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The Sensei of Stealth – Mark of the Ninja Post-Release Interview


We pull Mark of the Ninja’s Lead Designer, Nels Anderson, out of the shadows for round of post-release questioning.


Mark of the Ninja’s Lead Designer, Nels Anderson. He will shank you.

Mark of the Ninja is out now. As we discovered, it is very good. Having skulked our way through the game and up its leaderboards, we reflect with Lead Designer Nels Anderson on Klei’s incredible contribution to the stealth genre.

Sneaky Bastards: Mark of the Ninja is enjoying an incredibly warm reception. What’s the mood like at Klei right now?

Anderson: Somewhere between elation and shock, I think. We’re still pretty blown away by the reaction. I mean, I think we were all happy with what we put together in the end, but I don’t think any of us expect it to connect with as many people are it did so… universally, I guess?

How did you manage to make every level completable when players’ limited per-level inventory choices can be made from such a broad selection of items and abilities?

Heh, a whole lot of trial and error. That was probably the most challenging thing design-wise with respect to the items, actually. I wanted which items people take to be an expression of their playstyle, but obviously that means any particular item can’t be necessary to succeed in any of the levels. So it was really hard balancing having interesting opportunities to use the various items without making it dumb or impossible without said item.

It ended up being just thinking about a lot of potential ways things could be used and trying to imagine multiple ways to address any particular challenge. Being okay with items making some encounter really “easy” was very important too. Like, if someone finds a clever use for some item, we shouldn’t try to shut that down just because it wasn’t something we’d anticipated. The design can’t be precious like that. If the players figure out a way to make something work that you didn’t expect, that’s awesome, that’s what you want!

If someone finds a clever use for some item, we shouldn’t try to shut that down just because it wasn’t something we’d anticipated.

 
The only place in the game where it’s literally mandatory is when you pick up the smokebombs, and that’s the first time you get a distraction item at all.

String a guard up on chains and his comrades will freak out upon finding him.

It seems like almost every stealth trope is represented; even Snake’s cardboard box. Did you begin by identifying your favourite stealth mechanics and abilities and figuring out a way to work them into the game? And was there anything significant that didn’t make the cut?

Heh, the ubiquitous cardboard box was Jamie’s (Cheng, Klei’s founder) idea. I don’t think there were any very explicit abilities or mechanics from other games are intentionally lifted. It’s more that we focused on the experience that stealth games provide (very intentional play, with much thought given to cause & effect) that we wanted to replicate.

We did end up trying out a lot of things that didn’t work though! The blink ability was initially far more twitchy, but it ended up driving people toward playing in a very brawler-like fashion. Which is unfortunate, because it otherwise looked awesome and felt great. But it didn’t jive with the overall tone/experience of the game. We also tried a time stop ability, in two different forms. One way time-based, so you’d activate it and enemies/items/etc. would be frozen in time for X seconds. Later we tried a radius-based one, where you’d activate it and it would keep going until you went beyond a certain distance from where you’d activated it.

In both cases, we couldn’t find ways to make the ability actually interesting. Like the item thing I mentioned prior, either it was mandatory and then the encounter was just “push timestop to continue” or it wasn’t necessary, but then nearly any encounter could be easily bypassed if you *did* use timestop. In either case, it wasn’t fun at all. It sounds cool, but especially in 2D, it wasn’t right. Dishonored looks like they’ve got some pretty cool uses for their time stop ability though.

Violent, brutal and ever stylish, Mark of the Ninja’s takedowns are their own reward.

There’s a systemic depth to the game, and it seems like Klei has accounted for almost every possibility by providing an appropriate score reward. What was the most surprising unintended AI or environmental interaction you discovered during development? And is there anything you’ve seen now that you didn’t previously think was possible?

Heh, so any time guards walk past light switches and they’re off, they’ll flip them on. This is just a default behaviour that isn’t really executed with any intentionality. But there are some occasions when it makes the guards seem really clever! When that one happens it’s usually pretty darn satisfying.

Folks have definitely found some very clever uses of enemies bodies. Since guards will deactivate any lasers they’re nearby, folks dragging and tossing bodies in unusual places have produced some surprising results!

