A look at a rigorous world of Nordic mythology from former BioWare staff, turn based combat, amazing old-school animation visual aesthetics in contrast to realistic approach in environment — it was a love at first sight of The Banner Saga on Kickstarter. Meanwhile, Stoic exceeded the goal set for their first project more than seven times. Creative director Alex Thomas talks about love for Scandinavian epic, reasons of departure from BioWare, The Banner Saga gameplay, animation and other interesting stuff.
Around $7 million with expected goal set at $100,000… Quite a good result, considering only a couple of artworks were published by then. Did you expect something like this? And, by the way, you still would start developing The Banner Saga even if you didn't reach the desired funding goal, right?
We really weren't sure at all if we would raise the $100,000 when we set out. Unlike Double Fine or the team behind Wasteland we didn't have the kind of name recognition that would get a lot of attention. However, we raised $720,000 (not 7 million). I think the success had a lot to do with timing, but also that we had real gameplay ready to show and the concept of the game seemed to appeal to players who were unable to find many games like it on the market. We would have continued to work on The Banner Saga if we hadn't met the goal, but it would have been a much smaller project.
John Watson, Arnie Jorgensen, Alex Thomas — we knew (well, not quite) you as ordinary BioWare employees. In your opinion, did the fact that you were working in this famous company and, not to mention, were among the developers of massively-advertised Star Wars: The Old Republic, help your own project to receive such an impressive amount of funding? As we all could see, this is common thing among only distinguished developers, while independent companies are usually happy to get even the minimal funding.
Our past work at BioWare was actually something of a double-edged sword. Leaving BioWare and starting our own studio definitely generated a lot of news for us, and I think that's where we benefited most, but amongst players there was a lot of discontent about the decisions BioWare had been making at the time. I think it is fair to say that the experience we have in game development is our strongest asset, and backers may have felt more confident that we'd be able to pull off a good game, not that they recognized our names or faces.
Arnie was drawing for DC Comics and Ion Storm, John was working in NASA and Sony Entertainment, Alex was in Kingsisle Entertainment, but had you all met in BioWare? How did your acquaintance became what we know as Stoic now?
We all came from a variety of different places but we worked together at BioWare for the last half-decade. As The Old Republic finished production we all agreed that it would be the best possible time for us to go off and make something on our own.
Speaking about arts... You stated the works of Eyvind Earle (1956's “The Sleeping Beauty" in particular), Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth as a sources of inspiration, but the visual style of The Banner Saga is closer to the works of russian artist Ivan Bilibin and russian animation in general (for example, “The Tale of Tsar Saltan" or more recent “Prince Vladimir") to me. Are you familiar with the works of Bilibin or other russian animators? Russian and Scandinavian medieval cultures do have a lot in common, actually, and I was surprised to see familiar visual style from my childhood books and cartoons in a New World videogame.
I'm definitely I huge fan of animation from almost every source. I went to college for 2D animation and getting to make my own 2D game was something that's been been a personally goal of mine. I've always liked work similar to Arthur Rackham or Ivan Biliban, but our key aesthetic has always been Eyvind Earle. We mentioned Sleeping Beauty a lot because that's what our audience would recognize, but if you look up his personal works you see how do a lot more mature looking artwork closer to the sources that you've mentioned. I think a lot of art from the era has interesting similarities across several different cultures.
Why vikings? How did you come up with the theme? Why do you find it fascinating?
We knew we had a great story set in a fantasy world but we wanted to avoid the generic elves, orcs and dragons. Our art director, Arnie Jorgensen, comes from a family history of vikings and it was something we both have a lot of interest in. It seemed like a natural fit and was an untapped source of great ideas that haven't been overdone is games already.
You know, I've tried counting all of the authentic (more or less) works about vikings and fingers on my two hands were just enough to do it. Do you think the reason that this theme is unpopular is that gamers just don't seem to be interested in it? Do you intend to popularize the Nordic culture with the help of The Banner Saga? By the way, did other works of the same theme such as «When the Ravens Fly» or «In the Shadow of the Raven» inspire you in any way?
Honestly, we're not sure why there aren't more viking-themed games. Maybe publishers won't fund a viking game because the ones in the past weren't a huge success, so they're unwilling to take a chance on it. I feel like every person we've talked to and who backed our Kickstarter is a huge fan of the game being viking-themed, so it seems to me that there definitely an excitement for it. In media, I haven't seen «Ravens Fly» or «Shadow» myself, but some of the few popular things we have include a comic series called Northlanders and a movie called «Valhalla Rising», which is definitely something you should go into watching as an art film but one I highly recommend.
Not only the topic is unpopular, but you also chose to use a realistic design — there are no horned or winged helmets and other popular clichés. Was that an intentional choice? Don't you think that audience would more appreciate Odin riding Sleipnir striking Fenrir with Gungir and taking an army of warriors out of his pocket?
