This week saw the latest success in the history of The Banner Saga, Stoic Studios' highly-regarded tactical RPG series. The final part of the story, The Banner Saga 3, smashed through its Kickstarter funding goals, turning out with a $416,986 total from a goal of only $200,000. This last part of the Banner Saga tale was officially wanted by the gaming community, and it was now confirmed for arrival, complete with a variety of stretch goals.
This meant that congratulations were in order for Stoic's Arnie Jorgensen. After all, this was another, important step towards completing one of the most unique and intriguing RPG properties of recent years. Thankfully, Game Rant had the chance to talk with Jorgensen about The Banner Saga, from its Kickstarter roots through to the changes that Stoic is going to ring in with the last part of the trilogy.
For starters, Jorgensen was quick to talk about the potential volatility of funding a game through Kickstarter, and how much of a relief it was to see the fans of The Banner Saga return to fund its final outing.
You never know what a Kickstarter is going to be like when you start it. It could be that the community goes south, or there could be a couple of people who don’t like what you’re doing. We’ve seen a lot of developers have tough times with communities on things like this.
This is our second Kickstarter, so at the same time if you don’t hit your goal what does it mean for you and the IP? There were a lot of question marks going into this, and we can say now that this was an awesome, fun Kickstarter to be involved in.
According to Jorgensen, the Kickstarter campaign was "extremely low-key," with a fun-filled and happy community getting involved. Stoic has a dedicated Discord chat going on for the title, which has approximately eighty fans on the go at all times. For Stoic, part of the reason why there's such a strong unity is down to how people know exactly what The Banner Saga is all about.
I think it might have to do with how everyone knows what the function of our game is now. We’re on game three and people know what to expect, so it’s not like people are debating “what it’s going to be? What is this game?”
Although The Banner Saga is one of the proudest examples of a crowdfunding project done right, Stoic did not go back to Kickstarter for the sequel. However, this funding model was returned to for the final part of the trilogy, with Jorgensen stating that an extra kick of funding was needed for those "extra bells and whistles" to add to the game.
Kickstarter was once again perhaps not necessary, but there to give the game that little special something. However, the additional funding of the first game brought with it certain expectations for the sequels, beyond the minimum scope that Stoic had originally planned for.
On The Banner Saga 1, we had this small game that three guys were going to develop. I was going to do all the music myself, we were going to do all the animations, and everything else ourselves with three dudes. So, we opened up the Kickstarter for funding on The Banner Saga 1, and we got $723,000.
Now, you have to deploy that money. We promised all of it was going into the game, and sure enough we did that. But then, that put us on the hook, to keep The Banner Saga 2 at a very high standard, and we see ourselves in that same boat now. So, in order to keep up that standard we needed a little bit of help with funding.
Another reason to return to the crowdfunding model was to once again reach out to the gaming community - something that was missed by Stoic during the creation of The Banner Saga 2. For the third part of the story, Stoic clearly wanted to involve the fans once more. "What we actually missed out on [with The Banner Saga 2] was reinvigorating the community again," said Jorgensen, but the Kickstarter for the third game has already brought back some of this fan communication. "We have a re-energised community and it’s fun talking to them, so we hope to keep them all the way through to the launch of the third part."
It's easy to see why fans of the first two games are back on board so quickly, too. The original Banner Saga stands as one of the best examples of a successfully-crowdfunded, independent project, with a best debut win at GDC 2015 just the tip of the iceberg when it came to critical acclaim and an eventual impressive home console port seeing release. It proved that tactical RPGs and old-school computer RPGs still had a strong place in the gaming market, alongside the success of games such as Wasteland 2 and Pillars of Eternity, and Jorgensen feels that crowdfunding has perhaps allowed these games to thrive.
When we were first putting up our Kickstarter, there were not actually too many turned-based strategies out there. The Banner Saga was successful, and I wonder how much of that, and Pillars and the other old-school RPGs successes, spawned more of those games. Probably quite a bit.
Of course, the world of crowdfunding has changed a lot since the first Banner Saga was funded, with many studios reaching out to multiple funding sources at once. This, too, is something that has interested Stoic.
