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.
The Goat Shack
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.
This tiny, white, unmarked building with the faded wood paneling and a slanted ceiling is what Stoic calls home, during most waking (and some nocturnal) hours of the week. Their friends jokingly call it “the man cave” or “that storage unit from Snow Crash.” Macs line the tables, concept art cover the walls, and various Viking paraphernalia fills the rest of the tiny space. It's claustrophobic, but, like a child's clubhouse, there is a comfort that comes from it.
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.”
Six months after Stoic's founders John Watson (technical director) and Alex Thomas (creative director) left Bioware Austin and founded their new studio, Arnie joined the club. With Alex designing the combat, John forcing the code to fit their ambitions, and Arnie designing characters and icons with a painterly eye, the three started to gain confidence in what they were making. And if they fail, it will at least be on their terms.
No More Dragons!
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.
Alex didn’t want to just make a turn-based strategy game. He wanted to make a very pretty one.
“We were looking for teams to do this and we found that no one does this stuff anymore,” Alex says. “This stuff” being hand-drawn, rotoscoped animation: A style of animation where footage of actors (or one’s reluctant wife) is used as a framework for animated movement and action. The result is a lifelike representation of the fantastical. Hair flows and clothes sway realistically, giving the warriors of The Banner Saga soul and texture.
Between the intricate six-on-six strategic combat and early Disney art style, Stoic was on to something. It wasn’t until Arnie joined that they found the last and most important ingredient: Vikings.
“I come from a family in Denmark which is the Viking [mecca],” Arnie says, eyes brightening as he grows increasingly giddy to discuss his favorite subject. “I’ve seen stuff like this since I was a kid. We used to have smorgasbords. All the family we brought over have names from the Viking days. Alex had this really great story idea, and I thought, ‘What if we put that into this?’”
For such an influential mythology, there aren’t many games about Vikings. Perhaps, it’s because developers in the past thought of them as big, dirty, bearded men that don’t make for the most sympathetic characters. Stoic wants to depart from stereotypes and prove these developers wrong.
“Before Skyrim, there were no Viking games, really. No significant ones. Once Skyrim came out, the only thing we wanted to do was not retread on what they did with dragons and stuff,” Alex says. “Our game is much more personal. It’s about the caravan that you are traveling with and less about the enemies that you are fighting. There is no villain in this story.”
Leaving Triple AAA
In the ‘90s, programmers slaved away in their parents’ garages and hope that someday their work would earn the attention of a large studio that would hire them. Stoic is a developer made of industry veterans that left a large studio so that they could pursue a game in a glorified garage and build their own studio. It’s a sign of the times. In a year when over a thousand game developers were laid off in Austin, this risky venture seems almost safe. Almost.
But why would these guys risk it all for a creative endeavor with limited appeal?
“Once you get enough experience, every developer wants to make their own game,” UI programmer Brian Mumm says.
Well, what about security?
They all laugh. “What security? Not anymore!” one shouts. The laughter continues.
“The illusion isn’t an illusion for some time. You have security during development, but almost every game overreaches and everyone is laid off at the end,” John says. “You can see it coming a year out before it starts. It shouldn’t be a surprise for anybody, not unless it’s their first job.”
Around the time Stoic’s Kickstarter went up, three new recruits were hired -- one was part of a company-wide layoff at Bioware Austin; the others trying to preemptively dodge one. Additional programmers and a dedicated quality assurance lead put their Kickstarter funding to good use while improving the quality of the game. With their history and fields of expertise, Stoic became a legitimate studio instead of three friends on a mission. Even with a larger staff, there are some niceties of big studio culture that the fellows miss.
“There used to be a guy down the hall that would do whatever you needed,” programmer Jeff Uriarte says. He worked on Warhammer 40000: Dark Millennium Online at Vigil Games until layoffs struck earlier this year. “So, in a way, you can’t rely on other experts ... ”
Jeff looks at the other guys occupying the shared desk space. He smiles. “But getting to do it all yourself is fun, too!”
For the experienced founders, Stoic is a place where they can express ideas with purity and integrity of vision that often gets filtered out at larger studios. For the new recruits, they get to show off the full expanse of their skill sets and push themselves further than any major developer would ask. The group jokes about pointless tasks and last minute cancellations of long projects at their old studios, but there is a bitterness that can be sensed underneath. However, Brian still thinks about big studio culture in an optimistic light.
“Even if you just want to be a better artist, you are surrounded by artists that are amazing. That’s always a bonus, but we’ve done that for ten years or so,” Brian says. “That experience is what lets us do this.”
“Jeez, Brian you said that with passion!” Arnie interjects.
Brian looks dumbfounded. But then the a collective laugh cuts through the awkward silence.
Stoic may be a tiny studio, but it’s one made of friends who are willing and ready to listen to any idea someone has to offer. Free from oppressive corporate culture, the guys (and girl) at Stoic jump at any opportunity to laugh. It comes much needed after working 12 hours a day for a month, including weekends.
What’s an extra $50,000?
Back in April, Brian Mumm still had a desk at Bioware Austin. After overhearing that his past colleagues had a Kickstarter up, he became curious and checked the page. He was rooting for them, as funding went past their $100,000 goal and toward $700,000. He wasn’t the only one.
