Tacticular Cancer: We'll have your balls

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Game News Stoic's John Watson at NASSCOM GDC 2016: The Banner Saga 2 was a commercial disappointment

Discussion in 'RPG Codex News & Content Comments' started by Infinitron, Jan 10, 2017.

  1. Make America Great Again Infinitron Trade Master Patron

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    Tags: John Watson; Stoic Studio; The Banner Saga 2

    Stoic Studio's The Banner Saga 2 was one of very few oldschool-oriented RPGs released in the first half of 2016, and it reviewed rather well. For those reasons, one might assume that it sold well, but apparently that's not the case. So said Stoic co-founder John Watson at a game development conference called NASSCOM GDC, held in India of all places back in November. The game's sales were so underwhelming compared to its predecessor that Stoic are now struggling to fund the third and final chapter in the series. They blame this on their lack of engagement with the community during its long development, a much more crowded indie marketplace, and a difficulty spike in the first game that prevented many players from finishing it and proceeding to its sequel. Yesterday GamesIndustry.biz posted a summary of this interesting talk, which is relevant to more than just The Banner Saga series. Here's an excerpt:

    "We were quite exhausted at the end of The Banner Saga," he continues. "Running a Kickstarter campaign is extremely demanding. There's the setup portion, there's running it for the month, and then for the rest of the development you're supporting that community, answering questions, giving updates. It's a full-time job, and we didn't have anybody dedicated to being that community manager. It was a scary prospect."

    Ultimately, Stoic decided on what amounted to an "almost 180-degree turn" for The Banner Saga 2. "Let's just close the doors, close the curtains, spend our own money and do it our own way, without having to answer to anybody. And that's what we did.

    "About halfway through, when the money starts getting tight, we started thinking, 'why the hell didn't we get a Kickstarter?'"

    The reason might well be success. The Banner Saga raised far more money from Kickstarter than Stoic had expected, and it went on to sell more copies than expected, too. That money could fund what they wanted for The Banner Saga 2, while also being tangible evidence of a community of people who would be interested in playing the next chapter of the story. Stoic decided to focus on making sure that the next chapter was even better.

    "I think we dropped the ball there," Watson admits. "We thought that audience would still just be there. We really neglected our community during the development of Banner Saga 2, because we were focusing on our work. I think that was a mistake. We all agree that was a mistake."

    The Banner Saga 2 launched for PC in April 2016, and the mistake was immediately clear. In its first few months on Steam, The Banner Saga 2 sold around a third of what The Banner Saga sold over the same period. When GamesIndustry.biz spoke to Versus Evil, Stoic's publisher, last year, Steve Escalante lamented a massive increase in the number of competing titles on The Banner Saga 2's launch week.

    "That is a factor," Watson agrees. "With The Banner Saga we launched against 70 games that month. With The Banner Saga 2 it was over 400, so that is a factor. You are fighting more for attention, and it's remarkable how many people I meet say, 'oh, Banner Saga 2 is out?' They just don't know, and we spent a lot of money marketing it. We tried to make it known."

    [...] With The Banner Saga 3, the final game in a planned trilogy, the discussion around funding it was more difficult. "Arnie [Jorgensen] and I... all of our personal fortunes, all of our finances, are buried in The Banner Saga," Watson says. "We've been doing this for four years, we spent all of our retirement money, and we haven't replenished that yet. We both have kids, they have to go to college, and we can't just keep betting it all every time, because making entertainment is the riskiest thing."

    It is still too early to seriously contemplate a return to crowdfunding, but Stoic's projected budget is likely greater than the sum they could reasonably expect to raise through Kickstarter - it isn't 2012 any more. Watson admits that he and Jorgensen seriously discussed seeking private investment, and even "shopped around" for options.

    "That would have worked, but you're paying back quite a bit. The Banner Saga 3 is probably gonna cost about $2 million to make - that's a lot. So maybe we could get $500,000, but when you get investment you're basically paying it back 3x... That means when we sell The Banner Saga 3 $1 million of extra money goes away [to the investors], as well as giving back the $500k. That would take the pressure off us for sure, a little bit. We would each de-leverage ourselves by $250,000, but when the game ships we're paying back an extra $1 million.

