Heav­enly crea­tures


The past 18 months have in­volved a lot of soul search­ing for Ninja The­ory. In Heav­enly Sword and En­slaved: Odyssey To The West, the stu­dio has worked with worlds that it’s des­per­ate to re­visit. But with no of­fers from its pub­lish­ers to do so, and with work on DmC: Devil May Cry draw­ing to a close as well, last year the stu­dio de­cided to cre­ate new IP in­stead.

Mul­ti­ple pitches were con­structed and re­jected. A hor­ror game cre­ated in tan­dem with 28 Days Later screen­writer Alex Gar­land was dis­missed be­cause the hor­ror genre “wasn’t popular enough”. A con­tem­po­rary co-op and story-based ti­tle, again in part­ner­ship with Gar­land, was also turned down, though not be­fore it was sug­gested the grounded char­ac­ters were swapped out for sol­diers on Mars in or­der to make it more palat­able.

“The only way to de­sign a prod­uct for the new plat­forms seemed to be to fo­cus on the things that sell and then repli­cate them,” ex­plains stu­dio co-founder Tameem An­to­ni­ades. “Which isn’t then a cre­ative en­deav­our, it’s hard graft.”

For a suc­cess­ful pitch in to­day’s cli­mate, An­to­ni­ades be­lieves pub­lish­ers need to guar­an­tee sales of “about four or five mil­lion” – num­bers that don’t match up with the pro­jected sales of the games Ninja The­ory wants to build. And it’s for this rea­son that its new game, Hellblade, has three im­por­tant words cut into its re­veal trailer: an in­de­pen­dent game.

“Hellblade is about us cre­at­ing some­thing that’s ours,” An­to­ni­ades says. “We can steer it into the fu­ture, be its pro­tec­tor and shep­herd it. Hellblade is not funded by our other projects. We’re putting mostly our own money into this.”

Why Ninja The­ory is treat­ing Hellblade’s de­vel­op­ment as a new era for the stu­dio “Hellblade is not funded by our other projects. We’re putting mostly our own money into this”

De­vel­op­ment be­gan in March, and self-fund­ing meant go­ing from a team size of over 80 to just 13 peo­ple, though two other con­cur­rent projects mit­i­gated the need to down­size the stu­dio.

“We have tra­di­tion­ally cre­ated a lot of be­spoke con­tent and a lot of set-pieces in our games,” says Do­minic Matthews, prod­uct de­vel­op­ment man­ager. “The chal­lenge for us with a smaller team is work­ing in a smarter way. Our ap­proach to this game is to get as much value out of the peo­ple that we’ve got.”

For in­stance, the game’s sole en­vi­ron­ment artist has been given the free­dom to cre­ate the world be­fore any other me­chan­ics have been fi­nalised; in the past, en­vi­ron­ments were al­ways cre­ated to serve a fixed script. And if sen­si­ble op­por­tu­ni­ties to re­cy­cle work arise, such as rolling creature an­i­ma­tion into the en­vi­ron­ment’s gen­eral malev­o­lence, it helps the artist build an even richer world with­out ex­tra ef­fort.

“Ev­ery [en­emy] does at­tack moves,” says tech­ni­cal art di­rec­tor Stu­art Ad­cock. “If we can take cer­tain frames from an at­tack move and stitch them to­gether, we can make in­ter­est­ing sculp­tures for the world that feel quite hellish by reusing some of the work ef­fort that we’ve put in.”

One core area of cost-sav­ing is a new ap­proach to per­for­mance cap­ture. “It’s an in­cred­i­bly ex­pen­sive thing to do, but you get in­cred­i­ble qual­ity out of do­ing it,” says Matthews. “We’re cur­rently in the process of think­ing, ‘How do we do this? How do we get the same re­sults but with­out the huge ex­pen­di­ture?’”

Home­brew ap­pears to be the an­swer, with the stu­dio’s big­gest meet­ing room

Tameem An­to­ni­ades, co-founder of Ninja The­ory, also serves as the chief cre­ative di­rec­tor for Hellblade

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