Tameem explains more about Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Archive for March, 2010
Interview with Chief Creative Ninja Tameem Antoniades from Ninja Theory
Interview: Studio’s co-founder on Enslaved, and state of the UK games industry
Tameem Antoniades is the co-founder and chief creative ninja at Ninja Theory, the developer behind early PS3-exclusive stunner Heavenly Sword, and currently working on a new action quest, Enslaved.
We met with Antoniades in London recently to check out the single-player co-op-orientated title, and have a natter about what to expect. Antoniades also told us of his excitement and predictions for the next of consoles, how 3D will revolutionise gaming and, despite the happy-clappy images of the games industry, how UK development is under threat of extinction.
Fascinating stuff. Enjoy…
How does the relationship between the two characters develop as the game progresses?
Antoniades: There are a lot of metaphors in the game. For example at one point they come across a fish tank in a hotel lobby and the fish are still alive. So these fish have been alive for like 50 or 100 years and Trip (one of the two main characters) can’t believe it. She compares it to her community, and her argument is that it is possible in this dangerous environment to have an ecosystem that works, that’s self-sufficient, and that her peaceful way of life is the correct way.
Monkey’s totally the opposite. He says that survival is the only way of life. Then a mech appears and smashes the fish tank Trip is in tears over it, not because of the fish but because of what it represents to her community.
And so you start the game with totally diverging views of the world and as well as a journey west they embark on a character journey, and they almost swap over. And it’s event in the story that makes them swap over, and that’s what makes Enslaved extra interesting.
There are similarities between this and a few other big games – Ico (co-op aspects), God of War (the battle system and QTE-like kill sequences) and Uncharted (general look and scenery climbing gameplay). Were any of these intentional influences?
I played all those games so I guess so, but nothing I consciously stole. I think that what we’ve been trying to do from the beginning is to recreate that blockbuster, action story-type of experience and I think it’s something that Naughty Dog does exceptionally well. We definitely wanted to make that kind of experience.
I think God of War’s sort of the same thing – effectively a clash of the titans style adventure – and because we’re all trying to create the same types of experiences there are a lot of similarities. It’s not a narrow genre like in the old days. When you’ve got a story element you’ve got to have different elements of gameplay in there.
We don’t have QTEs though; we’ve actually gone away from those. I think God of War has mastered that so well that we thought we should not go there. We got a lot of criticism on Heavenly Sword because of the QTEs and we wanted to make the whole gameplay experience more consistent throughout. So if you do a take-down and rip off a part of a robot it’s so that you can shoot something else that you take from them. So the takedown isn’t the goal, it’s the means to another goal.
Does the story end with this game?
Yes, there is an ending. It won’t leave you hanging – that’s for sure. It’ll have a beginning, middle and an end, and if this game is successful and there is a sequel there is scope to extend it. But it won’t be one of those endings where you just feel cheated.
You mentioned in the presentation earlier that you chose to go multiplatform with Enslaved essentially because, as an independent studio, that was the only way to survive. Can you elaborate on why you’ve come to this conclusion?
It’s difficult. Heavenly Sword came out pretty early on the PS3, and we sold, I think, a million and a half copies, and that’s still not enough as an independent studio to break even. The publisher potentially breaks even at that point, but the developers don’t. It’s just that when so many people have Xbox – I mean over half the market or more has Xbox 360s – why limit yourself to one platform?
I think it’s as simple as that; the budgets have gone so high now and in the space we’re in you’re up against the likes of God of War and Uncharted and those are big blockbuster productions. There’s a lot of push behind them, so if you’re going to compete against those you’re going to compete against those you have to be on their level or push further if you can and that costs money. The only way to recoup money like that is to sell it on as many platforms as you can.
So despite its success Heavenly Sword wasn’t profitable for you guys?
So is Enslaved going to bigger a bigger-budget investment to compete with the blockbusters?
I wouldn’t say that. We spent a lot of time and effort developing technology for Heavenly Sword from scratch because there weren’t any engines. So we’ve got up and running a lot quicker for this game.
I think the costs for next-gen games are stabilising. But in the old days the PSone and PS2 were so dominant you could be exclusive. Nowadays I think it’s much harder.
Heavenly Sword was fairly heavily promoted for benefiting, on a technical level, from its exclusivity to PS3. So now you’re multi-platform for Enslaved, are you having to make compromises?
What we wanted to do was to make sure that, at the beginning, we didn’t have to think about the platform. So we actually invested a lot of our core engine tech on making sure that there was no difference at all. Apart from a few hardcore engineers, no-one in the studio even had to think about the platform we were developing on.
Everything is simultaneous, every bit of content works automatically on both platforms. The difficulty is that the PS3’s got Blu-ray, and that’s the main difference – Blu-ray versus DVD. You can store so much more on Blu-ray. So you’ve just got to figure out ways you can make things work.
