Why the makers of Banner Saga went back to Kickstarter for their third game

And what do they think of the idea that their games share an environmentalist message?

The Banner Saga games combine isometric combat with beautiful hand-drawn animation and a sweeping score. First launched with a Kickstarter in March 2012 (the same "gold rush era" of crowdfunding from which Broken Age and Pillars of Eternity emerged), its small development studio Stoic went self-funded for the second Banner Saga in 2016, before returning to Kickstarter in late January for the series's third and final installment.

It was an odd move, to be sure. But studio heads Arnie Jorgensen and John Watson, themselves veterans of the AAA industry, are pretty confident in their approach. As The Banner Saga 3's Kickstarter winds down into its last few days, I caught up with Jorgensen and Watson at the Game Developers Conference to get a handle on this conclusion to Stoic's epic Viking saga -- and a small glimpse of where the studio may be headed next.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Zam: So, it sounds like it's been a whirlwind last 30 days for you both.

John Watson: It's definitely been very busy! We did a lot of planning, prepared a lot of events in advance. We did a Kickstarter Live last week at DICE and we did another [this week].

Arnie Jorgensen: But it hasn't been near as hectic as the first Kickstarter for some reason. I think we prepared more for this one. And it turns out the community is really relaxed and cool about it? Some Kickstarters go through some difficult times with their communities, answering lots of questions. It might have something to do with the fact that Banner Saga's fanbase is a slightly older crowd. It also might have something to do with the fact this is the third part in the series and people know what to expect.

Stoic co-founders John Watson (left) and Arnie Jorgensen as they appear in Banner Saga 3's Kickstarter pitch video. Stoic co-founders John Watson (left) and Arnie Jorgensen as they appear in Banner Saga 3's Kickstarter pitch video.

You do see that in a lot of Kickstarters based around very early concept stuff, backers projecting their desires onto it whether or not it's stuff the developers are actually talking about. And that can lead to disappointment.

JW: Exactly. I think people understand what Banner Saga 3 is. They don't know exactly the direction the story's going to take, but they understand the format, the mechanics, the gameplay pillars, map, conversation, exploration, travel.

AJ: You can sometimes drive crowdfunded things much higher by not knowing, though. You say to your players, 'Do you want 3D? Do you want online play?' And you just start ratcheting it up to get more and more money. But we're certainly not at that point. We know what the game is.

Speaking of funding, however, you mentioned to GIBiz in January that you projected Banner Saga 3's budget at about $2 million. If that's the case, why did you only seek 200k from crowdfunding?

JW: Well, there's the question of how much you might be able to raise. But one of the major benefits of running a Kickstarter is actually coalescing a community around the game, getting people aware that it's coming out. Activating them. Bringing them into our forums and communicating with them. I see it as a way of [rather than just fundraising] Kickstarting your community. You suddenly have thousands of people interested in how your thing plays out. And on the Kickstarter for Banner Saga 3 one of the rewards we offer is alpha access, so a lot of these backers will be playing new battles, new classes, new abilities as we create them and provide direct feedback. That kind of thing hopefully will keep people engaged.

Financially, yeah, [crowdfunding] is a help, it provides some extra time to really polish it and do it right. When you have a team of people every month costs a lot of money, so if you want to take even a little extra time it's good to have that Kickstarter to help pay for that.

AJ: Yeah, we've been self-funding everything in Banner Saga 3. We did a Kickstarter for the first game, then John and I funded the whole second game, and on this third one we're self-funding as much as we can, but the idea is -- and this is what we've been saying -- is that this is how much we can put in right now. We need a little bit of help to make it everything that we're hoping it can be, rather than cut and shave these areas that we really don't want to.

It's funny, we were almost there [able to completely self-fund], we were debating whether we should run a Kickstarter, but we thought: what if a few hundred thousand really could push us that extra mile? So we're not saying 'fund the whole game!' We're saying 'we're funding 80% of it, but we need a little bit of help for the rest.'

It seems to be working out well. Last I checked you were at 170% your funding target with three days left on the clock.

