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Stoic's John Watson at NASSCOM GDC 2016: The Banner Saga 2 was a commercial disappointment

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Stoic's John Watson at NASSCOM GDC 2016: The Banner Saga 2 was a commercial disappointment

Game News - posted by Infinitron on Tue 10 January 2017, 23:55:17

Tags: John Watson; Stoic Studio; The Banner Saga; The Banner Saga 2; The Banner Saga 3

Stoic Studio's The Banner Saga 2 was one of very few oldschool-oriented RPGs released in the first half of 2016, and it reviewed rather well. For those reasons, one might assume that it sold well, but apparently that's not the case. So said Stoic co-founder John Watson at a game development conference called NASSCOM GDC, held in India of all places back in November. The game's sales were so underwhelming compared to its predecessor that Stoic are now struggling to fund the third and final chapter in the series. They blame this on their lack of engagement with the community during its long development, a much more crowded indie marketplace, and a difficulty spike in the first game that prevented many players from finishing it and proceeding to its sequel. Yesterday GamesIndustry.biz posted a summary of this interesting talk, which is relevant to more than just The Banner Saga series. Here's an excerpt:

"We were quite exhausted at the end of The Banner Saga," he continues. "Running a Kickstarter campaign is extremely demanding. There's the setup portion, there's running it for the month, and then for the rest of the development you're supporting that community, answering questions, giving updates. It's a full-time job, and we didn't have anybody dedicated to being that community manager. It was a scary prospect."

Ultimately, Stoic decided on what amounted to an "almost 180-degree turn" for The Banner Saga 2. "Let's just close the doors, close the curtains, spend our own money and do it our own way, without having to answer to anybody. And that's what we did.

"About halfway through, when the money starts getting tight, we started thinking, 'why the hell didn't we get a Kickstarter?'"

The reason might well be success. The Banner Saga raised far more money from Kickstarter than Stoic had expected, and it went on to sell more copies than expected, too. That money could fund what they wanted for The Banner Saga 2, while also being tangible evidence of a community of people who would be interested in playing the next chapter of the story. Stoic decided to focus on making sure that the next chapter was even better.

"I think we dropped the ball there," Watson admits. "We thought that audience would still just be there. We really neglected our community during the development of Banner Saga 2, because we were focusing on our work. I think that was a mistake. We all agree that was a mistake."

The Banner Saga 2 launched for PC in April 2016, and the mistake was immediately clear. In its first few months on Steam, The Banner Saga 2 sold around a third of what The Banner Saga sold over the same period. When GamesIndustry.biz spoke to Versus Evil, Stoic's publisher, last year, Steve Escalante lamented a massive increase in the number of competing titles on The Banner Saga 2's launch week.

"That is a factor," Watson agrees. "With The Banner Saga we launched against 70 games that month. With The Banner Saga 2 it was over 400, so that is a factor. You are fighting more for attention, and it's remarkable how many people I meet say, 'oh, Banner Saga 2 is out?' They just don't know, and we spent a lot of money marketing it. We tried to make it known."

[...] With The Banner Saga 3, the final game in a planned trilogy, the discussion around funding it was more difficult. "Arnie [Jorgensen] and I... all of our personal fortunes, all of our finances, are buried in The Banner Saga," Watson says. "We've been doing this for four years, we spent all of our retirement money, and we haven't replenished that yet. We both have kids, they have to go to college, and we can't just keep betting it all every time, because making entertainment is the riskiest thing."

It is still too early to seriously contemplate a return to crowdfunding, but Stoic's projected budget is likely greater than the sum they could reasonably expect to raise through Kickstarter - it isn't 2012 any more. Watson admits that he and Jorgensen seriously discussed seeking private investment, and even "shopped around" for options.

"That would have worked, but you're paying back quite a bit. The Banner Saga 3 is probably gonna cost about $2 million to make - that's a lot. So maybe we could get $500,000, but when you get investment you're basically paying it back 3x... That means when we sell The Banner Saga 3 $1 million of extra money goes away [to the investors], as well as giving back the $500k. That would take the pressure off us for sure, a little bit. We would each de-leverage ourselves by $250,000, but when the game ships we're paying back an extra $1 million.

"Is taking investor money gonna make the game sell? Is it gonna make it $1 million more profitable? No. It'll make it a little bit better; we could spend some of that money maybe doing some more animations, maybe we increase the quality level a little bit. The quality has to reach a certain bar for people to accept it as a sequel, because we set that bar for ourselves. But beyond that it won't really affect the profitability. It would be a vanity thing. We just want to make it better."

When Stoic is finished with The Banner Saga, when it is making an entirely new project from scratch, investment of that kind would make a great deal of sense. For The Banner Saga 3, though, taking an investor's money would be "kinda stupid" - a little peace of mind in the here and now in exchange for a lot more potential problems further down the road. Stoic is betting on The Banner Saga as a franchise, and once again it will make that bet with its own money.

"We have to do it," Watson says. "We set out to make this trilogy. We can't leave the story unfinished."
Stoic appear resigned to the fact that any new game they release will never do as well as the first one did. They're betting their futures on the idea that The Banner Saga 3 will increase visibility of their previous titles, helping the sales of the franchise as a whole. I fear that many of the other oldschool RPG developers may find themselves in a similar situation with their own sequels over the next couple of years. Some may have already. Be wary, gentlemen, and know when to slam dunk.

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