RPGamer Feature - Stoic Studio Interview
The Banner Saga
Platform: PC
Developer: Stoic Studio
Release Date: 1.14.14

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Stoic Studio is a small developer who released their first game The Banner Saga earlier this year, which was well received. We sit down with the programmer John Watson and artist Arnie Jorgensen of Stoic Studio as they reflect on The Banner Saga post-release and discuss the future plans for the franchise and the studio. John and Arnie answered indepedently from one another, so we are treated to both unique point of views.

Johnathan Stringer: Now that The Banner Saga has been out for about six months, has the reception of the game met expectations both critically and financially?
John Watson: We have been very pleased with the reception of the game. Players have really expressed their pleasure with the way the game turned out, which is gratifying, because we ended up making it almost exactly as we wanted. We actually get direct emails from players on a regular basis thanking us for the game, which is a wonderful feeling. The biggest complaint we've received is that people want the game to continue, which is a good complaint to have; and we're going full speed ahead to create the next part of the trilogy! Financially, we are also doing fine. After 2 years of living off our savings, we are finally able to pay ourselves, and consequently, our rent and bills. We have invested the vast majority of our revenue into The Banner Saga 2 and hiring people to help us get the localized versions and the Linux, Mobile, and Console ports out more quickly.
Arnie Jorgensen: So when we set out to build The Banner Saga we were aiming it at a small, under-served, yet avid group of gamers. We found them and they've responded far more positively than we thought was possible. Really, the amount of good feedback, reviews, fan art, and simple interest in the game has taken us by complete surprise. When you start an independent studio you're never sure if your first game will be your last, but thanks to sales on The Banner Saga, Stoic is on financially solid ground. The groundswell has served to motivate us even more for The Banner Saga 2.

JS: The first game ends with some closure, but it also left several plot threads open. What are the plans and time-tables for the future follow-up releases? Will the story pick up directly from where the first left off?
JW: The Banner Saga is the first part of a trilogy, and we are working hard every day to create the next part. The story arc of the entire saga is an epic tale that we are excited to tell in its entirety. When we started the project, we realized trying to make the entire story as one game was an unattainable goal for a small team like ours. Fortunately, the story line naturally divides into 3 books, so we decided to tackle each of the parts one at a time. The next part of the trilogy will pick up directly where the first left off, in the aftermath of the events of Boersgard. The player will encounter quite a variety of new characters and new classes in addition to many of the familiar faces of characters who survived the first part. Your actions in the first game will directly affect the situation in the second game, if your save files are preserved. Players should expect to learn more about the Dredge and their motivations, and the nature of the catastrophe which is threatening the world. Regarding a time table, it is too early to try to nail down a specific date. We should have our entire 'white box' version of the game done in late August, which means placeholder art for all scenes, placeholder dialog in all locations, and all of the major decision points implemented. This allows us to play through the entire game to get an idea of pacing. Austin Wintory will be in-house for several days next month for us to play through the whitebox as a group and brainstorm on tone and pacing.
AJ: The next game will pick up right where the first one left off. We're going to be saving all the decisions the player made in the first one and tracking them through the story for The Banner Saga 2. The player must finish the first game though to enable us to do this for them! If the player hasn't won the game, or never played The Banner Saga, then they will be handed the 'default' story that we set up for them to start with. That's currently the plan, stay tuned to see how it evolves. I may be just be a simple artist, but I know enough to avoid giving dates on future releases!

JS: I was previously under the impression that The Banner Saga would be released in an episodic fashion. Is the game now considered to be a stand-alone item, and any future releases are considered sequels?
JW: The Banner Saga is not an episodic game, at least not in the way I define the term. To me, episodic means regular release of content that can be enjoyed in a single sitting for each installment. So a month release of a 1 or 2 hour block of content would be episodic. The Banner Saga is the first part of a trilogy, and takes between 10 and 20 hours to play depending on play style. In television parlance, I see each game of The Banner Saga as a season of content rather than an episode. I acknowledge that we have caused a good bit of confusion about this topic.

JS: Based on feedback and reviews, what are some of the game features or mechanics you will look to tweak or update? From some of my own observations, and feedback I have read, will there be more of a penalty for running out of supplies and will there be changes to make the large army battles more robust?
JW: We have identified several aspects of the game that could be improved based on our own playthroughs, as well as player feedback. We have heard and agree with the feedback that combat can get a bit repetitive. We feel that this is largely due to a lack of variety in enemies, not enough different types of win conditions (most of the game is a simple kill-em-all win condition, aside from the several scripted story-driven battles), and not enough variety in battlefield configuration. We are working on ways to increase variety in all of those areas, and more. We also agree with feedback that there is not enough gameplay and story related motivation to save the peasants and clansmen of your caravan. We feel that the war mechanic is a bit opaque and confusing as well, as the effects of your strategic decisions in War are not well presented or explained, and we would like to improve on that. In a single statement: We are planning on giving the players more of what they love by creating loads of new content, driving the story forward with exciting developments, and carefully refining several points without changing the core gameplay mechanics.
AJ: Yeah, good question. No game is perfect, and though we tried really hard, there are things we simply didn't have time to develop as much as we'd wanted to in the first game. We've got a white board list of things we want to improve upon in The Banner Saga 2 with such words as 'War', 'Combat', 'Clansmen', and 'Supplies'. I won't go into detail regarding any of these words, but people familiar with the game can make some good educated guesses at what we're talking about.

