Ritual Entertainment Q&APosted on February 21st, 2009 No comments
Disclaimer: This e-mail exchange was originally done for my first website, Mod HQ, and posted on 15 Feb 2006, three months before the release of “SiN Episodes: Emergence”, and of course before MumboJumbo acquired Ritual Entertainment.
I was able to send a set of questions regarding “SiN Episodes” and its development to Ritual Entertainment for the interview you will be reading here. First of all I’d like to thank Tom “ParadoX” Mustaine (Director of Development / Vice President) for setting the whole thing up and of course Levelord (Co-owner / Level Designer) and Steve “Badman” Hessel (Community Relations Manager) for the time they took to answer all these questions. Also for putting up with me being a pain in the neck. Read on for the goodies!
Q: Hello and thank you for taking the time to conduct this interview. You can start by introducing yourselves and telling us a little about what you do for Ritual Entertainment, and in particular “SiN Episodes”.
Levelord: Lo!`tis the Levelord! I’m one of the owners at Ritual Entertainment and, to the best of my ability, I try to remain a mere level designer. I started professionally with “Duke Nukem 3D” and then started Ritual with a few other lads. We have worked on many games, and helped on many others.
Steve Hessel: I’m Ritual’s online community manager and as such act as the Tribe’s interface with our fanbase. I’m also a pretty big “SiN” nut, so this project is particularly exciting to me.
Q: Since a lot of our readers are developers of “Half-Life 2″ modifications, what would you advise people hoping to, at some point, join a company like Ritual Entertainment? How did you manage to do that?
Levelord: This question always has the very same answer, just do it! If you are even asking this question, other than to ensure you are currently on the correct path to professionalism, then I doubt your passion for the career. This is the key word, PASSION! Many people believe they want to be a game designer, but they really don’t. If you want to be a level designer, make levels, many levels! If you want to be an artist, make assets, many assets! If you want to be a coder, make mods, many mods! Even if I had never been hired 10 years ago at 3D Realms, I would still be at home on weekends making maps for games. I never made maps to get hired, I got hired because I made maps!
Q: You have worked with many different game engines in the past. What was the reason you decided to work with the Source engine this time? Would you make the same choice again if you could return to the beginning stages of development?
Levelord: Many engines, yes, …and one of them being Valve’s “Half-Life” engine when we helped with” Counter-Strike: Condition Zero”. The “Half-Life” engine was the foundation for the Source engine, so we are very familiar with the technology. In addition, Valve has dedicated a large part of their long term strategy to continually upgrading the Source engine, keeping the technology from being dated. This is something that was very important to us since with the constant updates to the Source technology, our episodic content will remain technically advanced for years to come. It is a very nice package deal and, absolutely, we would make the very same selection if we could start over again.
Q: What were the main reasons you decided to go for an episodic release schedule and online distribution? Do you have any doubts about the outcome, or are you certain that things will go well?
Steve Hessel: Obviously one of the major payoffs is the shorter development cycle. You can get your product out to gamers faster and at a lower budget. We’re actually self-funding this project, which gives us complete creative control, so over the course of the episodes, we’ll be trying a few new things to push the genre forward.
Another great advantage is that you can get feedback from your audience and incorporate it into the next episode. If a feature is well-received, you can expand on it in the next installment. If something isn’t liked, you can fix it or phase it out. This allows us to focus our development efforts on the things gamers really want.
Finally, having a smaller project allows you to really focus your efforts. We are using an iterative approach for “SiN Episodes”, so we build small sections of the game and playtest and rework them until they’re fun. This approach can be time consuming, but ultimately, it yields the best results for the gamer.
Levelord: Why use an episodic development paradigm? Because it makes brilliant sense with digital delivery systems like Steam. Having the power and ease of releasing a game with the simple click of an upload-to-server button means that we do not have to wait for enough time to pass, nor provide as much consolidated content to justify putting the product on CDs and in a box and then in a truck and then on a shelf it’s brilliant and it screams “go episodic”.
Episodic entertainment is a proven model for storytelling. From printed media (books, magazines, comics) to electronic (television, movies), almost all forms of media have used episodic storytelling. This is not new for games, either. The word “episode” has been in our gaming vocabulary for a long time. Games have always been divided into episodes. Ritual Entertainment is only using the new delivery system Steam and increasing the frequency of releases.
Episodic gaming is like episodic television. I think a great example we would love to follow is the television show “24”. Each episode is a solid 1-hour packet of entertainment that follows a larger developing story. At the end of each episode I am left wanting, craving actually, the next installment. This is a perfect example of great episodic entertainment. I can also point to soap operas to show you how long this can hold true. A dedicated audience, spanning multiple generations, has been watching shows like “Guiding Light” for over 50 years.
