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RPG Codex Interview: The Banner Saga, 2D Turn-Based Strategy RPG

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RPG Codex Interview: The Banner Saga, 2D Turn-Based Strategy RPG

Interview - posted by Crooked Bee on Sun 18 March 2012, 22:38:35

Tags: Alex Thomas; Kickstarter; Stoic Studio; The Banner Saga

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The Banner Saga -- a 2D turn-based tactical strategy/RPG hybrid currently being developed by Stoic Studio, a small team of ex-Bioware employees -- is about to go the crowdfunding way, with a dedicated Kickstarter page scheduled to be up tomorrow. The game got quite a few people excited over here already by its promise of turn-based tactical combat as well as by taking its inspiration from King of Dragon Pass, among other games.

Therefore it should come as no surprise that, before the launch of the Kickstarter campaign tomorrow, we've sent some questions over to Stoic Studio's Alex Thomas and he was kind enough to answer them for us, this interview being the result.

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Why did you leave a big company to go indie? How did the decision come about and what was particularly hard about it for you?

Alex Thomas: The honest truth of it is that we left the big budget scene because we'd been making other people's games for a long time and we wanted to make our own. I'm a huge proponent of getting as much experience as you can before setting off on your own, and working at established companies is, in my opinion, the best way to do it. I owe the chance to do this on the companies that have employed me over the last decade. I think both indie development and working on big, publisher-funded games are two sides of the same coin, but one of those things we had never gotten the chance to do before now.​

What were the most important lessons you learned while at Bioware, and how do they still apply?

AT: BioWare in particular was interesting because the scope of The Old Republic was so huge it was like nothing else we've ever worked on. The number of moving parts and moving targets involved in making something like that so complex that you can't help but absorb some really invaluable experience on both the best way to do some things and how not to do others. We learned how to do a lot of very specific things, like writing branching dialogue, and we know a lot about things you wouldn't necessarily think about, like scheduling and managing scope. Overall though, the most important (and hardest to describe) part of producing a game is an almost intangible appreciation for how every part of development has to come together to create a bigger picture. Pacing, mood and flow are all incredibly difficult things to nail and it takes a lot of error to finally get it right.​

As a newly formed independent company developing its first title, what is the biggest challenge you have faced so far?

AT: Oddly enough, we wildly underestimated the amount of time it takes just to talk about your game, make websites, make videos and all the promotion you need to do. We have a ton of experience doing actual production and are very confident in pulling that off, but all the promotional stuff is new to us. On the other hand, it's been amazing actually talking to people directly. When you work at a big company you're basically not allowed to talk to fans. A big publisher is literally worried that a post on a forum will result in bad press and eventually cost them money. I've personally gotten in trouble for some pretty benign comments in the past. It's been really refreshing to have the freedom to just talk about something you love.​

As a game designer, what do you think of the current state of the video game industry, and strategy/RPG industry in particular? Are there certain trends that are worrisome to you or, on the contrary, that you particularly appreciate?

AT: Well, one of the main reasons we decided to make a game was because one of my favorite genres has been disappearing lately- turn-based strategy in the style of Shining Force or FFTactics. In my opinion, the problem with giant AAA games has always been the inability to innovate, which got left to the startups and the indie games. Indie development, of course, can't afford to push the tech, the visuals and the complexity of big games like Skyrim. The fact that indie is becoming more and more viable while big publishers keep chugging along is fantastic because I think we're going to start seeing a lot more overlap between the two. I can't think of a more ideal situation. That said, it has been a little disappointing seeing such an overpopulation of shooters versus everything else. I like a good shooter as much as the next guy, I'm just looking forward to a little more balance in the genres that I think will slowly come back around.​

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Why did you choose to do a 2D turn-based tactical game, of all things?

AT: For The Banner Saga, a 2D turn-based tactical game made the most sense for a few reasons. With a small production team, 2D allowed us to produce a lot more content in less time and we're all big fans of classical animation. Turn-based strategy games are something that we're all passionate about, and it seemed to us like something we could find a good audience for, who didn't have many other options. But it really, truly always comes back to just being the exact game we want to make and play. That's why Double Fine's making an adventure game and inXile is making Wasteland 2. That's it.​

To what extent is The Banner Saga a strategy game and to what extent is it a role-playing game? Where do you see the line between the two genres?

