Beards, Kickstarters and Vikings: A Banner Saga Interview

The Banner Saga by Stoic is another example of a massive success story on kickstarter: Earning about 7 times what they were asking for to fund the project. The interesting combat system, excellent art style and promise of a deep singleplayer campaign were all major hooks for its success.

As we talked about last week there were criticisms levied against Stoic following the release of their free to play version of the game – The Banner Saga: Factions, and a Gamasutra article written against them. After trying out Factions I sent some questions to lead designer Alex Thomas about The Banner Saga’s development and the recent discussions about the game.

The Banner Saga

1. From playing Factions, the tactical gameplay has been really interesting to mess around with. Even within the limits of the available units the mechanics have a unique feel to it. What were the initial steps in coming up with the design of the combat system?

Glad you like it! Early when we started the project, Arnie and I were literally sitting around a chess board coming up with the system. We intentionally moved away from iterating on existing systems.

I think that restraint of having to work within the boundaries of something that is simple enough to do the math ourselves while still coming up with something that would feel deep and nuanced was what resulted in our current combat. We tinkered with all kinds of additional aspects to the game but found that even without slews of items and hundreds of abilities the combat was already complex enough. I’m most happy about the fact that we created something that feels new.

2. One of the many great aspects behind The Banner Saga is the fact that it is a tactical RPG for the PC, which has been a genre that has for a while been a focus on consoles and handhelds. What was the inspiration behind wanting to create a tactical RPG for the PC?

Well, honestly I don’t think it goes much deeper than the fact that we’re developing on PCs and Macs. As a start-up indie company we don’t have access to development deals with Microsoft or Sony and we don’t have easy access to dev kits. We don’t have that PC vs console mentality, though. We’ll eventually want to have the game on as many platforms as we can.

3. In the original kickstarter video and through updates released, you talked about how the plan is to use Factions as a way of play testing and balancing the mechanics for the single player game. What aspects are you analyzing for developing the single player content? And are you planning on differentiating the tactical gameplay between both the single and multiplayer modes?

We’ve already integrated a vast amount of improvement to the game from the six or so months that we’ve been testing with players. For example, archers used to not be able to move and shoot, we used to have uneven turn order that led to death spirals and rank 2 and 3 abilities were all way overpowered.

We’ve also added huge systems to the combat for the better that we couldn’t have done without player feedback, including the horn, pillage mode and tons of usability improvements like the info banner. It’s always been important to us that everything we make is for the single player game- that’s the whole point, right?- what you see now will be how the game plays later.

4. Do you see Factions as a finished project now, or will there be any more development of it? And as Stoic continues to work on each chapter of The Banner Saga, will there be additional content for Factions?

No, Factions is always going to be a work in progress and right now it’s at its most bare. We want to roll out any additional systems we do for the single player game through Factions to let players try them out- that’s the plan, anyway. Each chapter of The Banner Saga will include more characters and gameplay, so we definitely want them to be a part of Factions as well.

5. For people who haven’t been following the updates or missed out on the kickstarter, could you tell us a little bit about what additional gameplay the single player content will have differently than Factions?

Sure, the single player game as we pitched it is heavily focused on a dialogue-driven story. Both the travel scenes shown in the trailer and the conversation scenes are the basis of what drives the gameplay forward, and a lot of decisions you make will be about managing the needs of your caravan of survivors. Conversation takes cues from the work we did while at BioWare, though we want to focus on the choices that change actual gameplay.

Banner Saga

Unit promotions allow players to develop their units further and personalize them both aesthetically and in their attributes

Travel will be a bit like Oregon Trail and King of Dragon Pass in that you deal with events that come up which affect everyone in your caravan and try to respond to them the best that you can.

The combat was literally a system we stripped out of the single player and offered players a chance to try it out for free, but encompasses what we wanted to do with combat throughout the game.

6. The art style of The Banner Saga is really amazing and we at Game-Wisdom love the hand drawn look. Did Stoic make the decision to feature that style from the beginning, or did it come about during development?

Thanks! We spent a while in pre-production looking at different art styles and came to the conclusion that we should really take advantage of being able to do our own project. Arnie, the art director, is one of the best artists I’ve ever worked with and one of the few people, I believe, who can pull off the art style we went with.