Let’s remember the shareware model used by game developers not so long ago. It was actually an episodic delivery paradigm. With shareware, we would release the first episode, usually before the completed game was finished. Then the full game would be released, which usually was the second and third episodes. These would then, if the game was successful, be followed by a series of add-on packs, each of which to be called another episode. For the most part, this is the very same episodic delivery of a game that we are “starting” with “SiN Episodes”.
We also believe delivering a game like “SiN Episodes” as an episodic series is a great idea because we intend to cast the story down a long timeline. When we say episode here, please remember that the most important aspect of this new paradigm is the partitioning of what used to be considered a whole. What would normally be delivered as a 3-5 “episode” or “mission” game as one piece, requiring at least 2 years to produce (and wait for) and around $60 to buy (not an insignificant price for most of us), will be delivered by us as the same content but in smaller, quicker, and cheaper parcels.
Q: The original “SiN” game has a rather strong fanbase and most everyone is excited over SiN Episodes. How is it for you, the developers, to finally return to the familiar setting after all these years?
Levelord: We selected “SiN” because it’s a known game IP, and we’ve wanted to continue the story of “SiN” ever since the release of the first game, back in 1998.
Q: Ritual Entertainment often runs polls regarding the fate of certain games or features. Why is community input so important to you? How has it helped you with the development of “SiN Episodes”?
Steve Hessel: “SiN” has had a huge cult following for many years, so we frequently try and get the fans’ input, both via surveys on our website and the Question of the Week threads in our forums. One of the impacts that feedback has had is that we decided to split up some of our larger levels after running polling the community on level loads and how frequently / long they would like them to be.
We’ll definitely be monitoring the forums closely after the release of “Emergence” and gather feedback for the next episode.
Q: The first “SiN” included a much loved multiplayer mode. Why did you decide to only focus on the single player aspect for the first of the “SiN Episodes”? Will any future multiplayer mode be sold separately or come as an update to existing Episodes?
Levelord: Again, one of the advantages to episodic development is fast progress. With this in mind, we wanted to focus all of our attention on singleplayer. Multiplayer will come soon after.
Steve Hessel: “SiN” has such a rich universe and characters that starting the single player game first was always sort of a foregone conclusion. That said, multiplayer is definitely on our list, and we have several unique ideas for it that we’re eager to get out there. We haven’t finalized our plans for distributing the multiplayer yet, so I can’t comment on that.
Q: What have you tried to achieve with the first episode as it will reintroduce the “SiN” universe to the public, and how do you plan to continue evolving the concept and gameplay ideas?
Levelord: Only the basics so far, such as main characters, location, motives, etc. We expect to pull in more detailed references and such, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we do a prequel or three in the future.
Steve Hessel: “Emergence” is definitely all about introducing the main characters and setting up the plot. We’ve been very careful to make this game accessible even to people who’ve never heard of SiN, so anyone can jump right in and feel at home. We’ve learned a lot while developing this first episode, so expect future episodes to introduce new and even more daring gameplay mechanisms.
Q: Some people have expressed their skepticism thinking that “SiN Episodes” is looking a bit too much like “Half-Life 2″. What do you have to say to that and what measures have you taken to ensure that the gameplay feels fresh?
Levelord: Well, to be honest, I myself would be honored to be called too much like “Half-Life2″. To date, that is the best FPS ever made. As far as “SiN Episodes: Emergence” goes specifically, I know it is pleasantly different than “Half-Life 2″, like strawberry ice cream is different than chocolate. Expect the game to have a similar feel; it is in the very same engine, so there will be comparisons. This is our game, though, so the levels and art and AI and, many things, are different.
Steve Hessel: I think a lot of this came from the fact that we were in fact using “Half-Life 2″ assets for placeholder purposes. The last of these placeholders are being replaced with original material as we speak, and the game truly feels like a “SiN” title now.
Q: One of the things “SiN” became famous for is the amount of interactivity found within the different maps. The Source engine will obviously allow the use of realistic physics for such things. In what new ways have you tried to make use of that?
Levelord: We are using the physics system, and we are making every manner of object interactive. This is a Ritual game!
Q: What are some of your favorite weapons and why?
Steve Hessel: My favorite weapon is probably the secondary fire on the Magnum. It launches a depleted uranium shell that can penetrate most materials and whoever’s hiding behind them. A close second is the shotgun, which has a really good feel to it.
Q: “SiN Episodes” seems to boast a new partner for Blade in the form of the beautiful Jessica, at least in certain parts of the game. How has that addition affected the game design?
Steve Hessel: Jessica has always been in our minds as sort of a sidekick for the player that (unlike JC) actually goes on missions. Jessica will obviously help you dispose of bad guys, but we’ve got a few areas in the game where the player has to work with her in order to progress. The car sequences were also developed with Jessica in mind as the driver, and a lot of work has gone into making that fun and interesting.
