Hellblade: New Approach, Preview - Games Weekly

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Hellblade: New Approach, Preview

In the last issue We talked about The origins of Hellblade, Today we will talk about the new approach. 

The foundation for Hellblade long predates Senua’s genesis. Unless you’re new to the realm of PlayStation this generation, you should be familiar with Ninja Theory’s work on PS3, beginning with platform exclusive Heavenly Sword back in 2007 and extending to Enslaved: Odyssey To The West and DmC: Devil May Cry.

“If we could work on a sequel or remake we would in a heartbeat,” said Tameem Antoniades of Heavenly Sword at Game Developers Conference Europe mere days before Hellblade’s August reveal, quickly following up the sentiment with a desire to continue working on the Enslaved series, too. But those decisions aren’t up to the team. In all three cases, the publishers (Sony, Bandai Namco and Capcom respectively) hold the power, and in this new generation the typical model for making games isn’t necessarily a great fit for the types of games that Ninja Theory wants to make.


“To make a game viable for these consoles you had to try and sell, or publishers wanted to sell, about four or five million upwards,” Antoniades tells me. “And if you’re trying to create a game that sells that much, you have to be all things to all people. Anything that potentially turns off segments of the audience is stamped out of the design.

“It’s not the publishers being evil, it’s [that] they’re working towards the model that they’ve created for themselves. So it was becoming very clear that the kind of games that we like to make, which are very story driven games or melee combat games, are not the games that are going to sell five million copies naturally. It’s not to say that they can’t sell that much, but it’s assumed it won’t.”

Last year, Ninja Theory tried pitching games that publishers would feel confident about backing, such as robo-heavy multiplayer shooter Razer in which tens of thousands of players teamed up over months to defeat a planet/boss hybrid by completing millions of missions. An ultimately unsuccessful pitch thanks to the then-recent reveal of the similar sounding Destiny, which nobody wanted to tackle head-on.

Then a breakthrough. The chance to work on an existing IP with an unnamed publisher emerged, which Ninja Theory accepted. The team began adapting Razer's mechanics for this new project, but early on it became evident that Ninja’s ideas differed from those of the publisher.
“We can delIver a game That looks and Feels as good as any assassin's creed.”
“The only way to design a product (...) seemed to be to focus on the things that sell and then replicate them, which isn’t then a creative endeavour it’s hard graft,” sighs Antoniades. “It’s a spreadsheet that tells you what will sell and what won’t, and then you design a game around that.

“That’s not the kind of game that we wanted to make. We tried a couple of times and it didn't work for us, and coming into the office became a chore rather than a pleasure.” In the end, the endeavour was amicably cancelled.

And now we reach the true start of the Hellblade project. Frustrated by publisher interference, Antoniades explains how he, “wanted to make a game that I knew we would be able to make and have fun making.” So began not just a new action title that’s coming to PS4 first, but a new experiment with download only games the team is calling ‘Independent Triple-A’.

According to Ninja Theory, Hellblade is the first ever ‘Independent Triple-A’ game: a title that lives somewhere between the realms of the traditional ‘triple-A’ model and the vibrant and diverse indie scene. Ninja Theory isn't completely abandoning traditional development processes it’s partnering with Disney for the Disney Infinity series and has another, secret, project in the works but, in a corner of the studio, 13 people are deep in the prototype stages of Hellblade’s production.

The first topic I discuss with Dominic Matthews is the definition of Independent Triple-A. “By that we mean it has all of the qualities of a triple-A game, but it’s delivered independently in a smaller package,” he says. “So it’s a shorter game than you’d get in a $60 game, and at a lower price.

“If you’ve played Heavenly Sword or DmC or Enslaved you can expect the same production values that have gone into those games. A lot of indie titles now are super stylised; there’s a lot of pixel art games, and they’re fantastic. But what we’re trying to do is deliver the same triple-A values with beautifully realised 3D performance captured cinematics. We can deliver a game that looks and feels as good as any Assassin’s Creed game, or Destiny, in terms of the level of quality, but it’s just shorter and more focused in terms of the breadth of the mechanics.”

That ‘triple-A-quality’ goal is central to everything, I’m assured. “As a studio our Metacritic rating has been increasing over our games. The plan is that will continue with Hellblade,” Matthews insists. On score aggregator site Metacritic Heavenly Sword is sitting on 79%, Enslaved: Odyssey To The West has it pipped with 80% and DmC: Devil May Cry, settled on 85%. “If we didn't think we could do it, we wouldn't be taking this on.”

To be continued...

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