with it. But you have to adapt your systems, you have to adapt your processes. But that foundation needs change, and change takes time.
I have a couple of bitty questions about Baldur's Gate 3 to finish with. First, what's happening with couch co-op in BG3? I loved this in Divinity: Original Sin 1 and 2.
Swen Vincke: We certainly have it on our wishlist. I mean, we brought couch co-op back to RPGs after a long time of it not having been there, so I would be very, very sad if it wouldn't be in there. That said, it's not easy, it's also a very challenging thing to get right. But there are certainly people working on this and it's certainly on our roadmap.
Two, where are you with console versions for the game? Are they confirmed now?
Swen Vincke: I could hear that one coming the moment you said "couch co-op"!
Let's first let us finish the PC version. If there's going to be a console version, it will be announced in due time with the proper presentation and everything that goes with it. But we're not there yet. I mean, we still have a lot of work ahead of us getting the PC version done - and Stadia version also, by the way. So there's still work to be done - really a lot of work actually.
Three, are you planning to put a Dungeon/Game Master mode in Baldur's Gate 3, like you had in DOS2? It would obviously fit perfectly.
Swen Vincke: No, not at the moment. So we said that from the beginning. We would have to add another hundred people on the team just to be able to support that one, and we have to pick our battles. And that's a battle that we said, okay, if we add that one on top of it, we're never gonna finish it. There's still a lot of stuff coming. When you see the full picture... And actually if you go to the feature list of everything that's in there, it's actually quite insane. I mean, it is actually insane. So I would like to, but I don't think we can put it, it's too much, and we wouldn't be able to handle it. Already, thinking of this project makes your head spin, when you think about components that are present in it and the entire world density you built and everything that's on top of it. You play one version when you play it, right. But there's so many versions of that playthrough inside of that game. And so we have to think of every single person of that playthrough and everything that that needs. And that's that's quite a lot.