XBOX

A Threat to Hellblade 2 Success & to Ninja Theory’s Existence? – WGB

On May 21, 6 years and nine months after the first game arrived, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 will be published by Microsoft on Xbox Series S, Xbox Series X and PC. It’s a massive moment for developer Ninja Theory who have spent countless hours working on the follow-up to Senua’s Sacrifice. It will undoubtedly be a momentous moment for the team, and yet it will also be overshadowed by a publisher seemingly hellbent on destroying its gaming division. Worse, I believe it will be a moment tainted by fear as Ninja Theory ask a simple question: are we next?

My concerns about Hellblade 2 don’t stem from the game itself or from the team working on it, though. In fact, given everything we’ve seen about Hellblade 2 so far, I’m confident that it’s going to be visually stunning, have excellent performances and will do extremely well critically. The first game was an intriguing dark fantasy built on a fantastic idea: a lead character suffering from psychosis in a world that could not possibly comprehend a mental illness like it.

In terms of its ability to sell copies or boost Game Pass numbers, I’m really not sure how well it will do, but surely that won’t matter because Microsoft and Xbox have said before that Game Pass allows for the creation of these smaller, more risky projects. Right? Right!?

No, every concern I have comes from Microsoft and its worrying mismanagement of…well, everything. It’s a company that keeps trying to reinvent Xbox and keeps struggling to do so. It’s a company that has heavily invested in a subscription service that isn’t growing and demands constant feeding.

The first point of concern is the lack of marketing for Hellblade 2 despite being just over a week away from launch. Obviously there have been a number of trailers and a hands-on preview which left IGN rather impressed, but it seems like Xbox hasn’t been pushing Hellblade 2 as much as you would expect considering it’s the company’s next big title. Only now have ads started popping up for it and Xbox’s official X account started to Tweet about it. Even then, they didn’t even bother adding a link to the game’s store page until the second Tweet a day later. I was also shocked to learn that as of yesterday, the PR department haven’t even begun receiving review codes to hand out, meaning very few, if any, outlets have the game in their hands. Sure, it’s short enough to complete in an evening or two, but a confident company typically likes to put out codes well ahead of launch so that critics and reviewers have a chance to really delve into the game proper.

Compare this to the marketing campaigns for the likes of Starfield and it’s a stark difference. Of course, Starfield was a much bigger deal in Microsoft’s grand ambitions for Xbox and I wouldn’t expect the same level of money to be thrown at making Hellblade 2 look like a rockstar, but I’d expect something. Anything, really. I mean, let’s not forget that this is the game that was announced alongside the Xbox Series X, immediately presenting it to the world as a big deal, a flagship game for Xbox new flagship console.

Perception is reality, as the saying goes. Microsoft’s lack of marketing for Hellblade 2 creates a perception wherein Microsoft doesn’t seem to care about it and isn’t willing to spend money on it. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t ultimately matter – it’s what it looks like from the outside, especially right now, just days after Microsoft brutally shut down multiple studios.

Senua faces down a giant with a scarred face in Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 from Ninja Theory.

Yes, it goes without saying that the biggest pause for concern is Xbox’s recent behaviour. They shut down three Bethesda studios, with a fourth being fed to Zenimax Online to help work on The Elder Scrolls Online. The biggest victim of this murder spree was none other than Tango Gameworks, the creators of Hi-Fi Rush, an award-winning game and the perfect poster boy for why Microsoft claims Game Pass is such a good thing.

At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much linking Tango Gameworks and Ninja Theory together, but when you stop and think about it there are some concerning similarities that make me fear or Ninja Theory’s continued existence. As part of the Zenimax deal, Tango Gameworks became part of the Xbox brand in 2021. Hi-Fi Rush was a niche game that launched in 2023, just two years after Xbox bought the developer, to become a critical darling, beloved by players and media alike. Xbox also praised its success, often denying reports that they were not happy with its performance. In fact, Aaron Greenberg, Xbox’s Vice President of Games Marketing said it was a “break out hit for us and our players in all key measurements and expectations” and that “We couldn’t be happier with what the team at Tango Gameworks delivered with this surprise release”.

