It feels like audiences have been waiting for the end to the Banner Saga trilogy forever. In actuality, it’s been six long years.
The Banner Saga series was never intended to be a trilogy. It was just too ambitious of a story for one game by indie developer Stoic Studios. It also wasn’t Stoic’s intention to hunker down for six years on one game. It’s now 2018 though, and the final addition to the franchise, Banner Saga 3, debuts this week.
“We always had, from the beginning of Saga 1, this broad framework for a story figured out,” Alex Thomas, the lead writer on Banner Saga 3 said during a recent Gamasutra stream. “We did come back to sticking to that throughout all three of these with the goal to having a really satisfying conclusion.”
Of course, things couldn’t stay exactly the same. Stoic, along with its publisher Versus Evil, had to adapt and change sometimes large elements of the game due to technological advancements, community feedback, and just overall knowledge gained. There’s no way that Banner Saga 3 would’ve been exactly like Banner Saga 1 and luckily for Stoic, it isn’t.
Creating meaningful sequels
The first Banner Saga presented the story of a world in peril. Players take on the roles of multiple characters as they traverse a land savaged by creatures called the dredge, which seek to wipe out all life. It’s a tactical, strategic RPG where your actions have lasting consequences throughout the entire trilogy -- and that was something that needed to stick.
"In our younger days we were totally cool with burning the midnight oil for months on end, but if you want a sustainable, creative project over time, you need to balance that out."
For the most part, Stoic succeeded in creating that consistency. It had a basic outline going in and while details changed, some things were important to keep around, such as the central conflict and other philosophies.
“We didn’t want a generic villain,” Thomas said as an example. “It was really a story about relationships and a lot of gray area and not a lot of black and white. To that end, I think we really pulled off what we were attempting to do."
Things had to change though. Technology has advanced from 2014 to 2018 and the console market is wildly different. Games had to adapt to that change both in terms of its production pipeline and in how it markets games (more on this later).
Plus. Stoic looked at its community for feedback and would adjust the story accordingly. One example developers gave was about a dredge baby that you have to decide what to do with in the first game.
“That was never meant to be a super important choice,” Thomas explained. “ it was meant to show there's some humanity in the dredge and to make you think about whether what you're doing is right. But people latched onto that choice so hard we made it a lot more important to the outcome of Banner Saga 3."
The team also found that players didn’t fully understand how the resource system worked. Over the course of each installment, players collect supplies for their caravans to keep the members alive. Stoic found that even after two games, the audience still didn’t understand why it was all important.
“So for the third game we pared it back a bit,” Thomas said. “They're not as important except at a point when they become extremely important.” Without spoiling anything, Thomas affirmed that in the third game, resources don’t seem important but have huge consequences on later game events.
With all the changes, however, Stoic ensured that the series felt consistent. Despite the first being different from the third, they’re still a part of a cohesive narrative. As the games were released, the team added more ranks for characters, for example, and added a free survival mode for dedicated players. Banner Saga 3 continues to build in these two areas. Lead designer Matt Rhoades emphasized that Stoic didn’t want each game to be so similar that players would get bored, so new features were added to the combat system and the community’s needs were taken into consideration.
“There's always that need to balance between ‘is this so different from what people are used to that it doesn't feel like Banner Saga anymore’ versus us wanting it to feel fresh,” he said. “So it was definitely a goal of mine to make sure that [Banner Saga 3] felt a little fresher.”
Teaching old dogs new tricks
Even behind the scenes, Stoic had to make some changes, including being able to accommodate the company’s expansion. What started out as a small team now spans over two studios. What was once a remote team is now mainly in-person as a way to increase efficiency.
“Stoic as a studio has really grown a lot over the course of this game,” said producer Zeb West. “A natural evolution was needing to co-locate.”
The most important change Stoic made, however, was in how it handled its time. Crunch is a common and exhausting element of game development, but the studio learned to create something called “Sympathy Crunch,” which ensures nobody is working multiple 16-hour days. If one person has to put in extra time, everybody has to.
“Everybody knows what they have to get done, they decide how long they need to do it, and they just do it,” Thomas said. “We did put a lot of time into the end of production, but we didn’t all check in for 16-hour days for three months. “
West said trying to create a timeline that got rid of the worst parts of crunch was a top priority.
“In our younger days we were totally cool with burning the midnight oil for months on end, but if you want a sustainable, creative project over time, you need to balance that out,” he explained. He laid out deadlines for each team member and ensured most people hit them. Having gradual deadlines also had another benefit.
“I think upping our game with project management helps increase visibility down the road and helps us deal with problems earlier,” he added.
Going back to the beginning
While a lot of Banner Saga’s life could be summed up with improvement, there was a lot that involved going back to basics, but with a few tweaks.
Kickstarter was a huge component of the first game’s development. The original goal was $100,000 but Stoic was able to raise over $720,000. For the third game, the studio actually went back to the crowdfunding platform. While meeting a monetary goal wasn’t a matter of life or death for the final installment, Kickstarter had another use.
“As much as the funding aspect was important, we really wanted to re-engage with our community,” Rhoades said. “We all felt like with Banner Saga 2, not being with our community during that time... had been kind of a mistake.”
Kickstarter isn’t as popular as it was back when the first campaign went up in 2012, but it still has its advantages. One of the things that studio -- along with publisher Versus Evil -- learned during development of the second installment was how important the community is to a game’s release. It builds hype for it, but it also increases feedback, which only makes developers and games better.
Steve Escalante, founder of Versus Evil, learned a lot during Banner Saga’s development about how to use Kickstarter but how to market a trilogy.
“You need to create these events, bigger pieces of a launch event, for a big massive piece of content,” he said. “if you're doing little updates, you lose some momentum and some brandibility and being able to build on that.”
Learning harder into its community inspires Stoic and it’s something its members said they’ll continue to do with the next project.
“One thing we know we will want to do is to not go back into a cave and make something for two years without talking to the community and fans,” Thomas said. “The next thing will have a lot more frequent updates, be more community-driven for sure.”
The Stoic team can’t say for sure what’s next for the studio (obviously) but art director Arnie Jorgensen, who jumped into the stream in the last 10 minutes, says there are three things they’re looking forward to.
“We want to stay in the RPG genre," he said. "We want to be tactical, [and] we want to continue the world-building we're known for."