VGB Feature: Mark of the Ninja Q&A With Lead Designer Nels Anderson

MarkOfTheNinja

Out to prove they aren’t just “the Shank team,” Klei Entertainment’s next game is matching 2D side-scrolling action with ninjas, a keen stealth focus, and the distinct graphics style and fluid animation quality the independent studio has become renowned for. Plus haiku poems! What’s not to love about that?

Before Mark of the Ninja steps out of the shadows later this summer exclusively on Xbox Live Arcade (Microsoft’s publishing the game so no PSN release, but as you’ll read a PC version is a strong possibility), we got a chance to connect with the game’s Lead Designer, Nels Anderson for a quick Q&A. Read along as we peek under this ninja’s shinobi shōzoku.

VGBlogger: First off, for those who may be reading this but have not yet heard about Mark of the Ninja, could you please set things up by explaining what type of game it is and what the storyline involves?

Nels Anderson: Foremost, Mark of the Ninja is a 2D stealth game. It’s definitely not a beat ‘em up or a non-stop action spree. It’s about being quiet, deliberate and sneaky. It’s about taking your time, coming up with a plan that suits your playstyle and then executing upon it.

The story itself focuses on the only ninja clan to survive into the modern day. The clan has developed tattoos that use a special ink that imbue the bearers with great agility, speed, reaction time, etc. (Nothing magical though.) However, the tattoos come at a great price to those who receive them, so they’re only given to one person during a time of crisis. The game begins with such a crisis.

VGB: As a stealth game, Mark of the Ninja appears to be a complete 180 from the in-your-face action mentality of the Shank games, even though the fluid 2D comic book art style remains similar. What sparked the team’s interest in attempting a sneaky approach to the platformer genre?

NA: Heh, we really just wanted to do something different. We didn’t want to get pigeonholed as “the Shank team.” Plus, we wanted to take the things we’re really good at as a studio, e.g. fluid 2D animation and really tight, responsive controls, and apply that to something pretty different. And I personally really enjoy stealth games, and the more thoughtful, deliberate pace that comes with them, so that was a good fit for me.

VGB: How does the stealth-based gameplay work exactly? Does the ninja have any overt combat skills to fall back on if detected or is he pretty much toast if the player doesn’t keep to the shadows? Put in a broader stealth game context, is it more in the style of Metal Gear Solid where you have options to go stealth or engage, or is it closer to the stricter style of earlier Splinter Cells where you’re usually screwed if you don’t take enemies out quietly and discretely?

NA: There are some direct combat skills to fall back on, especially if well coordinated with the ninja’s tools, but generally you have to be pretty quick on your feet to dispatch someone once they’ve seen you. Especially if there is more than one opponent. And of course, there are means to escape and regain cover as well.

However, I think it’s very important from a design perspective that the game never waste your time and force you to repeat things you’ve already demonstrated competency over. So if you do die, you’re respawned instantly without any loading (think Super Meat Boy) and you won’t be forced to repeat giant sections of the level. The point is to continue to experiment with different options, not to force you to do the same thing over and over just to get back to where the challenge was.

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VGB: What tools will the game offer to make players feel like a sneaky ninja badass? I’m guessing stuff like smoke bombs and grappling hooks? Anything else?

NA: Yup, both smoke bombs and grappling hooks are expected. In general, the ninja has a lot of movement abilities that outstrip the opponents, which is one of the main ways of being sneaky. So you can hang from ceilings, dangle above guards’ heads from underneath lights, etc. And the tattoos will grant more abilities to the ninja as the game goes forward.

VGB: How about weapon types? Will there be any other instruments of death beyond a katana, like claws, blowguns, bows, kusarigamas, etc?

NA: There are some of the canonical ninja weapons, including some things you mentioned, but we’ve also come up with some new things of our own. Broadly, there are two categories of items: distraction items and more offensive items. You’ll acquire more as you progress through the game and be able to decide upon the ones that best suit your playstyle.

VGB: Will the ninja be customizable or upgradeable in any way over the course of the game?

NA: Indeed, quite a bit, actually. In addition to the two types of equipment mentioned above, there are a number of passive abilities (say, a new type of stealth kill) that can be acquired. Also there are a number of equipment styles that can be unlocked that are geared toward a particular playstyle. So if someone is interested in being very, very stealthy, there’s a style choice for that. Or there’s one focus on terrifying enemies. And so forth.