JS: Any plans to tie-in the single player game to the multiplayer Factions game?
JW: We would love to do this, and have wanted to do this all along. We had hoped to update Factions in conjunction with the single player release, but the realities of me being the only programmer on the project makes that difficult. I've had my hands full with supporting the single player game, getting our first 6 languages translated and into the game, getting the ports underway, and developing The Banner Saga 2. We are looking at ways to get some development help on the multiplayer front; we love the multiplayer and competitive aspects of this game. We will let you know as soon as we have more to share on the topic of multiplayer.
AJ: We've got big plans for Factions. It's a game that John and I love and feel strongly about. I don't feel that it's currently in the shape we want it to be. When we launched it we did so with the idea that it was a demo of sorts for the single player Saga. It was very successful for this, but now we're working behind the scenes to evolve it into a fully fleshed out game that can stand on it's own, and help push the lore of the world we're building. Single player in Factions? Yes. City building in Factions? Yes. The list goes on and on.

JS: Any thoughts on the possibility of players of the single player unlocking story characters or unique units or items to be used in Factions?
JW: Definitely. In fact, we implemented the class unlock achievements in the single player game for just this purpose. We love the idea of having more tie-ins between the two. However, as I mentioned elsewhere, our very small studio size limits our bandwidth regarding how fast we can accomplish things. We pretty much have to tackle things one challenge at a time. However, we are actively looking for smart ways to increase our development bandwidth without ending up growing into a big company, and taking on all the risks associated with that. Our main goal is to make games that we love and are proud of, and to share those games with people who can appreciate them. We don't want crazy business development overhead to get in the way of that.

JS: Will you look to crowd-funding again in future projects?
JW: We certainly would be open to using crowd-funding again. We had a great experience with Kickstarter, which funded about half of the development costs of the first game (the other half being funded from our personal savings), generated a huge amount of awareness, and very importantly, jump-started a very vibrant and supportive community. When we fulfilled our promise of releasing a multiplayer demo of the combat, Factions, halfway through development, the community that grew up around that was incredible and astounding, and has been a valuable part of our development process ever since. For the second game, we believe we can fund development with the revenue proceeding from the first game, so we don't anticipate using crowd-funding for that purpose. We have discussed using Kickstarter for the purpose of offering exclusive art pieces relating to the second game, or reaching stretch goals that we otherwise could not afford on our own (larger orchestras, more voice overs, etc…), but so far we have been able to budget everything within our means. Running a crowd-funding campaign is a big job though, so you really have to think seriously about it before jumping in. We spent many man-months fulfilling prizes, writing updates, answering questions, and so forth. Those things need to be considered before committing to a crowd-funding campaign. When we launched The Banner Saga, our only option we found for distributing Steam keys to our backers was doing it ourselves. This turned out to be difficult because our web site software couldn't handle the load. People would try to register for the forums but never receive their activation emails because our outgoing mail server has a very limited capacity. Exacerbating this, the website itself doesn't clearly indicate that the account is still awaiting verification, so the situation is very confusing to the user. We ended up manually processing thousands of requests for Steam keys, which as you might imagine, was incredibly time consuming. Our backers are awesome though, and were very patient and friendly as we distributed the keys as quickly as possible. Since we have launched, the Humble Store has created a very easy to use system for automatically distributing keys to backers. I wish we had been able to use that for our first game!
AJ: I'm not sure if Stoic will ever turn to crowd-funding again on future projects, but we will not be running a campaign for The Banner Saga 2. We used Kickstarter to kickstart our small project and now it's grown to be something larger that can stand on it's own. John and I still go back and forth a bit on the idea of making a pitch to ask for money when really we don't need it because there are other good reasons than just money. Many people keep asking how they can order prints and posters and shirts, and Kickstarter is a great way to offer those things. We'll be increasingly adding to our online store though, so I hope fans of the game feel like they're served in that realm. This is just in regard to The Banner Saga single player game. We may very well have fun re-engaging players through crowd funding on future projects to help get the word out, gauge interest in the game, and get people physical 'stuff' that is exclusive to the campaign, which is always cool. Kickstarter helped make us who we are and we'll always be grateful, so we're not ever going to close the door completely.

JS: Is Stoic focusing now, and for the foreseeable future, solely on The Banner Saga, or do you guys already have any ideas or thoughts on other future projects?
JW: Currently, we are focusing 100% on development of The Banner Saga, including ports and the sequel. We are working with several different external developers, however, on some exciting Banner Saga related projects. We hope to have more to announce soon!

We give a big thank you to both John and Arnie of Stoic Studio for taking the time out of their busy development schedule to answer some of our questions. We look forward to seeing the future support and releases for The Banner Saga.

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