Archive for May, 2010

A dip into Ninja Theory’s growing talent pool…

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

Ninja Theory’s next great adventure, which draws on the classic Chinese Journey To The West myth and fuses it with a post-apocalyptic survival adventure, is growing in strength and vision.

As the developer’s ‘Chief Creative Ninja’ Tameem Antoniades shows us through a little more of Enslaved’s epic, technicolour world, the true nature of the partnership mechanic between player character Monkey and his female sidekick Trip begins to rear its head. As strong a female protagonist as Heavenly Sword’s Nariko, Trip’s certainly no slouch. “From the beginning we didn’t want Trip to be a dead weight,” explains Antoniades. “She comes into her own. She starts off vulnerable, but she applies her knowledge to provide surveillance for you, and then she provides health upgrades or hacks terminals and robots, so eventually you become a partnership and you can’t survive without each other.”

Indeed not. At one point in the demo, Monkey and Trip enter a room filled to the brim with robotic enemies. It looks an impossible fight; Monkey, armed only with his trusty staff and basic fighting moves, would be demolished by their lasers. What’s the solution?

It’s down to Trip to scan the area with her special ‘butterfly’ headset, and it’s not long before she discovers that one of the robots has a fault – if Monkey attacks it, it’ll explode, taking out a good deal of its neighbours.

Trip is so capable, in fact, it makes us wonder if Ninja Theory ever considered a co-operative multiplayer element to the game. Antoniades, however, is firm on the negative. “Trip’s abilities are non-physical – she can’t clamber like Monkey; she can’t fight,” he tells us. “In co-op, she would have to be an action hero herself, and we didn’t really want that; that wasn’t the point. But the other reason was, when you do co-op games, you’re effectively making two games – you’re making a single-player game and you’re making a co-op game, and it’s just a lot harder. You’ve got to accept that if you add things like co-op, you have to compromise somewhere else.”

And compromise is something there’s little room for in Enslaved’s snowballing artistic vision. With two key creative talents now on board, the game’s clearly being shaped into a pacey, structured, dramatic tour de force that leaves absolutely no space or time wasted.

Already on board from Ninja Theory’s last game, the lukewarmly received Heavenly Sword, Andy Serkis’s role in the developer’s game-making has steadily increased over a five-year relationship that began as Antoniades’ brother – a mortgage advisor – cunningly slipped Serkis a Heavenly Sword trailer during a consultation. The celebrated mocap actor went for it, as Antoniades explains. “What I offered Andy was a collaboration, that we would work on [Heavenly Sword] together, and that he’s got full access to us as a studio and a team. And it was really fun working with him on Heavenly Sword, and he directed the motion capture shoot, and the other actors, and then on [Enslaved] we co-directed it, as I learned more.”

It’s this sense of creativity from different areas fuelling each other’s skills and ideas that seems to lie at the heart of Ninja Theory, and possibly what attracted the team’s newest star asset. Enslaved’s story is now in the hands of The Beach author and 28 Days Later script writer, Alex Garland.

“He’s a gamer,” enthuses Antoniades, “He wanted to find a way into games, and I offered him the opportunity to collaborate freely with us. He met me for coffee in London one day, and we just talked through it. This is the only thing he’s done that’s not his own work. When he came in it was with the utmost respect for games.”

Antoniades goes on to explain how Garland’s input has affected not only the game’s underlying story, but also the plot’s presence in gameplay itself, drawing on an example in which Garland commented that, rather than Monkey and Trip simply discovering yet another troop of robots guarding an exit, the battle could take the form of a surprise assault, gradually led in by elements such as unsettling background noises as the foes approach from a distance. Weaved in via dialogue as the moment is approached, it’s a stylistic flourish that changes little of the nuts and bolts of the section, but adds another, more complex, layer of drama.

We have every confidence that Enslaved is reaching a level of artistic endeavour that, however the fineries of its gameplay turn out, will certainly set a new benchmark in creative production values.


