Hello and greetings again for another monthly update! This time we had planned to give you an in-depth look at the animation process in great detail by the amazing artists at Powerhouse Animations. They have been working ridiculous deadlines of their own and had to delay the update. We didn’t want to keep anyone waiting, so we’ll do a progress report now and a content-filled animation update soon thereafter. I know many people were hoping we’d update more frequently with smaller posts anyway.

First, Q&A as always:

Q: When is the game coming out?
A: Later this year. We used the much larger budget to make a much larger game.

Q: How long total has the game been in development now?
A: 1 year and 2 months

Q: How/where do I upload my guild crest?
A: We’ll be including crest uploads as part of the actual game, so there’s never a deadline. It will only be accessible by backers.

And now, PROGRESS!

This has been an insane month for The Banner Saga. We have a schedule we’re working from, of course, and to meet this month’s deadline we’ve been crunching harder than ever. I don’t tell you this for sympathy, I say it simply because it’s true, and we knew what we were signing up for. So, what did we accomplish with all this crunchery?

GOLD STANDARD
If you’ve followed game development before you might already know what gold standard means. Design usually involves coming up with a solid set of ideas, testing them quickly, creating placeholder systems until everything is working and is fun. After that, you create final content, figure out the way things move, polish the various systems until they’re really done.

I’m very happy to say that every system in our game is now gold standard, and all of part 1 is compete. This is a significant portion of the game (I’m shy about saying exactly how much because stuff changes all the time).

Here’s a list of things we’ve implemented since the last update:

  • World travel. Final art, with animated particles like blowing snow, birds, etc.
  • Close travel. Final art for a variety of close locations all hooked up as intended in the engine.
  • Randomized camp scenes. The player can camp at any point during travel, generating a randomized scene so that no two campsites look the same along the way. In camp the player can manage their units, rest, view the map and talk to allies. All of these systems are hooked up and working.
  • Custom combat boards. Final art for the unique combat boards used in part 1. These unique boards are used for key parts of the story, and they’ll look special when you come to them.
  • Randomized combat boards. You’ll often get into incidental fights along the way, usually due to choice you made during travel. These non-story-based fights randomly generate combat boards from a library of pieces that are mixed in matched to make standard fights have some variety.
  • The caravan. The traveling caravan now has final art in both world and close travel, growing and shrinking depending on how many people are in your caravan.
  • War. When you run across enemies in great numbers you go into “war” mode, a tactical decision where you choose how to approach a large-scale battle. This system has been hooked up with final art.
  • Travel HUD. The travel gui at the top of the screen is now fully functional. It tracks all your stats as you travel and the art changes as things like morale improve or degrade. The days cycle and count down and the other various buttons are all hooked up.
  • Conversation cameras. The portraits and camera movement for conversation are all finalized. When writing dialogue I can now choose which cameras to use to show characters that are talking. Their names and dialogue are also functional.
  • Conversation portraits. We have over 16 playable characters in the saga, and several more NPCs on top of this. All of these portraits are complete and hooked up in the game.
  • Conversation backgrounds. When jumping into conversation, the game pulls from a library of images, mixing and matching pieces to create background images that don’t repeat.
  • Dialogue. Part one of the game now has final dialogue, both in conversation and for events that happen throughout the part. In addition, all the variables are hooked up to this dialogue so that the decisions you make actually function within the game.
  • Combat characters. We have many new characters that have not been seen before, and animation is finished for them.
  • Combat enemies. The dredge are nearly complete, but several are already in the game. We have begun the process of balancing them for single player combat.
  • Combat AI. Computer enemies now function, making smart decisions about what action to take. If you’ve played Factions you know the combat can get pretty complex. We will be working to improve AI until the game ships but at this time it is completely functional (and fun!)
  • Dynamic music. Austin Wintory has been doing excellent work on the score, but he’s just as interested in making it emotionally engaging. Combat now takes into account your actions and dynamically generates music to match that. Certain actions in combat (first kill, winning, losing, etc) now seamlessly cue different music to emphasize this. He’ll be doing an update about this in the future.
  • Travel score. Austin has also drawn up a lot of the music for traveling through the game. It’s gorgeous!
  • Misc. There are tons of little things that go into putting this all together. We have transitions in place, titles screens, match resolution showing how many fighters you’ve lost, that sort of thing.

Sounds great, you may be saying, when do we get to see it? The plan is for the next update to show all of this gameplay. It’ll also be a promotional piece and the first time people outside the studio have seen the real, functional game. We want to do it right, since it’ll probably get picked up by some news sites.

However, we will be at RTX (Rooster Teeth Expo) in Austin this weekend, and showing a lot of this at our booth. If you happen to be in the area drop by!

OVERALL PROGRESS
What does Gold Standard mean for the progress of the full game? With everything in our game functioning correctly with final art, we are now working almost entirely on content. Here’s a rough outline of how development goes:

Pre-production (art style, broad design ideas, type of game)
Proof of Concept (mock up of what the game would look and play like, basic rules)
Vertical slice (placeholder work on key systems that are playable, to test for fun)
Alpha (most of the game is playable in a rough state, some features still missing)
Gold Standard (a section of the game is taken to completion with final work, all systems are done)
Beta (the entire game is laid out, needs polish and playtesting)
Launch! (the game is done! Or is it?)

