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Bleeding Edge: How Cambridge studio's new game went from passion project to Xbox headliner

Bleeding Edge Xbox
Ninja Theory's new game is Bleeding Edge, a melee-focussed multiplayer

This article has an estimated read time of 8 minutes

Bleeding Edge may not be the flagship Xbox title that you would expect from Ninja Theory. The Cambridge-based developer, acquired 12 months ago by Microsoft in its ongoing studio spending spree, has built its reputation on cinematic, narrative based adventures. Most recently with the Bafta-winning Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, lauded for its harrowing depiction of mental health in a Pict culture.

So, at first glance, a multiplayer melee starring Overwatch-style heroes (or ‘fighters’ in Bleeding Edge lingo) doesn’t feel like the most obvious follow-up. But you can trace its origins back to Ninja Theory’s debut in 2003; a 3D fighting party game called Kung Fu Chaos.

And for Ninja Theory’s newest creative director Rahni Tucker, a chance to embark on a passion project that tied into Ninja Theory’s heritage. “Combat has always been part of the Ninja Theory DNA,” she says. “I think they liked the idea of going back to combat, with Kung Fu Chaos being the first game they ever made. I really wanted to make more third person action combat and was thinking what I could do next with it.

“At home I play a lot of team multiplayer games, all the way from MOBAs to team shooters. And then I was like: where is this game? A third-person action competitive team multiplayer. It doesn’t really exist and it sounds like my dream project.”

Creative director Rahni Tucker (R) unveils Bleeding Edge on stage at the Xbox E3 2019 briefing alongside Ninja Theory's commercial director Dominic Matthews

This was around six years ago, after Tucker had lead the combat design on the brilliant DmC: Devil May Cry. The Australian developer pitched her melee multiplayer concept to Ninja Theory founders Tameem Antionades and Nina Kristensen, but the studio didn’t have the resources to start development on the game. Ninja Theory was about to embark on Hellblade, its own IP, and was also doing work-for-hire jobs to pay for its development. But clearly the idea stuck.

“Around halfway through Hellblade, around three and a half years ago, they said: ‘hey, you know that idea you had? Would you like to do it.’ And I said ‘hell yes!’”.

Tucker became the studio’s second creative director --working parallel to Antionades-- and was initially given a team of six to spin up the game that would become Bleeding Edge. Now, with a team of 25 readying itself to launch a ‘live service’ game, Tucker’s passion project has become a headliner at the Xbox E3 2019 showcase.

In some senses Bleeding Edge is a fairly easy concept to explain; a mash-up of familiar multiplayer gaming tropes anchored by Ninja Theory’s third-person combat. You have the variety of its Overwatch-esque ‘fighters’; boisterous, diverse and cartoonish characters --from the elderly witch Maeve, to an undead Cambridge professor controlled by a robot snake-- with their own individual skills. There is a touch of the popular ‘MOBA’ genre with split objectives and a cooldown on attacks. While its maps and modes have the familiarity of an arena shooter, players attacking capture points with smartly designed maps managing to both separate and funnel players together depending on your approach.

The fighters of Bleeding Edge are all 'buddies' according to Tucker, who take part in a cybernetic fight club to test out their new body mods

But at the heart of it is third-person action combat in the vein of Devil May Cry, giving it a unique twist. As you fight up close and personal --either as a guitar-wielding assassin, languid healer or muscular tank-- the connections make sense. The only surprise is that this kind of game hasn’t really been done before.

“I was worried about that. When we first started, I was like ok why isn’t there this game? Is it just because no-one thought of it? That seems unlikely. Is it impossible? I hope not, I felt like it shouldn’t be!

“We spent a good chunk at the beginning just prototyping and making sure that what I had in my head was going to work. I didn’t really know yet what I wanted the game to be yet, I knew I wanted it to be third-person action and team-based. But in terms of exactly what the characters would be doing and how many per team and what sort of maps there would be and how the objective would work, we didn’t have any preconceived ideas about any of that stuff. We just tried a lot of things, saw what worked, got rid of the stuff that didn’t and let the game naturally evolve.”