What Ninja Theory did next…

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

The Cambridge studio on how it plans to follow its ambitious PS3 launch title, Heavenly Sword

PS3 exclusive Heavenly Sword was a difficult release for Ninja Theory.

The Cambridge-based independent spent considerable time and money working on a platform that at the time didn’t even exist, creating its own tools engine and utilising advanced performance capture technology.

And the firm was rightly proud of the results. Heavenly Sword was an ambitious game that was visually impressive and which, most of the time, worked.

Yet despite the love and effort, Heavenly Sword was greeted with indifference by consumers and critics – achieving lacklustre sales and a Metacritic of 79.

Now, several years wiser, Ninja Theory is putting the finishing to its next epic, the multiformat action adventure Enslaved – a game that Namco Bandai’s Euro chief Olivier Comte says could become the publisher’s ‘most important franchise.’

The developer has switched engines to Unreal, set up its own R&D team and even recruited high-profile Hollywood talent to ensure Enslaved lives up to its sky-high expectations.

Develop sits down with Ninja Theory creative director and co-founder Tameem Antoniades to discuss the lessons learnt from Heavenly Sword, the new technology it is using and the importance of holding the rights to your own IP…

Namco Bandai says Enslaved could be its Uncharted or Halo. How much pressure does that put on the team?

I’m happy that development has been quite under-the-radar and that there has not been much attention or exposure. Enslaved has some good ambitions in terms of making a story-driven action adventure.

I think it has the right people on-board and there is a real desire from everyone to make this work. But I would never say it is the next Halo or whatever, because you never know until it is done. When you put your game in front of people you never quite know if you are going to hit the mark. It could all come crumbling down. It is the nature of anything creative.

Is that a lesson you learnt from the mixed feedback you received after releasing Heavenly Sword?

Yeah. We are much more confident as a team than we were back then. We have experience, we have the tools, we have really good people working with us outside of games. It has been fun working on this game.

There is a confidence about Enslaved that wasn’t there when we started Heavenly Sword. All you do is try and make everything work, and if you get it right everything falls into place and it feels magical and you are transported into this world with this characters and this gameplay that all fits. I would never say we are the next top game of all time.
For Namco Bandai, this is the AAA western title that the group has never found before.
I don’t feel pressure. As long as we are left to do our jobs and they don’t interfere, then we will deliver.

What are the challenges of developing a new IP?

The biggest challenge is commercial. If you are developing a new IP then typically you have to self-fund, and we had to do that for the first six months of Enslaved. And then there is ultra-conservatism from publishers, because with new IP it is difficult. Most of the top-selling games are sequels.

It is very difficult, but we needed to be multi-format as a studio, and Heavenly Sword was owned by Sony so we had to come up with a new IP.

If Heavenly Sword wasn’t owned by Sony, would you have wanted to do a sequel?

Yeah I think so. There were so many foundations we built in that game that we would like to have developed and take to its logical conclusion. But in a sense we’re doing that with Enslaved, but with different characters. But I do miss Nariko and Kai and all that lot.

Yet Namco Bandai owns Enslaved. Is it important for developers to own their own properties?

We have lots of rights attached to Enslaved, so if it works out and the game is a success, what we have is a strong partnership where we are both well represented.

Ideally we would own our IP, but it is very difficult and you have to be extraordinarily well-funded to do that. We have grown from one project to the next off our own backs. So we put whatever we make on our previous game into our next one.

Ninja Theory prefers big-budget titles, but do they have a future when everything seems to be moving towards social and iPhone games?

I think so. I think it is going to be polarised. There will always be big-budget games, just as in the movie world there are smaller, independent films and the blockbuster releases. And there is actually very little in the middle.

We are going through a phase where all the middle-ground games are being cleared out. Either go big or go really small.

Why do you feel Namco Bandai was interested in Ninja Theory and Enslaved?

We worked three months solid on a pitch for Enslaved, and we took it round all the publishers as a sort of road show.

