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Mark of the Ninja's five stealth design rules Exclusive
 Mark of the Ninja 's five stealth design rules
December 3, 2012 | By Mathew Kumar

December 3, 2012 | By Mathew Kumar
More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Exclusive

For Klei Entertainment's Nels Anderson, making a great stealth action video game meant throwing out a lot of a lot of the genre's existing tropes.

Anderson was lead designer on Mark of the Ninja, a stealth game that brought an unconventional twist to the genre through its 2D side-scrolling vantage point.

While the game casts aside certain stealth elements laid out by games such as Splinter Cell, Thief and Tenchu, it does still rely heavily on cornerstones of stealth game design.

"With Mark of the Ninja," Anderson explained, "we wanted to make sure that that the fundamental experience of being a ninja was brought across and everything else supported that."

After breaking the genre down into its fundamentals, Anderson established Mark of the Ninja's five stealth guidelines he called the "Heresies of the ninja." These "heresies" broke the rules laid out by stealth design's predecessors.

Heresy One: Transparent Stealth System

"In contrast to most stealth games where you have a visibility meter or something like that, in Mark of the Ninja light and darkness are totally binary," Anderson said. "The way your character looks immediately reveals if you are visible or not - if you are concealed you are in black with red highlights, and in light you are fully colored."

This on/off approach had one caveat, however.

"If you are at the absolute edge of a guard's field of vision, they will catch a glimpse of you. They will start to move towards you quickly but not on full alert."

mark of the ninja 1.jpgThe binary light system - and the fact that all other information is available on screen, such as the limits of the guard's field of vision, or the "ring" of how far a sound such as a smashing light will travel before you destroy it, are intended to "make the systems all very, very understandable."

This intention to visualize exactly what will happen before an action is intended to allow the player to know "full out what will happen before they commit."

"It allows the player to factor this into their intentional play."

Heresy Two: Transparent AI

Also in aid of intentional play, the guards have three clear levels of awareness, with cues to how they are set into those modes and what they are doing during them (such as racing to the spot the player was last seen, represented by a ghost, or moving towards and then looking at an area where a sound was heard.)

"The point is to ensure that if a guard's behavior ever changes, the player will immediately understand what set it off."

Heresy Three: Narrow gulf of execution

The Mark of the Ninja team felt the game's design shouldn't fight against players' intentions.

Anderson used an example from the Thief series. "The primary was you affect the world in Thief is through magic arrows. You have a limited supply of them and you can't pick them up again if you waste them. The thing is that the only way you have to aim those arrows is a little tiny reticule, and they're modelled with physics. So actually becoming skilled to affect the world becomes very satisfying, and was very appropriate to what they were trying to provide in that game, but was absolutely not what we were trying to achieve."

Placing aiming skill over stealth tactics wasn't the direction Klei wanted to adopt. One problem was the fact that "2D aiming is actually really god damn hard," said Anderson.

"In most 2D shooters your previous bullets act as tracer bullets, but in Mark of the Ninja you only want to fire once... the player is a ninja, and if you are constantly bumbling through it kind of undermines the thing we're going for," he said.

As a result, the game's solution was "focus aiming," which stops time completely and is not limited by the player's resources.

Focus aiming wasn't always an unlimited-use design feature. "[Previously], we added a meter [to the focus aiming] and it was just horrible," Anderson said. "It just completely undercut that whole design decision; sometimes you have to double check your assumptions. Power-balancing is not really objective ... you must let players do what they want to do."

Heresy Four: Limited Consequences for Failure

Anderson said he was wary of using widely-spaced checkpoints "as a means of providing challenge."

mark of the ninja 2.jpg"This kind of difficulty is very, very dangerous," he said. "In a stealth game people come in with a very patient style of play. There's a lot of waiting. If something goes wrong and they have to do all that waiting again, it quickly descends into tedium," he said. If people get through a section of a challenge before failing, they will generally do that section again exactly the same until they reach the point they failed at.

