Ninja Theory is bringing back double-A games with Hellblade

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In the early 2000s, we had yet to see the rise of digital media that made it easier for anyone with basic coding skills to publish a game. There wasn’t much of a choice beyond purchasing a $60 boxed copy of a whatever the latest blockbuster title was at the time. Games like Grand Theft Auto: San AndreasMetal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and Resident Evil 4 flooded the market — titles funded by major studios with a plethora of development talent involved.

Without the streamlined self-publishing efforts made famous by Valve’s Steam marketplace, this opened up some massive opportunities for developers like Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Productions to take risks on smaller projects with more modest budgets. This led to the introduction of fondly remembered titles like Psychonauts and Beyond Good & Evil; games that weren’t necessarily impressive on a technical level, but offered appeal in their ability to exhibit fresh new ideas in an industry becoming increasingly stagnant.

These were known as double-A games, and before they had much of a chance to thrive, they were already on their way out in just a matter of years.

The middle ground between indie and triple-A

Nowadays, the equivalent of a double-A game would be fall along the lines of Life Is Strange or Rayman Legends, or perhaps the Ratchet & Clank reboot for PS4. They’re not full-priced $60 cash vacuums like Call of Duty or practically anything from Naughty Dog, but at the same time, they’re a far cry from Crossy Road.

These are solid games, usually exhibiting a unique experience you wouldn’t be able to find in the higher budget offerings from publishers like Rockstar or Bethesda. And since 3D platformers haven’t been popular since the N64, we’re lucky Ratchet & Clank can exist as even a $40 movie tie-in.

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The 2D Rayman games are awesome, but they’re not quite what fans of the 1999 classic The Great Escape were asking for.

Despite the added creativity, there’s always some concession to be made with stricter budget constraints. In some cases it’s scale, with others it’s graphical fidelity, but most frequently it’s an unflattering combination of both. With Rayman Legends, and Origins before it, we saw the character return to his roots, foregoing 3D visuals for a still-pretty, but undoubtedly less expensive, UbiArt Framework engine. Life Is Strange, meanwhile, compromised on lip-syncing and clever dialogue writing — hella badly, we might add.

Doing what it takes to cut costs

With these mistakes in mind, Ninja Theory, a developer known for its efforts on the 2013 DmC: Devil May Cry reboot as well as the PS3 launch title Heavenly Sword, has set out to reinvent the double-A games space for an audience whose expectations have risen immensely since ten or fifteen years ago. With Hellblade: Sensua’s Sacrifice slated to launch later this year from a team of 15 people, it’s only natural that the stakes are high from a developer whose most renowned work came from teams with upwards of 60 members.

I sat down with Ninja Theory co-founder Tameem Antoniades as well as Epic Games CTO Kim Libreri for an interview mainly focused on the real-time performance capturing techniques used for Hellblade in Unreal Engine 4. With the help of an outsourced 3D scanning company called 3Lateral, facial animation studio Cubic Motion, and a handful of other third parties, Ninja Theory is able to use live performances from real actors in their games without having to implement any prerecorded footage in postproduction.

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With help from 3Lateral, Cubic Motion, and actress Melina Juergens, real-time performance capture is one way Ninja Theory is managing to cut down on production costs.

You can see what I mean for yourself in the development diary below:

On the surface, the technology is appealing if only because, as Liberi told me this is the first time, “a live performance of this fidelity” has been used in a video game at all. Delve deeper and you’ll realize this is just one of many shortcuts the developer is using to effectively minimize unnecessary spending.

“There’s an interesting thing when you’re incredibly constrained like we were. On Hellblade, we lost our art director … and when we lost him, we lost our ability,” Antoniades said. “Other companies, like on a bigger team, you might hire other people to fill in the gap, but in our case, because we couldn’t do that, we went out there and looked for people that could help us. 3Lateral seemed to be the best at their craft, so them and Cubic Motion seemed to be a bit of a dream pairing. So we found solutions by going to specialists basically.”

From the start, Hellblade has been described as an “independent triple-A” game by its developer, and its exploration of mental illness is clearly one reason that Tameem said a game like Hellblade will never be able to “compete with the Assassin’s Creeds and [Grand Theft Auto]s of this world in triple-A,” but that he does believe “it’s possible to release smaller games that are cheaper to buy that look triple-A.”

Achieving far more with fewer people

Games don’t have to cost $60 anymore. We’ve seen this in action with smaller, independent titles being served up on a digital platter over broadband. The problem is that smaller teams usually equate to smaller games, but according to Ninja Theory, it doesn’t have to be that way.

“You should be able to create different kinds of experiences at different price points and different sizes,” Antoniades said. “And we want to prove that is possible because there’s got to be a middle ground between the tiny indie games and mobile games and the big triple-A games.”

Where a title like Heavenly Sword took up to 90 people to make over four or five years without turning a profit, Antoniades is convinced that with Hellblade, Ninja Theory is “achieving far more with fewer people.”

Therefore, a lot of credit is owed to the companies, like 3Lateral and like Cubic Motion, to whom Ninja Theory is outsourcing. Relying on specialists, rather than trying to build everything custom in-house, drastically reduces the risk of going defunct if sales don’t match the intended quality of your game.

If all goes well for Hellblade, it could set a precedent for even more developers and publishers trying to follow this model, thereby resurrecting the double-A game as we once knew it, and adding some level of variance to an otherwise complacent sector of entertainment.

HellbladeSenua’s Sacrifice will be available in 2016 for both PlayStation 4 and PC.

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