Travel, Story and Combat choices
Greetings! After a longer than usual period we have a lot of progress to share. Thank you so much for being patient, it means a lot to us and we repay that kindness with work that has been, without a doubt, the hardest and most all-consuming endeavor I’ve ever undertaken.
Alright, enough personal stuff. This update will get more in-depth about travel and story.
First though, the usual ESSENTIAL Q&A for anyone just joining us:
Q: When is the game coming out?
A: Later this year. We used the much larger budget to make a much larger game.
Q: How long total has the game been in development now?
A: 1 year and 1 month
Q: How/where do I upload my guild crest?
A: We’ll be including crest uploads as part of the actual game, so there’s never a deadline. It will only be accessible by backers.
The toolset (which we’re now calling Yggdrasil) continues to refined into a sharp stick, so to speak. In addition to the white box being hooked up, we have developed a gold standard area of the game for travel. If you check the toolset image below you can see some of this final art. Don’t worry, we’ll be doing a video showing off more of this at full res. It looks nice in the thumbnail below but pretty stunning parallaxing along in fullscreen.
As I’ll describe more in the story section below, we’ve been iterating on the travel and events systems. If you look close you’ll see the green guide-line positioned across the landscape that the caravan follows. Along this guide line we can add any markers we need to trigger special events, animations or change variables. Right now we have a placeholder caravan and banner that follows the path, and we can actually play through the game as it will happen in the final release.
Also, we now have a fully functional scripting toolset. If you read the previous update that went deep into happenings, variables, triggers and the like you can now see the physical manifestation of this.
Here’s a very, very brief recap- you can define the caravan (the playable characters in your party), the variables that are affected, and the long list of various scenes that they travel through. At certain locations or when certain events happen we create the happenings, which are the list of things that occur. For example, a happening in this instance might be a fire in the distance. Within that happening is the series of actions that play out. For example, when you come across the “fire in the distance” it may play a conversation, then a popup window with tutorial text, then a choice to make, then back to travel. Basically it defines the series events related to that happening. We define what triggers the happening, and then each individual action within that happening has its own parameters, so we can define what the actions affect. If you’d like to know more about this, check out update #33 where we went into some detail!
Story is always hard to talk about when you’re developing a game. Frankly, we don’t want you to know what the story is, but it sounds disingenuous when you just say “We’re working on it really hard! Honestly!”.
Worst of all, there are no screenshots about story. I apologize for this. But there are more screenshots afterward, so keep reading!
We’re going to approach story from a broad level and I’ll make sure there are no spoilers.
So, let’s discuss iteration a bit. As we’ve mentioned previously, we’ve been using Inkle Writer to help us draft the narrative. It’s an excellent tool, and they’ve recently released Sorcery! for iOS, which I wholeheartedly recommend checking out. In a previous update I showed screenshots of the some of the branching options in our first pass. Since then we’ve written a second and third pass, and a serious merging of these passes into what is now, I believe, the final version of the story. The story is pretty much locked down at this point.
Why all this rewrite? There are a few reasons, some simple to understand and some complex. The simple reason is that writing usually involves editing. You have professional editors who go through a story, make notes, help the author move around and modify pieces of the story until it feels and reads well. In a lot of ways an editor is like a writing consultant or co-writer. They make a good story into a great story.
Games don’t have editors. In fact, games often don’t even have writers, they have designers or managers who moonlight as writers, because it’s a game, right? Story isn’t really that important as long as you firmly apply pressure to the compulsion loop part of the brain. At least, that’s how games often feel to me right now. Disclaimer: this is getting progressively better. I don’t mean to look down on writing in games - in fact, it is this potential for greatness that drives us.
But even development studios lauded for their writing prowess usually don’t get to do due diligence. Budgets and time constraints on something as complex as a video game mean that you get one chance to get it right. People with lead and director positions are expected to sit down and nail it on the first pitch, or just accept whatever mess they’ve made and run with it. Usually this means it could have been better. We don’t have a published author writing for us at Stoic, nor a professional editor. But we do have a story-driven game, being written by someone who writes a lot and who wants to see the game industry flourish as a storytelling medium (it’s THIS close), and a guy who acts like an editor even though he spends 10 hours a day being one of the best artists I’ve ever seen.
There are other difficulties. If you took a dozen of the world’s most accomplished authors and had them each work on a video game, I suspect they’d mostly be terrible. In movies, writers become specialized enough to understand how film works, and how to make a screenplay. An author writes in the way that best suits the written format - you can’t just take a book and translate it directly to the screen, you need someone who understands the intricacies of timing, pacing, visual narrative and brevity. They have to turn words into pictures that feel how the words did, and that’s not easy. The film industry has been getting pretty good at this.
