The Banner Saga 'in the vein of Game of Thrones;' Kickstarter launching soon
On February 29, new indie developer Stoic Studio announced its first title: a strategic, turn-based role-playing game called The Banner Saga. Other than the fact that it features Vikings--an automatic plus, in our book--The Banner Saga promises a hybrid of deep tactical combat and conversation-based RPG elements. It's all wrapped in a very cool hand-drawn art-style that's reminiscent of the classic works of Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth, but has an identity all its own.
I contacted Stoic's Creative Director, Alex Thomas, to find out some more information about The Banner Saga's concept, development, and gameplay. He and the other Banner Saga developers--all former Star Wars: The Old Republic developers--are bringing a wealth of experience to the project, which they're billing as a mature story for "thoughtful adults."
The Banner Saga will blend tactical, turn-based combat with BioWare-like cinematic dialogue sequences and RPG elements, all wrapped in a mini-series based on Vikings. "One of our major goals for The Banner Saga was the opportunity to do a mature game for adults in the vein of Game of Thrones or The Black Company," Thomas said. "When we say it's a mature story, we want the player to understand it's about cultural intrigue and the relationships between the characters, not sex, swearing and violence. It's also not about high fantasy and dragons and magic, and it's not about black and white, good versus evil."
Most of us can agree that Vikings are a great choice of focus, and I asked Thomas how that was decided. "We really love the visual themes, history and mood of their culture and (pre-Skyrim) it was rare to see them in games, especially the role-playing variety," Thomas said. "We knew we wanted a fantasy setting, but desperately wanted to avoid the very overdone 'elves, dwarves and orcs' dynamic."
As is true of most independent developers with AAA studio experience, there are comparative advantages and disadvantages to going indie. "The resources you have on a large team are invaluable, and being able to talk to an expert in almost any field is something you can't overestimate," Thomas said.
That said, such a large-scale studio can run into agility-related issues when it comes to developing a title. "Once you reach a certain number of employees or try to make a game with a high degree of complexity, you lose the ability to be agile and create unique content," Thomas explained.
"In a small studio, it might take an artist one day to design and animate a 2D sprite. On a complex project that same character could require a concept pass, an art review, a character model, unwrapping, texturing, high poly normal map pass, outsourcing, feedback, rigging, animating, custom lighting, another art review and then a half dozen more revisions by the end of production, which could take up to a month across a half dozen employees. On the other hand it'll look a lot more like a modern 3D game, which a lot of people have come to expect. It's all about finding a balance and doing what's best for the game you're making."
The Banner Saga also touts some role-playing elements, and I asked Thomas just how robust that aspect of the game will be, and what sort of elements it will include. In particular, I asked him how decisions made during the conversational parts of the game will affect the overall experience.
"One of the first things anyone who has worked on a game with "real choices" will tell you is that it's expensive," he said. "Just imagine a simple conversation with one branching option. Now you've got to write two outcomes. If it branches again, now you've quadrupled your work and you have to track all those new variables. That's just one conversation."
"Some games deal with this by creating false choices that all loop back to one point, but that's still a ton of content to produce," Thomas said. "Instead of taking the approach of giving the player a choice for every sentence, we thought it would be more meaningful to only present you with a choice when it's important, similar to The Witcher."
Thomas also said that the story of The Banner Saga centers around a "world-changing event," but unlike a lot of other RPGs, players won't be assuming the roles of what Thomas calls "The Only Ones That Can Do Anything."
"The choices you make affect who lives, who dies, and the relationships between the characters. It's not just about saving the world; it's about what happens to the people you care about, and what's worth saving," he said. "What you say in conversation can absolutely affect how often combat occurs or how difficult it is. We'll be talking a lot more about this as we continue to develop the single-player campaign."
