Creative Director for The Banner Saga Talks Kickstarter, RPG Heroes, and Story in Games

Electronics People

Thomas: You got it! But just to mention it briefly, I think what you’re saying is exactly what the major appeal was. I grew up on stuff like Final Fantasy Tactics and XCOM along with a heavy dose of games like Baldur’s Gate and Chrono Trigger. Those games were a part of my identity growing up. And like a lot of people who grew up parallel to me, I wondered where the heck those games went. Our big question with The Banner Saga was always “Is it just us?” and that was something we couldn’t have answered before Kickstarter.

Screen capture from the game Final Fantasy TacticsScreen capture from the game Final Fantasy Tactics

Final Fantasy Tactics

Wecks: You’ve been in the gaming industry for a while, so what is your answer to that question? How did those games disappear? It isn’t like they didn’t sell. What do you think happened?

Thomas: One of the terms you hear thrown around a lot when you’re working for a big publisher is “opportunity cost.” In simple terms, this just means that if a publisher wants to release a product within “X” amount of time with “Y” budget, the decision of what that project will be depends entirely on what will make the most profit. They’ll look at all of their options and say “this one is the most profitable,” or has the most profit potential. Lesser options are pushed aside, or delayed indefinitely. I’m simplifying a bit, but if you’re into making money, that’s probably what you’re doing.

In the meantime, the genre in question has probably already been taken to the limit of its maximum cost-to-profit ratio back when it was the hot new thing. Not many publishers are willing to take a chance on an outdated genre, if they think there’s a better option. Paradox Interactive — who I really respect — and publishers like them who do take chances can get reputations for being “hit or miss.”

I should also say that I think they haven’t really gone away. You can find modern games from almost every genre, and they’re probably doing about as well as they were back in the day, which looks miniscule by modern standards. What I think many of us including myself lament is that they never made the transition to the big-time. Who wouldn’t want to see their favorite games made with top-tier budgets and technology?

Wecks: What do you mean when you say “a deep strategic tactical game?” What kind of game play are we talking about? I see some kind of turn-based combat in the Kickstarter video, and it looks like you are choosing dialogue. Tell me something about the game experience you are aiming for?

Thomas: Combat’s one of those things we’re really looking forward to talking about more very soon as we get ready to release our free multi-player standalone. As much as I love old turn-based strategy games, I recognize looking at them critically that for the most part there’s a heavy emphasis on just comparing and shifting around stats. You can grind until your stats are better to make forward progress, and that’s not exactly a compelling tactical system. On the flip side is something like chess, a game with no numbers at all and strategy in its purest form. I’m not saying we’re going to be the next chess. We’re shooting for a balance by focusing on the importance of building a team whose abilities play off each other and where you need finesse to beat your opponent, not just bludgeoning your way through a fight. I know this all sounds like rhetoric until we start getting into the meat of the combat design. Although we can’t talk about the exact mechanics quite yet, we think it’s an idea that hasn’t really been seen much in strategy games.

Wecks: When I was a kid, one of my very favorite books was the Choose Your Own Adventure book Prisoner of the Ant People by R. A. Montgomery. I loved that book and read it again and again, because I had influence. I got to make decisions about what happened to the characters in the book! Then a few years ago the first Mass Effect came out — maybe you’ve heard of it? — and suddenly I felt that same sense of wonder all over again. I got to help tell the story, and what I did mattered for the game. It felt like a choose your own adventure movie! When you say “strong story” I hope this is what you are talking about. Do I have influence in the narrative of the game? Am I on the right track?

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