When The Banner Saga 3 launches on July 24th, it will bring the epic and well-respected trilogy to an end. We had the opportunity to speak to the good folks at Stoic to find out how it feels to reach the trilogy's conclusion and what may be next for the highly-acclaimed studio.
We spoke with Stoic's co-Founder & Creative Director Arnie Jorgensen, Producer Zeb West, Lead Designer Matt Rhoades and Artist / Writer Alex Thomas to learn more about the epic journey.
MMORPG: Was the Banner Saga story’s arc laid out prior to development starting on the first chapter? Meaning…did you know how it was all going to end, or was the story iterated upon over time?
Alex: Yeah, we actually started even before the Kickstarter pitch with a rough outline of everything we wanted the player to see. Back in those days, we only imagined the game as a single product, it wasn’t until we started getting into the nuts and bolts and really expanding how much we wanted to do that the story grew until something of its current size. It’s much better for it- if we had tried to compress everything that happens into a single ten-hour experience I don’t think it’d have room to breathe and really get to know the characters.
We also started production with certain goals about how we’d do things differently than our predecessors. One of those things was making sure that your choices along the way really do dramatically affect your ending, and I think we pulled it off in Saga 3.
MMORPG: Once BS3 launches, the story will be closed. How have you kept things “fresh” for players, and at the same time familiar, from a features and storytelling perspective?
Matt: From the feature side, moving one of the caravans into the darkness has given us a thematic excuse to really mess with some of the battle systems. We have a group of heroes in Arberrang, the last human city that hasn’t been overtaken by the darkness, and the battles there will feel more like the battles in previous games, but for the darkness we’ve introduced lots of new warped enemies that are familiar but have their own unique twists. We have added a Valka Spear to replace the war horn for the darkness caravan, and we’ve added new timed wave battles that change up the pacing of battles. All these things will mean that players will have to adjust their playstyle more when switching between caravans.
Zeb: We also have a lot more in mind for this world. There’s so many unexplored areas of our worldmap and so many untold stories along the way. As promised in our Kickstarter, after launch we’ll be delivering Survival Mode for Saga 3, a back-to-back battle mode with leaderboards and new achievements (for those who love to dive deep into the turn-based strategy), and also Endless Arena a quick-play mode with sandbox-style battle options and different gameplay rules. But we also plan to tell some of those untold tales along the way.
MMORPG: Are there any cliffhangers in BS3 or are most of the story threads that have been woven through the series brought to a conclusion?
Alex: The Banner Saga is 100% a complete experience, there are no cliffhangers or “what if” scenarios at the end of Saga 3. In fact, one of the highest priorities was to make sure that the entire saga had a really satisfying and clear conclusion, and that all your choices really do matter all the way from things you did in in the first game. We put a ton of resources into making a ton of content that most players will never see unless they replay the game multiple times. From the outset, that’s what we wanted to achieve. On a personal level I really hate cop-outs in stories that give you a really interesting premise with a flat ending that has leaves it up to you to interpret like “What do YOU think happens?”. We went out of our way to make everything work, and hopefully it does!
MMORPG: How does music and art impact the story and how has it evolved over the years?
Arnie: We picked this style, based on Eyvind Earle’s work, to be in juxtaposition with the somewhat brooding, dark story. There’s a tension there that has really resonated with people. The music was designed after the art/story were pitched and Austin Wintory scored it to be a bridge between the two worlds. If you notice it’s almost all brass instruments, almost no strings. I believe he did this to ground it and make the world feel really “solid”, strong. Though it’s done with with brass, it’s also beautiful and melancholy just like a story about vikings but displayed on a beautiful backdrop. Speaking to how it’s evolved I think it’s become a bit more detailed. We’ve kept in the very angular graphical elements, but gone deeper into the texturing of the assets. It’s a natural evolution that really comes from just continuing to try hard. The first game was done by one artist, like the whole thing, from UI to environments. But by Saga 3 we had 3 artists on the team so… we had more time.
MMORPG: What are the most significant gameplay changes in BS3?
Matt: As I mentioned before, we’ve added a lot of new features to battles. We have replaced the war horn that has been a staple of battles in our previous games (and is still used by the Arberrang caravan) with the Valka Spear. The Valka Spear earns a charge each time an enemy is killed -- just like the war horn -- but instead of giving a point of Willpower each time a charge is spent, it casts Arc Lightning that chains diagonally from one target to the next. This one change ends up making battles in the darkness feel dramatically different. The player has to manage Willpower much more carefully, but in exchange gets additional “free” damage output on-demand. I’m really happy with how it worked out.
