Earlier this month, Larian’s 2017 CRPG masterpiece Divinity: Original Sin 2 arrived on Nintendo’s miniature but mighty Switch. The port not only offers the chance to jump into Rivellon on the go, but might even tempt PC gamers to try it out thanks to a pretty peachy bonus – cross-save with Steam. I tested this out, and it’s clear that what Larian, and the clever devs behind the port, Blitworks, have achieved here is not only a great technical achievement, but might herald a major shift in the way we play.
In my reflections on the DOS 2 Switch and Steam cross-save, I highlighted just how streamlined the experience of hopping back and forth between my PC and Nintendo’s handheld feels. It’s technically smooth and has obvious benefits – not least because it means time-poor players won’t have to scrounge up another 100 hours from somewhere to start it all over.
On the port itself, I was impressed with just how much Divinity felt like the same game in my hands, despite the Switch’s smaller screens and toggle controls, even if combat was a teeny bit more fiddly to master minus a deck of hotkeys. But, I wondered, surely it can’t have been so smooth an enterprise under the surface, no matter how great the finished product? Bringing Divinity to the Switch must have faced obstacles on multiple levels – technical, collaborative, and otherwise. Not to mention that the CRPG is a PC genre, and always has been. The dinky, fiddly Switch, even more so than the PS4 or Xbox, seems a strange place for them.
To find out more about how the Switch port and cross-save functionality with Steam came to be, I spoke to Michael Douse, director of publishing at Larian, and Javier Moya, software engineer at Blitworks. They let me in on some of the work, philosophies, and anecdotes behind Divinity: Original Sin’s journey to the Switch – and why it’s fine if you’re not a turn-based combat fan (you can “make love to a sociopathic lizard” after all).
PCGamesN: What was the main reason for going for cross-save? Is this something you’ll pursue for all your future games?
Michael Douse: We brainstorm a lot – internally, externally, and we listen to a lot of feedback. [Cross-save] came up in one such brainstorm with Nintendo, and I think – paraphrasing – the conclusions were sort of: “If you’ll let us do it, we’ll make it work”. So we went to work on making it work.
Literally everyone was excited about the idea. Everyone at Nintendo was super into it, and everyone at Valve was into it. And to be clear, the difference between a ‘yes’ and nothing happening and a ‘yes’ and something happening is a willingness to put people on it. The fact that Valve had an engineer who worked with us on this, and Nintendo were talking to Valve, and everyone was talking to us was actually quite soul-affirming. Despite being massive enterprises, the whole thing – in how open and willing it was – felt quite indie. You could tell that everyone really cared.
I can’t really give you a main reason outside of ‘this would be awesome’, but I can tell you the obvious benefits. For example, retargeting PC players who may have a Switch, and also giving the press something new to talk about in the DOS2 world. Let’s be real, the game has been around for a while. It would have been very difficult to make headlines outside of the initial announcement with no new features. But for me, you never need a reason to do cool stuff, as long as it makes sense. I think to everyone this just made sense.
I remember one specific conversation with someone quite senior at Nintendo who I won’t name out of respect. I rolled up with a DualShock 2 tattoo on my arm. And the conversation was basically “awesome tattoo! Oh, cross-saves, can you do that? If you can do that, we’re in.” Which is the exact opposite of how you think in your head these conversations will go sometimes.
Why pursue cross-save on the Switch specifically?
MD: This is a tough question, because I think to some players and indeed some journalists it might look like some shady partisan deal designed to one-up the ethereal ‘other’, but that’s not really the case. There was no deal – as I said above, the conversation (not necessarily the execution) was smooth.
We’re a small team in publishing, we’re working on Baldur’s Gate 3 as well, and Blitworks are also sized relative to the challenge of the port, and so in the stolen words of the immortal Todd Howard: “We can do anything. We just can’t do everything.” There were many times in both discussion and development where this may not have worked out. To be honest, for practicality’s sake I don’t think we’d even have the mental bandwidth to get it done across all platforms. However, our hope for the future is that no matter where you are, who you are, or what device you’re on, you’ll be able to play our games as easily as possible.
