The Mak­ing Of…

Cap­com and Ninja The­ory’s cross-con­ti­nen­tal col­lab­o­ra­tion was ham­strung by a stylist’s scis­sors

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY NATHAN BROWN

How a hair­cut sym­bol­ised a shake-up in the col­lab­o­ra­tion that is DmC: Devil May Cry

Rarely can there ever have been such a great fuss over a hairdo. It all be­gan in late 2010 at the Tokyo Game Show, where Cap­com un­veiled DmC: Devil May Cry with a short trailer show­ing off the new-look Dante. Younger, grumpier and a good deal darker on top, this angsty smoker was noth­ing like the cock­sure, sil­ver-bobbed pro­tag­o­nist fans knew. The re­ac­tion was far from pleas­ant. Ninja The­ory cre­ative chief Tameem An­to­ni­ades puts it bluntly: “The vit­riol was im­me­di­ate, ag­gres­sive and re­lent­less for the next two years. With­out a sec­ond of game­play be­ing shown, it had been writ­ten off as a dis­as­ter in the mak­ing.” Look­ing back at fo­rum threads from the time, you can see his point. “Kill it with fire.” “Is Dante emo and gay now?” “Ninja The­ory is on crack.”

You’d for­give a stu­dio for re­spond­ing to a re­ac­tion like that by cav­ing and try­ing again. At Ninja The­ory’s Cam­bridge of­fices, how­ever, vis­ual art direc­tor Alessan­dro Taini was to­tally un­per­turbed. “As an artist, you’re a lit­tle a bit self­ish,” he tells us. “You think about what you like. We were happy with the re­sults, and so was the client. If I like some­thing, and I don’t hear any com­plaints from the peo­ple pay­ing my wages, then I’m OK.”

De­spite the furore on­line, the client was in­deed happy: Ninja The­ory was do­ing ex­actly what Cap­com had asked of it. At the time, the pub­lisher be­lieved west­ern de­vel­op­ers were the key to global suc­cess and was work­ing with over­seas stu­dios on both new and ex­ist­ing IP. Keiji Ina­fune’s team was mak­ing a Dead Ris­ing se­quel with Blue Cas­tle Games, a part­ner­ship so suc­cess­ful that Cap­com would later buy the Canadian stu­dio, re­badg­ing it as Cap­com Van­cou­ver. Swedish stu­dio Grin re­booted Bionic

Commando, while Air­tight Games in the US was mak­ing Dark Void. Re­sults were mixed, of course – Dark Void tanked, Grin closed down, and Ina­fune left un­der a cloud to set up on his own – but at the time Cap­com be­lieved it was on the right path. Most of Cap­com, any­way.

“There was some re­sis­tance in­ter­nally, par­tic­u­larly from the orig­i­nal DMC team,” says

Hideaki It­suno, the direc­tor of DMCs 2, 3 and 4, who over­saw devel­op­ment of DmC from Ja­pan. “But Cap­com as a whole was in the mind­set that we needed to col­lab­o­rate with west­ern stu­dios. We could tell from ti­tles such as

Heav­enly Sword and En­slaved: Odyssey To The West [which was still in devel­op­ment dur­ing

DmC’s in­cep­tion] that Ninja The­ory were in­cred­i­bly ca­pa­ble de­vel­op­ers and de­sign­ers.”

While hard­ened fans of Ja­panese ac­tion games would hardly point to those two games as ev­i­dence of a stu­dio’s suit­abil­ity for mak­ing a new Devil May Cry, they meant Ninja The­ory was ex­actly what Cap­com was look­ing for: a modestly sized, tech­ni­cally pro­fi­cient west­ern stu­dio with ex­pe­ri­ence of melee com­bat sys­tems. Even bet­ter, there were sev­eral fans of the DMC se­ries at the stu­dio, in­clud­ing An­to­ni­ades. Ninja The­ory leapt at the chance but not, An­to­ni­ades ex­plains, with­out some trep­i­da­tion.

“The pa­ram­e­ters for the project were daunt­ing,” he says. “Cap­com’s MT Frame­work [en­gine] was off the ta­ble, so we had to build ev­ery­thing from scratch our­selves. It also be­came very clear that Cap­com didn’t just want a Devil

May Cry 5, but a full-blown re­vamp of the game­play, art style and story.” So while the bulk of the stu­dio was putting the fin­ish­ing touches on

En­slaved, a small team be­gan pre­pro­duc­tion on Ninja The­ory’s trick­i­est project to date.

One of that team was Rahni Tucker, an Aus­tralian who quit her job as a se­nior designer at THQ Bris­bane sim­ply to work for Ninja The­ory. She packed up, said her good­byes and made the 24-hour trip half­way around the planet with ab­so­lutely no idea what she would be work­ing on when she ar­rived. “I had my meet­ing with HR on the first day,” she tells us, “and they said, ‘Well, you’re go­ing to be work­ing on Devil May Cry.’ I think I just said, ‘Oh my God’. It was pretty great.”

