On March 19th, 2012, a team of three developers formerly from Bio-Ware put up a new Kickstarter campaign for a small, indie game called The Banner Saga. 20,000 backers and $700,000 later, it was 7 times over its asking amount, and one of the most successful projects ever kickstarted, putting Stoic Studios well on the map. Today, Alex Thomas, the Creative Director of Stoic Studios, found time to speak with about the process.
He2etic: When people think of making video games, being the creative director is often considered an absolute dream position. What are some of the realities and challenges you face in your position that you didn’t expect to?
Alex: Ah, well I think when you’re in the position you realize what a farce job titles are, especially in a small company. Yeah, I’m the designer, but I’m also the writer and the animator, and the marketing department, and the scripter and QA and producer. On top of that, the art director is also a designer, and the technical director is a designer and the composer is a designer, and so on and so forth.
I’ve definitely noticed that the game gets better the more loosely I hold onto the reins. Basically, you take the good ideas wherever they come from and argue against the bad, especially if they were your bad ideas. Letting go of “ownership” is important.
At the end of the day, nobody cares if your wife’s brother’s uncle came up with the best idea in the game, they just know whether they like the game, and that reflects on you more than anything else.
“Branching content is one of the banes of storytelling. We have over 20 “main” characters and almost all of them can die, leave or take actions on their own that you may not agree with.”
As for the hardest thing about it, it’s definitely restraining yourself. Everybody making a game wants to make the best thing ever. Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard. It’s very tempting, especially on a first project, to go completely overboard trying to prove yourself.
That’s not to say you start chopping good design, it’s just that you have to know when the game stops being a tight, well-made package and sprawls into an unwieldy abomination. Sounds easy, but… it’s the hardest part. That, and making something that’s fun. The line between fun and frustrating/boring can be razor thin.
He2etic: Where did the idea for a game built around viking mythology originate from?
Alex: It’s interesting, we get asked a lot “why vikings”, but it really wasn’t something we belabored.
We wanted to make a fantasy game and we didn’t want to rehash orcs, elves and dwarves. Arnie’s family history is Scandinavian and when he suggested vikings we both went “yeah, great!”. That was the extent of it.
As for the inspiration, I did imagine the game to be medieval European at an early stage, because of influences from stories like Game of Thrones and The Black Company, and that deep-seated familiarity with The Lord of the Rings that I think everybody tries to separate themselves from.
I think the viking angle lets us take those inspirations and make them feel new and interesting. I’ve also been hugely inspired by The Wire, which I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in saying is one of the best TV series ever made, and The NeverEnding Story, oddly enough (not that there’s two “worlds” influencing each other, but the tone of the fantasy parts is pretty great).
“The challenge, but also the pleasure, is in giving the player a little bit a direction and letting them really identify with the characters on their own terms, instead of forcing them to. That’s pretty unique to games.”
The biggest takeaway from these things is that I wanted to have a huge cast of characters that come and go in unexpected ways. Not many games can get away with the big cast, but I think it’s what makes these stories so compelling.
You need to see things from multiple perspectives, and have people to hate and cheer for who aren’t static, and have their own motivations and desires. We can afford to have a character leave the party because he doesn’t like what you did. And by “what you did”, I mean a decisions you made, not a linear cutscene.
That’s something that most games could never do, and I think that’s the rabbit we’re chasing with The Banner Saga.
He2etic: Game stories frequently differ from movies, television and the majority of books for their ability to diverge into multiple story paths. What kind of challenges do you face developing a tale that splits into differing possibilities?
Alex: Branching content is one of the banes of storytelling. It’s time consuming, expensive, and inevitably means that one player sees the “optimal” story while others will see the “low content” or “low effort” version.
You can’t have big divergences in the story that are both equally good. Would a version of Star Wars where Solo dies in the cantina be as good? A good story usually builds on itself, and if you’re yanking out the foundation left and right the whole thing falls apart.
In that regard I think we don’t try to write a game that is divergent on every level. The team on The Witcher 2 did crazy amounts of content to ensure that one specific decision played out completely different than another. It was a single major branch that was an enormous amount of effort, and I doubt most players appreciated it at all, or even knew about it. They probably assumed it didn’t matter. Could the game had been better if that effort was put toward a single storyline instead? These are rhetorical of course, I can’t speak for The Witcher.
“We decided to build vertically instead of horizontally… The game is much longer than we originally anticipated, but the lion’s share of funding has gone toward quality.”
What we’re doing is similar to The Walking Dead. There is one critical path through the game, but what happens to the people around you is what is important.
