Developer Interview: Stoic

As of July 26 this year, the epic Viking saga that began in January of 2014 came to a resounding, and deeply satisfying, close. Stoic released Banner Saga 3, the third and final installment to the beloved Banner Saga series, to a round of much-deserved critical acclaim. We spoke with Co-founder and Creative Director Arnie Jorgensen about what it means to have Banner Saga finally come to a close, and what we get to look forward to in the future from the supremely talented Stoic studio.

Stoic Logo

|| First things first. How does it feel to have finally brought Banner Saga series to an epic close? Are there mixed feelings of pride, satisfaction, and some sorrow, perhaps?

I think… yes. There are all those feelings right now. Mostly satisfaction and relief I think though. When we launched Banner Saga 1 we weren’t sure if there would be a community large enough to warrant another game in the trilogy. Thankfully there was and thankfully that community stayed around for the release of Banner Saga 3. I feel no sadness for having completed the story that we set out to finish and am happy we were able to finish it as we always intended.

|| Was Banner Saga always intended to be a trilogy? Was there ever a time where you thought more – or less – would be better?

Banner Saga was initially supposed to be one long story, but a friend talked us into dividing it up into 3 parts before we ran the first Kickstarter. Very happy they did or I don’t think we could have done the complete story, we’d have had to cut it to make it fit the development time. We did cut quite a bit of each game before launching, but did it to make the games more concise, tighter and I believe made them much better for having done so.

|| What inspired the masterful and sweeping side-scrolling landscapes that these titles are known for? Is it a lengthy process to create, and were there other media forms that helped you to conceptualize what you wanted the end result to be?

The look was very much based on Eyvind Earle’s art from “Sleeping Beauty” in particular and his other, more detailed personal work more generally. I’ve always wanted to simply exist in the world I saw in that film. Oddly when we first pitched the game in Kickstarter we weren’t going to be doing any big world travel scenes, the player’s icon was going to simply travel across a map until they dipped into a point of interest where they would see a brief travel scene before the next story point. But when we saw the Kickstarter response and all the people saying “I can’t wait to travel across that map!” we realized we needed to rethink the whole design to give the community the dream. Was a lot of work, but I’m really glad we did it.

|| What is the most rewarding part about having community launch parties for your games? We know that in August you celebrated Banner Saga 3 in Seattle. How was it?

We LOVE hanging out with our community! I’ve been at large companies before when communities can get a little sour about what we’ve created, but with the Banner Saga community it’s always been nothing but happy well wishes. Hanging out with them feeds the Stoic team’s excitement and this get-together was no different. We also used the time in Seattle to get our whole team together and pitch the next game and simply touch base to get to know each other. We have 2 studios, which we call the arts&sciences. The Austin team is all art and design and the Seattle team is all tech and business.

|| Vikings are in your past and your present. Will they be in your future? Stoic is known for Banner Saga, the RPG Viking epic. Can we expect more of the same to come, or will Stoic be looking in another direction for what lies ahead?

We’re still working on Banner Saga ideas! We’re currently neck deep in Survival Mode, a mode that’s all about fighting through Banner Saga 3 in back to back battles with different turn order mechanics and perma death… etc. After that we’ll be working on Eternal Arena, another battle mode where players can pick and choose how they set up their own battles, the enemies they fight and the heroes they use. It will also have a weekly tournament mode with rankings and leader boards.

But we’ve also got another team that’s been working for the last couple months on our next main game… it will be a totally new game style, world and art style. We’re extremely excited about it and can’t wait to show it to the community.

|| What is the most challenging aspect of producing a saga in three parts? We imagine it’s not easy to be working on the same saga for over four years.

The most challenging aspect was that this game needs to stay cohesive once all 3 chapters were complete to be absorbed as one long game. Many games that have a “part 2” totally rethink things like combat and other systems, but in Banner Saga all 3 games need to ramp up with new systems added that don’t make the old ones obsolete. When played back to back the entire trilogy will feel like a ramp up of systems that are added to support the storyline and that should feel really different and also enjoyable.

|| What is Stoic’s backstory as a studio? How did you develop, and did you know that Banner Saga series was what you wanted to produce right off the bat?

I was working at Bioware with my friends Alex Thomas and John Watson when the iPad came out. On the iPad was this totally cool game called Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery, and it was done by a small team. After working in large game development for 11 years we really wanted a change, so we determined to do a small game with just us, three guys. I was going to do all the art and music and Alex would do all the animation and design and John would do all the tech… etc. Well the Kickstarter we ran did FAR better than we could have imagined. We were thinking of asking $20k, but right before we went live this game called Double Fine Adventures came out and blew the lid off of the funding rules for Kickstarters. It brought a lot of people over and into the crowdfunding funnel and I guess we rode that wave. We ended up asking for $100k, thinking it was a gamble, but we ended up making $723k! We promised to use all the money we recieved to make the game better, so we continued to live on our own savings and deploy all the money to acquire professional outsourcers to help us. We hired the best in the business, from Powerhouse Animation, to KPow Audio, to Austin Wintory for music and even worked with Syrland Studio in Iceland to make the VO legit. The game got a whole lot bigger and a whole lot better because of Kickstarter. But the base game was designed for 3 guys to develop on a shoestring budget which is why we chose to do it first as a company, because we were a tiny outfit.

|| Banner Saga is all about personal journey. How did Stoic’s personal journey as a studio help to inform the branching paths Banner Saga offers players? The series is commendable in its ability to involve players on such a personal level that they feel distinctly responsible for end-game events. Is there a little bit of Stoic in Banner Saga anywhere?

When we talk about Banner Saga story it’s all about Alex Thomas. I read some of his work before we started this and I absolutely loved it, but here’s the thing… it was mostly all comedy! So when we set off to do a more mature storyline I just hoped he could pull it off, which he did in spades. As soon as I read the first few dialogues in the game I knew we had gold. Alex left after Saga 1 and Drew McGee took over the writing duties for Saga 2 and also knocked it out of the park. He even wrote like Alex, so many players had no idea that a different writer wrote the second game in the series. Alex came back for Saga 3 to finish the trilogy and here we are today.

We did make the characters people we, as older men, can empathize with. Rook is older with gray hair, he’s not some snarky teen. He’s got a daughter, like Alex has. Almost all the characters are older people with the same concerns we have about simply trying to get through life with our loved ones. The depth of the stories in Banner Saga are an offshoot of the emotions of someone midway through life, rather than a more surface view for a younger generation.