THQ Bris­bane’s wheel­house was li­censed kids’ games, but Tucker had some melee sys­tems ex­pe­ri­ence from her work on Warham­mer

40,000: Space Marine, a third­per­son shooter­brawler hy­brid that be­gan life in Bris­bane but was fin­ished in Canada by Relic En­ter­tain­ment. Re­al­is­ing she needed more, she be­gan her stud­ies. “I went back and played the old Devil

May Crys, Bay­o­netta, Street Fighter, gath­er­ing as much in­spi­ra­tion and in­flu­ence as I could in that early pre­pro­duc­tion stage,” she says. It paid off. Tucker would later be­come the lead com­bat designer on the project as a whole, work­ing closely with It­suno and his team to en­sure Ninja The­ory’s work stayed true to se­ries tra­di­tion. To a point, that is. Cap­com knew that Devil

May Cry’s sales had not his­tor­i­cally been held back by the coun­try in which it was made, and that sim­ply hand­ing the keys of Hideki Kamiya’s revered se­ries to a west­ern stu­dio would not by it­self cre­ate the surge in sales fig­ures the pub­lisher sought. “I think they wanted to make it lit­tle bit more ac­ces­si­ble,” Tucker says. “Devil

May Cry is about cre­ativ­ity with com­bos, [about] be­ing able to get in there with all the dif­fer­ent moves and weapons and jug­gle the en­emy about. When you learn how to do it, you feel pretty awe­some. That’s the key thing for me, and the thing we tried to bring to DmC for peo­ple who maybe don’t get to sit down for hun­dreds of hours to prac­tice.”

Which isn’t to say that the plan was to dumb the game down. In the hands, Ninja The­ory’s Dante re­tained the com­plex­ity and flex­i­bil­ity of games gone by, play­ers jug­gling enemies ever higher into the air, and switch­ing weapons on the fly mid-combo. The core in­put set – a jump, gun­shot, and light and heavy at­tacks – re­mained, and many of Dante’s sig­na­ture moves were brought over un­changed. Five games in, there was no sense in mess­ing with a proven for­mula. In­stead, Ninja The­ory made some sub­tle tweaks to bring the flashier tech­niques within reach of begin­ners.

“A lot of the magic in Devil May Cry hap­pens when you’re in the air – that’s been

“CAP­COM DIDN’T JUST WANT A DEVIL MAY CRY 5, BUT A FULL-BLOWN RE­VAMP OF THE GAME­PLAY, STYLE AND STORY”

true for a long time,” Tucker says. “But get­ting into the air has, for novice play­ers, been dif­fi­cult in the past: you have to lock on, tilt the stick away [from the op­po­nent] and press a but­ton. That’s fine if you play games a lot, but if you’re fairly new to the se­ries... peo­ple have strug­gled to ‘get’ those in­puts. Try­ing to get some of those im­por­tant moves onto a sin­gle but­ton press was one of the first things we did to make it more ac­ces­si­ble.”

So if you tap the heavy attack but­ton in DmC, an op­po­nent is launched into the air; keep it held down and Dante goes up with them. Tucker and team would next turn their at­ten­tion to pause com­bos, which use the same string of in­puts as regular com­bos but with a small break in be­tween two but­ton presses. Pre­vi­ously a ques­tion of get­ting a feel for the tim­ing, now there would be a glint on the tip of Dante’s sword and a touch of rum­ble in the con­troller to sig­nal when it was time to con­tinue the as­sault. Sim­ple, slight changes like this were ex­actly what Cap­com de­sired: a way to make the game more ac­ces­si­ble with­out com­pro­mis­ing the in­tri­cacy of the sys­tems at Devil

May Cry’s core. A sim­pli­fied launcher in­put was surely not go­ing to up­set the hard­core too much.

That job fell in­stead to Taini and the art team, although his first in­stinct was to do the op­po­site. “The first thing we tried was what we thought they wanted,” he says. “We were think­ing about the clas­sic Dante. Usu­ally they do the same Dante with a dif­fer­ent jacket, so we thought, ‘Maybe they want some­thing like that.’ And we tried it. But when they saw it, they said they wanted us to put our own twist on it, to not think about the past, but to try some­thing to­tally new. I re­mem­ber they said, ‘Do some­thing that we wouldn’t be able to do, oth­er­wise we might as well do it our­selves.’”

So Taini rethought, and be­fore long had come up with a de­sign that It­suno and Cap­com fell in love with. He would turn his at­ten­tion to the world next, steer­ing DmC away from the fore­bod­ing, spiky Gothic ar­chi­tec­ture of pre­vi­ous games. He told the team in Ja­pan that he wanted a more Ro­manesque style in­stead, some­thing found across his home city of Genoa, Italy. “I didn’t want to make some­thing that was clas­si­cally Gothic,” he says. “There are al­ready many games like that. I would talk to them about the dif­fer­ent types of Gothic we have in Europe. In Genoa, there’s a lot of [Ro­manesque], and it’s more colour­ful, it’s a mix of styles. And they said, ‘Look, you’re Euro­pean. You know much bet­ter than us what Gothic is, so if you want to use that, do it.’”

