Hack n' slashing a new path...

You might be forgiven for not having heard of Hellblade; we covered it briefly back when it was announced in August last year, but since then, amidst the slew of highly-anticipated big action/adventure releases like MGSV: The Phantom Pain and Bloodborne, the title has flown relatively under the radar. The thing is, as soon as you see any imagery or content from the game, you’ll realise that it looks very familiar, very familiar indeed.

Hellblade is in many ways the ‘spiritual successor’ to the 2007 release Heavenly Sword (you can probably see where they got the name from) and one of developer Ninja Theory’s first forays into the mainstream console market. It looks to carry all the trademarks of a typical Ninja Theory game; emotionally charged narratives told through excellent character realisation, all broken up with solid, responsive hack ‘n’ slash gameplay. The thing is, it’s not really the content of Hellblade that interests me, but rather the premise.

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The Independent AAA

Speaking at last year’s GDC Europe event, the Ninja Theory team gave an extensive talk on what they called the Independent AAA proposition, a subject that I believe deserves much more recognition than it got at the time. The talk covered a range of subjects from the company’s history, to the pressure they faced as game developers, but most importantly it took a critical look at today’s gaming industry, and what can be done to fix it.

hellblade dmc

Ninja Theory titles are always pretty brash when it comes to their views on issues like commercialisation and consumerism.

Co-founder Tameem identified the two current extremes of the gaming spectrum; on the one hand you have AAA blockbuster releases like Uncharted, Call of Duty etc. and on the other you have the burgeoning indie-game scene, which is augmented by other factors like mobile and free-to-play titles. Obviously owing to the growing prevalence of digital platforms, it’s getting easier for small-time game developers to access wider audiences through PSN and Xbox Live; independent titles are no longer restricted to the domain of internet sub-cultures. What really piqued my interest is their proclamation that they want to occupy the virtual no-man’s land of this spectrum; they want to develop a game (Hellblade) that unites the advantages of both AAA and independent development.

Chalk and Cheese

Given how widely disparate the two areas currently seem, you might understandably be quite confused at the prospect. Talking about their history as a company, the co-founder went on to elaborate on how, having started as a trio of coders in a loft, the independent heart of Ninja Theory often struggled with the (largely commercial) demands of a AAA organisation. Speaking about the emphasis placed on sales directly, Tameem commented that “any game genre, art style, gameplay concept that would not all guarantee 5 million sales would be dead”, a statement that really speaks volumes about the current state of our industry.

hellblade dmc mundus

DmC’s Mundus wanted to “control the world through debt” – sound familiar to anyone?

As we all know, the central issue is that risks simply aren’t seen to sell, so the innovation and originality that has come to define the indie game scene is rarely ever allowed to properly flourish in the AAA domain. Faced with this dilemma, Ninja Theory began to divide up their team, changing their structure to more closely resemble that of an independent developer. Outside of mobile development, however, their efforts were constantly blocked by the (rather ominous sounding) anonymous publishers, and their focus on ‘design by spreadsheet’.

Striking Out On Their Own

The central crux of Ninja Theory’s argument is that the current business model of AAA titles affords too much financial (and therefore creative) control to the publishers, making it harder than ever for developers to launch and own their original IPs. The AAA Independent proposition circumvents the need for publishers, instead it places the majority of control in the hands of developers, thus allowing them to better connect with fans, and make a game they actually want to play.

Their efforts were constantly blocked by the anonymous publishers, and their focus on ‘design by spreadsheet’.

The games themselves look to provide a smaller, much more focussed experience, rather than titles like Destiny that look to be all things to all people. Titles will also be cheaper, marketed at “around the price of a DVD” movie, which comes in at roughly a quarter of the price of a AAA release. Consequently, this would open up the first hand market, allowing a lot more gamers to experience brand-new releases, as and when they come out.

hellblade concept art

Hellblade looks to unite art, narrative AND gameplay – what a preposterous suggestion?!

Sink or Swim

Evidently this model hasn’t yet proven itself to be successful, and Ninja Theory themselves recognise a number of obstacles (like funding and distribution) that still need to be overcome. As they also acknowledge, the approach isn’t best thought of as some sort of industry mutiny – there is still room for publishers and AAA business models – but looks to encourage the organisations that hold all the money to take several smaller risks rather than a few big ones. For me there’s also another sticking point; once an IP has received the support of an international publisher, how can they guarantee it will retain its distinctly independent quality?

It remains to be seen how well the model will work out, obviously a lot hinges on the development and release of Hellblade, which as yet has a vague 2015 release date. I am, however, enthusiastic about the potential of the Independent AAA proposition, and welcome the chance it offers to bring more diverse IPs to the international market at a more affordable price point.

If you’d like to learn more, you can read the full Independent AAA proposition here.