"With Ninja, it basically had a checkpoint between every meaningful encounter," he said. "This allowed us and the player more experimentation in the game. You've all heard of degenerative strategies, where people have worked out one thing that works and it's boring as hell, but they keep doing it because they don't want to lose work. They don't want to lose the last six, seven minutes of play so they just keep doing that boring thing."

That's not to say failure states were completely unacceptable -- within reason. Although he agreed that it would have a "significant impact on your engineering," Anderson argued that there is no single feature in a game that features death or failure states that will gain "more positive feeling" than instant load times. He was in fact prepared to argue that "neither Super Meat Boy nor Trials would be as successful as they were if you had to look at a loading screen each time you died."

Heresy Five: Less-Open World Design

"We made [open world] levels," Anderson said, "and they were just god damn terrible."

"Mentally mapping 2D space is really not something our brains are meant to do," he said, while admitting he had "done no hard science" on this theory.

"In 2D you are simulating a space that's not the way it would be in reality, so your brain has to perform a translation. There's a difficulty there so you can't build a contiguous space nearly as large as you can in 3D."

Anderson claimed the sweet spot for a 2D encounter space was the game screen size plus "0.5 to 0.75 of a screen in any direction. ... Any more than that people start to feel lost or not really competent in that space. A little more if it's just horizontal or vertical. If you look at a Metroid or Castievania that's roughly how all of their encounter spaces work. I think that's because they stumbled upon a weird cognitive way the brain works."

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Maria Jayne
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I really want to try this game, I'm just slightly put off by the potential control issues on the pc version. It's from the makers of shank, which had a truly awful keyboard and mouse setup I hated when I tried the demo.

As for the stealth rules, they all seem pretty good ideas. I especially like developers who don't obsess over if they give the player too many cool toys. It's really unsatisfying to be given powerful toys with lots of limitations because the developers were afraid you might actually use them. Don't be afraid of letting players have fun.

Jonathan Escobedo
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The PC port supports controllers, so if you have one, use it. If not, a wired Xbox 360 controller costs twenty six dollars on Amazon, which seems like a lot, but it's worth it. As for Mark of the Ninja, it's a really good game and a contender for my personal GOTY.

Joe McGinn
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Great article, wonderful design guide. Most bad stealth experiences break one of more of these rules. A recent stealth game that follows them all, and succeeds briliantly, is Doshonored. (With a big FAIL going out to Hitman for an obtuse and long-winded save system. which just as Anderson says discourages and punishes the exploration and creativity that the game is supposed to be about.)

Think I'll go grab this game now... FYI re Jonathan's comments, it's on sale right now as having full controller support, part of the Steam Big Picture sale:

Josh Riley
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I picked it up in one of the last steam sales and the controls were never a concern. I have a 360 controller, but never switched to it because I never felt the pc controls were off.

Also, I own both shanks, and never finished the first level of either, and I've put substantial time into this one. Give it a shot!

Jack Nilssen
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If you're serious about playing videogames on a PC, you should have a gamepad.

I bought this game on both X360 & PC, and it was the same (totally amazeballs) experience on both but that's because I was using the same controller.

Maria Jayne
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"If you're serious about playing videogames on a PC, you should have a gamepad."

I must not be serious then. Whatever the hell that means.

E Zachary Knight
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If you are serious about playing PC games, you play PC games that are designed to use the PC's input mechanisms to their fullest.

Nick McKergow
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It mean's you should try the game with a gamepad so that control won't be an issue. Then there'll be nothing stopping you from playing this game you really want to try.

Adam Bishop
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If you're serious about playing PC games, you play them with whatever input you have the most fun using.

Ramon Carroll
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"If you're serious about playing PC games, you play them with whatever input you have the most fun using."

We have a winner.

Ron Dippold
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@Maria: Some games are obviously designed for a specific type of control, even though it will let you play them with alternative methods.

You can play Batman: AC with keyboard, or this game with keyboard, but I think it will be much more satisfying with gamepad (I tried both!). Shank is much better with gamepad, though nowhere near as good as Mark of the Ninja. Any twinstick type game is of course going to be much better with twin sticks.

