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Interview: Ritual's Robert Atkins on Console Life, PC Death


June 30, 2005
 

Robert Atkins

"Hired guns" is a more than apt job title for Ritual Entertainment. For nearly ten years, the Dallas, Texas-based developer has built a rep as being the go-to guys when a game needs to ratchet up its multiplayer, or to otherwise add such a gameplay feature. FPSes and third-person shooters are the company's specialty. Ritual has worked alongside other developers on action titles that include 007: Agent Under Fire, Half-Life: Opposing Force, Legacy of Kain: Defiance and American McGee's Alice, yet has also wholly produced its own share of games: Star Trek: Elite Force II, Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K.2, and the Xbox version of Counter-Strike.

Ritual started as one of the early pioneers in the Quake-engine mod scene back in 1996, when its founders created an add-on to this FPS, called Scourge of Armagon, which went on to commercial success. It was during this time when the group of budding game developers established their skills in building and honing multiplayer technology to accommodate for fast and frenetic action gaming. The success of Armagon led to Ritual making its own game, Sin, a self-standing product that was built on the Quake engine.

Over the past couple of years, the company, which steadily employs about 40 people at any given time, has shifted focus into development for the game consoles; it is where the real money is to be made, after all. As of this writing, Ritual is working with Avalanche Software on 25 To Life, an urban-themed, "cops-'n'-gangstas" action title with gameplay that is being likened to a cross between SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs and Grand Theft Auto III. Working on 25 To Life has been putting Ritual's technical astuteness in multiplayer technology to the full test. Tentatively, the game is to be released in late summer 2005 for the PlayStation 2, Xbox and PC. Ritual is responsible for the multiplayer component in all three versions.

Taking a break from the crunch-time hours that his company was undergoing to get their work on 25 To Life perfected, Robert Atkins, President and Art Director of Ritual, spoke with Gamasutra about his company's straddling between the worlds of PC and console games development.

Gamasutra: There are three developers behind 25 To Life: Ritual Entertainment, Avalanche Software and Highway 1. How did this relationship come together? Who's responsible for what?


25 to Life

Robert Atkins: Highway 1 is the creator of the idea. It was their intellectual idea that they brought to Eidos. Eidos signed on to the project. Highway 1 doesn't really have a development team - they have a creative team. They needed a team to work on it, so they found Avalanche to start the process. Avalanche has [game engine] technology that works on the PS2, Xbox and PC. Those guys really have never made an action, multiplayer product.

Ritual Entertainment was brought on shortly thereafter to help solidify multiplayer, and also help support some of the single-player aspects of the product. Ritual has lead a collaborative effort to complete the multiplayer portion of TTL. However, we never really touched the graphics [of] the characters but we were responsible for a lot of the map creation.

GS: Is it common to have more than one developer working on a game? Or, is Ritual's extensive resume of working with other developers atypical in this industry?

RA: That's kind of where the market is going. It's hard to find a game these days where it's solely done by one developer.

In our case, we've done a lot of multiplayer content. Until the last few years, there hasn't been a lot of high-action, multiplayer products on the consoles. So it made sense for publishers in the console market to come to the developers on the PC side who had that kind of experience. We were able to benefit their games by bringing skills that Avalanche didn't necessarily have.

GS: Ritual made a name for itself as a developer of multiplayer action PC games. What are some significant technological adjustments that the company has had to deal with over the years when focusing more on the consoles?

RA: We recognized early on in the company's history that in order for our software to reach a wider audience, our designs and technology focus must include the major console hardware.

Five years ago, we made the initial push toward console development when we created Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K.2. The [game's] dual-handed combat system, movement control scheme, and over-the-top visual style was created with the Sega Dreamcast in mind. Like a number of developers, we lost our funding when the Dreamcast lost favor in the marketplace. Our fallback was to release a PC version.

Since that time, we have contributed to over six major consoles titles, our biggest success to date being Counter-Strike on the Xbox, which was our first full-blown product. We created new content for the Xbox. It was a partial port from PC to Xbox but it was also a lot of new content.


Sin

The other console experience we have with EA primarily was [Xbox] Live support. We helped create maps, art, design, help them balance. EA was actually using a version of the Quake III engine that we had modified for Heavy Metal: FAKK2 . So the technology there was stuff we had a lot of experience in, and we were able to help them develop [their Xbox Live] products.

GS: Is there a growing demand for a multiplayer feature in console games, especially for the next-generation systems?

RA: Absolutely. Co-op is the next big multiplayer push. I think a lot of games are going to have co-op experience, more so than the existing, traditional deathmatch.

GS: What specifically about Ritual's experience with multiplayer for PC games does your company bring to the consoles?

RA: Multiplayer can become complicated when it comes to "map-flow." We understand good map design for multiplayer, and we've been doing that since 1996 when we worked on the first add-on pack for Quake, Scourge of Armagon. We've made multiplayer games for a while now. Good map-flow, design, multiplayer, balancing of weapons - Ritual brings that expertise to the table with this product.

GS: 25 To Life is a first for Ritual: Your company is working on three platform versions at once. How much of the overall work in the game is Ritual's, and Avalanche's?

