UFG Interviews Klei About Mark of the Ninja!

As much as I hate to jump on the bandwagon, I have to admit that independent game development is way more successful than it’s ever been. Don’t get me wrong, big budget titles are here to stay; I can’t wait to play some of the games being released this holiday. It’s just that lately, my favorite gaming experiences have come from the Indies. This brings me to Klei Entertainment (Eats, Shank series), a developer that continues to breathe new life into classic genres. Known for having colorful, stylized 2D graphics and interesting gameplay mechanics, Klei’s games tend to stand out in the gaming market. Their upcoming game, Mark of the Ninja, seems to be following this trend. To help shed some light on this new title, I was able to chat with Ninja’s lead designer Nels Anderson. Take a look at our interview below!

UFG – Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. We defiantly appreciate it!

Of course, always happy to do so.

UFG – So, tell us a little bit about Mark of the Ninja. What type of game is it? What’s the story about?

Foremost, Mark of the Ninja is a 2D stealth game. So it’s a game about being deliberate, taking your time to survey an area, making a plan and then carrying it out. It combines the fluid 2D animation and really tight, responsive controls of Shank and applies it to a pretty different style of gameplay, and one I’m really a fan of.

The story centers around your ninja clan, the only clan to survive into the modern era, when the rest of ninja clans died off after the Tokugawa Shogunate came to power at the end of the 16th century. Your clan survived because it discovered a strange plant that could be made into tattoo ink. Anyone who receives those tattoos becomes faster, stronger, more agile, etc. Nothing supernatural, but like height of human potential. But the ink also slowly erodes the bearer’s mind, driving them mad. Supposedly anyway. The tattoos are only given during times of great crisis, and so the game begins during one such crisis and you, of course, have been chosen to receive the tattoos.


UFG – That sounds awesome! One thing I noted in your answer was the use of a modern setting. It would be understandable if the game took place sometime in the past, like the Tenchu games. What made Klei pick a more modern setting for their Ninja title? 

Well, we obviously didn’t just want to be seen at “Tenchu in 2D.” Plus, there’s a lot more opportunities in a modern setting for different types of challenges, traps, etc. Unless you’ve got something supernatural going on, which we didn’t want to do, a historical setting is a bit more limited. Plus there are themes of tradition vs. modernity that we wanted to explore, so it seemed appropriate on a number of fronts.

UFG – That’s a very interesting combination you’ve got there. Tradition vs. modernity…nice! My next question has to do with detection. In most stealth games, the player has to makes sure they’re not seen out of fear of a quick death. What are some of the ways gamers can remain unseen? Can they hide in boxes or behind things? And if seen, does it mean instant death?

Of course, the main way to stay undetected is to remain in the darkness. But as the game is 2D, it’s not like you can hide around a corner if an enemy is coming down a hallway or anything. So there are also a number of static hiding places that offer concealment. Also, the ninja is much more maneuverable than his opponents, so you’re able to climb up walls, across ceilings, etc. to remain out of sight.

Detection is obviously severe, but it’s not like some “You failed, try again” screen will appear. Players certainly have a chance to react and recover, either by dispatching the guard that saw them, if there’s just one, or quick disengaging, maybe using a smoke bomb or other item, to break line of sight and return to the shadows. But even if players do die, we respawn instantly, getting folks back into the action as quickly as possible.

UFG – One thing that used to annoy me about this genre was the intelligence of my adversaries. I mean, it’s easy to sneak up on a guard if he has a tendency to stare at blank walls for long periods of time. How did Klei handle the problem of making enemies smart but vulnerable at the same time? 

It’s mostly about giving them clear, readable behaviors. Obviously there has to be some amount of suspension of disbelief, but we tried to use a combination of unique animations, dialog barks and HUD indicators to convey what’s going on in the AI’s brain. Once players can get a good understanding on how the enemies behave, how they react to certain events, etc., then they can use all their other items and abilities to create situations where the guards are vulnerable.


UFG – Looks like you’ve solved the problem quite nicely! In the trailer I saw, the main character used a grappling hook, spiked traps and a sword to take down enemies. Tell me, what are some of the other weapons and/or gadgets can we expect to see? Does the Ninja have any offensive abilities outside of normal, conventional weapons? 

Well there are the other canon ninja gear you’d expect, like smoke bombs and poisoned darts. There are some unique things we came up with too though, but we’d like people to discover those as they play the game.

As mentioned, the tattoos the player receives gives them unusual abilities. Again, it’s not magic or anything like that. But they are a bit different and should provide more options to be stealthy and deliberate. We certainly don’t have any abilities or items that turn the game into a brawler. It’s always about being sneaky, we just offer more ways for people to be sneaky.

UFG – It seems that Klei is staying in the 2D realm. Was a 3D Mark of the Ninja game considered? 

