Microsoft announced today that it has acquired Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice creator Ninja Theory. In some ways, that’s a great outcome for Ninja Theory, but it’s another sign that it’s not easy to be a Triple-A indie game studio.
The U.K.-based Ninja Theory is one of five new teams that will have the resources and independence to make games for Microsoft platforms, said Phil Spencer, head of Xbox at Microsoft, at the company’s event ahead of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles.
Ninja Theory made the award-winning Hellblade, which depicted a woman warrior’s descent into madness, as she tried to recover her lost love from the Norse underworld. The game captured what it’s like for Senua, the female warrior, to live with psychosis. And it also had some of the best technology I’ve seen yet for depicting digital humans. Ninja Theory proved it was one of the best triple-A indie devs out there.
Hellblade came out last year, and it was my favorite of 2017. It had some of the scariest moments I’ve ever seen in a game. But would it have been made at all if it had corporate ownership, as it does now? Clearly, triple-A indies are a vanishing breed.
Ninja Theory’s executives said they were able to pull off the vision for this game over four years, as they consulted with medical professionals about psychosis and what it would be like to live with it. That required them to be independent enough to be able to make games in the thoughtful, deliberate, but admittedly slow, way that they did with Hellblade.
The question is whether they will still be independent under Microsoft. Spencer said they would have that independence and most likely more resources to make the kind of games they want to make. But clearly, Ninja Theory would be even more independent if Hellblade were successful enough to allow them to exist on their own.
Microsoft certainly needed to acquire new studios. Spencer appointed Matt Booty as his No. 2 executive in order to make sure the company could move fast on such deals. Sony has roughly twice as many game developers as Microsoft, based on my rough understanding of how many first-party studios and employees each company has.
The relationship between Ninja Theory and Microsoft started in 2000 when Kung Fu Chaos was in development for the original Xbox, and it solidified as Ninja Theory brought Hellblade to the Xbox One earlier this year.