Ninja Theory's mobile push

Ninja Theory's mobile push
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

June 14th 2013 at 3:30PM

Why this console developer is joining the mobile gold rush

Ninja Theory recently announced it was making the move into mobile game development for the first time alongside its traditional console duties with touch-based brawler Fightback,

The Cambridge-based studio has previously focused on console game development, releasing titles such as Heavenly Sword, Enslave: Odyssey to the West and most recently rebooting DmC: Devil May Cry to critical success.

So why has this developer, with a history and expertise in console development, decided to make the brave move to join the mobile gold rush? Develop spoke with Ninja Theory product manager Dominic Matthews and Fightback publisher Chillingo's COO Ed Rumley to find out.

Why has Ninja Theory decided to expand into mobile game development?
Dominic Matthews: For a long time now we’ve always kind of look fairly enviously at mobile as being a platform where we can create something that is really our own, and somewhere we can do things exactly the way we want, come up with a brand new idea, own the IP, create something special and get it out there and see how it goes.

We’ve been making console games for the past 12 years and the traditional console model is huge contracts, multi-year agreements, multi million dollars, huge marketing, massive teams, lots of people involved. It was just a great opportunity and great timing for us to sit down as a smaller group of people and just make something that was completely fresh and new for mobile.

I think mobile represents a big part of the future of gaming, and that’s just undeniable. I think mobile gaming use to be taboo to an extent and it use to be something that people looked down on as a lesser platform and something that was for people that weren’t really interested in or dedicated to gaming, and as kind of throwaway experiences. But that’s really all changed. The attitude towards mobile, certainly here, is that it's really leading the way in games if anything.

You said being on mobile enables you to be more creative and use your own ideas. Can you not do that on console then?
Matthews: You can, but I think particularly now, with the way the console market is moving, existing IPs are very successful, but being able to create your own IP and being able to own that IP is becoming more and more difficult.

It’s something we’ve done in the past obviously with Heavenly Sword and Enslaved, which were our own creations, and our most recent game Devil May Cry was really a partnership between us and Capcom.

But really it’s getting more and more difficult to come up with new IP that that you can convince publishers to give you the big bucks for. So it was attractive for us to create something that was our own and be able to get it out there quickly.

And working with a partner like Chillingo, it still affords us that creative freedom while getting that much needed expertise and support that we need.

What does Chillingo bring to the project?
Matthews: It’s kind of two-fold really. One is that Chillingo are massively successful in the mobile market, and as a result can help to push our game to their audience, to their gamers, their fans and people that know them.

They can support us with things like customer support, kind of traditional publisher things that in the console world we wouldn’t have to worry about because we’d never see that.

In the mobile world we’re a lot closer to the customer and we have to really think about those things and Chillingo are perfectly set up to help us in that way. But it’s really a lot more than that, because Chillingo offer a huge amount of expertise in mobile gaming, audiences and in free-to-play.

So for us, being a console developers, that’s quite a painful transition to go through, from developing on console and going onto mobile, and Chillingo have been able to really help us and help steer the game, really quite heavily in some places, to make sure its right for the audience and right for particular business models.

Ed Rumley: I think the partnership is very complimentary. Ninja Theory have got an incredible track record. And the first time we saw Fightback we fell in love with the game, and it oozes quality. You can see the heritage of that studio coming out in the game.

And then I think you look at what Chillingo offers there, it’s exactly what Dom was just commenting on. We were ten years old this year as an organisation, and we’ve got a huge amount of expertise. The market is changing rapidly and it’s really that expertise we can offer to Ninja Theory.

Is it a way for some console developers to ease into mobile?
Rumley: Yes. I think the mobile is a very ruthless platform. I think in the region of 400 apps a day are launching. And there is that kind of Californian gold rush of self-publishing. I think there’s still a lot of people who self-publish, and there will always be room for people who self-publish, but there is also room for publishers.

Different companies use publishers for different reasons. For a company like Ninja Theory, I personally think it makes sense. They’ve got an incredible product and they want to make sure absolutely everything is right. And that’s where we can help with that knowledge and hopefully our gamble as a company is we impress Ninja Theory enough that we form a long-term partnership.

Do you think more console developers will be going into mobile?
Matthews: From my perspective, yes. It’s really kind of a no brainer I think because just the install base alone is so attractive. You can get your game out to just so many people in so many different demographics that it’s really a natural choice for a lot of studios.

But that’s not to say that it’s at all easy. It’s a very difficult thing, I think, for a lot of console studios to get their heads around, particularly for us internally, and it’s something Chillingo has helped us with as well is getting into that mind-set of developing for mobile. When we started out on Fightback we were very clear internally we were building this for mobile and tablet from the ground up.

So to an extent you need to kind of force yourself to forget about many of the elements of console development that you’ve been doing for so many years, and start thinking about exactly how you can make this product just right for mobile and tablet gaming.

