Follow the path of Nels Anderson as he talks to TPG about his 2D stealth masterpiece, Mark of the Ninja. Read about how playtesting helped shape the game, why no demo is available and the influence of Shank games had on the art direction.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Mark of the Ninja.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
It was just by virtue of working on DeathSpank really. I have Bachelors and Masters degrees in Computer Science, so my entry was from the programming side. I hadn’t built many game projects before working professionally, but I had done a lot of tabletop RPG design.
Where did the idea for Mark of the Ninja come from?
The notion mostly originated with simply realizing there hadn’t been any good 2D ninja games or ninja games where you actually had to be, you know, sneaky. So we wanted to make a game that looked gorgeous and really felt like the romanticized notion of what being a ninja is.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Mark of the Ninja?
Some big successes would include getting a good handle on how important playtesting and iteration really is, especially with something as innovative as Ninja (in that, we didn’t exactly have a lot of 2D stealth games to really look at as templates). That and the important of having a clear experience you want to deliver and continually measure what you’re doing against that.
Some failures that we’ve learned from would be just rather unremarkable production things, how to build clear structures and processes.
In its current form, how close is Mark of the Ninja to your initial vision?
Quite close, actually! From the outset, Ninja was a to be a true, dyed in the wool stealth game. We wanted the game to present the player with a number of options and let them approach the game as they see fit. When the game was released, this is something a lot of folks praised, which was really edifying.
Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Mark of the Ninja and if you faced a similar challenge.
Well, related to the above, it wasn’t less of a problem because the game was about providing players with a lot of different options. There was less emphasis on pure performative skill (which is really easy to be very expert at) and more emphasis on planning and approach. And the other part of that is, of course, recognizing that regardless of that, you’ll never have a clear perspective, so it is important to just keep playtesting over and over again.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Mark of the Ninja would run on the various PC system configurations?
The biggest thing is just something we’ve been post release where a lot of non-controller devices people have on their PCs (flight sim pedals, really custom keyboards, etc.) still look like a controller to the OS, which means people will get controller labels, even if they are just playing with a mouse and keyboard. And that’s not really something we can deal with directly, since the weirdness comes in on the OS level. So we just had to provide an override folks can use in those situations.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Mark of the Ninja.
The art style was largely a refinement upon what we developed for the Shank games. Nearly all of our artists used to work in cartoon animation, so that’s something that really manifests in our art style.
The level design in Ninja was really about providing the player a lot of options with how they wanted to approach the encounters. We never wanted the game to feel like a one solution puzzle where the player just have to figure out the exact right thing to do.
And majority of the music in Mark of the Ninja was composed by the same pair of composers we worked on for Shank, but we also collaborated with a Canadian indie band named Yamantaka // Sonic Titan to compose and perform an original song for the game. Working with them was fantastic and I’m really happy with how their song fit into the final game.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Hands down it’s generating awareness for your game. With so many games, especially larger games that have marketing budgets that exceed your game’s entire budget 10 to 50 times over, just letting the audience know your game even exists is tremendously difficult.
How did you go about funding Mark of the Ninja and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
We certainly received a great deal of emotional support from friends and family, but the financials were an arrangement between us and our publishing partner.
Tell us about the process of submitting Mark of the Ninja to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
No, we didn’t really encounter any problems at all. Microsoft being our publisher made XBLA very simple and we’ve got a great relationship with Valve, so Steam wasn’t an issue at all.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
Not really. It seems most “AAA indie” games have kind of settled in at the $15 mark, so that’s what we opted for.
Can you tell us why there is no PC demo for Mark of the Ninja?
It’s just a question of resources for us, and Ninja was supposed to come out much earlier than we were expecting, so we had to sprint to just get the game done for Steam at all.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Mark of the Ninja from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Very important, especially when it comes to PC development. There are so many configurations of hardware/software out there, there’s no way we can test them all. Not even close, so we just have to do the best we can and figure out what else is problematic once the game is out.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Mark of the Ninja professionally?
Depends on the person, I guess. I tend to follow particular writers who have interesting opinions and style and I’m certainly interested in their take on Ninja. If it’s someone I’m not familiar with, it’s no more or less interested and just about anyone else’s opinion, which I’m still quite curious about.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology?
We were in the Humble Indie Bundle #4 with Super Meat Boy, Bit Trip Runner and some other excellent games, so we’re definitely advocates of such things!
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I think the perspective some people have that one incident of pirate equals one lost sale is totally bunk. Honestly, the labour spend trying to prevent that piracy would be better spent on making the game even better so more people want to buy it legitimately. Of course, I wish people wouldn’t steal our game, but there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it, so we should just do something more useful.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Mark of the Ninja?
It’s awesome, they should do it as much as they want! There’s been a couple speed run folks did of Mark of the Ninja that’s just ridiculous to behold.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I think small bits of game are great. There are of course quality issues with some of the DLC, but broadly, it’s a good thing for developers and for the audience.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Mark of the Ninja?
I think modding is fantastic. I mean, you can basically transform Bethesda games completely and this point, and that’s something you can’t really do on the console. It’s one of those things that makes the PC my favourite platform. We don’t have any mod support for Ninja, but again, that’s just a question of resources on our part.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Make games. Start right now and make games. Keep them small, have people try them, figure out why they’re not working and keep iterating. More than anything else, that’s the hallmark of a successful developer.
We would like to thank Nels for his participation in this interview and wish him the best of luck on future projects. You can pick up Mark of the Ninja on Steam.
Follow Nels on Twitter.