Edouard Imbert— Larian Studios
Generalist game designer, who mainly designs and builds battle encounters in the Divinity: Original Sin series.
What led you to the game dev industry and how did you become a game designer?
I always wanted to do this. I have been playing games since the late eighties – Alex Kidd for ever! – but it took me a long while to put words on that desire. I knew I wanted to do something creative but I didn’t think it was possible to become a game designer; it was something a bit magical, a bit marvelous, like something you’re born into, or a divine power bestowed upon you – it was unattainable. So, all the while making maps for Unreal Tournament 99, StarCraft & RPG Maker (we’re talking 2002, 2003), I drifted in unrelated studies for years… before finally coming to the realization that game design was a job like any other and that even I could learn it. Once that was clear, once that imaginary barrier was gone, I found an internship as a QA tester in a videogame company in Paris (called Nevrax at the time, makers of an MMORPG called The Saga of Ryzom); there, I learnt a lot about the reality of working at a game company; it debunked the myth, it made it real. I also heard of a game design school in France from an employee there, so after my internship I applied there and I was accepted, which felt very, very unreal. After having gotten my degree, I had a hard time finding a first design job & I was a QA for a while – and then one day I landed an interview and I got a position. I really, really think that my levels on Unreal Tournament 3 helped convince the boss that I could help him make games, so my advice to all the folks out there wanting to join a company as a designer: make your own stuff and show it. Code simple games in C++, there are tutorials everywhere. Make maps for FPS or StarCraft II or any game you like. Design RPG Maker games. Build shitty mods. Make stuff & show it.
What does a typical day look like?
On a typical day I arrive at 9:30, I get some hot chocolate or tea, I check my emails / my Slack messages. If there’s any urgent bug or request, I fix those first because it’s important that nobody gets stuck in their work. Then I put on some music and get designing; if it’s a combat encounter, I first start on paper, with this encounter’s core idea: what’s the puzzle here? what’s the quirk? how am I going to make it memorable? have we not used this idea before? etc. We cannot have two fights that are the same. When I’m happy, I start building; from then on it’s an intricate assembly of small moving parts (area design? creature skills, abilities, stats, equipment? armor, weapons? loot?) that operate under certain constraints (encounter’s difficulty? place in the overarching learning curve? in the overall story? lore regarding that particular creature / area?), so I have to be careful not to forget anything. Larian Studios make RPGs, and if the gameplay is critical, so is the feeling of immersion that you get, so it has to make sense with the world. Then I take a break at around noon; I step downstairs – we have a kitchen – where I make a salad with tomatoes, lettuce, olives and lemon juice that I shake together in a tupperware. It’s cheap & it’s fast, so I can read the news during the break. Then I get back to work, building stuff until 6 or 7. There can also be meetings to discuss gameplay elements, or reviews where the boss sits down and plays your stuff. Now that is all on a typical day, because there’s also crunch, and then I get to go home much later. Fortunately, in PC game development it doesn’t happen too often. In the mobile industry it’s a lot worse.
What's your setup?
Intel Core i7, 16Go RAM, 2 monitors, good headphones & lots of hot chocolate.
Which apps and services do you use most to complete your main tasks?
To design, I often use Google Docs / Google Sheets. To build, I use the Larian inhouse editor called “Glasses”, known to the general public as “The Divinity Engine” (screenshot attached, it’s what I see most of the time). We also use Slack as a company-wide chat service; it’s very convenient.
Where do you gain inspiration from?
Games mostly, but also music, books, movies. For starters, I am a huge admirer of Yasumi Matsuno (Tactics Ogre / Final Fantasy Tactics / Vagrant Story). His games’ combat systems offer impressive tactical gameplay; Vagrant Story’s crafting system will inspire me until the day I die – not even mentioning their great visuals, soundtrack & writing. I also love the old EverQuest (I play Project 99, which emulates it the way it was around 99-2001) which provides a constant stream of ideas in terms of spells, items, challenges… I’m also a big D&D fan; if I get stuck, just one glance at the spell list and the ideas start flowing again. I also find World of Warcraft a great inspiration for its creative raid mechanics. Books, for contexts, situations; music, for writing and concentration. Skyrim soundtrack anyone?
When and how do you start working on a new feature? Could you describe the process?
My superior tells me, hey Edouard, we need a [something] [somewhere], and he shows me an empty place on the map. Or a place where there’s already something and it needs to change. It can be an arena for a fight, a group of monsters, an infiltration sequence with creatures patrolling, some traps… I ask when they want it; then I get a deadline and then I get to work. I gather documentation & references, to check how others games do it or to find inspiration. In our games, lore is critical, so I then go talk to our writers: what is the history of this place? or: who is this boss? what happened in his life? what defines him? or: what are goblins in our game? what do they have in their pockets / what do they carry with them? and so on, and I try to get as much information as I can. For instance, in DOS1 we had a boss of which the backstory said that he was afraid of spiders: if you summon a giant spider during the fight & he gets bitten, I scripted him so he has a chance to become afraid for 2 turns. Stuff only a writer can tell you, and that’s pretty damn important. Then I turn in my work, we look at it with the superior who asked me to do it, and if they like it, I move on; if not, they tell me why & I change it.