    "Is taking investor money gonna make the game sell? Is it gonna make it $1 million more profitable? No. It'll make it a little bit better; we could spend some of that money maybe doing some more animations, maybe we increase the quality level a little bit. The quality has to reach a certain bar for people to accept it as a sequel, because we set that bar for ourselves. But beyond that it won't really affect the profitability. It would be a vanity thing. We just want to make it better."

    When Stoic is finished with The Banner Saga, when it is making an entirely new project from scratch, investment of that kind would make a great deal of sense. For The Banner Saga 3, though, taking an investor's money would be "kinda stupid" - a little peace of mind in the here and now in exchange for a lot more potential problems further down the road. Stoic is betting on The Banner Saga as a franchise, and once again it will make that bet with its own money.

    "We have to do it," Watson says. "We set out to make this trilogy. We can't leave the story unfinished."
    Stoic appear resigned to the fact that any new game they release will never do as well as the first one did. They're betting their futures on the idea that The Banner Saga 3 will increase visibility of their previous titles, helping the sales of the franchise as a whole. I fear that many of the other oldschool RPG developers may find themselves in a similar situation with their own sequels over the next couple of years. Some may have already. Be wary, gentlemen, and know when to slam dunk.
     
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  2. Make America Great Again Humanity has risen! Arcane Patron Repressed Homosexual

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    There is a reason why Jeff Vogel on all his games puts a phrase to the effect of "no experience with past titles is required", otherwise you are dramatically reducing your potential audience.
     
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  3. Explorerbc Arcane

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    When the first wave of old-school indies appeared every games media was constantly hyping them up as the return to our roots, the good old days, the beginning of the indie revolution etc.

    Most people (half of which probably aren't even fans of those genres) just impulse bought them and they've been sitting in their libraries gathering dust even since, along with hundreds of other indie supertitles.

    If a sequel comes out, a lot of the buyers of the first one won't bother, and neither will the media since they can no longer sell nostalgia inducing stories about your studio.

    Same thing happened with other titles. When Legend of Grimrock released it was everywhere. Every online publication was hailing it as a glorious miracle RPG from a small team and the modern revival of blobbers. "Damn" I thought "I gotta get this game" even though I've never played a blobber before and obviously have no nostalgia for the genre. So I bought it and never touched it. I once saw an announcement for LoG 2 and thought "oh yeah I gotta play the first one some day". And not surprisingly the sequel sold poorly even though it was an improvement. Same with banner saga. I remember following it closely until it was released. Still haven't played it, didn't even bother to check about the sequel and won't anytime soon.
     
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2017
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  4. sser Arcane

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    Vogel managed to dramatically reduce his audience regardless.

    My unscientific-uneconomic perspective is that it is not wise to release direct sequels in this new age of bundle fodder, especially if you've made it clear that you'll give the game out like candy already (like Banner Saga did).
     
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  5. Make America Great Again Infinitron Trade Master Patron

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    It seems like it might be true even for some AAAs. Dishonored and Deus Ex wept.
     
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  6. felipepepe Prestigious Gentleman Codex's Heretic Patron

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    Sorry, this is just stupidity. "Forced them to raise their ambitions", lol poor devs...

    By SteamSpy, BS1 sold 576k, while BS2 sold only 60k. With each game at $19 (plus sales and Steam's cut), BS2 most certainly didn't break $1M in profit, yet they are doubling down on making a $2M game knowing it will likely sell even less than BS2.

    This is Double Fine-level of incompetence and megalomania, but at least Tim Schafer has other profit sources and a horde of fanboys that think he can do no wrong.

    Also, Banner Saga came out in Jan 2014. 2013 was a shit year, but between BS1 and BS2 we got Blackguards 1 & 2, Invisible Inc, Legends of Eisenwald, Expeditions: Conquistador, Transistor, Voidspire Tactics, Disgaea PC, Renowned Explorers, Conquest of Elysium 4, X-COM 2, Hard West, etc... they were just blind to all that was happening around them and arrogantly thought they were big names now, with a captive audience.
     
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  7. Make America Great Again Infinitron Trade Master Patron

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    Keep in mind that this is a multiplatform game (tablets, consoles, everything)
     
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  8. felipepepe Prestigious Gentleman Codex's Heretic Patron

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    Oh yeah, forgot about that... anyway, 60k on Steam ins't what I would go "let's sink $2M on that!"
     
