Dallas Developers: Ritual Goes Episodic

Dallas game developer, Ritual, wants to change the way games are made -- starting with creating episodic content

Ritual Entertainment is an independent developer, with a history of working on first-person shooters, going back to the first Quake expansion pack. In a section of Dallas known as the West End, Ritual has the second floor of a building, but is currently looking to move to a larger space.

Right now, the company is focusing on Sin Episodes, through Valve's Steam service. The game will push the idea of episodic content, and digital distribution, although standard retail for the game is also being considered.

Ratings Share

Ritual expects that the number of people who play Sin episodes will build over time, and with each release. "We'll absolutely build, and have more customers for episode two, then episode one. And hopefully we'll have word of mouth with a push on episode two, where people who previously didn't know about it will go back and buy episode one." says Steve Nix, CEO at Ritual.

"The way we're doing the episodes, especially where we put a lot of hooks – a lot of times unanswered – we'll open a door but not close it, or even refer to it in the first episode. We think it's kind of a 24 style. So that's our hope, that we're going to get people sucked into this universe, excited about the quality, and the value represented by the game."

How it Started

Ritual had worked with Valve before, "We've been talking to them for years about what they're doing with Steam. We always thought it was really cool." says Nix. About a year-and-a-half ago, the company started thinking about, "What would one of our products look like if we worked with them using the source engine?"

The one that really made the most sense was Sin. The team wanted to get back into the Sin universe ever since the first game came out in ‘98. "I was a huge Sin fan before I came to Ritual five years ago," says Nix.

"We had publisher interest to do Sin as a AAA, multi-platform game where the publisher would be funding it," Nix reveals. "The problem is there was always too much creative control that we'd have to give up. And demands of sequels, and sequels, and sequels... we really wouldn't control the IP anymore."

Ritual had done well with a couple of their games. "Counter-strike: Condition Zero did really well. Black Hawk Down: Team Saber did really well, so we were able to stockpile a reserve," says Nix. "And we said, ‘Okay, if we're going to fund our own game, we can afford to do this much, but we can't afford to do AAA, two year, full development of a full-length game."

Many people were discussing the episode model at the time. "It just fit with where we were at with being able to fund our own project." says Nix. "Valve thought it was a cool idea, and we knew they wanted to start doing an episodic format with their games as well."

"So it really came out of discussions with Valve, but also the economic reality of what we could build, given our reserves here at Ritual. "

Measure of Success

"We're very customer focused at Ritual." explains Nix. "We want to build a game that a lot of customers purchase, that's extremely accessible. We've mentally set ourselves up for fairly low sales expectations, something that we're still happy with from a business model point of view. But it's hard not to dream it will be wildly successful and sell lot of copies."

"We've never really gotten into unit sales projections, or anything. We have a fairly modest base production, and we hope that turns out to be way to low."

And the format has other safe-guards. As Nix points out, "It's pretty heartbreaking for some developers to work on these games that are two, three years, or longer and when it comes out you get poor reviews, and it doesn't sell. Or, gets cancelled right before it ships, which extremely frustrating – it's the worst-case scenario for a developer."

Ritual can adapt more quickly to customer feedback once the product is out. "When we get episode one out there, we're going to be talking to our customers, saying 'Hey, what did you like about the game, what didn't you like?' The things that they really, really liked, we'll key in on and make sure we do more of that in episode two. And the things they didn't like, we'll do a lot less of. The feedback loop is pretty short."

Feedback Loop

"The short feedback loop is extremely valuable." Nix stresses. “It's all about the customer. Any way we can provide a better experience, in a shorter time period is going to be good for them."

Ritual has extensively play-tested the first episode. "It's the most play-testing we've ever done on a product. Our customers are already telling us it's a really, really pleasant game, and they can't wait to buy it. And I think we'll get even more feedback when it comes out."

Still, Nix points out “You can't create a product with a focus group, because all you'd get is an extremely, extremely generic product." That's why the Sin Episodes are designed first, then perfected with player testing and polish, the same technique used by Valve.

One of the most exciting things for Nix is the dynamic difficultly system. "We're really about accessibility with this product. One of the problems with accessibility is you risk dumbing it down for the more experienced gamers."

"So we built this really robust system that tracks an almost infinite number of statistics that tracks the player going through the game. There are advisor systems that take in all these statistics and make recommendations to the game."

Market Share

"That's the other great thing we're excited about with episodes: we think it's going to reach more customers.” Nix chooses himself as an example. "I'm in my mid-thirties, I'm a busy guy. When I stand in BestBuy with a game box in my hand, I might know a little bit about it. But I really don't know that much about the game."

"All I know is that it's $50, and I'm going to have to invest 20 or 30 hours of my life into it to find out if I liked it or not – because I hate buying games an not finishing them. I think most people do, because you feel you're not getting what you paid for."

But a game with a price point under $20, and that average players can finish between four and six hours appeals to Nix. “You know that you can finish it. I think it's going to be very satisfying, but it's also going to take a lot of that hesitancy away from the person making the purchasing decision. It's not a big time commitment, or a big dollar commitment."

Quality and Quantity

Some people think of AAA as a quality bar, others refer to AAA as full price. "Well, we're not going to be full price when you think about $50 games," says Nix. "But we are going to be full quality – that's what we're going to deliver, but at an excellent price point, so the value is undeniable."

One important factor in the episodic model is how often each game is release, and how long customers must wait. “Our target is six to eight months per episode." predicts Nix.

"We think it's a good interval, where it's still fresh in people minds, but they're still wanting more. We think, from a marketing view, six to eight months makes a lot of sense. But also, realistically, that's as quick as we can possibly get the next one done."

More the Merrier

Ritual is pioneering the model for independent developers to release quality games, in episodic format. Will other developers follow? "We certainly hope so," says Nix. "It's important for customers to understand this is a valid format. We think the more that people think about consuming games in episode format, it'll increase the size of the market for us."

Ritual will be first to market, preceding even Valve. No one knows how episodic content will do. "Which is a scary thing, but we're optimistic. We feel confident that it will work."

If it works, Ritual will maintain top-of-mind awareness, and great market share. As Nix puts it, "Money buys freedom in this industry. The more money we can make, the more we can innovate and create incredible games. The one thing we are egotistical about is that we want a lot of people to enjoy the things we create. If we make the greatest thing ever, but no one plays it..."

"If it's successful, and we prove the business model, we'll expand the size of the studio and we'll put other products that are episodic in nature into production. And it doesn't have to be a narrative first-person shooter. It can be other types of games. We're just really focused on Sin episode one right now."