Hello! I’m Alex, the creative director and it’s about time we updated you on some progress. Let’s get back to what most of you are interested in: the single player saga.
With Factions wrapping up shortly we have a very confident handle on the combat. We’ve mentioned it before: combat in Factions is combat in The Banner Saga single player game. We hope that you guys like being able to jump in and try it for yourself instead of just reading about what it will be like. That system was, by far, the most complicated and risky part of the game and we’re nearly finished with it, aside from the enemy units that we haven’t released yet. That’s a great feeling.
Moving on! Game development is often thought of as one big whole— you’ve got story, level design, gameplay, art, features, dialogue, combat, so on and so forth. All of this naturally generates a series of dependencies. For example, you have to do concept art and story outlines before you can do animation and dialogue, and prototype gameplay before a final combat system. We’re well past pre-production now, and deep into the meat of production. So let’s talk about what that means.
Please keep in mind that we’re basically showing everything— the good, the bad and the ugly. Some of this is polished and complete, other things are very rough and some might even look amateurish. Rest assured the final product will be as polished as Factions is now. It’s all part of the process.
From a top-down view, we have three key systems that interact with each other to create the core experience of the game: travel, conversation and combat. We’ve talked a lot about combat, but what about conversation, travel and the branching storyline that ties everything together?
Playing through the game means transitioning between all of these systems. Traveling across the land happens in two ways: you’ll shift between a world map and side-scrolling travel with an emphasis on your caravan, the people following you. Some of the following images are pulled directly from our high-level design docs; quick sketches used when proving out the ideas. They clearly don’t represent final art!
With that in mind, you’ll have a specific goal as part of the story, and the world map is where you’ll plot a course toward that goal and make high-level decisions. Deciding which towns and territory to pass though and whether to make a straight shot for your destination or a safer, more roundabout route will have a huge effect on the events that occur along the way. You carry news with you that others have not heard, and how you use that knowledge also impacts the story. In addition, the world is not an unoccupied land mass peppered with friendly villages. There are contested territories and different factions who have different opinions of each other. Negotiating these problems is part of travel.
At key points along the path events will occur that are out of your control and have world-wide effects. How you react to them, and the path you forge in response, are part of your story.
When major events happen, or you’ve taken an action like setting up camp or entering a town or city, the world map transition into the side-scrolling mode shown in the trailer, called exploration. This is a big part of gameplay! Here you can see the size and mood of your caravan, how many people are traveling with you, and get a better view of the world around you. Exploration will introduce you to the stark beauty of the world around you, and better immerse you in the environment.
In exploration, you’ll be able to interact directly with your camp or a city to talk with characters in your caravan, enter buildings if you’re in a city, rest for specific amounts of time and adjust how you’re traveling. The city in Factions is a working example of how exploration will work.
The decisions you make along the way have an effect on how you are traveling. Your speed is a combination of factors, and you’ll need to manage the caravan’s endurance, morale, size and supplies to stay out of trouble.
Endurance inevitably decreases as you travel. The only way to restore it is to rest, but that costs time. Morale comes and goes based on your actions, how successful you are in combat, and how much the caravan agrees with your actions. Mobility is dictated entirely by the size of your caravan — the fewer people are traveling with you, the faster you can go. Of course, this also means the fewer people that may survive. Lastly, supplies amplify all of these other factors. Go too long without finding food or medicine and everything else will deteriorate quickly.
This brings us to events. If you’ve ever played King of Dragon Pass, you’ll be familiar with this sort of system. As you travel, the game notices how you are doing in each of your travel stats. If you’re within a certain threshold, you may trigger an event.
Usually, events arise without warning, and are related to what is happening around you. You’ll have to react to them in the way you think best for everyone. If you’re low on supplies your caravan may try to revolt. If you’re high on morale, you may end up with a camp full of rowdy drunken revelers. However, don’t fear when an event pops up, they’re just as often positive experiences as they are negative, and may be crucial in keeping your caravan healthy and happy.
