SiN Episodes - Interview - Approaching Emergence

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Sin Episodes Interviews

With the emergence (ha ha) of new SiN Episodes screenshots, we decided to catch up with the development team to find out more about the current status of the game, and to talk a bit about the art, music and QA side of development. These questions were answered by Lead Designer Shawn Ketcherside, Lead Animator Rungy Singhal, Music and Zound God Zak Belica, QA Manager Michael Russell, and Community Relations Manager Steve Hessel. We would like to thank the SiN Episodes development team for their time. This Interview by Stylsy was published 2005-11-15 on ritualistic.


How far along in development is the first SiN episode, Emergence, now?

Shawn Ketcherside:

We're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. We're very very close to alpha right now. Almost all of the final character models are in the game, the levels are making huge strides, and we're finally wrapping up the last few design wrinkles that have cropped up as we've pushed through development. The heavy lifting on the script is complete, and once the final recording is done, we'll be making fast progress on the face-poser scenes. It's a very exciting time right now; the game is starting to look like an actual "game." I can't wait for the final assets to get finished up and for us to move onto the pure polish phase.

Since this is Ritual's first episodic title, what lessons have you have learned so far during the development of the first chapter?

Shawn Ketcherside:

There's been a lot. This was our first attempt at iterative design. The game is showing the benefits of the approach, but I don't think we knew the best strategies for this at the beginning. Also, I feel we learned the importance of focus. At the beginning we had so many great ideas, more than would fit in an entire game, let alone an episode, and I think we started off too broad. Better to find a few key things to make innovative and fun. We're getting to that, but it cost us time, so for Episode 2, I think that will be on the forefront of the design team's minds.

One other thing is to try and recognize a failed path earlier in the process. During prototyping we tried a lot of stuff out. I mean A LOT. It was all rough and ugly, but it was more about proving gameplay ideas than looking good. Some things proved to be bad ideas and we were able to cut them out very early, others were bad ideas masquerading as 'almost good' ideas. Those are the tough ones. You keep tweaking and adjusting them, trying to get them right, eventually you realize there is no 'right' and you cut the feature. Unfortunately it takes time to come to that realization.

All of this, though, is part of an iterative design approach - you have to expect that some things are just not going to work. As we continue to refine this process, I think we'll get a lot better at identifying dead-ends more quickly.

Rungy Singhal:

Creating episodic content is a double edged sword. You don't have to put everything in the first episode, but anything you do put in has to be perfect. After the first episode is done, there is no need to redo any of the main characters or objects. The time used to make second game is cut in half. And all the time for the next installment is 100% for new content, story and action. So each episode just keeps making the game bigger and better until eventually we'll have this awesome humungous world. Before we even started SiN Episodes we thought to ourselves...

"What if they released a new version of our favorite games every month?"
"Would people like that?"
"Would people want that?"

We all believe so, and thus SiN Episodes was born. This has to do with developing episodic content in the following way.... Rather than develop everything needed for a game over and over, take the content from one game and keep adding on to it. Combine this massive amount of content with cutting edge action and a comic book like epic storylines and I believe we'll have a winner.

Michael Russell:

How much room do I have? (grin)

Biggest lesson: Get it working and get it fun before you get it pretty. Our initial screenshot push is a perfect example. We were working on getting the game playable early in an orange-box state (everything only had an ugly orange placeholder texture on it) when we got the opportunity for the cover of PC Gamer in the U.K. So a major shift occurred from "get it done and get it fun" to "get it looking good." As a result, we got a lot of wonderful looking areas that weren't excessively fun when you played them.

Second biggest lesson: Use the axe. If you put something in that you think is fun, but nobody else thinks is fun and the playtesters don't think it's fun, just cut it. It's better to have two or three features in a game that are really fun and polished to perfection instead of three dozen features that are kinda fun and just not polished.

Third lesson: Test early, test often. Especially on a game like this with a highly compressed schedule, you want testing on your game as quickly as possible. You don't need a complete level to can test a room to see if the room is fun and make sure the room itself works. You don't need fancy graphics to test can shoot bounding boxes as easily as you can shoot a mutant.

In terms of art style and character design, how much of an influence did the first game, with its bright colors and comic book-style characters, have on SiN Episodes? What kind of visual style are you trying to establish in SiN Episodes?

Rungy Singhal:

Everything about SiN Episodes is based off of the Original SiN. All the main characters are back, although they have been totally revamped for next generation technology. Visually, we want techno... we want tomorrow today... and we have to make sure that people can relate to our characters.

Can you give us an idea of how much work goes into a typical SiN Episodes character? How does this compare to characters from the Quake II engine era?

Rungy Singhal:

We put more work into our characters than any other game I've ever worked on. Not technically or for editing but in design and conception. The reason for this is simple, if you're going to have a character in a game that never ends then it has to be perfect. Some of our characters went through 8 different studios and art houses for over 180 days of concept and design. And that's just the concept and design front.

