Divinity: Original Sin II Interview

During my playthroughs of Larian Studios' Divinity: Original Sin II, I often thought to myself, “What were they thinking with this ridiculous armor system? It makes no sense and goes directly against the main selling points of the game's combat, namely its wild elemental synergies and abundant status effects.” And now, thanks to this Gamasutra interview with the game's systems designer Nick Pechenin, we finally get an answer to that nagging question. We also learn about Larian's approach to pacing, encounter design, and game balance. A few snippets:

The trouble with armor

DOS2’s combat design is a close evolution from 2014’s Divinity: Original Sin, but Larian Studios knew the original had some issues. The team liked the depth of its combat, but felt that it tipped the balance too far towards chaos. The problem was with its armor system.

Armor had the chance of blocking status effects, meaning that if you planned to knock a bunch of enemies out with a stun attack, you didn’t know for sure it’d work in every case. “The good part about this was that every encounter felt different, so when you started a fight it felt fresh. Things went wrong and right in very different ways,” says Pechenin. “But at the same time it really prevented long-term planning, because you didn’t know how many people you’d stun, so you couldn’t predict what you’d do next turn, and because of this you just wouldn’t think about the next turn.”

So one of the big changes to DOS2’s combat design was to its armor system. Rather than absorbing a proportion of incoming damage, armor completely negates it. There are two armor types: physical and magic, which negates any magical attack, including negative status effects. But as these values take damage they’re whittled down, and once gone, the character is left open to losing HP and vulnerable to status effects.

So far, so deterministic, but Larian wanted attacks to retain a ‘spicy’ feeling. The solution was a small variability in incoming damage which may entirely knock armor out, or it may not. “So there’s still some RNG there and you don’t know exactly how things will turn out, but you have a high chance that things will go as you want them to,” says Pechenin. “But at other times the game will throw a curve ball at you and make you scramble to find a new plan.”


Embracing OP design

But rather than balance out these extremes, Larian embraced them. “Our usual philosophy is for player to be as OP as they want to be,” says Pechenin. But to mitigate the effects of a player finding an amazing sword, they also steepened the HP curve so that in a few hours that sword will be next to useless, returning the character to the baseline – unless they’ve found an excellent replacement.

In truth, he admits they went a little far with the steepness, because players complained about their super weapons getting superseded too soon, and so they patched in a slightly gentler curve. “This is completely valid, but in general the curve allowed us to give something very impactful to the player but still present them challenges even after 50-60 hours of playtime.”

And beyond just placing powerful swords around the maps, Larian is also comfortable with players exploiting its complex systems. If a player figures out a way of teleporting lava into a fight and drops it on a troll’s head, that’s a good thing, providing a good player story and fulfilling a lot of the reasons why many people play CRPGs. But as a player, you should have to work for it, whether creatively or effortfully. “And once you’ve used an exploit like this, it shouldn’t be universal, it shouldn’t carry you to the end of the game,” says Pechenin. “That would be no fun, and kind of boring.”

One of the ways Larian discourages exploits – and players favoring certain tactics too much – is in DOS2’s combat design. In Act III of the game, many of the encounters are specifically set up to flummox certain powerful tactics. So, for example, in one fight the player faces enemies with the Fortify ability, which prevents them from being teleported by the player. If they’ve been playing so far by teleporting enemies into killzones, they’ll need to scramble to come up with a new approach.