I first saw the Kickstarter trailer for The Banner Saga the same day I was introduced to a forthcoming, innovative story telling game for kids. In the middle of my introduction to Story Realms by Escapade Games, I had a bit of an epiphany. As I listened to Julian Leiberan-Titus of Escapade weave a tale through the guise of a game, I quite suddenly saw the connection between modern gaming and the prehistoric story-tellers spinning tales of love and bravery around a campfire even before they could be written down. The results of that epiphany will be something I will be writing more about in the coming weeks, including interviews with the people over at Escapade and possibly others. For now I will just say, my ears were still ringing a couple of hours later when GeekDad Jonathan Liu sent me the following video from Kickstarter:
Needless to say I was instantly intrigued. Apparently I wasn’t alone! The Kickstarter campaign funded at 723%, creating an opportunity for the three storytellers at Stoic to expand and improve their project in unexpected ways. This week I finally got an opportunity to sit down with Alex Thomas, Creative Director for The Banner Saga and discuss their outrageously successful Kickstarter campaign, the corporate game industry, Eyvind Earle, and storytelling in video games.
Wecks: So it’s really too bad about your Kickstarter campaign. I know you were really hoping to get more out of it.
Thomas: Tell me about it. This brings up a funny story; we knew all the way back in January we were planning to do a Kickstarter campaign, encouraged by our friends at White Whale, who had recently had a successful campaign for their game God of Blades. At that time, if you were lucky you could raise $30,000, tops.
Anyway, putting together a Kickstarter campaign was way more work than you would think. After Double Fine came out with what was by far the coolest pitch I’ve ever seen, we spent three days writing, filming, scoring and editing our Kickstarter video and we all sat down, watched it and… it suuuucked. Absolutely pit-of-your-stomach hideous. We’re no Tim Schafer. So we’re all sitting a little despondent at the local pub that evening and Arnie says “Do we really need Kickstarter? I’ll borrow some cash from my family, we’ll pay it back, we’ll just get back to production.” Anyway, after a much-deserved berating we decide to scrap the whole thing, hit it harder the next day and instead of trying to be clever, we just talked about what we wanted to do as honestly and passionately as we actually are. I remind him of that conversation almost daily. He might tell the story differently but that’s a perk of being the guy who does all the interviews.
Wecks: Yeah, I bet he would tell that story differently. Seriously though, what the heck was that? It’s like you guys went to Vegas put a nickel in the slots and came up Jokers. OK, there was a lot more work behind it than that, so it’s a bad analogy. But it must have felt that way. When did you guys know something special was happening?
Thomas: Well, it’s not the worst analogy I’ve ever heard. It’s true that we put a huge amount of effort and thought into the project, but in terms of timing we hit the jackpot, and we’re profoundly aware of that. It definitely felt that way. We put up our project at 12 am that Monday because we were hoping people would notice it when they rolled into work for the week and within minutes had dozens of backers. We hadn’t even sent out an email about it or posted it to Facebook. It kept going up. To this day I have no idea how they were finding it. Then at about an hour and a half somebody bought one the big $5,000 prizes and we nearly lost our minds. Eventually I went home around 4 am, tried to sleep and my wife, who was worried about meeting our minimum goal of $100,000, asked if we were able to get the page live. I told her we had already made about $20,000 and she mumbled something about that being ridiculous. That was definitely the moment for me.
Wecks: Why do you guys think you did so well? I have my own ideas, but I want to hear yours first. I mean besides the obvious stuff — quality Kickstarter presentation, etc. What is it about The Banner Saga and what it represents that seems to have touched a nerve?
Thomas: It’s definitely speculation on my part, but we’ve gotten a lot of hints from people who wrote impossibly glowing emails. From all the feedback we’ve gotten, it tends to fall into one of two categories: we’re making a game that tapped directly into their own personal nostalgia or longing, or that we personally represent the love of gaming and making games in a way that they want to support. Usually it’s a little of both. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think any of this has gone to our heads, but I wanted to give you my impression of the degree of feedback we’ve seen. It’s incredibly humbling and touching.
Wecks: I can tell you what did it for me. The first words out of your mouth on the video were, “deep, strategic, tactical game” and “strong story.” Basically, from that point forward I was salivating like Pavlov’s dog. Then Arnie comes along and says basically, “Yeah, we based the art on Sleeping Beauty,” and I just about fell over dead. I’d like to take all of those apart and look at them separately. Sound good?