I had the distinct pleasure of attending PAX East this past weekend (article forthcoming, just as soon as I remember where I put my notes amongst the heaps of free swag) and the even more distinct pleasure of getting a chance to sit down with Klei Entertainment‘s Founder, Jamie Cheng. We talked about what’s special about Klei and, perhaps more germane, why Mark of the Ninja is a (literal) game changer for the stealth genre. Here was our conversation:
Cody (still trying to swallow the free food from the press area and caught utterly off-guard when the door to the interview room opens): So what’s your role here?
Jamie: With Klei?
Cody (choking slightly): Yeah.
Jamie: Well, I founded it about seven years ago now, so it’s been some time. And I’m a producer on this game.
It was at this point I was handed a controller and actually got to experience firsthand Mark of the Ninja. As I played, Jamie went over a few things with me.
Jamie: So we really wanted to make a game where you actually felt like a ninja as opposed to one that just bombs in and kills everybody.
Cody: Like Ninja Gaiden?
Jamie: Yeah. I mean, nothing against Gaiden. It’s simply that hey, you know what, we want to make a ninja game where you’re actually a ninja.
Cody: That seems emphatically reasonable.
There’s a long pause on the tape here where I get really into the game. Everything about it, from the art to the controls, make the experience a pleasurable one. If Jamie’s goal is to create a game where you actually feel like a ninja, he and his team have succeeded. My character stumbles upon a scroll. “As you pick up the scrolls they tell you more about the story,” Jamie tells me, “and a bunch of them are written in haikus.” Haiku? That’s awesome! I play for a few minutes, experience my first kill, which my NPC master describes in terms of ‘embracing the lover.’ At some point I end up dying because, hey, I’m not immune to questions of mortality. After a while I set the game aside and we talked.
Cody: What was the idea behind Klei in the beginning?
Jamie: Well, not much of an idea. We just wanted to make some games and we wanted to make our own games. We also felt, you know, me and a couple other guys started and were like ‘you know, I think we can make some cool games by ourselves and not have a huge team making it.’ And this was before being Indie was cool, you know? And we were one of the few that started back then. And it was like ‘so yeah, we’ve got this game, let’s see if anyone else wants to buy it.’
Cody: Did you guys have some things you saw in the mainstream gaming world that you didn’t like or you thought needed to be fixed or adjusted?
Jamie: Hmm. I was looking at the digital stuff and I felt like you know, obviously, it made sense to distribute new games digitally even though there were no distribution channels back then. So it was really difficult for us to get noticed, but it just seemed to make sense that we could do that; that we could make our own games and sell them direct, and that’d work at some point. That’s pretty much what it was, and you know just having these huge teams of a hundred people, at the time it was like ‘you know I’m kind of done with that right now. I want to do my own thing.’
Cody: So you’ve made how many games so far?
Cody: I played Eets. I liked it. It was awhile ago, so I don’t have a very clear memory of it, but I remember enjoying it a lot.
Jamie: Thank you. We’re doing a new one, actually.
Cody: Oh really? That’s exciting. Is that what’s next after Mark of the Ninja?
Jamie: It’s concurrent. We’re doing it at the same time, but we don’t know when it’s going to launch just yet. It’s called Eets Munchies, and we’re going to have a beta sometime and it’s just kind of like [it's ready] when it’s done.
Cody: So I’m obviously very, very excited about this game, and from all I’ve seen of it and the little bit I’ve been able to play it looks to me like it’s going to be stunning. Can you speak a little bit about perhaps some of the influences you had going into this?
Jamie: Yeah, absolutely. I mean obviously we all grew up with stealth games even though they haven’t done stealth in a long time, and so Tenchu’s there for sure and the original Splinter Cell. The feelings of those games, and I think that’s really what it was, you know I want to bring back those feelings, not specifically those games, and as kids we love ninjas we were just like ‘hey you know, nobody makes a ninja game where you’re actually a ninja. You know Ninja Gaiden’s cool and everything, but you go and kill everything. That’s what you do. You go and slice everything up. And that’s [not] what we set out to do, we wanted to make a ninja game where the best ninja is the one that nobody even knew existed.
Cody: I’m seeing a lot of influences of Japanese art, and more traditional Japanese art, as well as, as you said, haiku.
Jamie: There’s lots of influences from an art standpoint. Here you see the Japanese places because you’re in the dojo. As you move through different environments you’re going to see all these different kinds of influences we’re bringing in. And from an art standpoint it was really challenging because we needed to figure out how to make the place look dark and at the same time let you know where you are and you know where you can go. And that took a lot of work in terms of, you know, just throwing stuff out and we went through so many different iterations of art and design, from the combat system to the sound system to the lighting system. All of that stuff, and we had to throw out so much stuff.
Cody: Being an Indie game developer I’d imagine there are probably considerable resource limitations that you had to face.
Jamie: Absolutely. There always is.
Cody: Even for a AAA title there are limits to what you can do. But here you seem to have overcome what I’d imagine would be very strong limitations very well.
Jamie: Thank you.
Cody: More accurately, what was the design process like?
Jamie: We didn’t know what we were getting into. Honestly, when we first started this project it was like, we want to do this stealth game and this ninja game and it’s going to be really cool, and we’re going to have these kinds of mechanics, but we didn’t understand then how difficult it would be to actually feel stealthy, and it wasn’t until we started implementing it that we were like ‘hey, people don’t get it.’ They just don’t understand what’s going on here, and the process behind it was that we came up with a bunch of ideas for implementing [the stealth] and then we’d test it with people, just random people, and they’d say ‘I don’t know what’s going on. I have no idea when someone can here me, when somebody can see me, that I’m in dark right now, that I’m in light right now, that I can stand there,’ and all of these things for us [we found] either none of it worked or all of it worked. It was one of those things where we just kept having to iterate until we had a basis to work from where people were like ‘Oh! Now I’m starting to feel it,’ and then we could iterate on that. And that was when the art looked like it was dark and you could see the light cones and you could understand how far the sound was [traveling].
Cody: All of the information that is being conveyed to the player seems to be very organic and without the kind of tension of a HUD.
Jamie: That’s right.
Cody: Okay. Final Question: If my readers needed to know one thing about Mark of the Ninja what do you think it would be? What makes it stand out?
Jamie: It stands out because it’s a 2-D stealth ninja game and I’ve never seen those. I’ve never seen that before. I mean, 2-D stealth period is really, really, rare. You see a few now, like Stealth Master, and things like that, but nothing where you really felt like you were powerful and yet really weak at the same time. You’re a glass cannon. So that’s really what it is.
Cody: It feels like I’m playing a 3-D game in a 2-D world, which is a really nice feeling. And you’re right, I’ve never seen anything like it before.
Jamie: There’s a lot of different tropes that we couldn’t use directly. In a ‘normal’ 3-D game, in a traditional 3-D stealth game, the number one thing you do is you hide around a corner. That’s what happens. Well there’re no corners to hide around in 2-D besides vertical corners. So we had to use the vertical corners in that way and that’s why Ninja can cling on walls. Wherever he wants. And that’s why we use a fog of war, so if you look at the game, and you’re [looking far away] it’s gray and bleeding away. We’re making users work for their information, and that’s a really important part of our game; if you could just see everything, the game becomes a lot easier. We want to make people feel like ‘Oh, okay, I have great maneuverability but I need to use that in order to actually gain advantage over enemies.
Cody: Well, I’m very excited to play this game, and thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
Jamie: Great! Thank you!