In 2012, fans of the action stealth genre had a great selection of high-profile releases hit the market. The waves made by the genre were felt throughout the industry, from the new, promising Dishonored IP to entries in iconic franchises of the genre such as Hitman and Assassin’s Creed. While each of those aforementioned titles were widely enjoyed, it was a smaller, digital-only new IP that stole the stealth action show in 2012.
That title went beyond providing players with a great action stealth experience, however. Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja forged a path of its own by merging 2D platforming with stealth to critically-acclaimed results. For Lead Designer Nels Anderson, the marriage of the two genres was an obvious one to pronounce. “A big part of it was taking my great fondness for 3D stealth games – Thief specifically, was the single biggest inspiration, but definitely stuff also like Hitman, like Metal Gear and Splinter Cell – and given that Klei’s wheelhouse is 2D, it was sort of like ‘can we put those two things together and make it work? Like, can’t we have a side-scrolling 2D thing that actually provides the gameplay experience of a 3D stealth game?'” Anderson said. “That was what we sought out and after great labor, we discovered that with a lot of experimentation and trying a bunch of different things […] eventually we got to a point where it did provide that kind of novel, good gameplay experience that stealth games provide that action/adventure games don’t.”
Prior to working on Mark of the Ninja, Anderson was a Gameplay Programmer for the DeathSpank series, which helped him in his transition to the Lead Designer role at Klei. ” I was designing things, but it was very ‘last-mile’ design – So ‘how does it feel?’ ‘How is the AI for this particular enemy going to work?’ – stuff like that,” he said. ” So spending that time doing that sort of ‘last mile’ stuff was valuable because it was very player-facing […] and to translate that to this, myself and the other folks who were sort of shepherding the design on Mark of the Ninja, it was about ‘Okay, we have these high-level notions, how do we translate that to the moment-to-moment gameplay so that they actually can be working in concert?’”
The process for building a Mark of the Ninja encounter was as much about analysis and play-testing as it was actually developing. “Obviously, the first thing you’re operating from is ‘what level, in the broad scope of the game, is this taking place in?’” said Anderson. “We were actually building the encounters as we were building the levels. It was ‘what level is this encounter taking place in?’ and that sort of informs us on what different hazards and enemies will be there, as well as what abilities the player will have access to, and just the general level of complexity that it should have. Those are the constraints for any particular encounter. And if there’s anything that any particular level is trying to emphasize, it’s about ‘how can we manifest that in this encounter?’ Then from there, it’s about looking at the space, figuring out how moving through it in any number of ways can be interesting – figuring out where to put lights, where to put vents, where to put other challenges like that – and then just play it a lot.”
The playtesting for Mark of the Ninja was a rigorous process and a tough learning experience for Anderson and the team, but one that made the game what it is. “Maybe the last half or three-fifths of Ninja’s development were having someone, twice a week, just a random person from the internet, like I literally just put an ad on Craigslist, got a shitload of people’s email addresses, and just had two random people come in every week and have them play the game for like 90 minutes or so, and then just repeat with someone new the next week,” said Anderson. “We did have a few recurring people and I never thought of at the time, but testing the last part of your game is tricky because, especially in a game like Ninja because we really emphasize the system, people can only play the endgame if they’ve played the earlier game and understand what’s going on. And of course that makes sense now, but when you’re running playtests, it’s like ‘Okay, we’ve got a new guy coming in next week!’ but then it’s like, ‘Oh, right.’ We’ve got to get recurring people to come in, but they couldn’t have waited too long because they’ll probably have forgotten everything or if they remember how a mechanic works, and we change that mechanic, they’re probably going to get really confused. So wrangling all of that was specifically a bit more challenging than I naively thought.”
