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Independent AAA: Ninja Theory's new path to survive, thrive in new age
Independent AAA: Ninja Theory's new path to survive, thrive in new age
August 12, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander




Ninja Theory's games, known for stylishly combining graceful art and melee combat, are well-liked, and the studio's considerable talent enjoys respect. But behind the scenes, the studio has struggled since birth -- often within an inch of its life -- against the unique challenges and constraints of the AAA industry machine.

At GDC Europe, co-founder and chief creative officer Tameem Antoniades blew the doors open on the company's significant battle to thrive, and revealed a commitment to furthering a new "independent AAA" model, with a new project combining a smaller budget and more specialized scope with AAA production values, direct to players. Part of that includes openness, Antoniades says, knowledge-sharing with other developers, and releasing some details of a fascinating past project that never came to light.

Ninja Theory's upcoming work will be announced this week at Gamescom, but the often painful course of the studio's life makes a fascinating story, a clear illustration of the obstacles presented by traditional AAA game development -- constraints that have only gotten more severe over time.

[Editor's Note: Ninja Theory did indeed share a few details about its new 'independent AAA' project Hellblade during Sony's Gamescom press conference.]

"Fear, change and excitement is part of the natural lifecycle of gaming," Ninja Theory co-founder Tameem Antoniades says. The industry has been undergoing its least linear transition yet, as the traditional retail model splinters across any number of digital platforms and digital distribution gives rise to new independent models. Some of these business changes have made the gap between high production-value triple AAA games and the ones we know as "indie" wider than ever.


"I was amazed an organization could invest so much in a game and its development and then seemingly send it out to die, but the marketing budget had to back the games with the biggest returns."
"Being in the games industry for 20 years means that I am the establishment, whether I like that or not," he says. But he believes there's massive opportunity in the gulf between indie and AAA, and that veteran studios like Ninja Theory may finally have access to the creative outlets they've longed for.

In the beginning: Just Add Monsters


Antoniades was employed as a programmer and designer when he and some colleagues set up Just Add Monsters in March 2000, with 300,000 in savings, a small office and a passion for kung fu. But as no one was interested in publishing their game Kung Fu Chaos, the team allowed themselves to be bought by Argonaut, and signed their game to Microsoft, who was looking for a way to make a mark in the console space on the Xbox.

"We're still proud of the game we made," Antoniades said. "But it tanked; there were no ads, no support on the shelves. I was amazed an organization could invest so much in a game and its development and then seemingly send it out to die, but the marketing budget had to back the games with the biggest returns."

Players didn't take to Kung Fu Chaos' cartoony look; consumer appetites for realism were ramping up in 2003, and the studio's relationship with Microsoft did not continue after launch, much to its surprise. Only profit and loss mattered, and Microsoft owned the IP, leaving the studio to start from scratch. "To this day, if we were able to work on a sequel, we would," Antoniades says.

The arms race marched on during the early millennium, as stylized games fell increasingly out of fashion. Publishers felt "gritty realism" was less risky and was of more benefit to tech. Budgets and featuresets ballooned, a pattern that continues today: "AAA is starting to look a bit like Tesco superstores -- big, homogeneous, expensive and not necessarily better quality than diverse local markets," Antoniades says. "This has sidelined entire models of gaming, a lot of creative teams have been sunk by this, and often it's because they can't compete with blockbusters."

"While people in these studios often move on to form new ones, talented teams are broken up forever and years of knowledge are thrown out," he says. "We survived by focusing on quality, shipping on time and on budget, but so have many. It really comes down to this: We've been lucky."

Saved by Sony, but at a cost


Just Add Monsters' parent company entered administration in 2004, right as the studio was prototyping the game that would become Heavenly Sword. The team pulled together to buy back the company and its assets, left with just about three months' financial runway. But they had a major challenge: Without high-end experience, publishers mistrusted the team's experience and feared their small independent team would not be competitive.

The company ended up selling its IP and its tech to Sony, becoming the PlayStation 3-exclusive pioneer Ninja Theory in the process. "Sony saved our skin," Antoniades says. "But we no longer owned our creative output, and lost our independence as a studio."


"We felt the only correct choice was to walk away from the IP and the tech, and seek a deal that would allow us to stay together as a team."
Heavenly Sword's 2007 release helped launch the PS3 and lead the advent of performance capture technology in video games. But its sales were only modest and reviews were average: "In retrospect, I think we took on too much, but as a first effort on PS3, we did okay," says Antoniades. "With this grounding, we were planning on knocking it out of the park for the sequel.

But since the team came into the initial deal weak and desperate, there'd be consequences: Tied by exclusivity and with no ownership over their own tech and IP, they were at a disadvantage. Their 80-developer team did not fit into Sony's cost model for the project, and no one was free to undertake projects other than Heavenly Sword 2. Ninja Theory faced a very difficult decision.

"We knew that the value of a creative company comes from teamwork, experience and talent of the people in it -- keeping the team together was much more important and valuable. We felt the only correct choice was to walk away from the IP and the tech, and seek a deal that would allow us to stay together as a team," Antoniades continues. "It was a truly heartbreaking end to an amazing journey, but I'm grateful we had the opportunity to make Heavenly Sword. Again, to this day, if we could work on a sequel, we would."

