At GDC Europe this week, Ninja Theory co-founder Tameem Antoniades gave a fascinating talk about the history of the studio, titled “The Independent AAA Proposition”. During the talk, Antoniades discussed the development of previous Ninja Theory games, the difficulties the studio has encountered throughout its 14-year history, and the idea of independent games that can match AAA quality.
Below are a few select quotes from the presentation, although I would highly recommend reading through the entire talk, especially if you want some idea of how Ninja Theory are approaching their new game, Hellblade.
On Ninja Theory’s formation:
“I was employed as a programmer and designer when I and two of my colleagues, Nina Kristensen and Mike Ball set up Just Add Monsters with £3000 in savings and not a lot else. We had little money, no equipment, no code, and no office, just a spare bedroom. I had a passion for Kung Fu and had designed a multiplayer brawler called Kung Fu Chaos, something smallish to get us started.”
“We set about looking for investment but no one was interested in that. Instead, 3 game companies, all developers wanted to buy us outright. Having run out of savings, we sold to Argonaut 6 months after founding.”
“With Argonaut’s backing we bought computers, hired staff, and moved into a little office and prototyped a little gameplay demo. We signed the game to Microsoft Games Studios on who were looking to make a mark in the console space with the Xbox. We grew from 3 to around 20 at full production. We were owned by Argonaut, but operating independently, in a small office in Cambridge.”
On the relationship between publishers and developers:
“We thought that delivering Kung Fu Chaos on time and on budget would mean that our relationship would continue. It didn’t. No sales. No sequel. This was something that we learned again and again, on subsequent games, that no matter how good a working relationship is, the only thing that counts at the end of the day is the profit and loss.”
“And because the Kung Fu Chaos IP was owned by our publisher, and all the code was Xbox exclusive we couldn’t take the sequel anywhere else. We had to start from scratch. We didn’t have the financial leverage to own the IP and take it forward so it was effectively dead. It is simply the model that AAA operates in. The handful of developers that have stand-out hits are able to break this model by funding their own game and keeping their IP but the vast majority were and still are in the same boat.”
On Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and DmC:
“We were in a financially critical position when we signed the game to a new publisher called Green Screen. Green Screen imploded within one month of signing us. But the signing fee meant that we had a tiny bit of time to find another publisher. We signed with Namco in the nick of time. With far less time and budget than Heavenly Sword we released the game it to good reviews, 82% on metacritic. It was delivered on time, on budget. It had almost double the game content of Heavenly Sword with 2/3rds of the budget. Massively improved efficiency is the real value of keeping a team together.”
“We started DmC just before we finished Enslaved and hit the ground running. Once again we delivered on time, on budget, hit 86% metacritic. At launch it hit number one in the US, Europe and Japan and is the first game we have generated royalties on. We had a great relationship with Capcom and we are grateful for the opportunity to work on DmC.”
On “Independent AAA” games:
“There is a space I want us to fill. Common wisdom says that this space doesn’t exist. I’m calling this space Independent AAA. 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. 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.”
“A note on terminology. I talked to Lorne Lanning from Oddworld about this space between AAA and Indie earlier this year at GDC in San Francisco. He used the phrase “AAA Indie”. I am using the more neutral “Independent AAA” because there is a particular ethos, culture and energy that surrounds the word “Indie” that I admire but don’t feel like I’ve earned.”
Again, I’d highly recommend reading the entire presentation. It goes into great detail about Ninja Theory’s growth as a developer, the hardships they’ve faced throughout the years, and even discusses a bunch of cancelled projects that never saw the light of day. It’s a fascinating read about the challenges of trying to operate an independent development studio.