AJ: Yeah, we're really happy with it. This has been a fun, successful Kickstarter. Just last night someone sent us a tweet saying 'I can't believe you're doing a Kickstarter after two successful games, this leaves a bad taste in my mouth.' Do you know how much money goes into this game compared to how much we're asking?

I've heard from quite a few developers that players often don't seem to know what the budget of a game actually looks like, how and where the money gets spent.

AJ: Or they see how many copies we sold for the first Banner Saga and go 'these guys are rolling in dough!' It's not really the case. It's a well-known IP, but it's still a very boutique IP for players who are really into it. This is not a mass-market Mario game. This is something for a small, select, niche group of people.

JW: Costs can add up pretty quickly. You need to hire engineers to do the porting to other platforms. Localization...

AJ: Oh my gosh, the localization.

JW: Every one of our games is like a good-sized novel, like 120,000 words.

AJ: And it's localized in how many languages?

JW: Eight languages, besides English.

AJ: So for an indie team to do all these ports to every known device, all this localization, it costs a lot.

JW: People don't see that. People from the outside also see numbers like 'how many units downloaded' and extrapolate that into 'this means X million dollars in sales.' And for one thing, that's not the case because a lot of those are free downloads, Humble Bundle, sale prices which are half of the list price. The average price of all those things is much lower than 'cost per download.'

AJ: And then Steam gets its take, if you have a publisher they get their take. The amount you wind up with is under 50%.

JW: Unless you've been in the business it's hard to tell what kind of money's floating around.

That said, it also sounds like you've also managed to run a pretty tight ship, no real problems with scoping.

AJ: We're scoping it, I think, as big as we possibly can. But not perfectly enough to keep a bunch of money after it. [laughs]

JW: We bite off just as much as we can chew each time. And to continue that metaphor, we then struggle to swallow it.

AJ: There are times when we are scoping the game and we realize we are biting off more than we can chew. And just like every good film, we start cutting, and as things start piling up on the cutting room floor the game gets better and tighter, and at the end we realized the things we cut were really not things we needed to begin with. So we always scope it a little too big then cut it back to barely able to finish what we started out to do.

So what can fans look forward to, features-wise, in Banner Saga 3?

AJ: Features-wise we're adding new environment effects because you're entering something called 'the darkness' with this brewing threat in the distance. I think players are really going to enjoy that. The other caravan [players control] is not even traveling: we're going to have a city system that players will be interacting with. We're also doing something we've never done before called 'long close travels,' where you're moving through the city rather than these big vista backdrops, moving through little hovels and buildings and great halls with your caravan.

Isometric view, like the battle system?

AJ: No, it's going to be a side view, the same as conversations. But it will feel different than what players are familiar with and we think they'll really like it. Other than that the largest thing we're going to be expanding on is the same thing we did for Banner Saga 2: the combat is a lot more engaging, different win conditions, destructible barricades. We're going to keep pushing that, making the combat system more entertaining, wrapping the story into the combat again. There will be more scripting than in the second game.

We're hoping to show the biggest improvements yet with Banner Saga 3. But, again, our goal is that after the third one is out you will be able to play all The Banner Saga games back-to-back-to-back and it will feel like one long game. When we present them at the end as one big package it will be a 30-40 hour continuous game. It's not like a typiical sequel where things are very different between installments.

JW: We are taking the opportunity to enhance certain things, like in Banner Saga 2 we added new talents, the ability to train clansmen and fighters. Nothing should double back on itself, mechanics-wise. It should always be an evolution. You should not play through them and get the feeling they were made by different people in different times. We consider this more a series than sequels.

I understand it was intended as a trilogy from the start?

AJ: Always, yeah.

So what would you have done if the first game had not been as successful?

JW: [nervous laugh]

AJ: [laugh] Then we would've been done, probably. That was kind of a weird, scary thing. I don't think I've ever quite approached games in quite the same way. Most times, you make a game and only then do you announce a sequel, and that sequel is a totally different game. Dragon Age: Origins to Dragon Age II, for example. This one, we told ourselves it was going to be one long game. Six years in development! You're really hoping people will come along with you on that ride.

