In many ways, Ninja Theory has come full circle. The studio was formed as Just Add Monsters back in 2000, and its first game was an Xbox exclusive, Kung Fu Chaos. Microsoft helped to fund the development of that title and, without the American giant’s support, the studio’s history may well have been a very short one.
Fast-forward to 2018 and as part of a much-needed rejuvenation of its firstparty strength, Microsoft announced the acquisition of Ninja Theory at its E3 press conference, along with the purchase of Playground Games, Undead Labs and Compulsion Games, and the founding of a new Santa Monica studio. Playground Games has been making Forza Horizon titles for years, so it seems a natural fit for Microsoft’s portfolio. Likewise for Undead Labs, which makes the Xbox-exclusive State of Decay games. Compulsion Games, on the other hand, is a relatively new studio with just two games under its belt - one of which, We Happy Few, is due out in August.
King Fu Chaos, Ninja Theory’s first game back when it was called Just Add Monsters.
But Ninja Theory is different. This long-running British studio, based in Cambridge, recently saw massive success with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a stunning game that was made by a tiny team of around 20 people and was hailed as Kotaku UK’s British Game of the Year. At GDC in March, Ninja Theory said that Hellblade represented a new path for independent game developers through so-called ‘independent AAA’ titles - games with AAA visuals but much lower costs than a big-budget AAA game. One especially crucial detail was that Hellblade showed a way for smaller developers to compete with big budget games without signing away the rights to a publisher.
Which is why it’s a surprise for Ninja Theory to then do just that - throw in its lot with one of the video game behemoths. Independent AAA, in other words, led to acquisition rather than independence.
What does Microsoft get?
It’s easy to see why Microsoft was interested in Ninja Theory. The console giant is in sore need of first-party exclusive titles to compete with Sony’s impressive roster, and Ninja Theory has an excellent track record of making high-quality AAA games. It’s the studio behind Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and DmC: Devil May Cry and has a reputation for high-quality motion capture and top-notch storytelling, with regular collaborators Andy Serkis and Alex Garland helping to push the narrative elements of its titles beyond the tepid norms of ‘mainstream’ games. A Ninja Theory game with the financial clout of Microsoft behind it could be something special indeed.
Hellblade was a huge success for Ninja Theory.
Then again, it’s been a rocky road for Ninja Theory. Although the studio has many fans it has also come in for a fair amount of criticism, notably the extreme backlash against DmC. And it has to be noted that of the above-mentioned three games, only DmC could be considered commercially successful and even then it didn’t do well enough for Capcom to persist (to digress: one might suggest the Japanese publisher should have had the courage of its convictions here, rather than abandoning the developer after one entry).
The studio’s drive to deliver strong narrative experiences, in other words, hasn’t always translated into strong sales. The financial rollercoaster of Ninja Theory’s 18 years of existence is why the security of Microsoft looks very attractive.
“We want to protect our team”
I asked Ninja Theory for their take on the buyout, and they said they’d like to “stick with what we’ve said in the video for now”, referring to the below video response posted on 10th June.
In it, Tameem Antoniades, Chief Creative Director at Ninja Theory, attempts to reassure fans and explain the reasoning behind the sale. He has this to say about the terms with which he approached Microsoft:
“We said: we want to be free from the AAA machine and make games focused on the experience, not around monetisation. We want to take bigger creative risks and create genre-defining games without the constant threat of annihilation. 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. In short, we asked for full creative independence and I remember thinking at the time that this is going to be the end of that conversation.”
Dominic Matthews, Commercial Director, takes up the story at this point:
“Instead, they said you could have all of that, and if you so choose, our marketing teams, support teams, research and technology groups are at your disposal to super-charge your efforts to do more of what you want to do and how you want to do it.”
Enslaved was critically well received but commercially underwhelming.
The phrase ‘we want to protect our team’ is what really leaps out of the above statement. It’s understandable that Ninja Theory would welcome some stability after 18 years facing an often uncertain future. Its first three games – Kung Fu Chaos, Heavenly Sword and Enslaved - all underperformed commercially, and in an interview with PC Gamer earlier this year, Antoniades explained that after DmC, “We couldn't get signed, and when we did get signed, various projects quickly collapsed.” The studio managed to survive by taking contract jobs, like working on elements of Disney Infinity. Before Hellblade sold 500,000 units in three months, there was a point where Antoniades says we had “our backs against the wall, and things were looking dark”.