Even more importantly, don’t think that events are one-time deals. The decision you make this time may cause a new event to arise later. Just because you’ve resolved a problem for now doesn’t mean it won’t come back to haunt you further down the road. Events can be related to the area you’re traveling in, the decisions you’ve made in the past, the state of your caravan or pre-determined events along the way, and can affect everything from your caravan’s stats to which characters in your party live or die.
We’ve now written dozens of events, some of which can be several parts long. Multiple playthroughs can feel wildly different.
Events, however, are just the tip of the backdrop to a broader story.
A quick note, you may have noticed that our design documents are being housed in google docs. Stuff like this is not uncommon for game studios — Google is the easiest way to create cloud-saved documents and spreadsheets that can be easily shared and edited with other developers across the world and easily converted into PDF files. Not many better options on the market.
The main focus of the game has always been a deep and personal story. The things that are happening in the world may be out of your control, but you always have a choice in how you react to them, and the main way you do this is through dialogue.
Traveling and events feed back into conversation. At key events and in camp, you’ll talk to characters in a more personal point of view. Instead of describing what has happened in narration like an event, conversations become closer and more personal. The Banner Saga is primarily a dialogue-driven story.
Coming from a history with BioWare, we’ve familiar with how to create branching story. Where we differ is in the idea that every line needs to be something that the player has chosen. Instead, we provide a choice of what to say when there is an important decision to make, instead of filling dialogue with false choices that loop back to the same place and have no bearing on the conversation.
The conversation toolset has been detailed out in the design doc and allows us a range of options to create fairly dynamic-looking conversations that give a personal touch to what is usually dry text. The animated portraits you see in the proving grounds are part of this system! As we’ve mentioned before, we’re using every part of the buffalo. Almost everything you see in Factions is content made for the single player game.
So, through conversation you’ll make key decisions that have wide-reaching implications throughout every other part of the game. You’ll decide how to handle the most important situations that arise, make decisions that may affects the caravan’s morale, size and supplies, and form a personal connection to the characters traveling in your party.
How exactly do these decisions affect the story?
Creating a real, branching story
Similar to Final Fantasy Tactics or Shining Force, The Banner Saga has a large cast of playable characters; special warriors in your caravan who can also join you in combat. You’ll play primarily make decisions as one character at a time, but as the story unfolds you’ll shift between different main characters, giving a broader sense of what is happening across the land.
Creating branching content can be very time-consuming and difficult. In most stories, even a single branch means instantly doubling your story content, and lots of branching compounds this exponentially.
We have a few things going in our favor in this regard. By having largely text-driven and modular gameplay, we can produce a ton of high-quality content quickly and cheaply. While a standard RPG requires cinematics, voiceovers, 3D art, lighting, scripting and unique animations for each and every event, our advantage is in creating less expensive but vastly larger amounts of content. If you’ve ever wondered why older games like Planescape and Fallout could afford to have deep and rich stories with lots of characters and cool ideas like unique “low intelligence” dialogue while modern games somehow fail to match their predecessors, it’s because they could produce a lot of content quickly and cheaply, and leaves the details to player’s imagination. It’s a tradeoff for modern cinematic presentation, but one that we think is the right decision for The Banner Saga.
Additionally, this style of production lets us iterate the writing up until the last moment. It’s impossible to overstate how important this is. For example, on an RPG with voice-acted dialogue, the writer often gets one chance to get it right before it’s recorded and set in stone. This is not how books and movies are written. Authors edit and rewrite their stories several, sometimes dozens or hundreds of times, and the ability to be agile and make changes to existing parts of the game based on new ideas gives you the best chance to make something exceptional.
That said, it still holds true that branching content is expensive. Our approach to this is that things are happening in the world with or without you, and how you spend your time is important. You may make decisions that slow down your travel, and when you reach different destinations you’ll find them in different states. For example, travel to a city quickly and make it in time to repel a siege, or travel slowly and arrive to find it burned to the ground.
