I don’t want to impart my beliefs on anyone else, but I personally feel that Vikings are one of the coolest things ever. And to take that even further, I think they make great protagonists in games. If you don’t believe me, then clearly you haven’t played The Lost Vikings for SNES/Genesis. Additionally, you’ve probably not heard of The Banner Saga, an upcoming turn-based strategy game that puts players in the role of uber-powered Vikings.
We previewed the game back in March, shortly before the developers launched a Kickstarter campaign for it and ended up raking in 7x the amount they asked for. The team has been quietly at work ever since, although they managed to surprise backers and new fans alike with a recent announcement: The Banner Saga: Factions, a free-to-play multiplayer version of the game, is on its way.
Intrigued by the reveal—and because we love Vikings—we spoke with creative director Alex Thomas on what players can expect.
A big part of what makes Factions different from other turn-based games is its visuals—but in terms of gameplay and mechanics, what differentiates the game from other entries in the genre?
We originally set out to make a “simple to learn, hard to master” sort of game and found out that we had made something a lot more deep and complex than people expected. In fact, it’s been difficult explaining the system as a whole because as you understand one system at a time it kind of peels layers away to a bigger picture, and we’ve been really focused on making sure that players understand just the top level so far.
On the most basic level, the biggest difference is that your strength is health AND damage, so as your strength goes down you do less damage. We’re wary of death spirals though, so we added a stat called armor, which blocks damage. On each turn you have to decide whether you’re going to destroy your opponent’s armor, and hit their strength. Either you set them up for more damage in the future or mitigate their strength immediately. This system seems to be working really well.
We added another wrinkle in that willpower lets you add bonus points to your actions so you can do more damage or move further, but your pool of willpower is finite, making the use of it very strategic. Exertion determines how much willpower you can use on each turn, so you can throw three will into an attack to really cripple someone early. The tradeoff is that you have a limited number of upgrades when creating your character, so upgrading exertion and willpower means you’ll have lower strength and armor. I think our greatest strength of design is that we’ve made every stat equally important even though they all do wildly different things.
One of the most important game changers is that each character moves according to his initiative but you always have a guaranteed turn, so as your characters die, you discover that your surviving characters act more frequently. At the end of a match if you’re down to one powerful character in good health he could easily mop up an opponent who has four characters left, all on the verge of death. We’ve created a really unique system in which, on top of all the decisions about hitting strength or armor, whether to add willpower and deciding when to use your abilities, it’s also vitally important to know when to maim and when to kill. Sometimes it’s better to leave an enemy with little strength rather than killing him outright, and knowing which is better becomes a skill within itself.
There are tons of other things to think about including how you build the stats on each character in your party, how you arrange your initiative and the way to the abilities come into play.
You guys have mentioned in the past that Dragon’s Lair – amongst other things – served as inspiration for the game’s art direction. Did it prove challenging to find an artist capable of capturing that look?
We were definitely inspired by Don Bluth and Ralph Bakshi’s works, but our biggest inspiration came from American master painter Eyvind Earle, who was the art director for Sleeping Beauty. His style of artwork hasn’t been seen since the 1970’s and there’s a reason why– it’s freaking hard to do justice. The moment we saw it, though, we knew we’d have to shoot for that and I think we’ve pulled it off, thanks to the amazing talents of Arnie Jorgensen, our Art Director. He’s one of the best artists I’ve ever met and I think one of the few people who could make this work. Currently he’s done every piece of non-animated art in the game by himself.
To that end, did this art style present any unique problems?
Aside from the inherent difficulty of producing it, the art style has actually solved more problems than it has created. Making a 2D game means that the art we create is exactly what you see in the game, unfiltered by a 3D engine, lighting or polygonal models. The sort of forced perspective that you see in Sleeping Beauty translates beautifully into a game where the camera doesn’t need to rotate. The animated solid-color linework on character animations fits perfectly with the style, looking like a classic Disney movie, and because it’s based on the old film techniques everything parallaxes beautifully. It’s basically everything we need for the kind of game we’re making.
In what ways do you intend to support the game post-launch?
Factions is our multiplayer release coming out this Winter, and we’ve taken everything we’ve been producing for the single player game and released it early to let people try out the game for free, listen to feedback and help promote the upcoming game for us. When you have no marketing budget you’ve got to do what you can to keep people interested over time. With that said, everything that we continue to produce for the single player Saga will see content released in Factions, so we hope to continue supporting the game for as long as people are interested in The Banner Saga.
Being a free-to-play game, do you have any plans to monetize Factions in any way?
We do. We know that when core gamers see “f2p” they recoil in horror (and we often do it ourselves), so we’re very conscious of making the monetization as unobtrusive as possible. You’ll be able to play the entire game for free and earn anything within the game just by playing. You’ll never be locked out from playing more, like the “energy” systems in most free games. We let people buy currency (called Renown) which they earn naturally by playing, and we’ll offer vanity items like color swaps for characters. If anything, we’re actually hoping we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot by making it unprofitable.
Most free-to-play strategy games lack the complexities inherent to the genre. Factions, on the other hand, seems to be a little more involved. Do you think this will prove problematic, or are you not worried?
Honestly, I think it’s a lot more involved. We set out to make a simple to understand combat system but we quickly discovered that our players find it way more complex than they expected, and the important part is that they really like it. The phrase “easy to learn, hard to master” gets thrown around a lot. We still get comments that people who haven’t played the beta think it looks like a casual game because there’s no height changes or facing or items (yet), but nearly every time we’ve seen someone jump in a game they’re nearly overwhelmed by the choices they have. Could it be problematic because it doesn’t match a market wanting something more simple and straightforward? Maybe. We don’t really know. But I think it would be a terrible mistake to change our design to try and capture a larger audience. Our success so far has been entirely based on making what we want to play, and that hasn’t budged an inch.
The Banner Saga: Factions is currently in beta. If you pitched in to the Kickstarter campaign, you have immediate (and free!) access. If you didn’t pitch in, $15 will grant you early access. It will be free to play when it launches later this winter.