We had looked through tons of modern artists but at some point we looked at Sleeping Beauty and immediately knew that’s what we wanted to go for. Eyvind Earle, the art director on Sleeping Beauty has a huge collection of personal pieces with a gorgeous art style. We mocked up one of our travel scenes using his art and it looked amazing. On a personal note, I’ve always been a huge fan of traditional animation so getting to work on a project like this is total wish fulfillment.

7. Let’s move on and talk about the elephant in the room: the recent Gamasutra article and lash out by the backers.  One complaint that has been floating around the net is in regards to the single player content being delayed. With the game growing from a $100,000 budget to $700,000 what has been the biggest addition to the game from the increased funds?

Was the Gamasutra article really that big a deal? We’ve had a very tiny percentage of backers upset about us releasing the combat separately, and the vast majority of those were people who did not see the variety of places where we said we’d be doing it. The others were from people that feel very strongly against free to play or multiplayer games. Again, this was something we planned to do because we thought players would enjoy it, and the overwhelming majority do like seeing the work they funded.

Oddly enough, the extra funding is what allowed us to take more time. The lion’s share of the funding has been for sound, music, animation, testing, writing and additional programmers, all of which have let us work longer on gameplay and combat.

I just can’t understand the mentality that people are excited about us being able to improve every aspect of the game but they don’t want it to take longer. Why do you think it’s taking longer? We’re doing more work, because we can very happily afford to. There isn’t a game company on the planet that can make a game quicker AND better.

8. On Game-Wisdom we posted about our thoughts on the whole issue (which you can read here), but there is one area that we feel the detractors do have a point: Factions having micro transactions even with the tremendous success of the kickstarter. What was the decision to include them and was that part of the plan from the beginning?

There are a couple things about this. Yes, we intended to release the multiplayer free to play before we started the Kickstarter campaign. We said it on the website and we said it in the campaign video. We planned to do this because we want a broad audience to see the game.

Banner Saga

The longer the player uses units in Factions, the better they become overall.

We’re an indie studio with no budget for marketing (and we’d get hell from backers if we did pay for advertising with donations).

By releasing combat early we can let people see, play and enjoy the game and generate interest. Steam reaches 30 million people. Steam also doesn’t distribute games with no pay model at all.

The microtransactions don’t influence the gameplay; you’re matched against teams with equal power whether you bought anything or not. Free to play is not a license to print cash, especially how we did it, and we’re using it to pay for its own server fees, maintenance and bandwidth.

More importantly than this, free is the only option for most indie multiplayer games. Look at any multiplayer game behind a pay-wall that isn’t Call of Duty or Battlefield– they’re ghost towns. They don’t have enough people playing because their user base is limited to players willing to cough up the entrance fee.

There are exceptions, but they’re the minority, by far. It’s fine to look at a game and say “Yeah, but I hate free to play, so I’d prefer that your multiplayer dies after a few months because I don’t care about it”. But when it’s your game you do care. We don’t want the multiplayer to wither away shortly after release. That would be an enormous waste of time and resources, frustrating for players and would suck to see something we worked so hard on go to waste.

9. The debate between critics and fans of Factions is on the subject of “Pay to Win”. Factions’ ranking system is not based on player skill, but on the levels of your army, which can be boosted quicker through the micro transactions. While a good player can have an impact on success, higher ranked units are better in every way and do tip the scale of “skill vs. time/money” to the latter. What is Stoic’s thoughts on this debate and how progression works in Factions?

Factions ranking is based on player skill, in addition to team power. We match you first based on your team’s power to put you on even footing, and then we match you against the opponent with the closest ranking (Elo) so that you’re playing against the best possible option from the people who are online.

We increased the search time so that it takes longer but gives you a chance of finding a better match. The only complaint we’ve heard is that the game is “pay 2 lose” because if you’ve bought renown you’re more likely to be matched with more experienced players who are better at the game.

10. For the non-backers reading this, do you have an idea of when the first chapter will be released?

Right now we’re just saying “later this year”. Fortunately we do progress updates monthly and these are usually available to the public so anyone can check out the progress as we make it!

 Thanks for talking to us and we can’t wait to see the finished game.