The overarching timeline for the first chapter has been laid out, and Austin Wintory (the composer for The Banner Saga) has already started thinking about the musical arch. Below is the actual timeline for the game, boiled down to the absolutely most vital events in sequence.
As the player, you personally have a lot at stake as well. The fate of innocent people rest on your shoulders, based on the decisions you make. Whether your companions live, die, stay or leave are also in question. We plan to have over a dozen characters important to the story, and each lives or dies based on the players actions, sometimes in ways that are unfair or due to a series of decisions that may have seemed like the right thing at the time.
In this way, the world in The Banner Saga doesn’t change any more than we can change the world around us in real life, but how we experience the world and what we do with our time is what’s important. Though we both arrive at the same destination, your story may be wildly different from mine. Ultimately, though the game is three parts long, and though chapter 2 may start in the same place for everyone, we expect that chapter 3 will end in several different ways (by which I don’t mean red, green or blue).
When writing a branching story, being able to access it, read through it and see the story play out in front of you is extremely important, and that’s something you can’t do in a standard document. In fact, writing a toolset to do it in the client can be prohibitive too. For example, BioWare’s writing tool is very robust, but also heavy and unwieldy and makes it slow to produce content.
I’ve done quite a bit of writing in this format and have used almost every modular writing program I can find, including Inform 7, Choice script, Articy Draft and Twine. While all of these are excellent in their own way, I’ve recently been using a program called Inklewriter which I find exceptional.
I’ve just recently finished creating the full outline in Inklewriter. Not only does it let me quickly “sketch” out the story, but I can quickly play through it and share it with other developers. Here’s an example from the intro of the narrative:
The choices at the end of the paragraph are multiple choice options that advance the story, maintaining all the variables that you can set throughout. At this point we can confidently say that the entire first half of chapter 1 is actually playable through Inklewriter. You can literally sit down and “play” the game, making choices that respond in the exact way they will in the final game. This is an incredibly powerful tool, despite its seemingly simplicity. Again, don’t believe that games are only made with tools that cost a fortune and are complex, even engines are starting to become affordable and user friendly, such as Unity. The best tool for the job is the one that fits your needs.
Additionally, Inklewriter automatically generates a story map based on the content that you hook up, giving an incredibly useful overview of your story. Here’s the actual layout for the first half of the game:
The game begins at the node on the left, and goes down. You can see that when decisions are made, the story branches, and sometimes decisions you make in one place can affect a branch that seems to be on a completely different path.
Throughout this story map, what you can’t see are the huge amounts of critical points where important events take place, the player is making decisions that will last throughout all three games, and characters are joining, leaving or dying while the main plot goes on. Though the story occasionally ties back to itself, important things have changed in between.
Also note that the middle section called Path split ends in three branches. I’ve shown the one branch plays out, but the other two are completely different. From this you can see that the story starts out pretty focused as you learn the game, and in the middle section important events happen, setting the conflict into motion. At this point the player makes some key decisions that dramatically change how this part of the story plays out. You might not even be playing the same character in each of these branches. Layer the variably triggered events on top of that and you’ll get a story that feels very personal and reactive to how you play it.
Even if you don’t intend to use Inklewriter for development, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s an excellent, easy-to-learn tool for story writing. You can help support them, too. In the near future they’ll be releasing Steve Jackson’s adventure book Sorcery! on Inklewriter, which I am hugely anticipating.
As mentioned earlier, combat has come along better than we had ever imagined. If you’ve played Factions you already have a great idea about how combat is going to feel. What you may not have inferred is how this relates to the single player game.
The biggest addition to the combat in Factions carries over well to the single player game; the horn.