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  9. Explorerbc Arcane

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    I doubt console and especially tablet owners, represent a big part of the core dedicated audience that will support an entire trilogy of turn-based isometric rpgs.
     
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  10. Blackstaff Savant

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    Nothing surprising here. They killed the good faith of their community through and through by ridiculous comments and decisions. In particular regarding a drm free release : that took place a whole month late and they didn't even hide that they were forced to do it because of their disaster launch. Clowns.
     
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  11. MRY Prestigious Gentleman Wormwood Studios Developer

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    FTFY. :D

    The truth is that most people don't want to do the same thing, on the same scale, perhaps even on a smaller scale, over and over again. The idea that Banner Saga 3 should be less ambitious, less audiovisually impressive, etc. is obviously unacceptable to them. Why should they make it at all if that's so, unless they have to do it to survive? And if you're selling out anyway, aren't the other ways to do it better?

    I'm not saying that's a good attitude, but it does seem to be a pretty accurate one. Look at the ambition of CSG vs. AOD, and Vault Dweller is a pretty grounded and realistic guy. This is what always happens, and one way or another it always means the end of the games we love -- either the ambition fails and the company is ruined (say, Troika), or the ambition succeeds and the company never again makes the kind of games that attracted its original audience (say, Bioware). Like, it seems baffling that adventure games should've gone kaput -- if Sierra and Lucas had just kept reusing their old assets and engines in VGA games, they could've produced them for a fraction of the cost, and surely there would've been enough of a market to support those games. But it turns out that creators want a bigger canvas, better materials, bigger impact, etc., which costs more, which requires broader appeal, which is harder to secure, which means that the game is much riskier. Eventually you lose the bet and are wiped out, or you win the bet and buy the world's biggest catamaran and sail off into the sunset.

    I remember when the Bioware doctors interviewed me to work on Dragon Age: Origins, their whole thing was that they prided themselves on telling character-centric stories, but they really wanted to have better character-centric tools for doing that -- more voice acting, facial animations, etc. Brian says the exact same thing about WL3. It's human nature.
     
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  12. felipepepe Prestigious Gentleman Codex's Heretic Patron

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    ^JVC gets it.

    Ambition is good, but it was crazy to make their first project a trilogy, and now they should go into damage control, release BS3 and move onwards to something new... trying to expand a failing series seems dumb.
     
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  13. Make America Great Again Infinitron Trade Master Patron

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    For all the time they spent on BS2, it was only an incremental improvement on the first game, not a revolution. Did that cost 2 million to make? What about the first game, for that matter? Maybe the Kickstarter was only a fraction of their budget. It seems like a lot of money for 3-6 guys, though.
     
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  14. MRY Prestigious Gentleman Wormwood Studios Developer

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    I guess, but it's certainly possible that they'd be happier and more profitable just abandoning the franchise or maybe even abandoning the company, who knows?
     
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  15. Azrael the cat Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

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    I wonder whether the decay of the gaming press, and its estrangement from the target market, has something to do with this. I'm not talking about hype-train shenanigans, I just mean getting the word out that there's a game worth playing amongst the mountains of crap.
     
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  16. Make America Great Again toro Arcane

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    This. But they also fucked up the ending for the 1st game.
     
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  17. almondblight Arcane

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    From the original KS:

    I know the additional money (over 7 times the amount they asked for) expanded the scope of the game, but it also went to stuff like XBox and Playstation ports as well as orchestral music. They prioritized this over stuff like an inventory (when the KS started, they said on the Codex they'd like to have a developed inventory but didn't have the money). Also, after the KS they delayed the game because they were prioritizing their F2P spinoff.

    MRY brought up VD and ITS, and I think it's a good comparison. VD isn't going nuts and saying, "Hey, AoD sold well, let's blow the money on XBox ports and make the next game 10x more expensive." They're more ambitious, but they're more ambitious about the game design, not about budgets and offices. And that's the opposite of what I'm seeing with TBS. They seem to be more ambitious with regards to what they want to spend, but the game itself sounds like more of the same. And since TBS got a pretty lukewarm response to begin with, it's hard to get that interested in its sequels.
     
