Hellblade – Ninja Theory Gives Insight Into the Development of the Unreal Engine 4 Action Adventure
Dominic Matthews, product development ninja at Ninja Theory in an interview with games™, gives an insight inside the development of their new PS4 and PC title Hellblade.
“We’ve created triple-A games for 15 years,”
“Over the years, the pressure on games to appeal to more and more people has just gotten greater. Because the retail price point is fixed at $60, games can’t compete on price. That means the checklist of features that games have to have to compete, then, gets longer and longer. As such, development teams get bigger, and therefore budgets get bigger. This cycle results in huge development budgets having to be justified by publishers needing to sell millions and millions of units. If you’re a big triple-A game, you need to sell five million+ units to be considered a success.”
Matthews explains that they consider themselves independent triple A, since people still expect triple-A production values from the studio, so even if they don't have the backing of a big publisher they still aim to deliver a AAA experience.
“We’ve been very careful not to call ourselves indie – we call ourselves ‘independent-triple-A’ – because we don’t think we’ve earned the indie label,”
“People still want triple-A production values from us, and so we’re trying to prove we can still deliver that, but with all the benefits that come with being an independent studio, too. We still want to deliver on those triple-A qualities that we had in our previous games – well, better qualities, ideally – but we’re doing it in a way where we’re taking creative risks, where we don’t have to appeal to everyone.”
He continues to clarify that this is mainly a game for the fans, gamers who love combat games with engaging stories and characters, and states that they have more attainable goals.
“I’m very comfortable in saying this game is for Ninja Theory fans. Fans of combat games. Fans of engaging stories and the characters and worlds we build. That isn’t millions and millions of people. We’re pretty open about the numbers we need to hit for Hellblade to break even: we need to sell about 300,000 units. Which, compared to five million, is far more tangible.”
Matthews explains that each fight feels meaningful, with each encounter giving the feeling of life or death.
“We needed to make each fight feel meaningful, to make every enemy you defeat feel significant, like in regular one-on-one fighters,”
“In those kinds of games you have to defeat your opponents over two rounds, or you fail. Whether you’re playing in Arcade mode or against another person, fail twice and you’ve lost. Game over. We kind of want that feeling with Hellblade: it’s life or death. That’s why we keep the camera in a tight position, too; it makes you feel up close to that fight, feel the pressure. “
Ninja Theory wants people to feel really invested in the heroine and her story, and this resonates accordingly with each state Senua is in, making players feel connected with her.
“We want people to be really invested in Senua and her story, and any elements that are inherently game-y break that immersion, takes you out of the experience. So we’re going completely HUD-less, and that gives us challenges in how we communicate certain things to the player. Health, for example – how do we tell the player Senua is low on health without any kind of bar or meter? At the moment we’re looking at representing that in Senua’s ‘state’ – if she’s wounded, she looks wounded, she animates like a wounded person. If she’s really low on health, she’s in a critical state, she’s actually down on the floor, fighting for her life.”
Matthews explains that need to make something that feels special by taking risks, creating their own IP and have full creative control over it.
“We can’t afford to be like any other games on the market, really, we need to take creative risks here and hope that they pay off. If we’re just going to make something that’s treading the same path as another game, then we’ll lose. Other studios have 300 people on their project, with a $100 million budget. We need to create something that’s smaller and deeply engaging… but I think that’s what people want, right?”
“This is the future for Ninja Theory – we’re creating our own IP and we’ve got creative control over our own games,”
Matthews concludes by stating that the studio's goal is not to millions but rather making a living by making the games they want to make.
"But we want other mid-size developers to make games like this, as well. Because if we can show this model is a success, or at least viable, then wouldn’t it be fantastic to live in a games industry where there are tons of mid-size studios that can produce super high-quality, really creative games?
“This isn’t about us making millions and millions of pounds; this is about us making a living, making the games that we want to make. If we can do that, we’ll be happy. It’s a lot of fun doing this, making games. If we can deliver niche games to fans that want them, then it’s a model that can work for the players as much as it can work for us.”
It's certainly quite commendable, for a development studio like Ninja Theory, to have their own control over their titles regardless of huge budgets or not. Gaining creative control will enable the team to hopefully create their own vision and strive to make it a reality. With the exceptional talent Ninja Theory possesses I sincerely hope they achieve what they set out to do.