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A mature, story-driven, turn-based strategy game steeped in viking culture, by three game industry veterans.
A mature, story-driven, turn-based strategy game steeped in viking culture, by three game industry veterans.
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20,042 backers pledged $723,886 to help bring this project to life.

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Animation process

Posted by Stoic (Creator)

Hello backers! As previously mentioned, today's update will be a closer look into the animation process. We'll save the usual Q&A section for the our next content update and jump right to the good stuff!

ANIMATION

As most of you know, we went an uncommon route with the character animations for The Banner Saga, deciding not just to do 2D animation, but to use traditional animation techniques to really achieve the old Disney "Sleeping Beauty" effect we were going for with the game's art style. This decision was based on pure madness in retrospect, but more specifically a deep-seated love of classic animation. We wanted the game to always feel like you're playing an animated movie.

I would wager the opinion that anyone who has done traditional animation knows that it's extraordinarily complex and time consuming.

Here's a very brief background on the difference between traditional and modern animating. I have no doubt that many of you know this, but let's do a quick refresher:

3D animation
The artist creates a 3D model, an animator attaches a rig to it, also called a skeleton. This skeleton can be positioned the same way you would move around an articulate mannequin, by positioning and rotating joints. Making this movement look natural is the hard part, and requires buckets of skill. The nice thing is that you make a model once, and now it's quick to rough out and make changes, you can move the camera wherever you want, change the lighting, etc. I'm not sure how many people know this, but 3D animation is now on the verge of being quicker and easier to produce than traditional animation. Proof: Disney channel cartoons are now made in 3D.

Modern 2D animation
This is a fairly modern use of computer tech to make traditional animation easier to produce and look smoother and more fluid. It has its own advantages and disadvantages. Many people won't necessarily know there's a difference. Here's the first example I thought of. Oh God, sorry about that. I honestly have no opinion on ponies. If you watch carefully you can see that usually there's just a single image that's being stretched or squashed or flipped. The number of unique images you need to make is minimized. The animation software allows you to create smooth transitions between these different poses so that the result looks nice and fluid. Usually this kind of animation relies on things moving from straight-on angles without any perspective.

Frankly, the animation in this show is rather well done. In my opinion, though, this style of animation loses some of the point of 2D animating. It's functional, but not awe-inspiring. Just my two cents.

Traditional animation
The principle behind it is simple: just like film, animation is made up of a series of still images that play back so fast they appear to be moving. Somebody got the crazy idea that instead of just recording real people, they'd hand-draw 24 pictures for every second of footage they needed. This is doing it the Hard Way (tm). Though the number of frames per second can vary depending on the action, this is what we decided to do. Traditional animation can come in two flavors: completely hand-drawn and rotoscoping. Hand-drawn means there was no video reference involved. It's just an animator and a pen.

Rotoscoping
Rotoscoping is the process of doing traditional animation, using film footage as a guide. Many people thinks you're just tracing frames. This is absolutely incorrect. Tracing frames of animation straight-up will look like you traced frames of animation. (For the record, this is one of my favorite bits of animation ever).

You can't just copy the raw footage, and that's where the skill comes in. A good animator can take a piece of video footage and make it somehow more believable and dynamic than real life. If the animators are good you'll often see both hand-drawn and rotoscoping in the same movie and not know it. It's a guide, the same way a character artist may use an anatomical model as reference.

Did you know that most of Disney's human characters were rotoscoped, including Briar Rose from Sleeping Beauty, for example? Compare this video. You can see that each frame of the animation has been drawn from scratch, by hand. There's some imperfection between them, and some of the linework fluctuates. It also isn't as smooth as modern animation, which have the luxury of computational blending between key frames and a higher frame rate. But to me there's something pretty amazing about this traditional style.

So, that's the challenge we gave Powerhouse Studios, who happen to based right here with us in Austin. Traditional animation!

Brad from Powerhouse has been kind enough to write up an overview of what they've been doing. Here's Brad:

THE ANIMATION PROCESS

Powerhouse Animation Studios, Inc. is very excited to be a team member on the Banner Saga. When we first saw the initial designs for the game we knew that this was something we wanted to be involved with. Not to mention we love working with other Austin independent companies. Powerhouse is probably most known for our game cinema work. We created the cinemas for Epic Mickey 1 and 2, Starhawk, DC Universe Online, Risk Factions, Darksiders 2, as well as others.

When we first met with Stoic we talked about doing both cinemas and in-game character based assets and have been very excited about helping bring Alex, John, and Arnie’s vision to life. The Banner Saga was a perfect fit for the studio. We share a lot with Stoic, both in terms of what we expect from our crew and our artistic interests. We loved that the game was inspired by the great 2D animator Eyvind Earle, and we even initially shared Norse mythology books back and forth.

Everything is being animated very traditionally, taking great care to live up to the expectations set by Arnie’s character and concept design.

CINEMAS

For the cinemas we’ve created, we are following the traditional animation pipeline which has not changed much since the 30’s. The main difference being that we now draw on Cintiqs directly into Flash (for this job we were solid Adobe: Flash, Photoshop, and After Effects).

Before we started on the animation we did a short test animation to prove to the guys at Stoic that we could achieve their style in the animated world. In animation production, the more complicated the designs are (we call it pencil mileage) the more time it takes to animate, and therefore the more it costs in man hours to make. On this project we had to find a balance between style and budget to make sure we could achieve what we were all seeing in our heads. Arnie’s designs were beautiful and we wanted to treat them well in their transitions to the animated world.

Step 1: Storyboards and Animatics: Arnie supplied us with some rough boards and we turned that into an animatic.

