After an incredibly successful Kickstarter project, The Banner Saga ended with 700% more funds than anticipated for an indie game from a new game studio. That means that developer Stoic Studio had some lofty expectations to fulfill. Now, in early 2014, the game has released to positive coverage. We, in fact, loved it. You can read that in our review here.
We sent a few questions over to Stoic Studio to discuss their past experiences, how they handled the development progress of The Banner Saga and their view for the future. Thankfully, they found some time, in between the praise, to answer us.
Ron: Stoic Studio is formed by just Alex Thomas, Arnie Jorgensen, and John Watson, and has managed to pull off a large project. Besides the obvious hard work, what else is behind this success?
Stoic Studio: Experience has played such a huge role in this: I can almost guarantee that without our backgrounds in game production we would have failed. There are so many traps and pitfalls you can fall into the first time you try to do something. Even then we still found ourselves learning new things at a breakneck pace, but now we've got that much more experience for the next game. We also had everything sorted out before we even started: stable relationships, some money in savings, families and friends that supported us, and we were lucky that no major disasters arose during those two years of production. One serious health problem could have crippled the entire project. Lots of risk involved!
Ron: From the time we had our eyes on The Banner Saga during its Kickstarter campaign, the game has significantly grown from its original concept. How did that happen and what was the reason for that decision?
Stoic Studio: The biggest way it grew was thanks to the additional funding we could make a game at the scope we had dreamed of making it. We originally envisioned it as this fairly niche product with a short but satisfying campaign and a dozen characters that you grew to like. Instead we were able to make something we thought was more fitting to the word "Saga": twice as many characters, a story that was twice as long and combat that was significantly more refined than it would have been. One of the things I'm most happy about are things that you may not even see. We were able to put so much choice into the game that your decisions really do change things along the way. I spent a lot of time making way more of this "invisible" content than I think a lot of games would have done.
Ron: You asked for $100,000 and ended up raising $723,886 from 20,042 backers. It must have been overwhelming to see this much support. What was your initial reaction seeing such growing interest?
Stoic Studio: I think anyone making a game and especially a new IP, even companies who have done it before, are always worried that nobody will actually like the game, or want it. The best thing Kickstarter could do for us at the time is confirm that we were on the right track, and making something that people would care about. That alone got us through the two terrifying years of production where we worked non-stop on something that was incredibly complicated and only really came together near the end. The day our Kickstarter finished was one of the happiest days of my life, and then the fear starts to settle in... but it's a healthy fear. It makes you work hard and not give up.
Ron: Dreaming big: if the funding had surpassed $10,000,000, what else would we see in the game?
Stoic Studio: Ho boy, I'm not sure I'd really want $10m. At some point you start hitting the point of diminishing return, the game takes three times longer to produce, people's expectations start to fly out of control and the amount of quality you can cram into a game starts to become harder and harder... but I know what you're saying. In the spirit of the question, I would have loved to get voiceovers into the game, and we could have had more polish on animations: more animated cutscenes, more combat animations, more enemy varieties, etc. A little more polish associated with big budget games. As it is though, I really couldn't ask for much more.
Ron: We know about Alex, Arnie, and John’s experience with BioWare's MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic. An idea of The Banner Saga seems to have come only after one big project. Were there any other experiences that the team went through together?
Stoic Studio: Well, it can be easy to overlook the fact that though we only worked on one project together, it was for about six years. Before that, John and Arnie both worked together at Sony, on Star Wars: Galaxies. Needless to say, we can all use a break from Star Wars. I've also worked with Arnie Jorgensen previously a children's book for iOS called Dino Boy, that we got permission to make at BioWare.
Ron: You were inspired by Eyvind Earle 'Sleeping Beauty' by Disney when it came to the visuals, which I too approve as a great choice. What about the gameplay? How did you think of such a strategy driven game?
