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Ritual Revisited

Studio boss Ken Harward clears up the MumboJumbo.

In December, GamesIndustry.biz conducted an interview with Ken Harward, who at the time had been recently announced as CEO of Ritual Entertainment. Since then, the studio has been acquired by casual games company MumboJumbo, also based in Dallas, Texas.

This sudden turn of events countered Harward's assurance in his interview that Ritual would remain an independent developer. He also implied another installment of SiN Episodes, the company's episodic game series, would be forthcoming. The situation with regard to both of these matters has since drastically changed, so GamesIndustry.biz asked Harward to clarify what's next for Ritual and MumboJumbo.

GamesIndustry.biz: As studio director, are you still the lead executive in charge of Ritual?

Ken Harward: In November I was named studio director, which consolidated some responsibilities that were formerly handled by the CEO and the director of development. Studio director was simply a better term to capture the overall running of the studio.

With the acquisition by MumboJumbo, I remain studio director for our office, but some of the responsibilities change. I no longer need to worry about contracts, for example.

Are there any other differences now that you no longer have to deal with CEO duties?

In day-to-day terms, I'm still overseeing the development happening locally here. MumboJumbo is a larger company, including a branch in LA, and so there are other teams reporting into the company. Our development efforts report in alongside those other efforts.

Everyone is working together to build content for the casual market. My job is to make sure each project here has what it needs, is moving ahead smoothly, and is aligned with the larger company needs. And if I have any extra time, I may get to code a little, too.

To be clear, will Ritual be making games under its own brand name or directly for MumboJumbo? How is the arrangement supposed to work?

This has not been completely decided yet, but we'll do whatever makes the most business sense. Historically, there is a precedent of having an acquired studio still release games under their own name, but [also] with the MumboJumbo brand. But it will just depend on what seems best at the appropriate time.

Many are already looking at Ritual's acquisition by MumboJumbo as an example of how the casual games market is becoming a much bigger and more profitable business than the traditional gaming sector. How would you respond to that in relation to MumboJumbo's purchase of Ritual?

That is certainly the case. The market is growing, and it is very successful. Some people think of casual games as small little web games. Well, those small little web games get many tens of millions of downloads. And the most popular ones turn into big franchises that are capable of standing on their own across multiple platforms - all at a fraction of the development cost and a fraction of the time.

We can now push out several titles in a single year, and, because MumboJumbo is one of the largest publishers in the space, have a great opportunity to do well with each and every title. Probably more people will play our first small game than all the other titles Ritual has done combined. So it is no surprise that a big game developer would take advantage of an opportunity in this space.

The trick for most independent developers is getting the attention of the publishers. Lots of people produce casual games. How do you get a title noticed by the publishing houses and get it distributed, marketed, and sold?

MumboJumbo already has that side of the equation covered, so it is a win-win for both sides. They get more unique games, we get the games out to the fans.

MumboJumbo's acquisition [of Ritual] confirms their belief that the most successful titles will be the ones that cross platforms, and do it by custom-tailoring the games to each platform.

Ritual has a fair bit of console experience, but also lots of PC experience. We can make high-quality games for MumboJumbo on multiple platforms and do it with a high-degree of polish.

As other independent developers learn that the small games market can be profitable, and that their past experience can be an advantage, I think we'll see more teams giving it a try. We're lucky to be able to do it with the backing of a well-established publisher, and the developer of one of the most successful casual games, Luxor. We see this as a big win-win.

It seems to be a radical departure for Ritual to now be making casual games. How would you address the gaming community's disbelief and doubt over Ritual entering this market?

It might seem like a radical departure, but that's because the community only sees Ritual through the products that get released. The community never sees the other games that Ritual has started, or the interests of the team, or the things we do on the side.

There's been an interest in the small game space at Ritual for some time. Squirrel Eiserloh started the Ad Lib Game Development Society here in Dallas a few years ago in order to promote the kind of creative rapid-fire small games that the Experimental Gameplay group at the GDC are demonstrating.

A number of core Ritual employees, myself included, have participated in almost all of these small-game jams. Everyone at Ritual checks out all the small games that get released, especially the more experimental stuff.

Likewise, Ritual has looked at doing smaller games in the past. While we're known for first-person shooters, in my six years at Ritual I've worked on a real-time strategy game, a handheld platformer, an action RPG, and many games in-between. The community just never sees it.

Instead, they see the games that a publisher finally choose to ship. And while we've worked hard on those games and are proud of the work, it doesn't mean that those were always Ritual's favorite choices, or that those games always represented what we really wanted to make. Those were the titles that we had a contract to build at the time. It is as simple as that.

So we're looking forward to trying something new, and hopefully having it hit in a big way, possibly to a new larger audience. We believe that casual games are as important to gaming as "big" games. And there is plenty of challenge in it. We think of "small" as being "development time," not as trivial, unimportant or easy-to-make.

Casual games is a broad term - it tends to conjure up images of jewel matching puzzlers and casino card games. Can you give us an early indication as to what exactly kind of casual games that Ritual will be developing?

We'll do some games that fit what you would expect from MumboJumbo. But MumboJumbo wants to be at the forefront of casual games, so we may help them build games that stretch the definition a bit from where it is now.

MumboJumbo's vision of the casual market is pretty large, and we want to help them get to every corner of it.

Officially speaking, what is to become of the SiN franchise and in particular SiN Episodes? Is that all for now? Will it be licensed perhaps to an interested developer to continue? Will the assets for the game released to the mod community?

Mark Cottam [CEO of MumboJumbo] has already expressed that this merger was done to enable MumboJumbo to make additional games for the casual market. So we're not focusing on the SiN franchise right now. We need to put all of our energy towards the new games.

I can't speak officially for the franchise or those products, but I'm sure if there was a business opportunity, appropriate consideration would be given.

What happened between our last interview and this acquisition? Was it a sudden, surprise, end-of-the-year decision?

From my perspective, I think the former owners [Rob Atkins and Richard Gray] realised that the company and its employees would be in a much stronger position with the merger, and reached the time to execute.

A couple of months before this, we had the opportunity to do some casual games with MumboJumbo as an independent company and we had started putting energy in that direction.

It was soon clear that most everyone at Ritual was excited about the prospect of finishing multiple games a year, and having more opportunities to try ideas out. This was an opportunity to try something new. I think things just clicked for all the reasons.

So while the final decision may have been news, we were already looking at casual games as a business opportunity and people were getting emotionally attached to the idea.

Ken Harward is studio director of Ritual Entertainment. Interview by Howard Wen.