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  18. MRY Prestigious Gentleman Wormwood Studios Developer

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    I was being (mostly) facetious about VD, but my sense is that CSG is actually going to be way more than 10x more expensive, since AOD was done almost entirely with deferred comp or uncompensated labor. I don't think it's likely to cause ITS to be doomed, but I do think it's reflective of the natural tendency to want your next project to be more complex, more immersive, prettier, etc., etc. The Banner Saga folks may have hypertrophied while ITS is growing at a reasonable speed, but in a sense the same forces are at work.

    Also, I'm not sure it makes sense to knock the Banner Saga folks for what they did with the Banner Saga KS money. I kind of lost interest in the game after a couple hours, but it seems really beloved and an impressive creation. The problem is more what happened with BS2 and their current undertakings, if there's any problem at all.
     
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  19. Bumvelcrow Bellator Sempervirens Patron

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    While 'failing to engage with the community' is a tiresome excuse for complacency it probably has at least some justification in this case. I bought BS and didn't even realise BS2 had been released until I saw it on the Christmas sales. And that's despite my daily infusion of Codex.
     
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  20. Korron Savant Patron

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    I picked up the second game for Android not too long ago at a ridiculously cheap price relative to the release date. I thought it was pretty strange that it was so cheap already. The combat in the first game against the same enemy type dragged on to tedium, but the animation was beautiful and the combat was somewhat engaging if not varied in scenario or strategy. I picked the first up for a cheap price too and felt like I got my money's worth. I want to root for them because it was a decent product despite some of the previously mentioned development decisions. I can't see the third installment being worth the initial asking price to many people when the company has shown a willingness to slash prices, there are many more compelling RPGs for the genre fan, and the trendiness of KS projects has diminished. It may be a better investment to start a new IP and come back to the third installment later if at all, but I'd like to see the story to the end. These games really would be a lot better if character development was more intricate in general.
     
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  21. Cantello Novice

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    Picked BS2 up right after release and was honestly disappointed - same combat, same mechanics, just slightly different story. Didn't even play halfthrough after finishing BS1. Don't know what the budget was spent on for BS2...
     
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  22. MicoSelva Prestigious Gentleman Monstroterratum Furiosum Patron

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    I see many reasons for this.

    1. They obviously overestimated the interest in the second game, same as with Legend of Grimrock. Many people picked up the first one as a curiosity, because it was unique and looked cool, but then they realised they do not really like it - and even if they did like it, maybe not enough to pay full price for the sequel (BS2 has not yet been on sale for 75% off).
    2. Gaming market is more crowded than ever, as already mentioned above. There are, frankly, many better and more interesting games to buy than there were around BS1 launch.
    3. This ties to 2. a bit - BS2 received less coverage from reviewers, etc.
    4. It is a story-based game that sort of requires playing the first game first - and not many people finish their games (around 30% according to Steam achievements, which is still a lot), reducing potential audience.
    5. Many of 560K BS1 sales come from bundles and similar sales, and those copies have never been installed.
     
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  23. Pirata Alma Negra Educated

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    Another game that suffered from the codex's syndrome "every game should be equal to the next one"
     
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  24. Vault Dweller Ubersturmfuhrer, Iron Tower Studio Developer

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    For the sake of lowering expectations:

    I hope that the CSG will be a much better game because we've learned much and because I know what we did well, what was overlooked, and where we failed. So that "much better" won't come from making the game more epic with more classes and locations but from tightening up the overall design. The CSG will have 16 locations (AoD had 22 but many had a single point of interest), 21 skills (AoD had 23), 3 main factions and 3 smaller groups instead of 7 factions with parallell questlines in AoD. Some new features like learn by use and implants are based on AoD's designs (in AoD we had 3 skill pools: combat, civic, and general; now we'll have a pool for each skill so design-wise it's not some new and unexplored ground). The new features are party-based combat (but that's what DR was all about - focusing on combat exclusively to gain the experience), TB stealth (we had some rough designs for AoD but didn't have time), and gadgets/grenades which should be manageable since we won't have crafting or alchemy.

    So the ambition is to make a better game, not a bigger game.
     
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  25. Make America Great Again Infinitron Trade Master Patron

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    I would say that just the addition of a party makes the game's scope "bigger" in a pretty meaningful sense, though.
     
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