This time we went to third-party, multi-format publishers and we did get a lot of interest. Namco was good because they had something to prove in the west, and I knew they would be true to their word that they will support Enslaved as one of their biggest releases. Also, Namco is not a small company. As a whole, Namco Bandai dwarfs EA. So that was a plus, too.

But mainly it is because we knew they would put a lot of focus on our game when it comes out.

What lessons were picked up from the development of Heavenly Sword?

We spent three quarters of our development time on Heavenly Sword building technology from scratch, because there was no engine.

We built our own tools engine and everything, and it was really, really tough going on a platform that at first didn’t exist and then kept changing as it was being prototyped. This time round we went with Unreal.

Unreal has excellent artists and design tools so we can start building the game from day one, which meant we can make a longer game, a bigger game and a far more complex game with a lot more variety in it. It meant we can just create and our programming team can focus on work load productivity and also stuff like our facial system.

At the time Heavenly Sword’s facial system, which was co-developed with Weta, was the best around. This time we went to the top mo-cap players in the world, and none of them could do faces to the standard we were after. So we had to set up our own R&D team and developed our own facial system, which is amazing.

What convinced you to use NaturalMotion’s Morpheme animation system for Enslaved?

Because it puts full control in the animators hands. In Heavenly Sword we had thousands of animations, but we had to code it. Animators would do small bits of animation and the coders had to go in and link them up, it was a really slow process.

Now, the animators with Morpheme can create their own network trees and controls, and they can preview it and play with the character motion, and the designers can check it without any coder involvement. So it allows us to do more animations at a higher quality.

Can you tell us what other tech is at the centre of the Enslaved project?

Performance capture was big on Heavenly Sword. We pioneered that with Weta to capture face, voice and body from multiple actors – it was the first time it was done. So we have pushed that forward in the sense that now our facial tech can apply to the body so we can have muscle deformation, the cut scene characters and the in-game characters are the same, so we can do quick cuts to Monkey’s face while he is doing combat – there is no fade out to black.

On set, when we shot the game, we had screens where we could project the game worlds so that the actors knew where they were. A lot of our effort was to make it comfortable and natural for the actors to perform.

You’ve brought writer Alex Garland on-board. What does he bring to the table?

In the first instance we brought him on for writing, but what he ended up delivering was way more than that.

What I didn’t realise was how much story telling was non-verbal and wasn’t done via cut scenes. Camera placement, atmosphere, sound cues, so many little things make up a good visual narrative, and that is what he brought.

He worked with our designers, first to lay out the first draft of the script so we could shoot it, and then he worked with us in-house once a week, all day long, to help set out the level design because you can’t separate level design from the story, it has to be as one. Effectively he became a level designer.

Later on, when we had all the elements in the game, he would look at it as if it was a first cut of the movie. He wouldn’t just give feedback on where the video lines should be placed, but also on the staging of the events, and how to add tension and drama through camera angles and music and so forth. He has impressed me deeply and every member of the team thinks he is the don. We have learnt so much off of him, it has been eye-opener.

What are the positives and negatives to being a UK independent?

I’m not sure how to answer that question because I don’t know what it is like to be a non-independent. It feels good to survive and grow your studio, and everyone is on-board with talent and passion, and we have found a really good life-work balance. I am really proud of that, we don’t crunch or burn out our staff on the games we do. It feels good to find that balance and create games that we want to play.


Ninja Theory Play Interview: Uncut

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

Play: It’s kind of amazing how much the game matches the colour palette of your concept art. Was that an important feature of Enslaved for you?

Tameem Antoniades: Heavenly Sword was so colourful and bright and we really wanted to go against the trend of greys and browns. We did watch this documentary called Life After People about what the world would look like when people are gone and it’s true that in few hundred years the world is unrecognisable. We wanted to give that sense of, almost, hope because nature finds its way in the end and it recovers, but it’s also quite desolate because most of the people you see are corpses. They’re calcified corpses like in Pompeii. So, it’s a bit sad as well.

