As a pioneer of new IP on the then-fledgling PlayStation 3 platform with Heavenly Sword, Ninja Theory's work was held up as a showcase for what was possible on Sony's shiny new console. But as an independent developer the team's next move needed to go multi-platform, and late last year the company announced a deal with Namco Bandai to publish Enslaved, an action-adventure title that will be available for the Xbox 360 as well.
Here, creative director and company co-founder Tameem Antoniades discusses some of the ongoing challenges of independent development, looks back on the post-Heavenly Sword period and talks about how publishers' attitudes towards game content have changed.
Q: We've not heard a huge amount from Ninja Theory in a while - other than the Namco Bandai publishing deal - so how have things been going?
Tameem Antoniades: Good actually - pretty much keeping a low profile, which is good. When you're starting up you need to announce yourselves, make yourselves known, and right now we're quite happy with the projects we're working on - and happy to work under the radar, just concentrate on getting the development done.
It's only now that we're ramping up with the push to get Enslaved out and visible - but it's very refreshing, compared to working on Heavenly Sword and announcing it around two years before it shipped... and doing demos every three months - it's a big strain.
Q: Well, Heavenly Sword was a bit of a picture-boy for the PlayStation 3 tech - so I guess from that perspective Sony was keen to get that visibility... but it must have been a tough process for a first title.
Tameem Antoniades: It was tough - but our objective was to break into the triple-A development stratosphere, kicking and screaming. So it felt like a very difficult birth, but that's what we needed to do in order to grow. Now that we've got that game out - and it's the same team now working on Enslaved - it's more like we're consolidating our skillset, the way we work, and I'm quite enjoying it. It feels like the team is pretty tight - everyone knows what they've got to do, everyone knows what the limitations are, the hardware's not changing... it's nice, I've never been in that situation before.
The first game was Kung Fu Chaos on the Xbox, which was a next-gen platform - then it was straight into the PS3, and now we're doing multi-platform, and we can focus on the game.
Q: Has it been a positive process taking all of the learning from Heavenly Sword and, to an extent, being able to boil it down into better production methods, improved efficiencies and so on?
Tameem Antoniades: Yes - with Heavenly Sword we had a long development time. I think it took about five years in all, from beginning to end, and I'd say three quarters of that was building tech. And even then our toolset was extremely limited - there's only so much that one team can do, building technology from scratch and then building a game.
So it's been a breath of fresh air being able to start a new project, knowing what the limitations of the hardware is and say: "This is the game we're gonna do, this is the engine we're gonna use," and just go ahead and do it... thanks to Unreal.
Q: And when you've made that level of investment in tech, I guess it makes it a no-brainer to continue on with a platform in order to be able to reuse it?
Tameem Antoniades: Well, for Heavenly Sword we built all the tech from scratch because we started so early that there weren't really tools and tech out there for us to use, it was very rudimentary - so we had to.
But under our exclusivity mandate [with Sony] all of that tech is exclusive to the PS3, so going multi-platform meant that we couldn't use it. So we had to start all over again.
Q: Was that frustrating?
Tameem Antoniades: Well, the engine was good - we've got a good coding team, and I think the engine for Heavenly Sword looked spectacular. But it's the toolset that matters - the one that your artists and designers use. And our toolset on that game was extraordinarily rudimentary.
So our focus on Enslaved was productivity for designers and artists - and Unreal basically had that.
Q: Was it an easy decision to go with Unreal?
Tameem Antoniades: It was the only engine that had proven itself on PS3 and Xbox 360 - there wasn't anything really else competing with it at that point in time.
Q: Had you been evaluating other tech options?
Tameem Antoniades: We knew that Unreal was the choice. We still evaluated it, but evaluating a platform like Unreal takes months and months of time. And then you design the game around the engine.
Q: So it's been a tricky time for some independent developers - did the timing of Heavenly Sword and the deal with Sony insulate you against the the turbulence of the last couple of years?
Tameem Antoniades: It was difficult, actually, because once our exclusivity was done we had lots of staff, we didn't have an IP and we didn't have an engine. As a studio we don't rely on investments or debt, so we use whatever we have in the bank to fund our next product.
We had a very tight window in which to place a game - and it was touch-and-go, fifty-fifty whether we'd make it or not.