Games are the same way, and in many ways even more complex. If you want to tell a story in games you have to understand the same things as a visual medium like film, AND you have to understand interactivity and dynamic content, AND you have to pack it into something that’s actually FUN! How many books or movies can you even think of that are considered both “important” and “fun”? And, if you consider the cross-section of people who both understand how to make a good game and a good story, especially since games have only been with us barely a generation, you can imagine how few there might be. Now, I can’t claim to be either of these things (you will decide!) but I can claim to be trying my damnedest. It’s pretty much the goal we set out to accomplish with The Banner Saga.
Lastly, and most importantly, writing a good story has a lot to do with, almost counter-intuitively, gameplay. Which brings me to travel.
Previously we discussed the process that led us to come up with our current travel system. We eschewed the overhead map idea in favor of something much more personal, which is switching between close travel and world travel, in which world travel represents a majestic, zoomed out view of tall mountains and wide plains in contrast to the usual 1:1 scale travel scenes.
So far, we’ve made tons of progress on this. We have now white-boxed each world travel scene on which the player journeys and roughed in the landmarks, towns and locations that progress the story.
The above is the white box version of one of our world travel sequences. I'm keeping it small to avoid giving anything away. Don't worry, in the final game you won't even recognize the land mass, and it spans roughly 24 days of travel (there are about 2 days of travel per screen). You can see in black text that we lay out the land mass and then pepper it with notes on what happens as you play. We play through it, make adjustments quickly and play through it again. This world scene is just one of many, and each time you come to a town or landmark you go into close travel.
But what does this gameplay have to do with story? It is this: it’s absolutely vital that the gameplay back up the narrative, instead of trying to plug gameplay holes with misshapen wads of narrative. Are you making decisions because you’re worried about what will happen next? Or are you making decisions because a +3 sword would make combat easier? In our efforts to make travel fun, engaging, and support the story, we went through several such concerns.
We originally had many Oregon Trail-esque elements, such as travel speed, endurance, mobility, different types of travel, different types of resting, foraging for supplies, so on and so forth.
It wasn’t fun. Moving too slowly wasn’t fun, and moving too fast didn’t feel right. Micro-managing stats and numbers in travel wasn’t fun and the death spiral that could be induced by several bad decisions was even less fun. In a certain type of game (a roguelike such as FTL, for example) it can be wonderful. It can create an emergent story. In a game with a focused narrative, it is not. If you’re watching Game of Thrones you want to see the story, not rewind every twenty minutes. Our biggest challenge has been making these two things co-exist.
On the other hand, we were taking a lot of notes from King of Dragon Pass. Again, this is a game that is heavily based on the idea of resource management, and like FTL it’s something of a roguelike. It just didn’t fit our narrative. But, what KoDP does so brilliantly is tell the story of your tula (clan) through your collective decisions along the way, and this is what we kept front and center in The Banner Saga. Your caravan of people, coming and going, living and dying, should feel like a personal journey, not a decision to go left or right. At times you’ll make decisions with far reaching consequences and not even know it until hours later.
Travel now focuses primarily on three key things:
As previously mentioned, these are all things that we could easily define with just a value, but it wouldn’t back up the story. Let’s take morale. As your caravan’s morale decreases from long marches or bad decisions, we want it to affect gameplay. In the first pass of the design having a low morale would negatively impact your willpower in combat, or how quickly your warriors heal after battle. The idea was to tie together what you do in and out of combat so that everything feels related to your actions.
What we found, largely due to feedback from Factions, is that messing with combat stats would not make combat more fun. In fact, quite the opposite, and creates a spiral of losing. So we took another look at what we were trying to accomplish. We want the caravan to feel like a living entity that doesn’t just mindlessly march around taking orders. What we realized is that your choices should affect your relationship with the caravan, and that’s what morale needed to represent.
How we decided to represent it is by attaching morale to the events that pop up along your travels. If you’ve been treating the caravan poorly, marching too hard, making dangerous decisions, their morale decreases. The lower morale gets, the more likely you are to be receiving negative events along the way - in-fighting, people splitting off, people causing trouble. All of these are presented to the player not as numbers changing, but as conversations and events. Hopefully it seems invisible to the player, but they can feel that the caravan is unhappy just by how it has been acting.
