Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is profitable after 3 months

senua

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice has, after three months, become profitable for developer Ninja Theory. Since launching in August, the third-person action game has sold 500,000 copies and garnered a great deal of praise for the way it approaches the challenging subject of mental illness. This is great news for Ninja Theory, of course, but its success will also no doubt be welcomed by those hoping that Hellblade will herald the arrival of AAA-quality games designed by indie studios. I don’t think it will.

In a final dev diary, Ninja Theory staff explain how they were able to make a game like this with a small studio, no publisher and no crowdfunding. As part of that, Tameem Antoniades, ‘chief creative ninja’, says that one of their goals was to “prove that there was a space between indie and AAA games that could work commercially.” Dominic Matthews, ‘product development ninja’, also urges other developers in a similar position to get in touch if they want to know more about how they can do the same.

Now don’t get me wrong: I can see that another studio might be able to repeat this success, I just think it’s going to be extremely rare.

First off, the sexy stats. Hellblade has now hit 500,000 sales, and when the dev diary was recorded it had generated $13 million in revenue. It took three years to make and the studio size was around 20 people. Ninja Theory expected to wait nine months before it broke even, but it took three.

Even though it kept costs down by keeping the team small, three years of development isn’t cheap. Ninja Theory’s budget was enhanced by a co-production grant from the Wellcome Trust, whose remit includes expanding public understanding of science and health, plus loans and UK tax relief. That accounted for just under half of the budget. The rest came from Ninja Theory itself, saved up from years of work-for-hire projects. So even with all the assistance the studio got, it still had to fall back on years of experience and the money it earned from that.

So yes, if you’ve worked on games like DmC: Devil May Cry and Disney Infinity, and you’re able to get grants and loans, then maybe, just maybe, you can replicate Hellblade’s success. It would also help if there was a dash of controversy to drum up some more press attention. But even then, there are so many ways it could go wrong. One of the most notable advantages AAA studios have is a publisher’s stupidly huge marketing budget. Ninja Theory initially had to rely on fans and word of mouth, and it was only after getting 75,000 pre-orders that a proper digital marketing campaign could be started.

I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, because I’d absolutely love to see more indie studios able to blur the lines between indie and AAA. But I can’t help but feel like Hellblade is the exception, not the rule.

26 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Ninja Dodo says:

    “I just think it’s going to be extremely rare. (…) But I can’t help but feel like Hellblade is the exception, not the rule.”

    Why? The key reproducible element of their success was not their specific circumstances and subject matter, but the reduced scope and length with AAA-quality production coupled with a more modest price.

    • Premium User Badge

      Ninja Dodo says:

      “So even with all the assistance the studio got, it still had to fall back on years of experience and the money it earned from that.”

      I mean, this is true of most small to mid-sized studios… they tend to have both extensive experience and a degree of existing income to fall back on from previous projects.

      If more studios can make smallish high-quality games instead of working only on giant publisher-funded productions or going out of business that seems like a pretty good alternative scenario.

    • Premium User Badge

      Ninja Dodo says:

      Also “indie studio” is totally meaningless at this point. Is Double Fine indie? Is Red Thread Games indie? Is Ninja Theory? All are developers that have worked on giant boxed console and PC productions for big publishers that are now working on somewhat smaller games independently with largely the same not exactly tiny teams. Red Thread is a new studio but their first game was a sequel to a AAA series. Is that indie? Double Fine is even a publisher… How about Valve? They’re certainly independent.

      It’s doesn’t really matter if they call themselves indie. Smaller studios getting to make more cool games is a good thing.

      • welverin says:

        Indie is short for independent, so yes they are.

        Now if you choose to redefine to mean small struggling developer(s), no, but that’s using the term in a narrow way to suit your purposes.

        • Premium User Badge

          Ninja Dodo says:

          It has nothing to do with my or anyone’s purposes. When someone says “indie” in the context of games they usually are not referring to relatively large and established companies. As commonly understood language it’s a lot more specific, but when applied so broadly as to mean anything “independent” it becomes meaningless. Either way, it’s a pointless discussion.

          • Mandrake42 says:

            I tend to think of indie as games developed outside the funding and control of big publishers, in much the same way a film is considered indie if it is made outside the usual studio system. The team size or experience doesn’t really matter, its more about creative control.

            That said, that’s my definition though and the definition does seem to be kind of in flux at the moment. I’ve seen plenty of people comment online who seem to only consider that a game counts as indie if it’s a couple of dudes in their garage making their first game.

            Getting back to my own definition, I consider it being out from under the control of the big publisher that makes a difference. At the end of the day, the people providing the bucks at that level are running a business and are pretty risk averse. Conservative business strategy and creativity aren’t exactly the best bedfellows which is why so many AAA games feel a bit homogenised.

