Ninja Theory’s Tameem Antoniades Interview

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?

No.

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.*

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