My first time playing the iPad version of The Banner Saga, the strategy-RPG from Austin-based developer Stoic, did not last especially long.
I picked up an iPad Air loaded with an early version of the port before chatting with Arnie Jorgensen and John Watson, two of the studio's co-founders, about how the game was received after landing on Steam in January. After knocking out a few rounds of battle, and maneuvering around the interface for a few minutes, I handed the tablet back to Jorgensen.
"Everybody does this when we hand them the mobile version," Jorgensen said. "We break out the tablet, and after a few seconds, everyone just goes, ‘Yep, it's the game!'"
We break out the tablet, and after a few seconds, everyone just goes, ‘Yep, it's the game!'
Adapting the PC version of The Banner Saga to iPad, Android and Windows tablets hasn't been as difficult a process as you might think. The team is "not re-engineering it for tablets" at all, Jorgensen explained — The Banner Saga was designed to work on mobile devices from the start.
"All of our user interfaces were designed from the ground-up to be simple enough to use with a finger," Watson said. "You could play the entire game on PC with your left mouse button."
Stoic's intention to develop games for tablets didn't just serve as a creative baseline for The Banner Saga; it was a huge inspiration for the studio to come together in the first place. The three founders — Jorgensen, Watson and writer Alex Thomas — left their individual roles at BioWare, where they had worked on Star Wars: The Old Republic, to create a new development studio from scratch. According to Jorgensen, the original iPad, and the early days of the iOS ecosystem, are what made the trio think their plan for independence was viable.
"It was during the time when the iPad was first coming out, and I had been working at larger companies for a while," Jorgensen said. "Which is cool! But after a while, you start thinking, ‘Man, it'd be really fun to start working on my own stuff again.' And then I got an iPad and picked up Sword & Sworcery, which is a badass art game. It blew my mind — it was a small team, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really possible now.' That's what kind of kicked off the whole idea of staying in games, which I love, but I could move to a smaller team and go independent and still make a living. The iPad, I think, kicked that whole thing into gear."
After some consideration, Stoic decided to develop The Banner Saga for PCs before bringing the game to the iOS platform that had drawn their attention. That decision was based on several factors, Jorgensen and Watson explained — primarily, it was due to the team's hesitation to place the fate of their entire company on a platform surrounded by so many unknowns.
The title would be ambitious and expensive to create, and wouldn't lend itself to a free-to-play or budget pricing structure. When Stoic began work on Banner Saga, there simply weren't that many games on the iOS App Store that clocked in at what you might consider a "premium" price point; something The Banner Saga would absolutely need if the game was going to fulfill Stoic's hopes for the title.
Moreover, The Banner Saga fell into a genre for which Steam users had a much, much larger appetite.
'What if we spent a year or two years making this, put it out on iOS, and we were just sunk?'
"For this game, we felt like it was sort of a niche genre," Watson said. "It's sort of an old-school tactics, sort of an Oregon Trail or King of Dragon Pass type thing. We felt like our core audience was on PC, on Steam, so there's that. On the other side of the coin, shipping a game on iOS was a big question mark. Are people going to buy it? I don't know. How much can we sell it for? Not very much. We saw it as a bigger risk; what if we spent a year or two years making this, put it out on iOS, and we were just sunk?
"It just felt like Steam was a better fit for this — not a ‘better fit,' really, but more of a slam dunk," Watson added.
The Banner Saga has allowed Stoic to achieve stability, giving them freedom to finally take the risk they set out to take when they decided to create an independent iOS title. There's interest in their new intellectual property, and comparatively, an increased premium game market on the App Store.
"The iOS now for us isn't this, ‘Oh crap, our whole lives are on the line here, the whole studio will sink if we don't do well on iOS,'" Jorgensen said. "Like, we'll do our best, but again, it's our first rodeo for launching to this, and we'll know the answers after we launch it. But it's not a scary thing, right now. We're actually looking at it like a bonus, and we're hoping for the best, but you never know."
The actual development of The Banner Saga's tablet port has been relatively smooth, Watson explained. The game was ported from its native PC platform to the iPad in just two days. The majority of the work that's now going into the tablet version boils down to painstaking optimization, as well as the other factors, including wrestling with the "black magic" required to succeed on the platform. The biggest decision is, of course, how much The Banner Saga should cost on tablets.
