Trade Secrets: Nels Anderson

Klei Entertainment’s Nels Anderson sneaks in to the Trade Secrets stealth interview series to talk voyeurism, planning and secret identities.

[one_third]Klei Entertainment’s Nels Anderson sneaks in to the Trade Secrets stealth interview series to talk voyeurism, planning and secret identities.[/one_third]

Klei Entertianment
Nels Anderson (Technical Designer)
Game: Mark of the Ninja
Due: 2012


Klei Entertainment brought us the action-packed sidescrolling Shank games. Now, they’re trading in their guns for grappling hooks with sidescrolling stealth game Mark of the Ninja. Klei’s Technical Designer, Nels Anderson tells us why he finds stealth fascinating, and gives his thoughts on the future of the genre.

Sneaky Bastards: What is it that attracts you to stealth gameplay?

Anderson: Is it weird to say voyeurism? And I’m only kind of kidding. Fundamentally, a good portion of stealth games are about observation and planning, since you’re, well, hidden. That level of thinking is very interesting to me, both from a designer and player perspective. The flow of most games is very much push- you walk over some trigger, enemies get spawned, come roaring at you completely aware of where you are and you have to react. Nearly all 1st/3rd person games are primarily about reaction. But in stealth games, the flow is all about pull. You observe, test the waters a little bit, determine a course of action and then execute it. You’re thinking at a higher level about cause and effect and that’s very interesting. And what falls naturally out of that is stealth games tend to be far more systemic, as you can’t just create static, single-outcome encounters and expect the game to be interesting.

That degree of choice really enables the player to be experimental and challenge themselves. While you can technically succeed in, say, a Hitman mission by just busting through a door, shooting the target in the face and hoping to sprint to the evac point, it’s way more fun to find a way to drop the proverbial piano on the target’s head. And that convoluted way is probably much more time-consuming and difficult than kicking down the door. But the pay-off is amazing! I guess stealth games are the ultimate delayed gratification games. Especially now when so many games are about constantly feeding the player shinier and shinier feedback and “rewards” for increasingly menial and trivial tasks, it’s great playing games that treat me like I have a functioning adult brain.

Why do you think stealth games fell out of popularity?

Did stealth games ever really fall out of popularity? Maybe they’re not marketed explicitly as stealth games anymore and other types of games are certainly marketed more loudly and aggressively now. But there are plenty of games that still feature stealth gameplay (sometimes well, sometimes less so) even if they’re not explicitly called “stealth games.” Even things that might seem ostensibly like another style end up feeling a lot more like stealth games. So something like Far Cry 2 might look like a standard FPS if you want 20 seconds of gameplay, but actually sitting down with it feels a lot more like a stealth game than it seems on the surface. Probably no surprise given many of the core members of that team were Splinter Cell vets.

And if there are actually less stealth games being made, there are always the usual reasons why. With the increasing cost of development, publishers have become increasingly risk-averse. This means they focus more on familiar patterns and ostensibly more repeatable success. From a raw development perspective, stealth games are very hard to make. You take the normal complexities of making a 1st/3rd person game and add in all this AI work, all the interconnected systems, even just the art direction work to make the game feel dark but still allow the player to, you know, see the level; they’re incredibly complicated games to make. And the biggest problem, and we certainly found this with Mark of the Ninja, is that it’s very hard to evaluate anything if any of the components you need are missing. What would be small AI bugs in a straight-up action game can totally break a stealth game.

So I think it’s more of a publisher resources/developer interest issue than waning audience interest. It certainly feels like there’s a healthy audience for stealth games out there. I hope so anyway, because I want to keep making them and playing them!

What would be small AI bugs in a straight-up action game can totally break a stealth game.

What are your thoughts on stealth gameplay being included as one possible path or playstyle, as opposed to the main focus of a game?

It’s such a hard balance to strike, since the game is basically required to satisfying opposing goals. It almost always ends up feeling like one playstyle or the other is really what received the focus. So if you play Deus Ex (either the original or Human Revolution) and you’re just tearing through the levels exploding anything that moves, while that’s technically a “valid” way to play, it really feels like you’re not playing the game as it was intended to be experienced, you know? And if you’re playing a stealth character in Skyrim, you’re still going to end up in dungeons that are just brimming with monsters. Then your options are either sneak past them or backstab them. Occasionally you can pick a locked chest. It’s not exactly the richest stealth gameplay. But that same dungeon is totally fun if you’re a spellcaster summoning balls of destruction, flinging objects around or if you’re swinging a sword the size of a Buick. And that isn’t to knock Skyrim, the stealth bits are actually well supported in some areas of the game and enable some very interesting moments. But you can still see the bits where stealth gameplay wasn’t really accounted for.

So while it’s hypothetically possible to support both stealth and non-stealth playstyles, it’s hard enough making a stealth game, let alone a game that will be equally satisfying for both camps. However, I will say that games that aren’t about controlling a single avatar but more of a team or unit seem to support this a bit better. Turn-based tactics or even RTS games seem to tolerate stealth and non-stealth gameplay a bit better. Maybe just because there’s already such a expectation of asymmetry there.

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What would a way forward for stealth gameplay be?

More multiplayer! While of course stealth is often a solitary experience, I think there’s a lot of richness in both cooperative and competitive stealth multiplayer games that we’ve barely scratched the surface of. We’re starting to see more of it recently, from Monaco to the multiplayer in Assassin’s Creed to Splinter Cell’s co-op, but there’s even more out there.

There are other ways to think about multiplayer stealth too, it doesn’t just have to be about hiding in shadows. Hiding your motives, goals, and loyalties is an equally interesting form of “stealth” in the sense that a lot of the observation, planning, execution stuff is quite similar. I play a lot of board games and one of my favourites is the Battlestar Galactica board game. It may seem weird to call it a stealth game, but it basically is in a lot of ways. It’s just that it’s your identity, rather than your position, that you might be trying to keep hidden. There’s a lot of meat in this type of gameplay and I think it would absolutely appeal to most people who enjoy the usual shadows and silence stealth games.

Thanks for the interview, Nels! You’ll find the rest of the series at the Trade Secrets hub, with a new interview arriving tomorrow.

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