In the run-up to Gamescom, UK developer Ninja Theory had been teasing their new IP. The game, Hellblade, was announced on-stage at Sony’s conference via a sombre, eye-catching CGI trailer.

The first reaction many had to that teaser was that it looked like Heavenly Sword, Ninja Theory’s 2007 PS3 exclusive. It’s not hard to see the similarities – the strange, mythical world, the female warrior protagonist, even the name. Ninja Theory have since made it clear that Hellblade bears no relation to Heavenly Sword, and when we take a look at how the game is being developed, it’s clear that it’s a very different beast in some very significant ways.

To begin with, Hellblade will be a smaller-scale project – it’ll be shorter than the developer’s previous titles and forgo a physical release. That’s not to say they’re taking their collective feet off the gas when it comes to production values; we expect a great audio-visual aspect to their games, and we’re promised Hellblade won’t disappoint in that respect. But perhaps the biggest point of difference here is that Hellblade won’t be tied to a publisher; it will be Ninja Theory’s first self-published console game, and, most importantly, it will allow the team to retain their own IP.

It’s a proposition that co-founder Tameem Antoniades calls “Independent AAA”. In a sense, Antoniades sees this as reclaiming the middle ground that we’ve lost over the last generation; as triple-A development costs rise, publishers seek to mitigate risk and more often than not this leads to homogenisation – if something’s a massive hit, other publishers will seek to emulate that success. Everyone wants a Call of Duty. Everyone wants a GTA.

This leads to less diversity in the market, which isn’t great for gamers, but it can also be destructive to the people that make those games. Most studios can’t compete with the funding enjoyed by the likes of Infinity Ward or Rockstar North, and attempting to respond to those mega-franchises carries its own risks – risks that can often be fatal. We’ve seen plenty of development houses close down over the last generation, even long-standing ones like Bizarre Creations or Sony Liverpool; even a mildly successful title in a genre that may have shrunk to a niche can kill a studio.

Being an independent developer, Antoniades knows his team can’t compete on a level playing field with the likes of Assassin’s Creed or Uncharted. But equally, he’s not about to let his studio join the list of casualties that has resulted from what he calls the “go big or go home” world of AAA console development. So he’s making a play for that abandoned middle ground. “It’s about self-publishing AAA-quality games that are narrower in focus, selling them for a fair price and connecting to your fans in a meaningful way,” he says. “It’s a place for developers like us who don’t fit comfortably in the mega-budget AAA space but who are not true indie developers.”

Looking back through NT’s history, it’s clear to see why this approach appeals to them. Hellblade will be the first of their games that they retain ownership of, which means that they have full control over where it goes and how it evolves. Over the years, fans have asked for sequels to Heavenly Sword or Enslaved, and though Ninja Theory would love to revisit these franchises, these characters, these worlds that they created, they can’t. Because to get those games made, they had to hand over ownership of them.

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They’ve also had to fight to keep their team together on a number of occasions, whether that be down to parent companies imploding, publishing deals going south or simply being unwilling to scale down the team after production, something that is an inherent part of AAA production. Ninja Theory have re-mortgaged houses, sought investment, and even walked away from precious IP to keep their team together as, in Antoniades’ words, “[w]e knew that the value of a creative company comes from the team-work, experience and talent of the people in it.” Testament to this, he says, is the fact that Enslaved, with only two-thirds the budget, had double the game content of Heavenly Sword, adding “[m]assively improved efficiency is the real value of keeping a team together.”

But it’s that ownership of their creative output that will no doubt appeal to Ninja Theory the most, giving them not only the freedom to decide their own future but also the freedom to actually green-light and create the games they want to make in the first place. Antoniades recounts reactions to his team’s pitches, saying that “[w]e’ve variously been told point blank that single-player story games are dead, that any art style other than realism is not commercial, and that melee games do not sell.” For a developer whose main focus is third-person story-driven melee action games, that’s obviously not what they want to hear.

Ownership of IP is only going to become more important for developers looking to safeguard their futures. In the world of AAA, we’ve recently seen some of the bigger independent studios manage to retain ownership of their projects – gamers may have been dismayed to see Bungie team up with Activision for Destiny, for instance, but crucially the Bellevue studio owns that franchise. It’s theirs. Likewise, when shopping around Sunset Overdrive, Insomniac went with the deal that allowed them to keep the IP, as their usual partner Sony had previously requested ownership.

But smaller developers don’t really have the clout to demand the same, not if they want funding to get their projects made. So smaller scale projects and digital distribution is an important direction for them, making the ability to self-publish that Sony and Microsoft have brought to their new consoles an enormous boon. At the very least, it means not having to worry about the costs of manufacturing discs and packaging, or the traditional distribution costs that come with physical product. Money saved elsewhere can be fed back into development of the important part of the project – the game itself.

As a fan of their previous releases, I’m both looking forward to getting my hands on Hellblade and hopeful that this “Independent AAA” focus works out for Ninja Theory. Perhaps if other smaller developers see them having success there they will also be inspired to give it a try, like Just Add Water (whose Lorne Lanning Antoniades cites as an inspiration for his company’s direction), who released Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty! just last month to rave reviews, proving that there is a space there for developers to target. This should hopefully mean more developers making the games they want to make, rather than the games they have to make, enriching game development for all of us.

If you’re interested in the development of Hellblade, the history of Ninja Theory, or an insight into AAA development, it’s worth checking out the Hellblade development blog.

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