Recently, Stoic (the studio behind The Banner Saga and The Banner Saga 2) founder John Watson sat down with Games Industry to talk about a variety of things, including the Kickstarting adventure of The Banner Saga, the underwhelming performance of The Banner Saga 2, funding for the third and final game in the series, and more.
The interview starts of with Watson talking about the The Banner Saga, Stoics debut upon its formation in 2012 after its founders left BioWare. According to Watson, The Banner Saga’s performance on Kickstarter was serendipitous. Kickstarter was arguably at its height, with plenty flooding to the site to back and help fund a variety of games.
When considering this, along with the fact that Stoic was comprised of developers from the beloved BioWare, it’s no surprise that The Banner Saga, which was supposed to be “a one year game” created by Stoic’s own savings, raised $720,000 upon asking for $100,000. According to Watson, this forced the studio to raise their ambitions, as well as garnered a “huge engaged audience” that it maintained throughout development.
When the team was considering a sequel, it thought about returning to Kickstarter, but the flash back to how difficult one is to run made them choose other wise. According to Watson, Kickstarter is the “the cheapest form of money” available to most developers, but its attendant difficulties are more tasking than you would think. Watson continues:
“We were quite exhausted at the end of The Banner Saga. Running a Kickstarter campaign is extremely demanding. There’s the setup portion, there’s running it for the month – which is a full-time job – and then for the rest of the development you’re supporting that community, answering questions, giving updates. It’s a full-time job, and we didn’t have anybody dedicated to being that community manager. It was a scary prospect.”
Eventually, Stoic decided to not go the Kickstarter route for The Banner Saga 2, and rather decided to do an “almost 180-degree turn;” meaning it decided to just close its doors and curtains, spend its own money, and do the sequel its own way without having to answer to anyone.
However, after about half way through development, money began to get tight, and Watson revealed that the team began to think “why the hell didn’t we get a Kickstarter?”
Well, the decision mostly boiled down to how successful the first game was. In the interview, Watson reveals that the game raised far more money on Kickstarter than the team expected, and that it sold more copies than it expected, as well.
The money made off the first game, the team determined at the time, was enough to make a sequel, and assured the developer that there was a community of gamers who would continue to be interested in the story it was telling. So as mentioned above, Stoic locked up shop and went to work on making the sequel even better. It’s here, where Watson revealed that he believes the team dropped the ball.
According to the developer, Stoic assumed that when the sequel was done that the same audience from the first game would still be there.
We really neglected our community during the development of Banner Saga 2, because we were focusing on our work. I think that was a mistake. We all agree that was a mistake.
And as Games Industry reports, the mistake Watson is referring to was evident fairly quickly after The Banner Saga 2 launched. The sequel launched back in April of last year on PC (and then later on other platforms), and in its first few months on Steam, the game sold around a third of what The Banner Saga sold over the same period. When GI spoke to Versus Evil (the game’s publisher) last year, it noted that there was a substantial increase in the number of competing titles on The Banner Saga 2’s launch week. Talking about this specific point, Watson adds:
“That is a factor. With The Banner Saga we launched against 70 games that month. With The Banner Saga 2 it was over 400, so that is a factor. You are fighting more for attention, and it’s remarkable how many people I meet say, ‘oh, Banner Saga 2 is out?’ They just don’t know, and we spent a lot of money marketing it. We tried to make it known.”
In theory, the sequel should have sold at least the numbers the first game sold — if not better — but yet it didn’t. And according to Watson, Stoic is looking to retain that community back that drove its first game, by hiring a full-time community manager, which is a pretty big deal when you consider the team is only six people.
It is also in the process of fixing a part of the first game that it believes has potentially hindered players from playing the second by leaving a sour taste in the mouth to all who played it. Now, if you’re a Banner Saga fan you will know that this is of course referring to the last battle in the first game. For those that don’t know, the last battle in that game takes “an absurdly steep difficulty curve,” a consequence of Stoic trying to create a climatic challenge but overdoing it. According to Watson, the developer has data that shows that only half of the players who reach the fight beat it, which naturally must have left a sour taste in the mouths of the other half that didn’t.
Further data reveals, that only 75% of players imported a save from the first game into the sequel, which means the other 25% (roughly) were new players, which is not terribly bad growth. However, what it also means, is many players from the first game did not return, which is a problem.
But despite the sequel’s underwhelming performance, it does seem to have pushed more copies of the first game. According to Watson, 1,000 new people play the first game every single day, and naturally this does trickle over into people buying the sequel. But as mentioned above, roughly 50% of people don’t get pass that last battle, and therefore likely aren’t funneling over into the sequel, and so Stoic is working on an update that will tune that battle and decrease its difficulty so that people can get through it. Watson continues:
“..The launch of The Banner Saga 2 drove sales of Banner Saga. If you look at The Banner Saga as a franchise – all the platforms and both the games – it’s generating about the same revenue… It’s like building a wedge. Banner Saga 3 might sell a third of what Banner Saga 2 did, but it should lift up the other games. That’s what we’re betting on.”
Speaking of The Banner Saga 3, which is the final game in the planned trilogy, Watson reveals Stoic had discussion over the game’s funding:
“Arnie [Jorgensen] and I…all of our personal fortunes, all of our finances, are buried in The Banner Saga. We’ve been doing this for four years, we spent all of our retirement money, and we haven’t replenished that yet. We both have kids, they have to go to college, and we can’t just keep betting it all every time, because making entertainment is the riskiest thing.”
According to Watson, the team realized that the sequel’s projected budget was likely greater than what it could expect to raise on Kickstarter. Further, the developer revealed that he and Jorgensen discussed seeking private investment, and even “shopped around” for options.
“Is taking investor money gonna make the game sell? Is it gonna make it $1 million more profitable? No. It’ll make it a little bit better; we could spend some of that money maybe doing some more animations, maybe we increase the quality level a little bit. The quality has to reach a certain bar for people to accept it as a sequel in The Banner Saga, because we set that bar for ourselves. But beyond that it won’t really affect the profitability. It would be a vanity thing. We just want to make it better.”
However, Watson calls getting third party investment for the third game in the series “kinda stupid,” and such a decision would make more sense for an entirely new project. For now, it appears Stoic is betting on the franchise, once again, with its own money.
“We have to do it. We set out to make this trilogy. We can’t leave the story unfinished.”
Be sure to check out the Games Industry link below for more details.