Q: What can you tell us about the locations Blade will find himself in? Which one is your favorite so far and why?
Steve Hessel: We’re really leveraging Freeport City for “SiN Episodes”. Freeport is like a futuristic mix of San Francisco, New York and Tokyo & it’s a giant city housing 27 million people. Early on, we sat down and mapped out the entire city and came up with landmarks and other interesting areas. While you won’t get to visit all of these in the first episode, you’ll be able to spot them in the distance. Chances are, if something looks cool or interesting, you’ll get to go there in a future episode.
I don’t want to give away too much about the locations in “Emergence”, but I can tell you that it starts out in an older part of the docks district, as Blade and Jessica prepare to raid a suspected U4 lab located inside an abandoned overturned oil tanker.
My favorite location is the lighthouse area in the docks level as it’s extremely atmospheric and I like just walking around in it.
Q: Another new addition is the vehicular combat. From what we’ve seen so far, Jessica gets to drive a car while Blade has to fend off enemies with his trusty weapons. Will these sequences play out exactly the same every time (on rails racing), or is there actual and varied A.I. guiding the driver and car? Will the player get to control a vehicle on his own at any point?
Steve Hessel: The car sequence is very much an evolution of the on-rails helicopter sequence we had in the first game. The vehicle still moves on spline paths, but now we have branching in our paths, so depending on your actions in the level (like knocking over a pillar or blowing up a bunch of barrels), different branches are available for the AI to take.
Plus the path is really just a general guide and the AI can actually go off it. It is aware of obstacles, so it will back up and go around them if they block the car’s path. On top of all that, you can also move around the car freely and lean out the windows.
I think it’s safe to say that this sequence will be as interactive and non-linear as it can get without you actually driving the car, and it will definitely be one of the most memorable moments of the first episode.
As for being able to actually drive vehicles, this was a huge part of “SiN”, and while Emergence won’t put you behind the wheel, we’re planning on bringing usable vehicles back in future installments.
Q: As you mentioned above, players will be able to easily change their position within a vehicle, in order to get the best view of the enemies or, presumably, to dodge their fire. Could you explain more of how this will work?
Steve Hessel: You can move around the inside of the car using mouselook and your directional keys. So looking at the passenger seat and pressing forward will move you up front. Leaning out the windows works in a similar fashion. It’s a really intuitive system that you will have no problem getting used to.
Aside from moving around the car’s interior, we’ve also made everything in there useable. You can open the glove box, turn on the windshield wipers, use the radio and even mess around with the transmission, although Jessica might not take too kindly to that.
Q: Some very interesting enemy designs have been shown. Which are your favorites so far and why?
Levelord: Favorites, HA HA! I love them all!
Q: How different will the A.I. of the mutants be compared to the human enemies? Will all of them be able to use squad tactics and attempt to outsmart Blade?
Steve Hessel: Our human enemies usually work in teams, so one of them might lay down covering fire, while another chucks a grenade in your direction. Mutants are much more straightforward, they have little use for teamwork and generally tend to just charge you. All of our enemies are aware of what’s around them, so they will kick and throw items at you if they can.
Q: How long after the first Episode do you hope to be able to release the second? Will you aim for 3-6 gameplay hours in all of them or are you hoping to be able and increase that with every future release?
Levelord: We expect the second episode to require a little less development time. Much of the time on Episode 1 was used to set the foundations and development support. I anticipate receiving much feedback related to this topic. Was the new model worth it to the gaming audience? Did the players get their money’s worth? We will be using this feedback to home the new development paradigm. We will also be looking at the turn-around time.
Q: Will any tools like a level editor be released for “SiN Episodes”? Many fans would like to be able to create their own “SiN” stories, what are your feelings about this?
Levelord: We have ALWAYS been big proponents of tool distribution! This is how most of us got in the industry!
Q: How many episodes have you planned so far? How much will player decisions be able to affect your already written plot?
Levelord: Planning and pre-design on the next episode are already being developed. However, these are only very fundamental and basic so far. Feedback from “Emergence” will have great effect on episode 2.
Q: If there’s anything you would like to add about “SiN Episodes”, or other projects you’d like to tell our readers about, feel free to do so.
Steve Hessel: “SiN Episodes: Emergence” is on the home stretch now and we can’t wait to get it out to you guys!
That’s it for now, I hope everyone enjoyed this interview and is now even more excited over “SiN Episodes”! Visit the official website for more about the game. Don’t forget to also sign up on the official forums as there’s an active community to be found and the developers often respond to their fans’ questions. “SiN Episodes: Emergence” is scheduled for release sometime in the first quarter of 2006 so keep those pennies in check!