An animatic is storyboards timed to audio. For the animatic we needed audio, and we didn’t have the voice acting or music completed yet. So the first audio of the piece is our creative director, Sam Deats, reading the lines with a bit of an accent. Maybe that version should be a bonus feature on the game, (just kidding, Sam). (Alex's note: he sounded like Dracula, it was fantastic). In traditional animation you don’t want to work on anything that isn’t going to be in the final piece, down to the second. After all, for each second we have to do 12-24+ drawings depending on the amount of characters and backgrounds. Therefore, we worked really hard with Stoic to nail down the cuts and timing in the animatic.


Step 2: Rough Animation: After the animatic was locked we moved forward with rough animation, which is exactly what it sounds like. Animators like Patrick Stannard would work on roughing out the scenes.

Patrick Stannard working on a scene.

The final rough version of Patrick's scene.

Step 3: Backgrounds: While animation is being done, artists work on backgrounds from the animatic layouts. The backgrounds in this piece were meticulously digitally painted in Photoshop, and we tried to live up to the standards set by the Stoic Team.

Louis Norris working on a digital painting.

Some examples of the final backgrounds.

Step 4: Inbetweens and Clean-up: The rough scenes are passed to clean-up artists to be colored and “inked.” It takes a steady and patient hand to make sure that designs like these stay on model and stay true to the designs. Sometimes our animators do their own in-betweens and sometimes more are added by our skilled clean-up artists.

(Alex: to elaborate a little on "in-betweens" - different animators have different specialized tasks. Some create the key frames, which you could consider the anchors that make up the full animation, the specific frames that are key to creating the motion. In-betweeners will fill the gaps between these key frames, and have learned how to be really proficient and maximize the fluidity of the animation. Clean-up are animators who take the rough as seen above and make sure the line-weights are correct and finalized. Each role requires tons of skill and each role is equally important to the final product).

Stephanie McCrea cleaning up a scene.

Step 5: Composition/Post: Everything is assembled in After Effects. SWFS of Flash scenes, and Photoshop-based painting are combined, and effects (snow, lighting, color correction) are added to get everything to its final place. This is the result--go back and watch the rough scene and you can see how much is added in this process.

GAME ASSETS

I have heard that some folks have asked how Stoic got its “toon render” look for the game’s assets. These assets are all 2d animated pieces, folks. They are hand drawn in Adobe Flash. (Alex: Flash gets a bad rap sometimes, because of the low-quality stuff that gets pumped out on the internet. But Flash is an excellent tool for animation, especially in the hands of experts. We take Powerhouse's flash output and sprite-sheet it into our engine).

The process for making the game assets is actually pretty similar. We do rough animation and get approval from Stoic before moving to clean-up, but there are a few differences.

Ronnie Williford animating a game asset.

{Alex: A bit of info on character animation - because many of our base characters are used to create advanced classes, Powerhouse takes special care to make sure that certain assets are modifiable on separate layers, such as weapons and heads. This allows us to make variations at a much quicker pace than a brand new class).

Cindy Crowell doing clean-up on a character asset.

Rotoscoping: Since Sleeping Beauty (which used a lot of rotoscoping) was inspirational for this piece, and also to add some more Kickstarter incentives, the guys at Stoic filmed a lot of the game play action that they wanted their characters to perform. They would provide us footage of some of the actions for reference. Unfortunately, the rotoscoping process is never a straight lift. Factors such as camera shakes, and the odd fact that if you just trace live action you lose a lot of the weight and fluidity that you get from traditional animation, really leave a lot of the action in the court of the animator.

(Alex: Every character in the game is one of us, looking like buffoons in the front yard. To capture characters from the correct 3/4th down angle (for isometric gameplay) we had to film from a fixed position on a ladder.)

(Alex: From this footage we provide a template for creating the final animation. You can see big changes to the final animation below, which in addition to making the character look cool instead of silly, takes into account weapons and fixes the timing for the animation so that it plays at a more enjoyable gameplay speed.)

(The hunter class shown here uses both melee and ranged weapons, which may be interesting to those of you who have played Factions.)

Smaller scale: Since these characters were varying sizes, and the humans especially could get quite small on the actual pixel dimensions of the game screen, and we were working in vectors (Flash is a vector-based program). A lot of thought and care went into making the designs work at this scale.

Amount of work: Since these characters are controllable and need to maneuver on the field, we needed to do all of their action animations from different sides—it was a considerable amount of work.

(Alex: each character has essentially 8 animations each, filmed from two directions, northeast and southeast. With each animation coming in between 30-60 frames, that means each character class can have up to 1000 unique frames of animation)

THANKS
Thanks to the team at Stoic for letting us share this, and for letting us be a part of such an inspirational project. Thanks to the crew at Powerhouse for all of their hard work on this project. If you want to know more about Powerhouse Animation, check us out online at www.powerhouseanimation.com

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Thanks to Brad and the amazing artists at Powerhouse! Next time, we'll be releasing video footage of the first playable content for The Banner Saga. We've got a huge portion of the game now in the bag and we're looking forward to sharing it! Plus, another free gift for backers in the very near future. Stay tuned!

Thanks!
Alex, Stoic and Powerhouse

Progress report!

Posted by Stoic (Creator)
1 like

Hello and greetings again for another monthly update! This time we had planned to give you an in-depth look at the animation process in great detail by the amazing artists at Powerhouse Animations. They have been working ridiculous deadlines of their own and had to delay the update. We didn't want to keep anyone waiting, so we'll do a progress report now and a content-filled animation update soon thereafter. I know many people were hoping we'd update more frequently with smaller posts anyway.

