The Ninja The­ory of Every­thing

Hav­ing made a name for it­self in the games in­dus­try for its abil­ity to tell sto­ries and cre­ate great char­ac­ters, Ninja The­ory has em­barked on a new chal­lenge…

3D Artist - - CONTENTS -

The in­die dou­ble-a stu­dio re­flects on its projects and work­ing on Hell­blade

For as his­toric and sig­nif­i­cant as Bri­tish game de­vel­op­ment has been, it’s a mixed bag. There’s a hand­ful of be­he­moth stu­dios, but in the grand schemes of things the UK is a lit­tle more sub­dued with the videogames it cre­ates. As is the case with many of the world’s cre­ative in­dus­tries, the UK’S in­put is sig­nif­i­cantly more artis­tic in its ap­proach, and as a re­sult Bri­tish game de­vel­op­ment stu­dios can be typ­i­fied by smaller, more flex­i­ble teams to al­low for that. Cam­bridge-based Ninja The­ory is per­haps the best ex­am­ple of this Bri­tish sense of cre­ative flair, hav­ing built up a rep­u­ta­tion over the course of its rel­a­tively young decade-long ca­reer. “The strong char­ac­ters and strong story are all some­thing that’s very con­sis­tent in all of the games from Ninja The­ory,” says Francesca Mead, prod­uct man­ager at Ninja The­ory. “Es­pe­cially all of the games that Tameem [An­to­ni­ades, chief cre­ative di­rec­tor] has cre­ated; the char­ac­ters and the story and the art have al­ways come first.”

This has come to de­fine Ninja The­ory: its cult hit En­slaved in 2010 was made along­side tal­ents

Andy Serkis (of Gol­lum fame) and Alex Gar­land (writer of The Beach), and brought ac­claim to the stu­dio for the game’s voice act­ing, an­i­ma­tion and its deft adap­ta­tion of the Chi­nese tale, Jour­ney to the West. Ninja The­ory has since taken the de­ci­sion to dou­ble down on that ap­proach, build­ing on its fo­cused com­bi­na­tion of high­qual­ity sto­ry­telling, art and char­ac­ters. This has now cul­mi­nated in its lat­est, most am­bi­tious project, which aimed to lever­age its ex­pe­ri­ence and in­ter­ests into some­thing that could com­pete within a big­ger mar­ket, to com­pete with the ti­tans of the in­dus­try yet with a se­verely lim­ited team. “With Hell­blade there was al­ways this in­die/triple-a propo­si­tion,” ex­plains Mead, “where the goal was to cre­ate a game to kind of prove in the in­dus­try that the gap be­tween triple-a and in­die games can be closed.”

For the artists of the com­pany that meant find­ing them­selves re­stricted in a num­ber of ways. With En­slaved, Ninja The­ory worked with Weta Work­shop – the New Zealand team be­hind some of the Lord of the Rings’ con­cepts and props – and with Devil May Cry it worked with Cap­com, a pub­lisher with enough money and rep­u­ta­tion to sup­port what­ever am­bi­tion the team hoped to achieve. None of this was pos­si­ble with Hell­blade; if the lim­i­ta­tion was an in­die devel­oper’s bud­get, then there had to be in­ven­tive meth­ods to over­come the cost re­stric­tions. “Stuff we’ve done on Hell­blade you wouldn’t dream of do­ing with a big pub­lisher,” says Dan At­twell, prin­ci­pal en­vi­ron­ment artist at Ninja The­ory and a com­pany veteran. “At ev­ery point where we were kind of like, ‘oh, should we do this?’, if it was a big pub­lisher you just know they would have gone, ‘no, def­i­nitely not’. Even down to mak­ing our own tech to do the mo­tion cap­ture stuff, be­fore then it had all been about us­ing es­tab­lished mo­tion cap­ture stu­dios and do­ing it the ‘cor­rect way’ and that. Whereas we

We were like, ‘should we do this?’, if it was a big pub­lisher you know they would have gone, ‘def­i­nitely not’ Dan At­twell, Prin­ci­pal en­vi­ron­ment artist

were just like, well we need to get to the end goal, we need to do it cheaply so we’re go­ing to take this tool to ex­per­i­ment, and things like that. Which you can’t nor­mally do on big­ger projects.”

