Mark of the Ninja is a 2D stealth game on XBLA, developed by Klei Entertainment. This week I got Lead Designer, Nels Anderson, to answer some questions about the unique development of a 2D stealth game and publishing against the big boys.
First of all, thanks for agreeing to do this. I’m really enjoying Mark of the Ninja
In a time where games like Mass Effect, Skyrim, Battlefield are dominating, you managed to make a very engaging side-scrolling 2D game. I found the game play to be very intuitive and familiar.
The first thing I noticed was how much this game reminded me of Tenchu and Metal Gear. Those were two of my favorites on Play Station, and I imagine they had some influence. What other games, or aspects, were also influential in creating Mark of the Ninja?
Heh, funny you mention MGS and Tenchu, since they comprise 2/3 of the “holy trinity” of stealth games that came out in 1998. But for me, the one I always connected with most was Thief, the other 1/3 of that trinity. I did play MGS and Tenchu, but it was a couple years later for both. The player-centric design of Thief was a major inspiration, as it was in games like Deus Ex and Far Cry 2, which were also big influences for Ninja.
Personally, I have always preferred an open-world feel. While Mark of the Ninja is level based, it seems like you’ve added a lot of depth and paths to each level to keep it feeling fresh. It seems like you’ve given an lot of options for the player to develop their own style within the confines of the level. Tell us a little bit about the design process that you guys used to create that?
Mainly, it was just a mountain of experimentation and iteration. We had to try a ton of things to figure out what worked well and what didn’t. But the key behind all that was having a clear idea that what we wanted to provide was a player-centric experience that really focused on intentional gameplay. Providing the player with a number of tools (where “tools” includes interesting systems to interact with as well) and then just letting them approach the encounter however they want was really the guiding principle.
The back-story of Mark of the Ninja is pretty unique as well. Who created that? Are you a ninja movie buff? I kept thinking of Michael Dudikoff in the American Ninja series.
The rough skeleton of the story was something the core team game up with, but the actual writing was done by Chris Dahlen. Chris has been a freelance journalist for years and years, including co-founding Kill Screen magazine, but he recently wanted to jump the fence, so it was a perfect opportunity for us and him.
Heh, not really. I find most ninja pop culture pretty cornball. There are a few great ninja movies that came out of Japan in the 60s and 70s, but beyond that we looked at actual Japanese history a lot more. Japan’s warring states period, where actual ninja were most prolific, is really rich when it comes to great characters and themes.
How did you decide to partner up with Microsoft as a publisher?
They were actually the first publisher we showed the game to and they were very interested right away. We knew we wanted to get it on a console, so that as basically a good match right from the start.
Some (a lot of?) people in the industry claim that developing for XBLA is a pain. It’s also quite expensive. Have you found it prohibitive in any way?
Since we have had quite a lot of console development experience in the past, having shipped 4 games on XBLA (Eets: Munchies, N+, Shank and Shank 2), there weren’t a lot of surprises for us. The biggest challenge is really visibility. On the Xbox, not only is there a lot of other games, but there are movies and other things as well. Getting heard above the noise, especially when you’re a small developer, can be challenging.
XBLA has done wonders for smaller developers. Where do you see the industry in 5 – 10 years? What changes would you like to see?
I think anyone who claims to know what the future will be like is not to be trusted. It’s so hard to imagine what things will be like in 2020. More diverse, interesting games is something I certainly hope we’ll see though.
What is it like marketing a game as a smaller studio? What do you do to compete with the larger studios in that regard?
It’s hard. Really hard. Considering Activision will spend probably 50 times our entire game’s budget on a single TV spot for Call of Duty 9, or whatever they’re on now, we certainly can’t compete on that front. Our advantage is that we make games that are different. Hopefully we don’t have to convince anyone to buy a game that tremendously resembles the same game you bought last year. We just need to let folks know the game exists at all, and hopefully what we’ve put together will take it from there. But even letting folks now it exists is certainly not easy.
Imagine no hardware or budget limitations and tell us: what would be your dream game to develop?
Heh, it’s probably lame to say Mark of the Ninja, huh? It was quite a dream game, but beyond this, something with multiplayer could be interesting. Not straight-up deathmatch, but something with a bit more high-level thought. The MP in the recent Assassin’s Creed games and SpyParty is definitely interesting.
I love the artwork in Mark of the Ninja. It is a very unique style for a game. The kill animations and overall style is really engaging. It seems like we live in a world where photo realism is the goal. But you managed to create a visually captivating world by using a distinctive art style. Tell us about your art guys!
Well, that recognizable style likely falls out of all of our artists having worked on cartoon animation at some point in the past. It’s tremendously gratifying working with them because they have a really impressive breadth of interests and influences. And working in 2D is really interesting too. A whole lot of 2D games these days go for a retro, pixel art aesthetic. And while you can get some gorgeous games that way, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s the be-all, end-all of 2D. So working on something 2D that’s stylized but also modern is something our artists are very interested in, which is fantastic.
Each of your titles Eets, Shank, Sugar Rush, Mark of the Ninja, and Don’t Starve seem to be drawn very different. Is this something that is chosen right away, or is it something that kind of evolves later on?
I think there is a bit of motivation to ensure we don’t ever become too comfortable with what we’re making. There definitely a danger of getting pigeon-holed as a studio, right? Sometimes it’s good to specialize, but we have a lot of incredibly talented folks with very diverse interests. The fact that Klei as a studio supports that is tremendous
What’s in the future for Klei Entertainment?
As you mentioned above, Don’t Starve is very much in the future. In fact, the future is basically now! The game is currently playable by anyone that purchases access to the Beta, in kind of a Minecraft fashion. Beyond that, we’re working on an iPad version of Eets, which is really the perfect platform for that game. Beyond that, we have a few more irons in the fire that are also pretty different from our past offerings. As noted, I don’t think we ever want to become predictable!
What games are you playing right now? Which were your favorites this year?
I didn’t have much time to play many games (especially big games) while working on Ninja, so I had a big ol’ stack of games to play sitting on my mantle for after Ninja shipped. The top game on the pile was Dark Souls and, well, it hasn’t left my PS3 since I put it in. I’m absolutely transfixed by the game, honestly. I haven’t connect with a game like this in a long time. I played maybe a couple hours of Demon’s Souls, but I didn’t have a PS3 at the time, so I couldn’t dig into it. But Dark Souls, wow, it’s simply goddamn amazing.
Beyond that, I’ve played each episode of The Walking Dead as they’ve come out and they’re fantastic. I haven’t watched the show beyond the pilot and haven’t read the comics, but I’m absolutely loving it. Journey and Fez earlier this year were also fantastic. And for obvious reasons, I’m very much looking forward to Dishonored.
Any last words?
Don’t think so! Obviously the game has been received really, really well, but visibility is still a very large challenge for us. We just can’t compete with mega-million marketing budgets, so everytime someone in the community tells a friend about the game, posts about it on Twitter or a forum, whatever, it helps us tremendously and directly. I just wanted to say thanks and I hope people keep up that grassroots effort!
Thanks again to Nels for doing this. I will look forward to seeing more from Mark of the Ninja in the future. Thanks to Klei Entertainment for taking us on this adventure. Mark of the Ninja is on Xbox Live Arcade, and it is well worth the $20. Don’t miss out on a great game that your friends will be talking about for a long time.