As you may have heard us tease yesterday, today is the big unveiling of our nearly hour-long interview with the Stoic team on Banner Saga. Last week, we ventured into the Apple product dominated den of Stoic located behind a local pub in what is a little larger than my apartment’s bedroom studio. Ignore the size and the lavish environment, what is important is the team inside it. So join us on our rather relaxed, beer laden, Viking ridden, discussion on Banner Saga after the jump.
Justin Lowe: First off, give us a brief explanation of who you are and what you do on Banner Saga.
Arnie Jorgensen: I am Arnie Jorgensen. I am the art director at Stoic, and I do most of the art, if not all of it, but back and forth a little bit with Alex. I do a mass majority of the 2D art.
Alex Thomas: I am Alex Thomas. I am the creative director at Stoic. That means I do everything that Arny is not – the design, the writing, and managing all the animators of which we have a lot of animation we have to do.
Jeff Uriarte: I am Jeff Uriarte. I am a programmer. I work on our toolset; I am currently doing AI and gameplay features.
Brian Mumm: I am Brian Mumm. I am helping these guys out with their UI programming, and after that just miscellaneous programming.
Justin Lowe: I would like to lead into how your career lead you to this point (from Star Wars: The Old Republic), starting up the studio, deciding on this project, and why you chose to move to the independent scene.
Arnie Jorgensen: I started going to college for illustration, but then I kind of fell into comics. I did comics for years for Marvel, DC, Image, Malibu, and all the big comic companies. After that, I got into games by Ion Storm, which was opening up a comics division in Dallas, so I kind of got in on that, and eventually just became a concept guy. I moved from Dallas down to Retro Studios and that is how I got to Austin. From Retro, I went to Sony, and worked on Star Wars Galaxies for almost five years. Then I went on to work with BioWare, and we did not even know it was a Star Wars game at the time, and I was kind of laughing like, “Oh my gosh! I’m back on Star Wars!” when we finally got the IP.
I did that for over five years. By that point, I really liked BioWare and Star Wars is an okay IP. I had just been in big development for so long that it was becoming quickly not what I pictured developing games being like. When you are a kid you wanted to design games and have fun with your friends and roll dice and making stuff up, but it is nothing like that in games. You do your bit and you go home at night. It just becomes a job. On big game development, it is big business. After a little while, almost six years on SWTOR actually, I remember at one point I said, “I’m going to do something different.” I went to Alex one day and said, “Let’s do something different. I just got this new crazy thing called an iPad. Look at the children’s books on this!” So we’re both looking at the children’s books on it and we both have kids. After looking at it, he went out the same day and bought an iPad. So we went off, and made a children’s book while we were still working at BioWare, and we actually did quite well.
Out of 90,800 something books on the iPad, we did a book called Dinoboy, which turned out to be the number 14 bestseller out of that 90,000, but there is no money in children’s books. So we said let us switch gears and do something else. We said, “You know what is really fun that we always love to do that does sell? Games!” To do that, we had to quit BioWare. To do that, it took us some months to get everything in order and leave a big company like that, and start our own thing. That was real motivation; we wanted to do our own game, our way, which is why we said we are really trying to not go the funding route. Kickstarter was a real blessing because these people are motivated, they are giving you money, but we do not have to answer to some council that is holding the purse strings. I think that I have always wanted to do independent gaming, but it took this long to do it. I really did not know I wanted to do it. We could not have done it without working at those big companies. We would not know what we know now. Even now, it is difficult, but that was it for me.
Alex Thomas: Even 10 years ago, if we did have the experience, we could not have done it, because there just was not the support in place to let small studios self-publish on something like iPad or iPhone.
Arnie Jorgensen: You could not go directly to the consumer, except for just very recently. That is really revolutionary for companies like ours that don’t want to a box on a shelf and fight for shelf space with big companies. You can now go directly to the consumer, which is just freaking awesome. So yeah, we could not have done it before.
Alex Thomas: I started in the industry straight out of college, and I got a job offer. Not just about of the blue, I was actively seeking one. I got really lucky, so I took that about 10 years ago. I was at a studio called Wolfpack, at the time they were making Shadowbane. I worked there a long time. I had a few in between places that never produced a game because that is pretty common and then I ended up at BioWare. When I started at BioWare, it was fantastic; it was the best developer I could possibly hope to work for. They had just made Mass Effect 1 and they made KOTOR in the past, and Dragon Age: Origins was just coming out, and that was incredible. I was really happy to be there, and I’m still really happy with all the time that I spent there, but eventually, like Arnie was saying, it’s every developer’s dream to make their own game.
