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