PS3 exclusive Heavenly Sword was a difficult release for Ninja Theory.
The Cambridge-based independent spent considerable time and money working on a platform that at the time didn’t even exist, creating its own tools engine and utilising advanced performance capture technology.And the firm was rightly proud of the results. Heavenly Sword was an ambitious game that was visually impressive and which, most of the time, worked. Yet despite the love and effort, Heavenly Sword was greeted with indifference by consumers and critics – achieving lacklustre sales and a Metacritic of 79.Now, several years wiser, Ninja Theory is putting the finishing to its next epic, the multiformat action adventure Enslaved – a game that Namco Bandai’s Euro chief Olivier Comte says could become the publisher’s ‘most important franchise.’ The developer has switched engines to Unreal, set up its own R&D team and even recruited high-profile Hollywood talent to ensure Enslaved lives up to its sky-high expectations.
Develop sits down with Ninja Theory creative director and co-founder Tameem Antoniades to discuss the lessons learnt from Heavenly Sword, the new technology it is using and the importance of holding the rights to your own IP…
Namco Bandai says Enslaved could be its Uncharted or Halo. How much pressure does that put on the team?
I’m happy that development has been quite under-the-radar and that there has not been much attention or exposure. Enslaved has some good ambitions in terms of making a story-driven action adventure.
I think it has the right people on-board and there is a real desire from everyone to make this work. But I would never say it is the next Halo or whatever, because you never know until it is done. When you put your game in front of people you never quite know if you are going to hit the mark. It could all come crumbling down. It is the nature of anything creative.
Is that a lesson you learnt from the mixed feedback you received after releasing Heavenly Sword?
Yeah. We are much more confident as a team than we were back then. We have experience, we have the tools, we have really good people working with us outside of games. It has been fun working on this game.
There is a confidence about Enslaved that wasn’t there when we started Heavenly Sword. All you do is try and make everything work, and if you get it right everything falls into place and it feels magical and you are transported into this world with this characters and this gameplay that all fits. I would never say we are the next top game of all time.
For Namco Bandai, this is the AAA western title that the group has never found before.
I don’t feel pressure. As long as we are left to do our jobs and they don’t interfere, then we will deliver.
What are the challenges of developing a new IP?
The biggest challenge is commercial. If you are developing a new IP then typically you have to self-fund, and we had to do that for the first six months of Enslaved. And then there is ultra-conservatism from publishers, because with new IP it is difficult. Most of the top-selling games are sequels.
It is very difficult, but we needed to be multi-format as a studio, and Heavenly Sword was owned by Sony so we had to come up with a new IP.
If Heavenly Sword wasn’t owned by Sony, would you have wanted to do a sequel?
Yeah I think so. There were so many foundations we built in that game that we would like to have developed and take to its logical conclusion. But in a sense we’re doing that with Enslaved, but with different characters. But I do miss Nariko and Kai and all that lot.
Yet Namco Bandai owns Enslaved. Is it important for developers to own their own properties?
We have lots of rights attached to Enslaved, so if it works out and the game is a success, what we have is a strong partnership where we are both well represented.
Ideally we would own our IP, but it is very difficult and you have to be extraordinarily well-funded to do that. We have grown from one project to the next off our own backs. So we put whatever we make on our previous game into our next one.
Ninja Theory prefers big-budget titles, but do they have a future when everything seems to be moving towards social and iPhone games?
I think so. I think it is going to be polarised. There will always be big-budget games, just as in the movie world there are smaller, independent films and the blockbuster releases. And there is actually very little in the middle.
We are going through a phase where all the middle-ground games are being cleared out. Either go big or go really small.
Why do you feel Namco Bandai was interested in Ninja Theory and Enslaved?
We worked three months solid on a pitch for Enslaved, and we took it round all the publishers as a sort of road show.
This time we went to third-party, multi-format publishers and we did get a lot of interest. Namco was good because they had something to prove in the west, and I knew they would be true to their word that they will support Enslaved as one of their biggest releases. Also, Namco is not a small company. As a whole, Namco Bandai dwarfs EA. So that was a plus, too.
But mainly it is because we knew they would put a lot of focus on our game when it comes out.
What lessons were picked up from the development of Heavenly Sword?
We spent three quarters of our development time on Heavenly Sword building technology from scratch, because there was no engine.
We built our own tools engine and everything, and it was really, really tough going on a platform that at first didn’t exist and then kept changing as it was being prototyped. This time round we went with Unreal.
Unreal has excellent artists and design tools so we can start building the game from day one, which meant we can make a longer game, a bigger game and a far more complex game with a lot more variety in it. It meant we can just create and our programming team can focus on work load productivity and also stuff like our facial system.
At the time Heavenly Sword’s facial system, which was co-developed with Weta, was the best around. This time we went to the top mo-cap players in the world, and none of them could do faces to the standard we were after. So we had to set up our own R&D team and developed our own facial system, which is amazing.
Why convinced you to use NaturalMotion's Morpheme animation system for Enslaved?
Because it puts full control in the animators hands. In Heavenly Sword we had thousands of animations, but we had to code it. Animators would do small bits of animation and the coders had to go in and link them up, it was a really slow process.
Now, the animators with Morpheme can create their own network trees and controls, and they can preview it and play with the character motion, and the designers can check it without any coder involvement. So it allows us to do more animations at a higher quality.
Can you tell us what other tech is at the centre of the Enslaved project?
Performance capture was big on Heavenly Sword. We pioneered that with Weta to capture face, voice and body from multiple actors – it was the first time it was done. So we have pushed that forward in the sense that now our facial tech can apply to the body so we can have muscle deformation, the cut scene characters and the in-game characters are the same, so we can do quick cuts to Monkey’s face while he is doing combat – there is no fade out to black.
On set, when we shot the game, we had screens where we could project the game worlds so that the actors knew where they were. A lot of our effort was to make it comfortable and natural for the actors to perform.
You’ve brought writer Alex Garland on-board. What does he bring to the table?
In the first instance we brought him on for writing, but what he ended up delivering was way more than that.
What I didn’t realise was how much story telling was non-verbal and wasn’t done via cut scenes. Camera placement, atmosphere, sound cues, so many little things make up a good visual narrative, and that is what he brought.
He worked with our designers, first to lay out the first draft of the script so we could shoot it, and then he worked with us in-house once a week, all day long, to help set out the level design because you can’t separate level design from the story, it has to be as one. Effectively he became a level designer.
Later on, when we had all the elements in the game, he would look at it as if it was a first cut of the movie. He wouldn’t just give feedback on where the video lines should be placed, but also on the staging of the events, and how to add tension and drama through camera angles and music and so forth. He has impressed me deeply and every member of the team thinks he is the don. We have learnt so much off of him, it has been eye-opener.
What are the positives and negatives to being a UK independent?
I’m not sure how to answer that question because I don’t know what it is like to be a non-independent. It feels good to survive and grow your studio, and everyone is on-board with talent and passion, and we have found a really good life-work balance. I am really proud of that, we don’t crunch or burn out our staff on the games we do. It feels good to find that balance and create games that we want to play.