Ninja Theory's tips for surviving and thriving as a 'AAA indie'

Ninja Theory Tameem Antoinades offers an update at GDC Europe on how the studio is developing Hellblade with a 15-man team, and offer tips for fellow devs on making indie games with AAA polish.

A year ago Ninja Theory co-founder Tameem Antoniades came to GDC Europe to share his vision for the studio’s salvation: making indie games with a AAA level of polish, starting with its upcoming Hellblade. Today he returned to give an update on how it’s going, and share some advice for fellow developers engaged on projects that aim for AAA production values without the hassles of AAA markets.

“The retail model is like a grumpy old grandpa that doesn’t want to change its ways: games have got to cost 60 dollars, and that’s that,” says Antoniades. So when these games can’t compete on price, they have to compete on features, and that leads to an arms race which forces devs to “go big, or go home.”

Digital distribution has opened up a new way for developers that can’t or won’t compete in that arms race to make a living selling their games. Within that space Antoniades carves out Ninja Theory’s role as a purveyor of “indie AAA” work — games that are half the size and half the cost of AAA games, but with the same level of polish. 

“’We want to chuck out as much baggage that comes with AAA retail as possible, and focus, as a studio, on what we love,” says Antoniades. “A lot of what I talk about is specific to Hellblade, but you can take a lot of it and apply it to any games you’re working on.”

“In order to make a go of it, we first wanted to undercut AAA developer costs by half,” says Antoniades. That means going with digital over retail, for a start, and setting a budget that the studio could reasonably hope to recoup. 

“A budget for about 15 people working for two years is what it equates to,” says Antoniades, estimating that Ninja Theory can recoup its budget if Hellblade sells at least 300,000 copies. 

“It didn’t seem feasible or possible to hit AAA quality with 15 people, but there was reason for optimism," he adds. Game development tools have gotten a lot better in the past few years, for one -- Antoniades recommends that to keep dev costs down, you encourage your team to stick to off-the-shelf tools like Unreal Engine 4 and strictly limit how much customization you allow.

It's got to be a team effort, too; in the past year, the Ninja Theory co-founder says he's learned to move away from a direct reporting system and embrace a more democratic studio system predicate don mutual respect.

“In a 15-man team, it’s sort of meaningless to have a hierarchy,” says Antoniadeas. “When you have one guy making the art for everything in the world, what’s the point in calling him a lead? In fact, we call everyone a lead.”

Antoniades says this takes a while to get used to when your team is used to AAA game development, noting that Ninja Theory has taken about nine months to adjust to the change and seen some staff changes along the way as individual responsibilities change.

“You need polymaths, people who are comfortable doing lots of different things,” he says, echoing something many indies have known for quite some time. “Our industry focuses on specializing people, and that doesn’t work well outside of AAA.”

It’s not cheap to field even a 15-person team for 2 years; Antoniades estimates it will cost a few million dollars, and Ninja Theory had a tricky time figuring out how to get that money. The studio shied away from giving up IP rights as part of a publisher deal, and didn’t want to try Kickstarter or Early Access -- the former seemed too unpredictable, the latter inappropriate for a game that revolves around a core narrative that could be spoiled.

Instead the studio took out a “sizable loan which we still have to pay back,” says Antoniades, as well as capitalizing on savings, grants, tax breaks and the promise of monetizing the game post-release by releasing DLC and porting it to new platforms.

Making a game that directly acknowledges and incorporates themes of mental illness has proven to be a challenge for Ninja Theory, in part because of what Antoniades describes as a stigma around the subject.

“[Mental illness] shouldn’t be a taboo, not when I can pretty much bet that everyone in this room has been touched by it, directly or indirectly, in their lives,” says Antoniades, noting that the studio is struggling to address the topic with respect. ”Response has been good for now, but we have to remember that that doesn’t give us a free pass to do whatever we want.”

If you’re interested in trying something similar, Antoniades points out that Ninja Theory has been regularly bringing in a mental health expert to discuss their work on the game and solicit feedback on whether it’s respectful. That work was funded in part by the Wellcome Trust charity, via a pair of grants that afforded Ninja Theory more access to mental health organizations, charities and mainstream press outlets who might be interested in covering a game that tries to respectfully incorporate themes of mental illness.

The studio has also tried to design many of Hellblade’s effects based on direct input from mental illness sufferers about how they experience the world.

“Really, Wellcome has opened up doors to us that we otherwise would never have opened,” says Antoniades, noting that charity funding is a "route that's absolutely worth looking into, if you’re working in a similar area.”

Antoniades closed his talk out by calling for developers to open themselves up to the public a bit. Ninja Theory’s own efforts to drum up interest in Hellblade have been relatively inexpensive, but effective, he says; the studio tries to put out videos and blog posts every week, and it makes it clear to press outlets that everyone on the team is fully available for interviews.

Antoniades believes that willingness to invite the media into the studio -- either metaphorically or, in many cases, physically -- helped net Hellblade a place on the cover of a few magazines, something he seems to prize as the studio struggles to prove that the "indie AAA" development philosophy its created for itself is actually a viable path for other studios to take.

“We’re not trying to take away anything from big publishers, or the indie scene,” says Antoniades. “We just want to show there’s another way, and the way we do that is by being open about our work. There’s a big risk of failing in public, but that’s a risk we’re willing to take.”

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