One of the biggest surprises of Microsoft’s E3 conference was the announcement that Hellblade’s Ninja Theory would join the company as a first-party studio. Even more surprising is the reason Ninja Theory did it: Microsoft promised unfettered creative freedom.
Hellblade was a huge success pulled out of adversity. Ninja Theory very nearly closed down four years ago, when it appeared there was no future for the middle ground of developers – larger than indie but smaller than the studios behind COD and Assassin’s Creed.
A desperate period followed, where several work-for-hire projects helped fund Hellblade – a beautiful, performance-captured game made by only 20 people with only $10 million.
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Hellblade sold extremely well, won five BAFTAs, and proved the point the studio wanted to make about independent triple-A games. But even with everything going right, Ninja Theory expected it would take a further five to eight years before every team at the studio was able to flex their creative muscles in the same way.
Microsoft, who once signed Ninja Theory’s first ever game, Kung Fu Chaos, approached the studio out of the blue about the acquisition. Ninja Theory said that it wanted to be “free from the triple-A machine”.
“We want to take bigger creative risks and create genre-defining games without the constant threat of annihilation,” Ninja Theory’s creative head Tameem Antoniades said. “We want to make our own games, our own way, and not be told what to make and how to make it. And above all, we want to protect our team, our culture, and our identity, because that, in essence, is Ninja Theory.”
Incredibly, Microsoft agreed to those terms – granting Ninja Theory full creative independence. Ninja Theory spoke to all of Microsoft’s internal game studio heads before making their decision – one they believe has allowed them to jump years ahead and leave that threat of annihilation behind. Perhaps now the studio can make that game using AI.
“Hellblade was created by a small team of just 20 people with extremely limited resources,” commercial director Dominic Matthews says. “Imagine what we can now achieve with our whole team of 100 people, backed by Microsoft, focused purely on Ninja Theory’s vision.”