SiN Episodes Interview: Approaching Emergence

Blade's new sidekick Jessica Cannon will fighting alongside you for much of Emergence.
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.

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.

A calm morning at Freeport docks. Or is it?
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 test...you 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 functionality...you can shoot bounding boxes as easily as you can shoot a mutant.

To be honest, I could probably rattle off another seventy or eighty lessons, but I've got some testing to do.

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.

Next: Music, Play Testing, and more! >>