Play: Would you say that the art style and animation are all there to make Enslaved as expressive as possible and to tie the gameplay with the cut scenes more?

Antoniades: On Heavenly Sword we did a lot of work on facial expressions, but it was very staccato, so you would have your gameplay and then you’d have the cut scenes. I think that it did feel like they were separate parts of the game and as much as possible we wanted to blend them in together. So we’re doing more with the dialogue bleeding out of the cut scenes into the gameplay. A lot of the story is told while you’re playing the game. We’re using things like partial animations to add more body language to the story while you’re playing. It really has been an exercise in trying to make the story all-encompassing and not something that’s restricted to cut scenes.

Play: You’ve done even more work with your motion capture this time, but did you get a chance to chat with Quantic Dream about Heavy Rain while you were still working with Sony?

Antoniades: Actually no. I think it’s inevitable that games will go down this route because the technology is proven now. Especially with Avatar, which has shown that you can do believable CG characters. I think in flashes Heavenly Sword also showed that you could do it in real time. So, I do think that it’s something that’s inevitable, that will spread throughout the industry. But the technology moves forward very, very quickly. We were always looking for new ways to exploit it. One of the things we’re doing with Enslaved is adding the facial deformation you would get from the faces and adding some of that to the bodies so that you can see the bodies tense, the muscles stretch the way they should do.

Play: As motion capture techniques have evolved have you been tempted to go back and re-shoot elements of the game?

Antoniades: We’re actually doing a lot of re-editing based on the story. We play through the whole game with the scenes that we’ve captured, but we captured all the scenes a year ago, so as we’ve developed the levels further certain story beats need emphasising. What we’ve actually done is re-appropriate a lot of motion capture and you won’t really notice it in the game because the freedom that motion capture gives you is that you can grab moments from different parts, put them in new scenes and reconstruct those scenes. It’s not something that we anticipated doing, but Alex [Garland, writer of Enslaved], because he’s a producer on a lot of movies, he’s seen a lot of re-editing, ADR and setting up different camera shots to make the story land with the viewer. We’ve been going through that process with Alex a lot. Ideally, in the future, as motion capture gets cheaper to do and better we will be able to just capture things in the studio. Anytime we need something we can just say, ‘OK, let’s shoot that scene’. That’s something you can’t really do in films.

Play: Would you say you’re approaching motion capture in a very different way to everybody else then?

Antoniades: I think that a lot of games treat performances as a technical exercise where often they capture the body and the voice separately. Someone in a recording studio does the voice and someone then acts to that voice in the motion capture setup and then even the facial mapping is done as a separate pass. So someone acts out or animates create the facial stuff. We really believe that the way you get believable scenes and drama is to get actors on set and capture everything so they’re playing off each other. That’s when you get the nuances and the little unexpected that you would see in a good movie, but you don’t see in videogames. We are still pushing down that road.

Play: Do you feel like you’re under less pressure now as a multiplatform developer than you were with Heavenly Sword being first party?

Antoniades: I guess. I think things were different on Heavenly Sword because it as the launch of the PlayStation 3 and there was that really bad PR day that Sony had at one point. I think that a lot of the games that were announced back then were tainted by that negativity about the price of the console and the things that people were saying about it. There was enormous pressure on us back then and that’s why we’ve kept quite quiet and this game has stayed under the radar for as long as we possibly could so that we could concentrate on making the game instead of making lots of demos. Every three to six months we were doing tech demos and it’s a relief to be out of that.

Play: The PlayStation studio community seems really strong now though. Did you get a chance to share ideas and air troubles with the likes of Naughty Dog or Insomniac?

Antoniades: Not really, when we were working on PlayStation 3. We were using and sharing tools and I think most of the communication and sharing came from the R&D divisions so we worked really closely on that, but everyone at the time was working on secret projects so we weren’t really seeing too much of each other’s stuff.
We were right at the beginning. We had developed Heavenly Sword for two years before the PS3 was even announced. We were just hoping the PS3 would be announced. We were kind of out on a limb on that game.

