A few weeks ago, Ninja Theory’s first game as part of Xbox Game Studios – Bleeding Edge – was unleashed onto the world, and needless to say it was not for everyone. While I was personally a big fan of the game overall, many critics and gamers were not, with the game accumulating a 68% overall on Metacritic and a 66% on Opencritic. All of this made it abundantly clear that the game wasn’t everything players were hoping for from a studio with a reputation as solid as Ninja Theory’s, particularly in the single-player community. Honestly, that’s totally okay. No game is for everyone: among the most acclaimed games you’ll find detractors, and among the most hated you’ll find lovers. That being said, questions such as “Why is Ninja Theory making this game?” or “Why doesn’t Ninja Theory stick to what they’re good at (i.e. single-player, narrative-driven action games)?” have been levelled at Bleeding Edge from the start. The mass downvotes on the trailer were proof.
This response was not too dissimilar to that of Obsidian’s Grounded. In that case, a studio known for making high-quality RPGs and pretty much nothing else was taking a sharp left turn into new territory. It was arguably an even further departure for the studio than Bleeding Edge was for Ninja Theory, pivoting away from skill-trees, dialogue and NPCs and a solely single-player experience into a co-op survival game with deep crafting. Needless to say, the response too was very mixed, although perception of the game has improved as Obsidian have shown off more of their vision. Still, the same question was raised: “Why is Obsidian making this game instead of AAA RPGs?”.
In this article, I’d like to take you through some of the rationale, and benefits behind these decisions, as well as try to ease the minds of fans who are afraid that Microsoft may take these beloved studios on a different path. I’d also like to outline how Obsidian and Ninja Theory’s new approach could do wonders for other studios, be they first-party or otherwise, especially in the next generation.
I suppose I’d like to start by saying this: the negative effects games such as Bleeding Edge, Grounded, Battletoads, etc. will have on their parent studios is minimal. The absolute worst case scenario here is that they lower the reputation of the studio behind them which, I’d argue, none of these games have or will do. This is because of how these studios are organized.
At Ninja Theory, for example, they have shifted to an organizational structure they call Dreadnaught that allows for multiple teams to work on different projects without sacrificing quality. In essence, this means that the team working on Bleeding Edge is not the same team working on the upcoming Hellblade 2, which in turn is not the same team working on Project Mara. All three of these games are forging a path forward on their own, and thanks to the efforts of Ninja Theory’s management it could be made with more limited teams. It is worth noting that only a maximum of 25 people worked on Bleeding Edge at full development, around 20 on the original Hellblade and double that on Hellblade 2, meaning any cost to another team is minimal.
The same goes for Obsidian. Grounded is being made by a passionate team of around 15 developers at Obsidian, under the careful direction of Mikey Dowling. This is just a few of the 200 currently working at Obsidian. That leaves plenty of room for their other teams to forge ahead on other projects such as The Outer Worlds DLC and The Outer Worlds 2, as well as another RPG that has been alluded to but not officially announced. If Grounded is a flop, it only costs 15 or so developers and a small hit to Obsidian’s otherwise rock-solid reputation.
However, if Grounded becomes a hit and/or if Bleeding Edge truly finds its footing in the coming months the way games such as State of Decay 2 and Sea of Thieves have done, the end result could do wonders for their given studios. Firstly, because both of these games have multiplayer, they can have a consistent player base to engage, keeping subscriptions of Xbox Game Pass high and their titles in the public consciousness.
Secondly, both of these titles, as I mentioned previously, are departures for their given studios, but the teams can learn some truly valuable lessons working on them. For example, Bleeding Edge went through a long technical-alpha stage, which taught Ninja Theory a number of lessons about community engagement, involvement and infrastructure. It also taught them about the importance of accessibility, and they worked to make Bleeding Edge approachable to all gamers. All of these are potentially transferable skills to other future projects. For example, if team Hellblade needed some help implementing co-op, or if the Project Mara team needed help making the game more accessible, members of the Bleeding Edge team could easily take what they learned from making Bleeding Edge and use it to strengthen the quality of those two games.
The same applies to the Grounded team. Currently, the team is working on features that haven’t been present in an Obsidian game before, such as deepened crafting and base-building, a truly interactive environment with a simulated ecosystem, co-op and more. With Grounded, particularly because it is an early access title, Obsidian can test the waters with these new mechanics and see what players respond well to. By the time The Outer Worlds 2 comes out, we could easily see elements from Grounded that players took to added to the game. However, if a game like Grounded didn’t arrive, then truly despised features could be inadvertently added to future titles, lowering the overall quality of the experience. Because Grounded will be launching into early access, and the community will have a say in its finished form, Obsidian has more opportunities to experiment and see what new mechanics players love and don’t. It’s an exciting prospect that I don’t think enough people have picked up on.
Finally, there’s the question of Xbox Game Pass. With each subsequent generation, games have become longer and more expensive to make. Just look at Crackdown 3, which took a significant time to release after announcement. If developers continue to pursue AAA titles, the gaps between releases will either get bigger or more games will be released in a rushed state like Fallout 76 and Anthem. By keeping budgets and team sizes low, we can get games more regularly from Xbox’s teams with minimal negative effects on their business and potentially massive boons to their upcoming projects. This can lead to more games being released into Xbox Game Pass every year, more tastes being catered to and teams being able to take further risks.
The way I see it, it’s all gravy. If you like these smaller games, then great! If you don’t, then take solace in the fact that games catered to your tastes are likely coming along the way. By adopting this model, devs can take further risks, make dream projects come true, enrich upcoming titles and shorten release gaps. Remember, for every blockbuster movie and indie darling, you have your mid-range dramas like The Way Back or Emma. For every chart-topping single, you have other songs on the album that experiment and deepen the quality of the overall album. For every… well, you get the picture. So, even if these games aren’t for you, there might just be another AA title that’s right up your alley.