[E3 2009] Mini Ninjas Interview With IO Interactive Level Designer Ulrik Hauen-Limkilde

Eidos_MiniNinjas_Ulrik.jpg Ulrik Hauen-Limkilde, IO Interactive level designer, has been working on Mini Ninjas for the past two years. At E3, we caught up with the designer to see what’s been cooking with Mini Ninjas and why they run around the office in ninjas outfits.

VGBlogger: IO has a long history of developing mature rated games like Hitman, Freedom Fighters, and Kane & Lynch. How did something like Mini Ninjas come about, and what was the thought behind creating a game for a completely different audience and art style?

Ulrik Hauen-Limkilde: There are several reasons. We’ve been wanting to make a game for a wider audience for a very long time now. The people at IO are older now, and a lot of people have families, kids, and wives. And when you come home from work, and you want to show them your work, games like Kane & Lynch and Hitman makes it difficult to show your kids and your non-gamer wife or family might not really understand the violence. When you come home with a game like this, people just get it and can instantly pick up the controller and play it and have lots of fun with it. That’s the sort of basic reason why we made it.

We’ve been wanting to make a game like this for a wider audience for a long time. And we’ve had this thing about all things Japanese, we really just like Japanese stuff at IO, and ninjas in particular are something we’re really into. It’s combining those two things that started the process.

It was our director Jeremy and art director Heinrich that were brainstorming about it. Henrich made all these sketches and concept art of the game, and when people saw the sketches and drawings, they were like “this is it, this is what we have to do, this is fantastic.”

VGB: So do you guys dress up as ninjas and run around the office a lot?

UHL: Haha, yes, all the time. Lots of animals all over too.

VGB: How many people are working on Mini Ninjas?

UHL: The company has over 200 employees. And the Mini Ninjas team is quite small, around 30-35 people working on it. Right now we’re now at about 50 people as production gets nearer to the end. Everybody knows each other, so it’s been a tight little group.

VGB: Have you or some of the other members on the Mini Ninjas team worked on Hitman, Kane & Lynch, or Freedom Fighters?

UHL: Yes, I personally haven’t, but several of the team members have before.

VGB: Is there co-op in Mini Ninjs?

UHL: No there isn’t co-op, we have thought a lot about it. But to us, the fantasy about being a ninja, is about being this lonely guy or girl sneaking around in the shadows, and we thought it’d be a bit weird to have all your friends there as well.

As you saw, there are three ninja characters that you can play as. The way we resolve this is that instead of having them on the screen at the same time, you switch between them. Co-op play might be able to work one day, and it might be something we want to pursue in the future. But in this game, we wanted to make it’s about sneaking in the shadows, and about being a lonely guy against a group of samurais.

Also with multiplayer in general, there are many games that are family oriented, that have multiplayer or mini games that don’t really have anything to do with the campaign. These little things often times feel like it’s tacked on. We just wanted to focus all our resources on this one great game, rather than having some different options just for the sake of putting multiplayer on the box.

VGB: It seems that Mini Ninjas follows a fairly non-linear path, and is a much more open world. How open exactly is the world and missions?

UHL: It’s a really really wide area beside the path leading in the one direction which makes room for a lot of exploration and for those who would like to wander around to discover new things. It’s not like GTA, because there is always a path that leads you where to go. But there is landscape or terrain outside of that path. It’s linear in the sense that it’s always traveling in one direction. Even if you’re out exploring, we have this meditation feature like a compass that always points you in the direction you have to go, so even though you’re out exploring you don’t get lost. Having too many complex things might end up being too confusing, so we wanted to focus on traveling on the path to the evil samurai warlord.

It’s really great to have shown it here, because a lot of people have thought it is really simple and just for kids. And yes, it is for kids, but people have been like, WOW, I really like this game and I’m a hardcore player so it’s been great to see it actually work like the way we intended it.

VGB: And what are some of the inspirations behind the artwork?

UHL: There are lots of inspiration. As I mentioned, we are all fans of all things Japanese. The more casual Japanese titles are cool, I really like them a lot. People often associate us with Hitman, Kane & Lynch, and Freedom Fighters, and think that because we make those games, we only play those games. But we are all gamers at heart at IO, so we love playing all sorts of games. So to be able to make this type of game, with hearts representing health, has been a really nice relief and lets us get back to the basics of gaming.

VGB: So what is the language used in the game?

UHL: It’s full Japanese. We wanted to make a game with the authentic feeling of feudal Japan, obviously it’s set in our own fantasy world, but it’s based in feudal Japan when there were ninjas. We did a lot of research to make it feel real and look real. So when you hear the samurais are talking, you might think it’s gibberish because it sounds like [squeeky noises], but we chose to make it actual Japanese because it gives a much more authentic feel. So if you understand Japanese, you can actually understand what they’re saying.

VGB: Any other comments?

UHL: I hope you like it!

VGB: …and to that, we say, YES we do!

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