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

Electronics People

Thomas: I’m not sure I have much more to offer here than “yeah.” The interesting thing about expectations is that they’re always relative; Double Fine and inXile raised around 3 million each, Shadowrun is looking to hit somewhere around 2 million and that, by default, means that we’re a smaller game, which is probably true. It’s hard to say because none of those projects have said anything about their scope or even shown a screenshot. Still, compared to coming out with no expectation beyond our own work history, it creates a special sort of pressure we didn’t have before.

Wecks: One of the things Arnie emphasized in the Kickstarter film was that the three of you felt the need to leave your work at mainstream studios to do The Banner Saga. Why? What was it about work at big studios which would have hampered your ability to pull this off? What was it they would have wrecked?

Thomas: To get this out of the way up front, a group of production-level employees pitching an idea for a game to their current publisher just isn’t how it works. It was never an option, and I don’t mean the chances were slim, I mean there’s no system in place to do it. If you want to make your own game you literally have to leave your job, or you have to be an executive with marketing data and focus tests to support your idea. In terms of shopping the idea to other publishers, it just didn’t make financial sense.

We’ve each been in the industry long enough to understand how game developers are becoming a big commodity — they’re businesses. They’re trying to make money, and I really don’t blame them. You have to produce something that makes a profit for the publisher, yourself, and funds the publisher’s other products. A niche product selling 100,000 copies of a $10 game won’t do that. They need to shoot for thirty million copies of a $60 game, and turn-based viking strategy ain’t gonna cut it. On the other hand, if all we need to do is fund three guys’ salaries, that’s a completely different story. That’s what’s so amazing about the rise of digital distribution and resources like Kickstarter – it’s actually making small production studios viable in a way we’ve never seen before.

Wecks: I guess that isn’t surprising to me. I still find it sad though. One of the things our current corporate culture just doesn’t do well is listen to its own. Here you have passionate devoted fans of games who have all the tribal knowledge and technical know-how to make outstanding content and the corporations have no way to sniff out the ideas already existing among their staff. I bet there are a million good ideas discussed around the tables in the cafeterias every year. Do you see any way to change that? Let’s say you were the head of a major publisher for a day. What would you do to find the ideas floating around in the cubicles?

Thomas: Interesting question, which I’ve never been asked before. For me it always comes back to what you are trying to accomplish. If you want to make huge blockbuster games like GTA you need to hedge your bets or carefully grow your existing game franchises. You can’t just brute force people into loving your idea. If you want to make brilliant, sparkling, original niche games you have to be ready to accept low sales figures, budget accordingly, and hope that the game blows up bigger than you predicted. I think the common misconception is that a good idea is the most important thing to success. I don’t agree with that or by the cosmic laws of justice Mount and Blade would be more popular than Angry Birds.

That said, if I’m not pretending to run a major publishing enterprise, I don’t have to obsess about the bottom line, and that’s why we went independent. In the spirit of the question though, if I were just in charge of digging up the gems and turning them into great games, I’d probably go about it similar to Valve, whose Employee Handbook has conveniently been leaked to the public recently, but even that is a precarious balancing act. Talented and creative people flourish in an environment where they pursue their own goals and feel genuinely trusted to be autonomous. They can be happy working from a spreadsheet and find joy in their tiny corner of development but that satisfaction only lasts as long as the developer feels like they’re growing. Ultimately, we can’t all be that one guy calling the shots, which brings me to my last point; developers being encouraged to create their own start-ups isn’t the worst thing in the world, either.

Wecks: Too true, especially with Kickstarter out there to back them! So give us a sense of your time line when will we be seeing a beta test? When do you plan to have the game completed?

Thomas: We expect our first release to be this summer. It’ll be a demo of sorts which lets you play a free standalone of the combat portion of the game in which you can fight online or by yourself through a simple narrative that is a prologue of sorts to the single-player game. The first part of our single player trilogy, which was the focus of our Kickstarter campaign, is expected to be out by the end of the year. That said, we’ve already warned people in the latest update that despite our best efforts the scope of the game has clearly expanded and it may push us out a few months. We’ll do our best!

Wecks: Well I can’t speak for anyone else, but I am looking forward to seeing the results.

Thomas: Tell me about it!

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