The Rise of Stoic And The Independent Studio

Innovation is considered a risky commodity amongst most of the larger developers. It’s a much safer bet to stick with ideas that have already proven to be profitable. It’s understandable; titling a game with something gamers are familiar with virtually guarantee’s wide-spread publicity and sales. The unfortunate side-effect of this is we see less new things in games, causing the medium to became stale and predictable, which results in things like multiple re-skins sequels for the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series.

There is hope though, in the form of independent (indie) studios, who in recent times have shown there is an undeniable demand, and profit to be made, for games that take creative risks. A recent example was Dear Esther, which provides players with such a unique experience some would say it’s not a “game” in the traditional sense. It was able to return it’s investment from the wonderful initiative The Indie Fund in under six hours, which is quite a success from any business perspective.

“In my mind, the real shift in the industry was when the market made it clear that, though they still wanted huge boundary-pushing games like Skyrim or [Grand Theft Auto], they also wanted small, bite-sized games that could afford to take design risks. It was an option that never really existed before, even just four years ago.”

Those are the words of Alex Thomas, who is part of a three man team along with Arnie Jorgensen and John Watson that form Stoic, a relative new-comer to the indie scene. While it’s true there’s seemingly a new indie studio every week, very few can claim they are formed by ex-Bioware staff who were a part of the team that developed Star Wars: The Old Republic. They have some pretty impressive credentials, and we’ve been fortunate enough to talk to Alex about their maiden title The Banner Saga and the indie scene in general.

“One of our main goals was to take every system in the game in a direction people haven’t seen, so even though we’ll have recognizable game-play like branching dialogue and turn-based combat, we’ve really put some effort into making them fresh” Said Alex, talking about what is going to make The Banner Saga stand out. “For example, we’ve come up with combat system that, instead of encouraging overpowering enemies with superior stats, really requires some well-thought-out strategy, like a good game of chess, and playing multi-player even more so. A lot of the test battles we’ve played against each other have been downright tense.”

It’s an interesting angle. Using World of Warcraft as an example of a contemporary RPG, winning and losing hinges on your characters level, equipment and statistics. Even a top-tier player will have little chance against someone who has better items and/or is a higher level. It you want a bit of a laugh, ask a World of Warcraft player “So, how does it feel to be jumped by a skull-level rogue?” (The “Skull” indicating a character of much higher level) and ask them to comment on said rogue’s real life social prowess. It’s only a true test of skill if your in-game character has numbers on their character screen that roughly equate to the numbers on your opponents. It’s a re-occurring theme in modern role-playing games, even in single player RPG’s. Many new massively multi-player online games are often described as “World of Warcraft clones“, which is to imply how similarly they play to Blizzard’s iconic title. Stoic’s take on it sounds like a much needed focus shift in the genre.

You’d be mistaken if you think The Banner Saga is relying purely on new game-play mechanics. Alex and Arnie’s background is in animation, and their trailer shows it. Play some friends the first 30 seconds of it, and I doubt many of them will pick it as a trailer for a game. Alex had this to say: “I also love the visuals, and that goes along with the theme of trying something new. Eyvind Earle, the art director on Sleeping Beauty, heavily influenced our style on The Banner Saga and our decision to go with a traditional style of animation instead of rendering out 3D. The game looks and feels like you’re playing an animated film and I’m really happy with how we’ve been able to keep that consistent throughout the game- travel, dialogue, combat, even interface.”

Despite their demonstrable talent and experience, they admit the decision to leave Bioware, a company that many aspiring game designers would give their eyeteeth for (a shrewd negotiator could probably nab a kidney out of the deal as well), was a big one.

“Leaving a top tier developer and a great position in it is never an easy decision, especially when all three of us have families. What it ultimately came down to is we asked ourselves when we’re old and think back about what we’d accomplished, would we regret it if we never tried? We each came to the same conclusion- yeah, if we didn’t give it a shot, what are we working towards? I think every developer dreams of making their own game”.

Given that honing the skills required to make games take quite a bit of dedication, it’s understandable why many designers have the itch to create their own game. You’d be hard pressed to find a designer that would say “I put in all the time and effort learning how to make a game so I could work on making someone else’s vision a reality”. Though as Alex suggested, it’s easy to put the temptation to design your own games in the backseat when you’ve a family to look after. Answering the niggling question of “What if?” when it comes to pursuing your dreams is seen by many people as an intimidating proposition.