First, Q&A as always:

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 2 months

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.

And now, PROGRESS!

This has been an insane month for The Banner Saga. We have a schedule we're working from, of course, and to meet this month's deadline we've been crunching harder than ever. I don't tell you this for sympathy, I say it simply because it's true, and we knew what we were signing up for. So, what did we accomplish with all this crunchery?

GOLD STANDARD
If you've followed game development before you might already know what gold standard means. Design usually involves coming up with a solid set of ideas, testing them quickly, creating placeholder systems until everything is working and is fun. After that, you create final content, figure out the way things move, polish the various systems until they're really done.

I'm very happy to say that every system in our game is now gold standard, and all of part 1 is compete. This is a significant portion of the game (I'm shy about saying exactly how much because stuff changes all the time).

Here's a list of things we've implemented since the last update:

  • World travel. Final art, with animated particles like blowing snow, birds, etc.
  • Close travel. Final art for a variety of close locations all hooked up as intended in the engine.
  • Randomized camp scenes. The player can camp at any point during travel, generating a randomized scene so that no two campsites look the same along the way. In camp the player can manage their units, rest, view the map and talk to allies. All of these systems are hooked up and working.
  • Custom combat boards. Final art for the unique combat boards used in part 1. These unique boards are used for key parts of the story, and they'll look special when you come to them.
  • Randomized combat boards. You'll often get into incidental fights along the way, usually due to choice you made during travel. These non-story-based fights randomly generate combat boards from a library of pieces that are mixed in matched to make standard fights have some variety.
  • The caravan. The traveling caravan now has final art in both world and close travel, growing and shrinking depending on how many people are in your caravan.
  • War. When you run across enemies in great numbers you go into "war" mode, a tactical decision where you choose how to approach a large-scale battle. This system has been hooked up with final art.
  • Travel HUD. The travel gui at the top of the screen is now fully functional. It tracks all your stats as you travel and the art changes as things like morale improve or degrade. The days cycle and count down and the other various buttons are all hooked up.
  • Conversation cameras. The portraits and camera movement for conversation are all finalized. When writing dialogue I can now choose which cameras to use to show characters that are talking. Their names and dialogue are also functional.
  • Conversation portraits. We have over 16 playable characters in the saga, and several more NPCs on top of this. All of these portraits are complete and hooked up in the game.
  • Conversation backgrounds. When jumping into conversation, the game pulls from a library of images, mixing and matching pieces to create background images that don't repeat.
  • Dialogue. Part one of the game now has final dialogue, both in conversation and for events that happen throughout the part. In addition, all the variables are hooked up to this dialogue so that the decisions you make actually function within the game.
  • Combat characters. We have many new characters that have not been seen before, and animation is finished for them.
  • Combat enemies. The dredge are nearly complete, but several are already in the game. We have begun the process of balancing them for single player combat.
  • Combat AI. Computer enemies now function, making smart decisions about what action to take. If you've played Factions you know the combat can get pretty complex. We will be working to improve AI until the game ships but at this time it is completely functional (and fun!)
  • Dynamic music. Austin Wintory has been doing excellent work on the score, but he's just as interested in making it emotionally engaging. Combat now takes into account your actions and dynamically generates music to match that. Certain actions in combat (first kill, winning, losing, etc) now seamlessly cue different music to emphasize this. He'll be doing an update about this in the future.
  • Travel score. Austin has also drawn up a lot of the music for traveling through the game. It's gorgeous!
  • Misc. There are tons of little things that go into putting this all together. We have transitions in place, titles screens, match resolution showing how many fighters you've lost, that sort of thing.

Sounds great, you may be saying, when do we get to see it? The plan is for the next update to show all of this gameplay. It'll also be a promotional piece and the first time people outside the studio have seen the real, functional game. We want to do it right, since it'll probably get picked up by some news sites.

However, we will be at RTX (Rooster Teeth Expo) in Austin this weekend, and showing a lot of this at our booth. If you happen to be in the area drop by!

OVERALL PROGRESS
What does Gold Standard mean for the progress of the full game? With everything in our game functioning correctly with final art, we are now working almost entirely on content. Here's a rough outline of how development goes:

Pre-production (art style, broad design ideas, type of game)
Proof of Concept (mock up of what the game would look and play like, basic rules)
Vertical slice (placeholder work on key systems that are playable, to test for fun)
Alpha (most of the game is playable in a rough state, some features still missing)
Gold Standard (a section of the game is taken to completion with final work, all systems are done)
Beta (the entire game is laid out, needs polish and playtesting)
Launch! (the game is done! Or is it?)

Developers can do this in a lot of different ways, which is why the terms above can get confusing. Is something alpha or beta? What does that even mean? Indies especially will just go along doing whatever feels right at the time, but the above is our basic trajectory. Next we'll be creating content for the remainder of the game. This is generally where production starts to move really fast, no longer burdened with having parts of the game that "can't be completed" yet.

A CONVERSATION ABOUT KICKSTARTER
Lots of stuff has been going on in the Kickstarter community lately. I'm sure many of you have noticed Double Fine's announcement about splitting up their game into two parts. They've gotten some serious heat for this. Backers of Shadowrun have heard similar things about the content in that game, with the DLC being released much later.

First of all, I want to be clear that we do not intend to do something like this for The Banner Saga. When it releases it will be a complete product. We don't have plans for DLC at this time, and we will continue to support the multiplayer component. We also intend to continue on the sequels (chapter 2 and 3) just as planned.