“Everyone was refreshing the page, getting excited,” Brian says, recalling when the news broke. “It happens all the time now -- you see people leaving a studio to start up a studio. No one generally has hard feelings about it. That’s a big move to go out and do something on your own.”
Joining shortly after the Kickstarter announcement, clearly Brian wanted to do something on his own, too. He says it wasn’t hard to adjust to his new home since it contained some old friends.
“When you have two people focused on something and they are allowed to have autonomy and make decisions, it goes really well.” Alex says. “You try something and adjust quickly. You don’t have anyone giving you demands from on high.”
Alex is the first to admit that his Kickstarter was successful due to timing. Set on making The Banner Saga, Alex wanted an extra $10,000 so he could outsource some animated scenes in the game. John did the research and found that $30,000 is the most a successful Kickstarter game could receive at the time, so they boldly raised their goal to $30,000.
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.
“Now we are going to be on the bottom of the site and look like schlubs asking for a low amount,” Alex says. “It looks like we don’t need the help; like, we just want some extra money. We went up to $50,000.”
But then something else happened. GameBreaker.tv ran a story that Stoic formed a studio. The report hyped up the big names and impressive resumes attached to the yet-to-be-named Viking strategy game. This started a misconception that Stoic was a big company that split from Bioware. John, Arnie, and Alex started Googling their names everyday to see what people were saying. The team thought that it would use this hype to their advantage and double its Kickstarter goal.
“We knew what the scale of the game was -- it’s a small indie game. But if we don’t ask for enough, people will think, “Ah, it’s some casual piece of crap,’” Alex says. “So, we went up to $100,000 and it just grew the size of the game.”
Time was the biggest factor for The Banner Saga’s successful Kickstarter, but it wasn’t the only one. The notion of a grid-based strategy game centered on Vikings excited many, but there was one audience that went head over heals for the concept.
“Our biggest backers are from Scandinavia. They are really excited about this,” Arnie says. “For some reason they are over the moon. Finally, a Viking game without crazy dragons!”
Being familiar with publishers and partner programs, Stoic is wary of selling out to a publisher. They’ve all been on the other side of the industry, and they would like to hold on tightly to their property this time.
“Kickstarter let us fill in the gaps that we couldn’t afford to do ourselves,” Brian says. “[A publisher is] going to get a 50-percent cut or more and they own the IP, especially if they are putting up the money. It will be more like 95-percent.”
“And they will disappoint the people who contributed to the Kickstarter in the first place,” QA lead Leslee Beldotti adds.
The project has continued to expand since Alex and John started worked on it from their bedrooms in July 2011. It’s now a trilogy with a free-to-play multiplayer game attached. In early promotional footage, the game was voiced by a friend at Bioware with music performed by Arnie himself. Alex handled every frame of animation, while each played a role of a character class for the rotoscope filming on Arnie’s front lawn -- occasionally with a neighbor in the background yelling, “What the hell are you doing?”
Now, the bulk of the animation is being done by Powerhouse Animation Studios (Clerks: The Animated Series, Epic Mickey 2), voice acting is outsourced to Iceland to give the characters a distinct, foreign sound, and the music is composed by Journey composer Austin Wintory. Stoic received 30+ offers from composers but decided to reach out to Wintory: A dream choice that happened to share their vision.
“We had to meet expectations again when the money rose. Whether it succeeds or not is going to depend on where you start from,” Alex says. “If you have a good team and concept, you may make your goal. “
After pulling off one of the most successful Kickstarters of last spring, Stoic received many unsolicited job applications and invitations for collaboration. One stood out: An opportunity to be on a Kickstarter panel and visit the company’s headquarters. The three flew out to New York and got the answers from the Kickstarter team that they’ve been curious about, such as “How much do you plan to interfere with projects in the future?” To which Kickstarter replied, “Not much.”
“Marketing is 50-percent of it. Most developers are shit at talking to people because they are so focused. They are so in their head about the game they are making that they forget to talk to people,” Alex says. “Running the Kickstarter we didn’t think it’d take eight hours out of every day. Every time we didn’t say anything after a few days, our pledges would plummet. So we would have to make a new post every day and that takes an entire day because we are making a video and all this other stuff. Man, we suck at acting. Every time we made a video we have to do 50-60 takes.”
Alex is shy about discussing his finances, but he says that most of his savings have been invested into Stoic. Kickstarter pledgers should be happy to see how their money is being used. The team is expanding the project by smartly outsourcing elements to companies they met through other jobs to increase production time -- they call themselves "outsource masters," due to the large amount of outsourcing during developing Star Wars: The Old Republic. Despite support from pledges, Alex is firm on not letting them influence the project.
“A lot of them tell us to not listen to people and just make the game they pledged for,” Alex says. “‘I don’t want to play backer number 12’s game, I want to play your game!’”
“If you let a committee design your game, you’re going to end up with a massively boring piece of crap,” John adds.
“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.
“Our main motivation, other than having an idea we liked, was to do a game our way. If you sold to a publisher, usually that means that’s the end of your studio as you know it,” Alex says. “It will continue to exist in name but it will change in nature dramatically.”
And with that, Alex cleans off the picnic table -- the outdoor chairs were locked up today -- and joins the rest in the goat shack to listen to the new battle track that Austin Wintory emailed.
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.
If this is the type of world that Kickstarter is paving for developers and journalists, I wouldn’t have it any other way.