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The Next Episode

Ritual boss Ken Harward talks SiN, Steam and studio development.

Earlier today, it was announced that SiN developer Ritual Entertainment has been acquired by casual games specialist Mumbo Jumbo.

The news comes just weeks after Ken Harward was named studio director, at a time when rumours were emerging that new chapters in the SiN series weren't being developed and that the future of the company itself might be in question.

Soon after his appointment, sat down with Harward to ask him about the rumours. Things have changed since this interview was conducted, but we also talked about the experience of developing a game in the episodic format, the issues surrounding distribution via Steam and the challenges of running an independent studio in today's environment - read on to find out more. Could you describe your history with Ritual? How did you wind up with the gig of CEO?

Ken Harward: I've been with Ritual for six years. I have had the opportunity to not only lead my department, but also provide leadership to the company as a whole. Recently we were able to change that from just something I do to being a full time position for me - studio director.

In that role I consolidate responsibilities that have formerly been called CEO, COO and director of development. It is an opportunity that simply grew out of having participated in the trenches on nearly every game at Ritual, as well as participating in the management of Ritual as a whole.

Let's get to the question on the minds of many: what's happening with the next chapter of SiN Episodes? When is it coming?

Even though the Episodes are smaller than traditional games, they are still "Triple A" titles in terms of planning, development, and polish. So, when we're ready to talk about it, we will. Until then, it's done when it's done, just like with most other big titles.

Up till now, how would you characterise Ritual's experience with the Steam content delivery platform?

Steam has been a terrific experience for us. It was easy to integrate into our oldest engine, and easy to work with in the Source engine.

As a developer, you get several key benefits. First, you can be assured all the right content gets delivered to your customers. When we released the Arena game play addition to SiN Episodes, everyone who owned the game automatically got the new features.

Second, you have some great tools for monitoring how your game is doing - from download rates to the surveys that let users tell us what type of hardware they are using. We even implemented a sophisticated stats system that lets us know how people are progressing through SiN Episodes and what their favorite tactics are. We've taken every advantage of Steam we can and have learned a lot from it.

Are there issues with Steam that you feel still need to be addressed?

Valve continues to update Steam, so features keep coming online. When we first started integrating Steam, the tools for building the packages sent down to the users were still a bit rough. They're much richer now. Likewise, the ability for an external developer to monitor their title's success has come online.

My biggest request might be to have more opportunities for developers to have targeted surveys with their customer base per game.

The industry has been wondering about the business viability of the "episodic gaming" format. How does your company now feel about the concept of episodes?

I believe SiN Episodes: Emergence was the first Triple-A first-person shooter title to come out in this format. Other genres have done it sooner, and some later.

The single best thing about it is that we've been able to get a game out and get feedback on it much sooner than we otherwise would have. If Emergence had been intended to be a full title, we'd still be working on it. You've got a much larger gap between concept and feedback. Even so, Episode 1 took significant work, longer than we had anticipated.

I believe some genres are better suited to episodic format than others. And I believe this is based on the customer base - not the developer or the game. The success of episodic content per genre will completely depend on the demands of the consumers who play that genre.

Episodic gaming is going to be most successful in genres that do not demand as much new content. Genres that depend on characters more than locations are more likely to succeed in episodic gaming. This is why we put a lot of emphasis on creating memorable characters.

I think it is still too early to say which genres will be best fits, but I think traditional adventure games, with the same core cast but a new mystery to face, is a great example of building a business around what the customer wants. Compare this to a genre where the customer is looking for the new "ooh and ahh" factor. That genre is going to be harder to develop episodes in because of what the customer is looking for.

As the CEO now of Ritual, what's your strategy for the company?

My strategy isn't any different than any other studio head: Pick good projects, get them done on time, and sell them. My number one priority is to keep us focused on what's immediately ahead. My long-term strategy is to do a mix of Ritual IP games and publisher IP games.

I'd like to see Ritual continue to branch out into different genres, potentially even experimental genres. I do not view Ritual as simply a first-person-shooter development house. In my first year at Ritual I worked on a real-time strategy game, a handheld platformer, a third-person shooter, and finally an action RPG. For Ritual, I expect the path forward will be to continue to expand our horizons. As we have opportunities to do something unique, we'll be taking them.

Recently, there's been speculation over the future of Ritual itself. Is Ritual going anywhere? Will it remain independent?

The owners, Richard Gray and Rob Atkins, have always stressed the company's independence. So I expect it to continue to be independent. We're not going anywhere. We've got multiple teams running, as usual.

There was some speculation going on a month ago due to the change in management. That happens whenever someone at the top of a company leaves, so we expected it. All the changes that occurred, whether by the employee's choice or by ours, gave us better overall alignment.

Over the years, Ritual developed a reputation as a good "go-to" development house to help work on another publisher's or other developer's IP. SiN Episodes marked a return to Ritual capitalising on its own IP. For independent developers generally, is it still more lucrative to work on others' ideas than your own?

Working on someone else's IP is more lucrative in the short term. Generally they're paying you to work on it. Working on your own is far more expensive. However, it is a risk versus reward issue. If you do hit a home run, with your own title, your rewards are going to be that much greater.

I think the right solution is a mix. Specifically, help the publishers make money with their IPs, and use that to pay the bills and build up savings. Then use that savings to try one of your own IPs.

What projects are Ritual working on, or hoping to develop? More original IP?

As usual, we're not able to talk about new projects yet. People within the industry know why, but I don't know if people outside the industry fully understand it.

In general, publishers have a marketing budget available for every title. That budget is used for marketing events that are timed to build up hype for a game just before release. If a game gets announced before the marketing events occur, the hype can come and go long before the marketing. Then the marketing hits and the consumers are much more apathetic.

To some extent I feel that happened with SiN Episodes: Emergence. Our first big magazine push happened in June of 2005. We had positive press all through the summer and into the fall. But we didn't ship until May of 2006. That's an example of perhaps talking too soon.

Any plans for the next-generation game console platforms? Xbox Live seems like an obvious avenue for Ritual to exploit...

Xbox Live is a great platform. We look forward to be able to announce games for it.

The gaming industry is going through a transition period with the next-generation console war brewing up. What would you say is the toughest thing about running a studio in this environment?

This is a great question. In my opinion, the hardest thing currently for a small independent developer to accomplish is convincing publishers that your small studio can handle the impact of Triple-A [game] development.

To do this, you need to build confidence in your studio. But it is a "chicken or egg" problem - how do you build confidence if the publishers aren't willing to give you a chance?

Ritual has historically solved this problem by having development teams that come in and help publishers who have projects in trouble. Over the years we have helped many of the major publishers finish their projects. That builds confidence in our teams and in the studio.

We also are looking at other ways to get out of this circular loop. If we can find publishers who don't depend on the mega-hit, then we can find partners who don't depend on 100+ person teams. That's a better fit for us, since we want to have multiple teams running at a time.

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

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