Play: Do you feel as if you missed out on the Golden Age of the PS3 then, which seems to be what we’re entering into now?

Antoniades: Yeah, but for all that it put us in good stead. We developed a lot of technology and systems that we’re still using to this day. It kind of put us on the map and our team is pretty battle hardened. When we went into this project instead of starting from scratch with absolutely nothing (the last game we did was Kung Fu Chaos, which was a small party game) we had a much clearer idea of what we wanted to do and how we could do it. The PS3 didn’t scare us anymore because we were so used to it so it’s been a lot smoother.


Enslaved: Odyssey To The West Strategy Informer Interview

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

Strategy Informer: When you started work on Enslaved, what was the main goal?

Tameem Antoniades: I think at the beginning to take stock of everything we did on Heavenly Sword and improve it. We’re driving as a studio more and more towards story based gameplay, and trying to figure out ways to make stories work within gameplay, as opposed to making it work just in cut-scenes. I think you can say Heavenly Sword did that; the stories were in the cut-scenes and the gameplay was separate.

So we’re looking for ways in which we can create a narrative experience where every fight has a reason for being there, and you always feel like you’re in the story. We’re adding things like body-language, so that you can tell how Trip is feeling. The use of camera-angles, audio, gameplay; everything has a motive. If you do it right, then you forget you’re playing a game and it feels magical.

Strategy Informer: Is Trip going to express her feelings more than Monkey?

Tameem Antoniades: I guess. They both have a full range of expressions. Andy Serkis is playing Monkey, and we did a performance-capture shoot where we captured voice, body and face at the same time, so the interactions seem genuine.

Usually in any story the supporting character is there to make the hero understandable and to reflect on the hero. That’s why Trip exists, because Monkey is such an inpenetrable character, he’s a loner, he doesn’t like people. If he was on his own he wouldn’t say a damn word, it’s only because he’s stuck with Trip that they learn to work together and become team players.

Strategy Informer: Aside from Heavenly Sword, which other games were influences on Enslaved?

Tameem Antoniades: The earliest game is probably Another World on the Amiga, just because it was the first game that was very cinematic, story-driven, and there’s this weird alien that helps you and you help him. It was quite emotional in the end. I think Uncharted 2 set the template for what an action-adventure game should be.

Strategy Informer: I was just about to ask! It seemed hugely influence by Uncharted 2 in the presentation.

Tameem Antoniades: We were working on the game two years before Uncharted 2 came out, and by that point it was too late to do a cause direction. It wasn’t like we were trying to copy them, our game’s got a totally different story, different characters, focused more on melee combat, and a different setting. In terms of what we’re trying to achieve, I think both the studio and I have the highest admiration for those guys. They’re the best console developers in the world at the moment.

Strategy Informer: Trip is very similar to Nariko [Tameem laughs], who do you think is the superior character?

Tameem Antoniades: That’s like asking which of your children do you love more! I think they’re different; Nariko’s an alpha-female, she’s a tough cookie, not afraid of sacrifice and is quite isolated. Trip’s is totally the opposite. She’s young, she’s 19 years old, she lives in a community. She’s never been outside this community and has an idealistic view of the world which is slowly getting eroded by the brutal realities of life. She’s learning to gain her own confidence and to help Monkey, so she starts to grow as a character.

Strategy Informer: Although the world is apocalyptic in Enslaved, it’s still really beautiful. Do you feel you’re capitalising on something other developers have missed?

Tameem Antoniades: [Chuckles] Yeah, I guess all of our games are really colourful. Life After People was a documentary we saw on the Discovery Channel, which said if people disappeared from the planet what would the world look like? It’s amazing how very quickly nature takes over and how quickly things we see as permanent disappear. It’s kind of bitter-sweet and sad in a way, and that suits the game.

Strategy Informer: Alex Garland is on board, was he always the first choice writer?