Never. At least for now, 2D is really our wheelhouse. Nearly all of our artists come from traditional cartoon animation and that’s something we don’t really see a lot of other studios doing. A lot of 2D games seem to evoke nostalgia pretty heavily, with pixel art and the like. And while that’s fine, I love lots of those games, I think it’s artificially limiting to think that all 2D games must be retro. We can do new, interesting and beautiful things with 2D using modern tech.

UFG – I agree. Mark of the Ninja, like your other titles, has very stylized graphics that are awesome to look at. Speaking of visuals, I noticed that Mark of the Ninja uses visual cues to convey information to the player. Can you elaborate more on how this mechanic works?

So I like stealth games a lot, but I understand why people can find them a bit inaccessible. Generally, stealth games are more systems-focused than other character-based games, but often, those systems are pretty opaque. So rather than making understanding those systems a core challenge for the game, we just wanted to make that information transparent, so it just becomes another tool in the player’s arsenal.

So for example, any time noise is made that NPCs can hear, a visualization of that noise is on the screen. And it’s literally the distance the sound travels, so if it overlaps an NPC, they heard it. If it doesn’t overlap them, they didn’t. So then we can actually visualize that radius ahead of time—so say, when you’re aiming at a light, you know who will near the sound of it being broken.

We found that the more information players had, the more deliberate they were able to play and the more they were able to enjoy the game.


UFG – So far, everything points to a single player experience. Are there any multiplayer elements featured? A leaderboard, challenge mode, ect.?

As an Xbox LIVE Arcade game, it will have leaderboards and there are some challenge-esque bits incorporated into the game itself. But we’re a very small team and didn’t want to spread ourselves too thin. Honestly, making a robust, rich 2D stealth game is something virtually no one has ever done before. We had a lot, and I mean a lot, of design work to get figured out. Trying to accomplish that to a high degree of quality plus add some kind of multiplayer just would have been beyond our means. So rather than have one compromise the other, we just wanted to focus on making sure the single player was as robust and polished as possible.

UFG – Makes sense. You don’t want to spread yourself too thin. That said, hopefully there was time for bonus elements. A cool aspect of Shank 2 was having different character skins that gamers had to unlock. Will we see anything similar in this game? 

Of a sort, yes. They’re integrated into gameplay via optional objectives. Each level has 3 optional objectives of different types. When you complete 3 objectives of the same type across several levels, a new type of equipment, geared toward a particular playstyle, becomes available. So if someone really wants to focus on stealth and being silent, there’s a style for that. If someone wants to focus on terrifying enemies, there’s a style for that.

UFG – Nice! Speaking of Shank, this game is very different from that series. Were there any lessons learned from your work on Shank that carried over to this game? 

Heh, Shank is very different indeed and Ninja comes somewhat from the desire we had to do something different. But there are core principles, primarily related to animation and low-level game feel, i.e. responsiveness of controls, that we certainly learned from Shank. And quite simply, we used and modified the existing Shank engine, which made the game so, so much easier to develop. It’s night and day in terms of how easy to it to prototype and iterate when you’re using stable tech.

UFG – Stealth titles seem to be all the rage nowadays. When coming up with this title, were you thinking “hey, now is a good time to release a stealth game” or was Mark of the Ninja an idea Klei had for some time?

We’d had the idea for a while, I believe. It mainly came out of “There really haven’t been any good ninja games about actually being sneaky in a long, long time” rather than seeing some kind of resurgence in stealth games. But again, I personally love stealth games, so I’m not complaining that we’re seeing more of them as of late.

Plus Mark of the Ninja, along with Gunpoint and Children of Liberty, are basically the only 2D stealth games out there. So even though there are a number of big, banner 3D stealth games, and plenty of which I’m really excited to play personally, I think we still have something quite different going on.


UFG – Mark of the Ninja is shaping up to be a great game. Can you tell us when it will be released and possible cost? 

We don’t have a final date yet, but it should be late this summer. Price isn’t final either, but it won’t really differ from what you’d expect for an XBLA title of this caliber.

UFG – I personally can’t wait for its release! Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers about this game?

I can’t really think of anything. Actually, if there’s anything folks would like to hear more about—the animation process, the level art style, the level design, whatever—please get in touch with us. We’re always pleasantly surprised by what folks find interesting. Just post on Ninja’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/MarkOfTheNinja or hit up Klei (@klei) or myself (@nelsormensch) on Twitter.

UFG – Awesome! Thanks again for talking with us!

There you go…one awesome interview about the upcoming Mark of the Ninja title. Don’t hesitate to hit up Klei for more information; might have to have a chat with Nels about the animation. Being an illustrator, the art work is definitely one of my favorite aspects of their titles. Whatever you do, be sure to check back with us as we continue to cover this and other great titles releasing this year!

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