I would also like to talk about my personal opinion on this, and I'd love to be open and talk like a normal person instead of a PR person in damage control mode. Can we do this? Without freaking out? You can disagree with me of course, just be nice about it.

This is hard. Like, way WAY hard. When we pitched the game we were hoping for enough money to get extra animations, maybe increase the length of the game. We thought we'd get, like, 2000 backers, not 20,000. A fine problem to have, right? Haha! Except that it's actually a huge problem. The hardest problem I've ever dealt with in my life. Now I know.

We thought now we could do everything we ever wanted for the game, and got too ambitious. We thought we could make the game in six months, and I'm still not sure what we were thinking. That was stupid. I wish I could take that back, all we needed to do was put a different date there and nobody would be complaining. Whoops. We ARE still doing everything we want, and it's taking a long time. I don't feel bad about that. That was the POINT, right? To dream as big as we could?

It's interesting to think of it from someone else's point of view. For many people, letting a dev shoot for the moon is NOT the point. For a lot of people the point is I BOUGHT A GAME, WHERE IS IT? They want the biggest, best game ever made, on time, for their $10 contribution. I can see that, too. I don't really agree... but I suppose it's a matter of perspective.

If nothing else, I think the gaming community is finally getting a good picture about real game development. What would really shock people is that there is nothing unusual about any of this, except that you are finally seeing it. This is every game development story that has ever existed, except instead of the publisher dealing with it, YOU are.

Budgets of 1 to 4 million are small-to-medium sized. Our budget of $650k (in actual funding) is relatively small, half a year of production for a small team. Budgets of kickstarter projects asking for $20k... that's not enough to make a game, that's just some content. Surprise! Games you've come to expect as "standard" like Call of Duty: maybe 150 million to make, rough guess. You know how much Old Republic cost? I'm not legally allowed to tell you, actually. It's that much. Now you know.

Games take 1 year to make... if it's a casual iOS game, or an annual sequel. Medium sized games take 2-3 years. Large games take 4-5 years. Believe it or not, lots of games fall in a nebulous space between AAA and "indie", whatever that means. The Old Republic took over 6 years. Yeah, you started hearing about it 1 year before it released. It started production five years before that. For five years hundreds of people toiled on it 12 hours a day and you had no idea! Now you know! Isn't knowing about production right from the start wonderful? No, it's not. It's annoying. It takes FOREVER. That's why you usually don't hear anything until it's almost ready to ship.

Delays, content cuts, pushed back dates, plans to make revenue sooner- this is how games are developed. Bioshock Infinite, the biggest game of 2013, got delayed for half a year, AFTER pre-orders were sold. Journey took 3 years to make a 3 hour game and had to go back for more funding from Sony TWICE. That's how game development goes. They didn't know they'd need to do it. Humans are not good at estimating creative endeavors, no matter how "professional" they are.

We released a truly free demo hoping to make some extra cash for development, and got brutalized for it. But without that income and development time our single-player game wouldn't be as good. Some people will never understand this.

I've worked in games for about a decade. Some companies I worked for had their stuff together better than others. Some were a huge, hundred-million dollar, extremely delayed nightmares. Every company had delays and went over-budget. You know what a release date is? A guess. We're just guessing.

Essentially, I hope people don't freak out too much about what's happening with Kickstarter right now. It's not deceitful or underhanded. It's not a conspiracy. It's normal stuff, whether you like it or not. If Broken Age wasn't a Kickstarter game the first time you would have heard about it would be a couple months from ship, and that it was a two-part adventure game. And you would have been fine with that.

Our game is coming along better than I could have imagined, even if delayed. BECAUSE it's delayed. I'm super happy with it. Other companies have way bigger problems, but that's game development. NOW YOU KNOW. I sincerely hope everything works out the best for them, and you should too. At the end of the day, they're nice guys trying to make good entertainment for you. I, personally, will cut them all the slack in the world.

So there you have it. The games industry! The aristocrats! Maybe it'll get better someday? For now, let's enjoy our time together! (I love you).

-Alex

Travel, Story and Combat choices

Posted by Stoic (Creator)

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.

TOOLS

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

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.

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:
Supplies
Morale
Population

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.

CAMP

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.

WORLD

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!

NEXT TIME

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!
Alex

White Box

Posted by Stoic (Creator)

Hello, backers. We meet again in good spirits!

We’ve got quite a bit of development progress to get into, but before we jump into that, we’re going to do a quick repeating feature at the top of every update addressing some of the common questions we get. Usually we get these same questions several times a day, so hopefully this will help keep everyone up to date:

ESSENTIAL Q&A

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.

Q: When is the game coming out?
A: Later this year. We used the overfunding to significantly increase the size of the game and extend the release date.

WHITE BOX

As you may have heard, Factions is out. We’ve finished all the combat upgrades which you can try in the game (we’ve also decreased the “grind” quite a bit based on feedback we got). This means that every character ability ranks up and becomes more powerful, which was the last combat system we needed for single player combat.

To mention it again, everything we did for Factions is for the single player. Even the intro cinematic in Factions is actually the intro to the single player game, and the combat boards in Factions are key fights in the single player campaign. We're using all parts of the buffalo, so to speak.

During this time we’ve finished final design work on all our systems. With this documentation finished, implementation has begun.

Here’s a recap: The Banner Saga has three primary gameplay systems: combat, conversation and travel. You switch between these to advance the story. Conversation tracks your decisions and advances the plot, travel is a combination of Oregon Trail and King of Dragon Pass, moving the story forward while creating events related to what you’re doing. Travel also accounts for exploring towns, just like how you see Strand in Factions. The turn-based combat occurs when conflicts arise. Each of these systems feeds into the others.