I think it’s interesting now how we have sort of a hybrid now. You have Double Fine coming out and people saying "hey we’re getting funding here, we need you to help with this aspect of it, and we are also taking funding from the community." And they let people know right upfront "this is what we need all this money for," so it’s not all just purely crowdfunding via Kickstarter or Fig. I think it’s interesting how people are using crowdfunding now in different ways.
However, one of the key parts of crowdfunding is still the way that it allows studios to talk directly with their fanbase. This is something that Jorgensen, and the rest of Stoic, truly relishes. Coming from a background in AAA development, alongside fellow Stoic founder John Watson, it also comes as something of a new freedom to explore.
We love talking to the community [...] Even though we were both managers at other companies, you couldn’t talk to the community, because that was a very guarded information channel that was reserved for only the PR people at the large companies. So it was really freeing, and still is for us, to be able to talk directly to the community. I have the chat open all day and I’m talking to them, telling them what we’re doing and what’s new. It’s a huge bonus.
It's not the only the community side that Jorgensen likes about life in the indie scene, either. Life with Stoic may be less stable than with a larger developer, but there is a lot to enjoy about the extra freedom that Stoic provides.
Boy! I’m hoping it works. We’re still pushing the rock up the hill, but we seem to be doing pretty well as a company. I enjoy it quite a bit. I work from home, which I absolutely love. There's a lot more creative control.
I think the thing that turned me off of AAA development is I could look down the road 10 years from now and say "this is where I’ll be then" and it became very static. So for me this is the best world. You’re indie, you’re controlling your own destiny, doing the games that you choose to do, and I couldn’t imagine another way to live.
That said, Jorgensen can still see the positives in AAA development, with the perks of larger recognition and scope, and also use of technological advancements such as the "hottest 3D shaders," but it's a different world to what Jorgensen and Stoic are aiming for. Instead, the additional options and flexibility of indie development are a cornerstone of why Stoic works so well.
It’s so much fun. I was in meetings all morning and we’re retooling and reshaping the story, and these are things that are really hard to do in AAA. There are a lot of moving parts.
Indie development has its own challenges, of course. However, the difference between a self-funded project and a Kickstarter-backed one do not trouble Jorgensen, with the positives of a crowdfunding model and the responsibilities that come with it far outweighing the weaker sides of that option.
The only thing we see that’s a negative is that you have to put together the Kickstarter and carry it through, so we lost a bit of development time. Everything else seems to be a win to us, even with the community where we plan to engage with them to balance combat, and we’re probably going to engage with them to help balance the Survival Mode (which was a stretch goal) and the Eternal Arena. As developers we take our best shot at it, and we’re hoping people like it, but if we can engage the community along the way then that’s a complete win for us.
The community, too, has a great amount of trust in what Stoic is working on, and there is a huge level of positivity among the backers, and faith in the studio to pull something special out of the bag with the resources at its disposal.
Nobody in the community is ever saying "you have to do this or I’m taking my money back." They’re all saying "you guys gotta do what you guys gotta do, make it great – we trust you to do it." That’s about the only message I’ve heard so far, so in that realm we’re still doing exactly what we want to do. But now if we have a couple of ideas we’re not sure about we can bounce it off them and it’s awesome – we get to hear what they want.
This trust no doubt comes down to just how well the first two games in the series have done. The Banner Saga had a great impact on PC gaming, and the follow-up was equally as impressive. Now, there's a sense that fans are with Stoic, whatever they plan to change for the final iteration of the franchise.
I think thankfully we’re pretty much at that point. Everyone who’s still here is enjoying the IP and is here because they love the IP, and they know that we’re making decisions and we have made decisions in the past purely because we think this is cool for the game. There’s nothing else that rolls into this – there are no publishers that need to be satisfied or whatever else. So I think they know our motivation and they trust us at this point.
When it comes to the next game, Stoic isn't resting on its laurels, either. From what Jorgensen has stated, the final part of The Banner Saga is going to hit - and hit hard.
One of the key examples of improvement between The Banner Saga and The Banner Saga 2 came with the combat. Plenty of changes were brought in to move on from the more simplistic turn-based combat of the first game, and Stoic is aiming to proceed further with the final title.