Q: For a company like Ninja Theory to have only had a fifty-fifty shot - with the profile and track record - I wonder what that says about the chances for less well-known developers...?
Tameem Antoniades: The economics are difficult. We did sell a good number of units, considering it was out early in the PS3 life cycle, but that wasn't enough for us as a development studio to make royalties.
So the margins are tight - you do what you can. The only thing you can do when you're making triple-A games is to make the best game you can, and support the publisher as best as possible.
It's then purely down to luck I think, actually - the planets have to align, and it's a business that I think you'd be insane to get into to make money right now, the traditional console business. But if you do, and you make it, then you make it big.
Q: I guess for new companies getting into consoles on full-priced product it's about having a big publisher - like Microsoft and Ruffian - handing you something from the start? Outside of that, the cost to market is prohibitive.
Tameem Antoniades: About that - I've noticed a shift, and I don't know if it's a general trend or where we're at as a company, but there's been a change in publishers' attitudes. Before, they were always looking for the unique selling points of a game - what makes it special and stand out - and then you've got to prove that before they'll buy in fully.
Now, for us anyway, I think the unique selling point is that you're a good team with a track record, and you can ship products - and those products can sell. You don't need that technological gimmick, that amazing mechanic. When I think back to some of my favourite games of recent times I can't actually find specific selling points.
With games like Uncharted or Resident Evil 4 - they're just great games, and executed really well. That's it - it's not about what kind of rendering you do, is the gameplay mechanic gravity- or time-manipulation.
Q: So shockingly, we could be in a position where publishers are actually looking for something that gamers care about - which is game quality?
Tameem Antoniades: Yes... I do believe that the actual idea behind a game, the concept, is pretty irrelevant. It's the execution that matters more than anything else.
Q: Was there no temptation once Heavenly Sword was finished to work on a sequel?
Tameem Antoniades: We did actually want to do a sequel, and we did pursue that - but we're not a first party studio, we're a third party studio, and we knew that over the next few years we've got to be releasing multi-platform games. It was more of a strategic decision that we have to be multi-platform.
The game Heavenly Sword didn't sell enough to have a confident sequel, so it would have put ourselves as a development studio in a very precarious situation.
Q: It must have been hard to leave it behind, though - any chance that if Sony came knocking, it's something you'd look at?
Tameem Antoniades: I'd never say never - but we've kind of moved on now. Our focus is on Enslaved, and making that successful. If we build a franchise out of it there's a lot of potential in the action-adventure space that surprisingly isn't that common.
There are a lot of FPS games, or fighting, or sports - but not a lot of really good quality multi-platform action-adventures. Our focus is on that now - to an extent, you've got to not look back.
Q: And are you excited about getting into the phase where you're able to talk about Enslaved?
Tameem Antoniades: Yes - that's my focus now, to help raise the visibility of the game. It's amazing the amount of work you do to make a game - and I think this is easily the best game we've ever made, and the team is proud of what it's achieved, it was a good, confident project.
So I don't think there will be too many issues about the quality of the game - but that's only half the equation. The rest is whether the publisher can get it out there, will it capture people's imagination, is it going to sell?
That's the weird, difficult, sad thing about games, isn't it? It doesn't matter if the game is good to an extent... actually it does matter, but even if the game is great, that doesn't guarantee success.
Q: Finally - given the difficulty of getting into the console space, if you were starting out in the games business today (but with the experience you have) what would be your angle of attack?
Tameem Antoniades: It's so difficult - I think back to when started, and how tough it was to get off the ground, and I think about how the console business is now... the barriers to entry are so much higher now, which is a bit of a shame. I don't think I'd tackle the console business now - I think I'd target the online space.
If you look at Jagex, also Cambridge-based, those guys started off in a small room in the same building as us, and they've grown spectacularly - and good on them. I think in the online space there is that opportunity for amazing growth, that you can knock it out of the park. But the barriers to entry are so low that there's so much competition.
Q: You have to play the long term game doing it that way - you can't demand success in the first six months or that's it.
Tameem Antoniades: Yes - and things like social gaming is a buzzword. People chase the money, and that's where it's going. But as a studio we've always been passionate about the creative aspects, and for me a lot of social games hold very little interest. It's just not where I want to be.
Tameem Antoniades is creative director and co-founder of Ninja Theory. Interview by Phil Elliott.