What is a white box?

This a term used to describe the entire game from front to back laid out with placeholder assets. Sometimes it’s called a gray box because in 3D games designers will rough out the shape of the world or levels with simple gray boxes so that they can playtest it before doing time-consuming and expensive final art.

What this means is that we have been implementing every travel scene, every conversation and every combat into the engine and tying the whole thing together via scripting so that we can actually play the entire game. White boxing takes the game from being a series of design docs and makes them exist in the game in rough form. Travel will have placeholder art, combat will have placeholder enemies and conversation will have placeholder dialogue that we can easily iterate on.

What a white box is invaluable for is 1) making sure the systems are functioning correctly, 2) other work can be developed based on this (for example, sound and music), 3) making sure the transitions between systems work well, and 4) Iteration! This last bit is probably the most critical part because it’s only once you have everything playable that you can start to refine it until it shines. Imagine making a game as drawing an enormous mural. A painter doesn’t start in the corner of the picture and complete the image one inch at a time. He roughs in the entire image in pencil, makes changes to the composition, blocks in the colors, adds shading and lighting, then starts to do the detail work. Making a game is a similar process of iteration.

In our case we scoped out the game in rough documentation. We re-scoped when we got 7x the funding. We created gold standards (final look and feel) for travel, conversation and combat. We then started to build the framework for each of these systems. You can see travel functionality when you pan the camera in Strand and the story is already playable through Inkle Writer. We had the great fortune of being able to use Inkle Writer as our conversation toolset, and this has saved us literally months. Inkle Writer will allow us to output functional code that easily plugs into our engine to control variables and conditionals. We took combat past the point of being functional into full polish. As this was our highest risk system it made sense to front-load the work on combat. Playtesting and feedback made sure that it’s as good as we can make it, and we’ve iterated the hell out of it.

TYING IT ALL TOGETHER

Game development has a lot of hidden nooks and crannies. For example, when you think of designing a game you say things in your head like “when the player wins this battle they’ll cut to a conversation...” but how does that happen? You don’t want a programmer to sit down and input every aspect of the game as hard-coded data, which is time-consuming and prone to errors. Instead we’ve created a data-driven system that allows any developer to adjust and modify variables, triggers, actions, conditionals, etc at will.

Each individual game can approach this in whatever way works for them. In an extraordinarily complex game like Star Wars: The Old Republic it’s virtually impossible for any one department to understand all the systems that spiderweb to draw the game together. For example, let’s just take cinematics. The developer accounts for calling appearances, tracking any previous variables like story decisions, calling any other PCs and NPCs in the scene, tracking the characters equipment, and then a slew of specific details about what animation to play, which camera to use, which vfx or sound fx to play and a dozen other choices. And that’s multiple OAVs (Object-Action-Value string) per line of dialogue, sometimes numbering in the dozens. Now take that whole packaged cinematic up one level and you’re integrating where it appears in the world, what prerequisites are associated with triggering it, what state the environment and characters are in, what event spawned this current one, what will be spawned after, what variables change as a result and how the information is given to the player through UI indicators or journal updates. Branching storylines will exacerbate all of this to an incredible degree. At the end of production on The Old Republic, BioWare had literally dozens of designers called “scripters” whose entire job was just to tie everything together. You probably didn’t even know they existed because their work tends to be invisible.

In The Banner Saga we’re able to boil this down to a much more manageable level. First of all, as a 2D game we’ve already reduced a massive amount of complexity. Secondly, we’ve streamlined the whole system to only account for exactly what The Banner Saga needs, not an engine that needs to be applicable for both first person shooters and puzzle games, for example.

Here’s a practical example: we need to track a package of things that happen. “When you do this, that happens, which changes this and puts you on that path”. We’re calling these packages “Happenings” and they tie everything together. It’s just a word we made up. Happenings sounds like a weird thing to call a system but we’ve found that the more identifiable a name, the less likely you are to confuse what you’re talking about. When you have lots of systems interacting with each other, this is vitally important. For example, we call a package of animation, abilities, sounds and vfx for a particular character a “phantasm” so when we use that word we know exactly what we’re talking about.

A happening is made up of the exact the elements needed to start and finish an event. We have triggers, actions, variables and resolution. A happening can spawn other happenings running simultaneously and each tracks different values until they resolve. Here’s an example of how you might construct a happening:

Your trigger is what calls the happening. Let’s say we want Crossing a variable threshold. Ok, once the threshold is crossed we’ve triggered the happening. Maybe this is a number of days that have passed, or a travel stat changing from 2 to 1. Then what happens? Let’s say the action is Go to combat: X. This will put the player in a pre-defined (or random, if we specify) combat. Once this action is complete it goes to the next value. Maybe it’s another action: Go to conversation: X. The player cuts to conversation mode which can introduce variables. If it does create a new variable, this probably spawns a new happening to track the variable. Or it may result in a linear variable, like moving time forward. This would create Modify Days: X. When the conversation ends we go to the next value, which may be Go to travel: X. This will put the caravan back into travel mode where they’ll trundle along until they trigger the next happening.

