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EGM Interview:
Mark of the Ninja’s Nels Anderson

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Posted on August 2, 2012 AT 02:29pm

Mark of the Ninja, the latest from Vancouver-based Shank developer Klei Entertainment, mixes the studio’s trademark 2D art style with a bit of good old-fashioned stealth. As the game’s titular ninja, you’ll need to sneak, outsmart, and stab your way past an army of well-armed foes in order to save your clan from extinction.

EGM recently sat down with the game’s lead designer, Nels Anderson, to talk about making a 2D stealth title, being independent, and burning Tony Hawk in effigy.

EGM: Stealth has always been something of a niche genre, but it seems like pure stealth experiences have become rarer and rarer with each passing year. What inspired you guys to make a stealth title in this day and age—especially in 2D, which is basically unheard of?

Nels Anderson: I’ve always loved stealth games, ever since playing Thief, so personally, I just really wanted to make one that evoked the things I found so appealing about those quintessential stealth games. We made it in 2D partially because really stylized 2D is kind of Klei’s wheelhouse, but 2D does also afford certain things that 3D doesn’t. Having really tight, precise controls and solid game feel is easier—at least for us—in 2D. Plus, because the game isn’t first-person and you’re embodied in character in a way that isn’t literally inhabiting them, we can do that—like providing visual feedback about the game’s core stealth systems—without it feeling too incongruous. For example, whenever you make a noise an enemy might hear, there’s an effect that visualizes how far that sound has traveled, so there’s no ambiguity about whether or not you’ve been heard. I imagine you could probably do something like this in 3D, but it seems like it might feel more obtrusive.

Plus, it seems stealth games might actually be getting a bit of renaissance in the near future. Dishonored is looking fantastic, and I’m hoping for the same for the new Hitman. Plus, Monaco and Gunpoint hopefully won’t be too much longer.

EGM: Like any good ninja, the game’s hero seems to have done a pretty good job staying in the shadows. As far as I can tell, you haven’t even released his name yet. Could you give us a little bit of backstory on him and his clan?

Anderson: The game is about a ninja clan called the Hisomu that has survived past the sengoku jidai—Japan’s warring states period where ninja were the most prolific—into the modern era. This was possible because they acquired an exotic flower whose leaves could be made into ink for tattoos. Receiving these tattoos grants the bearer certain abilities. It’s distinctly not anything supernatural or magical, more like the height of human potential—like being an Olympic-level athlete, except in a like a dozen events. By utilizing these tattoos and otherwise sticking to their traditional practices—swords don’t leave shell casings that can be identified and, really, who’d believe ninja were actually responsible for some theft or assassination?—the Hisomu quietly exist in present day.

EGM:  One thing you have revealed about the hero is that his powerful tattoos come at a “terrible cost.” What’s that? Is it regret whenever he’s 50 and doesn’t think it looks cool anymore?

Anderson: The tattoo ink actually has the side effect of driving anyone who receives the tattoos insane. After discovering this the hard way, the clan ritualized the tattooing such that it’s only utilized during times of crisis, when the clan’s very survival is threatened. Once the threat to the clan has been resolved, whoever received the tattoos is asked to commit ritual suicide. And so, of course, the game begins during one of these moments of crisis where the player’s character is chosen to receive the tattoos.

EGM: It’s always a challenge for 2D games to feel as robust as their 3D counterparts. What are some of the features you’ve added to ensure that Mark of the Ninja’s side-scrolling stealth offers enough depth and strategy to draw in longtime fans of the genre?

Anderson: As I alluded to previously, 2D does afford presenting a bit more information to the player without it seeing too external to the experience. It’s abstracted in a way, where you’re able to know what the character would know without literally simulating their senses. So, one of the things we’ve done is visualizing the radius of any noise that’s made. Additionally, the character’s appearance actually conveys whether or not they’re in darkness. If the character is black with a white outline and red highlights, they’re concealed, and enemies won’t see them unless they’re basically on top of the player. If you can see the blues and other colors of the character without any outline—it’s a pretty dramatic change—you’re lit, and enemies will see you from very far away. We didn’t want there to be any ambiguities about those core stealth mechanics.

The thing is, while I love stealth games, I get why they can be a little inaccessible for some folks. The core stealth systems you need to understand to really get at the good meat of the game are often quite opaque. “If I make a noise, will that guard up there hear me? I guess I’ll find out whether or not he turns and shoots me in the face.” Stealth games are really the most interesting when you’re able to understand those systems and use them to approach situations in different ways you, as a player, find most interesting. But understanding the systems and being able to exploit them is a precondition to that kind of intentional play, and we wanted to get folks that point as quickly as possible! While it wasn’t exactly an explicit goal from the outset, it might end up that Ninja helps folks who normally aren’t into stealth games see what I find so damn interesting and awesome about this type of game.

EGM: There were a lot of great ninja-themed platformers back in the day—Ninja Gaiden, Strider, Shinobi. Did you take any inspiration from those classics when you were working on Mark of the Ninja?

Anderson: Maybe a little bit in terms of character design, like having lots of graceful flowing movement and such, but not too much beyond that. Because—and this is a big part of the reason why we wanted to make Mark of the Ninja—is that none of those games are about actually being sneaky! And Mark of the Ninja is unabashedly a stealth game. The only ninja game we drew serious inspiration from was Tenchu—but, of course, that came out like 14 years ago. I looked at other stealth games, both older and more recent, to try to break down why they made the design decisions they did and how that can translate into 2D.