Hmm, maybe. I guess it comes down to the fact that we don't know what a large audience would prefer, and we don't have the marketing budget to study this sort of thing. The decision to make the world closer to a realistic way vikings would live is that it was the story we wanted to tell, and we stuck to our gut instinct on this one. As a writer I find it very exciting to be able to work on something that feels fresh and ripe for new ideas and themes.
Could you share some details on the story in The Banner Saga? As far as I understand, the events will take place after the Ragnarok happened, gods and chtonic creatures demised, in the world, populated by descendants of Lif and Lifthrasir, protected by the few survived young gods. What could possibly go wrong in a world like this? Where is menace coming from this time?
For one, we've done a lot of research on real-world viking culture, but this has inspired our original take on the world. Instead of a game with real-world viking lore, we wanted to use their themes in a way that won't be predictable for someone very familiar with the culture. The idea of Ragnarok was integral to their mythology, and in The Banner Saga they believe this even already happened, and that's why the gods are dead. The vikings who survived were now left to wonder why they survived. However, what threatens them now is something that looks like a second Ragnarok coming, and that's the biggest mystery of the game. Is this meant to be the doom of man, or is this something else? The majority of the story revolves around this event.
The story is going to advance via gameplay elements such as taking over or losing cities, victories and defeats in battles, your army's structure, etc. How is it going to look like in the end? Gameplay events could start repeating themselves after all. And you even stated that this approach to storytelling is more convenient than classic story branching. Isn't that a bit too complicated? From the developers' perspective, that is. Or you'll end up simply sending players on numerous missions and that'll be the end of?
The core gameplay of the single player game has less focus on managing large armies and taking over cities. Instead, you'll have a huge caravan of peasants traveling with you, and your combat teams will be relatively small. One of the more exciting aspects of the game to me is that you'll hop between different groups of people experiencing different parts of the same event, on the same timeline. The timeline is the important feature, in that the decisions you make don't change the whole world around you, but change how you experience the world. Things happen whether you are there or not, and you might be able to influence them. This lets us create a single storyline without over-complicating the story, but still gives players the sense of involvement. Multiple playthroughs should produce very different results.
Speaking about advantages of your storytelling approach — you've mentioned a BioWare-style dialogues. So all the chit-chat between the characters in The Banner Saga isn't just a formality? Or are the dialogues going to be purely diplomatic, letting you avoid few battles or recruit new units?
The story will be driven by dialogue, similar to a BioWare-style game. However, we personally don't care for the player making a choice on every line of dialogue. It produces a ton of work for the developers, and because most options don't have any real affect on the game, players quickly learn that their decisions don't matter. Instead, we're taking a cue from games like The Witcher where you only make decisions in conversation when they really matter, or have a significant impact on the story. To that end we try to keep have at least one choice per conversation and we're currently working through making them as dynamic as possible.
You know, the more I think about the concept of The Banner Saga, the more I get the feeling that there's simply no place for a player himself, and his role in the game is limited to simply watching all these astonishing cutscenes. It's not like this, is it? Is it even possible to avert the upcoming new Ragnarok?
How do you know that saving the world is something you're supposed to do? The main character, a mid-50's hunter named Rook, has a young daughter who stays with him throughout the journey. Wouldn't it be equally important to be give her hope and try to survive together? One of the things that inspired us to make this game was the ability to take risks that bigger companies can't afford to take. What if you can't save the world? There will be endings that are real endings in which you fail, but it's not the wrong ending, it's just what happened. Is there any way to «win» the game and save everyone? Maybe not. Maybe saving the world ends up being worse than the alternative. We hope the story feels organic in a way that players don't already know the outcome before they've even played the game.
And another thing that worries me — you're planning to release the game as three consecutive chapters. Are the chapters going to represent a complete separate story each, or are we going to see this discouraging «To be continued…» after finishing the first chapter? And will the actions we take during one of the chapters reflect in the next one and how?
That's true, we've broken up the story into three parts. The scope for the original game was much bigger and more ambitious than we knew we could afford to do. Instead of shrinking it and cutting a lot of what we think makes the story worthwhile in the first place, we found natural archs in the story that make compelling stopping points. The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy tied together by a larger over-arching story, and that's not an uncommon feature in literature. Each of the three games deals with an important, and different aspect of the coming apocalypse while the trilogy as a whole resolves the conflict in one way or another. We always knew there was a chance we wouldn't be able to make more than the first part of the trilogy but we thought it would be better to shoot for the moon than not even try.