With Heavenly Sword we actually did all of our cutscenes in real-time, recorded them and played them back as Blu-ray videos so that we could hide loading. Now we can’t do that, because there’s not enough space to do that on a DVD, which means all your cutscenes have to be real-time and you need streaming tech in the background to load up the next section. It’s all kind of do-able, it’s just harder.
You’ve said back in 2008 that you had no consideration at the time to make a sequel to Heavenly Sword – a much-loved game on PS3. What’s the status on that two years on?
There’s still no consideration. Sony actually owns that IP, so unless they give it back to us we’ll never make it.
So presumably you’d only consider making another one if you were given the IP and the freedom to make it a multi-platform?
Yes. Like, developers have been getting… no, I’m not going to rant. [Laughs]
No, please do…
The games industry is not where the movie industry is. In the movie industry the people who make the movies have a lot more steak in the product they create. In the games industry early on in storytelling and many other ways, but it’s also early on in who’s in charge.
Frankly we were a tiny studio – we’d just done Kung Fu Chaos (on Xbox) and landed theis massive PS3 exclusive so the situation we were in was that Sony had the IP and it had to be single-platform. As soon as we decided that we were multi-platform we had to give that up and there’s nothing we could do about that.
What, in your eyes as a UK developer, is the current state of video game development in UK?*
I think it’s on a precarious knife edge, actually. I think the LittleBigPlanet guys [Media Molecule] have done an amazing job of finding a niche which harks back to the more inventive days of British game development when we had Populous and things like that.
But on the whole I don’t think the UK is competing with the big American studios. There’s still hope – I still think we can pull it back. I think the advantage that we have here is that we’ve got a really broad base of talent from films, writes and musicians. We’ve got incredible talent here and UK is actually a cultural centre of the world, as is New York and LA and places like that.
The only way we can compete is not to be cheaper, because I think that’s a fool’s error to try and make games cheaper when you work in UK. It’s to actually draw that talent by offering people something they can’t get in another country.
And so that’s what we’re striving to do. But I can’t name on one hand how many other companies in the UK are actually doing that and succeeding with it. It is worrying, but every year that we’re surviving I consider a success. I’ve always been doom and gloom about it for about 10 years.
Do you feel that the 3D revolution is going to set in as the next big thing in games?
Yes, I do. And I think 3D is going to be way more awesome in video games than in movies. I think movies still look a bit strange when you cut cameras and you’ve got depth of field. You don’t know where to focus and it kind of throws you.
When you’re in a 3D game I think it’ll make so much sense with controls and depth perception. The problem is that to do 3D properly you need to render 60 frames per second, per eye. And at least a 720p resolution. So in essence that’s 1080p rendering at 120 frames per second and the current generation can only process very rudimentary graphics at that spec.
Every generation has to be at least five-to-ten times more powerful than the last, so I think we’ll get there in the next generation. I think it will be totally revolutionary for games.
PS3 will get its 3D firmware update this summer. So do you think that it’s premature for 3D?
I think the technology’s limited now, so you won’t be able to play stuff that looks like Avatar – the movie – in 3D. And I think the next generation you will be able to play stuff that looks like that. and I’m looking forward to that.
When do you think that generation might come?
I think people are going to hold off for a long time before getting on to the next generation. I think everyone’s licking their wounds and releasing new games to try and keep this current generation going. I’m hoping it doesn’t come too soon either because we want to make at least a couple more games in this generation.
Once those generations come along everyone will be looking at cloud computing – that’s the ultimate future I think.
*Note: This interview took place before the government announced tax breaks for UK videogame development.*
Ninja Theory, the UK-based developer most commonly know for their work with PS3 exclusive Heavenly Sword, is working on another ‘top secret project’, according to the studio co-founder Tameem Antoniades.
“We’ve just started pre-production on a new secret project,” said Antoniades in a recent interview. “It’s a full scale, it’s a pretty big project. It’s still top secret, but it’s gonna be awesome, obviously.”
Ninja Theory is working on the project concurrently with Enslaved, a Namco Bandai-published post-apocalyptic third person action game. Antoniades also confirmed that the game is not a portable or download.
From the makers of Heavenly Sword comes this story-driven action game.
It’s 150 years in the future and mankind has just emerged from a devastating series of conflicts that pushed humanity to the brink of extinction. Viral warfare and drones made soldiers obsolete as the war machine marched on long after society crumbled. This is the post-apocalyptic setting for Enslaved, but you shouldn’t expect to see a drab grey and brown desert world. In fact, it all looks quite lovely, filled with life and bright pastel colors. Without human interference and exploitation, the world has begun to revert back to an idyllic Eden…almost. Small pockets of tribal communities remain while other loners have taken to the woods. All told, there are only about 50,000 people left in the United States. That number of accounted for humans is probably dwindling fast. Slavers regularly drop into the small pockets of populated space to snatch up helpless people, slap headgear on that gives control through pain, and ship them west to death camps.
