Fightback by Ninja Theory
Published: October 30. 2013
Ninja Theory pulls no punches with Fightback, its 80’s-themed mobile brawler
The Cambridge, England-based developer Ninja Theory has already had a big year. It kicked off 2013 with DmC: Devil May Cry, rebooting one of Capcom’s most hallowed franchises with an attention to detail and mechanical sophistication rare for a western developer. Now, working with EA Mobile and Chillingo, the studio is working on their first iOS and Android title. Titled Fightback, the game is an 80’s-style beat-'em-up, bringing arcade sensibilities and gameplay to mobile devices.
“As a studio, we have a lot of experience in creating combat games, so when we thought about embarking on our first mobile project combat was a good place to start,” says product manager Dominic Matthews. “We talked about how we could make a combat game that could offer the player progression and fun in sessions of just a couple of minutes at a time.” And that's when they came up with the idea of beating guys up in towers, one floor at a time. “A few of us had seen, ‘The Raid’ and thought it was a cool concept; we also thought that a John Carpenter, 80’s-style setting would give the game a strong look that would resonate well.”
Beginning with its first game, the PlayStation 3 launch title Heavenly Sword, and following through in the likes of Kung Fu Chaos and Enslaved: Oddysey to the West, Ninja Theory has always been keen on tight combat mechanics. Because the player doesn’t control character movement in Fightback (the game is on rails), the simple swipes up, down and diagonally on the touchscreen translate deftly into kicks and punches. To successfully complete each level—that is to say, fight your way up each floor of the tower—you have to defeat all muscle-bound enemies within the allotted time. This gives the game a tense, almost rhythmic vibe, and every strike you take takes precious seconds off the clock.
“Certainly our experience in combat helped to steer the gameplay in Fightback, but really we wanted to take an entirely fresh look at mobile/tablet development,” says Matthews. “Yes, we have a very experienced console team, but we wanted to build a new title from the ground up specifically for mobile/tablet, and specifically with the F2P model in mind.” The size of the team has changed quite a bit throughout development, ranging from around 30 down to 15. “On DmC we had a team of closer to 90, so it is a far smaller, more close-knit team that has been working on Fightback,” says Matthews.
Unsurprisingly, the move to the small screen has taken its share of getting used to. “Getting the high-quality assets made and put together is a relatively straightforward process, and something that we’ve been doing for years for consoles,” says Matthews. “The harder part is creating and optimizing a mobile/tablet experience that attracts players, keeps them playing and ultimately encourages them to spend money.” Of course, a major challenge has been optimizing for some the lower-end devices, and keeping loading times down. “In the console world, loading times are an annoyance,” says Matthews. “In free-to-play mobile, a long loading time might mean the difference between a player staying engaged with your game or not.”
The team at Ninja Theory chose Unity as its development platform early on. “We evaluated a number of engines very early on in the project, and decided to go with Unity for a number of reasons,” says Matthews. Central was the variety of platforms supported, and the ability to easily deploy to those platforms. “It has been a great fit for our project. We've been able to learn a new engine very quickly, and it has scaled perfectly to the size of the project that we’re working on.”
“We actually got Fightback going very quickly,” Matthews continues. “Once we had talked through the concept for a week or so, we started the team on getting a prototype together. We had some teething problems—as with any new project—but have really just been able to plough on with the getting the game to where it is today.” The team has incorporated a number of plugins from the Unity Asset Store as well. “We've made use of PlayMaker, which has given our designers a lot of freedom to work without needing to rely on code support for every little job,” says Matthews, who notes that NGui and a number of Prime31 plugins have also been essential kit for the team.
Scaling down the project from what the studio was used to became central to success. “I think we've avoided a lot of common mistakes that console developers make when trying to make a mobile game,” says Matthews. “From the very beginning we wanted to build Fightback with the target devices and players in mind, and not just try to make a console game for mobile. I think we've achieved that and it puts us in a very good place to continue this work in the future.”
Indeed, Fightback comes at an interesting time for the Cambridge studio, right off its highest-profile game to date, in Devil May Cry. “The games industry is at a very interesting point; the big question is whether or not the next generation of home consoles can compete with the incredible growth of mobile/tablet gaming,” says Matthews. “For us as a studio, we very much want to continuing developing in both markets; home console games are our core business, but Fightback is a serious venture for us, and one that represents the start of a new area of expertise for the studio.”
Either way, Ninja Theory is hedging its bets, honing a signature style and making hits that scale from AAA to Android—and everywhere in between. “In my opinion, the time for developers exclusively making games for consoles is coming to an end. Whether you're creating Xbox SmartGlass functionality, companion apps or mobile ports, I think the future of console gaming is going to require developers to embrace mobile and tablet devices. Only time will tell whether mobile/tablet gaming is going to dominate the future, or whether home consoles can offer something different enough to survive.”
“Originally we planned to use the title ‘Badass’—and we called it that for months internally,” says product manager Dominic Matthews of the game that eventually became Fightback. “However, when we went to register the name on the iTunes Store, we found that it has already been taken. It really was a schoolboy error! A lot of people still call it Badass, and internally we're known as the "Badass Team"…like some kind of A-Team knock-off.”