As far as we know, in The Banner Saga aside from an outside enemy we will have to confront a menace from within — all those conflicts between clans and factions in the player's army and their confronting demands. It is a great idea, but we afraid it might turn into thoughtless management like The Sims. We won't have to bother with never-ending whining of capricious children our subordinates might turn into, will we?
Something that was important to us in the design of the story was that it doesn't feel like you are a god commanding legions of people to do your bidding. Usually you're just a guy and you're making decisions that you think are best for you, your family and your kin, but they have their own needs and desires. The game plays on a personal level, not a top-level commander level. You're not supposed to control the people traveling with you, instead react to the way things are happening, and make the decisions that feel right to you. In a lot of ways this is similar to the gameplay in King of Dragon Pass, a huge influence for us, in which you have some influence over what happens and what you do, but how people and the world react to your decisions are their own.
Let's talk more about realism in The Banner Saga, but not visual this time. I understand desire to make the game more «human», real and less heroic, but, to be honest, I wasn't really pleased to hear that game aesthetics will resemble those of «The Game of Thrones». It's a pretty worn trend now. Were you aiming for it or just accidentally put your finger on it? And how do you like this brutal and realistic, even depressing, approach to fantasy and mythological themes in the popular culture these days? Why is it important for The Banner Saga in particular?
Our biggest nod to Game of Thrones is that it isn't about one person, or even one group of people. Like I mentioned earlier, you'll be hopping between a couple different groups of characters, which is something you don't see too often in games. It actually used to happen more often in older RPGs like Final Fantasy 3, and is a great way to show different perspectives on the same storyline and world. As for a brutal and depressing approach to storytelling, I think like any good story it's a matter of balance. A pessimistic view of a game world in which everyone is dead and dying, and a very positive sort of «of course we'll save everyone and the world will find peace» story can both be obnoxious. We'll try to find a good balance.
Shortly after the start of The Banner Saga campaign, you've announced Banner Saga Factions, a multiplayer branching off the main title. How did you come up with the idea to release a standalone multiplayer module? Wouldn't it be easier to implement an online-capability to The Banner Saga? Will the Factions have its own unique features or is it just going to be The Banner Saga without storyline? Are we going to see a global map or settlements development in Factions or is it going to be limited to battles only?
This was something we thought about a lot. By releasing the multiplayer first, we'd have a playable version of the game that our backers could enjoy while we continued to produce the single player game. In essence, it would let us roll out content, get feedback and make the backers happy while we continue to produce the game. It really spawned from just this simple concept. Without a marketing budget, it also would be a way to keep the community engaged in the project and eventually let non-backers see and try out the game. Lastly, and maybe the most important aspect, was that putting a multiplayer game behind a pay wall is how small games die in this modern era of gaming. Without support from millions, the multiplayer would be a ghost town within a month of release and there seemed to be no good reason to do this.
Factions will have a ton of content when it launches, all from the single player game, and as we continue to make content for the Saga we'll add it to Factions for people to enjoy. This means more classes, AI for computer-controlled opponents, items, combat maps and everything else we need to finish the single-player game. Basically it's just a free look into the game as we develop it, so check it out and see what you think.
Have you settled down on platforms yet? The game is approved for PC, Mac (as well as iOS devices for Factions). But you also mentioned PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Android devices, iOS for Saga and even Vita. Are you planning to release the game on all of the platforms? Or are you going to decide depending on how well the game is going to sell? By the way, speaking of Android devices — wouldn't it be a good idea to release the game on Ouya console, which was also funded on Kickstarter?
We originally planned to release the for the PC and Mac. The extra kickstarter funding allowed us to branch out to Linux, PSN, XBLA and iOS (we never mentioned Android or Vita, except to say we'd like to port there someday). The ports will be happening after launch, and depending on how it sells we'll see about other platforms. As for Ouya, we'd be interested in that as well, but we'll have to wait until it's actually built before we make any announcements. It all depends on demand.
You've managed to get Austin Wintory involved and contracted Australian sound-recording studio Kpow Audio. It is evident that you're not indiffirent to how the game is going to sound like. How important is the soundtrack for The Banner Saga?
Sound and music were the two things that were going to suffer without funding, since none of our core team has done these things professionally. We were prepared to make a go at it ourselves, but when we ended up with additional funding this was one of the first things we really wanted to get some professional help on. At the time we had all just played Journey and we were blown away by the haunting melodies and attention to detail Austin Wintory put into his work. We contacted him and were very surprised to learn that he'd be just as interested in working us! I think we have very similar outlooks on the purpose and potential of games, and we're going to benefit immensely from his help. Kpow contacted us during the Kickstarter campaign with a beautiful description of how they would approach the sound in the game, and we knew they'd be the right ones to work with immediately. So far we couldn't be happier with both of these things.
Thanks a lot for the interview and good luck!
Thanks a lot!
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