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Friday, November 23, 2012

Banner Saga Interview

Stoic Studios is a new Austin based indie development studio. They’ve been hard at work on their first release: the beautifully illustrated and Nordic themed tactical strategy game The Banner Saga. John Watson, Stoic’s Technical Director, has agreed to share some of the details with us.

Stoic is made up of ex Bioware employees. What made you decide to set out to create a game with deliberate, tactical turn-based combat at its core, so different from games like The Old Republic and other traditional Bioware staples?

There are definitely a couple reasons for this. The first is that I've been a huge fan of turn-based games growing up ever since Final Fantasy Tactics, so making a game like this has always been one of the things you work toward in your career. Conveniently, it's also a genre we can produce with a small team, but this really is a labor of love and I think most developers have a couple ideas that they always think "one day I'll make that". We've been incredibly lucky to be in that position.

You’ve stated that one of your goals with The Banner Saga’s single player component is to tell a mature story based around human (and giant) relationships and tough decisions.  How do you plan to get the player emotionally involved with the characters and their struggles?

One of the tricks we did pick up from BioWare is how to make compelling dialogue in a role-playing game. The story is largely conversation-driven, and when you talk to people it's in a cinematic, movie-quality sort of way, which works perfectly with our art style. You can see the person you're talking to look around, blink, breathing mist in the cold air, and it makes a big difference. The story we're writing is about connecting with these people who are traveling with you in a caravan, and that's our second key component. You're not just worried about being the lone hero saving the world, you're not just a team of heroes, you're actually traveling with an entire society of people and you get to know them as a whole along the way through lots of events, similar to King of Dragon Pass.

Combat looks highly tactical. For example balancing attacks between striking enemy armor to make them more vulnerable and striking enemy strength to weaken them offensively looks very important. Are there any other similarly cool and elegant systems you’re excited about?

Actually, yes, there are a couple things that are very exciting to me as a player and a designer. We originally set out to make a "simple to learn, hard to master" sort of game and found out that we had made something a lot more deep and complex than people expected. In fact, it's been difficult explaining the system as a whole because as you understand one system at a time it kind of peels layers away to a bigger picture, and we've been really focused making sure that players understand just to top level so far.

Willpower lets you add bonus points to your actions so you can do more damage or move further, but your pool of willpower is finite, making the use of it very strategic. Exertion determines how much willpower you can use on each turn, so you can throw three will into an attack to really cripple someone early. The tradeoff is that you have a limited number of upgrades when creating your character, so upgrading exertion and willpower means you'll have lower strength and armor. I think our greatest strength of design is that we've made every stat equally important even though they all do wildly different things.

One of the most important game changers is that each character moves according to his initiative but you always have a guaranteed turn, so as your characters die, you discover that your surviving characters act more frequently. At the end of a match if you're down to one powerful character in good health he could easily mop up an opponent who has four characters left, all on the verge of death. We've created a really unique system in which on top of all the decisions about hitting strength or armor, whether to add willpower and deciding when to use your abilities, it's also vitally important to know when to maim and when to kill. Sometimes it's better to leave an enemy with little strength than killing him outright, and knowing which is better becomes a skill within itself.

There are a lot of subtleties like this that emerge when you really get into playing the game that are hard to describe in a single sentence.

What’s been the biggest challenge so far in establishing an indie studio and creating Banner Saga? Have there been any positive surprises?

The biggest challenge by far has been promotion and dealing with large numbers of people interested in the game. It sounds weird to say but if you think about it, we have a lot of experience making games, and not much interacting with the public. Marketing has got to be at least 50% of your success, and if you don't have a budget for marketing you have to make all those connections yourself. That's why Kickstarter and Factions have been invaluable for us - it's insanely important that we foster a community and keep players happy, and it's hard work. I probably spend about half of my time producing updates, videos, interviews and talking to people. The rare occasion that we get to spend a whole day just working on the game is like relaxation.

If I had to pick something in production though, the clear winner is UI. With a relatively complex game your UI (user interface) and usability has to be perfect and we went through a lot of iteration to get it to the point where people can just sit down and figure out how to play the game without reading any guides. It's not a matter of making it looks pretty, but how do you present information in a clean and intuitive way that doesn't confuse or overwhelm the player. It's incredibly tricky.

The art and animation in this game is gorgeous. Aside from the obvious Norse and Scandinavian influences what sources did Stoic draw upon to create the world of Banner Saga?

Our biggest influence in the art style has always been Eyvind Earle, an American master painter and the art director on Sleeping Beauty. We take a lot of cues from that movie, in fact, often deciding that something we designed wouldn't fit in that world. We spent a lot of time early in the project researching different art styles and the second we saw Sleeping Beauty we knew that's what we wanted to do. Making a 2D game allows to make it look exactly how we paint it and create a look that many people have never seen before. It also helps that we have Arnie Jorgensen as Art Director, who has literally done all the non-animation art in the entire game. There aren't many people out there who can do what he does.

You’re releasing the combat engine as a free, stand alone multiplayer game: Banner Saga Factions. Any tips on emerging triumphant in battle?

Definitely. If you're just starting out, remember that knocking down armor, especially early in the game is probably even more important than damaging strength. Make some characters who are dedicated armor breakers and other characters who are good at doing strength damage. A well balanced team actually dominates min/maxing in The Banner Saga. And make sure you know how exertion works before hitting the battlefield! Each page has a question mark button that tells you how everything works. Good luck! 

For more information check out: http://stoicstudio.com

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.