During a packed GDC Europe talk, Ninja Theory co-founder Tameem Antoniades offered a behind the scenes look into the trials and tribulations of triple-A development at independent studios, and why publishers often pick spreadsheets over creativity.
Antoniades disclosed a tough history for the now 100-strong team, having lost the rights to develop sequels for Kung Fu Chaos, Heavenly Sword and Enslaved due to deals with their respective publishers.
He revealed that a sequel to Heavenly Sword, itself a spiritual successor to Kung Fu Chaos, was difficult as Ninja Theory housed 80 employees at the time, whereas during that period publishers wanted development teams to start at around 20 to 25 employees and then ramp up production later on.
“We explored every option open to us and found none that didn’t involve the dissolution of the team,” he said.
For its next step the studio worked with Namco Bandai on Enslaved, a game received positively by critics, which Antoniades put down to having an improved efficiency due to keeping together the development team, something he feels can be lost as studios close.
Following work on DMC: Devil May Cry with Capcom, and also entering the mobile gaming market with Fightback, a title that has been downloaded 3.5m times, the studio began pitching other ideas for bigger console games, but found publishers saying no to all of them.
Antoniades put this partly down to the "design by spreadsheet" approach taken by publishers before investing in a project. One title pitched out was a story-driven horror game, written by Alex Garland, but this was turned down after being told “melee combat and horror games don’t sell”, and the team was handed a spreadsheet to prove it.
He said that every game Ninja Theory could come up with was rejected, along with a spreadsheet on how similar games didn’t reach three-to-five million sales as well as some “frankly ludicrous suggestions”.
In response, the studio began work on a sci-fi co-op shooter called Razer set on a post-alien invasion Earth, in an effort to tick all the boxes from publishers. The game ultimately failed however, in part to the reveal of Destiny by Bungie, a title similar to the ideas shown in Razer.
Antoniades was keen to stress publishers weren’t making decisions to reject new and creative games out of spite, but were in fact responding “reasonably” to triple-A market conditions. This attitude however, along with rising development costs, is making publishers more risk-averse, with some often now moving development in-house rather than taking on third-party projects, a model Capcom is increasingly heading towards.
He added there should be more diversification in the publisher model, with publishers taking smaller bets on riskier projects. This, he claimed, would allow them to reap the rewards on numerous small bets rather than just the “go big or go home” bets prevalent in triple-A, where less than five million sales can be deemed a failure.
For Ninja Theory’s next game, the newly revealed Hellblade coming to PS4 first, Antoniades said the studio took a step back from the “fire-fighting” to return to its core values – creativity and narrative.
“We wanted to create a game not for publishers, but for ourselves and our fans,” he said, suggesting the game may be more niche than the increasingly required mass appeal of top triple-A games that need to be all things to all people.
Hellblade will be funded mostly by Ninja Theory, and the studio hopes to build a business around the IP, with all money earned going back into games making. Antoniades stressed the title would not be going to Kickstarter, but will have an open development process to keep fans and other developers up to date with how it’s going. The title will also be opened up to fans early to play, and will be priced lower than typical games, suggesting it will be more in the DVD/Blu-ray price range.
"We’re going to lift veil on development and invite you into our process, and share our resources," he said.
"You get to see us make the mistakes so you don’t have to."
As well as HellBlade, Ninja Theory is also working on multiple other projects using a mix of business models, including working with a publisher for an unannounced title.