Banner Saga is back on Kickstarter for the third and final entry in Stoic’s epic turn-based strategy series. MCV catches up with technical director John Watson (pictured) to find out why the studio’s returned to crowdfunding and what lessons it’s learned over the last five years.
Stoic’s Banner Saga was one of the early Kickstarter success stories. Announced back in 2012 with a funding goal of $100,000, players flocked to this new turn-based strategy RPG in their droves, pledging over $720,000 by the end of its campaign and simultaneously securing the future of its intended sequel, Banner Saga 2.
With both games financed, Stoic’s future looked bright. However, after the second game struggled to match the sales figures of its predecessor, the studio realised just how big a role the community had played in getting the first title off the ground.
With the fate of the third and final game in the series now hanging in the balance, Stoic was determined not to let its past mistakes get the better of it, which is why it returned to Kickstarter last month to ask for $200,000 to help finish the development of the much-anticipated Banner Saga 3.
“When we were planning and prototyping the first Banner Saga, we saw Kickstarter as a great way of promoting our game and getting the word out,” Stoic’s technical director John Watson tells MCV.
“We also hoped to get a little cash to alleviate our biggest bottleneck, the animation work. We were expecting a much smaller amount of money, and were planning a smaller, more lo-fidelity game as a result. When the first Banner Saga Kickstarter was a success by over 720 per cent of our goal, our scope became larger and grander, and the project turned into the game we have today.”
However, this change in direction took its toll on Stoic, and the then-trio of former BioWare developers simply didn’t have the resources to give Banner Saga 2 the same kind of exposure.
“Banner Saga 1 exhausted us completely,” says Watson. “It was the hardest work we had ever done. It sold well, and we were focused on all the follow-on work.
“However, we let our community go pretty quiet during Banner Saga 2’s development, because we’re a very small team and every single member of staff was overwhelmed by the amount of work required. Our team was too small for anyone to have any bandwidth to plan and run a crowd-funding campaign while simultaneously doing development on the game.
Indeed, Watson says he continues to meet former Banner Saga players who have no idea a sequel even exists. “Banner Saga 2 launched well and was generally considered a superior game, but it’s had difficulty gaining awareness,” he admits.
“I meet people every week who played and loved the first Banner Saga but aren’t even aware that Banner Saga 2 has been released. Hopefully our current crowdfunding efforts [for Banner Saga 3] will help increase awareness.”
Watson’s plan seems to have worked, too, as Banner Saga 3 quickly met its funding goal in under a week. “Crowdfunding helps pull your audience together, creates buzz, and sometimes allows you to manufacture cool merchandise that would be too expensive to produce otherwise,” he says.
“I want to stress that an immense amount of behind-the-scenes work goes into planning and running a crowdfunding campaign, and that work continues for years after the campaign ends as well.
“We’ve been planning our current Banner Saga 3 Kickstarter for many months, and it’s been a full time job for several of us. I think that most people would be shocked at the amount of iteration, changing, reshuffling, and design work that goes into a crowdfunding campaign behind the scenes before it even opens to the public.”
Watson tells us Stoic did consider using private investment to help fund the series’ final chapter, but the studio eventually decided against it.
“We realised that it wasn’t a good fit,” he says. “More money will make the game better without a doubt, but will it really make the game more profitable? Probably not.
“Taking any kind of money will relieve some of the budget pressures we deal with on a daily basis, but with investment money you have to pay it back, normally at a three-times rate. So if we took $500k investment, we’re paying back $1.5m back in the end.
“If the game isn’t more profitable because of the investment, you’ve just undermined your ability to keep the studio running and making the next great game.”
This fear of undermining the studio is one of the main reasons Stoic chose to return to Kickstarter rather than launch the game on another crowdfunding platform, such as Fig.
“Fig.co is a great platform and we are friends with some of the people who run it. But for Banner Saga 3 we preferred to go with completely traditional crowdfunding and avoid taking investment money,” says Watson.
“One of our primary goals is to make all three games fit together relatively seamlessly, almost as one continuous game. Therefore, any changes to gameplay, mechanics, and scope must be considered carefully to keep the three games consistent and coherent with each other. We can’t just throw money at Banner Saga 3 and turn it into a totally different game, because then it wouldn’t match the others. Investment works better for a ‘blue sky’ new game where your direction and design isn’t yet fully formed.”
Watson says he also believes crowdfunding will continue to be a dominating force in indie development, despite the platform experiencing its first year of decline since it started in 2009.
“Crowdfunding will be around for a long time, even if it changes in scope and technique,” he says. “It is an excellent way for things to get made that would not otherwise exist. Banner Saga, really, is an improbable game.
"It is unique in many ways, and very expensive to make. The art and animation style are shockingly labor-intensive, making it an ‘impractical’ game from a development and business perspective. It’s unlikely that a risk-averse corporation would attempt such a thing, and it’s not the type of game that one would have made as a pure business decision.
“Our game would not exist in its current form without that original backing of crowdfunding. But now that the crowd has decided that this game should exist, it has had an impact on the game landscape. People frequently make comparisons of new games with Banner Saga, and several projects exist that are directly inspired by it.”
Needless to say, Watson’s been very pleased with how players have received Banner Saga 3, and he says the studio plans to keep them involved throughout the rest of its development.
“The reception has been very exciting and gratifying. People are ready to see the final act in this story, and we are anxious to tell it. We’ve been fortunate, during the entire five-year history of our studio, to have some of the best followers and fans.We’ll engage our community throughout development.
"One of the centerpieces of our Kickstarter campaign is the ability for backers to participate in limited alpha-testing of in-development battles, which we hope will provide a focus and motivator for continued interaction.”
He added: “We’ve really poured our blood, sweat, and tears into this series and seeing the entire three-act story completed and available for players will be an immensely satisfying moment. I hope that the series continues to astonish and delight people for years to come.”
MOBILE WARFARE: PAYING THE PRICE
While originally developed for PC, Stoic has also brought its Banner Saga games to mobile and consoles, spending over a year after the first game’s release supporting the porting process.
“We went quickly into mobile development, because we had kept touchscreen user interfaces in mind from the beginning and had set the technology up in a way to make it relatively straightforward.”
“Our console porting took much longer because a year into development, the porting team went out of business entirely, and we had to essentially start over with a new team. With Banner Saga 2’s technology re-use, we were able to launch on mobile and console much more quickly.”
Stoic chose to use a premium model for the mobile version of Banner Saga, but Watson says the team struggled to nail down an appropriate price: “We launched the mobile versions at a lower price, which I’m not sure was the correct choice.
"We launched the original Banner Saga for $10 (£7) on mobile, then one year later lowered the price to $5 (£3.99). The price lowering was attended by an increase in sales, so we interpreted that as meaning the correct price was $5.
“However, I believe by launching [Banner Saga 2] at $5 we kind of shot ourselves in the foot by undermining potential revenue from people who wanted the game no matter what. The $5 price is good for the long tail of sales perhaps. The game is obviously worth far more than $5, as the exact same game sells for $20 on other platforms.
“For our console launch [of Banner Saga 2], we participated in Xbox One Games With Gold during launch month, which resulted in a massive number of completely new players coming into the game. That is very exciting for us as we develop Banner Saga 3, and hope that all those new players will join us for the final chapter.”