A good example of that is the control mechanism in Fightback is entirely gestural; it’s all one-finger control. That was a rule that we made ourselves at the very beginning, we wanted this game to be played with just one finger. It would have been easy for us to go down a D-pad route or a joystick route, because that’s what we know as a console developer, we know those types of controls.

But we wanted to really throw ourselves into mobile and tablet and say, no, how do we do this properly, and how do we make something specifically for these platforms and specifically for these gamers. That was one of the rules we had to set ourselves, amongst many others. I think other studios that want to do this have to approach it in the same way if they want to have any level of success.

There have been so many games that are visually great, and I’m sure have got deep mechanics behind them, but just the simple things such as the control scheme, that is something that’s been ported over from console development can let great games down so much. So it does take a change in mind-set, and that can be quite painful.

Is this a mistake a lot of developers make?
Matthews: I don’t know whether it’s a mistake. I’m sure there are plenty of games out there that have been a success. But certainly it was a challenge for us to be able to adopt that way of thinking and to make something specifically for mobile and tablet, and see if we could do it, and change that mind-set.

It’s harder to do that rather than to slip into the old console ways. I don’t know whether it’s a mistake, but I can see why it’s easier for people to do that rather than trying to change the mind-set of an entire team.

Rumley: I think it’s interesting. Fightback is one of the few games that’s come out of a console developer which we feel has absolutely nailed the control and the whole targeting from the very outset. We played that game and it was without doubt the most accessible game in that genre that we’ve ever played. People make the mistake of trying to put in multiple joysticks and 30 buttons in a game and it becomes a very confusing experience.

What does this move into mobile game development mean for your console business?
Matthews: It doesn’t really change anything. It’s a new strength of ours now. Once we release Fightback, and hopefully people like it and it’s a success, it’s a new thing we can do as a studio.

We want to continue making games with the same values that we have been using, which is strong production, strong aesthetic themes and strong visuals no matter what platform.

This certainly isn’t a shift of the studio onto mobile in isolation, it’s another part of our business going forward. So console and mobile/tablet gaming will remain part of what we do going forward.

Recent Playfish founder Kristian Segerstrale said that, in his opinion, big publishers and developers can’t focus on both mobile and console if they want to be leaders in either of those spaces. Can you do both successfully?
Rumley: I think EA is a testament to the fact that they are successful on all of these platforms. I think you can be successful on everything. But what I would say is that a mobile project is not an easy project. Console games are very difficult to make, and so are mobile games when the competition is so fierce. There is definitely room for both.

Matthews: I actually think that it’s going to become less of a choice for a lot of developers. Because I think the console gaming experience, the big screen gaming experience and the tablet and mobile gaming experience are going to cross over so much in the coming years that console developers are going to need to start thinking about these second screens and how they’re going to support their big screens experiences with these apps, and supporting games that people can play on the move, or while they’re watching TV or doing something else outside of the console experience.

Do you think with next-gen consoles, there will be a shift to consoles, or will developers now tackle everything?
Matthews: I think everyone’s going to have to tackle both, I really do. There have already been great examples of apps supporting console experiences. it’s just the way people play games now. If you look into the statistics behind how people are browsing the internet, it’s more often or not when they’re doing something else.

Gone are the days of people just sitting at a desk, browsing the internet, just playing a game or just consuming one form of entertainment. People want engagement all the time, and they want entertainment in various forms, and tablets are absolutely perfect for that.

I really do think that developers, and publishers in particular, are going to start demanding from developers that they have knowledge and experience of how to create on mobile and tablet to support their console games.

Rumley: I totally agree with Dom, how can you ignore a platform as large as smartphone and tablet. They’re exceptionally common now, I mean, what’s the definition of a smartphone? They’re all getting pretty powerful.

I believe there’s a billion smartphones around the world now, and that’s going up to two billion over the next couple of years. The growth is staggering, and it’s not just about the number of handsets, but it’s the platforms themselves. We’re now taking games over to Windows Phone 8, Windows 8 itself, Android, we’re working with Amazon closely, and of course, Apple.

There are just all these different platforms, and how on earth can you ignore those when the opportunity is so great?

Matthews: One last point on that, I also think there’s a lot you can learn form developing on mobile that you can take onto console. The way that social integration is integrated into mobile games is so far ahead of console games, there’s just so much you can learn form developing them.

Just simple things, like how you integrate Facebook deeply into your game, is something that’s going to be a big part of next-gen consoles. You can see that from the PlayStation 4 announcement with their share button on the control pad. It’s an actual physical button on the pad where you can interact with friends in that social environment.

I really think that mobile gaming has led the way in getting people to connect with their friends in a very simple, easy way. And in a way that fits everyone's lifestyle.

I really think that, certainly for us, there’s a lot that we can take from our mobile development back into our console development to make those games even better and even more engaging.