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    Hellblade: A New Theory Of Everything

    He’s not wrong in 2015, so far, we’ve seen layoffs hit Sony Online Entertainment’s recently rebranded Daybreak Games, we’ve seen layoffs at EA Montreal, Sega has shed considerable staff during its restructuring and Elite: Dangerous developer Frontier has made cuts too. It’s the peril of working on triple-A. If your game doesn’t shift enough units, the company has to make some money back somewhere, and sadly, once it gets to that stage, the human value and cost is replaced with nothing more than numbers on a spreadsheet.

    “We’ve created triple-A games for 15 years,” Matthews tells us when we ask him why Ninja Theory’s newest IP is forgoing the traditional development pattern. “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.”

    Cast your minds back to 2013 Ninja Theory was working with Capcom on the Devil May Cry reboot, a game that fans had been clamouring for, petitioning for even. Ninja Theory delivered the game, and sold 1.6 million units something the publisher saw as somewhat of a failure. Thing is, that’s not bad. The game wasn’t bad, and those sales numbers weren’t bad… but Ninja Theory was considered as having ‘failed to deliver’ by Capcom’s standards Capcom’s internationally-focused, public-facing standards.

    This time, though, with Hellblade, Ninja Theory is its own boss, and the 12-strong team of developers is making the game they want to make. The studio has gone independent but not really, not quite. Matthews was very clear about where the studio saw itself in the Venn diagram of indie/triple-A that makes up the two-horse race that is the modern games industry.

    “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,” he explains. “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.”

    That’s the first thing that struck us about Hellblade it’s a game that isn’t ashamed of being hardcore, that isn’t trying to appeal to the casual gamer and the hardcore gamer. Ninja Theory isn’t interested in diluting its audience; it’s building a product for people that have dipped their toes in the studio’s work before, and enjoyed what’s bitten them. “Rather than trying to aim for everyone and only hitting a few people, we’re kind of doing the opposite and only aiming for a few people: making something that’s only for a small group of people,” Matthews tells us. “But we’re making it really appealing to them; we’re really targeting that niche.

    “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.” So Hellblade will drop you into its world naked, in a gameplay sense. You’ll have access Senua’s full combat capabilities right at the start of the game Matthews tells us the team took its inspirations from fighting games: you get Ryu and all his moves off the bat. You’ve just got to learn to use them. Hellblade is the same, there are no skill trees or combo lists in sight. You drop into the world as Senua this warrior descending into Hell and you’re set free. Ninja Theory doesn’t want to hold your hand, it wants to chop it off.

    “We needed to make each fight feel meaningful, to make every enemy you defeat feel significant, like in regular one-on-one fighters,” Matthews says. “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. “

    There’s no HUD, either Ninja Theory wants you to get wrapped up in this earthy Viking world it’s creating. In combat, exploration and cutscenes, there’s only you and Senua. You know the ‘hardcore’ mode in other games the one that strips the HUD back? well, that’s the entire Hellblade experience. “We want people to be really invested in Senua and her story,” Matthews explains, “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.”

    In combining a combat system based on the one-on-one fighting games (that rely pretty heavily on their health bars) with a completely naked game screen, Ninja Theory is breaking new ground. Could you imagine Activision or Ubisoft releasing a game taking those kinds of risks? There is no game out there like Hellblade, not quite: there’s no formula for Ninja Theory to base its work on. But why is the studio so insistent doing this couldn’t it have just made a spiritual successor to DmC under its own IP?

    “We can’t afford to be like any other games on the market, really,” Matthews says, bluntly. “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?”

    We can’t help but agree you head to any gaming forum or social media feed and you’ll see people lamenting the triple-A model and its reliance on tried-but-tested mechanics and genres. So, if you’re not doing that if you’re looking at creating an experience that hasn’t really been done before then  where do you go? What do you turn to for inspiration? “We look for references in unconventional places,” says Matthews. “In movies, in classical art, in music videos, all that stuff, rather than just looking at other games on the market. We’ve taken some design cues from a French performance artist, for example, which is something you wouldn’t expect a  game  development studio say! Our attitude is that, well, there’s no point looking towards other games to see what they’re doing, because, well, they’re already on the market!”

    Matthews is right we saw the performance artist in question (Olivier de Sagazan) in action; he wore a latex mask, smothered himself in tar, oil, paint, blood, then writhed around. He’s the inspiration behind the enemy design the cult-worshipping Vikings that Senua runs up against. We haven’t seen that before in gaming, that’s rare. It’s not a stretch to say that what Ninja Theory is doing runs parallel to Sagazan’s wildly experimental routines, either.

    “This [method of production] is an experiment. A complete experiment,” Matthews admits. “My hope is that we engage players on a deeper level with what we’re doing here, going on this development journey with Hellblade, seeing it evolve at every  stage. When it comes out,I want people to really know what’s gone into it, and almost feel like part of the team.

    “In development or PR, [with triple-A publishers], you can’t take risks. You kind of have to tread the tried and tested path to success. The PR cycle is something that’s been in place for years and years and years. With Hellblade, we’re questioning the way we’re developing the game, but it also gives us the opportunity to question the way we look at marketing and PR, too.” But Ninja Theory doesn’t just want to set a precedent for themselves as a studio no, that’s too small a goal. When you’re operating in the triple-A space (even with the ‘independent’ prefix attached), you take on broader responsibilities you take on the position of role model, of a peer, of a trailblazer. Ninja Theory wants to prove to  itself to the world that the way it’s practicing development is a legitimate route forward for the whole industry; returning to intimate teams of passionate people and a focused product.

    “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. “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 ina 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.”

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