A year after launching Hi-Fi Rush, Tango Gameworks would be murdered seemingly without warning as Xbox decided to refocus its efforts on bigger projects. A day after that, Matt Booty, Head of Xbox Game Studios, said in a townhall meeting that “We need smaller games that give us prestige and awards,”.

Ninja Theory was bought by Microsoft in 2018 and in that time they haven’t done very much. There was a VR version of the original Hellblade which was quite well received but was obviously fairly small-scale owing to VR being far from mainstreat. They followed that up by part 1 of Vader Immortal, another VR project that people really liked. Bleeding Edge was released in 2020 and was almost immediately forgotten about. If, like me, you honestly couldn’t remember what Bleeding Edge was, it was an arena-based multiplayer game with a few cool ideas. It didn’t catch on though, and not even a year later Ninja Theory stopped working on it.

Senua looks down into a dark, imposing valley in Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 from Ninja Theory.

That’s 6 years of Ninja Theory using Xbox’s money to very little effect. Most of that time and money was presumably spent on Hellblade 2, which is why it’s so shocking that Microsoft aren’t pushing it as hard as you might expect. Perhaps, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they are attempting to temper expectations: Hellblade 2 is apparently roughly the same size as the first game (likely 7-10 hours long) and will be selling for £50 rather than the full £70 that triple-A titles usually retail for these days. It isn’t getting a physical release, either, although that’s probably because Xbox is rumoured to have shut its physical games department. Xbox may simply want to keep the hype to a more realistic level than making it seem like the next big thing.

Is that minimal output enough, though? They shut down Tango Gameworks for producing a game that was showered in awards and praise, a game built on a relatively small budget over the course of 5 years – of which Xbox was only involved for 2 years. Ninja Theory have spent 6 years worth of Xbox money making Hellblade 2, though we have no idea what sort of budget it has. The first game was apparently made for under $10m, which it made back after three months on sale. A lot of focus has been put on the admittedly breathtaking visuals of Hellblade 2, as well as its extensive use of motion capture and incredible attention to detail – including the making of real-world costumes for the actors. If Xbox is willing to shutter studios for far less though, are they going to be happy with a game that took so long to make and likely won’t generate massive amounts of revenue or Game Pass subscriptions? From what we know, even Starfield barely made a dent in Game Pass’ numbers.

Which is not to knock Hellblade 2 and its potential to become a breakout success. But I do think it’s fair to say its a somewhat niche game much like Hi-Fi Rush was, which I think is awesome because that kind of game is typically more interesting and unusual. Game Pass should be home of these kinds of focused games that aren’t aiming to find a massive crowd but a very specific group of people. The original Senua’s Sacrifice: Hellblade did eventually manage to attract 6m+ players but it took it years to do that, speaking to its niche appeal. It also took a year to reach 1m copies sold. We don’t know how well Hi-Fi Rush sold, but we do know it hit 3m players within its first year. It wasn’t enough.

I have no doubt that every studio big and small under the Xbox umbrella is currently living in a state of dread. As a brand, Xbox still can’t gets is message straight, contradicting itself at almost every turn about what its goals are, what its focusing on, what its players should expect and what Xbox actually means. It’s as if they suffer from the same psychosis that Senua does, but unlike her have not managed to use it to their advantage. If a studio like Tango Gameworks can be cut down without warning and seemingly with barely any explanation about why it was chosen to be sacrificed at the altar of Xbox, then a studio like Ninja Theory – who are about to release a relatively small, niche title – cannot be safe, either.

Senua’s Sacrifice may yet become Ninja Theory’s sacrifice.

Originally posted by wolfsgamingblog.com

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