For now, Tucker says the modes they have are deliberately kept simple and familiar so players that jump into the alpha test on 27 June can concentrate on what sets Bleeding Edge apart: the fighting. “For the two modes we’ll have we’ve probably thrown away 200. The things that work for Bleeding Edge are not too complicated, because you require a lot of headspace when you’re in an actual fight.

While most of the fighters in Bleeding Edge are melee based, some -like Gizmo here- have ranged weapons too

“We found that once there was more than a couple of objectives at a time, it started getting head-explody. People want to fight. As soon as we had complicated objectives, people just didn’t do them they went to the middle to fight as that’s the fun thing they want to do.”

And it is fun. Diving into a match, I choose a support healer Miko and skirt the edges of the battle to heal my teammates, nipping in for quickfire combos with my staff. You have tactical evades to break away from assassin opponents like the samurai Daemon wailing away on you. The control point objectives spawn at different times, designed as such to encourage an ebb and flow to a match which encourages 1-on-1 battles all the way up to chaotic team skirmishes.

While it’s hard to say from a snatched playtest if Bleeding Edge’s multiplayer concept has the legs to make it an Overwatch-style success, the combat at the heart of it is thoroughly enjoyable stuff. Each character has two ‘ultimate’ abilities, while the game allows for customisation for each character to make your ideal build.

The action, though, is the culmination of 15 years of Ninja Theory’s steadily improving third-person action. The studio had produced solid melee combat in the likes of Heavenly Sword and Enslaved: Journey to the West, but it wasn’t until its spin on Devil May Cry --Capcom’s seminal brawler-- that it came into its own for action.

Tucker had been working in Australia up until that point, initially working on kid’s games at THQ before moving onto combat design for an unnannounced title that sadly never saw the light of day. Then came to move to Cambridge and Ninja Theory, where she was made combat lead on DmC. “I’d always wanted to get into combat design specifically as a designer,” says Tucker. “So when I arrived and they told me I was on DmC I was like ‘amaaa-zing’!”

While the often divisive DmC is very much a Ninja Theory game, Japanese publisher Capcom was heavily involved in the development. With many of its designers, including supervising director and Devil May Cry veteran Hideaki Itsuno, coming over to England to offer their advice on the game.

“It was a great game to work on and I learned heaps from the guys at Capcom,” says Tucker. “When they came out, they never came in and said ‘change this to that’. They would give more philosophical guidance like ‘when we create combat this is the type of things we think about; see what you think and how you can apply that’.

“It’s interesting because it’s quite different to how I might have done if I was doing it myself. I was like a sponge for that knowledge, these guys have been creating combat action games forever.”

The roster of fighters are a colourful bunch, such as healer Miko, there will be ten at launch with more to come in free updates

This experience was one of the reasons that Tucker wanted to zone in on combat with Bleeding Edge, while Antionades continues to make games like Hellblade. “I think with me being the second creative director at the studio, it just makes sense for me to make something that I’m passionate about and suits my taste,” says Tucker. “Which just so happens to be quite different from what Tameem likes to do.”

And now that Ninja Theory has been acquired by Microsoft, the Cambridge studio can accelerate its plans to be a multi-team, multi-game studio. Bleeding Edge was deep in development before the Xbox money came in, but such investment means Ninja Theory’s resources can be much more focussed.

“We couldn’t afford to put 100 people on a game because we needed to fund it somehow,” says Tucker. “Which is why we start with a small team; it’s a bit less risky to create a project you are really passionate about. It doesn’t have to appeal to everyone in the whole world. It just has to appeal to enough people to be viable.

“We started with Hellblade, with the rest of the studio on paid-for work to support that. Then we got a second one going, but now having been acquired by Microsoft, we don’t need to do the paid-for work to support the passion projects; they can all be passion projects. They can all be risk-taking, creative things that we want to make. It’s been really empowering.”