JW: It's a lot like making television. Your series can get canceled before you're done telling your story. But you can also make other choices like scaling it back. If the first one doesn't do well, you can take a step back and ask: how much money and time do you really have to do this thing? Maybe the second one would have been made but been much less grand.

AJ: There are various ways to do this. If we had a small, devoted community? Maybe we could put out hour-long episodes to finish it. But if you completely fail then you just fail! You did not find a market, nobody wants your game, you should stop.

JW: That would be it, unless you knew someone willing to spend their rich people money on it. There's a lot of rich people money out there if your goals and intentions line up.

AJ: But unfortunately a lot of people who are rich got there because they know how to make money. Putting it into a failed game doesn't seem like a deal many would sign up for.

JW: I had a friend, actually, who was looking for some funding for a game, and he was talking to some of the richest people in the world. He told me that as he talked to richer and richer people, they got stingier and stingier with their money. They wanted to go down into the nuts and bolts of this business plan, haggling over smaller and smaller amounts. He said it was the most bizarre thing he ever saw.

AJ: And maybe for [some of these wealthy individuals] the money comes from family, and they aren't quite sure how it got here? So.

JW: Yeah, that's not the orbit that we are in.

AJ: That's not our world.

Would you consider going with investor funding for your next project?

JW: Yeah, I mean, definitely. We haven't decided what we're going to do next, although we do talk about it, it's just hard to plan what's next with all of this around us.

AJ: For Banner Saga 3, we did dip our toe into it, look into maybe pursuing investment. But for something like this, even if we did get three times what we're asking, it's not going to make three times more money. It's the same game. This is about bringing together all our storylines and presenting a satisfying ending for the player. But for the next project, the sky's the limit.

JW: Yeah, because [when you have investment capital] then you're setting the scope of your design based partially on the availability of your budget. If someone were to invest X millions of dollars, then we could, say, have a server, have players interact this way. There's a lot we could do if we had investors.

Because you're both out of the AAA industry yourselves, you know the flip side of that, what it can be like to get pushed in an undesired direction by a corporate parent and such. Are you worried at all that if you went the investor route, you would have demands placed upon you, that you would need to compromise on your vision?

JW: Yeah, that's a definite concern. But we're not willing to sacrifice our creative control. We'd have to make sure the relationship is defined so both our studio and the investors were happy with it. We wouldn't want to enter a relationship ceding control in a way that makes us uncomfortable. You want an investor who respects boundaries and respects what you're doing.

We've chatted a lot about finances here, but for my last question, I want to talk story. One of my favorite Banner Saga critiques compares the hopelessness of these characters' world with our current environment situation, the notion that the world is officially past saving and on its way to dying. I was wondering if that was a conscious connection on your parts.

JW: I don't know if The Banner Saga has an explicit environmentalist message -- that's to my understanding, I'm not the writer -- so much as the idea of being in a situation where you are not in control. The things that you thought would help you, in our case the gods, are no longer available. You have to figure it out on your own. It's really about a situation where ordinary people are thrust into a situation where things are far beyond their power. And maybe there's no way out. Maybe you're just doomed. But how do you deal with that? 

AJ: I would say that I don't doubt that we're doing this [including an environmentalist theme]. I can already see some similarities with what's going on in the news. But it's probably subconscious. We're writing this Nordic story of things dying, the world dying. Banner Saga is not a series about the player going 'I'm going to win! I'm going to save everybody!' My hope that is with the culmination of Banner Saga 3, with its multiple endings, players won't see it as 'I won Banner Saga' or 'I lost Banner Saga.' It's a story that we are telling. Some play Banner Saga and write a glowing review, others might play it and decide it's about environmentalism or the refugee crisis, others are under the impression we're Scandinavian hippies and feminists, so...

JW: But in terms of our motivations it really is just to tell an epic mythological story in a fantastic place full of people with whom you can identify.

AJ: I think we probably pull from contemporary times and problems to make it more emotionally charged, to bring it home to people so that it matters matters to contemporary players. It's basically bringing Nordic myth into the modern age.

The Banner Saga 3 is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a projected release date of December 2018 for GOG and Steam.