Exclusive Q&A with Mark of the Ninja Designer Nels Anderson
Vancouver studio Klei Entertainment, the minds behind the much-loved Shank series, are currently wrapping development on their next side-scrolling adventure. The new IP is a 2-D atmospheric stealth adventure called Mark of the Ninja. With striking stylized art direction, and stealth mechanics that promise a rich suspenseful experience, Ninja is racking up quite a bit of buzz leading up to its release. JTM Games recently got the chance to talk to lead designer Nels Anderson, who told us about his love of stealth games, the challenges of building 2-D levels, and letting players find their own way through a game.
JTM Games: How does the creative process work at Klei when conceiving of a new IP like Mark of the Ninja?
Nels Anderson: Well there are kind of two fronts, that are closely related but distinct. There’s the gameplay side of things, like what kind of things can the player character do, what do the enemies do, what kind of objects exist in the levels, etc. Then there’s the thematic stuff- who are these characters, what are they doing, why are they doing it, etc. With the former, it’s honestly just a ton of experimentation, playtesting and iteration. Looking at our gameplay goals, trying something, seeing about it what doesn’t work, tinkering with it and then trying it again. With the latter, it’s a matter really figuring what the thematic core of the game is, ensuring that sits well with the mechanics and systems in our game. In short, it’s a lot of trying things out and tossing the things that don’t work well!
JTM Games: What does working with a small team allow you that might get lost in the environment of a larger studio?
Nels Anderson: Well related to the above, it’s just so much easier to try things out and iterate. We don’t have hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of potential lines of communication. If I want to try out some new movement mechanic, I can just lean over my monitor, talk to one of our animators and maybe a programmer and we’ll have something evaluable by the afternoon. We also don’t really have management overhead or anything like that. The people making decisions about the game are the people working on the game. I can’t imagine working on something any other way.
JTM Games: Stealth games are not generally associated with 2-D presentation. Was figuring out how to create rich stealth sequences in 2-D a challenge at any point in the process?
Nels Anderson: Was it a challenge at any point in the process? I’d say it was a challenge at *every* point in the process! When we we started on Ninja there was basically one 2D stealth game of any consequence. What I ended up having to do was deconstruct 3D stealth games that I really love, Thief, Hitman, Metal Gear Solid, etc. and figure out why certain decisions were made, how their spaces were constructed and so forth. Then it was a matter of translating that back down into 2D. And as I said previous, it meant trying out a lot of different things and just seeing how close we were getting to where we wanted to be.
JTM Games: Ninjas have a rich history not just in games, but in movies and comic books as well. Were there any particular visual media that inspired the look and feel of Ninja?
Nels Anderson: That’s a bit tricky, because as both a fictional construct and a real historical figure, the ninja is definitely very rich. But nearly anything in pop culture related to ninjas is just corny as hell. There are a few movies actually from Japan that are pretty well grounded and actually serious, but nearly everything else is corny or supernatural or both. And when we’re making a game that we want to be more substantive and more in line with that archetypal ninja figure, someone clever, fast and sneaky, but vulnerable, there aren’t a ton of influences to draw upon. Our writer Chris Dahlen and I actually ended up looking at a lot of historical material about the sengoku jidai, Japan’s warring states period where actual ninja were the most active. And while Mark of the Ninja is in the modern era, a lot of those historical influences found ways into the game indirectly.
JTM Games: Gamers tend to have a love/hate relationship with stealth in games. When it’s done poorly, it can be dull and supremely frustrating. But when it’s done well, it can be tense and extremely gratifying. What are the qualities that you think make stealth work in a game?
Nels Anderson: I like stealth games a lot (like, a lot), but I understand why they can be a bit inaccessible and off-putting to people. I think a good portion falls out of that the systems integral to stealth games tend to be pretty invisible. How far enemies can see, whether or not they’ll hear you if you make noise, etc. is all things that generally isn’t visualized (aside from maybe vision cones on a minimap or something). So this means doing a lot of experimentation as a player to figure out how all those systems function. The problem is the other core dynamic of stealth games is the player character is a glass cannon- they’re strong when they’re in the element, but very vulnerable when they’re not. Because of this, you’re actively discouraged from experimenting and taking great risks. But the only way to understand those essential systems is to take risks! So I can understand where some people might walk away at that point and one can’t really blame them.
With Ninja, I didn’t want discovering how those systems function to be a challenge. Because when stealth games really get interesting, and why I like them so much, is when you’re able to survey some area, plan something, try to execute the plan and adapt when it inevitably goes wrong. So let’s just find a way to get players to that point as quickly as possible! In Ninja, we wanted to provide plenty of feedback so people understand how those core stealth systems are working. There is a visualization that shows just how far any noise you create will propagate, your character visually changes rather dramatically whenever you’re lit and so forth. That feedback should hopefully provide folks what they need to understand the core stealth system and really start getting into the meat of interesting, dynamic stealth gameplay. We’ve had a number of people who tried they game say, “I normally don’t like stealth games at all, but I really like this!” so hopefully we got to where we want to be.
JTM Games: I’ve heard that the playing time of Ninja, depending on the player’s style, can be up over 20 hours, which is practically unheard of for a downloadable game. Is providing a lengthy gameplay experience something that you prioritize as a designer?
Nels Anderson: 20 hours might be a bit long, but the weird thing about stealth games is how long something takes really depends on one’s playstyle. The intro level of the game has taken some folks 15 minutes, and others an hour. But it’s not like the people who took an hour were dying over and over and getting frustrated or anything. They were just proceeding carefully and deliberately, taking their time to explore the level. So given then, it’s really hard to evaluate how long someone may spend with the game. If someone’s going for all the optional objectives, avoiding killing any enemies (and it’s possible to entire game without having to kill anyone, aside from a couple name NPCs that are specific assassination targets) and looking to be completely undetected, well, it can definitely take a bit longer. But I imagine someone going that way is still engaged, because they’re choosing to play that way, rather than the game forcing them to do so.
As a player, I actually prefer games only be as long as they exactly need to be. It’s always really disappoint playing some game you’re really enjoying and then getting to the last half and realizing it’s just been padded with a bunch of samey encounters that are really not interesting or necessary. With Ninja though, it just happened to end up being a bit longer than most similarly scoped titles, it certainly wasn’t a goal. We just had a number of ideas we wanted to explore both thematically and mechanically and that’s how much space we ended up needing to that that!
JTM Games: As a designer, what excites you most about Ninja?
Nels Anderson: Beyond just being a stealth game, it’s been great building something that supports a lot of player choice. There are lot of options with how to approach any encounter in Ninja, but the more macro level and the moment-to-moment encounters. It’s always tremendously rewarding seeing someone approach an encounter in a way that you never even imagined, but is totally possible and interesting. There’s almost nothing I find more satisfying as a designer than that.
JTM Games: When can fans expect Mark of the Ninja to be released?
Nels Anderson: We haven’t finalized any dates yet, but we’re hoping it’ll be out late this summer on Xbox Live Arcade.
We’re pretty excited for Mark of the Ninja, so keep it locked to JTM Games for more exclusive content. We should have a gameplay preview for you in the coming weeks, so we can see if it plays as well as it looks. Thanks so much to Nels for taking the time to give us the inside scoop.