Hellblade Developer Ninja Theory Proves Independent AAA Can Work
Just three months after launch, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is already profitable, having sold more than 500,000 units. That's great news coming from Ninja Theory, the studio known previously for games like DmC: Devil May Cry and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
In a post-mortem entry on their developer diary, Ninja Theory detailed how Hellblade exceeded their own expectations for it. "I knew that we'd made a really strange game, one that some people would love and that some people would hate, and so our average review score was bound to suffer," said Ninja Theory creative chief Tameem Antoniades.
That uncertainty turned out to be somewhat misplaced. Hellblade currently stands at an 83 on Metacritic for the PC version and 81 for the PS4 version. "Creatively we hit a home run, but our other major goal was to prove that there was a space between indie and AAA games that could work commercially," added Antoniades.
Hellblade's development was thoroughly documented online, with Ninja Theory releasing dozens of YouTube diaries extensively chronicling their journey. Early on in development, Ninja Theory said the intention behind Hellblade was to demonstrate that an independent approach to triple A development was possible.
"We hope to prove that the industry still has room for developers like us, who want to make smaller, more creatively driven high-end games in genres that AAA publishers have abandoned," said Antoniades in the diaries, emphasizing smaller scale experiences built with a team a fraction of the size, but with high production values.
Commercial director Dominic Matthews said: "For many years now, talented and experienced developers have been disappearing because they just don't fit the AAA mould. This trend sadly shows no signs of stopping, so it's important to us that we share our experiences from the Hellblade project so that other teams might be able to do the same."
Speaking at the second annual Yorkshire Games Festival, Matthews lamented the lack of creative diversity that has come about as part of the "AAArms race," describing how games like PaRappa the Rappa and Jet Set Radio would no longer enjoy full console launches today. He opined that exponential growing costs and the fixed price point of retail games means that creative possibilities have shrunk.
Hellblade was only possible by breaking free of major publishers, ignoring arbitrary pricing conventions and freeing Ninja Theory up to create a more unconventional narrative experience. As an eight-ish hour experience set at a price point of $30, Ninja Theory was able to devote the same level of production values expected from much larger projects.
Unlike conventional triple A games, Hellblade doesn’t aspire to be a dense, sprawling sandbox packed with near infinite content. Instead it is written and designed as a very particular experience meant for a very particular audience seeking out something special. In effect, Ninja Theory traded away broad appeal and massive budgets for something unique.
Still, going independent presented challenges beyond just the creative and the technical. When it came to funding, Ninja Theory had to find alternative sources. The Wellcome Trust, a biomedical research non-profit, saw what the studio was doing in exploring psychosis, and co-produced Hellblade to the tune of £300,000. That illustrated that publishers don’t have to be the only source of funding.
In an industry landscape that doesn’t seem to have space for studios like EA’s Visceral or 2K’s Irrational, could Ninja Theory’s approach pave the way forward for how AAA quality, narrative games can make a return? Or is Hellblade an exception, a lucky shot from a studio with a reputation for careful deliberate decision making like Ninja Theory?
"I'm not saying to indie teams, 'hey there's five of you, you can make Hellblade,” said Matthews. “We know that's not the case. But I think it could be the case for teams that want to step up and make something bigger with higher production values. Or teams like us, mid-sized AAA devs that don't want to make that big step up can make something like this."
Matthews encouraged other studios considering this approach to get in touch. "We hope this message gains traction with other developers," he said. "If you're a developer like us, searching for independence and with a track record, then get in touch. We've been through this journey, so perhaps we can help."