The horn was a major feature we had wanted to implement early on and works beautifully with the current system. Currently, each kill you make adds a star to the horn. These stars can be spent to blow the horn, creating the effect of restoring willpower to your characters during combat. In the single player game different main characters carry different horns, and their effects will be unique to them and compliment their personalities. In this way each character not only has their own stories and motivations, but changes the overall feeling of fighting with their team. We hope to roll this eventually into Factions, as well.
Just as with every other system in the game, your actions in combat will have a broader reach than just the immediate result. Characters in battle do not heal immediately after combat, instead needing time to recover during travel. Characters who are seriously wounded won’t be able to jump right back into combat, instead relying on other fighters on your team who may not be as experienced. Choices you make in conversation and travel can affect how difficult combat is, and your performance in combat can, in turn, influence the caravan’s morale and endurance.
Combat can also be as prominent as you’d like, depending on how you play the game. During combat, the caravan will continue to move. While destroying your enemies ensures victory, you can choose to hold them off long enough for the caravan to escape and you’ll be able to retreat, giving you the choice to play aggressively, defensively or cautiously to minimize the damage you take and your ability to fight another day.
Aside from design and story, art continues at a breakneck pace. Powerhouse is now deep into the final set of classes, including the primary characters for the single player game, Rook and Juno, featured in the two animation cels and the poster. Below are the next set of base classes, and if you’ve been playing Factions at all you know that these will be promotable into a wide variety of specialized units made to work in unison with all the other characters in the game. Our animation prize-donors Brendan Iribe and Alex Maxwell star as the male Mender and Spearman, respectively.
Powerhouse has now lovingly crafted literally hundreds of these hand-drawn animations and they keep getting progressively better and better. Some of the latest work we’ve been seeing had been absolutely jaw-dropping. Check out a few in the video below:
We’ve also been adding substantial amounts of art to our library of environment pieces that’ll be vital to creating the world. Using these pieces we’ve added the beach, great hall and proving grounds to the variety of playable maps in Factions, and soon we’ll have a full set of particles to bring them to life, like crackling fire, blowing snow and animated wildlife.
Release of Factions is nigh! At this time we’re looking at roughly a month before the game comes out to the public, and it will be finished and ready for backers to get a head start before then.
If you haven’t tried Factions since the last update, there are plenty of things to give a shot. We’ve added friend mode, letting you enter private matches against Steam friends. We’ve updated the promotion system now so that you can hire new recruits at the mead house and upgrade them in the proving grounds. Most units have been rebalanced and fine-tuned to be final. Characters can be renamed. Match resolution now shows you all the achievements and bonuses you’ve earned on each match and each screen has a helpful ? button in the corner which explains how to play the game.
Between now and launch we’ll be adding a proper tutorial, tournament matches and color variations for all the characters.
Once Factions comes out we’ll be on to the other systems — specifically travel and conversation while also working on the AI for computer-controlled enemies.
When is it coming out?
Now that we’re well into 2013 and our estimated date was November last year, many people have been asking when the game will ship. This is a topic that comes up a lot in interviews in relation not just to us but most Kickstarters and honestly, most games in general.
To cut to the chase, we’re currently looking at mid-year for release of the Saga. We’ve said this in a few places but it’s worth repeating — when you scope the game for a certain amount of money and you make 7x that much, there’s no way around it, the game takes longer to make. We’re doing our best to mitigate that, we’re not taking anything like 7x as long. Hopefully with the progress we show in regular updates you’ll agree that we’re using the funding well and making the best decisions for the game.
In the meantime, Factions will continue to be available! As we add new features for the single player game, we intend to release them in Factions so they can be played instead of just told about. For example, one of the first features we’ll be releasing is computer-controlled AI for enemies
We’ll keep everyone informed about progress every step of the way. We’re going to be contacting the donators who chipped in for the god prizes and items soon. In case you missed the previous announcements, guild crests will be uploaded in the game itself, so please don’t worry about missing the deadline (since there isn’t one).
See you next time!