Hell­blade was not only a chal­lenge for Ninja The­ory, but an op­por­tu­nity. It gave the stu­dio the chance to de­velop its own means of cre­at­ing games with­out the usual costs that are as­so­ci­ated with it. Mo­tion cap­ture is per­haps the best ex­am­ple of this, with Ninja The­ory fore­go­ing the usual ex­pec­ta­tions of a large mo­cap stu­dio – be that in­ter­nal or out­sourc­ing it from else­where – and in­stead cre­at­ing new tech that en­abled it to cheaply and ef­fec­tively im­ple­ment ac­tor-driven vi­su­als in-house with very lit­tle space and equip­ment bought from Ikea or Ama­zon. The com­pany’s main meet­ing room was draped with white for bet­ter light re­flec­tion, con­vert­ing it into an ad­hoc mo­cap stu­dio. The re­sult was real-time mo­tion cap­ture; a rig that en­abled im­me­di­ate 3D an­i­ma­tion cap­ture in-en­gine, giv­ing the di­rec­tor and the ac­tors alike full un­der­stand­ing of how the scene would look. While this method of cap­ture is more rough than the fi­nal re­sult re­quires, it cuts down the time it takes to pro­duce a scene.

“I think early on there were a lot of mo­ments where the idea of the size of it was quite over­whelm­ing,” ad­mits At­twell. “It was like ‘shit, we’re never go­ing to get this done’. But you have to kind of take it right back to the ground level and fig­ure out a sys­tem­atic way of do­ing things, cre­ate your­self tools that will help you do things – mod­u­lar­ity, re­use and all this kind of thing – so it was all about try­ing to think smart to be­gin with to help your­self fur­ther down the line.” De­spite hav­ing a stu­dio of just un­der 100 peo­ple, Ninja The­ory wanted to keep costs down with Hell­blade. This meant a team of roughly 20, for the ma­jor­ity of the project at least, and as a re­sult much fewer hands to help build as­sets. This ul­ti­mately led to a new mind­set, ex­plains At­twell, that has en­abled them to be more smart about con­tent cre­ation. “With this you had to step back and go ‘well, what’s the min­i­mum as­sets that we can make [for this to] look great, the min­i­mum amount of shaders and ef­fects?’ and try and make some­thing look big­ger than it ac­tu­ally is. You’ve just got to try and think smart about how you’re gonna do stuff.”

More than any­thing, though, it helped give a broader sense of the team as a whole, even out­side of this one project. Of the de­vel­op­ers we spoke to at Ninja The­ory, they all pointed to­wards the ‘per­fect size’ of the stu­dio; big enough to achieve great things but small enough to avoid the ‘cog in the ma­chine’ feel­ing. De­spite that, Hell­blade re­ally helped shed some light on the process of de­vel­op­ment, on the ef­forts of team­mates that may have once been shrouded in mys­tery. “When I first joined the project,” says Mark Slater, Ninja The­ory’s VFX lead, “it was kind of ‘let’s get some ef­fects in this trailer’, it was kind of stan­dard stuff that I’d been us­ing for years. As the project evolved, I spread out into

way more ar­eas than I would have been com­fort­able with be­fore. And so I ended up do­ing shader work on Senua, as well as light­ing and post in ad­di­tion to all the stan­dard ef­fects. So [from] that ini­tial start on the project, I had no idea what I would end up hav­ing to do on it. The growth and learn­ing through­out it was re­ally good.” This is a sen­ti­ment that At­twell agrees with: “I think we’ve all come out of it as bet­ter de­vel­op­ers,” he adds, “be­cause of the rigours we’ve been put through. You have to un­der­stand ev­ery­one, and that makes you a bet­ter devel­oper be­cause you’ve got that em­pa­thy with other peo­ple and an un­der­stand­ing of the over­all prod­uct, which you won’t nec­es­sar­ily get else­where.”

