After working on low-key triple-A titles such as Enslaved and DMC: Devil May Cry, Cambridge-based Ninja Theory decided to try and experiment with its next game.
It was going to put its team of triple-A developers and make a smaller scale project, one that didn't need to sell one million copies to be deemed successful. The team had a budget of £12m, which might sound like a lot but is something like one-tenth of what a triple-A game costs to make these days.
What emerged was Hellblade, a narrative-driven eight-hour experience that dealt with issues surrounding mental health, looked absolutely gorgeous but was made within very specific limitations. For example, in pre-production, Ninja Theory realised they didn't have the budget to do motion and face capture for more than one character, so all of their efforts were focused on the main character, Senua, played and voiced by Melina Juergens who has deservedly gained a lot of critical acclaim for her performance. Other in-game characters are inhuman, with another human character being a real-life person that the team recorded on film, then put a load of filters and effects on top.
The gamble paid off, with Ninja Theory proudly posting that the game had sold half a million copies and that the game was profitable at that point. In an industry that has soaring development costs but where the final products have never cost so little, it's good to see a developer proving that with a limited budget and limited expectations, success is possible.
This isn't a universal rule, though. Around the time Hellblade launched, Cliff Bleszinski's new studio BossKey released a team shooter called LawBreakers. There was a similar mindset behind the game – triple-A quality at a sub-triple-A price point. The game launched and, in what could be a massive understatement, it bombed. Why this game failed where Hellblade succeeded is up for debate.
Part of the reason could be that Lawbreakers arrived into the crowded team shooter market too late to make a dent. Multiplayer games live and die by their user base, so if you and your mates are already putting hours into Overwatch, are you really going to shift gears to LawBreakers? The net effect here is that if people don't see other people playing your game, you're way less likely to go pick it up.
BossKey is hard at work adding in extra content and changes for the game and fingers crossed that it turns the tide with this title.
Going back to Hellblade, it's refreshing to see a small team creating an ambitious, gorgeous-looking and fun to play game coming out and returning on its investment at a time where game budgets are increasing ten fold in a decade. It's proof that with the right game and positioning, indie-A, triple-I, mid tier.. whatever you want to call it can and will work.