AT: For the most part, I've always seen rpgs as always being a pretty equal mix of combat and role-playing. If you look back at games that we have nostalgia for like Baldur's Gate, Fallout, Bard's Tale; any of the classics, they had a pretty even ratio of adventuring to fighting. We wanted to get that same feel but have a more strategic combat system. Our travel system (the scenes from the video where a caravan moves across a landscape) is gameplay, and an extension of adventuring. During travel events will happen, sometimes leading to dialogue, and the decisions you make can come back and change things in the future, but can also bleed into what happens during combat. Picking up a band of warriors in your caravan can affect what happens in a fight. We're shooting for a balanced amount of travel, events and combat.​

In general, what makes a strategy game "deep" in your view, and where should RPG elements come into play?

AT: Alright, now we're getting into some dangerous territory. I can already see getting some strong feedback on this one. Our biggest prerogative in making a game with strategic combat, is that it's truly strategic. In some turn-based strategy it's just stat comparison and grinding, and that becomes outright dull. In fact, it's practically the opposite of strategy. Chess or Go, on the other hand, has no stats and is the pure essence of strategy. I'm not saying we're going to be the next chess. What we are aiming for is a balance of these things. We have a system in place that I don't think has been seen much. It requires finesse in placement, using the board and understanding the strength of weaknesses of all your pieces, but it also has an element of rpg with a few stats and abilities that need to be taken into account, and characters that upgrade over time. I can't wait to start showing it in the near future.​

Elsewhere, you cited King of Dragon Pass, Final Fantasy Tactics and Mount and Blade as influences. In what ways would you want The Banner Saga to be similar to each of those games? Do you have some specific points of similarity in mind?

AT: Absolutely. Our travel mode, as mentioned before, is where events happen. Much like King of Dragon Pass, the people you pick up in your caravan as you travel are not just warriors but peasants and clansmen and just a wide range of society. As you travel they'll react to things in different ways. There may be strife within the caravan that you have to deal with, and making one decisions may bite you in the ass later. For example, a certain family may make a demand that the rest of the caravan is against. If you deny them, a few days later they may run off with supplies overnight. If you acknowledge them it may turn into a string of events that are much more costly. We're thinking of travel mode as a moving village. They're not just commodities, they act like real people and that's what I've always loved so much about KoDP.

Final Fantasy Tactics is the kind of mood we want to capture in combat. It was the first game to really feel like it had game mechanics that went way beyond surface level and I would play it for the sheer joy of experimentation. I imagine there were a lot of people like me who had maxed out the characters and classes before even getting to Dorter. That feeling of building a "deck" of characters with abilities that complement each other tactically, the way you would make a specialized deck in Magic: the Gathering, is something we wanted for combat in the Banner Saga.

As for Mount and Blade, well, I can't we've taken much from the gameplay. It's my absolute favorite game and what I really enjoy about it is the mood and setting more than anything else, the real sense of survival in the world and the way politics actually affect the gameplay. More than anything, this is one of those influences that lead us to making games.​

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You mentioned Final Fantasy Tactics as an inspiration for the combat. What about such games as Jagged Alliance 2 or, for example, Temple of Elemental Evil, the last commercial big-publisher tactical western CRPG -- do they inspire you in any way? In general, what turn-based combat systems from western PC games have you enjoyed?

AT: When I was growing up there was almost no turn-based strategy game that didn't escape my notice. I loved stuff like Master of Magic, Dark Legions, Jagged Alliance, all the old Gold Box D&D and Buck Rogers games. They're a huge influence on what got me into games, but when we talk about them more often than not we get blank stares. X-COM was a defining moment in games for me but we're also really careful about the associations people make and as someone on your forums mentioned once we start comparing ourselves to these, expectations can become dangerous. For me, having a lot of experience from the genre gives me some experience to know what different systems feel like. You can't cherry-pick your favorite features from each game and come up with something awesome- you have to understand how those systems feel when you play them. We keep mentioning FFT because even though we have some new mechanics that was the feeling we think is most similar to The Banner Saga, and we're hoping we can do it justice.​

Can you perhaps reveal something about the game's mechanics? Will The Banner Saga be class based and/or skill based, will there be multi-classing, and how much control will we have over the character development? What are we allowed to know already?