Much of the detail about The Banner Saga's tactical combat system is still under wraps for now, but Thomas did share some general information about what Stoic hopes to achieve. "It's not a major shift from the genre, but we've done something that feels fresh and unique," he said. "We're not going to make it impenetrable for new players, but for people who really want strategy in their games, they'll find a lot of depth here. I think even hardcore gamers will be surprised that they can't just brute-force their way through a fight; it requires some finesse.
"Think of it like DoTA for the turn-based crowd, but instead of controlling one character you build a deck of characters with abilities that complement each other," he said. "We've played a lot of nail-biting multiplayer games against each other so far that make me think people will really dig it."
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As you can tell from The Banner Saga's official announcement trailer above, the hand-drawn style of the art calls to mind certain classic animated films. After pouring through numerous stylistic possibilities, Thomas explained how the team finally settled on the game's visual direction. "The one [example] that really stood out to us was Disney's Sleeping Beauty. The art director for that movie was American artist Eyvind Earle, who--besides Sleeping Beauty--has a vast library of paintings in his own style," said Thomas. "Once you're familiar with it you'll start to see his influence in a lot of things, even games like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery.
"Other artists, like Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth, were big influences to all of us growing up as well," Thomas said. "This was another decision where we realized it would never be approved by a big publisher and we just had to go for it."
In another interesting twist, Stoic will be releasing The Banner Saga's turn-based combat as a free, stand-alone experience for PC and Mac, prior to the completion and release of the full game. "We felt like the combat was really fun and couldn't really think of a great reason not to release it as a standalone," he said. "If you don't have marketing dollars, you've got to make your game available in some way as soon as possible and let people talk about it. So basically we've taken our turn-based combat, broken it out of the full game and will be making it free to play on PC and Mac, while we continue to develop the first part of our single player campaign," he extrapolated.
This free pre-release build of the game will support single-player and multiplayer, and will include all of the classes that have been developed to that point. The single-player version of the early release is even getting a narrative component. "As we continue to work on the single-player game, we'll release new content to the multiplayer standalone," Thomas said. "We've also got big plans for future crossover between our multiplayer and single-player releases, as they both persist in the same world."
As a self-professed fan of turn-based strategy games, I asked Thomas how he felt about the decline in popularity of the genre over the past several years. He astutely equated the notion to what's been going on with the classic adventure game genre.
"This reminds me of a quote I heard from Ron Gilbert very recently, which I tend to agree with. To paraphrase, he thinks the audience has stayed about the same size, but there's been a much larger audience forming around other genres like first-person shooters. Of course, he was talking about adventure games but I think the same holds true for classic turn-based games. As a small developer we can afford to put some innovation into each of the gameplay systems we're creating, but we realize at the core of the issue there's just a smaller market for what we're making. Our priority is to make a modern, attractive, meaningful experience in a new world, for those players who are going back to play Final Fantasy Tactics for the ninth time. What makes it possible is that we don't have to sell millions of copies to be a success."
Stoic Studio isn't just a random clutch of inspired unknowns. Alex Thomas, Arnie Jorgensen, and John Watson all previously worked together on Star Wars: The Old Republic for five years, an experience that Thomas describes as "immeasurable."
"John, who is creating all the tech for The Banner Saga, was the lead combat programmer on SW:TOR," Thomas said. "Arnie's experience as the lead concept artist translates perfectly into making a 2D game where his artwork becomes the actual game," he continued.
As for Thomas, himself: "My time on design and cinematics gave me a lot of experience on just how to make dialogue that branches, and once you know how it works you realize it's nowhere as easy as you'd think," he noted, explaining that shared development experience is what's making development of The Banner Saga as an independent effort possible.
As mentioned before, The Banner Saga's turn-based-combat component will be released prior to the full game as a free stand-alone for PC and Mac for "a very reasonable indie-sized price." The full version of The Banner Saga's first chapter is also planned for PC and Mac initially, and then Stoic says it will port the game to "as many platforms as we can afford after that."
Thomas also informed us that a Kickstarter campaign for The Banner Saga is expected to launch soon, for those interested in contributing to the game's development.
A Viking winter.