This is a very simplified example, but in sequence it may look something like this:

Happening: Plot_element8
Trigger:
Cross a variable threshold: days=23
Action: Go to combat: forest_ambush
Action: Go to conversation: part2_13
Variable: Modify days: days+2
Action: Go to travel: road_to_strand
Resolution: end

This is a linear sequence of events, but each happening in itself is linear- we don’t track conditionals here. At day 23 of travel we got ambushed. After the fight we had a conversation and did something that took 2 more days. Afterward we were back in travel, heading toward Strand. The new happenings that trigger are what make the game branch and diverge. For example, you may make a decision in the above conversation that causes a new series of events to be set in motion. Maybe there was a heated debate about which way to go and one of your companions lashed out in violence. This new happening doesn’t require a trigger because it was spawned in the above conversation. Here’s what it might spawn:

Happening: conversation2_13_bob_attacks
Variable: remove_bob
Variable: morale-2
Action: Go to combat: bob_dies
Resolution: end

In this case the decision I made in conversation caused bob to die and that modified some variables and spawned a combat immediately. Once the combat has resolved it’s gone, but the previous happening is still going. I return from combat and do “Go to travel: road_to_strand” before that happening will end. Most of these variables and conditionals are applied in conversation, which uses a whole different set of toggles called markers to define different conditionals that then inform global changes or variables to the parent happening.

This is just one example. The list of functional triggers, actions and variables is much deeper and includes everything we need to make The Banner Saga functional and dynamic.

Now first of all, let me mention that this isn’t ground-breaking stuff. Most games use something like this and ours is fairly simple, based on our understanding of it working at big companies. But as you can imagine, this can start stacking up to get fairly complex. Fortunately, with the game itself being well-defined we can afford to add complexity to the story, where we want to see it.

When a company plans to make a game it can choose where to place its complexity. If you want full 3D environments, top of the line visuals and animation, complex physics, branching dialogue and advanced combat or inventory systems you'll pay for those exponentially. You can almost think of it as each major feature you add to a game amplifies the difficulty of all the other features. Indie games success has almost always been in taking one or two features and taking them to their furthest extent, usually trying something that feels new in the process. Story has always been our primary focus and our other systems bend to its maniacal demands.

The main point of this long explanation is that this is currently where we are in development- hooking up the white box.

TRAVEL DESIGN

We’ve now finalized the design for travel, conversation and combat (single player features like AI, spawners, random battle generation, etc). In this update I’ll go over an explanation of travel and some of the features involved there.

Everything in this section is a step-by-step example of us identifying a problem, coming up with multiple solutions and implementing the one that works best for the game. We think it’s great to be able to show the whole process, not just the final result. For reference, we do this with just two or three of us, in a single room, throwing ideas around and mocking them up within minutes. While working for a big company the process would be very different. We’d write a “user story”, schedule a conference room, have a three-hour meeting, document the result, send it up the chain for approval, integrate the feedback, get it approved, pass it by the upper management/publisher, get more feedback and integrate a variety of requests from management or marketers who don’t really understand the system in the first place. Then we’d find out it got cut and... anyway...

We knew the travel involved two key features since it’s earliest conception: we want the player to travel across vast, beautiful landscapes, and we want them to be making decisions that affect other systems including combat, conversation and the story in general. The gameplay requires that the player can set up camp at any point and make decisions about the path they wish to take.

Additionally, as described in update #30, players will have to deal with events that arise as they travel. The decisions they make persist and affect their story, similar to King of Dragon Pass. It’s like managing a rolling settlement. This is still the core fundamental experience of traveling.

However, as we began to mock up the system we found one issue in particular that we needed to solve. Here’s an example of the travel mode as we’ve implemented it:

Just like our trailer, the player travels across a land that looks like this. The events as we described are ready to go and events would work fine here. The caravan trundles along similar to Oregon Trail towards their destination.

However, from this angle we knew that we had an issue to solve: unlike Oregon Trail the landscape isn’t abstracted. If we have wide distances between two points we have four problems: 1) to make the world feel appropriately large we would need to create a massive amount of content to fill the space. This would require us to either sacrifice other systems to buy the necessary time or have a lot of very repeatable assets which would defeat the purpose of making the player watch it. 2) Watching travel for extended periods of time would be boring even if it were all unique. We want the player to feel like they’re making progress, not passively waiting for something to happen. 3) If we make the play-time correct instead of the distance it will feel like the world is tiny, with only a casual stroll between major cities and milestones, and the fiction would fall apart. 4) We want the player to feel the impact of choosing different paths. If they choose a different path via the story and end up on a similar looking travel screen it won’t feel significant.

Our first instinct was to create an overhead map for the player to fill the gaps, as so:

In this design we have a map with different waypoints. Systems like this are used in plenty of rpgs like Dragon Age: Origins, Final Fantasy Tactics or FTL. The player would choose a destination from any adjacent location and they would head in that direction. When they reached the location they would go back down into the sidescrolling travel mode show above. This would let us give the impression of traveling a long distance without having to sit through it, while also letting us show off beautiful landscapes at key locations. Since we define those locations we could make sure that they use unique art.

This had a few problems, too. World maps tend to make a world feel small, not big, by shrinking huge distances down to a short line. It also gave the impression that the world is just a series of points and not a real place. In gameplay terms we didn’t like how the player would watch their caravan slide across the map without any indication of what was happening to them, which felt impersonal. We also didn’t want the player spending significant time staring at the same map over and over.

To address the issue of tracking how far a day of travel is and make the distance feel more concrete and larger, we considered the “dashed line” approach used in, for example, Indiana Jones when he travels by plane.

When selecting a location, it would generate a travel plan in dashes. The red dashes would represent a passage of time (say, for example, 1 dash = 1 day of travel) and the blue dashes would represent at what point the caravan would shift to sidescrolling travel. In this mode, the player would press a button each day they wished to travel, similar to changing seasons in King of Dragon Pass.