Sometimes it’s about keeping an eye out for the right opportunity to strike out and realise your goals. So how did they decide now was the right time? “As for the timing, now couldn’t be a better time. iOS was huge and games like Tiny Towers could be made by two guys and sell millions. Steam was picking up a lot of indie games and good ideas like Terraria or Recettear were wildly successful. Minecraft was exploding just based on Paypal donations. Everywhere we looked, good games were being sold directly to the user and that’s how both parties prefer it”.

As mentioned earlier, while going independent is by no means a sure or safe bet, the ability for developers to deal directly with potential customers means it’s not quite as risky as it once was. Not only can we now buy games directly from them, we can also provide funding to studios and ideas that we like.

As many gaming aficionados have heard, Tim Schafer of Double Fine recently demonstrated that in spectacular fashion in the form of a Kickstarter project, which at time of writing has raised over $2.3 million. For those unfamiliar with the premise of a Kickstarter project, it’s basically a way for a group or individual to collect funds from interested parties on a proposed idea or product. Imagine a person approaching potentially interested parties asking them to invest in their idea, except instead of trying to convince a small group of people with large cash reserves, they are able to reach out to large groups of people who can make many small contributions. For example, instead of asking one person for $400,000, you ask many people to contribute $10, $100 or $1000. Stoic itself is planning to use Kickstarter to help kick off The Banner Saga in the coming weeks.

Minecraft is another example of a player-funded venture; Markus Alexej “Notch” Persson was able to make millions of dollars simply by releasing a beta version of the game, offering anyone who paid a nominal fee the full game when it was finished. If these projects had to rely on more traditional funding avenues, it’s debatable if they would have ever gotten off the ground.

In discussing the rise of indie studios, Alex had an observation regarding the success of games aimed at the casual gamer: “When I looked at the quickly expanding casual market it seems like there’s an interesting loop back to the origin of gaming. We’ve gone back to the most streamlined type of game-play, Angry Birds, block games, platforming, with all the advantages of modern technology. Millions of non-gamers are playing these things for the first time and they’re “growing up” on games the same way us older gamers did with Tetris or Mario in the 80s. Now Tim Schafer’s reigniting adventure games, maybe turn-based strategies could be next. Guess we’ll find out!”.

There’s certainly evidence to support that there is a demand for turn based strategies. When 2k announced it’s new X-Com game, a series famous for it’s turn based strategy format, would be a squad based first person-shooter there was, to put it mildly, an uproar amongst fans. The general consensus was “I was excited to hear that there was a new X-Com in the works, untill I found out 2k were completely screwing the pooch by making a first-person shooter out of it”. Chris Hartmann, president of 2k, spoke to MCV and responded in a way that could have been mistaken as an attempt to troll the community:

“The ‘90s generation of gamers all love X-Com and we own the IP, so we thought OK, what do we do with it?…But the problem was that turn-based strategy games were no longer the hottest thing on planet Earth. But this is not just a commercial thing – strategy games are just not contemporary. I use the example of music artists. Look at someone old school like Ray Charles, if he would make music today it would still be Ray Charles but he would probably do it more in the style of Kanye West. Bringing Ray Charles back is all fine and good, but it just needs to move on, although the core essence will still be the same.”

To be more like Kanye, Ray would have had to divide by zero.

Ray Charles, a man of incredible talent, would likely try to emulate Kanye West? Really? If your having trouble wrapping your head around it, don’t worry, that’s a perfectly normal response. What’s interesting to note is there is a very clear and vocal demand for, thus the opportunity to make money from, a turn-based strategy game. Maybe it doesn’t hit number one in the sales chart, but it’s almost guaranteed to at least be a profitable venture. It’s reminiscent of a time when people were hoping for a return of the adventure game, but their cries went unheeded in the ears of developers. All it took was for Tim Schafer to stick his hand up and say “We’ll do it!”, and people were virtually climbing over themselves to throw money at him, based primarily on the concept “We want to make an adventure game”. If that doesn’t prove that listening to your customer base is worthwhile, I don’t know what does.

This is an exciting time for gamers and indie studios like Stoic. Though there are still risks involved with innovative gaming ideas, gamers have shown that if corporations are unwilling to try new things, they will give money to the people who are. In fact, not only are they willing to buy these titles, they’re willing to invest in them.

It opens up possibilities that wouldn’t have existed before. Coming up with an initial investment to fund the development of a game is a hurdle that is too difficult to overcome for many aspiring, and even established, designers. However, thanks to all of you out there taking an interest in indie developers and being active in your support of them, they have to opportunity to make us fresh and entertaining games.

To the gamers out there willing to back them, and studios like Stoic who have the tenacity and vision to listen, I salute you.

The Banner Saga is due to be released in summer this year. We’ll keep you up to date with Stoic’s progress!