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Wikia is at the 2013 Game Developers Conference. Today we have put on our shadow-suit, stalked through air vents, and made our way into a talk by Lead Designer Nels Anderson on designing Mark of the Ninja. Check out the highlights and insights below.

Working with Genre

On Mark of the Ninja, Anderson and the team intentionally took a lot of risks, and they paid off. That being said, it's also a game that exists firmly within the stealth genre. The importance of genre, as Anderson sees is, is that "creators can communally explore an idea" and offer "shorthand for players" to understand core game ideas.

Of course, genre is a double-edged sword. Genre can also output boring tropes. It could become "the same set of ideas, over and over again," and target the same group of players. Designers must avoid becoming too niche and too broad. A classic example of a game that walks that line, that innovates within a particular genre, is Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The creators "understood what that genre was about," Anderson describes. In the case of Amnesia, realizing games did not need guns freed them from that burden and let them hone an amazing game.

Thief provided Nels an essential piece of inspiration for the stealth genre. "Fundamentally the world has no awareness of the player," he explains, which results in a world that has to have its own logic. It's easier to imagine a "designer-directed," linear experience, Nels continues, but there is still much to discover in games that let players act "intentionally." In many ways, he states, "games are more like strategy games."

The Five Heresies of Ninja

Mark of the ninja evolution

Intentional play and player-centric systems define stealth games, but to achieve these, the team had to violate many stealth norms:

  • Transparent Stealth Systems: Light and darkness is a binary, that's it. This image is clearly shown on the character model itself, moving from light to dark. They also "visualized every single noise," so players know exactly how much noise they make and the range of that noise. "What that does, is make it much much easier for players to play intentionally."
  • Transparent AI: Guards were given three levels of awareness so players know how guard behavior changes and why.
  • Narrowing the "gulf of execution": While it can be great to master difficult things, Anderson and the team felt it was "not appropriate for Ninja," as it slows intentional play and proved difficult to create a good aiming mechanic in 2D space. "Of course the player is supposed to be a freaking Ninja," which explains their decision to let players hit things 100% of the time. They also added the "focus" aiming ability, without limiting its use. "The important thing about this ability is that it let players do what they wanted to do."
  • Limited Consequences for Failure: Failure to input frequent checkpoints, Nels describes, is especially dangerous for stealth games, as redoing the same action can lead to tedium quickly. Naturally, the team tried to put checkpoints between each encounter.
  • Less Open Level Design: Mark of the Ninja has far less open level design than other stealth games. The team tried, but the game suffered, because, Nels believes, players found it much more difficult to mentally map the 2D space. The game had to still feel open, but the team "pushed openness down a level," giving players more movement abilities that were both "precise and predictable" and, of course, using plenty of vents.

Conclusions

Making a genre experience is a potentially rewarding endeavor, but it's also dangerous. As Anderson explains, when you work within a genre, it's easy to start creating features just because "that's how everybody does it." Instead, designers should be courageous enough to abandon many genre trappings to "find the core" of whichever genre you are working in. "Ninja," Nels concludes, "was built standing on the shoulders of giants."

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