Stoic Studio: It was actually a big point of pride for us that we come up with something that felt original and unique and offered familiar but new kinds of gameplay. We knew we didn't want to tread the same tired problems of strategy games, that always devolve into methodically ganging up on one enemy at a time, or spamming health potions to keep your team alive. We started by testing combat on a chess board with improvised pieces. Our first goal was to take the core concept: that strength is both your attack and your health, and work out a balanced system around that. I think with a lot of time, help and playtesting we pulled it off.
Ron: The majority of reviews have given The Banner Saga a good rating and also mentioned about a few frustrating moments. Are you planning for any sequel with improvements? Is the thought about a trilogy still on board?
Stoic Studio: We're looking into any criticism we get on the game. There are certain things that we would have liked to do more of: different goals in combat, more variety, and had to make the call on time and money, not to mention personal exhaustion. We definitely intend to keep working on The Banner Saga and we'll be making a real effort to improve in as many places as possible.
Ron: I’m personally quite addicted to the Banner Saga: Factions, playing it almost every single day. My discussion with Stoicmom earlier during a game, she mentioned that there will be certain enhancements. What are the improvements you have on your plate right now, especially when the first anniversary is only a month away?
Stoic Studio: We don't want to talk much about what we'll be doing to Factions, but we have plans to revisit it before the second Saga comes out. We have several ideas on the table and need to work those out before we announce any final decisions. Our goal, though, is to keep adding new features to Factions as we work towards the next game.
Ron: Tell us about the extreme challenges you came across while developing the game in two different versions and also about the areas you enjoyed most working with.
Stoic Studio: The hardest thing for us has always been the massive amount of content. No matter how many times we tell people the whole game was done by three people with help from contractors, I think it doesn't really sink in just how hard it was to make. We were in the office almost around the clock for nearly two years, and it became extremely difficult, especially when you pile on the pressure of spending your entire life savings. We would constantly run into problems to solve that we had never dealt with before, never mind the business side of things that none of us have experience in. As for developing towards two different platforms, that actually wasn't a terrible problem.
The most enjoyable thing about making the game, for me, is seeing it come together in the end. You'd be surprised how "in the dark" it feels to make a game until you're nearly done. Things suddenly go from broke to working and everything changes- until that point you're just holding your breath hoping that you know what you're doing. Obviously, smaller more agile games are able to get to this point quicker, but for something with a lot of complex, interlocking systems it can take a long time. In the last couple weeks I was able to do some of the conversations and events that I'm most proud of, the ones that people talk about on forums. Most people will never know how last-minute some of those things were.
Ron: What were the initial reactions from your former BioWare colleagues when you decided to go solo and have the reactions been any different after the Kickstarter success? Have there been interests shown by big publishers towards The Banner Saga?
Stoic Studio: Everyone has been insanely supportive. I've mentioned before that one of my only regrets is that I don't have any enemies to laud over. Within the games industry, developers are great, brilliant people, and the indie community is a beautiful place to be. Competitive as all hell, but truly supportive. We've been working with a small outfit called Versus Evil to help us with marketing and distribution, and they've been doing an excellent job, as good as we could have hoped. We're not looking to sell the company at any point in the foreseeable future.
Ron: What are some upcoming plans you have in hand other than The Banner Saga?
Stoic Studio: Well, first and foremost we plan to take a solid couple weeks off and recharge. I've been looking to a break for a long time, and knowing that you're going to have enough income to keep working for yourself is the icing on the cake. It's never a certainty. After that, I think we're ready to get back to the Banner Saga. We've had so many people tell us they can't wait for the sequel that it makes us that much more excited about it.
A big thanks to Stoic Studio for taking the time to talk with us. We look forward to hearing about your upcoming projects and wish you continued success with The Banner Saga. Keep up with Stoic Studio on their website, give them a like on Facebook and follow on Twitter and Google+.
P.S: Special thanks to our Senior Editor Daav Valentaten for helping me out with the interview.