Playing With Fire
Ninja Theory's Tameem Antoniades on IP creation, transmedia and the rise of creative
It's a sad fact that, when people think of Enslaved, the first thing that's likely to cross their mind is the disparity between critical reception and retail success. Much loved by critics and the gamers who played it alike, last year's action platformer reboot of the Chinese classical epic was sadly largely passed up by the gaming public.
Whilst that may reinforce the notion that new IP is a too-risky proposition for many shareholders and publisher board-members alike, Cambridge's Ninja Theory remains unbowed. The studio's latest game - a reboot of Capcom's huge Devil May Cry franchise - might be a safer option than a new IP, but it's certainly not the soft option. Here, creative chief Tameem Antoniades tells us why, and what trends he hopes to see emerging in an industry which is being forced to evolve.
Q: You've moved from creating your own new IP, having near total creative control, to rebooting a very well known and much loved franchise in the form of DMC - has that process been less pressured?
Tameem Antoniades: I think it's been the opposite of taking pressure off! I think you've got the weight of expectations. It's one of Capcom's beloved franchises with a big fan base, but we wouldn't have taken it on if it was a straight sequel. In fact, Capcom wouldn't have given it to us if they wanted a straight sequel, they wanted something new.
They gave us a lot of freedom to pursue that. We're putting everything into it, the whole studio is focused on it. It's not 'knock it out because it's safe', we're taking some of our biggest risks on this project, we're doing some of our most creative work on it. It feels, surprisingly, very liberating.
Q: After Enslaved reviewed so well, the sales must have been a little disappointing. Was taking on DMC a financial decision?
Tameem Antoniades: No, it wasn't, we've been working on it for a while. Capcom came to us during the development of Enslaved, quite early actually, during production. So we had a very small team on it for quite a long time. Just concepting the game. We turn down a lot of games that are offered to us, not because we're snobbish about what we do, but we are independent. One of the advantages of being independent is to be able to pursue the things you want to do rather than the things you're forced to do.
I would rather not be working in games than be working on things I didn't want to work on. Devil May Cry was one of my favourite games of old and Capcom coming to us and saying we need a new take on it, a new vision for it, was thrilling. We had to grab that opportunity, we had to make it happen somehow. It was more like that.
Q: Have they given you total free-reign?
The whole digital revolution is happening now and it can't come soon enough. The model we're under, the big retail model, is creaking.
Tameem Antoniades: We work very closely with Capcom, especially Itsuno-san, who was director on Devil May Cry two three and four, on combat mechanics in particular but also characters, enemies, how they work, what parts of the story we can push, stay close to - it's been really good, fun, to be working with people who know their stuff on the gameplay mechanics side.
It's been a fun project, especially after the disappointment of the sales of Enslaved, and I'm not sure what we can put that down to, but at least there is an existing name to Devil May Cry. I think Enslaved suffered from being a new IP, from not having a name and not being pushed hard as a new IP.
I don't know what it was like outside the UK, but I think it was pretty much non-existent. I think Lee (Kirton, Namco Bandai's UK marketing director) did amazing work here in the UK with the TV ads, the tube posters - it seemed to be gaining traction here. I don't think I've met any Americans who have even heard of it.
Q: Do you know how the international sales figures break down?
Tameem Antoniades: I don't know!
Q: It seems like a great shame to let the universes behind Enslaved and Heavenly Sword die - is there any chance you'd return to them?
Tameem Antoniades: I hope so. Having given the given up the IP to both of those, it's not in our hands, so it's one of those things that happens in any creative industry - when all is said and done, whoever is holding the IP dictates what does happen and what doesn't happen. No matter what kind of agreement you go into, no matter what kind of assurances, it's never in your hands unless you've got the IP in your hands.
Q: One of the safer ways to launch new IP is to change your production model and work on smaller titles instead, maybe making four or five games as once instead of one large project. Is that a model which Ninja Theory would consider?
Tameem Antoniades: Yeah, it's something we talk about often. We're in this kind of AAA bracket, I guess you could call it. High budget, high stakes retail model - the barriers to entry for that are so high, so difficult, that we seem to be getting, being offered, decent work in that area. It's hard to say no when you've got a team of 100 and you have to keep the payroll going. Another big project comes along, you tend to go for it.
There's always an opportunity between projects to explore things, a lot of team members are hobbyists, they create their own iPhone games and things like that so I can see us kind of taking a punt with that. It can't come soon enough. The whole digital revolution is happening now and it can't come soon enough. The model we're under, the big retail model, is creaking.
There's this stranglehold that the AAA retail model has which I think is just crushing innovation and access to creative content.
It's such an opportunity for fun creative games to reach a target audience, there's this stranglehold that the AAA retail model has which I think is just crushing innovation and access to creative content. If you're paying that much for a game, you don't want to take chances. You want everything to be there, all the feature sets. You want it to be a known experience, guaranteed fun. That's not healthy.
Q: Transmedia projects seem to be becoming increasingly popular, with varying degrees on cynicism, from seemingly quite exploitative methods to more interesting ways of expanding fan experience. As a studio with a tradition of emotive, strong narrative games, is that something you'd consider?
