Killers and Thieves started life after we shipped The Banner Saga in January, 2014. To cleanse our palate between huge projects, I was thinking of simple game ideas that could re-use the tech that had already been built in our proprietary engine. At the time I was thumbing through Mike Mignola’s “Fafhrd and Grey Mouser” comics, and binge-watching Pawn Stars. I came up with a concept I called “Fence”.
It was very simple to start out, you played the fence in a thieves’ guild. Members would bring you stolen goods and you had to evaluate it and give it a price. If you evaluated everything correctly, you’d make the best return. There was a bit of a “Papers, Please” sleekness to it.
Understandably, the other guys at Stoic preferred to move directly onto the sequel for The Banner Saga. I knew “Fence” wasn’t going to be a deep enough game to justify a lot of dev time, but I was really into the concept. I expanded the idea into “what if you ran an entire thieves guild?”.
Lots of games let you be the lone wolf thief, but they all suffer from the same problem: why are you stealing stuff? In a one-person game, there’s not enough hooks to spend all your ill-gotten gains. In real life you’d do it for good drink, good food, good living conditions, splurges and entertainment- all things that don’t mean much in games. But what if you had to manage the myriad expenses of running a thieves’ guild? Not to mention, I can’t think of any games that really let you do this, and it’s always been a favorite theme of mine.
The second iteration of the game design involved a huge, sprawling city made from individual buildings. You could recruit thieves, case joints, send them on missions to specific buildings and buy property to expand your influence on the city. The three-quarter view gameplay was designed primarily because the Banner Saga engine could already handle it.
The “fence” gameplay was scrapped. In theory it looks neat, but in practice without a tight and challenging narrative focus, it would quickly become tedious.
This new thieving concept brought up its own gameplay problems. It’s always a pain when architecture can block part of the screen, and wrangling transparency in a way that looks and plays well can be a nightmare. The actual gameplay also wasn’t very dynamic- sending thieves to buildings or away from guards felt a lot more like Tiny Towers than Thief. On top that, it was somewhat unsatisfying that you never saw your thieves in the physical act of stealing, just coming and going from buildings.
The interactive aspect was also dicey. It seemed too easy to escape or get caught, depending on the street layout. It also encouraged the player to find one place that was fail-proof and run the same heist over and over. There are design solutions for this, but the gameplay overall felt too static.
With production beginning on The Banner Saga 2, we decided that the rest of the team would continue on while I split off to work on this new game I was now calling “Stolen”. Without requiring the Banner Saga engine I was able to rethink some of the fundamental aspects of gameplay.
For example, the thieves became more important overall. Instead of sending anonymous agents on missions, I wanted the player to control them directly. This also meant that “raising” your team of thieves would be more important, and they got their own identities, including stats, abilities, traits and flaws.
This quick mockup uses art swiped directly from Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. Arnie loves to mock me for drawing a third arm on Fafhrd because I somehow didn’t notice the upper arm tucked into his elbow. In any case, the character screen would give players a stronger attachment to their thieves and allow for some light rpg influence. You’d need multiple thieves to cover all the skills required for a heist, which is important to the feeling of running a guild. Heads and bodies could be easily mixed and matched to produce randomly generated appearances.
It was also important that there be a constant, recurring outflow of cash to match the influx the player would make from selling stolen goods. This creates the primary conflict in the game: paying the bills, which makes it feel like you’re actually running a guild dedicated to bringing in cash. The headquarters would let you build new facilities, not unlike XCOM, in an ant-hill type view, and you’d have to pay regularly to maintain them.
At this point, I decided to make this dollhouse view the primary state of gameplay. Rooms come in different sizes and are generated procedurally when you go on a mission. This solved a whole lot of problems, including letting the player control their thieves, perform the actual act of stealing, and made the gameplay more dynamic. It puts capture and death in the hands of the player instead of a random number roll.
However, it also complicates the game quite a bit. I spend a lot of time simplifying and streamlining this system.
With this new emphasis on using multiple characters to perform heists, I wanted to give the player more options. I like games that give the player an interesting series of choices, whether those choices are emergent or not. An all-stealth game is cool, but can be limiting and encourage lots of waiting… which is the opposite of fun. The player should have the ability to sneak when it makes sense and fight when necessary. Or do both, if they choose. I landed on the name “Killers and Thieves” and everybody I’ve talked to seems to like that, so it stuck.
The three-quarter view would still be used, but as a hub for directing missions and surveying the state of the city rather than the actual heist gameplay. I’ve always loved sprawling medieval cities: this mockup only represents a tiny fraction of the full thing.
You probably noticed that many of the earlier mockups are done in the style of comic artist Mike Mignola (best known for Hellboy), which has always been a favorite of mine. Eventually I came around to a more painterly style. Honestly, as much as I like Mignola’s work, I don’t think it appeals to everyone. Then again, Darkest Dungeon is a huge hit, so what do I know?
Either way, I’m really happy with how the game’s coming along. I was the primary writer and designer on The Banner Saga, so getting back to art has been a great pleasure for me. And now you’re all caught up!