Which games have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?
Dark Souls (yes, for me it was recently). The Witcher 3 (still playing it). Kingdom: Classic. Dragon Crown. Crypt of the Necrodancer. Dirty Bomb. Sonic Mania!
What achievements in your career are you most proud of?
So far I’m very proud of my work on the Divinity series; the challenges that I faced working on those games made me a better professional and, I think, a better person. But the truth is that I’m proud of something in every game I worked on, even the less good ones, because I try my best each time. Each time there’s some stuff that would’ve been very different if I hadn’t been there, which is a pleasant feeling, I think.
If you could change one thing about your career, what would it be?
First, I would learn more technical stuff, get the basics of C++ sooner, and do more math. Then, I would stop overthinking. I would stop saying to myself, “you can’t do that, smarter people than you are already doing it, just don’t do it”, and I would try to do it instead, because that’s how you learn. You build a thing. It sucks, and you can see that it sucks but you don’t know why (because your perception is more acute than your technique). So you keep building and reading about stuff and finally you understand. Also, there will always be people who are better than you. They don’t matter; you only compare yourself to them because they’re at the top – and when you do that, usually in your vulnerable moments, your moments of doubt, you always lose the comparison and that makes you feel even worse. So stop thinking and get building. Make a map, make a mod, write a story, build whatever. It’s the only sane thing to do.
Which recent task turned out to be much difficult than you expected?
Nothing really comes to mind. Everything is difficult, but you always change yourself / change the way you work until you complete your task.
How are the disputes about variants of feature design solved in your company?
We have a stone in the backyard. It looks like a giant black crystal. Then we have two big golden swords. The two persons that are in disagreement take the swords and start striking the stone. Whoever lands the blow that breaks the stone is right and the other person is wrong. We call that “Trial by Stone.” But then of course sometimes, the stone is already broken and we haven’t had the time to replace it so we have a meeting and we talk about the problem instead – and if really we can’t settle on a decision, then the boss decides. But that really doesn’t happen often; I think we’re quite the bunch of reasonable people.
What do you do to self-improve in game design?
I read the industry news & the latest reviews. I watch “let’s play” videos of games I won’t have time to play (there’s a lot of those), I pay heed to critics. I learn programming to have a more down-to-earth vision (without letting it limit me!) And mostly, I listen to others.
What music do you listen to whilst designing?
Depends on what I’m working on and on the time of the day. When I need to concentrate, to solve complex problems, I’m listening to Jeremy Soule’s Peace of Akatosh on repeat. It literally increases my concentration; it must interact with my brain’s waves or something. When I’m building something, when it’s getting late or when I need to work fast, I listen to more electronic music to stay energetic & in the groove. I love synthwave; Perturbator is my fav artist. Try “Future Club” or “Raining Steel” or even “Retrogenesis”, this shit is the best.
If a game designer would want to apply to your company, what would you advise him?
I would advise to bring material that the person has made that is relevant to the job they’re applying to. I would also advise to at least have played our games a little bit (at least our latest game) & to know what these games are about in terms of systems & design intentions. I would also recommend to watch some of our videos (Kickstarter updates, company news etc.) or to read our boss’s blog to see what our needs / our concerns are. Lastly, I would advise to read about our references (the games that inspire us, that we look up to). Mentioning Ultima VII is a great way to score points!
Any advice for game designers in general?
I wouldn’t know what to tell game designers in general, but I have advice for people who want to become game designers. Read Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell: this book is the truth, it’s light shining down from the sky. Also read (at least the beginning of) The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (so that you get the concept). Learn programming, at least the basics. Do math, it always helps. Practice English, you’re going to need it. Read forums, listen to players; see what games they like, why they like them. Think about your favorite game: why do you like it? What satisfies you when you’re playing it? Break it down, disassemble it in your head. Understand its mechanics, the feedback it gives the player for the actions they accomplish. Get analytical. Then build something in StarCraft II editor or RPG Maker or something easy to use, that uses the same mechanics. Speaking of editors, it’s important to know a couple design tools: Unreal Editor, StarCraft II editor, CryEngine, Divinity Engine for instance – a lot of companies uses similar software. Use them to build shitty maps, shitty mods, etc. If it’s summer & you have no computer & you’re bored, build a card game. Just build stuff for people to play.