It's a decision that Stoic is still struggling with — and, surprisingly, it's one that Apple has been advising the studio on.
"Apple is frustrated, along with everybody else, about the mentality that's gone rampant in mobile app markets, where people don't want to pay anything," Watson said. "They want to pay as little as possible. They think that four dollars is an exorbitant amount to pay for a game, which is very illogical considering most people's lifestyles. They'll spend $600 on an iPad, and $4 on a coffee, drop $20 on lunch, but when it comes to spending four or five dollars on a game, it's this life-altering decision. I'm frustrated with that too."
"Apple clearly knows this, and I think they're hoping developers are going to be using that on iPad Air, because it can push it now," Jorgensen added. "So they're telling us to go higher-end with our game. We're still making those decisions."
Banner Saga is suited for the platform, they hope, and will justify a premium price tag. What that tag will be is still up in the air — Watson quoted XCOM's mobile port at $20, the recently launched Monster Hunter port at $15, and Broken Age at $10. There's no set norm, which makes compressing the PC version of Banner Saga's $25 launch price on PC a tricky proposition.
'when it comes to spending four or five dollars on a game, it's this life-altering decision.'
The price it will not be is free. While there are certainly exceptions to the rule — Jorgensen and Watson called out Hearthstone and Fates Forever, a recently released mobile MOBA, as two notable, non-punishing free-to-play titles — the studio's feelings on that structure are bearish.
"I'm happy to spend money on a game, but I'm not happy to get a watered-down product where the object of the game is to play me, and my enjoyment is secondary," Watson said. "Everybody's trying to do that. We tried to avoid that when we put Factions out, like, ‘Here's this free game, and here's a couple things you can spend money on,' but we didn't build in any kind of compulsion to it, because it was supposed to be a demo. You don't make money that way."
The Banner Saga: Factions was a free-to-play multiplayer title designed to give players (and Banner Saga's Kickstarter backers) an early look at the full, single-player game's combat mechanics. It offered only a few purchasable items, including swapped color palettes for each of the playable characters, and an option to unlock all of the game's veteran units without earning them by playing the game. Money made from those purchases went back into the development of The Banner Saga — but there simply wasn't a lot of interest from players.
"I've often said, and I really believe this, we could have made as much, if not more, if we had put a tip jar on the bottom right-hand corner of the screen," Jorgensen said.
The team expressed interest in one day returning to Factions, providing some much-needed balance changes and updates to the title, and even bringing it to tablets as well. However, before that can happen, they'll need to get some of their irons out of the fire. In addition to The Banner Saga's mobile port, the team is still working on the second installment in the Banner Saga trilogy, which they hope to launch next year. The second chapter has been a massive undertaking; Jorgensen said a portion of all the profits they've garnered from the first Banner Saga has been reinvested into the new title; as much, he said, as they raised on Kickstarter for the first.
Adding in Stoic's ongoing process of providing localizations on the PC version of the title and exploring console ports with contracted development teams, the studio's time is limited. But that doesn't mean they're not thinking about the future of the studio, and the future of the franchise they've launched. The team wasn't just developing a game when it was working on the first Banner Saga; they were generating a world, with volumes of history and lore that even the completed trilogy "won't be able to scratch the surface of," according to Jorgensen. Once the trilogy is complete, they likely won't leave the Banner Saga IP to rot; though they may take it in new genre directions.
'I think it'd be fun to do a Banner Saga dungeon crawl'
"When we're done with The Banner Saga, we'll probably move into a different type of game, but we don't know what it is yet," Jorgensen said. "But that's the idea — it's going to be ‘The Banner Saga ... Something Else.'"
"I think it'd be fun to do a Banner Saga dungeon crawl," Watson said.
The franchise is perhaps more important to Stoic than the growth of the company itself. At this young point in its life, Stoic is The Banner Saga, and their attention and spending reflects that relationship.
"We're just investing, making sure we pre-pay the next game, the next game and the next game," Jorgensen said. "We're not making small, tchotchke games, here. It's a bigger game than even we initially thought we'd be doing. But now we know."