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Former 'DmC' devs are risking millions to make a 'AAA' indie

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Hellblade, a third-person game seen through the lens of a mentally ill protagonist, is a multimillion-dollar risk for developer Ninja Theory. Its strong focus on building a unique world and narrative represents a huge shift in creative direction from the company's last AAA effort, the melee combat-heavy DmC: Devil May Cry. Rather than working with a big publisher, the Cambridge, England-based studio is self-funding Hellblade as an "independent AAA" title. It's a decision that's freed Ninja Theory from creative constraints, allowing it to tackle difficult topics and simply make the games it wants to make.

Hellblade follows Senua, a Pictish Celt warrior living with schizoaffective disorder, a mental illness that combines symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. It's the murder of her tribe by warring Viking raiders that drives Senua into a psychotic break, causing her reality, as reflected in the gameplay, to be affected by hallucinations and delusions.

"We want to create entertainment, yes, but we also want to create art," said Ninja Theory design chief Tameem Antoniades of the studio's reasons for creating Hellblade without major publisher support. "And I think usually large publishers want to create a product. There is a distinction between creating a product and creating a piece of art."

"I think usually large publishers want to create a product."

Tameem Antoniades, Ninja Theory

Antoniades' comments came from a talk at Develop, an annual video game development conference held this past summer in Brighton, England. It wasn't until Gamescom in Cologne, Germany, that Ninja Theory was ready to show off a brief demo of Hellblade's mechanics. There, Dom Matthews, the studio's "product development ninja," walked us through what's called a "vertical slice" of the game. It's an industry term for a pre-production demo that, rather than being representative of the final game, combines various ideas to see what does and doesn't work before entering full production. The demo follows Senua as she begins her journey to the Viking heartland to exact revenge.

During the 15-minute scene, rocks shape-shift; Viking enemies take on otherworldly forms; and the environment transforms with Senua's heightening fear. This transformation isn't tied to your actions; instead the environmental change helps hammer home the protagonist's fluctuating emotional state. Of course, there are solid combat mechanics -- you'd expect as much from the studio behind DmC and Heavenly Sword -- but fights are few and far between. And the ones that do occur are overshadowed by the game's intentionally fractured narrative and unique design.

It's this focus on mental health, as opposed to more traditional and appealing combat, that Matthews believes makes a game like Hellblade financially unattractive to big publishers. "[The decision to go indie] is not really the result of any specific issue; it's the reality of the AAA development market that you have to try and make a game that sells to millions of millions of people," said Matthews. "You have to make compromises to justify the huge development costs associated with that."

Hellblade's budget is low by AAA-development standards, but very high compared to the average indie game. Whereas a typical AAA game "is going to be $50 million upwards," explained Matthews, Hellblade comes in "way below $10 million." And that budget's funded almost entirely by the studio itself. "We've put in our money; we've got loans and some support from the Wellcome Trust. ... By and large, it's our own money. That allows us to maintain creative ownership."

That partnership with the Wellcome Trust, a medical research charity, is notable in that it's helping to inform Hellblade's depiction of mental illness -- a particularly tricky theme for video games to properly address. Through it, the studio was put in contact with people living with mental illness, as well as a professor of health neuroscience at Cambridge University who is working with the team to ensure an accurate portrayal of schizoaffective disorder. Even the most careful and well-intentioned developer can end up doing more harm than good when integrating mental illness into their game. Tackling the subject is a risk in itself.

"With Kickstarter you've got one shot. If you take donations and it doesn't work out, then you've burnt that bridge."

Dom Matthews, Ninja Theory

Given its niche appeal, an obvious question lingers over Hellblade: Why not follow other developers' examples and try crowdfunding? For Matthews, that route represents a gamble the studio wasn't willing to make. "I think with Kickstarter you've got one shot," he said. "If you take donations and it doesn't work out, then you've burnt that bridge. We didn't want to take money from our fans and then have it fail. ... [Hellblade] is an experiment, and there's a risk that it won't work."

Self-funding the project means keeping the team small; 15 people are working on Hellblade right now, with most disciplines being filled by one person. "That's the team size; that's what we can afford," Matthews explained, "but they're experienced people that have spent a lot of time making AAA games."

While the rest of the studio remains under the safety net of publishers -- Ninja Theory just finished work on a portion of the well-received Disney Infinity 3.0 -- the team building Hellblade has to improvise to keep costs low. To that end, Matthews even built a motion-capture space in the studio's boardroom. "We used Amazon lights and IKEA wardrobe poles [and] did a proper 'DIY' job on it. But we got really important data for the game. It's encouraging that we're getting wins like that. ... We have to be innovative for this to work."

Ninja Theory

In order for Ninja Theory to break even on its risky indie effort, it needs to move 300,000 copies of Hellblade. Given the studio's prominence and track record, the target seems more than realistic. "It's a lot easier than the 5 million units that big AAA games have to do," said Matthews, "but it's not going to be easy."

Without the marketing budget of a Capcom or a Disney behind it, Ninja Theory is going to rely heavily on reviews, word-of-mouth and promotion from Sony, which is offering it as a PlayStation exclusive (Hellblade is also coming to PC). "We've got a partnership with Sony who are doing a really good job of helping independent developers publish their own games, as are Microsoft. ... That type of support is really crucial for us," said Matthews. But marketing from Sony isn't guaranteed, as even Sony-published games like Until Dawn seem to fall through the cracks.

That Ninja Theory is experimenting on its own dime with a non-traditional premise suggests it has a great deal of faith in Hellblade. These are early days -- it's only just entered the production phase, meaning the studio's learning from its experiments with the "vertical slice" and building the game proper. Ninja Theory's current aim is to release Hellblade at some point in 2016 as something "half the length and half the cost" of a typical AAA game. "We really want to make this work," said Matthews, "and in all likelihood if we can do that, we'll go on and do more things like this."

Images: Ninja Theory

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