Combat is going to be one of the biggest things I think that we try to enhance again in Saga 3. In The Banner Saga 1 the combat was much more simplified than it was in The Banner Saga 2. In Saga 2 you have win conditions, you have breakable barricades, you have a lot of new pieces that we kind of put in place – not to mention a lot of the streamlining we did which enhances the gameplay. In Saga 3, we plan on going a lot more of that. So, we see what people liked and didn’t like in The Banner Saga 2 with the combat, and we plan on doing a lot more of the stuff that people liked.
We’re probably going to be doing a lot more scripting, and bringing the story into the combat. There will be more win conditions, even more than we had in Saga 2, and we have planned a lot of destructible stuff on the terrain, so you’re engaged more with the actual combat board than you were in The Banner Saga 2 and certainly more than in The Banner Saga 1. We have boss battles planned, so a lot of fun stuff coming. I think it will be another leap forward just like The Banner Saga 2 was to 1 for combat.
Something that will certainly help with this is the fact that The Banner Saga 3 reached a stretch goal that would introduce Dredge playable characters into the game. The Dredge have been the core antagonists of the series so far, and these hulking stone giants have made for fearsome enemies. Now, the Dredge will potentially be introduced into the player's party. Noting that the addition will be "really cool," Jorgensen talked more about how the Dredge can be used in The Banner Saga 3.
It’s going to be built into the main campaign, but it’s going to be situational just like everything in The Banner Saga. You can make decisions to not get them, if you’d like, and you will not, but they’re going to be playable. You’re going to be able to take some heroes from the Dredge army into your own and build them, rank them up, do the whole thing.
What's more, the Dredge may work a little differently with two of the additional game modes that are coming to The Banner Saga 3. Both the Eternal Arena and Survival Mode will offer something new to players, and the Dredge will be available for use once more.
As it pertains to the Eternal Arena and Survival Mode, we’d love to be able to include more Dredge in those, as if you can take any Dredge character we’ve ever made and incorporate them into your roster in Survival Mode. It’s going to be a little bit tricky, but it’s a goal that we’d like to do. We didn’t promise it, but you heard it here first.
In terms of the campaign, this means that players of The Banner Saga 3 will have the chance to navigate yet another uneasy alliance. The series has always pushed the player to choose between factions, which is part of the reason why the series is seen as an underrated gem, and the final part will continue this trend.
It’s possible, yes. As a player, you will be able to get them on your team. We hope to tell more of the Dredge story. We’ve hinted at it in Saga 1, hinted a little bit more in Saga 2, but Saga 3 is really where we have to pull the blinds off everything and tell people the background story of all these different things. I think when they see it in the story it’s going to flow really well.
The final part of the story will help tie up some narrative elements that Stoic was unable to fit into the middle chapter of the series, too. In particular, players can expect to see more development of the centaur-like Horseborn, and see a number of threads from the game to reach their conclusion.
Indeed, Stoic has conclusions in its mind, and - even though the series has been full of hardships so far - players will be pleased to know that there is at least the possibility of a happy ending for the caravan.
That is one of the endings that we’re planning on, out of quite a few. Ultimately, though, like we’ve been telling everybody for years now, there’s going to be multiple endings. Some may not come out the way that you’ll be hoping them too, however all these endings are designed to be satisfying to the player.
I really want people to feel at the end that "I might have had this ending, he might have had this ending, she might have had a different ending, however they were all satisfactory to us." We’re designing it so you get to the end of the story, no matter what it is, and you should be able to say "that was really emotional, moving, and beautiful" and walk away if you want. I really don’t want this game to be the type of game where people try to min/max it or go back and make every correct decision. Not to say they shouldn’t if that’s the way somebody wants to play it, but we’re really focused on making sure that everybody’s story feels like a good novel.
There's something about The Banner Saga that makes many players accept their mistakes, and accept any sad roads that the story takes. From Jorgensen's perspective, this is perhaps the best way to play the game.