Very short anecdote: there was an email where Nintendo weren’t 100% happy with something on the Valve log-in screen on the Switch device. I mean, there’s a Valve log in screen on a Switch device. That’s pretty nuts. At this point, I thought to myself “oh god, it’s all over.” But Valve was like “yo cool, changed it up” and Nintendo was basically like “aight cool.” I felt very small, and silly, and also safe at that moment.
Do you think PC and Switch can complement each other as platforms when it comes to something like a CRPG experience?
MD: Oh boy, do I have a lot of opinions about this. Divinity: Original Sin 2 works on all platforms it’s currently on, because it’s fundamentally a modern game. It’s very systems-driven; the writing is very snappy; it’s colourful, and light in tone, and you can interact with almost anything. We know from the success on consoles that it works with a lot of audiences, but there is one thing that looms over it: this exact question.
I can understand why some are sceptical of a CRPG on the Switch, but at the same time, it just works. It’s funny because when we released on consoles an influencer rolled into the booth with the understandable and classic “Gamepad? That’ll never work!” and within an hour he was like “Oh, this is cool actually”. We’re seeing the same thing on Switch. The elephant in the room will always be this idea that this type of game should not work on consoles, or on Switch, but we put a lot of effort into making it work.
When it launched, I played 20 hours straight on Switch over the weekend after PAX, darting between my laptop, PC, and Switch. The world is changing, and I cannot envision a future where you’re locked down to one place when you’re gaming. What we’re trying to do is get ready for this shift (note: Stadia), so that when trends change, we don’t have to change our content. We want to deliver in-depth, real RPGs essentially forever. I will never buy the idea that our content has to change for any specific platform. The players are there, it’s our job to find them. It’s our job to give to them, not to take from them.
We can imagine cross-save being helpful for busy gamers who need more time to get into a big game like DOS2. Is this part of the reason you’re porting to Switch? If so, is it backed by any data, or just intuition?
MD: Anecdotes about flights, mostly. It doesn’t take an Excel sheet to understand the world is changing in terms of motion. We’re busy. Far too busy. You’re probably too busy. Players are too busy. Society asks a lot from us, and increasingly so. I think it’s a safe assumption to say ‘Hey, people probably wanna take this game with them’. A lot of what we do is intuition, but we do try and be data-driven too.
It differs depending on who you ask. I prefer data to fact-check intuition, rather than data in place of intuition. I have a more reductive view on the CRPG thing. I understand as a quantitative tag that it accurately describes “what you’re getting into”, but for me it’s just an RPG. Basically, if you like RPGs, you’ll probably like DOS2. As long as you like turn-based combat. If you don’t like turn-based combat, then that’s also fine, don’t forget you can make love to a sociopathic lizard. Surely you’re into that?
The tactical combat system often involves some quite precise inputs – how did you mitigate the limitations of the Switch’s input relative to mouse and keyboard?
MD: We crossed this bridge for the Enhanced Editions of DOS1 on PS4 and Xbox One, as well as with controller support for PC. Then the same thing with the Definitive Edition for DOS2. Moving to Switch, input wasn’t the biggest challenge so much as UX and UI. A boat load of testing went into the game. QA who had a lot of experience with DOS, as well as the entire dev team, Publishing, and basically everyone, really. Everyone has a lot of opinions; everyone wants it to be perfect.
How tricky was it to develop the cross-save functionality from a technical standpoint?
Javier Moya: The Steam API is very clear and easy to understand, so it was relatively easy to create a manager in the game that takes care of all the process (files retrievement, timestamps comparison for detecting conflicts, etc.).
One of the biggest challenges was to make the cross-save as transparent as possible for the players. Also, since the Switch has a limit about how much data the game can store but we didn’t want to apply a limit to the cross-save users, so we needed to make some adjusts to how the game handles this. We finally built a system where all save games are treated like local save games and they are downloaded or removed on demand. For example, if all the local slots are being used and any extra slot is needed, the game will automatically remove the oldest synced slot to free up space, so the player is able to surpass the Switch limit by using the Steam cloud as a backup container.