Developers can do this in a lot of different ways, which is why the terms above can get confusing. Is something alpha or beta? What does that even mean? Indies especially will just go along doing whatever feels right at the time, but the above is our basic trajectory. Next we’ll be creating content for the remainder of the game. This is generally where production starts to move really fast, no longer burdened with having parts of the game that “can’t be completed” yet.

A CONVERSATION ABOUT KICKSTARTER
Lots of stuff has been going on in the Kickstarter community lately. I’m sure many of you have noticed Double Fine’s announcement about splitting up their game into two parts. They’ve gotten some serious heat for this. Backers of Shadowrun have heard similar things about the content in that game, with the DLC being released much later.

First of all, I want to be clear that we do not intend to do something like this for The Banner Saga. When it releases it will be a complete product. We don’t have plans for DLC at this time, and we will continue to support the multiplayer component. We also intend to continue on the sequels (chapter 2 and 3) just as planned.

I would also like to talk about my personal opinion on this, and I’d love to be open and talk like a normal person instead of a PR person in damage control mode. Can we do this? Without freaking out? You can disagree with me of course, just be nice about it.

This is hard. Like, way WAY hard. When we pitched the game we were hoping for enough money to get extra animations, maybe increase the length of the game. We thought we’d get, like, 2000 backers, not 20,000. A fine problem to have, right? Haha! Except that it’s actually a huge problem. The hardest problem I’ve ever dealt with in my life. Now I know.

We thought now we could do everything we ever wanted for the game, and got too ambitious. We thought we could make the game in six months, and I’m still not sure what we were thinking. That was stupid. I wish I could take that back, all we needed to do was put a different date there and nobody would be complaining. Whoops. We ARE still doing everything we want, and it’s taking a long time. I don’t feel bad about that. That was the POINT, right? To dream as big as we could?

It’s interesting to think of it from someone else’s point of view. For many people, letting a dev shoot for the moon is NOT the point. For a lot of people the point is I BOUGHT A GAME, WHERE IS IT? They want the biggest, best game ever made, on time, for their $10 contribution. I can see that, too. I don’t really agree… but I suppose it’s a matter of perspective.

If nothing else, I think the gaming community is finally getting a good picture about real game development. What would really shock people is that there is nothing unusual about any of this, except that you are finally seeing it. This is every game development story that has ever existed, except instead of the publisher dealing with it, YOU are.

Budgets of 1 to 4 million are small-to-medium sized. Our budget of $650k (in actual funding) is relatively small, half a year of production for a small team. Budgets of kickstarter projects asking for $20k… that’s not enough to make a game, that’s just some content. Surprise! Games you’ve come to expect as “standard” like Call of Duty: maybe 150 million to make, rough guess. You know how much Old Republic cost? I’m not legally allowed to tell you, actually. It’s that much. Now you know.

Games take 1 year to make… if it’s a casual iOS game, or an annual sequel. Medium sized games take 2-3 years. Large games take 4-5 years. Believe it or not, lots of games fall in a nebulous space between AAA and “indie”, whatever that means. The Old Republic took over 6 years. Yeah, you started hearing about it 1 year before it released. It started production five years before that. For five years hundreds of people toiled on it 12 hours a day and you had no idea! Now you know! Isn’t knowing about production right from the start wonderful? No, it’s not. It’s annoying. It takes FOREVER. That’s why you usually don’t hear anything until it’s almost ready to ship.

Delays, content cuts, pushed back dates, plans to make revenue sooner- this is how games are developed. Bioshock Infinite, the biggest game of 2013, got delayed for half a year, AFTER pre-orders were sold. Journey took 3 years to make a 3 hour game and had to go back for more funding from Sony TWICE. That’s how game development goes. They didn’t know they’d need to do it. Humans are not good at estimating creative endeavors, no matter how “professional” they are.

We released a truly free demo hoping to make some extra cash for development, and got brutalized for it. But without that income and development time our single-player game wouldn’t be as good. Some people will never understand this.

I’ve worked in games for about a decade. Some companies I worked for had their stuff together better than others. Some were a huge, hundred-million dollar, extremely delayed nightmares. Every company had delays and went over-budget. You know what a release date is? A guess. We’re just guessing.

Essentially, I hope people don’t freak out too much about what’s happening with Kickstarter right now. It’s not deceitful or underhanded. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s normal stuff, whether you like it or not. If Broken Age wasn’t a Kickstarter game the first time you would have heard about it would be a couple months from ship, and that it was a two-part adventure game. And you would have been fine with that.

Our game is coming along better than I could have imagined, even if delayed. BECAUSE it’s delayed. I’m super happy with it. Other companies have way bigger problems, but that’s game development. NOW YOU KNOW. I sincerely hope everything works out the best for them, and you should too. At the end of the day, they’re nice guys trying to make good entertainment for you. I, personally, will cut them all the slack in the world.

So there you have it. The games industry! The aristocrats! Maybe it’ll get better someday? For now, let’s enjoy our time together! (I love you).

-Alex