Think Piece – A Farewell to the Trail Ninja Theory Blazed

Have you gamed at all in the past 10 years? Then it’s pretty darn likely that you’ve found yourself playing through something made by Ninja Theory.

Survivors of the great “mid-tier” slashing of the mid 2000s, this small team of developers has hopped from publisher to publisher delivering quality narrative experiences. Well, almost always. The point is, their hearts were always in the right place with their projects and most of them reflected that passion.

My main introduction to the company was through Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and Heavenly Sword as cult hits I’d had recommended to me. Both brought in Andy Serkis to act (you get to see his real face!) and direct the scenes with either offering very personable, loving stories as a result. It certainly didn’t hurt that the mo-cap and graphics were masterfully used to highlight the beauty and disguise the boundaries.

Both games reviewed fairly well – around an 8 out of 10 – and so Ninja Theory was shown to be on a good thing. The problem? Neither of them sold well enough to make up their costs.

Ninja Theory

The next project was DMC: Devil May Cry, which had plenty of controversy about the main character, the definitive edition, and more. It was a drama project that just kept on giving. Despite the bluster, DMC actually sold pretty well at around 1.7 million units if you count the re-release for PS4 and Xbox One. Again, the problem? Those numbers rank it as the worst selling Devil May Cry game and keep it just barely above the HD Collection in sales numbers despite scoring vastly higher on average.

The history of Ninja Theory as a developer is that of a fairly consistent level of quality that won’t blow the top off any sales expectations. That was the summary at the bottom of their reputation and may have inadvertently given them a very unique perspective on the publisher-developer relationship.

Once upon a time, selling a million copies of any game was astounding and praiseworthy. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft all used to crow anytime a new title surpassed a million units shipped (not the same as sold, but that’s their usual wording regardless). Crowds have since ballooned and expectations have had to go along for the ride. Higher expectations, in traditional business rationale, must be accompanied by a higher budget, which is ultimately the killer of old milestones.

Perspective can turn a molehill into a mountain, and in many cases, has grown that mountain to Mars. Final Fantasy XV, during its magnanimous unveiling party in 2016, was quoted as having a minimum sales expectation of 10 million units. Other multi-million unit sellers have been deemed failures with entire franchises and companies canned as a result. A million sales was just never going to be enough again in the triple-A gaming industry to knock on the door of both quality and financial success, so very many thought.

Ninja Theory

Ninja Theory, having survived all of this, set out against the tide with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Their plan was to put to work all the years of experience they had stretching a budget to its fullest extent and put that against the look and feel of a “triple-A” game. Their approach had the feel of a Kickstarter as an experimental process too risky for the larger companies but still one that didn’t ask for a dime in fan money. It was a fine line no one before or since has walked so publicly.

A team of 20 people took 3 years to chisel away at a game about a mental disorder and represent it in an accurate, thoughtful way. That same team made the game look jaw-dropping on PC and PlayStation 4, able to stand up with any larger-scale Ubisoft or EA project. The accomplishment took so many by surprise that even Ninja Theory was taken aback that they broke even so quickly.

By the way, “even” was marked at 500,000 units sold. For a two-platform title sold through a famously crowded Steam marketplace that could stand toe-to-toe with any top-tier game. In 3 months, Hellblade had proved to the market that there was more than one way to balance quality with the monetary, and Ninja Theory had been the ones carrying that Olympic torch proudly.

Senua’s Sacrifice has now made hay with over a million sales as of just last month after winning awards and praise from all gaming corners. The title stands as a rare unmitigated success where near universal praise has met with financial success, again without asking for the public to absorb the risk. Actress Melina Jeurgens won herself a BAFTA award for the performance, which was her first major role in anything ever. Seriously, the stars that crossed atop Hellblade’s success could serve as a glowing road map to any development team dreaming of making it on their own. 

Ninja Theory, meanwhile, has taken an unusual turn down an odd street. It was at E3 that Microsoft announced that the developers that had just struck out completely on their own with success and praise was now coming under their brand for good. My head couldn’t have been the only one turned by that.

Ninja Theory
Bet your ass I’ll be reviewing this one….

Even buried among a few other development teams, hearing that Ninja Theory would be a Microsoft team from now on seemed very, very puzzling. You can name the number of companies that are both developer and publisher in the triple-A space on one hand, and none of them were proving anything to the level of Ninja Theory. In today’s market, they had done the near impossible and then threw the Elder Wand down the deepest ravine.

Taking a look at their new publisher, it becomes even more baffling as to what Ninja Theory, as we last remember them, will look like splashing in a green X. Of their exclusives, you could argue that Microsoft is completely barren of what you’d normally consider a triple-A title for the remainder of this year, despite the attempts to make We Happy Few squeeze into that pair of tight, ill-fitting pants as a title that’s actually third-party being “highlighted”. Even overflow to next year, you have Crackdown 3 at its make-or-break point until likely holiday 2019. That’s all.

The point here is that Ninja Theory doesn’t have any Microsoft momentum going forward. Quite the contrary, Microsoft needs some of Ninja Theory’s momentum to get out of its self-imposed cellar. Even if we do look at the glass as half full, what kind of projects would Microsoft ask from this team?

Ninja Theory

Again, Ninja Theory has a very specific set of skills that has seen the most success in linear, single-player adventures with polish and creativity. Very few of those terms can be used to describe anything coming out for Xbox One exclusively as of this year, or in general for this generation. You’ll find out my thoughts on State of Decay 2 (take a guess), We Happy Few has been touted as creative but rough, and Crackdown 3 has had a typhoon of thick doubt around it permeating between Terry Crews performances. Sure, the Xbox One X is powerful enough to drive a Lyft, but there’s nothing exclusive to play on it, and certainly nothing here that Ninja Theory would have a track record in tackling.

Because that’s the future of gaming according to some with Microsoft one of the band leaders: multiplayer integration and longer-life gaming. The console giant molded Rare into a multiplayer-centric entity, which doesn’t bode well for any looking to see Ninja Theory remain in their comfort zone. Will Microsoft bend and let Ninja Theory just do their thing and deliver them something original to battle the Sony enemy?

We can only hope and take this glass of water whether we like it or not. It will remain a bitter drink for me as Ninja Theory seemed so adamant the whole time about delivering their games their way and leaving the rest of the kids to play in their own sandbox. There was never a feeling that they were advertising themselves to get a publisher’s attention. I still don’t believe they were with Senua and have faith that their intentions were pure at the time. There was surely just too much excitement to pass up such an opportunity as to be, presumably, one of the main gaming teams inside Microsoft moving forward. 

It’s just…if you find a new, shorter, better way to water as an example for other horses, why would you abandon the trail and go back to the old way?

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