After the Vertical Slice, what’s next?

01 Jun After the Vertical Slice, what’s next?

Tameem Antoniades

We have just finished wrapping up the vertical slice, our first playable section of the game.  Most team members took a few days off and returned fresh to put down their thoughts on what went well and what didn’t.

Making a AAA quality game with a small team and a tiny budget seems unlikely but that is the challenge we have set ourselves and I know we can crack it, but not if we only rely on sheer brute force.  Instead, it will take a team that values collaboration, mutual respect, lateral thinking, critical honesty and a lot encouragement. We have this in place and so I feel like we are up to the challenge, no matter how daunting it seems.

So how did it go and are we happy with the results?  Undoubtedly, a large amount of work went into it and we learnt a huge amount from making it.  There is a lot we are happy with.  Particularly on the art, the enemies, the general atmosphere and the core combat.  But exploration gameplay was hit and miss and much harder to make work than we anticipated.

We initially created a level which felt linear so we opened it out with multiple paths and open sections.  Yet what we ended up with is a world that encouraged the player to explore but then punished them for not exploring in the order we expected them to.

We resorted to patching this up with VO and visual markers to encourage the player to find their way but the fundamentals were not right to begin.  You can’t design an open level with a linear mindset.  We’ve learnt our lesson in a small controlled playable section of the game and so we’ve avoided a great deal of future pain.  Glass half full.

And so it goes with every area of the level.  We know what worked, what was easy, what was hard and how to deal with it going forward.  We don’t have the luxury to throw more resources at this game so we have to design the game around what we can achieve.  Now I’ve seen some people comment and ask why we aren’t throwing more people at the game or aren’t asking for publisher money.

The reason is simple: if you take someone else’s money, you give up control and freedom.   Grow the team too big and it becomes inflexible and hierarchical.  Everything we are able to do on this game is a result of being independent and nimble.  Those are strengths, not weaknesses, and they are far too precious to give up.

The fact we are not going to Kickstarter also raises people’s eyebrows.  We still haven’t proved that we can make the independent AAA model work.  Common wisdom says that there is no middle ground between indies and AAA blockbusters.  I believe firmly that there is but we need to prove the model before even thinking about risking the goodwill of our fans.  We want you to be at our side for the long term.

If you have been following our diaries, you will have seen how we employ a strategy of divide and conquer throughout development.  We take each area, brainstorm, form a strategy, execute, iterate and review. Rinse and repeat for art, characters, effects, concepts, combat and so on.

Now we have just put together most of our ‘conquered’ knowledge into a playable which gives us the core minute-to-minute gameplay we want.  Some of it isn’t quite there but we now know why and how to fix it in future.  More importantly we know we can achieve a AAA quality experience with what we have so it’s time for our next challenge: scope.

The Horizontal Slice

We still need to give players a compelling value proposition and we cannot do this is if the game is too small.  The vertical slice is great for finding the experience you want but it won’t help you figure out how the overall game will feel in terms of scope and progression.

We will address these issues in what we call the horizontal slice.  Broadly speaking, it involves building the entire game to a shallow level to get a feel for the structure and scope of the overall experience.

Things like cutscenes may be represented simply by storyboards or scripts in game.  The gameplay and enemies may be represented by the same sections repeated over and over and art may be fairly rudimentary.  But having the bare bones skeleton of the full game gives you a bird’s eye view of the gameplay, the variety, pacing, story and progression.   Editing the experience at this stage is cheap and allows for iteration.  Once happy with the flow and scope, the production phase becomes all about filling it out.

So once again, we are going to hit this new challenge hard and it will involve a bunch of experiments, leaps of faith and hard work over the next few months.  I’m pretty excited to see where it leads us and we will keep you up to date along the way.

Until next time!

  • Thomas Roach
    Posted at 17:07h, 01 June Reply

    I know that you must face intense opposition on a daily, almost hourly basis. But all that is opinion, at best. The fact of the matter is that your team is attempting to create something that will benefit digital art for decades to come, so don’t give up. There are many of us out here who see this for what it truly is.

  • Zura
    Posted at 18:56h, 01 June Reply

    I can’t agree more! If someone can pull this off, then you guys! 😀

  • John
    Posted at 19:11h, 01 June Reply

    Of all the games I played lately, Bloodborne had one of the most interesting level designs, although there is a lot to explore, most of the times it doesn’t matter which way you are taking, because you will end up at the same location anyway, but a look at all the different paths rewards the player special items and exp. Also, because there is no minimap in the game, exploration becomes more intense and you are forced to take a closer look at the enviornment. Of course do I know that From Software games are totally different in gameplay, but I think other games could use some exploration of that kind too.

