Published on January 8th, 2015 | by Patrick Garde0
Interview with John Watson of Stoic Studio
We sat down with John Watson, the co-owner and technical director of Stoic Studio, the team behind The Banner Saga. Their game was one of the best RPGs on Android last year, hence, we decided to get to know the developer better. We talked about: the history of their studio, inspiration to make games, experience with Kickstarter, challenges in porting to mobile (particularly on Android), motivation, difference between developing games between iOS and Android, arriving at the right price point, and their future.
It’s nice to sit down with you, John, and thank you for the interview. We wanted to begin with your history. When did you come up with the idea of starting Stoic Studio? Also, how did you decide on the name?
The 3 of us worked together on Star Wars: The Old Republic at BioWare for many years. When that game reached completion, we came to the conclusion that the time was ripe for us to build our own game. Alex had a great story outline, Arnie had a stunning visual treatment, and I had the ability to put it all together with code. All three of us were immediately in consensus about the Viking Age esque setting, the Eyvind Earle themed visuals, and the turn based strategy mechanics. I had actually just rewatched Sleeping Beauty a few years prior, as an adult, and during that rewatching I had been blown away by the art direction of that film. When I had seen it as a child, I hadn’t been able to appreciate what was going on there. Then, 2 years later when Arnie floated the idea of doing an entire game in a style like that, I was sold.
The name Stoic was arrived at by Alex, after trying on just a few others. We wanted something very simple and short, but not some nonsense word that doesn’t say anything about us. ‘Stoic’ felt like the perfect descriptor for us and our company. We were all mature professionals and knew what we were doing. We were taking a risky step in leaving our salaries and stability behind to try something unknown, but we would face it Stoically and prevail. When Arnie produced a logo of a Viking ship stoically riding on top of an enormous wave, we had a winner.
Your team have been making games since 2012. What was your inspiration to make games? How did you get to the point that you want to create some games?
For me, game making was a passion from the earliest days. My father purchased an Apple way back in 1983 when they first came out. I was 8 years old at the time. I learned how to program on that computer and spent years writing programs and playing games on it. Computer magazines at the time did not come with inserted floppy disks or any other kind of digital media. When a computer game was included in such a magazine, it was included as pages and pages of assembly code, which you were expected to type in manually — which I regularly did, and subsequently was able to modify and experiment with. Many games were truly inspiring to my young mind, such as the Infocom text adventures (Zork, etc…), the Sierra graphical adventures (Mystery House, etc…), dungeon crawlers such as Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord and Bard’s Tale. There was a public domain game engine called Eamon, with numerous adventures such as The Lair of the Minotaur, Castle of Doom, The Death Star, and many many more. With Eamon, one could really create entire adventures and share them with friends. Eamon probably forms my most important kernel of interest in making games.
When I arrived at university in 1992, I encountered other transformative influences. I had my first exposure to Unix environments and C programming, both of which immediately captured my attention. I quickly discovered MUDs and just as quickly set off to create my own. The result of that was a mud called TempusMUD which provided me with a sandbox to try out all of my programming and game design ideas. DOOM and then DOOM 2 came out on PC. 3d technology took off with games like Quake, and hardware like the 3dfx Voodoo enabled consumer PCs to render 3d more effectively than the $10,000 SGI workstations in the computer lab. I helped write a Quake map editor in OpenGL for Linux and Unix. By the time I graduated, I knew that creating games professionally was my first priority for the future.
What was your experience like with the crowd-sourcing platform Kickstarter for your RPG game The Banner Saga?
Our Kickstarter success was an amazing surprise. When we started our studio, we saw Kickstarter as more of a way of promoting the game and building awareness. We didn’t expect to get more than $30k, which we planned on applying directly to animation, which was the biggest bottleneck to our development schedule. We fully intended to make the game in under a year, living frugally off our own savings.
However, while we were preparing our campaign, Double Fine blew the doors off and changed the way games are funded on Kickstarter. We didn’t have the brand recognition and celebrity that Double Fine and Tim Shafer have, but we did come with a fresh idea and enough industry experience to justify our claim that we could pull it off. I think people really responded to our story as well, as 3 guys who left everything behind, jumped into the unknown, moved into a dilapidated shack, and set off to make a game that we feel passionately about.
The result was that we were able to dramatically increase the production value of the game. We were able to collaborate closely with Austin Wintory, Powerhouse Animation, and Kpow Audio. Almost overnight we had a massive community of supporters. The quality of our community has been a wonderful thing. During the beta development of our free combat demo, Factions, the community expanded further and helped us really refine and tune the combat mechanics. When Factions launched in February 2013, people really bit into it and we were blown away by the reception. In the future we’d like to take the gameplay of Factions and expand upon it with much more content and modes of play.
