Interview with Mark of the Ninja creator Nels Anderson
In October 2012, Vancouver studio Klei Entertainment released their 2D stealth game Mark of the Ninja. Coming out first on XBLA and weeks later on Steam, Mark of the Ninja‘s review scores were in the same 90+ realm as Dishonoured, Trials Evolution and Mass Effect 3. It was a bit of unexpected success both for Klei and publisher Microsoft, who were expecting the game to do well but not quite as well as it did. Mark of the Ninja was nominated for ten categories at the 2013 Canadian Videogame Awards (CVAs) – including Game of the Year.
I had the chance to catch up with lead designer Nels Anderson on the merits of the stealth genre, living in the beautiful city of Vancouver and losing oneself in Dark Souls.
It’s weird. You can kind of tell North American and European games are distinct from say, Japanese Games, but otherwise there’s generally not a ton of cultural identity baked into games, relative to where they’re made. There are things, but they’re all very subtle and nuanced, something that’s more pronounced in like film or music.
It’s kind of interesting to see the CVAs and be reminded that oh man, a ton of big fantastic, amazing, excellent games are all made in Canada. Really when it comes to game development, relative to the population, Canada swings well above its weight class, which I think is really cool.
How does it feel to trump some of the biggest AAA titles of 2012 with a $15 indie Game?
It’s super weird, I don’t know what to make out of fit, none of us really do. Obviously it’s fantastic and complimentary when people seem to really connect with a thing you made and that’s awesome. As a style of game MOTN is all about a really player-centric experience. When people come at the game, they will have expereinces that are unique to them, instead of something that’s more cinematic or whatever, when everyone sees the exact same cut scene, they’re going to approach the encounters more or less the exact same way, and that’s fine. But I think that there’s a lot more fertile ground when it comes to being more player directed. Having people react positively to that can be quite rewarding.
Do you feel the Ninja character resonates with a lot of players?
I think it’s about being an archetypal figure that’s about being successful because you”re smarter and faster and sneakier rather than being the biggest badass that was ever badass. That’s why we chose the ninja as an archetype, because you’re making a game about being fast and sneaky and clever, in fiction what is that substantiation? Ninjas are that.
How was the workload of this game leading up to release?
For the first nine months it was seven people; three programmers, three artists and myself with our creative director kind of doing overwatch on the project but also looking at other projects that were going on. After that the other project finished up and then we had 15 people. With any project there are going to be parts when it gets busier. There were a couple of months near the end of Ninja where things were really quite busy. There was a lot of stuff we had to do, but sometimes things don’t work exactly the way you want them to and you have to put your boots in the soil and just grind and get it done. But that doesn’t mean you should be happy with it. You should be thinking about ‘what led us to this point, and how can we do it better in the future.
Does success like you had with MOTN put your studio in another tier of indies?
I don’t think so… indie is a pretty loaded term, right?. I think it’s just a good shorthand for ‘the people making this are the people who are ultimately responsible for all of it. There’s no external force that’s dictating what should be done and that’s really the important thing.
Take Journey, while that game company was independent, they were wholly financed by Sony. The people making that game that were responsible for it were the people working in the studio. They’re still indie although all their money was coming from one of the biggest corporations in the world. I don’t think that’s weird to me.
As a Microsoft Studio, did you guys have absolute creative control?
Yes. We own the IP, we had the creative vision for the game and that was exactly what we executed on. Honestly, working with Microsoft was great. We never got any thinly veiled “creative suggestions” about stuff we should change or anything like that. They helped us where we needed help because they have resources to do things that we don’t, like play testing the game with 50 people and getting the game through all the ratings boards across every insane ratings body across the planet. They totally helped us where we needed help, otherwise they let us do exactly what we wanted to do.
When we worked with Microsoft, not blowing smoke but it was genuinely awesome.
Our founder Jaime did a lot of good work working with the Microsoft guys to make sure we were all on the same page and making it a really good, productive, healthy thing. That’s not a thing you get for free either. It has to be something you want to achieve, but it certainly can be done. When we worked with Microsoft, not blowing smoke but it was genuinely awesome as far was working with their production staff goes.
You’ve definitely got the desirable Meta scores, does this translate to positive sales?
Broadly I think Meta scores are bullshit and everyone kind of knows that it’s bullshit. All it does is provide a very rough barometer, attributing any more specificity aside from Good, OK, or Bad is probably kind of fellatious.
Mark of the Ninja is doing fine for us, we’re not driving home in gold plated Bentleys and sleeping on mattresses stuffed with $100 bills, but we’re also not eating ramen out of an old cardboard box. We’re able to keep the lights on and keep making the next thing and that’s all we really care about.
Besides financial, how does the reward come back to you with a successful game?
For me, it’s totally self serving. I want to make the types of games that I think are interesting because there are personal things I want to explore and express. But as a form of creative expression I think games are both interesting and important and if something we do inspires someone else to make something that’s awesome and I get to play that other thing that’s awesome, that’s great. I want there to be more better things in the world basically. That’s the big thing, there are these notions that I want to explore and figure out what can be done in this form. That coupled with providing a thing that’s interesting and satisfying to engage with.
What do you love most about living in Vancouver?
I definitely like cities, but the sprawling expanse megalopolis is also not really my thing. Growing up in Wyoming, I’ve discovered that I get weirded out when I’m in a place for a long period of time where there isn’t mountains. Vancouver has that, but also has the ocean and also is a proper city with culture and different types of people. It seems like a weird contradiction but it actually works wonderfully well.
What goes on after a successful release like MOTN?
There’s always some amount of post-launch support. It’s much harder to make games for the PC platform because you’ve got all these different hardware configurations. There’s all kinds of loose ends releasing a PC game. After the game came out, most of the other folks moved on to other projects, but one other person and myself are working on the expansion/DLC stuff for Ninja, coming out this summer. It’ll be like the collector’s edition.
So you have had more time to play games since?
I have! There was one game I was saving until Ninja was done and that was Dark Souls. I connected with that game more than anything else I’ve probably played in the last two or three years. My love for that game can not be understated in any way, it was transcendent. When I finished Dark Souls it was at around 77 hours. I don’t play insanely long games, I only have space in my life for one or two of those games per year. That game is so hard, but hard in a way that it’s not bullshit. It’s all about precision and exactness and whenever you fail, it’s totally your fault. It’s all about having a tremendous amount of trust in the audience. There’s no hand holding, it doesn’t spell anything out, there are massive chunks of that game that if you don’t really investigate you can just totally miss. That kind of supreme confidence and trust in the audience to be cruel, but fair, is just so good.
Good luck at the CVAs this weekend. I’ll see you there.
That’s awesome, thanks.