AT: The way characters interact in combat will probably differ slightly between multiplayer and single player. In the single player campaign there is a story you play through, and characters who already exist in the game who have relationships with one another as well as relatively set roles in combat. In the multiplayer you'll create and name your own characters and tailor them to play a specific role within a group, fine-tuning them as you go. Characters will have unique classes and sub-classes, individual stats and both active and passive abilities. As for details on character development, we have a very solid system in place for the combat mechanics, but the specifics of each characters abilities and advancement are still very much being playtested. Once we've gotten the game to a beta state we'll probably start getting some testers, taking all the feedback and really nailing down the character advancement.​

What are the inspirations behind The Banner Saga's art style and story?

AT: 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. The disclaimer here is that we're not making a story based on either of these, just that we love the tone and that's the feeling we want to have in our story. 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 weapons, and it's not about black and white, good versus evil. It really is a story written for thoughtful adults, and we hope players will find that refreshing.

We're really happy with the direction we took on the art. We looked at a lot of animated films, graphic novels and art books and the one that really stood out to us was Disney's Sleeping Beauty. The art director for that movie was American artist Eyvind Earle, who, beside Sleeping Beauty has a vast library of paintings in his own style. We've taken the style to heart and extrapolated the classical animated look throughout the entire game, including combat and conversation. Other artists like Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth were big influences of ours to all of us growing up as well.​

Why go for the dialogue wheel when you show the full response options anyway? Why not just keep the traditional dialogue system?

AT: The dialogue wheel has been an interesting topic that has come up a lot since we released the video. Primarily we simply wanted to show that there is branching in dialogue. What we quickly discovered is that people are very, let's say "hesitant" about a dialogue wheel. Old school gamers in particular don't like dialogue options being paraphrased because you sometimes it conveys the wrong tone or you'll say something you didn't mean to say at all. I totally get that and we probably should have stuck to our instincts on this one. We're leaning strongly towards returning to the classic style of showing all the dialogue options in their full length or using a hybrid like Deus Ex. I think being able to change direction like this while still early in development is an advantage we have as a small developer.​

The game's description says the player will be able to "make decisions with real consequences." What kind of choices and consequences are you aiming for? Will they go deeper than Bioware's typical consequences that may affect the way the story is presented, but do not have any significant effect on the gameplay or the game world, and in what ways? Could you share some examples with us?

AT: Absolutely, I'd love to talk about this and oddly enough this is the first interview where it has explicitly come up. One thing we know as developers from BioWare is how expensive it can be to create real choices in dialogue and in the story. Just one branch can double the content you create and only half the audience will see it, so it becomes extremely expensive.

When we designed The Banner Saga we created it based on this idea of changing the direction of the story. The lynch pin to our plan is that the world is coming into ruin and certain things are going to happen whether you're there to witness it or not. Whether you can change the course of the story depends on our core gameplay. How many people do you save in the caravan? How many fighters are with you when a city is besieged? That may affect whether the combat is just tricky or outright impossible, but the game doesn't end just because you lost or saved a town. You keep going. How do you respond when one of your main characters wants to leave the party? That may change not just your combat team but whether a whole group of people is willing to follow you or not, which later affects what happens at a critical point in the story. By making decisions for not just one character, not just one small party or even one town but an entire society we're really opening up the number of ways the story can change. An ultimately that's what it comes down to- what happens to the people around you, not faceless strangers in a generic kingdom.

We're tying this all together in our gameplay systems. Things that happen in dialogue can affect the morale of the caravan, or change the amount of supplies you have. Your caravan may travel at a slower speed and instead of coming across a particular event may discover it in a different state. This new event may alter the difficulty of your next combat, and how you do in battle may come back to the morale of the caravan, and whether civilians remain safe or are driven off. You may come to another event and find that you don't have the people you need to succeed. So on and so forth. It was our foremost goal to make sure each system feeds into the next in a meaningful way.​

Thanks to Alex Thomas for doing this interview!

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