We quickly scrapped this idea. It felt too gamey, ui-centric and potentially boring, and would still require us to code, playtest and create art for an even more complex system which burns development time.

Ultimately what we came back to is that you’re traveling a vast, beautiful landscape. By utilizing the travel tools that we already have we drew up this:

In this version, the player transitions from close-up travel to a camera that is pulled back to show an expansive landscape. When reaching a landmark or town you still travel at 1:1 scale, amongst trees, guards manning city walls and animals in the field, but now you’ll also travel along gorgeous vistas of massive scope.

The caravan shrinks to show just how many people could be in your population, potentially in the thousands. The distance between two landmarks can fit in a relatively short period of play time, while still giving the sense that you’re traveling a vast distance. Our minimal hud at the top counts up, tracking days as they pass, reused from the deployment hud in combat (which you’ll recognize if you’ve played Factions).

Not only does this save development time but it makes travel beautiful again. We can animate things happening around you, weather, things blowing in the wind, show the state of your caravan and have landmarks appear in the world. You make decisions about which paths to take in either popups or dialogue, triggered as part of the story. This will make the decisions feel more organic than clicking a point on the static image.

However, we still missed the greater sense of your place in the world that the map gave us, so while traveling, you can press a button to pull down the map behind you. It works aesthetically and lets the player check their location without stopping the action. This is not the real map, incidentally:

You’ll also notice that the ui on travel is extremely compact. Just like with combat we wanted to feature the art and make using the ui as intuitive as possible. You can see your travel stats change as you travel, select different modes of travel if depending on if you need speed, rest, food or other variables. You can make camp allowing you to change your travel mode and talk to companions. When you reach a unique location you duck back into close up travel and when you arrive at a location like Strand (the city in Factions) it becomes your interface for exploring the city.

THE GODS COMETH

I’ve now been in conversation with the backers who were generous enough to earn a place in the heavens as viking gods. This means we’ve also finalized the lore documents and have worked out the mythology and history of the world. I have to say, on a personal note I think the gods are coming along really excellently and will add a ton of depth to the world.

Gods each have a unique godstone, and crossing these along the journey will give you the option to learn backstory. Godstones also act as milestone markers and instill bonuses to those who path beneath. When you see a godstone in the game you’ll be glad for it.

COMING UP

We’ll be going into more detail about travel details and how they interact with other modes, probably going deeper into conversation and single player combat as well. As we’ve mentioned in previous updates, stats like endurance, morale, population, supplies, the number of warriors in your caravan and a few other factors all determine how fast you travel and the state of the locations you can travel to, but also factor into the other systems. Your choices in each gameplay mode affect the others.

At some point we’ll also be doing a featured update on the animation process where we go over everything involved in making a hand-animated character.

PUSHING AHEAD (PLEASE READ)

We know many people are anxious for the game to come out, so are we. Our original estimation was Nov 2012 and when we were given the option to take longer, and make a better game, we decided to take it.

That said, we don’t want to make any more delays to the game. We think most of you will agree that the best way to do this is to halt anything that isn’t related to getting chapter 1 out the door.

When we complete the Saga finished systems will continue to make their way into Factions.

We are shipping the game for Steam first, and the standalone port (on Desura, GOG and Amazon) will be our immediate task after that. Yes, that does mean Steam will get it slightly sooner because we’re already integrated in Steam. However, the game is universal to all backers, so even if you prefer the standalone version you will have access to the Steam version. We don’t see any reason to withhold the game while we convert it to work as a standalone. We are also going to be more quiet between updates as they can take a lot of time to produce.

To put it simply, it’s full steam ahead on the single player game and everything gets shipped as it gets done. The good news is it’s coming along great!

Until next time,
Alex

Q&A with Alex

Posted by Stoic (Creator)

Hey everybody! We’ve had so much going on that it’s been hard to find the time to catch our breaths. With Factions coming out in the next week this seemed like a good time to catch up with our backers and have a nice chat.

Basically, we know there are lots of questions about the project right now. We’ve answered every question we can find, in as many places as possible, but we think it’d be helpful for everyone if we rounded them together for an update.

I’ll also be happy to field any questions in the comments section below if you don’t see it in this update!

The release date on the project said November, now it’s February and you’re just releasing some multiplayer thing I didn’t even want. What gives?

This is the biggest issue we want to address.

When we set a launch date of November, we didn’t know if we’d match our funding or not. If I’m completely honest it was probably too optimistic, even if we had only gotten the minimum funding. We should have known better, and I apologize for that mistake.

Just as importantly, we made 7x the funding we expected. We made the game exponentially bigger. Imagine a tv show that gets picked up for 7 more seasons, or a book that gets made into a 7-part series or a 20-minute indie film being given the funding to turn it into a 2 hour feature film. All of these things take a long time. And hopefully, every one of these examples means a much better end result.

Where did this Factions thing come from anyway? I don’t remember hearing about it.

We mentioned a free multiplayer standalone at the end of our Kickstarter pitch video. At the time it was more of a side note, and not what we wanted to focus on. Near the end of the campaign we added a stretch goal to add player-owned cities to Factions. Again, a lot of people didn’t realize we were talking about the multiplayer game.

As for personally? We love single player RPGs and we love multiplayer matches. We loved the idea of working on both of these things in the same world and sharing the content and tech.

Why make Factions at all, instead of just making the single player game?

Factions started out as a way to give backers a playable part of the game early. It also turned into a huge endeavor.

We got beta players, and we got lots of feedback, and we ended up making the best combat system we could. As we developed the combat we made huge improvements to the game. We reworked the interface three times until it was really intuitive, and we overhauled the classes dozens of times. We really fine-tuned and polished the hell out of the art and the combat mechanics. The depth and scope of the multiplayer game is far beyond what we had originally set out to do.