So when Microsoft came along with promises of creative freedom combined with financial security, it’s little surprise that Antoniades and co. grabbed the opportunity to sign up with the Redmond giant. The unqualified success of Hellblade may have shown that independent AAA can work, but let’s not forget that this was a serious and future-defining risk for Ninja Theory.
Now Microsoft can cover that risk, and cover it easily. But can the Xbox division keep its promise of non-interference?
A warning from history
Microsoft’s history of buying British developers is, to put it bluntly, discouraging. Rare was once the jewel in the crown of British development, but since Microsoft purchased the company in 2002 the output has been patchy at best. Infamously, Rare spent many years making Xbox avatars and Kinect Sports games.
The buyout of Lionhead is an even unhappier story. Purchased by Microsoft in 2006, the once-great studio spent the next ten years making Fable sequels, also serving its time on Kinect with Fable: The Journey. Reportedly, Microsoft pushed them into making Fable Legends because of the trend for games-as-a-service, despite the fact that the developer had no experience of making games like this. After years of troubled development, Microsoft closed the studio in 2016 and cancelled Fable Legends for good measure.
After years of development, Fable Legends was canned - and Lionhead along with it.
Given this history, fans of Ninja Theory may feel alarm at the news that Microsoft has snaffled up their favourite developer, fearing that corporate interference could water down the studio’s fierce independence and condemn it to irrelevance - or even closure.
It will be interesting to see whether the studio’s creative independence can survive through a commercially underperforming title, as it has in the past with games like Enslaved. Although that game may not have sold as well as it deserved to, elements made it through to the hugely successful Hellblade, not least the studio’s continued development of motion capture. If Ninja Theory now create an original title under Microsoft that fails to sell, will they be allowed to make another with the same level of creative freedom? Or will some bean-counter in Redmond decide to ‘correct’ the studio’s course? Microsoft has promised Ninja Theory full creative independence, but we’ll see how those words hold up after the honeymoon period..
A troubling message
Perhaps the most difficult question that comes from this buyout is the message it sends to other game developers. When I compiled a list of UK-based game devs a few months back, Ninja Theory stood out as one of the few major British studios that had yet to be snapped up by a foreign giant, like Activision Blizzard or Ubisoft.
With Hellblade and the independent AAA model, Ninja Theory was also pioneering a way for smaller developers to survive amongst giant rivals, a way to stay independent while others succumbed to corporate buyouts. The trend in the games industry is towards consolidation, with the major players swallowing each other up, while at the other end of the scale tiny indie studios proliferate. Hellblade, an ambitious game made by a couple of dozen people with a relatively small budget, seemed to offer a middle way for independent studios that can’t compete with the Ubisofts and EAs of this world. Ninja Theory was proudly trumpeting this idea a short while back.
Hellblade showed a pioneering way to do ‘independent AAA’ - but its maker is no longer independent.
With Ninja Theory selling up to Microsoft, the takeaway seems to be… well, that it didn’t quite work as expected. That, in the end, it might be better to be part of a giant company with its marketing teams and technology groups rather than go it alone. We shouldn’t be too starry-eyed about this either: Ninja Theory has had to lay people off in the past, and all-too-often that’s the reality of flying solo.
Ninja Theory now has access to massive amounts of investment that will enable it to develop games as big as its imagination allows. Orson Welles once had some cautionary words about such circumstances: “the enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” Originality often comes from constraints. The quote comes to mind because Antoniades himself said as much about Hellblade back in April: "I think it was the severe lack of money and people that made this game innovate, that made the team innovate."
The purchase of Ninja Theory by Microsoft is great news for Xbox gamers starved of first-party titles. Whatever the Cambridge-based studio comes up with, it’s sure to be fascinating. The buyout is sure to be of reassurance to Ninja Theory’s staff, too, after nearly two decades of financial uncertainty. But it’s always sad to see yet another British independent developer snapped up by a mega-corporation. One can only hope that Ninja Theory’s unique spark continues to fizzle and crack under its new masters.