Tameem Antoniades: No, I mean, we had no idea who we’d get for a writer. We contacted CAA and they put forward some writers. I met Alex for coffee, and then he asked me lots of questions. He was a big gamer, which was a surprise to me, he plays Xbox Live almost everyday and has a big gamer score. He plays with his own clan of friends who don’t know who he is. He’s always wanted to work on a video game, and we offered him full access and calibration. He was really respectful of games and it was really fun working with him.

Strategy Informer: Were there any other big name writers in the running?

Tameem Antoniades: There were a few, but when I met Alex I knew straight away if he was interested he was definitely the man. In a sense, when I met him I wasn’t interested in anyone else.

Strategy Informer: Apart from writing the game, what other influence has he had?

Tameem Antoniades: He’s been really good. On Heavenly Sword it was Andy Serkis who introduced us to performance capture and learning how to work with actors on a motion capture set. Alex brought his own thing, as he’s also a film producer. We got him on board to do the writing, and he did it, we had a loose structure and we co-wrote the story together. Then he started to get involved with the level design, just because to write a story for a game you’ve also got to take into consideration every moment of that game.

So he got more and more involved in the level design with our designers; he’d come every week and spend all day with them. Then when he was doing the voice dialogue, and he was looking to place it, he just kept coming up with tonnes and tonnes of feedback. He said, ‘this would feel more tense if this happened now,’ ‘that combat encounter would feel more atmospheric if the music dropped.’ He’d have all these little tips and tricks from his own experience in making movies that we applied to the game, and it worked. He’s been working with us for two years now on that.

Strategy Informer: Is he on going to be working with you in the future?

Tameem Antoniades: I hope so. We both expressed a desire to work with each other again, we had a lot of fun.

Strategy Informer: In the presentation you briefly showed us the propaganda and election posters that litter the world of Enslaved, are these central to the plot?

Tameem Antoniades: They’re just little clues and aren’t central to the plot. You don’t need to understand why the world is the way it is. They’re aren’t voice-logs everywhere. Monkey and Trip have no idea why the world is this way, they have their own theories but they don’t know, so everything is a mystery.

Strategy Informer: Why has co-op been left out?

Tameem Antoniades: Well it wasn’t ever in to be left out. Monkey’s like the action hero, and we play from that perspective, so in one sense we didn’t want to break that perspective by playing with Trip. In another sense Trip’s role is very different, it couldn’t be more different. She can’t clamber, she can’t fight, she can survey environments and hack old systems. She can help Monkey administer health and upgrade his equipment- this wouldn’t work in a co-op game. If it was co-op she would have to be an action hero, and that would undermine the whole set-up of the story.

Strategy Informer: What impact are you hoping Enslaved will have that Heavenly Sword didn’t?

Tameem Antoniades: It’s basically Heavenly Sword, a lot better, and a lot longer. So it’s a lot of ideas we had for Heavenly Sword we’re putting into Enslaved, and we’re crafting it right. The best we can hope for is that it becomes a memorable experience for gamers, because games are disposable. They’re off and on the shelves for three months and then they’re gone. If it can be something people remember in the same way as a good book or movie, and if it can sell enough units for us to make new games, that’s our objective.

Strategy Informer: Final question, can you sum the game up in three words?

Tameem Antoniades: [Laughs] Gosh! Three words is hard! I would say; Heavenly Sword, better, longer!

New Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Screenshots

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

Ninja Theory Confirms Enslaved DLC and Demo

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

With E3 gearing up in just a couple of weeks, Ninja Theory’s co-founder Tameem Antoniades revealed in a recent interview that his team have been working on “story-based” downloadable content for their upcoming title Enslaved set to be released this fall.

Tameem was able to confirm that the DLC will be limited to single player only as they are “story-based.”

“Namco don’t want to announce that, but we’re working on it now. It’s not going to be anything like multiplayer”

When asked if a demo was on the way, he also confirmed that they were working on that as well.

“That’s on the cards. That’s the plan, yeah”

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Gametrailers Interview

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

Gametrailers Interview with Tameem Antoniades with gameplay clips included