That’s the way we’ve really intended it. In many games if you lose a battle, you go back and go "okay I’ve got to beat the battle." In this game, it’s specifically designed so that if you lose a battle there’s almost always going to be negative repercussions. Something can happen to a hero in the caravan, you can lose supplies, etc. However, it becomes part of your story, and we really want people to keep trundling forward, keep moving on, and keep finishing your story. That’s the way it should feel. I don’t mean to detract from players who want to win every single battle, they’re completionists and that’s fine too. I wish they would do it on their second playthrough.
This is perhaps partially down to how important each and every decision is in The Banner Saga. Unlike other games, the player's choices in the series do feel as though they have ramifications, which is why it has become such a beloved cult IP in such a short amount of time. When it comes to The Banner Saga 3, it's going to pack a serious punch, with even small decisions from the other games being brought in to the final chapter.
There are many decisions you make in Saga 1 that affect Saga 3. There’s a couple that seem small, but you realise in Saga 3: "holy cow, I had no idea that this would be a large decision this far on!"
Gamers had better believe that these decisions will have an impact, too. Stoic has a strong track record when it comes to following through on player choice affecting plotlines, unlike many other games that claim to have the same system in place - as was a complaint over Mass Effect. According to Jorgensen, this comes down to the freedom that Stoic has when pulling story strands together.
It’s very organic. As we’re going, we are constantly pulling in decisions, and I think that’s probably why it feels kind of natural – certainly to us as we’re writing it. Because [the plot is] not something that’s structured and set in stone, such as “this decision will be a big one, this decision will be a small one.” We’re constantly balancing it as we go, grabbing bits and pieces from Banner Saga 2, Banner Saga 1, and peppering them in to Banner Saga 3.
Once again, Stoic's place as an independent studio has allowed them to make these choices. With a smaller team and a more flexible attitude, these options can really be taken into consideration - particularly when they have proven so popular in previous games.
It’s very hard to do in video games, especially when you’re pulling together a large team in AAA, to have really big branching decisions […] We’re very cognisant of why people like our game, and it’s that decisions really do matter, and we’re not going to let that ball drop in The Banner Saga 3.
There's a lot of strength behind these comments, and it's clear that there are some great - and potentially mischievous - plans in place already. "I hope people enjoy some of the smaller decisions that they find out to be big ones," said Jorgensen, and many The Banner Saga fans will be anxious to learn exactly what decisions he is referring to.
However, there is still some anxiety over the development and release of The Banner Saga 3, and that's certainly understandable. After all, this is the final part of a much-loved series, and the end of an era for Stoic. In a way, this is the most important step for the studio, and ensuring a satisfying conclusion must be paramount.
It’s been everything to us, and I’ll be honest that I’m pretty nervous about it. Not because I doubt what we’re going to do, because the way that Stoic goes we’re not the most brilliant developers with creative minds in the world, what we do is we work on it until it’s done. We’re not going to launch this game until we feel like it’s done, and that’s a luxury that a lot of teams don’t have.
But I’m nervous because it is the very last bit of The Banner Saga. If we drop the ball on The Banner Saga 3, it almost nullifies what we built in The Banner Saga 1 and 2 in my mind. So we’re working really hard to make sure it’s perfect. The story designs and discussions are ongoing because it’s not exactly perfect in a few chapters yet, so we just scrapped it and we’re rebuilding it now. And that’s the way we’ll do it until we’re done. I know how it’s going to come out, I know the level that it’s going to be at, but I’m still nervous that we don’t ruin it for The Banner Saga 1 and 2.
Fans of the other games will no doubt be confident that Stoic will conclude the series with aplomb, though, just as it has punched above its weight with the other games so far. Thankfully, The Banner Saga will not be the end for Stoic, and there have already been some discussions about what will come next.
We talk about it more than we let on in interviews! There definitely is, but it’s probably not something we want to talk about right now. We have no plans on dropping everything after this and going back to work. We want to keep developing as Stoic.
For now, though, the vast majority of the focus is on making sure that The Banner Saga 3 ends the series in as strong a way as possible. "We’re excited, we’re developing it, we’re very nervous, and hope people really enjoy it when it comes out." No doubt fans of the franchise feel exactly the same way.
The Banner Saga 3 is currently in development.