The Stoic Saga: How the team battled personal debt and 'perpetual crunch'

The Stoic Saga: How the team battled personal debt and 'perpetual crunch'
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

March 14th 2016 at 11:00AM

The makers of The Banner Saga discuss the biggest hardships they faced in bringing their vision to life

The Banner Saga is widely regarded as a success story. New studio Stoic took to Kickstarter to call for funding and raised far more than they expected. The game was released, critics were wowed and all was well.

But the team faced tough times as they worked on the acclaimed RPG-strategy title, and the growing development budget caused increased pressure and other financial difficulties. Determined to invest as much into the game as possible, one of the founders even maxed two credit cards before the project was finished.

With work well underway on a sequel, we caught up with Stoic's John Watson and Arnie Jorgensen to find out more about the biggest challenges they faced and how they overcame them. 

What situation was the team in when work on The Banner Saga began? How had you prepared for the hardships of development? 
John Watson: I had been working in triple-A game development for about 12 years before we started Stoic. All during this time I had been looking forward to the opportunity to create my own games rather than making commercial games for a big company.

A couple of years prior to starting Stoic, I began to seriously think about making the move. However, I realised that in order to get off the treadmill and start living lean, I would have to get out of a serious amount of debt. Student loans, car payments, house payments, and credit card debt would all have to be addressed.

The depressing reality was that the more money I made at triple-A, the more money I spent, with debt always growing. I had created something of a financial prison for myself. Comfortable yes, but once you realise you want to change your lifestyle, those comforts become very hard walls. So I began a concerted effort to pay off all my debts as quickly as possible. I moved out of my house and started renting a small apartment. I paid off my car. I lived lean. After about 18 months, I was debt free and ready to pull the trigger.

I quit EA and spent the next nine months or so working as a freelance programmer. I can still clearly remember the day when my benefits at EA ended and I was on my own, for the first time since college. No health insurance, no umbrella of benefits. I no longer felt like a serf, toiling for the benefit of my lord, but I felt exposed and vulnerable. This feeling quickly gave way to elation, and now, almost five years later, it’s hard to imagine going back to the way things were.

The depressing reality was that the more money I made at triple-A, the more money I spent, with debt always growing. I had created something of a financial prison for myself.

One of the downsides to working at a megacorp is that you are required to sign away all your creativity to the company. All your creativity. You can’t do anything on your own. If you make a game in your spare time, at home, the company will own it. This is a pretty typical arrangement. I advise anyone taking such a job to see if they can leverage their way out of agreements like that. If the company wants you badly enough, you might be able to negotiate.

However, the typical situation leaves you in an absurd position: having a video game job is the worst possible situation to be in if you want to make games, since it precludes you from making any game except the one your employer commands.

Freelancing, however, gave me the freedom to both earn an income and work nights on the technological underpinnings for the Banner Saga. By the time we launched the project in 2012, I already had a fully functioning engine and some of the technology pipeline in place. 

Arnie Jorgensen: We set up the company with the intent to fund the Banner Saga ourselves out of our personal savings. We didn’t set up the company first and then try to figure out what we’d make, it was specifically put together to make this particular game. We figured we each had enough savings to give ourselves a one-year development cycle, so we were keeping the scope trim.

One of our friends talked us into running a Kickstarter and we made far more money than we ever imagined, $723,000. We promised to use it all to make the game better so that’s exactly what we did, we put it all into the game to make more animations, better music, sound and so on.

Now, it takes quite a while to correctly deploy that much money, you can’t just put it in a grinder and out comes a better game. You need to shepherd it. Pretty soon the game that we thought would be small was actually becoming larger and the one year we had planned for the development cycle was taking double. We were still living on our own savings. I personally proceeded to deplete my bank account, max out two credit cards then borrow money from my father. I don’t know how my wife trusted me to do this – we had a house with a mortgage and two growing kids. Still, we’re living the dream and I don’t mean that as a joke – it’s great.

What were the earliest problems and how did you overcome them? 
Jorgensen: I think the largest difficulty we had was that we now had a larger game and it was becoming increasingly difficult to properly test it for bugs. I remember many weekends with John, Jeff Uriarte [contracted programmer] and Brian Mumm [contracted tech artist] just going through checklists and checking stuff over and over. Once we started working with Versus Evil we switched over to getting QA help and that freed up a ton of time.

