Ninja Theory uses Unreal Engine 3 to double down on creativity

Epic Diaries: Enslaved

Coming off the success of their critically acclaimed PlayStation 3 action game, Heavenly Sword, the developers at Ninja Theory had a slightly different plan in mind for their next adventure.

“With Heavenly Sword, we had developed the engine and toolset entirely ourselves,” says Mike Ball, co-founder and chief technical officer.

“That required a large amount of resources, and it would take just as much effort to update the technology, improve the toolset and add the new features we needed for our next game.”

Once Ninja Theory decided to go multi-platform with the new game, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, it made the move to Unreal Engine 3. This time around, Ninja Theory had 80 people on hand for the production period, and would be able to use all that talent to focus on creativity rather than engine technology.

“Unreal Engine 3 allowed us to start iterating on the gameplay much more quickly,” Ball says. “We needed to maximise our production time by making sure the team’s workflow was effective, and UE3 was the right choice to do that.”

Using UE3, Ninja Theory was able to improve on many of the lessons they learned with their previous game. “We wanted an engine that was truly focused on getting the most out of designers and artists,” explains Ball.

“Despite the awesome results we achieved with Heavenly Sword, that was really the weak point of our own engine. It just didn’t scale.”

Ninja Theory also wanted to improve on the total length of gameplay with Enslaved, which is where Unreal Kismet came into play. Ninja Theory’s designers used Kismet’s visual scripting tools to build much larger play environments for players to explore. Kismet also enabled the team to create a wider variety of gameplay across the greater game length, which Ball says is ultimately the key to keeping the player attached to the story.

Ninja Theory has built a reputation for creating beautiful environments – an ability that would be put to the test with Enslaved. Based on a 400-year-old Chinese novel called Journey to the West – which is itself based on much older folklore – Enslaved brings this ancient story to a future New York City.

To do justice to this rich source material while bringing it to life in a hyper-modern environment, the Ninja Theory team knew it needed to push its graphics capabilities as far as they could go. Ball says that UE3 gave the artists much more control, and with its advanced production tools the team was able to pack detail into their environments.

“This was really important for the portrayal of the New York we wanted to build,” says Ball.

“Through elements of the environment, we wanted the player to experience the story of people in the past, caught in destruction and trying desperately to escape. Giving the art team control over shaders and post-processing chains allowed us to set up some beautiful scenes that contrasted well with the scenes of destruction.”

Ninja Theory also built on top of UE3’s advanced combat capabilities. “We did a lot of experimenting with the camera to make every hit feel like it counts and draw you into the drama of combat,” said Tameem Antoniades, Ninja Theory co-founder and chief design officer. “We used close-up shots during takedowns and finishing moves to really show the emotional impact combat has on Monkey, the main character. It’s more of a cinematic twist on combat mechanics.”

Along the way, the Ninja Theory team was able to connect with other Unreal licensees through the Unreal Developer Network. In fact, Ball says that the extensive community support has been a strong point of working with UE3. Other developers were always happy to help with tough questions, and Ball recalls lots of occasions where a technical query was answered by a studio on the other side of the world before anyone else even touched it.

The result? One of the freshest, most beautiful games of 2010, boasting longer, more intense gameplay than any of Ninja Theory’s previous games. The post-apocalyptic future is looking bright for Ninja Theory from here.

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