We developed the combat system of the game first because we saw this as the riskiest component, both from the game design and the technical standpoints. With combat and much of the user interface in place, we spent the rest of 2013 developing the single player game. Since launch in January 2014 we’ve been working nonstop on expanding The Banner Saga in all the ways we had hoped. We have had the game translated into 6 more languages (German, French, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Polish). We ported the game to iOS and Android, which not only put the game onto a platform for which it is naturally suited, but allowed us to further refine some aspects of the game, including a rewrite of the rendering engine that yields even greater performance and clarity. These improvements will appear in the PC and Mac versions the next time we update on Steam. I am currently working full time with Atlanta Game Cooperative to port the game to Linux, Xbox One, Playstation 4, and Playstation Vita. We are using ScaleForm technology to adapt our game to those platforms. We showed a demo of the game running on Playstation 4 at the Playstation Experience in Las Vegas in December 2014. We are putting the finishing touches on the automated build system for the Linux Steam version so that it can go into QA. I am personally working on all the gamepad integrations for the game, all of which will make it back into the Steam versions as soon as we can.
Initially, the game was released via Steam last January 14, 2014. 10 months after, it was ported to Android in October 2014. What were the challenges in bringing the game to mobile?
We planned on making a tablet version from the very beginning of development. In fact, at one time we considered making the iPad our primary platform. We had the game running on the iPad 1 during the first few months of development, but our texture sizes and resource demands became too much for that device, so we left it behind. We chose to use Adobe AIR technology as this allows us to compile native version of the game not only for PC and Mac, but also for iOS and Android. After launch, and the localization effort, I turned my full time attention to mobile. I had the game up and running on my iPad 2 in only 3 days. However, 4 more months of polishing, optimization, and tuning were required to get it ready for release. During this process of productization we really made it sing on tablet, adding some tablet specific features such as pinch zooming and tilt panning.
Our major challenges in bringing the game to mobile were mostly optimization related. We had to make the game fit into less memory than we had on PC and Mac. We were able to do this with no loss of quality, by a process of careful optimization and removing the inevitable wasted resources that occur in large programs. The exact same codebase is used on all platforms, so this process of optimization ended up improving even our PC and Mac versions dramatically.
Were there any issues in making The Banner Saga work on different Android devices?
Yes, the variety of Android devices did present a powerful challenge. Fortunately, I had help from Jason Maltzen of Hidden Achievement to get this over the finish line. We had to address many issues what were specific to individual Android devices. With that amount of variety, you can expect not only different capabilities but different behaviors under identical circumstances, and different device-specific bugs and quirks. For instance, our Adobe AIR middleware has some strange issues dealing with x86 processors, a problem for which it took us some time to find a solution. As another example, we decided to support the older Samsung Galaxy 3 device, which has lead to quite a bit of work on our end, because that device runs the game great for some people, and not for others.
We were very fortunate to partner with Sculpin QA to test our releases and updates. Without their extensive stable of test devices and their experienced testers I don’t know how we would have been able to reach as many people. Without help like that we would have probably needed to just choose perhaps the top 5 Android devices and only support those.
It’s really personally rewarding to get the game onto more and more platforms. We’ve received many direct emails from players thanking us for putting the game in their hands. Those kinds of emails from players who really enjoyed the game are guaranteed to make our day when they arrive.
Can you give our readers a brief explanation of your game?
The Banner Saga takes you to a fictional land with cultures and mythology reminiscent of that of the Viking Age. The time of gods is ended, and tales of the war that destroyed them is passed down through only a few generations. This apocalyptic event is remembered first hand by the much longer lived Varl, a race of horned giants that rule the far north. When the sun stops in the sky, it signals the return of the Dredge, and ancient enemy from beneath the mountains. As catastrophe and disaster sweep across the land it appears that the end of the mortals, their own Ragnarok, has arrived to usher them into the same extinction as the gods that preceded them. The game puts you into roles that require you to make difficult decisions about how to deal with the situation and how to protect the people who are looking to you for help. It combines unique hand drawn animations, sweeping painted landscapes, turn based tactical combat, a large cast of characters, a rich mythological background, and a mature storyline.
The Banner Saga enjoyed a favorable review on Google Play with an average rating of 4.5 stars. We also named it as one of the best Android RPGs of 2014. Did you expect to receive this kind of reception?
We were very pleased and excited to see such a great reception. Our initial struggles with several Android devices made us worry that those would reflect poorly on the rating. However, we have been very proactive in addressing every issue that comes up as quickly as we can. When we finished the mobile version and initially released on iOS, we knew that we had something that was very refined, polished, and well suited to tablet. We knew that this experience would translate perfectly onto Android devices as well, once we did the work of solving all of the device-specific issues. We are honored to have received such a warm welcome into the Android gaming ecosystem.
As an indie game developer, what motivates and drives you to continue making games?