We also had support from Nintendo and Steam, who helped us with any technical problems that we faced (e.g. getting the friendly name feature of the Steam login working on the Switch web-view, or having the savegames synced in all platforms). That was very helpful.
Cross-save itself works really well – why is this kind of seamless cross-save still uncommon in games that support it?
MD: At a guess, it’s hard to put a value tag on this feature. These things have to be built, and that costs money. So without fully understanding what you’ll gain from it, I can imagine people not being able to budget the feature. It’s an extremely lateral process. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a lot of people doing two things now: asking how many people used cross-saves, and asking how it was done. If you’ve ever worked in development, you’ll know how hard it is usually to commit money to a lateral feature, the value of which you cannot quantify. Business doesn’t like the unknown. This is a sort of standard platitude that shouldn’t exist in games, but it does.
Will we see cross-save with the Xbox One or Playstation 4 versions?
MD: I don’t know. To be honest, the cross-save functionality you see on Switch was built from the ground up. There isn’t a single tech or process in there that wasn’t developed or tweaked for it to work with DOS2. Nintendo had to look at a bunch of stuff, and Valve had to work on a bunch of stuff, as did we. So it’s a big freight train to get moving, but when it does get moving it really goes. This isn’t a universal system that’ll work for everyone. I am extremely humbled it works for us, but we cannot really move on anything unless we have that sort of euphoric “yes” triangulation.
Do you have any further plans for Divinity 2 support? If so does this include future new content?
MD: Yes. In and outside of the game itself. We have some massive things coming up in what I’ll off-the-cusp call the “extended universe” though that’s not at all what it is — this is outside of the game. Inside of the game, we of course have more Gift Bags on the way that come to all platforms and offer some really major tweaks to gameplay. Personally love increased movement speed, an opinion that risks my life every day. Also more action points. Those are in the current one.
Could you tell me about why you think now is the right time to launch the Switch version? Was it for technical or perhaps other reasons?
MD: We build things until they’re ready and we don’t release them until they’re ready. I know that sometimes it’s difficult to wait for news, such as with Baldur’s Gate 3 and Fallen Heroes, but we are a company of idealists and we believe (truly) that players deserve the best possible experience. I would have liked the Switch version to come sooner, as would a lot of the players. There is a very valid argument for launching it closer to the DE launches on consoles, but that wasn’t possible.
We did the right thing and launched it when it was ready to be played. Blitworks were also an incredible partner. It is no easy feat fitting 100+ hours of RPG into the Switch, as awesome as the hardware is (the hardware really is a mini-miracle). Over a million fully voiced words. One million. That’s enough to make an iPod throw up. Audible would reject it. People’s ears would explode. It took time, and love. We were thrilled to be in that Nintendo Direct, and let me tell you, we really cut it close.
Do you think this could open up big CRPG games to a different audience going forward? Maybe to those who don’t really engage with platforms like PC or consoles, but like to play games on the go?
MD: It’s funny because when a ‘broad audience human person’ picks up DOS2, they don’t go “Oh, yeah now I like CRPGs”, they just describe why the like the game. You can talk to animals. You can unlock doors with your boney fingers. Elves can learn skills from eating human flesh. You can rip the faces off people and make your own face. You can fly. You can combine spells and skills. You can create a character and the world literally, actually, reacts to what you’ve done and who you are; it doesn’t just go “Eric will remember that, and then probably not react in any way”.
These are things I’ve been internally calling “micro-features”, the sum of each of these equals Divinity: Original Sin 2. It may seem like a pretentious way to think about the game, but I think that the game exists to give people joy. When people interact with these “micro-features”, they get a sense of satisfaction from each and every one of them or the sum of them together, but I don’t think they reflect and go “Oh, I like CRPGs now”.
I do secretly hope that the Switch version goes in some way to bringing players back to deeper RPG experiences. I love CRPGs, but not by default. I think that’s true for players, too. If it offers people good vibes, and good emotions, and feels rewarding narratively and systemically, then it’ll resonate with people. Whether it’s a CRPG or anything else. It’s just gotta be good. There are a lot of so-called RPGs that I don’t believe are actually RPGs, but I don’t say that with spite. It’s more of an academic design question.