The plot presents a conflict between tradition and technology, though it often feels like a commentary on the disparity between the tradition of Thief-era stealth games and the stealth games we see now.

Heh, you’re certainly welcome to read it that way! I don’t think I was specifically thinking of stealth games when it game to the tone, but it’s entirely possible that operating on a subconscious level.

There is something that runs though the game though, that the game relies a lot of trusting the audience. After the tutorial, the game doesn’t really hold your hand. There isn’t a giant shining beacon of where to go next and what to do. There aren’t zero interactivity scripted sequences that look awesome but afford the player zero actual agency. I think it’s really important to trust in the audience and treat them like they have a functioning adult brain. Many games nowadays seem to confusing simplicity with elegance and think that if the game isn’t absolutely screaming at the player about what to do, why at any given second, they’ll lose interest and wander over to the next shiny thing. As a game designer, that’s not good for my craft at all. It’s a gross, gross trend and the response to Ninja has been really enlivening to see that there are a lot of people who respect and appreciate a game that trusts them and knows they don’t need to be spoon-fed and hand-held every step of the way.

Does the game track the time it takes to complete each level? It seems like the perfect game for speedrunners.

We actually talked about implementing this and tried it out, having some portion of the levels score actually be based on time. Unfortunately, when we tried it, it made people play in a fashion that frankly, wasn’t very fun. With a clock hanging over their head, folks felt like they had to rush and couldn’t really be very deliberate or careful.

I think speedrunning will just have to be its own reward! But the Path of Silence style is definitely the ideal one for speedrunners.

Mark of the Ninja’s “Path of Nightmares” suit is so terrifying that guards will lose it if they see you performing a stealth kill whilst wearing it.

What’s the secret to a high score on the leaderboard? Does it require ghosting the level whilst picking up every scroll and artifact? Or does terrorising the AI net greater reward?

That’s a good question! Ghosting and distracting a lot of enemies would definitely be one approach. But as noted, terrified enemies (especially if they kill their allies with friendly fire) can rack up a lot of points too. Scrolls/artifacts are a good source of points either way though.

What do you feel might be appropriate for DLC or a potential sequel?

I’m not super sure! It’s not easy just to pull a Trials and drop some new tracks in or something. Obviously if you’ve finished the game, it’s very… conclusive. It’s always so gaudy when a game ends with a total cliffhanger setup for a sequel. It feel like such a hack move to me. Potentially there could be some prequel missions though.

There’s a lot of unexplored territory here still, I think. Either in a multiplayer context or having a more explorable world…

 
If we did want to do another ninja game, obviously it would have the same mechanics, but with different characters and story. There’s a lot of unexplored territory here still, I think. Either in a multiplayer context or having a more explorable world instead of fixed levels.

Thanks again, Nels!

Want to compete with Mark of the Ninja’s Lead Designer on the leaderboard? Then keep an eye out for “Nelsormensch”.

You can also add Sneaky Bastards Editor Dan Hindes – he’s “ThePhotoshop”. Go easy, though – glass rogues like him have fragile egos.

Daniel Hindes

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3 Responses to The Sensei of Stealth – Mark of the Ninja Post-Release Interview

  1. By Cyb, September 19, 2012 at 9:07 am

    Interesting article, I’d love me some DLC in the future.

    It’s unfortunate however, that they decided to exclude time based leaderboards for speedruning. The path of silence outfit is one of my favorite and most used outfits. Contrary to their belief, I think it’s pretty satisfying being able to blitz the level as quickly as possible and without triggering any detections. They could’ve balanced it out by having deaths add a penalty to your time, or simply give you the ability to hide the timer if you don’t want to look at it. Maybe a whole separate mode called time attack or something so that people wouldn’t be pressured by time.

    • By Valhalen, September 23, 2012 at 9:43 am

      I agree with Nels, adding a timer would make people lose their track and precision. However, I think the game itself could have a Time Trial Mode, or simply an option of turning ON or OFF a timer.

    • By JD Jackson, November 2, 2012 at 10:00 pm

      New Game Plus (unlocked after you complete the main game) just could’ve had a timer added to it, since that mode is already very hard and different from the regular game. I don’t mind either way, since I’m not the guy that does time trials.

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