SWTOR was winding down, getting ready to ship, and the timing on that was just right for that. Forming a team is the hardest part of making an indie studio because you need to have everybody who can cover everything, and we were very lucky to have exactly that between the three of us. I think it was just the right time to do it. It was all of our dreams to make our own product and benefit from making your own product. It is great to work in a large studio, but you do lose and sense of ownership. After a while, you do feel like a cog in a machine. Doing this is actually a lot like going back to my first job, which to me was the most fun, as a small studio trying to start up.
Arnie Jorgensen: I think the interesting story of why we wanted to do this, was to be able to find three guys, like Alex and I were into this before contacting John, and then John got into too. To actually find three developers that were willing to leave a company, (this is while SWTOR was still in full swing, by the way), and all of us say, “You know what? Let’s just put up our own money.” That is very difficult to do, and that is what I am still surprised about, is that we could find three guys that could all agree to put up our own money and do this ourselves. So far, it has worked really well.
Justin Lowe: What about you two (Jeff and Brian)? How did you get into the industry? What drove you to come onboard for Banner Saga?
Jeff Uriarte: I have been playing games since I was about 11 and I was programming and kind of knew that was where I was going to end up. I got in originally through the edutainment path. So I have been in the industry for about 16 years now and I did a lot of console sports games and came out to Austin to work at Origin. From there I went to Sony and then to Vigil. A while later, John, who I knew from Sony, mentioned he was working on this project and I knew it was an opportunity I could not pass up.
Brian Mumm: As for me, I have been in the industry for about five years. I did some startup studios after college and that kind of fell through. At that point, I was looking for a job and I ended up landing at a government contractor studio that made games to compete with America’s Army, more hardcore, serious games that have technology to put into their simulations to train soldiers. I did that for a little while and got the opportunity to work at BioWare. Of course, I jumped at that. At BioWare, I worked with John Watson a lot for a long time. Some time after, I was hit in the second round of layoffs at the studio and as soon as I heard these guys were looking for someone, I jumped on board.
Justin Lowe: So, what is Banner Saga?
Alex Thomas: The problem with that question is that Banner Saga is kind of complex; not in a pretentious way, but you cannot just say that it is a genre. We had a story idea and that was the kernel of it. Arnie and I were talking about it and thought, “This is a really cool idea and it would work with turn based strategy.” So we started looking at how we could integrate combat with the story. In most turn-based strategy, you play through a series of maps, there is not much interaction, it is somewhat dull, and no one cares about the story anyway. We wanted to focus on the tale that we were telling. So we were thinking, “What could we do to make it interesting, make you invested in the people that are in your caravan and civilization?”
The story is about the end of the world. The end of the world happened and the gods died, but the people that they created are left. So they are very confused. They do not know what happened or what is going to happen. They do not know what that means about the afterlife. There is another event happening that looks like another Ragnarok. Maybe this one is for them; they do not know. So they’re all scared, they don’t know what’s happening, and they have to travel to constantly escape this rolling wall of darkness. The inspiration came from The NeverEnding Story, like how the nothing was coming and sweeping up everything behind it. It is kind of a similar thing. A large part of the story is the mystery of what is causing it, what exactly it is, and how they can reverse it. Can they reverse it?
We questioned what kind of combat could encompass that idea. Turn-based strategy worked for us, but it could not be the only thing that happened. We came up with a travel mode that is sort of like a moving King of Dragon Pass, if you have ever played that. It is also like an advanced Oregon Trail, which many people are familiar with. We both had the idea that you are rolling along with your entire civilization. Events are happening and you have to deal with these problems. Instead of “billy bob broke a leg,” it is “these people in your caravan have a problem,” and there is multiple choice. Do you get involved? Do you let it sort itself out? That affects the makeup of your caravan. Along the way you can get into points where the main story kicks in, there’s events that happen as you’re going along, and how you deal with them affects what happens further down the road. That integrated pretty well with the idea of small combat. We kept building up back and forth on these ideas, and one would influence the other. Both systems would feel like things that you do in travel change what happens in combat, and vice versa. That was the crux of our concept for the game.