Smoke And Mirrors – Mark Of The Ninja Interview

With sneaky sidescroller Mark of the Ninja releasing this week on XBLA, we chat to Klei Entertainment’s Nels Anderson about the game’s devotion to hardcore stealth gameplay.

[one_third]With sneaky sidescroller Mark of the Ninja releasing this week on XBLA, we chat to Klei Entertainment’s Nels Anderson about the game’s devotion to hardcore stealth gameplay.[/one_third]

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Sneaky Bastards: Being indie, what do you feel you can bring to the stealth genre that established stealth series’ cannot?

Anderson: To start, we can make it 2D! Aside from Nintendo and recently Ubisoft Montpellier with Rayman: Origins, 2D sidescrollers don’t get made by large studios. And that’s a shame, because there are a lot of opportunities in 2D for stealth games, and 2D games in general. Not don’t get me wrong, I love retro styling and pixel art, but I don’t think that *all* 2D games need that as their aesthetic. Fluid animation that really leverage modern hardware and tech can be really beautiful and engaging if it’s done right. Nearly all of our artist actually come from a background of traditional cartoon animation, so we’re able to do 2D animation in a way that big studios, and even a lot of other indies, simply can’t. And stealth games really haven’t been notable for strong animation before. And if it’s in 3D, the animation is probably just going to be mocapped.

Also, being independent and more free of financial constraints (i.e. we don’t need to sell 2 million copies to just get out of the red), it’s much easier for us to avoid drifting toward a more action-focused game that would be familiar to a “mainstream” (whatever that means) audience. It’s certainly feels like some of the more notable stealth franchises have  ended up making concessions toward more traditional 1st/3rd-person action gameplay. Now don’t get me wrong, they could still be, and often are, excellent games, but I’m not looking for an action game in those titles, I’m looking for a stealth game. So we’re able to make a ninja game that’s unabashed about being sneaky, not cutting a helicopter in half with an 8-foot long sword.

Is Mark of the Ninja a hardcore stealth game, as opposed to a game where stealth is one possible approach?

Without a doubt. Holding down the run button and trying to beat up every enemy you come across is going to get you killed, fast. Stealth is not an option in Mark of the Ninja, it’s the game’s core and beating heart. Now that doesn’t mean you’re constantly underpowered and just have to hide and cower. The design philosophy was really to emphasize that interplay between strength and weakness, which is the undercurrent of a lot of stealth games. When you’re in your element, you’re powerful and dangerous. But when you’re compromised or when you’re in space controlled by the enemies vision and movement paths or whatever, then your weak. There’s a lot of interesting gameplay dynamics that emerge out of that conflict, and we pushed that into the fiction and atmosphere as well. But for that to work, the game has to be honest and committed to strengths being strengths and vulnerabilities being vulnerabilities. And I think we did that very intentionally with Ninja.

Plus, without that, the game is just power fantasy. And I think that territory is really well covered.

How important is light and shadow to Mark of the Ninja?

Like most stealth games, they’re pretty fundamental. If you’re in light, just about any enemy with line of sight to you will be able to see you. But fortunately, because we’re 2D and the player character is more or less right in the middle of the screen, their avatar can actually serve as the illumination indicator. When the player is in light, their appearance actually changes dramatically, with their palette changing from black and white to actually coloured. So rather than have some external indicator like a light gem or other something (which never really feels that elegant), the player character literally is the light gem.

And beyond that, managing illumination is a important part of the player’s arsenal. One approach other stealth games take is to limit the resource you have to removing illumination (e.g. in Thief you only have a fixed number of water arrows and you have to buy every one). For Ninja, we wanted to make the illumination management about consequences rather than resources. So any time the player breaks a light, it creates a noise that enemies may hear and if they do, they’ll come investigate it. Since we’re in 2D, it’s not necessarily trivial just to hide behind a corner or something until they pass, so the consequence-focused approach seems to work better for our gameplay.

What does being 2D mean for Mark of the Ninja’s stealth gameplay?

One thing is that it means we can push a lot harder on providing the player with even greater situation awareness (to crib a term from Andy Schatz of Monaco) and letting them leverage that. More so than 3D, 2D games tend to naturally compartmentalize. We’ve discovered that players can keep in their heads whatever is on-screen plus about a half-screen in any other direction. Beyond that and things just become muddy. In a 3D game, since you’re just looking out a viewport, there’s about 270 degrees sight you’re not experiencing at any time, even without taking elevation into account. In 2D, it’s much easier to see and understand all the elements you’re currently needing to engage with. And because of that, we can provide even more visual feedback and cues that probably just wouldn’t translate to 3D.

Not only can we visualise light cones pretty clearly, but we also visualise the distance any noise travels in the game

So not only can we visualise light cones pretty clearly, but we actually also visualize the distance any noise travels in the game. When you’re trying to distract a guard, you don’t need to guess at what the enemies may hear. That information is clearly presented, so it just because another tool in the player’s arsenal. You can be deliberate with your actions, which we’ve discovered is *really* important. If the player doesn’t feel confident and competent with the ability to execute on their intentions, the game just becomes much less enjoyable to play. We don’t want people stumbling around in the dark (pardon the pun), trying to understand the game’s systems.

2D also means we can have more platformer-esque movement. Since it is 2D and there aren’t, you know, corners to hide around, the ninja needs other means to evade guards. A big way we’re doing that is providing a more more movement mechanics, like climbing on walls, ceilings, having a grappling hook, etc. And that stuff can be more precise in 2D.

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Is there anything you’ve learned from the Shank series that will be reflected in Mark of the Ninja?

Tons. What you do in Ninja vs Shank/Shank 2 is quite different, but the low-level stuff actually has a lot of similarities. There’s a lot of lessons we learned about good game feel, really tight controls that we were able to apply to Ninja. Stealth games aren’t exactly known for excellent controls (usually because they just don’t need them), but because it’s 2D and plenty of the gameplay is about movement, the controls have to be rock solid and responsive. Things from Shank about branch timings, responsiveness, etc. we definitely put to work in Ninja.

And more simply, on the production front we’re leveraging a lot of tech we build for Shank and Shank 2, which was actually really, really important. Trying to develop a really experimental game like this while simultaneously trying to build the engine at the same time is a path ripe for disaster. The fact that we were building upon relatively stable tech and just had to add the unique features that Ninja needed (e.g. light/darkness, sound propagation, etc.) was a huge boon. It let us get to iteration much faster, which has been vital for Ninja.

Thanks, Nels.

Mark of the Ninja releases on XBLA September 7.

2 thoughts on “Smoke And Mirrors – Mark Of The Ninja Interview

  1. I love how the player fails a few times when attempting aggro in the extended gameplay. That\’s something I\’d like to see more often in stealth game videos. The game looks very smooth and well-designed. Nice job!

  2. I\’m actually quite pumped about this game. Don\’t own an Xbox though, so I\’m crossing my fingers for an eventual Steam release.

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