RA: Using all of the content created for the console versions, along with a number of new exclusive features, Ritual will be bringing a PC version of TTL to market. The single player content was created with the action gamer in mind and should standup on all platforms. Currently in beta, TTL is being tested, tweaked and polished right now. Ritual is excited because this is the first product that we have that reaches that many platforms all at the same time.

GS: Any observations about negotiating technology across more than one platform?

RA: One of our primary goals is to create content that exists on multiple platforms. With that, it means that the technology base is broader. There are more "SKUs" (pronounced "skew") to manage - SKU being the different versions of the product: Xbox is a SKU; PS2 is a SKU; the PC is a SKU. It takes more engineering to manage the technology.

Fortunately, most of the technology we've had the pleasure to work with has been created in such a way that it supports multiple skews. So the PC version works, the Xbox version works, and the PS2 works all simultaneously. It's been easier with this round of consoles - especially this late in the life cycle of the consoles. Middleware made that a lot easier. Publishers in different dev houses have software now that works. In the past, if you did a game for the PlayStation One, it never would have worked with, you know, the N64. EA had some technology that worked across platforms, but that was fairly uncommon.

GS: Technically, how difficult is game development for the current line-up of game consoles compared to working on the PC?

RA: It's become an issue less of the engineering and more of the development. Our jobs are becoming harder. The artist's and designer's job is becoming more difficult because the software can support so much more than it used to.

For 25 To Life, we were using technology that we were building on top of, as opposed to creating from scratch, which made our job a lot easier. So we were able to focus just on asset creation.


Counterstrike for the Xbox

GS: Which platform was the "lead," which you developed on primarily and then ported your work to the other platforms? The PC?

RA: Actually, no. The lead SKU is the PS2. The PS2 drives everything because it has the most limitations among the three. The PC version will come a few weeks after the Xbox and PS2 versions are released.

GS: So it's best to develop first for the platform that has the most technological limitations and then building the other versions from there?

RA: Correct. There are enhancements being made for the Xbox and PC versions that are built on top of the already cool PS2 version. The PS2 version isn't "limited" - I don't want it to come across that way. But we have made efforts to take advantage of the extra hardware on the Xbox and PC by adding new functionality.

GS: What would you say has been the biggest advantage for Ritual in developing for the consoles?

RA: The nice difference is that with the consoles you sell more units. So the business model makes a lot more sense for the developer to earn out than they ever can in just the PC alone. Publishers aren't as stringent with the budget. If you create a PC-only product, unless it's a "top ten" product, the budgets aren't nearly as nice, and the deals aren't nearly as attractive.

GS: It doesn't sound like there are any disadvantages!

RA: Testing is a lot harder, especially when there's multiplayer. There's a lot that goes into testing multiplayer games. You can't patch it. It has to be perfect. There's no way to patch the product, especially on the PS2. So it takes more engineering time to make sure that the product is stable.

GS: So where does Ritual see itself in the near future - will the company be developing more for the consoles than the PC? Or, will you try to maintain a balance between the two worlds?

RA: We're not going to get out of PC development. Our goal is to make multi-SKU products that reach a wide audience. We defintely are moving toward next-gen console development. We're currently working with next-gen technology that already runs on the PC and Xbox 360. As soon as the devkits are available for PS3, we will be working on PS3 development.

GS: What future do you see for PC game developers, PC game development, the overall PC game market, etc.? Right now, it looks like that most of the focus for the PC side of the gaming industry is limited to MMORPGs and online multiplayer.

RA: PC game development isn't going anywhere.


Scourge of Armagon

I think PC games are one reason our industry continues to be pushed forward. If it wasn't for great technology that the PC game companies have been making for years, consoles wouldn't be at the level that they are at now. You see gameplay mechanics once only found on the PC being highly successful on the consoles.

The types of content that you may have only once seen on the PC is now on a wider range of systems. With action games, you are seeing fundamental gameplay types that were only on the PC; at one time there were only maybe one or two FPS games on the consoles, like the Halo and [James] Bond franchises. I think MMOs will also be on the consoles but in a much bigger way than they are now. As the hardware becomes more advanced on the consoles, being able to upgrade your PC becomes less of an issue.

Ultimately, it's more fun to sit in front of your TV, with your friends, and play games on the sofa, than it is to sit in front of your computer.

GS: For several years now, Ritual has worked on many games based on intellectual properties owned by other developers. Sin has pretty much been Ritual's only own idea that it developed. Understandably, you guys would like to resume making games based on your own original ideas, and you plan to do so, hopefully, soon. Is it harder to realize an original game idea for the consoles than for the PC?

RA: It's hard these days, regardless, whether it's for PC or consoles. It's almost next to impossible to get funding for an intellectual property that a developer owns, unless you've already self-funded the product yourself or you have market awareness established. It's just the way the market is. Halo had market awareness before Microsoft came in and bought Bungie.

Developers have to be smart about how they produce content. They're probably going to have to self-fund, which is very hard because because developers very rarely make profit. Without profit, you can't self-fund. Developers have to be able to create market awareness, interest in something that publishers can't live without. Everyday, that's how original content gets made by independent developers.

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