There’s a sense in talk­ing to Ninja The­ory that the team feels as though it has pi­o­neered in some­way, that the de­vel­op­ers who worked on Hell­blade have been en­light­ened by it, em­bold­ened by it. Hell­blade is proof, then, that high-qual­ity art and vi­su­als don’t have to only be the do­main of the multi-hun­dred teams that dom­i­nate much of the triple-a mar­ket. There can be games that tar­get a dif­fer­ent mar­ket out­side of the bom­bast of the block­busters, and it seems that’s where Ninja The­ory would like to be. “There’s no rea­son why another com­pany can’t do what we did,” says At­twell, “we’ve proven it, it’s there. We set out to try and prove it, and we have.”

De­spite the suc­cess of Hell­blade – which be­came prof­itable af­ter only three months and half a mil­lion sales – it would ap­pear there’s no in­ten­tion for the com­pany to ex­pand to take on more. To the com­pany’s de­vel­op­ers, it seems that around 100 peo­ple is the best size – “you can just about learn ev­ery­one’s name,” laughs

As the project evolved, I spread out into more ar­eas I would have been com­fort­able with be­fore

Mark Slater, VFX lead

The goal was to cre­ate a game to prove that the gap be­tween triple-a and in­die games can be closed

Francesca Mead, Prod­uct man­ager

Mead – be­cause it al­lows for a good range of projects. “I think around 100 is a good size,” agrees Slater. “When you start to get big­ger, it does be­come dif­fi­cult to man­age all the dif­fer­ent peo­ple. Ob­vi­ously, you can­not com­pete with the big triple-a games with that num­ber of peo­ple, which is why we are do­ing other stuff. Try­ing to get that dou­ble-a mar­ket ex­ist­ing again.”

And that’s re­ally what makes Ninja The­ory so ex­cit­ing as a devel­oper. It may be rel­a­tively new – in the grand scheme of things – with only a hand­ful of re­leased ti­tles, but it’s now at a point where it has not only set the tone for the sort of games it wants to make, but also freed it­self from the po­ten­tial re­stric­tions that held it back from do­ing its own thing… not that it’s plan­ning on only go­ing solo any time soon. “At a stu­dio of this size you tend to be sort of pitch­ing all the time,” ex­plains At­twell. “Whether you’re do­ing your own projects as well, you’re still al­ways pitch­ing to pub­lish­ers just to have po­ten­tial projects there and wait­ing. So it’s a mix.” Though their lips were sealed, it’s clear there are a hand­ful of projects on the go at Ninja The­ory al­ready, and while there’s yet to be any­thing an­nounced, it’ll be thrilling to see what is un­veiled. There’s a sense of free­dom now, that all the prob­lems – and with it so­lu­tions – of Hell­blade has en­abled in the stu­dio a greater depth of ex­pe­ri­ence and knowl­edge to tackle even big­ger goals, to utilise its cre­ativ­ity in new, novel ways. “At the mo­ment the com­pany’s po­si­tion is not in a kind of ‘we are only self­pub­lish­ing games’ or ‘we’re never self-pub­lish­ing games’. At the mo­ment we’re kind of open to what­ever sort of project [that] in­ter­est us,” sug­gests Mead, “so at the end of the day it’s the cre­ativ­ity of the project that in­ter­ests us the most, re­gard­less of whether it comes from an ex­ter­nal third-party or whether it’s some­thing we’d like to do our­selves.”

What­ever is on the hori­zon for Ninja The­ory, it’s clear that this is a devel­oper keen to chal­lenge it­self to push the bound­aries of art and sto­ry­telling in videogames – and that can only ever lead to new, great things.

VFX lead Mark Slater in­sists the size of the stu­dio is the per­fect bal­ance to al­low for their cre­ativ­ity The in­ven­tive way of us­ing mo­cap on the cheap has opened op­por­tu­ni­ties for fu­ture projects Dan At­twell has been at the com­pany for years now, and is one of its most veteran de­vel­op­ers

Andy Serkis has been in­volved in games – and with Ninja The­ory – for years now

The de­tail is in­cred­i­ble, es­pe­cially as Ninja The­ory was tar­get­ing the lim­ited hard­ware of the PS4

The goal of Hell­blade was to cre­ate high-level vi­su­als at a much lower cost

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