    However, the dev diary was interesting as always and i wish you luck with you upcoming challanges + I’m really looking forward to seeing the vertical slice gameplay 🙂

  • David Young
    Posted at 22:32h, 01 June Reply

    Good thoughts on your progress so far. There is a mix, which you get to find – not me, between a bunch of busy work to fill out a level/area or nice trinkets/treats for the player. Either work for me realistically. Waves of the same enemies can be interesting as both Rage and Borderlands 2 showed decent variety in those modes.

    What is also interesting is a NG+ model. From Software, mentioned above, does that. I am currently in a ng++ for Dark Souls and some of the little trinkets are less interesting on the additional plays but are still valuable enough to obtain if the player wants. You have not done one in the past (that I am aware of) but it might be a possible solution to extending game play. Or as a DLC type of extension thus allowing you to ship but to reward players with more content. Again, yours to solve.

    Good Luck, you have our best wishes.

  • André Vila Franca
    Posted at 23:04h, 01 June Reply

    Once again thanks for the honesty. Always follow your vision.
    HELLBLADE must become a master piece, let’s go!!

  • Ravi Teja S
    Posted at 07:01h, 02 June Reply

    awesome guys!
    i love these dairies! I wish I could be a part of your team

  • Arijon
    Posted at 21:28h, 02 June Reply

    It’s really great to know what it takes to make a video game, or better to achieve this goal, the independent AAA model. I really believe in it and I agree with every word of the article. a publisher and kickstarter are OK, but they (and their money) aren’t the answer to everything, especially to something as unique as Hellblade wants to be, just like you said eventually with them you tend to lose control and you end up with something very different (even Hideki Kamiya and Shinji Mikami ended up working in independent studios and just look what’s going on with Hideo Kojima and Konami). I’m sure it is very hard, but it’s something worth doing, and I’m sure you will make it. Remember when it was just an idea…..
    Best of luck!

  • Meshari
    Posted at 12:55h, 03 June Reply

    Thank you for your effort and dedicated work on this game.
    Are we going to see anything from you about this game in E3, I just want a small trailt . PLEAE PLEASE PLEASE

  • André
    Posted at 00:05h, 04 June Reply

    I just love the mindsett of ninja theory, and with the smaler team there will be a more focused and tighter experience, so nice.
    And the game looks so good, love the main character, the art style, the setting, go Ninja Theory i am cheering you on 🙂
    Cant wait for this game <3

  • Alex Muncatchy
    Posted at 17:17h, 09 June Reply

    This is probably one of the coolest things about this company, and their drive to make this new game; there is this indie ambition that seems rather hard to quantify, but in every behind-the-scenes look, you can tell the team has a vision, and the spirit and motivation to bring it to life. I love that. Like others have mentioned before, the team has become smaller, and while the workload would have increased exponentially, it allows the team to make a laser focused, singular experience that combines intimacy with spectacle, all done on a modest budget.

    I loved Heavenly Sword for its striking visuals, and buttery smooth swordplay, and the performances from each and every actor. I adored Enslaved for its level/world design and unique setting. It brought actual COLOR (gasp!) to a post-apocalyptic world often rendered through a near monochromatic lens in other games. I thought Trip and Monkey made for fascinating characters, and their interactions with each other felt genuine and heart felt.
    Most importantly, Ninja Theory makes honest games. I know when I am looking at a Ninja Theory game, just by staring at the incredibly creative character concepts and refreshingly “lived in” world/level art.

    Keep it up guys! Can’t wait to see more of this game, and others in the future!

  • Michael Shade
    Posted at 15:33h, 10 June Reply

    Thank you for all you do!

  • Hellblade Gameplay Trailer Released Ahead of E3 2015 - JSX
    Posted at 01:52h, 12 June Reply

    […] In all fairness, Ninja Theory have only just put together a proper polished demo (called a vertical slice) but at this point, fans are eager to see something substantial. Well, the developer has heeded our […]

  • Chad Bigfan
    Posted at 07:19h, 16 June Reply

    Am I right that it’s the same voicing for Kai and Noriko from Heavenly Sword? All I’ve wanted since that game launched is a sequel and if this is as close as I can get then I just can’t wait!

  • Reverend Speed
    Posted at 20:16h, 28 September Reply

    Courage, Ninja Theory! Your work is inspiring, your standards intimidating! Go for it!


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