A developer talking passionately about its game, a journalist receiving answers to questions without fail, and nothing in between keeping either side from doing what they set out to do. This is how it should be, but it rarely ever is these days.
Games have become more than entertainment. They are now multimillion dollar investments that can sink a company with 1,000+ employees or propel a humble one to graze the Fortune 500. Marketing, press representation, media tours, exclusive deals, sponsorships, trade show booths, partners, podcasts, blogs, downloadable content schedules, and social media presence have become part of the song and dance that is bringing a game to market in 2012.
But, over there -- way over there -- is a small studio called Stoic that is making a game like it’s 1999 again.
Through the funding platform of Kickstarter, talent gained by working at established studios, and the courage to leave one of the biggest developers in the South, Stoic is bringing games back to where they should belong: A place where fans can play games in their favorite genre without it being watered-down for mass appeal. It's a place where developers can do what they wish without concern of upper management disagreeing. And, a place where a journalist can tell a developer’s story without PR backwash and zombified media training getting in the way.
This is Stoic’s story.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon and I’m standing in an abandoned, outdoor marketplace. It’s a ghost town made of quaint wooden shacks that are beat down but not without a rustic charm. I am looking for Stoic Studio. They are here, somewhere between a rundown North Austin bar and public restroom, where Stoic’s coffee press is dumped and washed daily, lies the little Kickstarter that could.
With such a gathering of big studio talent and a successful Kickstarter campaign, I expected something a bit more glamorous and modern. Instead, I found a garage-like workplace that makes me nostalgic for the early days of PC game development, when a classic was made not in the top story office of a skyscraper, but in a den of unshaven, overworked nerds. Maybe it's my age, but I often romanticize ID Software working from a garage and Richard Garriott programming away in his bedroom. These images convey a rare personal touch to game design.
“One of our friends said, ‘Hey, you should put up a website and tell your friends.’ We didn’t even have time to tell our friends, and yet everyone is linking to our website saying, ‘Hey, these guys are working on something new!” Arnie Jorgensen, art director on The Banner Saga, says. “Meanwhile, we are working out of some old goat shack.”
While working small contract jobs, John and Alex started to build a strategic game that harkens back to their old favorites. One doesn’t have to look further than the shelf behind Alex’s desk to get a glimpse at The Banner Saga’s influences: Fire Emblem, X-Com, Myth. Look above that and you’ll see an assortment of animation classics, ranging from the works of Japan’s premier animation company Studio Ghibli to classic Disney. Sleeping Beauty isn’t a film you ever hear developers cite, but these guys have a way of fitting it into every other sentence when describing the game’s art style.
But then Double Fine happened. Double Fine, a San Francisco studio known for its rabid fanbase, quirky adventure games, and commercial failures, asked for $100,000 and received $1 million in under 24 hours. All of a sudden, Kickstarter wasn’t just a place for small projects asking for $30,000.
“Fiercely independent” is a joke in this industry where even those who code from goat shacks and bedrooms need to negotiate with gatekeepers to get their product onto Xbox Live Arcade, Steam, and other digital platforms.
Stoic isn’t oblivious to this, nor any other complicated practice that plagues designers. Alex and John know small studios like Stoic. Stoic’s founders see their friends struggle for recognition while acquiring debt. Despite these realities looming around The Banner Saga, the team insists that staying independent through Kickstarter is the only way to go.
Alex clicks play. Everyone goes silent. The music swells the room, while each member nods and smiles to what they are hearing: The sound of their vision coming to life. The vision that Kickstarter made possible.
|10:00 PM on 04.06.2012|
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