On top of that, we have also introduced “wave battles.” In the past, we’ve had battles that added enemies over time, and even battles where the player could choose to continue after winning the previous fight, but wave battles end up feeling really distinctive from those. There is a turn timer that creates time pressure to finish the current wave of enemy. If the player defeats the wave in time, there’s a respite during which new units can be swapped in for the hurt units on the board. And if the player manages to defeat all the waves in time, the last wave has a tough enemy with an item that can be earned by defeating it. I love that it gives players a chance to play with more of the their roster, and it encourages players to experiment with different strategies instead of falling back on the same style of play they’ve used for the past two games.
MMORPG: What changes has the team undergone in the intervening years?
Alex: The Stoic team has changed a lot over the course of production which I think has been going over six years now. When we started out it was literally just Arnie, John and myself. Thanks to Kickstarter we were able to start getting contract help with music and sound, as well as some contract writing and design. Once the first game came out, the company began to pick up some full-time hires to grow the team which allowed us to port the games to more platforms and make Saga 2 even larger. By the end of Saga 3 we’re actively growing the company to continue onto future projects.
Zeb: The team has grown in size to 14 over the intervening years. We’ve grown from a small indie to a mid sized indie, which has allowed us to do more. For Saga 1, it took years to get the game ported and published to all the platforms, and translated to as many languages as our players demanded. For Saga 3, we’ll be able to publish on all platforms simultaneously, in 10 different languages on launch day. That’s a huge feat for an indie studio, and we’re grateful to our player community and backers for their faith in us - it’s what allows us to keep making games.
MMORPG: What have been the most rewarding moments in developing BS3 and / or the BS series?
Alex: For me, having missed development on the second game, the most rewarding thing has been actually launching the product and seeing fans talking about all the different things that can happen and really get invested in the characters. So many people have told us this is their favorite story in a game and that’s really motivating. I’m very happy I was able to come back for the third game and finish things out strong. I don’t know that I’ll ever work on a story this big or complicated again in my career, and I’m proud of what we accomplished.
Matt: It is really great to see the story coming to its conclusion. Since I wasn’t involved in the initial designs when Saga 1 came into being, some of the things that have happened have been cool surprises, even if they were “known” moments going back to the original ideas of the series.
It has also been really rewarding to put my own stamp on 3 and have a chance to really expand the feature set we use to make battles. I feel like battles in 3 are more distinctive and varied than the previous games and it’s a great way to wrap up the series!
Zeb: We’ve tried to really deliver a satisfying conclusion to this epic story. And that’s not only in the story, but all the various groups have tried to deliver that emotional closure this saga deserves. The story was in place first, and then Austin Wintory’s music delivers this devastating emotional journey, KPOW comes in warping the world with their eerie soundscapes, Syrland gives voice to all these characters confronting the end times, and the beautiful art bringing the player into the dark side of the spectrum and out the other side. For me, seeing all those layers come together to deliver this ending is the most satisfying, and I hope it satisfies the players who have come with us on this long adventure.
MMORPG: You’ve been working on the “same story” for a long, long time. What does it feel like to know it’s “over”?
Alex: I think for a lot of us it’s a combination of melancholy and relief. A production this large has been very stressful at times, and the relief comes in knowing the we pulled it off to the best of our ability- I personally haven’t once thought “Well, I really wish we could have gone this direction instead, oh well.” If it’s the best thing I ever make I’ll be satisfied with that.
All that being said, though this is the last game in the trilogy, it probably isn’t the last Banner Saga game that we ever make. There’s a whole world of people and stories that haven’t been explored yet.
Matt: It’s really satisfying to see the game end as strong as it has. Making games is hard and it’s as hard to make a bad game as a good one. Looking at the Banner Saga and feeling like “this is a really good game” is a really great feeling. And getting to look ahead at how we’re going to build on what we’ve done is super exciting!
MMORPG: Most importantly, what’s next for Stoic?
Alex: As we’re wrapping up production on Saga 3, we’ve got a couple promises already on the docket, including Survival Mode and Eternal Arena, but we’re also starting to think about our next game. We’ve got a lot of ideas for things we’d like to make as a company, and we’re working through a handful of pitch docs and prototypes. As we mentioned though, this doesn’t mean that we won’t be making anything else in the Banner Saga world, either. Keep an eye out for announcements in the near future!