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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.

GamesIndustry.bizYou'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.

GamesIndustry.bizAfter 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.

GamesIndustry.bizHave 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.

GamesIndustry.bizDo you know how the international sales figures break down?
Tameem Antoniades

I don't know!

GamesIndustry.bizIt 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.

GamesIndustry.bizOne 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.

GamesIndustry.bizTransmedia 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.

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