Did we spend too long on this system? Maybe. It’s still hard for me to know for sure. Making a single player game is vastly more simple than making a multiplayer game, and these challenges cost us more time than we would have liked.

At the same time, if we had not gone through this process, the game, both single and multi-player, would be significantly lower quality than it is now, without a doubt.

We say it in every single update, but it’s 100% true - the combat in factions was made for the single player game, and we’ve used that to make a fully functional game that you can play now! We had really hoped people would see this is a huge bonus.

Ultimately, which choice would you have made? We know there are people on both sides of the issue, and we’ve seen both good and bad results from the path that we’ve decided to go down.

Factions just looks like a cash grab to me.

It really bums me out to see this sentiment, we have tried really hard to avoid it. First off, let me mention that this is not our goal. We didn’t set out to make a f2p game with the funding from the single player game which we crap out as an afterthought.

We’re using any revenue we get for salaries. None of the core team have been taking income since we started the company last January. Unlike many Kickstarter funded projects which pay mostly for salary, the $650k that we received after Kickstarter and Amazon’s cut have gone squarely into production: programming support, animation, audio, music, sound, QA, writing, office space, legal fees and software. This isn’t said for sympathy - we knew what we were getting into and we also have a buffer in case things get dire. This is simply the reality of why we’re raising money.

Factions looks like a grindy, pay to win game.

We’ve heard some major, and valid, concerns so far: the shop is overpriced, earning renown is too slow, and buying Renown or characters means the game is pay to win.

We’ll be making a lot of adjustments to costs this week. We’ve removed all renown costs to adjust your stats on a character, because this is a core part of what makes it fun to experiment with characters and teams. Now it’s free! We significantly lowered the price of color variations. We’re also adding a lot of achievements that grant bonus renown to make earning renown happen a lot quicker.

As for “paying to win”, this honestly shouldn’t be the case. Your team has a rating (a total of each character’s rank) and you’ll always be matched up against teams with a similar rating. No matter how your opponent made his team, you’ll be fighting on equal footing. In addition to matching by total rank, we also use each player’s ELO (ranking) to find equivalent matches, so that veterans tend to match each other before new players.

There has also been an exploit that allowed players to artificially lower their team power so that they could intentionally fight against new players. First of all, this is unbelievably lame of some players, but we’re also putting in changes to how team power calculates to make sure it doesn’t happen at launch. In addition, we’re also adding safeguards so that new players only match against other new players based on how long they’ve been playing. Whether this works will rely somewhat on how big our population is at launch.

Will there be microtransactions in the single player game?

No.

Will I miss out on anything in the single player game if I don’t play Factions?

No (except having fun).

Now, that said, we’ve put a lot of thought and effort into Factions. It’s not just a mindless one-off from The Banner Saga. Factions takes place in the same world, in a city that is part of the single player game and when events happen in single player they’ll affect the world in Factions. As we create new system for the Saga we’ll be testing them through Factions, so things like playing against the computer will appear in Factions as we work out the code, and the story will all tie together.

I don’t care how you explain Factions, I hate everything about it, I wish you didn’t make it and I feel like you tricked me into paying for something I don’t want.

I suspect some people feel like this. To those people, I would say I do understand. We became very ambitious and wanted to do the best work we could. The result is that it took a lot of time. We do not expect Factions to buy us yachts and mansions, just to pay for some living expenses. As our first time running a studio of our own, we’ve learned an enormous amount in both production and management. We hope you’ll accept our apology, and we strongly believe that we’ve taken the correct steps to make the best possible game. It will be worth the wait.

How do I upload my crest?

This has changed from the original upload idea, because that would have been very messy. You will now be able to upload your image in the game itself, when it releases. This way, nobody will miss any deadlines and you’ll be able to see it right in the game. Don’t worry, this is still EXCLUSIVE to backers!

Will Factions be ported to Linux /iOS /console?

No, we don’t intend to put Factions on anything but PC and Mac. Now that it’s out, we’re moving on to the rest of the single player campaign and cannot afford to spend weeks or months porting the multiplayer standalone. Our stretch goals applied only to the single player game.

When is the single player game coming out?

Our best guess right now is between mid and late this year. We’re a little shy of giving specific dates this time around, but we are full steam ahead on this. What we do promise is that we’ll continue to do regular updates on our progress, so that you can see how everything is coming together.

I still don’t completely understand combat and I’m getting crushed every time I play. What do I do?

We’ve included four different tutorials in the game. The first one covers the basics and you play through it when you boot up the game. On the main screen in Strand, you can click the banner button in the upper right. This shows you a cheat sheet of the most important things in combat and also includes two training videos. These will cover every single aspect of Factions. Lastly, every page has a ? button in the lower right. Clicking this will tell you what you need to know for that screen.

How do you feel about the game?

Personally, I think it’s coming along incredibly, and I’m not just saying that. My biggest regret is how long it is taking, but it’s coming out better than I had ever hoped. Some players have been rather upset about the delays, while others have told us to take as long as we need. The truth is, we only have as long as we have funds to pay ourselves. We can’t work on this forever.

I couldn’t be happier with our progress so far; for what we’ve done with a small team I don’t think I could imagine anything better. Despite the insane hours we’ve been putting in, I’ve never been prouder of anything I’ve made before, and we hope at the end of the day you guys agree it was worth it.

Thanks!

As mentioned before, we’ll be fielding all questions in the comments below. Fire away!