But we can take this another step! Some events resolve immediately. You may break up a fight in camp and get a result. However, many events have multiple parts which arise based on your previous decisions. If you broke up the fight with violence, it may seem resolved. Three days later you receive an event in which someone has been killed in secret. Is it because of the action you took previously? Often, this will be the case.
We’ve worked out a design for what we’re calling “Quest Pool” (a “Quest” is our shorthand for an event or series of events that can occur). The crux of it is that we have a bucket that the events fall into, and it prioritizes which ones to give to the player. As the player makes decisions, they alter the “Quest Pool” behind the scenes. Certain events rise to the top to represent the actions that the player is taking, so instead of things happening randomly, you’ll play a part in the kind of problems you face. A player who keeps his caravan in high spirits will have a very different experience from one who thinks they don’t have worry about stuff like “morale”.
Now let’s take it one more step. Let’s say the caravan and the party aren’t two separate entities. Decisions you make during some events may spawn new events, and those events might reach all the way to the party. Let something get out of hand and a named character you care about may pay the price. Or encourage certain events and a person in the caravan who has actually been traveling with you for days might become a prominent figure in your party.
In other words, it’s not a game about min/maxing or manipulating numbers anymore.
Another system we’ve recently implemented is camp. As you travel, you’ll often go several days without coming across a village or town. The longer you go without rest, the more your caravan’s morale will suffer (and events start getting bad). At any point during travel you can stop the caravan and make camp.
Setting up camp will take you to a camp scene, where you can decide to rest for a day, check your location on the world map, and promote and add points to your characters in the training field, as well as equip items.
I should point out, this is not concept art, this is actual gameplay running in the game:
When you go into camp you dip down into close travel. The terrain will represent the biome you’re in and your population will alter the amount of sprawling tents that litter the landscape. This camp represents close to our largest population.
The most important thing about camp is that it lets you talk to your companions. Characters you can talk to will appear as a talk button in camp. As you gather playable characters to your party, they’ll often have things to say, or will talk to each other (allowing you to listen in). Unlike previous games we’ve worked on, talking to characters in camp won’t be completely unrelated to what’s going on around you. For example, if you go into conversation with one of your warriors they probably won’t pour out their hearts about their childhood, family life and father issues. They will, however, react appropriately to what is going on in the world. If a major city just burnt to the ground and they have some connection to it they’ll have something to say about that. Events that occur throughout the game are what trigger new conversations. Some characters will have more to talk about than others.
Speaking of games we’ve worked on in the past, you might be wondering about relationships and romance! We’ve discussed it a bit before, but it’s worth mentioning here. The Banner Saga is not meant to be a dating sim, and frankly if I start writing fictional romances about vikings hooking up, they’re not going to be very... good. Plus I think this is not what most people want to see. “Romance” in the usual game sense often just means talking to someone repeatedly until sex happens. That’s not really what we’re going for here. There will be a couple instances where some characters make a romantic gesture, but it might not be with you (the main character), and there won’t be any sex in the game.
We’ve talked about the map a couple times now. As we previously mentioned, you no longer travel on a world map, but we still want to provide the sense of a huge world full of unique places and towns. We’ve finished the world map! We’ll be providing a higher res version of it when we’re certain that we’re done moving around things like mountain ranges and towns to fit the story, but it's essentially done. Here’s a preview!
In a game about travel, we wanted the world to feel large. We started by looking at real-world Scandinavia and calculating how long it would take a person to walk from the far side of Norway to the other side of Sweden. We then took that land mass and roughly doubled it in terms of how much time it takes the player to walk from one place to another. Unlike a lot of games which are about big, world-changing events but play out in a matter of days, we wanted a real amount of time to pass. Walking from one side of the continent to the other will take several months (in chapter 1 you do not span the entire length of the world, but by the end of the trilogy you'll have traveled quite far).
The world of The Banner Saga has no easy way to travel. There are no horses, and no teleportation magic. When a whole town uproots and leaves, it has to do it the hard way.
Much like real-world Scandinavia, this land mass is part of a larger world. The part in trouble. You won't worry about the rest of the world (yet) but it's nice to know it's there.
It's also worth noting that the world isn't waiting for you to act. When things go bad, people in places across the whole world are doing what they can to save themselves. The stereotypical "band of heroes" who go off to save the world might not even be you. You'll run across other people with other plans all along the way and will have to respond to what they want to do.
DECISIONS IN BATTLE
Population is the other factor mentioned above, and is the one that has changed most in development. Originally, population was a representational number of the people who are traveling with you. The first thing we’ve changed is going from a representation to a raw number. If your UI says you have 2315 people in your caravan, that’s how many there are. You can (and will) have a population in the thousands.