Pushing back against mounting challenges


As Ninja Theory could not use its own engine, it licensed the Unreal Engine and had created a design document and trailer for the game that would become Enslaved. In a financially-critical position, the first company it signed with collapsed just after signing, and signed with Namco in the nick of time. With far less budget than Heavenly Sword and in half the time, the game had exponentially more content and received higher Metacritic scores. It launched to middling sales and little fanfare, though, for factors unknown -- potentially the fantasy environment was off-putting to wider audiences, or perhaps it had too little advertising and exposure.

Once again, there could be no sequel even though the team wished it. "When you don't own the IP, you don't get a say in the matter."

Ninja Theory next did DmC for Capcom -- it was well-received and in many was was the culmination of the studio's stylish aesthetic. It was also the first game the studio had ever generated royalties on. But by then, the AAA market had hit the wall and could expect few runaway successes.

"IP ownership remains a dream," he says. "Royalties are virtually impossible to achieve... by the time DmC launched, retail sales were slipping for all but the biggest hitters like GTA. No publishers were signing games, instead focusing on the studios they already had."

So in a constrained retail market where many publishers are exiting consoles altogether and melee games aren't thought to sell, Ninja Theory recently began experimenting with in-engine art using Unreal Engine and creating numerous concept projects. It released game called Fightback around Christmas 2013 to prove to itself it could do "small", and to teach itself smartphone and tablets.

Fightback has seen over 3 million downloads worldwide -- "it really showed we could put our hands into different business models, and also showed us just how tough and competitive the app landscape is. It's very, very difficult business."

The creative concepts that will never be


Ninja Theory also approached smaller publishers with a story-driven horror game, but found themselves facing down suits who expected the team to add melee combat as that was what they were known for -- and were then told that melee games don't sell. They were told not to focus on story games because 'only space marines, superheroes or soldiers sell'. "We let those projects slide."


"In the end, it didn't survive the publishing greenlight process because Destiny had just been announced at that point, and no publisher wanted to go up against that."
"Every concept we came up with came back with some kind of sales sheets showing similar games did not reach 3-5 million units, and, frankly, some ludicrous suggestions," Antoniades says. Black Swan and Clash of the Titans made the same amount of money in 2010, but the games publisher will bet on Clash of the Titans every time, even when the fallacy is pointed out to them.

Finally, Ninja Theory tried to develop a game that fit into a publisher's next-gen checklist while applying a "wrapper" of their own style and soul. With Razer: Born to Fight, the team made an artful, next-gen collaborative multiplayer space combat experience backed by a mobile and online social network, a concept that they felt allowed them to please publishers and express themselves at the same time.

"It was our attempt to go big enough to be viable," Antoniades says. "In the end, it didn't survive the publishing greenlight process because Destiny had just been announced at that point, and no publisher wanted to go up against that. As games get more realistic and more spreadsheet-driven, they start to clash."

But Antoniades says the company will share the concept and design publicly next week, hoping to offer other developers a peek behind the curtain and -- and that the team's hard work sees the light of day in some way.

"After Razer, it was apparent creating a new IP was problematic. But we did eventually land a different project based on a different IP, and we set about changing Razer to suit it. The publisher asked for drastic redesigns and we did our best to accommodate these, but over time we effectively lost control over its direction. The project was amicably terminated."

'Independent AAA': The path ahead


"In the past we would pitch an idea we were passionate about, find a partner that believed in it enough to fund it, and execute it to a high standard on time and on budget. But here we were, hitting a dead end. I don't believe publishers are making these calls out of spite -- they are responding reasonably to AAA market conditions using the evidence they have to hand," he says.


"It's what I call the 'independent AAA' proposition.... the path by which developers can make leading-edge games for specialist audiences and maintain stewardship."
These kinds of publishers and investor organizations have incredible creative challenges, as their leadership methodologies and corporate culture favor consensus over creativity and risk. Sales-driven analysts are protected by group-think and market data, while the risk-taker or the creative person is the first one out the door if something goes wrong.

"Design by spreadsheet" has become most companies' default position. AAA itself stands in the way of developers wanting to make creative games and players hungry to play them. Entire genres have become uncommercial -- stealth games, RPGs and story-driven games have all been influenced by a similar kind of combat experience.

"I believe there's another path," Antoniades says. "It's what I call the 'independent AAA' proposition.... the path by which developers can make leading-edge games for specialist audiences and maintain stewardship. I took a small team of ten people aside, and we've been working up a concept for a couple months now."

"The game will be announced during Gamescom, and it will be an independent AAA game. This model puts the developer at the center, and in direct relationship with the player. The game looks and feels AAA, but is smaller and more focused, with a total budget that's a fracton of our previous games," he continues.

Ninja Theory will provide most of the budget itself, and is "pursuing several strategies" for the rest. Kickstarter will not be one of these, he says. "If we and others can prove that the independent AAA model is viable and profitable, it might open the door to more funding models, such as those that have been around forever in independent film-making."

And in independent models, where publishers are free to withhold or reveal information and technology at their own discretion, developers have more opportunities to build a knowledge base and generally support one another in an open manner, Antoniades believes.

"There is a middle ground that can be filled by forward thinking publishers who don't drive away developers with onerous levels of control," he says. "We're working on several projects at the moment, and found some publishers to work with us. They're all very unique. There are still opportunities out there, especially now that confidence is returning to the console space. The publishers we chose were the ones who were willing to go against the grain."

"We're going to lift the veil on development, invite you into our process and share resources along the way."


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