This is how the two heroes of Enslaved came together. Trip is the delicate girl who probably couldn’t survive on her own. Monkey is the brutish oaf who probably couldn’t survive on his own. Though the two came from two different walks of life — Trip was a member of a community that hacked together an existence by using old technology and scrap while Monkey was a loner – the slavers brought them together. And as the clever girl she is, Trip managed to rewire Monkey’s headgear to respond to her commands. The character you play has been enslaved. My demo of Enslaved picked up just after those turbulent opening moments. The slave ship has been brought down inside of New York City, or what was left of it. The land looks to have gone through a bittersweet destruction, with trees growing out of the tops of buildings. Time has turned the concrete jungle into a real one. It isn’t without dangers, however. Drones from wars gone by lay in waiting, like landmines across a war torn landscape, forever creating a hostile environment. This is why Trip and Monkey need each other. Trip has a little dragonfly-esque drone that rests in her hair like a clip that is capable of scoping out the area ahead for dangers and spotting weak points in activated monstrosities. Monkey, well he’s good with his hands.
Monkey may seem like a goofy name for a main character, but with a little context it begins to make sense. Enslaved is loosely based on Journey to the West, a Chinese folktale that is commonly referred to in western countries as Monkey. In the world of videogames, the term “loosely based” generally means a few select elements were chosen to be slapped on top of a forgettable and poorly constructed story. During my demo, Ninja Theory continually impressed upon me how seriously the development team was taking storytelling. The group tapped Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later and Sunshine to pen the tale. Andy Serkis, known for his work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films, will do the motion capture for Monkey. The team is hoping to meld these talents and the story directly into the game, ensuring that it flows more smoothly than most videogames that alternate between story and gameplay in distinct chunks. The game itself is not like Ninja Theory’s previous work, Heavenly Sword. In fact, it loosely reminded me more of Prince of Persia with a bit more emphasis on action and less on platforming. You control Monkey, but Trip is always at your side. If she dies, you die, so it’s best to keep her out of trouble. There’s a lot of trouble to be found, so you’ll have to work closely with Trip to keep her in one piece.
Trip will generally follow by your side, but it is entirely possible to leave her in one spot while you clear out an area. She can also lend you a hand by projecting a little decoy to draw enemies away from you. Most importantly, as I mentioned before, she can offer intel and advice. Some of these mechanical beasts and auto-turrets scattered about simply won’t go down easily. “The combat is supposed to be quite hard,” I was told by Ninja Theory. The level of difficulty is there to make you think. Is there a better way through this mine field? Can I avoid this trench lined with turrets? Is it possible to sneak up behind that robot, rip off its machine gun arm and use it against the rest of these enemies? The answer looks in general to be ‘yes.’ Walk into an area, call in Trip to scope out the scene, and then get to some quick platforming to find a better way through to the fight.
The combat at first glance looks like your standard third-person action game. Monkey carries a staff, which he can use as a close-quarters combat weapon or, if he finds some ammo, as a projectile weapon. Light and heavy attacks can be performed, special moves like activating the self-destruct sequence on a mech are offered, and there is naturally some God of War inspired button prompts for grappling moves. Little red orbs can be found and collected, then later spent on upgrades. What Enslaved doesn’t offer is a myriad of combos or enemies that go down in just a single hit. The part of the combat that most impressed me was how impactful each swing of Monkey’s staff felt. A heavy swing will knock a mech back. Follow up with an overhead smash and it will be pounded down to the ground. Too many action games have a simple hit animation — or no animation at all — for every type of contact. Enslaved has an element of realism to the blows that is too often absent.
As there aren’t many people left on earth, the majority of the foes you face will be of the mechanical variety. At first, these will be fairly primitive. That’s the type I saw in my demo. General attack bots were called in upon the trigger of alarms. A huge end boss looked like it was made out of a clump of demolition balls, which is what it was originally intended to be used as during more peaceful times. Later on in the game, you’ll meet a few surviving humans and nastier, new-gen organic-looking robots will be introduced. Enslaved is still pretty early on in development, so don’t expect to see it on store shelves until closer to the end of 2010. That was reflected in my demo, which still had placeholder animations and voicework. That didn’t give me a very good sense of how well the storytelling being so highly touted will come together, but what I saw in terms of combat and platforming looked promising. Namco Bandai promised more on Enslaved as we approach E3 so we won’t have to wait long to learn more.
I didn’t know much about video games. There are some awfully violent ones. But Heavenly Sword is different. I’ve had huge conversations with a friend who made it. I think what he wants to do is to make the player care. Yes, there’s killing. But the character I play in Heavenly Sword, Nariko, is ultimately protecting her family and this runaway girl. It’s a beautiful game. It’s beyond a video game. The landscape is to protect and to care. My friend is working toward a world where you get an emotion out of the people who are playing it. See if you can make them cry if they couldn’t save the people who they were trying to protect. This isn’t Pac-Man.