The Banner Saga has something of a life of its own that now has its own gravity and momentum. The game was conceived as the first book in a 3 part trilogy. When we were planning development at the beginning, we came up with a sweeping epic story arc. We realized pretty quickly that there was no way for us to create that entire story in one step. Our studio is too small, and our budgets to slim to attempt something like that. It would have taken us too many years to complete. The story arc was naturally divided into 3 books or acts, so we decided to approach the game as a trilogy. That way, we could either continue or give up after the first game was released. As it turns out, the first game has been successful enough for us to continue. We are powerfully motivated by a desire to tell the entire story. I couldn’t imagine stopping before that point. That’s what I mean when I say that the momentum of the game’s story is carrying us along.
Once we’ve accomplished that, I have no idea what to do next. I’ve been fortunate to partner with some amazing artists, writers, and musicians to create this game. Gaming is exciting because it is evolving all the time, and reaching new audiences. I am inspired by the idea of making games that educate, address social issues, or inspire philosophical reflection.
You also released the game on iOS. How is the performance in their platform? What are the differences from Google Play?
Developing for iOS is simpler than developing for Google Play. There are only a few supported devices on iOS and even those are very similar to each other. Fortunately, Google Play gives you the tools necessary to exclude specific devices as necessary. There is no such mechanism on iOS, so developers have to resort to fiddling around with ‘capability’ flags to try to get the right set of devices.
Google Play does not allow you to deliver the entire game as one package, so we have to deliver the game engine through the store, then download the 1.7 GB of assets when the player first runs the game. This creates a less than optimal user experience — I certainly don’t enjoy purchasing a game and then waiting for it to update in another step. However, once we did the technical work of creating this side downloading system, it turns out that it is quite useful when publishing updates to the game, as the user only needs to download the small game engine package for bug fixes.
Google Play has been very helpful and generous in getting the word out about our game. In the 7 weeks that the game has been on Google Play, we’ve seen about 42% as many new Android players as we’ve seen iOS players over a 15 week period. That’s almost the same proportion as time available in the respective stores, so I would say that’s pretty dang good performance. One difference between the two stores is that we put the game on sale for half price on Google Play one week after launch. This was both to have a holiday sale and something of a gift for the Android players who had to wait longer than the iOS players for the game.
What was the ultimate challenge you recall when developing The Banner Saga?
The game was very ambitious for such a small team. We started the studio with 3 of us. With Kickstarter funds, we were able to get contract help with programming, animation, sound, and QA. Even with that help, we were still working at the outer limits of what we could actually pull off. As Arnie says, ‘we bit off as much as we could chew’. For me, the biggest challenge was almost always managing the complexity of the branching story and all of the things that can be affected by it. I worked hard to create a system that allows content developers to completely script and build the world, but of course creating that system on the fly can be a bit difficult.
How did you come up with the $9.99 price tag on Android? How hard is it to arrive at the price point wherein it will both appeal to users and be sufficient enough to pay for the development cost?
Price points are very mysterious to us. It’s a bit of black magic, I think. There’s not a whole lot of hard data that can be used in a scientific way to determine the ‘best’ price. We must charge enough to pay for development and fund development of the next part of the trilogy. We would like to charge more than that so that our children can afford to go to school. On the other hand, there’s a lot of value in getting more people to play your game even at a reduced price. If you make them happy, they are more likely [to pay].
We charged $9.99 to play it safe, which is a pretty substantial 50% off of the current price of the PC/Mac version. The mobile version is exactly the same game, and actually includes enhancements specific to touch screens. In other words, I think that $9.99 is a bargain for a game with this amount of content and hours (8-12+) of gameplay. I feel that in the future we will get closer to price parity between desktop and mobile builds of the same game. I think that this is important if we want to see more and more games available on mobile. I love working on mobile games as well, and I want it to be a viable way to make a living. Despite our awesome reception and success on mobile, the combined revenue from Google and iOS doesn’t come close to supporting the development of the game as a whole. We needed to launch on Steam first or we would have sunk. With Steam as our flagship, we can expand onto other platforms with less risk.
What does the future hold for Stoic Studio? Do you already have ideas for your next project? Do you intend to port the game to more platforms?
As the programming arm of Stoic, I am pretty much consumed by work on ports. As I mentioned above, we are finishing up Linux soon, and ports to the next gen consoles are well under way. Arnie and Drew are already working 100% on TBS 2, which is the second part of the trilogy. There’s quite a bit of programming to do for me to support their content development, so I’m looking at ways to set aside some time for that earlier rather than later. Currently my involvement on TBS2 is primarily helping to plan, reviewing creative ideas, and fixing bugs in the content tools when they arise.
Finally, what would you like to say to our readers?
Thank you reading this far and putting up with my rambling! I really want to re-iterate how powerful and encouraging it is when we hear from players about their experiences with the game. Thanks to everyone who has supported us, whether from the beginning all the way up to new players in the present day. Making this game has been a dream come true for me and sharing it with others is a delicious reward. We can’t wait to get the next part of the story into your hands!
Thank you, John, for your time.
Be sure to visit Stoic Studio’s official website and follow them on their social networking accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube) to get updates on their games and next projects. If you still haven’t tried The Banner Saga, you should check it out on Google Play.