At the risk of getting philosophical, isn’t that kinda how life goes? Do you remember what you did or how you felt about what you did? How you feel by the end is what matters for us, and that could be very different from someone else, even though the “main events” didn’t diverge. We have over 20 “main” characters and almost all of them can die, leave or take actions on their own that you may not agree with. Or survive the whole thing and be your favorite character.
Those are two very different outcomes that don’t make our work load impossible. Our biggest challenge has been to make sure the player feels that these events are fair, and the results are not random and unpredictable.
He2etic: It’s pretty common for creative people to have more ideas than they could fit into the final product. Were there any innovations you regret not having the time, finances or technical expertise to include in Banner Saga?
It would be pretty insane for us to say that we didn’t have the finances or time to do what we wanted with the game. Our Kickstarter raised 700% more funding than we asked for, and as a result we’ve so far gone about 6 months over (the original, admittedly naive) launch date.
We decided to build vertically instead of horizontally, meaning that we dramatically improved the quality of all our content instead of the breadth. The game is much longer than we originally anticipated, but the lion’s share of funding has gone toward quality – better animation, better sound, better music, better story.
If I did have one regret, it would be the lack of voice acting. We knew going in that a game with several dozen important characters would cost far beyond our budget, even with major over-funding. That kind of thing can cost millions. Maybe we’ll be able to shoe it in for a special edition in the future? My hope is the writing is good enough to keep people engaged, even without voice overs.
He2etic: What’s it like developing characters for Banner Saga? Is it a unique challenge to develop characters that are not only entertaining but functional and interactive to the player?
Alex: Character development is pretty much my favorite thing to write, ever, so I’m completely in heaven having such a large cast of personalities all to myself. The incredible thing about games, in my opinion, is that the player can form attachments to things that aren’t scripted. Everything in a book or film has to be fed to the viewer in the hope that they buy into it and go along with your vision. In games, people may become attached to a guy because he has a higher damage output than the rest, or he’s always the last one standing in battle.
The challenge, but also the pleasure, is in giving the player a little bit a direction and letting them really identify with the characters on their own terms, instead of forcing them to. That’s pretty unique to games. Fire Emblem Awakening is an interesting example in which you have a huge cast of characters that can form relationships and even marry each other, which also gives them combat bonuses.
We aren’t going that far (it is the time of Ragnarok, after all), but I think it speaks to the player’s desire to create relationships, or be involved in them.
With a large cast, I also get to make a wide range of personalities and let the player decide who they like. The writer can’t always predict what’s going to click with the audience. Tali from Mass Effect, for example. I just don’t get her appeal, but what kind of author would say that her fans are wrong?
He2etic: As a gamer, are there any games you consider so good or so classic, they should be “mandatory playing”?
Alex: Heh, this is one of those questions where I either look like I’m just lazily reciting the popular choices or I look like a pretentious snob. Maybe I’ll try to do both!
Let’s get the obvious ones out of the way. Shadow of the Colossus was the first game to make me feel like games could elevate themselves above fun time-wasters. I’m not sure how well it would hold up for Kids These Days, it may have no impact at all if you didn’t play it in the right time and place.
I have huge nostalgia for the classic turn-based strategy games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Shining Force. The Walking Dead, more recently, really impressed me with just how tight the storytelling and pacing was, which are massively important to emotionally engage a player. I think it finally nailed interactive storytelling from a cinematic perspective.
And playing through Journey is a good litmus test to see whether you’re dead inside or not. I also liked L.A. Noire more than most, because of the startling realization that about half way through the game your character has a runaway story arc that almost revels in not giving a crap about the player’s silly power fantasies. And that’s wonderful.
Ok, how about some obscure recommendations for that elitist indie cred? I always say Mount & Blade is my favorite game of all time, and this is still true, even though it has no story at all. It’s still the best emergent gameplay and combat that I’ve experienced, even though I understand if it doesn’t click with everyone.
Recently two story-driven games called The Yawhg and Save the Date really impressed me. I tend to consider a game pretty damn good if I keep thinking about it after I’ve finished it. If you’re into storytelling you should play them. One of my favorite developers right now is Blendo Games. Everything he makes is awesome, especially Thirty Flights of Loving, and another one coming out soon called Quadrilateral Cowboy. Short stories in video game format, who knew you could that?
Thanks for the amazing interview Alex! Be sure to check out Banner Saga when it comes out later this year! In the mean time, check out Banner Saga Factions, the multiplayer component available on Steam!