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More modern than the original building, Radical
Entertainment takes up most of the top two floors of the building at 369
Terminal Avenue in Vancouver, BC.
physical space that Radical Entertainment occupies feels compressed. At its
height the company had sprawled itself over four floors at 369 Terminal Avenue
while it worked on multiple titles simultaneously, but as the team focuses
themselves on shipping Prototype 2, the massive great room that houses the log
cabin conference room -- itself turned into work space -- feels cluttered. The
developer covers a floor and a half now.
A corner of the room has been walled off to create a focus testing area. The
west wall is lined with new cube-like offices and a board room. Some hallways
are clogged with cardboard
boxes and other bulky items. Departments have been
physically shuffled to different parts of the floor recently, as evidenced by
the distinct lack of desk detritus, though number of roosters makes up for it.
It feels like change is happening; as if a spring clean is about to happen.
Morale seems unaffected.
relaxed, there’s no whiff of desperation. But
there’s certainly a level of tension that design director Matt Armstrong is
feeling on the eve of Prototype 2’s launch.
While some buy a big television or a bird feeder
while browsing the Internet, after a few too many drinks, Armstrong applied for
a job at Radical. At the time he was working as lead level designer at Rockstar
Vienna (in Austria), with a 7-year stint at Blitz Games before that.
“Being design director at Radical has certainly been the two most stressful
years of my entire career to this point,” says Armstrong.
adds that some of that stress might be owed to the fact Studio Head Ken Rosman,
in the words of Armstrong, “never lets me leave the studio” to go on press
Studio Head Ken Rosman’s arrival at Radical had much less to do with alcohol and
much more to do with knowing the both sides of the game development coin:
development and publishing. He came into the industry with Virgin Interactive,
went on to Looking Glass’s west coast office, Interplay to work on a title
called “Torn” while running external development of Neverwinter Nights at
BioWare, Encore, then Sierra in 2004, just before Vivendi shut the studio down.
He’s gone everywhere and done most everything.
It was at Sierra where Rosman met Kelly Zmack. The two “developed a fast
friendship” which later brought Rosman to Radical to “increase Radical’s
development capability by adding external development to their internal titles”
like Scarface. It was essentially overseeing ports of Radical titles at outside
Rosman bounced around a bit when Vivendi shuffled the deck again. He tried
consulting for a while, worked at Real Games in Seattle, Washington, then
"fortune" smiled on Rosman in the form of mass lay-offs at Radical and the
departure of Zmack.
At the time, there was probably no one better qualified to be at the helm.
As Studio Head, Rosman’s ability “to talk to the development team and talk to
publishing” is critical to the studio’s success at this moment. And Rosman has
every intention that Radical will celebrate another 20 years.
“I don’t know if I want to be in this industry for another 20 years or if I want
this role for another 20 years but I certainly am a steward for making sure that
Radical is still here in 20 years and whoever sits in my seat next is setup for
even more success.”
It’s a sentiment that Armstrong shares.
“I feel a great degree of pressure for Prototype 2 to succeed because Radical
has a storied history and there’s something here that have given my
opportunities that I’ve never had before. And I feel that if I were to fail the
company by not delivering the products, the games, that are going to excite
gamers and sell well, then it would be a poor repayment of the trust that
Radical has put in me to this point.”
It’s understandable as to why Armstrong is so stressed out, even if he’s
confident that the “things we thought were sort of problematic and in some cases
offensively problematic” of the first Prototype have been removed entirely or
improved. Not only have development budgets ballooned in the last 20 years, so
have the myriad of ways the studio can connect with fans and detractors,
particularly with the rise of social media.
As Rosman describes it, “Your every action is graded instantly.”
When the studio was founded, playgrounds and writing a letter to a gaming
magazine were the only outlets to vent frustration or laud praise on a game. Now
people can spam the Twitter and Facebook accounts of developers on a individual
basis. VP of Technology Dave Fracchia admits that everyone needs to have thick
skin if one wants to get into game development.
“The difficult part is seeing the positive side of any comment no matter how
negative it is.”
In the lobby, the entire 20-year catalogue of
Radical Entertainment sits behind glass.
“I think the team can sometimes suffer from the hit on their emotions,” reports
Rosman. “That’s the hardest thing that we manage. When the rendering team sees
that “Protoype 2 looks the same as Prototype 1” it’s a punch to the gut. So I
think that’s where the hardest struggle for guys in the studio that really do
pay attention to social media.”
For Prototype 2 the change in protagonist got an immediate negative reaction
from a lot of fans of the original game. The story that underpins the action in
the Prototype games is not so much about one man but the virus that is changing
New York. Rosman says that pissing off the fans was not the goal of Prototype 2,
but it was a bit of by-product. The studio hears about the matter constantly the
same way inFamous developer Sucker Punch got an earful when they simply
redesigned their protagonist Cole for inFamous 2, or when Dead Rising 2 was
announced as starring some no-name, Chuck Greene.
Whether it’s a brave face or simply thick skin, Tom Legal opines “I think
feedback is feedback, so it’s always useful.”
a month from shipping Prototype 2, the studio is wasting no time ramping up to
the next project. Everyone at the studio is tight-lipped about the next project,
about what will mark the beginning of Radical’s next two decades.
Armstrong admits that his mind has shifted well on to the next project.
“After spending two years working on anything starts to take its toll.
I’m at a stage where we’re focusing on polishing the niggling things and
spending months and months and months fixing things... I’ve got things burning
in the back of my mind for the next project, my mind share starts to shift. I’ve
got to make sure that when everybody finishes on this game there’s something
else for them to be working on that is fairly well defined.”
Based on the first two decades, the next 20 years will not be without change for
Radical, but there’s little doubt that at least one thing will not. The culture
at Radical, which was established by Ian Wilkinson, carried by Kelly Zmak, and
continued by Rosman will remain. The company is no stranger to running on the
edge of a knife -- it’s a recurring theme at Radical -- they’ll just do it as a
To the south of Radical’s studio, literally across the street, there’s the
ever-present hum of Skytrains coming and going. A couple hundred feet to the
north is the bus and train station. In this I see some symmetry with the
The building the company started in was built by David McCall, a Canadian
Pacific Railway boilermaker, back in 1910 in an area of Vancouver that served as
a jumping off point for a gold rush into the Fraser Canyon during the early
1880’s and more or less became an urban slum as the years rolled on. The area’s
fortune turned around after Expo ‘86, which Vancouver hosted. It was an event
that brought with it the elevated transit system, locally known as Skytrain, and
a revitalized Yaletown, which remains a hotbed of game development in Vancouver.
The fact Radical remains so close to trains -- historically and present day;
both futuristic and out of the past -- sits well with me. The fact so many at
the studio have a distinct a fond recollection of the studio’s past, while
looking to the future, is a nice mirror of the old and new that can be seen
right outside their windows.