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

Electronics People

Logo for The Banner SagaLogo for The Banner Saga

The Banner Saga will possibly be the first of the recent large Kickstarter campaigns to bring a video game to market

Thomas: Well, when we set out to make the game with our own personal savings, we really were making a lot of compromises and cutting back the content to its bare minimum. We intended to add it over time and try to message that this was a humble indie project which we’d be expanding.

When we came to our initial goal of $100,000, we factored in the cut Kickstarter and Amazon would take and we would use everything left to get contract help on programming, interface, animation, quality assurance and implementation. If we met that goal we would essentially be paying for the time we needed to add all of our base features back in, like a longer story, more events during travel, more characters in combat and so on. When we hit 200%, we were ecstatic because it bought us some breathing room for polish and even more content.

At 300% we were starting to wonder what we were going to do with the funds, which is a weird position to be in. At this point we didn’t want to turn the game into some uncontrollable monster and we didn’t want to grow the company and change the culture of the project. We started looking into ways to not just do more content but improve the quality. We were thrilled out of our minds to get Austin Wintory on for the soundtrack and some really big talent for sound and animation. The numbers kept going up and we weren’t even feeding the fire.

At 550% we hadn’t even given backers a goal to shoot for. At that point we had received so many emails and comments asking what extra funding would do for the game that with three days left in the campaign we thought we’d just bring out the kind of stretch goals we never expected to see happen, like a full orchestra and city building, an idea that had always been on our mind but we dismissed as way beyond the scope of our game. Once again, the extra funding would allow us to put trained people on some systems while we continued to develop these new additions. For the record, we absolutely did not expect to hit 700%. Madness.

It is interesting to see how people correlate money with content, as if you just liquify a vat of cash and pour it into a computer and voila, another set of characters! I would imagine every big project is putting those funds directly into hiring people onto the project, and a good programmer, for example, might cost $120k a year or more. We’re not hiring full-time positions to keep our costs down, but for massive projects like Double Fine Adventure, Wasteland or Shadowrun that’s probably where the majority of the money’s going. I’m curious how backers think the money is getting spent, and what they find acceptable and unacceptable.

Wecks: Over at Penny Arcade there is an article about how often Kickstarter video games can disappoint because people buy into a concept but the studio is not able to follow through on their promises. After such a successful campaign is there part of you which feels like you have to make this game almost perfect to live up to expectations? How do you plan to make sure that you deliver a product which lives up to the hype?

Thomas: I had read this, in fact! Kickstarter is in an interesting position because on one hand they came up as a place where people could get some funding to follow their dreams on small and quirky art projects or gizmos, and some would fail to deliver but it only affected a few people. Double Fine transformed that completely in one day and even though they weren’t the first to hit a million, they single-handedly created a movement.

It’s probably not a bad thing for potential backers to have a sort of “buyer beware” attitude about the whole thing, but at the same time I think the core idea and good will driving the whole thing is eroded by cynicism. I’m not all doom-y about it personally; I think Kickstarter will have growing pains, probably a few major disappointments and a period where it re-establishes itself as a trustworthy source. I’d love nothing more than this current wave of love to become the standard, but I think that’s going to be up to the developers and the backers, not Kickstarter.

It is interesting that Stoic is probably going to be the first ones with a real product out the door and managing expectations is going to be a huge part of making sure everybody’s satisfied with the result. We know we won’t be able to live up to everyone’s expectations but I’m really thankful that we showed the actual game, what it looks like, and what we’re trying to do with it. I think transparency will probably be key; nothing upsets people like feeling betrayed or mislead.

I’m curious to see how Double Fine Adventure pans out – even though I’m unrepentantly 100% behind whatever crazy idea they come up with, I have this nagging suspicion that at least a quarter of the backers will feel passionately betrayed that it isn’t exactly what THEY envisioned, no matter what it is or how good it turns out. It’s funny, I remember talking about how if we somehow hit a million we’d probably be screwed. You’re right, expectation is probably going to be the hardest thing to manage, and nothing sets that expectation like everyone having a direct line to your bank account.

Wecks: I would throw in something like “sucks to be you,” at this point, but I, uh, guess I can’t say that to someone who just got $700,000 from Kickstarter. Sky-high expectations just come with the territory, don’t they?

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