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How Ninja Theory proved independent AAA has a future

“Smaller indie teams that want to make that step up in production values can adopt this kind of model"

When Ninja Theory set out to develop Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, the creative team had a few distinctive goals in mind.

At the very centre was an exploration of psychosis, something which the team went to great lengths to ensure was handled with sensitivity and respect by working closely with mental health professionals and people with lived experiences.

But more than that, Hellblade looked to occupy an uninhabited space in the games, somewhere between the glossy 40-hour sandboxes and the shorter, low-fi indie endeavours.

"We hope to prove that the industry still has room for developers like us, who want to make smaller, more creatively driven high-end games in genres that AAA publishers have abandoned," said design chief Tameem Antoniades in the game's development diaries.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is an exploration of psychosis through the lens of Celtic mythology

It's something which developer Ninja Theory has described in the past as "independent AAA" - a game with the high production values of big budget blockbusters, but smaller, built with a team a fraction of the size, and priced differently.

Speaking at the second annual Yorkshire Games Festival, Ninja Theory commercial director Dominic Matthews lamented the lack of creative diversity that has come about as part of the "AAArms race".

Gone are the days, Matthews noted, that games like Parappa the Rappa and Jet Set Radio could enjoy full console launches. Instead, the near exponential growth of development costs and the fixed $60 price point of retail games has seemingly shrunk the once boundless possibilities of AAA games. These days titles like Kung Fu Chaos, Ninja Theory's first foray into game development back in 2003, don't get picked up by publishers for console.

"I always use the example of Goat Simulator, because without independence, that game would have never existed," Matthews told at the Yorkshire Games Festival. "It would have got nowhere near the greenlight process."

"We always had the attitude that this is what we wanted to make. It's just a question of finding a way to do it, and being willing for that stuff to fail"

There was only one way that Hellblade could have been made, and that is adopting an entirely new approach to games development. One free from publishers, unshackled by arbitrary pricing, and free to create a leftfield narrative experience with AAA production values.

Hellblade is a short game, in the region of seven hours, but with a price point of $30, that quickly ceases to matter. Hellblade has proven that high quality games can be made on smaller budgets with smaller teams. It's not a game desperately trying to appeal to the consumers thirsting after a monolithic, all consuming sandbox that offers a theoretically infinite amount of content. Matthews makes the point that Hellblade is for a very particular audience, and that audience doesn't have to be huge.

In an environment where studios like Visceral are closing down, could the Ninja Theory approach be adopted by smaller development teams to bring AAA quality, narrative-focused games to a limited audience without the colossal overheads? Is Hellblade an anomaly, a rare opportunity afforded only to a small number of studios with the sort of heritage and pedigree of Ninja Theory?

"Smaller indie teams that want to make that step up in production values can adopt this kind of model," said Matthews. "Teams that have built a name for themselves and their own heritage but perhaps in a different space from what we've done.

"I'm not saying to indie teams, 'Hey there's five of you, you can make Hellblade.' We know that's not the case. But I think it could be the case for teams that want to step up and make something bigger with higher production values. Or teams like us, mid-sized AAA devs that don't want to make that big step up can make something like this."

For Ninja Theory, necessity is very much the mother of invention. The Hellblade team was small, around 20 members at its peak, but you would never know that to look at the game. Taking in the visuals alone, it's one of the most accomplished games this generation, but the team had to find creative solutions to make that happen.

“I'm not saying to indie teams, 'hey there's five of you, you can make Hellblade'. We know that's not the case"

Ninja Theory is a studio well-known for using motion capture, having been among the first to adopt the technology in games while working alongside Andy Serkis on PlayStation 3 launch title Heavenly Sword. But it's expensive, and even on their shoestring budget, was not something that the developer was willing to compromise on. The solution? Cobble together a mocap studio in the boardroom.

"We always had the attitude that this is what we wanted to make. It's just a question of finding a way to do it, and being willing for that stuff to fail," said Matthews. "We were willing for the in-house performance capture setup to not work and then having to find another solution. But the fact that we gave it a chance in the first place and it worked out is fantastic, and frankly we wouldn't want to move back from that.

"Every project we work on we want to have an in-house studio because not only is it a lot cheaper, but it gave us a huge amount of flexibility to iterate quickly and try new things that we wouldn't have been able to do if we were working with an external studio."

Of course, even then, doing motion capture for more than one character was too tall an order. The solution was to use heavily treated FMV footage for the subsidiary characters that exist only in the mind of Senua. It's not even immediately obvious and, if anything, only adds to the disquieting atmosphere of the game. Other creative workarounds the team developed were versatile asset packs that could manipulated in such a way as to build rich, densely packed environments with only one, admittedly very talented, artist.

Going independent in the way that Ninja Theory did presents challenges beyond motion capture and environment artists however. Even when turning to funding, the lifeblood of any studio, Ninja Theory found alternative paths.

The Wellcome Trust co-produced Hellblade to the tune of £300,000, the largest amount of money the organisation has ever given over to video games. While Ninja Theory were in the unique position of developing a game that explores psychosis, Matthews made the point that publishers aren't the only funding source anymore. The landscape is shifting, and as more organisations grow to see the value of games in exploring difficult subject material, so will funding opportunities.

"I'm not anti-publisher. There is a role that publishers can play for particular types of games," said Matthews. "But now with digital distribution and self-publishing, you can get money for your game from anywhere, even just a wealthy individual.

"A developer can do everything. They can make the game, ship it on any platform, and market it themselves as well. That's all within their power. So the traditional role of the publisher... that's all going away. So actually, yes you needed them to fund the game but you also needed them to do all of those other things.

"But now if a wealthy individual wants to fund your game, or an organisation like Wellcome who are interested in the potential of games to engage people in a scientific theme, then you can take their money and handle everything yourself. And I think that's really exciting for indie developers who are coming into the space, the options are wide open."

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Ivy Taylor avatar
Ivy Taylor: Ivy joined in 2017 having previously worked as a regional journalist, and a political campaigns manager before that. They are also one of the UK's foremost Sonic the Hedgehog apologists.
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