On the technical level they have to make full use of Valve's Source engine technology. That's the most advanced character technology on the planet. There are characters in SiN Episodes that have more frames of animation than all the games made using the Quake 2 engine combined.

That's a lot of animation.

Musically, will SiN Episodes be familiar territory for players of the first game, or are you shooting for something new?

Zak Belica:

Technically, the music will be changing to more of an incidental model - music will appear only when it's appropriate to the situation. I've found this approach works well in SiN Episodes as I've put in a very strong sound design element to the game. Valve has given us some great audio technology, and I'm pushing it to provide as immersive a world as possible. Additionally, we'll be having some Episode theme music, most notably the song What's The World Come To. The song features Sarah Ravenscroft on vocals, and lyrically echoes the ideas put forth in this Episode. Look for regular and remix versions of this track soon.

Will Blade and the crew be voiced by the same actors as in the first game? Have you picked anyone for the role of Jessica yet?

Zak Belica:

Yes, the principals from Sin will be returning, including Eric Mills as Blade, Hanna Logan as Elexis and Billy O'Sullivan as JC. However, the Sin universe has gotten quite a bit darker since the first game, and their characters will all reflect this. We'll also have some new talent as well. The role of Jessica will be played by Jen Taylor, who many of you will know as the voice of Cortana in the Halo series. She's a very versatile actress, and the part of Jessica will allow Jen to be a bit more sassy than other roles you've heard her in. Also in the production is David Scully as Radek the crime lord, who's made an appearance in many other Ritual games as well as the Halo series.

Each week you pose a new question to the community to get their feedback on all kinds of issues related to game design and development. How big is the impact of these "Question of the Week" threads on the development process?

Michael Russell:

When I started doing the Question of the Week back in January, I was doing it to try to learn what Ritual's audience expected from the company. After all, Ritual was my re-emergence into the video game industry after working at Microsoft Game Studios on golf and snowboarding for five years. Gradually, it transformed into something where the questions are targeted to find out specific, community-requested solutions to problems we are seeing in either "SiN: Episodes" or other unannounced titles.

You'd be amazed at the impact that some of these questions have had on "SiN: Episodes." For example, a recent question on load times and quantity of gameplay led to some of our levels being split into as many as four smaller chunks. A recent question on feature enhancements to the Source engine showed that people wanted some stuff we had already implemented in the engine, and got gears grinding about how to use other requested features in future episodes.

Ritual's Play Testing Program, allowing gamers from the Dallas area to come in and play Ritual's latest projects, was launched earlier this year. How is that working out for you guys and how have the testers responded to SiN Episodes so far?

Michael Russell:

The Play Testing Program has been amazingly useful for our developers, level designers and artists. By having fresh eyes come in on a regular basis, we can quickly prototype a feature or level, get it in front of the public, and find out if it's something the public likes, or a feature that only we like because we're game geeks who think it's "cool."

To date, we've had about 30 groups of testers come in and play through fairly large chunks of "SiN: Episodes." The response from our playtesters has been overwhelmingly positive. It's always pleasant to hear comparisons to "Half-Life 2" and "Halo 2" from your testers. It's also been great to know that the time estimates we've been giving to the community have been pretty accurate. The absolute best players that we've brought in were able to get through the first episode in about 5-6 hours. The average player took significantly longer. However, we're still sticking with "4-6 hours of gameplay per episode" as the promise.

Multiplayer remains a topic of great interest for the community. How has the response been to the multiplayer survey and do you have any news for us regarding multiplayer?

Michael Russell:

Our current focus is finishing up Episode 1. While some assets have been created for multiplayer already, we want to get "Emergence" done and out the door so we can then focus all of our efforts on creating the best possible multiplayer experience. On the upside, when we do get multiplayer working, that's a situation where we might be able to expand our testing program beyond Dallas city limits, if you know what I mean (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

Steve Hessel:

The reaction to the survey has been great. We've had several thousand responses so far, which will provide a comprehensive basis for us once we start shifting resources over to multiplayer.

Obviously digital content delivery through Steam opens the door for all sorts of possibilities, including the release of the original SiN. Do you have any plans in that regard?

Steve Hessel:

Steam is an excellent platform for getting your game content directly to your audience and putting the original SiN out on Steam has been one of our goals from the start. The version of the SiN that will go up on Steam will be slightly different from the retail version in several regards. The most profound change is probably the way multiplayer works - it is fully integrated with Steam, so the game now uses the Steam server browser and you will be able to use the friends system to track your fellow SiNners. The game also uses a new sound driver, which should alleviate issues with Soundblaster cards, and there are several other small fixes here and there.

We will have more information on the Steam launch of the original SiN shortly.

Is the game still set for a release this year?

Steve Hessel:

Yup, we're still on track for a release late this year. We're currently eyeing the very end of fall to release SiN Episodes: Emergence.