EGM: I’ve read that it’s possible to play through all of Mark of the Ninja without killing anyone. That’s become a pretty common point of pride for developers, but the actual implementation seems to vary from “doable”—Mirror’s Edge—to “technically true, but only if you’re insane,” like the original Deus Ex. Is it true that you can beat Mark of the Ninja without ever bloodying your sword, and if so, how crazy will you have to be to pull it off?

Anderson: We’re definitely closer to the “doable” side of things. It’s probably not quite as easy as Mirror’s Edge—a game I absolutely loved, by the way—but it’s certainly not into the realm of horrible madness. It’s more at the player’s discretion how they want to approach it. There are upgrades that facilitate playing this way, if you choose to invest in them. And there’s actually an equipable loadout style that leaves you without a sword at all, but in exchange, you’re much sneakier. It’s been really interesting to see how those choices change the way people approach the game.

EGM: The game features an Honor system that awards points based on how successful you are at being stealthy. Could you talk a little bit about what you’ve done there? Will your score play into leaderboards or unlocks? Is there an optimal way to play the game if you’re looking to rack up the most Honor?

Anderson: Yeah, it will. Each level has a score and the player receives points for various ninja-y actions: distracting enemies, hiding dead bodies, and so on. You do get points for assassinating enemies, and more so for doing it silently, but you also receive an equivalent number of points at the end of the level for everyone you’ve left alive. I explicitly didn’t want one style of play to be favored over another.

Beyond it serving in the leaderboards, this score does facilitate unlocks. Each level has three tiers of scores, with each tier granting a point that can be spent on unlocks. Additionally, each level has three optional objectives that also provide upgrade points. There aren’t explicit difficulty settings; rather, these optional challenges were how we want to provide difficulty and encourage players to engage with different systems and styles of play, if they want. And finally, there are three hidden scrolls in each level that also provide upgrade points, in addition to telling a bit about the clan’s ancient and recent past in an audiolog fashion. Except they’re all written in haiku, which I think is pretty freaking cool.

EGM: You released Shank and Shank 2 on both XBLA and PSN, but Mark of the Ninja is an XBLA exclusive. What made you decide to go the exclusivity route this time around? Can we expect to see the game on other platforms—PSN, Steam, LaserDisc—somewhere down the road?

Anderson: Shank and Shank 2 were published through EA Partners, but Ninja is directly with Microsoft. We’d very much like to do a PC version of Ninja, though, but we’re still sorting out all the details there.

EGM: At GDC 2011, Klei founder Jamie Cheng said that promotions like XBLA’s Summer of Arcade amounted to “kingmaking,” shining a light on a select few games while leaving the rest to struggle in the obscurity of crowded digital storefronts. Mark of the Ninja obviously didn’t make it into this year’s Summer of Arcade promo. Are you guys out for Tony Hawk’s blood? Do you still feel like consolemakers need to do a better job of drawing attention to the quality games on their marketplaces, especially as we move toward the next generation?

Anderson: We actually gathered together about two dozen skateboard decks and burned them in effigy, howling out the name of “Hawk!” Then the Vancouver Fire Department showed up and hosed us all down, in addition to extinguishing the blaze. Or something like that.

We’re actually not bothered by not hitting Summer of Arcade this year. It turned into more time for us to really polish and refine those final things that, while they seem small, make a big difference in the quality of the game in the end.

Though, in general, it’d be great if digitally distributed games got more exposure on the Xbox/PlayStation storefronts. The big challenge is that there aren’t a lot of avenues for promoting XBLA/PSN games at all. I imagine an ideal scenario would be this: Rather than presenting the same storefront to everyone, it would be customized based on the player’s preferences or past activity or both. So, if you’ve been playing a ton of [Call of Duty], you’ll see a new map pack front and center. But if you’re like me and you’ve never played one minute of CoD on a console, but you do have a ton of XBLA/PSN originals, you’ll see new games of that style. That’s something I’d really love to see happen, and I’m sure Microsoft and Sony have the data to do it.

EGM: The always cuddly Phil Fish recently issued a public smack down against XBLA, claiming that Microsoft’s exorbitant fees and unflinching bureaucracy prevented him from fixing a buggy patch for Fez. Since then, several indie developers have weighed in on the issue, with some defending Microsoft and others siding with Fish. What’s your take on that entire fiasco? As a small, independent developer, have you ever had any problems or frustrations with the XBLA submission and patching process?

Anderson: Fortunately, we haven’t had significant issues with this, but that’s more our good fortune that anything. But I think everyone, even Microsoft, agrees that the certification and patching process was really intended for big, triple-A retail games that have giant QA teams and tremendous amounts of resources. I’m not sure if the right solution is to branch that process for XBLA titles versus retail games or what, but I’m sure there are improvements that could be made that would benefit everyone, including the developer, Microsoft and Sony, and most importantly, the audience. I mainly just feel bad for Phil and [Fez programmer] Renaud [Bédard], as well as everyone who got their save files wanged. That’s a thing that just sucks for everybody.

Josh Harmon, Associate Editor
Josh Harmon picked up a controller when he was 3 years old—and he hasn't looked back since. This has made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from behind. He joined EGM as an intern following a brief-but-storied career on a number of small gaming blogs across the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @jorshy. Meet the rest of the crew.

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