Ninja Theory’s Co-Founder Speaks About Her Creative Processes

This morning was held in high regard as Ninja Theory’s “Chief Development Ninja” Nina Kristensen graced the Theatre of The Arts Hall at Nanyang Polytechnic. Eager attendants from all walks of the game industry business (students, developers, what have you) listened to what knowledge and advice she has to share.

Company History

She talked a bit about her history starting work in the game industry business in Millenium Interactive Ltd. (or SCE Studio Cambridge), with her first title being MediEvil on the PS1 back in 1998. After becoming an Art Manager for the Cambridge studio, she felt that she needed to branch out and form her own studio. Thus, she collaborated with two of her colleagues, Tameem Antoniades and Mike Ball (from SCE Studio Cambridge), and formed Just Add Monsters. The road was rocky; half the time the entire development for the then-upcoming Xbox exclusive Kung Fu Chaos was done in a room as small as a cubicle while looking for investments to no avail. The company’s funds were limited to a point where they sold Kung Fu Chaos to Microsoft, even under publisher Argonaut Games. Nina stated that they hoped to make their mark with their made-for-next-gen title, Heavenly Sword.

Unfortunately in 2004, publisher Argonaut got into a bit of financial trouble; so much so that the developers had to reform under a new moniker after a management buy-out. With 22 people in tow, Ninja Theory was then born. They were still working on Heavenly Sword at the time; it was hard to pitch something next-gen when there aren’t any consoles being planned so far advanced. Well, every other company except Sony. They understood Ninja Theory’s vision since they have already been working on the PS3 since then. Three years later, we now have Heavenly Sword. Now with Enslaved: Odyssey To The West still being wrapped up for an early October release, Nina states that she’s excited to be doing a cross-platform title for the first time in the company’s history.

Using Animation To Get Your Point Across

As an animation student back then, her approach to conveying game design ideas goes side-by-side with her animation work. For example, one way she highlighted her game idea is through the Rip-O-Matic video, which is a short video consisting of mash-ups and footage that’s meant to show what your game is about. For Kung Fu Chaos’ Rip-O-Matic, it was a montage of 70s martial art flicks with yellow captions highlighting the game’s features. An advantage to making a Rip-O-Matic is that it’s quick and easy to convey to anyone, even stockholders who aren’t game-savvy. Best of all, it makes it easier for other people in the team to get the idea and picture the game’s vision without difficulty.

Another technique to convey your game idea is through concept videos. This video will show how the game will look like; it does not use a specific engine but it’s a way to establish a look. As an example, she showed off a very early video of Heavenly Sword where the person who would eventually become Nariko does some high-flying fantasy acrobatics and fighting. Compared to the final product, the theme of a tragic story and Asian fantasy influences are still prevalent, but the overall look and visual style are very different from one another.

Pre-visualization is another technique that helps get your vision across, especially when it came to portraying the cinematic combat of Heavenly Sword. Since placeholder animations did not cut it, Ninja Theory went all-out and did full animations (keys, in-betweens, and all) with low-res models. From the fatal counters (including one where Nariko stabs someone in the family jewels) to Superstyle attacks, each of them were fully-made just so that they can get a reaction and approval from those watching it.

Another version of this technique was also shown through style tests, which are short videos defining each and every game character’s style and movement. She brought a recent example using style tests from Enslaved. These range from main character Monkey’s movement to the berserker robot’s pose and walking animation. She also showed off the style test Monkey’s friend Pigsey for comic relief. He’s portrayed as a clumsy oaf who’s handy with cover fire using his trusty sniper rifle.

Concerning the main character Monkey, Nina felt that his actions should feel grounded to reality, even if it’s set in a post-apocalyptic future. At first, he was suppose to be this heavily-armored warrior, but as concepts pass and go, he was somehow stripped of that concept and was painted white at one point. In the end, the developers retained Monkey’s white hair and made him as human as possible, only with an exaggerated shoulder and a few muscles here and there. The concept artists played around with the typical human bone structure so that they can make Monkey more like a person coming out of the wild. His tattoos are also a nice touch; they happen to be war scars that he draws onto himself whenever he dispatches a huge robot from his past adventures.

That Hollywood Touch

It also helps to bring in people from outside the game industry to input new ideas into your project. She brought up the story on how renowned actor Andy Serkis collaborated with Ninja Theory on Heavenly Sword. It just so happens that his mortgage advisor is Tameem Antoniades’ brother. After seeing an early video of Heavenly Sword, Andy Serkis liked it and was hundred-percent on-board. Together with the team’s collaboration with Weta Workshop, an unorthodox-yet-effective technique of animation in the videogame industry was born; performance capture.

Not only were the bodies captured, the face and recreations of each scene were fully captured. Since it was tough to translate the motion-capture dots on the wetsuit to character models, they had to hire a mathematician to do proper calculations on making it possible. At one point, the mathematician had to make Andy Serkis recite a lot of nonsensical lines to get a huge amount of facial expressions for capturing. While not new in the film industry, this technique was groundbreaking in the field of gaming where production values can skyrocket to astronomical heights.

To highlight the effectiveness of the technique, Nina showed an in-game clip of Enslaved and the performance capture clip side-by-side (it’s the one scene with the dragonfly straight out of this year’s Gamescom, in case you’re curious). Nina says that it’s hard to find people comfortable acting out scenes wearing a wetsuit with balls attached. She and her team has to help make actors feel comfortable and safe; at the very least, Andy Serkis is a veteran in the industry in that regard. And yes, he’s also helping out with the direction and performance capture for Enslaved, as well as Monkey’s motion capture animation. Judging from the look of things, Enslaved seems to be living up to the high standards Ninja Theory set for themselves.

End Game

Because of all the big projects they’re doing, Ninja Theory has become so big at this point in time that it now has about a 100 employees, each of them specialized in different sections of the creative process. Be it modelling, lighting, texturing, and even fragments of a particular stage or level, Nina believes that putting an employee into a specialized position helps determine the person’s strength and help develop that specific skill in the long run. She also does not believe in having her employees multi-tasking ala Naughty Dogs for Uncharted 2, nor does she believe in branching out Ninja Theory into different companies. The former is because it’s better for said employee to just develop their talent further, while the latter is because she wishes to keep Ninja Theory as a personal and intimate company. If it were segmented, part of the company’s personality will get lost due to separation and management.

And of course, when asked about Heavenly Sword’s comparison with the God of War series, she’s happy that her game is held in high regard being compared to one of Sony’s biggest franchises.

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