Friday, June 5, 2015

Why Ninja Theory’s Independent AAA Could Save Gaming's Middle Ground

Ninja Theory is a developer that always seems on the verge of mainstream success. They landed a PS3 exclusive deal early on with Heavenly Sword; they wowed critics with Enslaved: Odyssey to the West; and they made serious waves with Dante’s redesign in DmC. However, it’s their newest effort Hellblade that just may be their most important work to date. The game is shaping up to be what fans would expect from the studio: a third person action title in the vein of Devil May Cry or God of War. Though, it isn’t so much the game’s content that’s been turning heads in the industry; it’s the way the game is being produced. It’s a process they’re calling “Independent AAA”.

It doesn't hurt that the game's world seems incredibly intriguing.

Ninja Theory’s goal is to create a AAA gaming experience that can hold its own against anything that major publishers can afford while maintaining a development that is independent of any of the usual constraints that pay for such an experience. Ninja Theory is attempting to fund the entire game themselves, forgoing even Kickstarter in order to remain beholden only to themselves and their vision of what the game should be. This isn’t to say that anyone interested in the project must wait for the slow trickle of information usually associated with such high profile releases. Indeed, Ninja Theory is keen to have a completely open and honest discussion about the direction development is headed, whether it be challenges faced during iteration or the major influences for the world they’re building. They do all this while trying to preserve some mystery as far as where the game’s story will go. (If you want to see for yourself, their official site has some fascinating insight on Hellblade and on game development in general.)

Just one of the many concept images NT has been sharing.

What makes this gamble so important is that Ninja Theory seems to be one of the few developers endeavoring to traverse the oft discussed but rarely explored middle ground of game development. By eliminating outside publisher involvement and remaining a much smaller team, they’re able to keep costs down while still potentially delivering an experience that gamers would feel comfortable spending $60 on. With major publishers like Square Enix showing disappointment at selling upwards of 3.4 million copies of Tomb Raider as well as Sega and Konami bidding adieu to the console market not to mention the overabundance of annualized franchises, it would seem that AAA development costs are getting pretty far out of hand. Something like Ninja Theory’s “Independent AAA” has the potential to give gamers a brand new IP at a value somewhere between indie and traditional AAA while still delivering a polished experience and a very transparent development process.

Tried and true franchises like Assassin's Creed aren't going away anytime soon.

Work on Hellblade is still far from over, but the benefits from its potential success could open up the middle ground for more developers to explore, allowing some to break away from rigid publisher mandates and schedules in order to create new experiences on a more attainable budget. Mega budget blockbusters that have carried the industry for so long will certainly still be a big part of gaming, but the more diversity there is in gaming, not only in terms of the games themselves but also their development techniques, the more likely the games industry is to thrive, and Ninja Theory may be leading the way on how to get there.

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