Banner Saga 3 Interview
Banner Saga 3, the conclusion to the the epic Viking inspired Banner Saga trilogy, was just released on July 26, 2018 for the PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. RPGamer was given the opportunity to chat with developer Stoic’s art director Arnie Jorgensen to discuss the recent release and his reflections on the trilogy as a whole.
Johnathan Stringer (RPGamer): The final game of the trilogy has arrived. Besides the conclusion to the trilogy’s story, what new additions or features can fans expect to see in Banner Saga 3, and have any existing mechanics changed from the previous games?
Arnie Jorgensen (Stoic): There’s a lot of new stuff in the battles. The Willpower-giving Warhorn is gone for one of the caravans and replaced with a Valka spear that calls down Arc Lightning on enemies, and can chain diagonally from one target to the next. This addition 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.
The “Wave Battle” system is also new. 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 with wave battles there is a turn timer that counts down the amount of turns the player has to defeat the current wave of enemies before the next wave automatically is added to the board. 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.
Beyond battles, there is also the addition of new Heroic Titles that you may award to heroes of Rank 11 and above. These titles greatly increase the overall power of the hero, and you can use them to either buff whatever the hero is already good at, or round out their usefulness with buffs that they may be deficient in. There is a slew of UI upgrades, new heroes to play, and of course, lots of new story.
JS: How games finish, especially ones with branching story and character segments that expand over multiple releases, get a lot of scrutiny, probably due to the players investment in the story and characters. While avoiding spoilers, how tough was it to tie everything together, and ensure you created an ending that would satisfy the high expectations set forth by the trilogy?
AJ: Great question with basically an easy answer: It was very difficult. We did start plotting Banner Saga 3 from the end and moved backward to the start to make absolutely sure that we had the runway to stick the landing. We knew if we didn’t get the ending right, and make it feel satisfying to the players, then the whole trilogy was in question. We wanted the player’s decisions to feel like they really mattered. I think, based on the reviews so far, that we got it right.
JS: In a game where player choice has such an impact, how do you balance between telegraphing the outcome of a choice against frustrating trial and error outcomes?
AJ: Every day in life we make decisions, based on what we know, and just hope those decisions were the right ones. Some are easy to know the outcomes, and some more difficult. Banner Saga is the same way, and we hope people consume it like they would a good book, rather than “right” or “wrong” decisions.
JS: The Banner Saga world has expanded into tabletop RPG and board gaming. How involved is the Stoic development team in these endeavors? Are there any other ways you are looking to expand the Banner Saga universe?
AJ: We didn’t have much to do with the design of the tabletop game Banner Saga: Warbands. The good people over at MegaCon took the ball and ran with it, trying to develop a game that felt like the spirit of the video game series. The RPG game is basically all fan-made and we LOVE watching what they’re doing with the world. As far as new plans we have for expanding the Banner Saga universe, you’ll have to wait and see.
JS: While originally made for PC, the Banner Saga series has been released now on almost every modern gaming platform, the latest being the Switch. Are all the versions exactly the same, or are there any differences that take advantage of a platform’s hardware, be it UI or performance?
AJ: There’s always a certain amount of optimization that’s needed to make the game work on different platforms. We try to keep the core game feeling exactly the same though, so a player’s experience from one device to another feels consistent.
JS: Stoic has basically had the same small core team since the beginning, but have you expanded the studio much to handle the platform ports and releases, and is the development team still operating remotely?
AJ: We’re back to the core team that started the whole thing since Alex Thomas came back to write Saga 3. But yes, we’ve got a much larger team of 14 full time people now, not to mention many outsourcers. We have two studios for people to work together in, one in Austin, TX to handle art/design, and the other studio in Seattle to handle tech/business. Only one person is still working remotely, our producer Zeb West hails from California, and likes it too much to move.
JS: What are some of your fondest memories during the development cycle of the Banner Saga Trilogy? What were some of the biggest challenges, and how did you manage to get past them?
AJ: I think my fondest memories are the start of the whole Saga, when we were working in an old shed and shooting video of each other to rotoscope into the game. The fun we had watching the original Kickstarter being so well received was exhilarating. The other best memory happened just days ago, the launch of the final piece of the trilogy. It was very satisfying to be able to actually finish this series, and in a way that we’re all proud of. We didn’t cut any corners, we put everything we had into each game, and now >whew< we’re done.
The largest challenges have really been just trying to keep up with the sheer amount of work that needed to be done. Often times the game and studio took priority over family and friends, and for that reason, I’m glad it’s done. Things have eased since we grew Stoic by hiring talented employees, so I’m now looking forward to what we’re lining up next.
JS: Do you have any future plans yet? Will you be dipping back into the world of the Banner Saga, or would there be more interest trying something new? If new, do you think you would want to stick to what you know, and make something relatively similar, or would you find more appeal in trying something completely different?
AJ: We’ve still got a lot to finish in the world of Banner Saga. Both Survival Mode and Eternal Arena have been promised as Kickstarter rewards and we’re actively working on them now. We’re also ankle deep in our next game plans, and you’ll just have to wait to see what they are! Saying that, we’re not risk averse, and don’t mind trying something completely different than Banner Saga.
JS: Thinking of the legacy of the Banner Saga, how should it be remembered? What do you think are the game’s strengths and highlights, and what sets it apart?
AJ: I’ll let others explore Banner Saga’s strengths and weaknesses, but I think what makes it unique is that the combination of decisions, both large and small, really do matter to the story. Five payers can go through the Saga, and each come away with different feelings and events. The fact that no hero is safe, even main characters, adds to the exhilaration of an already very well written story. I often say that Banner Saga is more of an experience than a game, and that is what I think sets it apart.
JS: Any final comments to the readers and Banner Saga fans?
AJ: It’s hard to say this without sounding like I’m pandering to the community, but it’s absolutely true that it is by far and away the best I have ever been associated with during my many years of game development. I think our fans are, for lack of better words, highly intelligent. This possibly has a lot to do with the game that takes a lot of thought and reading to enjoy. They are organically kind, helpful, and respectful to each other. They’ve boosted our morale when we were working more hours than we should. They are what made this entire Saga successful. I hope they stay with Stoic for our next adventure!