Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was an independent horror action-adventure game developed and self-published by Ninja Theory. In case you haven't heard of it, Hellblade was released in August and both consumers and media have praised the game. It features a very high level of production value with high fidelity graphics typically seen in high budget AAA games. For this reason Ninja Theory, the developer, called it an independet AAA game.
The team working on Hellblade has reportedly been around 20 developers, which is a relatively small number compared to the big titles that are released every year. Combine that relatively small team and budget with the very high quality that they developed and you'll get what's been an ongoing thought that some members of the press, gaming community and even developers have been expressing ever since. These very closely related set of ideas are usually expressed in a way that Hellblade has proven some old traditional way of the games business wrong or something new right. First I'll list these ideas and then go over to some overlooked facts that challenge them. These ideas roughly are:
The reason I'm writing this post and challenging this set of ideas is that I believe they can be misleading and damaging in the long run in an industry where game developers are already under high amounts of pressures due to unrealistically high expectations. So let's look at some of those overlooked facts and attempt to disprove these listed statements.
The first notable fact is that Ninja Theory was just a very talented and experienced team. If you tell me to make a game like Hellblade with 20 people, I'd tell you that's not possible without a second thought. The people who worked on that team were all very experienced, having worked on similarly many high quality games before. A single senior programmer could do what three or four entry level programmers could in a similar amount of time. It makes a lot of difference when a single artist or programmer handles as many tasks as you can throw at them, and yet Ninja Theory had those people. To expect every studio head in the world to bank on getting the best individuals isn't rational. This also isn't to say other studios don't have highly talented and experienced developers either. The pre-production of the Uncharted games were also handled by a small core team in Naughty Dog, but even there, a larger team is needed to complete the work on time, which brings us to our next point.
Looking at the press releases of Ninja Theory, it quickly becomes clear what type of game they were aiming to create with Hellblade, notably a highly focused experience exploring psychosis. Indies have used this method for a long time to compete in this highly competitive market and stand out in the crowd with their limited resources. But having a very small and accurate focus does more than just increase the impact of the game on the player, it also eases production.
When the scope of a game is narrower, developers have a much higher degree of control over what happens and where the game state is in. Every cutscene is handcrafted, and they can be handcrafted because there's only one perspective to do it from. Compare that to a large scope game like Mass Effect, there are so many cutscenes and conversations that the studio will have to manage them by automating some processes. They also won't have tight controls such as where the player character enters a scene from, what's in the background and how they look like. But in a tightly controlled, narrow scope game like Hellblade, all of that is under control. And it's not just cutscenes, I'm just using that as one example. It's also the combat system and the level design.
Scale also is a massive multiplier. The Uncharted series couldn't have been with that core pre-production team unless they were going to end every game at the end of the second level. And sure, a lot of commentators are pointing to Hellblade's scale so others would follow that same scale, but again, what works for one game, won't work another. A small scale works for Hellblade because they were honing on a particular emotional experience, you could even call it an art game, surely not something for everybody either (or even a wide appeal). A game that wants you to experience an epic for example, can't deliver without scale. Mass Effect wouldn't have the same feel and effect if you removed its open hubs or large cast of supporting characters.
While it's true that Hellblade was developed by a relatively small team, it also took a rather long time to create. I don't know exactly when its development was started, but considering the announcement trailer was released in August 2014, 3 years before its launch and looking at what was in the trailer, I think it's safe to say the game was in development at least a year before that announcement trailer, and that's a conservative estimate. Consider the man-hours the game's had poured into development and you'll reach very high numbers, very quickly.
The costs of the game weren't exactly as low as people think, and Ninja Theory had financial aid. A very quick calculation shows that Hellblade still costed a lot of money, Assuming 20 developers working on average, for 48 months, each costing around $6000, and you'll get to around $6mil for the development cost excluding marketing, and this is probably a conservative low estimate too. Not many independents have anything close to that type of money, in fact not many large studios have that amount in cash reserves and even if they do, that's a pretty large amount to risk on one project.
Putting that aside, it's worth noting that Ninja Theory with their previous projects had probably built a cash reserve for this that others wouldn't have. "But it still worked for them!" you might say, which brings us to another fact, that Hellblade was given funding by a global charity focusing on health called Wellcome. Now imagine yourself budgeting a new game for development, would you be banking on charity money for funding? Of course not, that's not the norm or reasonable, and it can't be the norm unless charities suddenly start embracing games on a large scale. Publishers specialize in games and that's why they're the best source for funding games to this day.
It's been said for years that the middle market in games has been slowly dieing out. Then in August 2017 you see this very high polished game that was made by such a middle market studio. Inspired by its achievement, you tell others about it or maybe if you're a writer or critic, make a video or write an article about it. This is what happened to Hellblade. It is true that Hellblade was self-published by Ninja Theory and it had a low marketing budget, but the gaming community and press helped them instead. At the same time, Lawbreakers was released which was also seen as a game reviving the middle market (But somehow that didn't turn out too good, which people don't mention).
People wanted these games to succeed and there weren't many other games in that "AA" category of games being released to compete against them. But what would happen if like in the indie market, there were many games being released? Then this desire for the revival of the middle market wouldn't exist (it wouldn't be seen as dead and in need of support), and if it did, attention couldn't possibly be given to all of those being released. When you don't have a marketing budget, then that's going to hurt sales a lot. Then you're going to rely on the game being very good too (which Hellblade was), but as the indie market shows, just being good doesn't guarantee coverage from the press and media. Nevertheless, Hellblade was certainly a fantastic game.
This last part is possibly the most hurtful. Hellblade despite all of the above facts, while selling well, wasn't a massive hit. Reports say that the game needs to sell around 300,000 copies to break even, which seems they probably have sold by now and even have sold more of if we're going by Steam numbers and extrapolating. However, factoring in how businesses work, how other hit games work, Hellblade can't really be considered an absolute financial success either.
"Hit" games should be earning around 3-10 times their original budget/break-even point. This is because as a business, that's both where a reasonable profit lies for a project that's taking this many years, and also because particularly in the games industry, considering the chances of future or past failures (which are high rates), you need to cover those losses too. Daniel Cook has a good explanation on this subject in his blog Lost Garden and here on Gamasutra.
What Ninja Theory accomplished with Hellblade has been truly astonishing. As a game developer I can only take my hat off to them. The resilience alone to work on such an ambitious project for so long is breathtaking. However the notion that their project has now disproved or proven anything is false.
It's like what amatuer screenwriters or filmmakers say when talking to industry insiders; pointing to a low budget hit as proof that the blockbuster model is broken, when in reality that low budget hit is an outlier, an exception to the rule. Yes Moonlight grossed over 16 times its budget in the box office, but it also won the Best Picture award. It's not in any way scalable to an industry-wide level.
Same with Hellblade. We already knew though that making good games don't require a publisher as we've seen with indie titles over the years. We have also seen the middle market in games have successes too. But the big picture is still the same. A few anomalies don't prove the applicability of a new process. The safest and most reasonable path for game development still is finding and partnering with a publisher that provides funding, marketing and guidance for the development studio. Making games with large scales or scopes also still need large teams that can handle them.
If the best game in this middle market which had some of the best individuals in the industry working on it, had funding from a charity, narrowed down their scope for their game, still took a very long time to make and still wasn't a massive hit in an environment that was wishing it success, then what does that really prove?