‘Killers and Thieves,’ From Alex Thomas of ‘The Banner Saga’

Reading Time: 4 minutes
A group of thieves on rooftops overlook the city they plan to pillage.
Image permission Alex Thomas.

Coming off the heels of The Banner Saga, you might expect Alex Thomas would be diving into its sequel … or perhaps just want to take a break after the hectic development schedule. Instead, he’s excited to be working on a new project. Thomas was kind enough to share some details with me about his new game.

Killers and Thieves was to be a short side project to capitalize on Stoic’s already-existing technology, but soon grew to be a significant undertaking. What began as a simple idea of living the life of a fence – accepting goods and determining their value – soon evolved into a full thieves’ guild simulator where you will be responsible for running a criminal organization and executing heists. Once he had left the more simple fence concept behind, Thomas decided to take it on full-time.

“With Banner Saga I needed to take a break after the game shipped. We worked a really hard two solid years; three years if you consider all the pre-production. It was a very difficult game to produce and I wanted to do something a little more lightweight and fun – get it out quick. The other guys at Stoic really wanted to push forward because we had this momentum … people were interested in the second game, and it made sense for us to work on what we wanted to work on.”

The game is now focused on the building of a criminal empire. At home, the headquarters view will be very similar to the one depicted in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Presented in a cutaway anthill view, the headquarters shows you the gains you’re making: success means you’re hiring more thieves and adding facilities. The view also cleverly hides what would typically be the menu interface for selling goods or conducting other criminal empire management. Those same facilities generate the cash-suck that requires you to keep bringing in the dough – there’s no free lunch in the world of Killers and Thieves. Nevertheless, the HQ shouldn’t serve as a way to cripple your experience. Remember in XCOM how you got caught off-guard because you didn’t understand that you needed satellites early in the game? That kind of pitfall won’t be featured here.

Anthill cutaway view of thieves headquarters
Headquarters design art. Image permission Alex Thomas.

The main gameplay element will the be the heists you undertake. Thomas’ vision is that it should have tension but not feel so fast-paced as to unduly generate stress. You’ll be controlling thieves as they undertake their heist in a dollhouse view of procedurally generated targets.

“The idea is you can run missions with one guy if that’s your speed … ideally I think three to four at a time is what I’m shooting for. When you’re moving these characters around they are doing things that take time. So if you come to a locked door and your character needs to unlock it and is able to do that, he is going to have a countdown of how long it takes him, and when [a group of thieves are] in a room that has loot, it takes time for them to gather as much loot as you’re willing to risk. You can choose to cancel [these countdown timers] early if you need to move them out of harm’s way. Hopefully it will play on a risk versus reward kind of gameplay where the longer you spend in the mission the more dangerous it’s going to get; the more suspicion you’re going to raise. You can choose how hard or easy you want to make it for yourself – the variable, of course, being how much you’re able to gather … how successful you are at stealing stuff.”

Dollhouse view of a thief scaling a wall on a heist.
Heist design art. Image permission Alex Thomas.

This is where the design becomes more difficult. Thomas discussed how this portion of the game is the biggest challenge and may reflect why there isn’t a similar thieves’ guild game out there: controlling multiple characters is a tricky endeavor. Excluding real-time strategy games (which are wildly different from this concept), a few games with this feature jump to mind: XCOM; the Rainbow Six series; Frozen Synapse. But all of those games allow for judicious use of the pause button, something that Thomas seems keen to avoid here. The only other game that quickly jumped to mind for me was The Goonies for the Commodore 64, which is reaching back quite a ways, to put it mildly.

“How do you control multiple characters without it being frustrating or unfair? That’s really what I mean about having to do playtesting at this point because I can guess at what’s going to be fun, but it’s really going to involve getting hands-on with it.”

To get on with development, Thomas is now on the hunt for a programmer. He has posted a refreshingly honest job requirement description on his developer log. During the interview, he also confirmed that while he will be foregoing Kickstarter on this project, he fully intends to have the game on Steam Early Access. Using feedback from those that participate he can quickly focus in on what is working and fun, “instead of developing it in a black hole.”

If you’re interested in more information about the game, Thomas has written an extensive entry where he details how his ideas evolved from the initial fence concept to his current vision. It’s a fun read, especially if you have any interest in game design.

I’m always happy to see a successful developer forge new territory, and Killers and Thieves looks like it could be a fun innovation. Thomas is planning for a 2016 release. We’ll be watching.

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