Tameem Antoniades: Yes, we have considered doing that. In fact, we wanted to do that with Enslaved, originally. I still think it's possible to do that. I've had quite a few chats with Alex Garland, because we worked together on Enslaved, about how we might do that.
If we were to do that we would take the indie approach which is that we would jointly do an IP. This is how we believe it could work: you both jointly own an IP and from the ground up you create the game first, because games take longer to make than films, effectively do most of the pre-production for the movie during the pre-production of the game - because pre-production on movies is very short, but in a game it can be two years.
So we'd work together on it. Alex is very creative within his industry, I think if we were to do it we would do it with someone like that, from the creative point, from the idea. Then the idea grows together and becomes something. I always think there's a problem when it comes from the marketing point, the more cynical point, because people in different industries naturally do not want to work together. They absolutely do not want to work together.
The only way you can get people to work together is either by sheer cynical force or by getting creatives together, and by creatives I'm not talking about myself but the entire team, bought in together and working together, learning from each other.
Q: The delineation between games and some other media forms is starting to become blurry, in some areas. Does that offer you any particularly creative opportunities?
Tameem Antoniades: I don't know. There are some weird differences between the industries. For example, if you release a cartoony style game nowadays on console, it's pretty much death. It simply won't get funded, won't get considered, unless it's a Disney or Pixar property, it just won't get considered. So no developer is likely to take a pitch from a movie company who say 'we're going to do a new IP which is a cartoon style film and we want you to make it into a game'. But, the only CG movies that seem to be working are cartoony style ones. There's not really an adult CG movie out there that's broken through.
That's the most natural fit, to do a CG game and a CG movie and share a lot of assets in production. When we do the performance-capture for our games we do it alongside people like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron who are in adjacent studios. They come over and have a look at what we're doing and we have a look at what they're doing and we're doing exactly the same things. So there is a crossover in this kind of CG space, which is ripe for it.
All the guys who are doing those movies are gamers as well. A lot of the guys behind the scenes, the technicians, even the directors, writers, they're all secretly gamers and they would love to make a game. I think it's got to happen, it's just some cultural barriers need to be broken down.
Q: You used performance-capture to great effect in Enslaved, eliminating the need for a lot of exposition by portraying facial emotions accurately. Do you think that technological progression and emotional resonance in games are intrinsically linked?
I think what makes London, and the UK, one of the most creative places on earth is that, even since the Roman times it's been a gathering point for different cultures and different people and ideas.
Tameem Antoniades: They are, and I think in one sense technology is on this march to become invisible in some way. If you think of the complexity of programming a VCR in the late '70s compared to the simplicity of doing extremely complex world navigation and booking of flights, these kinds of things, on your iPhone, it's amazing how much has become simplified.
The process of creating believable characters is a process of removing all the barriers, the technological barriers so that we use our most natural instincts, our eyes and ears, our senses, to see what people are thinking. So there's a removal process going on with technology to try and make things more natural, more simple. Paradoxically it's making our world much more complex as well.
I think it allows more types of artistic impression. Constraints are good for expression, you can do an 8-bit game now and still make an artistic statement out of it, but it allows you to do a lot more. I'm not really concerned about whether games are art, I'm more concerned about whether they're affecting and entertaining. As the march of technology has gone on, drama and emotion has more kind of human stimulations come into play.
It's not replaced the old mechanical, puzzle solving, pattern matching gameplay but there are whole new levels available now.
Q: You mentioned your collaboration with Alex Garland earlier - do you think introducing talent from outside the industry is going to be important, going forward?
Tameem Antoniades: Yes, I definitely do. Just looking around GDCE you're seeing a very uniform demographic of people, largely young, 25-35 year old white males, very comfortable in life. Insular, very immersed in hobbies, basically, creating games for other people like themselves. In music, a lot of the best music comes from difficulties, from people who've overcome. People who've come from the outside, that weren't comfortable, that have had to fight their way in in some way, from all sorts of diverse backgrounds.
The cynical interactions with transmedia just destroy things. Those projects generally just fall apart and people never want to cross that line again.
I think what makes London, and the UK, one of the most creative places on earth is that, even since the Roman times it's been a gathering point for different cultures and different people and ideas. I've worked with Andy (Serkis) and Alex for years now, my instinct was that I would learn from them a huge amount, not that they were taking over huge parts of my job. I was happy to co-write with Andy and Alex and really understand their craft. In return they became my gurus, took me under their wing and I learned so much from them.
With the latest game, Devil May Cry, I wrote it and directed it myself for the first time with utter confidence that I knew the right way to do it. Basically I was an apprentice to them. Equally they took away a lot from working with us. Alec is very keen to work on games and find a way to apply his creative interests in video games. Andy's the same, he's a total evangelist for games.
It's starting to spread just by those creative interactions. The cynical interactions with transmedia just destroy things. Those projects generally just fall apart and people never want to cross that line again.
Q: It's a real shame to see so much good creative energy thrown after bad that way...
Tameem Antoniades: Yeah, often a video game movie is bought by a studio and handed to some director as a way to make money, from the studio's perspective, for that director it's a gig to get going before he starts doing what he really wants to do. There's probably no interest in games, there's no interest in the arts, and if there is there's probably a horrible misunderstanding. There's no co-operation between those directors and the game directors and creators.
It's not a good way to do things.