Looking back, what was the biggest challenge/difficulty and how did you overcome this?
Jorgensen:
 Spreading the word about the game, but Versus Evil helped us with this as well. Building awareness is huge stumbling block for small independent teams. Since you’re so familiar with your game you just figure other people are aware that you’re working on it, but that’s not at all the case. You need people actively working to help market it. We know how to make games and it’s a full time job. They know how to let people know it’s out there and it’s a full time job.

Pretty soon the game that we thought would be small was actually becoming larger and the one year we had planned for the development cycle was taking double. 

Why did it become necessary to max out your credit cards? What led to that situation?
Jorgensen:
 We made so much money through Kickstarter that it cost us personally so much money.

How did you recover from this? Or are you still unable to use your credit cards?
Jorgensen:
 Thankfully the game did far better than we could have hoped for and we all quickly got out of debt with banks and family.

That being said John and I are still thoroughly in the realm of putting money back into the game rather than our own pockets. We’re funding the Banner Saga 2 ourselves. While we may not be launching with bank and family debt, we sure are coming in hot financially to launch.

Someday we hope to have a little more financial breathing room, but for now there’s just so many cool things that will make the game better that we can spend money on. I never laid awake at night as a kid thinking “I want to make a lot of money”, I always thought “I want to make something really cool someday”.

How else did development affect your personal lives and those around you?
Jorgensen:
 It’s a funny thing working from home on a game you own. I find myself in perpetual crunch mode because I never leave the office and if I want to get something done I have to personally do it. There isn’t a whole wing of artists sitting in cubicles that I can tap to do something for me. I miss two of three family vacations now.

That being said I’m home all day. Just now as I type my kids are outside playing on the trampoline screaming to me: “Dad, can we have another candy?!?” I have lunch with my wife every day and pick my youngest up from school. My older son is homeschooled and we go out for long walks during the day and he tells me his newest game design (he has a great imagination, but he's terrible at game balance). I work as much as I do right now with the belief that we’re in the building stages of the company/game, but in the future I plan to work eight-hour days like I used to and once that’s achieved I’ll feel like I’ve fully arrived.

What kept the team going through these tough times? How did you keep yourselves motivated? 
Jorgensen: It’s easy to motivate yourself when you’ve got everything riding on it. I have always likened the launch of Stoic with the launch of a longship from familiar shores to head across a sea to some distant land. You load up the ship with some trusted warriors, women and children, family pets, livestock, and then you push off. When you’re in the middle of the sea, no one asks “Are you guys still motivated?”. It’s not like you can just stop and get off, you’ve just gotta keep going until you’re there. Sometimes I do, however, find myself saying “Are we there yet?”

Another motivating factor is my wife and kids. When you’re knee-deep in it, you can’t just quit. It’s important for me to have my sons see me try really damn hard. It’s okay if we fail, but it’s not okay for them to see me give up.

Lastly there is John, my friend who’s invested in this as much as I am. I’d sooner have a heart attack working then let him down.

It’s a funny thing working from home on a game you own. I find myself in perpetual crunch mode because I never leave the office and there isn’t a whole wing of artists that I can tap to do something.

If you could go back in time and warn yourselves about this project, what would you say?
Jorgensen:
 “Don’t be a pansy. Do it, man.” For me personally, if I had not tried to do this I would have regretted it to my dying day. I would have always known that I didn’t do it because I was scared, I was a coward. I do NOT, in any way, think that people working at large game companies are cowards or should start a small game company, it’s just my personal thing. Everyone has their own goals in life and each one will require you to step out.

Similarly, how have you learned from this and avoided the same problems on The Banner Saga 2?Jorgensen: We have learned a ton and yet it seems we make new mistakes all the time. Maybe in a thousand years we’ll launch a perfect game that lands on our pre-planned schedule, but I doubt it even given that much time.

What advice would you give to fellow indies? What misconceptions are there about indie development? What might they not fully understand before they start?
Jorgensen:
 Do not overscope the game. Know what you can do and don’t have any illusions about it. Know thyself – then hire some kickass marketing people.

Anything you’d like to add?
Jorgensen:
 One more month of development time.