VGB: How is the game structured? Is the world laid out on one large map like a “Metroidvania” style game or is it divided into a series of individual stages?

NA: It’s a series of individual levels. They all have a fixed start and end point, but there’s a lot of choice and different paths to take on a moderate-to-low level, if that makes sense.

VGB: The bosses have always been standout moments in the Shank titles. Will we be facing off against any boss baddies in Mark of the Ninja, and if so, how will the stealth gameplay style factor into taking them down?

NA: Not in a traditional sense, since that tends not to work very well in stealth games. Not to pick on them, since they’ve basically said the same themselves, but Deus Ex: Human Revolution painted a very clear picture of how bosses can go really, really wrong in a stealth game. So while there are a couple of specific assassination targets the ninja does have to dispatch, it’s the getting to these targets and taking care of their defenses and allies, while remaining hidden, that’s the challenge. We believe that will work far better than memorizing an attack pattern and whittling down some giant red health bar.

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VGB: How long can players expect the main storyline to last?

NA: It’s actually really hard to say. The rate at which people move through the game varies pretty dramatically, more so than any game I’ve ever worked on. Some people can get the rather short, introductory level in about 15-20 minutes, other folks it takes over an hour. And not because they’re dying over and over or anything, that’s just sort of the pace they come at. So when some people take three times longer than others, I have no idea how long to say it is. And that’s not a dodge! I genuinely don’t know. But for what it’s worth, it’s significantly bigger than anything we’ve done in the past.

VGB: Does the game offer multiple stealth approaches to any given scenario and/or some form of end-level scoring to rate a player’s ninja abilities and encourage replay? Or perhaps multiple difficulty levels to test varying levels of ninja skill?

NA: Indeed. One of our foundational principles was player choice, so there are a number of ways to approach any particular scenario. And that goes all the way to how the player chooses to interact with the guards. It’s possible to make your way through the game without killing any one at all, aside from those couple of assassination targets I mentioned above. And each level has three optional objectives as well as three hidden scrolls, which serve kind of like audio logs and tell a bit more of the clan’s history. Except they’re almost all written in haiku, which I think is pretty darn cool.

VGB: Will Mark of the Ninja offer multiplayer of any kind? Some tag-team ninja action would be pretty damn sweet!

NA: It would be sweet! Unfortunately, it was just beyond our rather small team’s means. We’re not really a very big studio at all. We didn’t want to spread ourselves too thin and end up compromising the single player to add some kind of multiplayer. Plus, we had to do so much design work and experimentation to basically design an entire new style of gameplay, since 2D stealth games don’t really exist. That alone was a lot, and I mean a lot, of work. We wanted to make sure the single player was the highest quality and had as much polish as we could provide, so that’s where we put our focus.

VGB: Any plans for bonus modes beyond the story? Perhaps stealth challenge rooms that would require clearing all enemies without being spotted?

NA: We do have some challenge-ish areas incorporated into the game itself, plus there’s a New Game+ mode that allows you to retain all the abilities and upgrades you’ve unlocked, but removes practically all the HUD and other feedback systems. It’s actually pretty fun, I think it’s how most of the team prefers to play at this point.

VGB: What about unlockable content, such as avatar rewards, themes, etc?

NA: There are indeed avatar awards. I honestly don’t remember exactly what they are off the top of my head, but it’s the sort of things you’d normally see in an XBLA game of this caliber.

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VGB: With Microsoft publishing the game, we (sadly) understand that Mark of the Ninja won’t be seeing a PSN release. However, are there any plans/desires to develop a PC version?

NA: Definitely, I’m primarily a PC gamer myself, so we’d very much like to do a PC version. We’re still sorting out all the details, but this is something we really want to make happen.

VGB: Where does development on the game stand and what’s the current target for launch?

NA: We’re in the final stretch now, just the last bits of polish and fixing bugs. We don’t have a final date yet, but it should be late this summer. We’ll definitely make all kinds of noise once we do have a final date.

VGB: Thanks so much for taking the time to let us know more about Mark of the Ninja!

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!