Bas­ing Limbo on a real city was key, too. Cap­com didn’t want Ninja The­ory to re­fresh only the look and feel of the se­ries, but its story. Both Heav­enly Sword and En­slaved had been about re­la­tion­ships as well as ac­tion. Dante, how­ever, had spent four games toiling largely alone in a de­monic oth­er­world. Some­thing had to give.

“Devil May Cry games have of­ten been set in the mid­dle of nowhere – a big fight in a huge cathe­dral with no­body around,” Taini says. “I re­ally needed an ex­cuse for why there were no peo­ple around [when he fights]. That’s why we came up with the idea of Limbo: some­where only Dante and demons can be, but it’s still a real city, y, with real peo­ple living there.” Ground­ing DmC in some sense of re­al­ity let Ninja The­ory play

around with con­ven­tion. In one level, for ex­am­ple, Dante tries to save his ac­com­plice, a medium called Kat, from an ad­vanc­ing SWAT team that he can hear but not see. He bat­tles enemies in closed-off are­nas while the SWAT forces break down the doors around him, al­low­ing him to press deeper into the bunker where Kat is hid­ing.

While Cap­com Ja­pan kept a close eye on Ninja The­ory’s work on DmC’s char­ac­ters, story and world, its great­est fo­cus was, nat­u­rally, on the game’s com­bat. It­suno and other key per­son­nel would visit the stu­dio in Cam­bridge ev­ery few months to check in on its progress, Ninja The­ory staff would of­ten make the trip out to Ja­pan, and in be­tween those times there would be regular video con­fer­ences and daily email up­dates. All that com­mu­ni­ca­tion helped to unify the two com­pa­nies, de­spite a fun­da­men­tal split be­tween their ap­proaches to game devel­op­ment: Ninja The­ory liked to start with the vis­ual de­sign, and Cap­com with the me­chan­ics. Modestly, It­suno ad­mits he learned a lot from the col­lab­o­ra­tion; Tucker be­lieves she picked up an aw­ful lot more.

“I learnt so much,” she says. “It­suno would speak philo­soph­i­cally about how he ap­proaches com­bat and en­emy de­sign. They build most of the player’s set of ac­tions first, and then think about the things they can build to al­low play­ers to ex­ploit par­tic­u­lar el­e­ments of the sys­tem they’ve de­signed. They re­ally put the em­pha­sis of the bad­die de­sign back onto the player’s ac­tions. It’s kind of ob­vi­ous, but just the way that he spoke about it was inspiring, and it made a lot of sense to me.”

As the project drew closer to com­ple­tion, Cap­com’s at­ten­tion to the finer de­tails – frame tim­ings, cancel win­dows, an­i­ma­tions – in­creased. The game launched in Jan­uary 2013 and was well re­ceived crit­i­cally, but it would not do as well com­mer­cially, de­spite a strong start that saw it hit num­ber one in the charts in the US, Europe and Ja­pan si­mul­ta­ne­ously. An­to­ni­ades says sales were “ul­ti­mately dis­ap­point­ing”.

Cap­com’s last of­fi­cial up­date on the game’s per­for­mance came in June 2014, when world­wide sales to­talled 1.6 mil­lion, some way short of the two mil­lion copies that Cap­com had ini­tially planned to ship to re­tail­ers in the game’s first six months on shelves. Within three months of

DmC’s re­lease, Cap­com had an­nounced an end to cross-con­ti­nen­tal col­lab­o­ra­tion and told the world that it would be bring­ing back in-house devel­op­ment of both ex­ist­ing and new IP.

Yet while the of­fi­cial fig­ures may not flat­ter, the tone of those an­gry fo­rum threads grad­u­ally warmed in the weeks and months fol­low­ing re­lease. Check in on them now and the in­vec­tive that sur­rounded the an­nounce­ment is all but gone, re­placed in­stead by fond rec­ol­lec­tions of a game that brought Dante’s flashy badassery within slightly eas­ier reach. Un­luck­ily for Cap­com and Ninja The­ory, many of those play­ers found the game for free through PlaySta­tion Plus, rather than on a store shelf. The PS4 and Xbox One

Edi­tion, re­leased on March 10, may yet re­verse the game’s for­tunes, but in the mean­time there are no re­grets ex­pressed over a healthy col­lab­o­ra­tion project that de­served to do bet­ter at re­tail.

“With ev­ery project you work on, you learn so much,” Tucker says. “And when you’re work­ing so closely with a com­pany that has so much ex­pe­ri­ence with a genre that Ninja The­ory is so in­ter­ested in, you do learn a lot. We’ve def­i­nitely got bet­ter at com­bat. I know I have.”

The stu­dio’s greater ex­pe­ri­ence is cur­rently pow­er­ing devel­op­ment of Hell­blade, due for re­lease later this year. Tucker, how­ever, is work­ing on an­other project, one in its early stages and shrouded in se­crecy. Ex­pect an­other Ninja The­ory sta­ple – that blend of story, char­ac­ter and com­bat – but this time with a less con­tro­ver­sial hair­cut.

DmC’s De­fin­i­tive Edi­tion comes with all pre­vi­ously re­leased DLC, in­clud­ing Vergil’s Down­fall, in which Dante’s brother de­scends into Hell af­ter los­ing the main game’s fi­nal battle

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