            When devs can break away from established funding of big publishers, by whatever means, we tend to get games that go in weirder and riskier directions.

        • mukuste says:

          Saying all independent studios are “indie” is about as useful nowadays as saying pop music is really just a shorthand for popular music.

          • UncleLou says:

            It’s not meaningless at all. It means what it has always meant.

            What is *totally* meaningless is people using “indie” as a name for a genre or randomly defining “indie” as, say, games with pixel art.

    • RuySan says:

      Isn’t Larian/Divinity games also somewhere between indie and AAA? And last I heard they were huge successes.

  2. Meat Circus says:

    By ‘AAA quality games’ do you mean Battlefront 2?

    The A in triple A stands for arsehole. To the extent AAA means anything at all, the watchwords are greed, exploitation and incompetence. Hardly a mark of quality.

  3. grimdanfango says:

    So an unknown indie dev fresh out of Uni will still struggle to dive in and get funding to make a Triple-A quality game… it takes years of building up your experience/expertise and your resources?

    Who knew?

  4. tjohnfranklin says:

    Senua is a great example of a game with a very well-managed scope. It’s quite feature light in some regards – there’s no progression system, no challenge mode, only really three puzzle mechanics (change the environment by looking at a particular thing, line up runes, stay in the light), very few enemy types. The energy and the money have been put into making the things that are the core of the game (acting, audio-visual experimentation, core combat loop, level design) really high quality. Being independent has allowed Ninja Theory to maintain that tight focus and to prioritise parts of design that don’t meet the expectations of your classic AAA publisher; but there are publishers out there who might be amenable to a team trying something similar, now there’s a model of success. Devolver Digital and Paradox both come to mind. Senua succeeding won’t magically give indie teams the funds they need to embark on similar projects, but perhaps it will give the smaller publishers the confidence to fund teams to create games in genres typically dominated by AAA publishers – 3rd person action adventures, FPS, sports and so on.

    • Addie says:

      Nail on the head. The gameplay is a bit unambitious, so they should have been able to plan out the programming quite accurately. The storytelling is very ambitious and they did a lot of iteration on it, but once they have the art assets in place then they ‘only’ have to redo the mocap and the video acting to fit it in again. It’s a bit repetitive but doesn’t outstay its welcome, and is a fair price to reflect that. Great work Ninja Theory.

    • GameCat says:

      I wish more games would trim unnecessary fat like crafting and all that boring stuff that serve mostly as something to bloat the playtime and so you could advertise that your game have 346 contents instead of only 150.

  5. Frosty Grin says:

    Ninja Theory initially had to rely on fans and word of mouth, and it was only after getting 75,000 pre-orders that a proper digital marketing campaign could be started.

    Oh, so that’s why they were spamming those progress videos…

  6. Barts says:

    I loved the story, the ambiance and the visuals, but after having done the same fight what seemed like a million of times, I finally gave up. First time I felt it was not fun anymore was in the sea of blood (you know, the one with charred corpses) and I just gave up at that effin’ bridge. Click, click, click, focus, click, click, click, dodge, click, click, click…

  7. welverin says:

    “the studio size was around 20 people”

    This isn’t true, the team size averaged twenty people, but that was only the part of the studio that was working on the game.

  8. albamuth says:

    Bottom line: Capitalism tends to keep indie/well-thought-out/original games out of the market.

    *ducks and runs for cover*

    • gangl1234 says:

      No, I think most gamers who’ve been around long enough (eg., since the days of the NES/SNES) would agree. I mean, I’m by no means an analyst or industry expert, but just look at the general trend. Companies back then weren’t quite ‘indie’, but there wasn’t such an intense focus on pleasing shareholders or such a chokehold on the industry by huge publishing giants, thus more niche games were allowed to flourish and become popular. I feel like FO4 is a good example here (and you don’t even have to go as far back as the SNES days to see the change); look at what Bethesda’s Fallout used to be, and what it turned into with 4. I’d be willing to bet they ‘focus tested’ the crap out of 4-or at least looked at the trends themselves-and found ‘Oh hey, a lot of gamers like COD type stuff and not so much the heavy RPG stuff, we should be more like that to make the most money!’ Since the term ‘gamer’ covers a wider, more casual demographic these days that’s what’s bound to happen, and sadly, it sucks for those of us who want actually *good* games rather than slightly different flavors of the same generic crap every year.

      • NihlusGreen says:

        To be fair combat in older Bethesda games could be improved, while maintaining story and RPG elements of course (I haven’t gotten around to FO4 yet, but currently playing Oblivion, played New Vegas / FO3).

  9. BaaBaa says:

    More important than the time it took to get there,is the number of sales it took to get there. Half a million copies to just break even should ring loud alarm bells for indie devs who are thinking of aiming for the same visual quality and scope.

  10. heretic says:

    This is great news, really enjoyed this game!

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