Ninja Theory: The Role Of The AAA Developer

With the release of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, developer Ninja Theory has pushed the concept of an Independent AAA studio forward – but does it have legs to stand on?

The Video Game industry is in a state of constant flux. As a field that is so inextricably interwoven with the progression of technology, it doesn’t take long for the field to lurch in one direction or another.

The last few years have seen the boom and stabilization of the indie game market – a field that prior to the accessibility of development tools was largely relegated to those who had pursued the craft along some formal line of education.

Through this democratization of digital tools, a schism began to appear: that between the Indie Dev and the AAA Development House.

This gulf of capabilities can be more-or-less summed up by the money involved. An indie dev is typically self-funded, privately-funded, crowd-funded, or kept afloat through a combination of the aforementioned.

AAA development houses the likes of Electronic Arts and Ubisoft, on the other hand, swing around more capital on an annual basis than much of the indie market will see in their lifetime – but perhaps what’s so interesting is the unique set of pros and cons that each side has.

Independent developers have proven repeatedly that they are not bound by the obligation to please the largest number of consumers as possible to turn a profit. Their games may be a bit rough around the edges, but what they sometimes sacrifice in polish they make up for in identity and character.

AAA developers, on the contrary, rarely get the opportunity to say something bold and interesting at the expense of potentially offending some members of their vast player base.

As such, the annual releases and franchises that saturate the market may not have the strongest sense of identity or character, but they often feature a thoroughly-tested and polished package for consumption.

While there are certainly outliers on both sides of the field, there is a noticeable lack of AAA – quality games that attempt to do something daring, imaginative, and still maintain an aesthetic quality that is expected from a big-budget dev studio. Enter Ninja Theory.

Ninja Theory is no stranger to big games. Their past releases like Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and Devil May Cry are by no means small games. Each feature packed hours of content for players to slog through and conquer – yet each bears the characteristic bravado that seems to perfectly describe the studio.

Perhaps it’s that very quality which saw the studio release Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a visually breath-taking narrative-driven game that bravely explores one of the taboo topics in the market: mental illness.

Set against the backdrop of Celtic and Norse mythology, Hellblade’s cold and murky world is brought to life with vivid psychotic hallucinations at the hands of its protagonists’ grief.

Such a mechanic gave the devs the chance to flex the muscles they’d built up over the years, while modern advancements in engine capabilities and availability allowed a team of 20 people to produce an experience that rivals what many AAA studios have put forth.

Hellblade has earned critical success since its release and firmly stands in that strange space between “indie” and “triple-AAA”. Yet, despite being arguably one of the first games to willingly put itself in this place – perhaps also a factor of clever marketing – Ninja Theory’s experiment may be the start of a new wave.

One that combines the best of both worlds in innovative storytelling and cutting-edge graphics. The possibility alone is truly exciting, but as with all things in gaming though, the market will decide.