This was important for a couple reasons, and the most important is that people in your caravan feel like real things. If people have died, we want you to know there were 12 of them, for example. As your population changes, the physical appearance of your caravan changes as well to represent just how many there are, and what type.
We also subdivided the people in your caravan which further emphasize your caravan’s not just as a number. There are peasants, fighters and varl. Peasants consist of the non-fighters - elderly, children, so on. Fighters are humans, and your varl population are all fighters as well, though generally considered much more dangerous than your average northman. This delineation goes into direct use in combat.
We knew that while 6 on 6 works great in Factions, it doesn’t represent thousands of people fighting thousands of enemies very well. Games like Final Fantasy Tactics are forced to fit their story around the idea that small skirmishes were how the war was won, and ignore the large-scale battles. This limits what can happen in the story.
To account for this, most battles now involve large numbers, described in battle events. The first phase of battle is to make your tactical decisions. When combat occurs, you see how many enemies there are, and how many allies you have. You make a decision about how to approach the battle. Do you charge into combat and take on more of the burden yourself, of tell your warriors to hold the enemy off, trying to buy time for the peasants to escape? This decision will affect the difficulty of your fight.
Once you’ve engaged the enemy, it plays out in turn-based strategic fashion, like Factions, with your six party members fighting a group of enemies of various sizes. Your degree of success here will influence the number of warriors who survive the battle, and there are opportunities to cut your losses, drive the enemy off or take big risks to decimate their forces. That is to say, your performance in the tactical game is no longer just about killing some dredge and moving on. It affects the lives of everyone around you.
In the aftermath of combat, you find out how many warriors died, how many peasants escaped and the degree of your victory. Combat is no longer just a small team affair. The player plays a part in a larger victory, and the decisions made before and during combat change the aftermath. Alternatively, if the player doesn’t gather enough warriors to his caravan before the big battles break out, he’s going to have a harder time keeping people alive.
The bottom line here is that we want the player to have choices. Some players will want to be experts at combat (heck, some are already masters of combat far beyond our own skills). If they do well in battle and decide to make fights tougher on themselves they’re rewarded. If a player enjoys combat but doesn’t want a huge challenge, they can keep the difficulty at their level. If a player doesn’t like the tactical nature of combat or wants to skip a fight every once in a way, they can do that too. Either way, you’ll still feel like you were involved in battle, and losing a battle doesn’t mean “game over”, it means you take losses. All of this can be done dynamically through the way you play, instead of by choosing easy or hard mode at the start of the game. We are also considering a hardcore mode, but at this point we have to seriously consider anything that adds development time.
So, saving people from doom is nice and all, but what’s your incentive to really “win” in combat? Why should you care?
MAKING IT MEAN SOMETHING
The culmination of this is the end-game. Some of you may recall that an expanded finale was one of our admittedly clumsy stretch goals. It wasn’t something we defined very well. In our original scope for the game, it was a series of events that the player had to survive, and then they’d see the ending. We knew we could do better. This is where our constant iteration comes in.
What we have now really feels like the summation of all your decisions across the entire journey. Without giving anything away, we’ve taken nearly every action the player has made and put them in something of a sandbox of options. How you decide to survive the finale is up to you, and your options are defined by everything you’ve done up to that point. If you let a character die they won’t be able to help against something that might turn out to be vital. If you didn’t do a good job keeping your warriors alive you may find yourself in some serious trouble. If you saved every single person along the way it may actually be a detriment. Unlike our original design we don’t have a single ending in chapter 1, we have a range of success, and it’s up to the player to decide whether they accept that ending or want to try again. You can even fail completely.
But again it’s not just about saving a large group of strangers. The cast of playable characters grows throughout the story until by the end game you can have over a dozen characters in your party. Each of these characters talks to you along the way, forms relationships with each other and influences your decisions. And they’re not invincible - if you don’t keep them safe they will die, leave or even turn against you. We’ve taken the advantage of being able to make our own design decisions to the point that I can safely say there’s not a single character who has plot invulnerability by the end of chapter 3, as ambitious as this may sound.
What this all comes down to is that we’ve thought about this story... a lot. Right now I don’t think we could make it any better than our current pass, and that’s a luxury very few developers get. I hope you’ll agree it has been worth it! Now it’s time to get back to banging out that content!
Not to worry, the next update shouldn't take as long as this one, as we're hoping to stick with monthly updates. The next one will most likely be an in-depth look at the animation process, showcasing everything involved with animating a 2D character and also showing off some characters and combat abilities we haven't released yet.
See ya next time!