The amount of play-testing in a stealth game like Mark of the Ninja may resemble the amount found in a puzzle game such as Portal, but Anderson notes key differences between the approaches taken when creating games in those two genres. “The big difference, structurally, between Portal and more like ‘Capital P’ puzzle games, and something like Mark of the Ninja is that in your ‘Capital P’ puzzle games, there’s only one solution, and basically you’re just trying to find it,” Anderson explained. “That’s very different from how we designed Mark of the Ninja, because Ninja isn’t about that. All good stealth games are about providing the players with a suite of tools, which will obviously include their understanding of the game’s system, and then letting them approach the encounter however they see fit. And so, as the people building it, we may have in mind two or three ways that it can potentially be done, but the stuff that is absolutely the most rewarding for me, is seeing someone approach it and completely bypass one of the encounters in a way that I never expected, but is totally legitimate. That’s actually, design-wise, very different from trying to build a ‘Capital P’ puzzle that just has the one solution that you need to find. Those things are all about providing good bread-crumbing and making sure people don’t accidentally follow a chain of logic too far in the wrong direction, while our stuff was really about providing enough opportunity and flexibility to approach a problem in a variety of different ways.”
“The big difference, structurally, between Portal and more like ‘Capital P’ puzzle games, and something like Mark of the Ninja is that in your ‘Capital P’ puzzle games, there’s only one solution, and basically you’re just trying to find it. That’s very different from how we designed Mark of the Ninja.”
– Nels Anderson, Mark of the Ninja Lead Designer
Upon release, Mark of the Ninja was so beloved by fans that clamor for additional content, whether by way of a sequel or downloadable content, rose almost immediately. “None of us want to make more Ninja just for the sake of doing more of it, because that’s really gross and lame,” he told me. “Like, if it was like, ‘Crank out another twelve levels and put a ‘2’ at the end and we’re done!’ I don’t think any of us are interested in doing that at all. But, it took us a long time to figure out the underlying mechanics, and get all that stuff doing what we wanted it to do, but now that it’s there, I think that if we reach some other sort of interesting ideas that we wanted to explore, we certainly wouldn’t not do that.”
Much to the delight of fans, Klei has announced that it will be releasing a Special Edition DLC add-on that will extend the life of Mark of the Ninja this summer. The DLC will include a new level, which will fit into the story as a flashback to an earlier time in the tattoo artist, Dosan’s life. In addition, Special Edition buyers will also receive two new items, one that will assist with stealth and one that will help with direct encounters, as well as a way to take down enemies without killing them. Finally, players will be able to hear more about the game’s design process, as the Mark of the Ninja Special Edition will include “a ton of developer commentary.”
When the idea of a community-driven content pool to help ease the wait for more developer-created content was brought up, Anderson dismissed the idea as nearly inconceivable for a game like Mark of the Ninja. “The elements in our levels are actually way way way ore complicated than something like Portal [a game that has successfully implemented a community-driven aspect to its game],” he said. “The number of different elements that show up in a Portal level, you could probably count those on your fingers. And of course, that’s the strength of the game: there’s this beautiful, elegant simplicity, and they bend it towards a bunch of really great purposes. But that kind of means that the process of actually building a level – like the actually craftsman building of the level – is actually pretty easy to do.. It’s the making it good that’s hard. But with the levels in Mark of the Ninja, it’s like there are so many components. The way things have to be put together and like if it seems simple, that’s only because we’ve done a good job of spackling it over. It’s actually not [simple], The amount of work to actually get a level editor suitable for public consumption, but to also sort of communicate how it works and how to make the elements good, would be kind of a tremendous undertaking. Unless you’re really intending to do this from the outside, or you have Valve’s infinite money and time, kind of having your editor being an internal tool and then after the fact then making it public, is really hard to do. It’s not a thing that I don’t want to do it. I think it would be great, I just don’t know if we have the manpower and the time to do it right.”
“None of us want to make more Ninja just for the sake of doing more of it, because that’s really gross and lame [… but] I think that if we reach some other sort of interesting ideas that we wanted to explore, we certainly wouldn’t not do that.”
– Nels Anderson, Mark of the Ninja Lead Designer
Mark of the Ninja continues to enjoy its success, and with such a rabid fan base, it would be a shame for the series to end following just one entry. While Anderson does assert that Don’t Starve is the team’s current focus, Klei Entertainment’s announcement of the Mark of the Ninja Special Edition represents the team’s acknowledgement of the community demand for more 2D stealth goodness.