Monday, 7 January 2013

Interview with Alex Thomas of Stoic Studio

 I've mentioned a few times now how excited I am for the release of The Banner Saga from Stoic Studio. Well, as part of that I went looking for an interview and Alex Thomas, one of the Stoic team, was nice enough to answer some questions about the game, the setting and how Kickstarter can help the new developer.

Without much further ado, lets get to the questions. First though, a quick reminder of The Banner Saga.

 Hi Alex,
               Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions.

First off, one of the big selling points of The Banner Saga is the pseudo-norse world you've created, both visually and with what we've seen of the characters. What was it about the Norse/Viking world that inspired you to create one of your own?

When we set out to make the game we knew we wanted some kind of fantasy setting, but didn't want to re-tread the old Tolkien ideas of orcs and dwarves and dragons. Norse mythology is something that we've been really into apart from games, but what makes it really interesting is that there are a ton of ideas that haven't been beaten to death in popular culture. We avoided use real Norse lore because it came with a lot of baggage already - people have preconceived notions of what Thor or Loki are already about, and we didn't want to fight against those associations. Additionally, much of norse lore is about the gods, and getting deep into that mythos requires that your characters have a lot of contact with the gods, or that they play gods themselves. We went kind of the opposite route, thinking about what a world would feel like if the people in it believed in these gods, but then they were taken away. How would they respond to this fundamental change in their beliefs?

In addition to that idea, there are tons of things in both viking myth and real history that hugely inspired us to build on those themes. Vikings did a lot more than just pillaging hamlets and we worked in a lot of their central themes. For example, weaving was central to their lifestyle and we took that idea and used it as part of how magic works in the world- the weaving of the fabric of reality.

I love the viking details that go into the gameSource

For those who don't know, could you give us a quick insight into the gameplay of The Banner Saga?
The Banner Saga is a turn-based strategy game with a heavy emphasis on story and travel. Instead of being a string of enclosed combats that thread in some exposition between battles, we wanted the combat to be an integrated part of a dialogue-driven narrative. To achieve this, we took gameplay greatly inspired by King of Dragon Pass or Oregon Trail, forcing the players to move his entire society across the land and deal with problems that arise, while having key events driven by dialogue, like a traditional BioWare game, with battles that required strategy to overcome. There are really three systems here working in tandem that are relate to each other- decisions you make in conversation will change what happens in travel, which in turn affect when and how combat arises, which influences in turn travel and conversation. Our key goal was to make these three systems feed into each other instead of each existing in its own vacuum.

Going back to the art style, alot of people (myself included) see it as very reminiscent of Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, The Clone Wars) was this intentional or did Stoic come to that style on its own?
Actually, our primary influence was Eyvind Earle, one of the greatest American masters of the last century. He was best know as the art director on Sleeping Beauty, but if you look at his huge library of personal works you can see a lot more refined and mature art style that really blew us away. To go with this influence we intentionally emulated the Disney animated film look, with character's that are animated frame-by-frame in the traditional style.

I got a lesson in classic art, and it looks amazing.Source

I know you worked together on SW:TOR before starting Stoic, is there anything you miss about working in a big development house?
Oh sure, there's a great many pros and cons to both small and large studios. In a big studio like BioWare the most valuable thing was that you're constantly surrounded by experts in your field and you have direct access to some extraordinary knowledge. A big company is a great place to grow and build experience that you can use later to do your own thing. You also have a lot more resources in a large studio, access to better equipment, training, high quality health insurance and free perks like breakfast or holiday parties, and a lot more time off than working for yourself. And it can be fun to be part of making something huge come together. But at this stage in my career, I'd easily trade all of that for the chance to drive my own success.

The Banner Saga was made possible with Kickstarter, along with Double Fine Adventure and Dead State; all titles from industry veterans forming their own companies. Do you think that will be the pattern for Kickstarter games in future or will more new developers start making headway?
I think Kickstarter is fantastic, even if we had failed to get funding. Currently it seems that we're still in the early stages of knowing just how effective it is - there are a half-dozen or so high profile projects in the works and none of them have shipped yet with the exception of the smaller-scale game "FTL" (which is excellent, btw). In the next year or so I think we'll really see how effective the process is at creating a finished product, but speaking from my own standpoint it was nothing short of extraordinary. We haven't hit any roadblocks, we haven't made any real mistakes in production and without Kickstarter our game would only be a shadow of what it is already. I can safely say from this end of the process that it works, and it can allow backers to make low-risk donations to take a chance on things that publishers can't. Hopefully, important things that matter in our industry. I certainly don't see it replacing or even cutting into publisher activity, but I wouldn't want it to. It's fantastic that we can have both.

Finally, and linked to that last question, one of the great things about Kickstarter is that it gives you a ready-made community. How have your fans been as TBS moves into the paid beta?
Our fans (still feels weird to say we have "fans") have been our most valuable aspect, by far. Games usually struggle or pay lots of money to get the kind of focus testing that the backers have provided and as you can see from the progress reports we release monthly, they've had a massive influence on the quality of the game. That's not to say we sit there and ask people for ideas and put the popular ideas in the game, but that as we design the game we have hundreds of people creating metrics and giving really in-depth thought out feedback on how the game feels and functions and that's data we would have no other way of getting. We can use that data to find trends and address concerns that we wouldn't necessarily know about if we just worked in a black hole. In a large part, that's exactly why we wanted to get the multiplayer out early, because seeing how people really play the game and what problems they have is the most valuable feedback we could ever get. A huge thanks to our insanely excellent community!

Thanks again for taking the time, and I really looking forward to playing the finished game in future.
Thank you! We're looking forward to making it!

Again, I can't stress how great Alex and the team at Stoic were, if you haven't allready joined the beta then do it now!

Until we meet on a grid-like field of battle, let us say Skål! and drink together.

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