Alternatively the XCOM gamepad controls are actually pretty good, but it's still much better with mouse/kb. Ditto for Dishonored.

So it may have sounded a bit insulting, but investing in a gamepad for your PC really improves quite a few games and your enjoyment of them. Or you could just play those games on console.

evan c
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"It just completely undercut that whole design decision; sometimes you have to double check your assumptions. Power-balancing is not really objective ... you must let players do what they want to do."

I love this part. Most games out there suffers because of some asshat decision to add challenge to the most mundane task.

I just wish every game designer would "double check their assumptions" and ask if their idea is actually fun or are they just being an asshole.

Luis Guimaraes
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Yep, seems I'm breaking all the Five Rules.

Michael Rooney
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I don't like how a lot of these "heresies" are pretty much exactly the way Splinter Cell has been moving for quite some time. The first 3 have all been focuses in Splinter Cell to varying degrees since double agent.

Michael Rooney
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Not to undercut how good the game is, I'm just not a fan of labeling things as, "[breaking] the rules laid out by stealth design's predecessors," when one of stealth's largest franchises has been focussing on half of them for 2 iterations.

Adam Bishop
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Bought this game during the last Steam sale and just started playing it last night. I agree really strongly with this bit:

"In a stealth game people come in with a very patient style of play. There's a lot of waiting. If something goes wrong and they have to do all that waiting again, it quickly descends into tedium."

I think a longer wait between checkpoints can be OK in an action game because properly carrying out those actions, getting the timing down, etc. is a big part of what makes the game fun. But in a stealth game, a major part of the fun is in observing and planning. The "waiting" portion of play is actually a kind of mental challenge to figure out how to tackle the scenario. But if you've successfully played a section of a stealth game before, you've already figured out the mental challenge, so all that's left is just sitting around not playing the game, and that's not very enjoyable.

Luis Guimaraes
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Stealth games have a love-hate relationship with quick-saving, specially because "progress" can be a very subjective for the player, so it should be up to the player's judgement when to checkpoint their progress.

The problem with quick-saving is that it's always followed by quick-loading, which shouldn't be abused by players at risk of being detrimental to their own gaming experience. In that case the game should protect the player from doing so while providing her with a better gaming experience.

The solution possibilities are many, from limiting number of saves between checkpoints, to making quick-saves consumable, to putting cool-downs for saving, to limiting number of save slots, to limiting the amount of times the same save-slot can be reloaded, to limiting the amount of time it must pass until a save can be reloaded, to having more than one of these rules at once, to have paralel rules at once on different levels (golden/silver/bronze save slots with different cool-downs/consumable-uses and different reloading rules), so on and so forth...

Michael Rooney
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@Luis: You can also make the UI not friendly for quick saving. Make it friendly enough that the use cost of doing it once every 5 minutes isn't terrible, but using it every 10 seconds becomes tedious.

Maybe only make loading more tedius but not saving?

Luis Guimaraes
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Yes, you're right.

Increasing attrition is a good way of discouraging the use of a feature outside of when it's actually needed. The "Save and Quit" system is the most common way of applying that solution.

Bart Stewart
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Luis, I hesitate to agree that quickloading in stealth games is an abuse from which players must be protected despite themselves.

Restrictions on reloading make sense in an action game where the core play experience is about excitement. Quickloading interferes with the roller-coaster ride of a Call of Duty-type game, for example.

But I'd argue that the opposite is true for a game whose design emphasizes an exploration play experience. Even if there's also action, exploration is about perception, about recognizing static and dynamic patterns in environments. Quickloading is a very useful tool in these games; it supports the exploratory play experience by letting the player try out different ideas for testing updated perceptions.

The question of quickloading is trickier for stealth games because they have both action and perception. You need to see the patterns and states of guards, cameras, etc., but then you have to act quickly and competently on that knowledge.

So I would suggest that save/load controls in a stealth game should depend on what kind of stealth game it is.

If it's really an action game, with fighting game-style moves and a bit of perception being helpful, then allowing limited quickloading (or at-will quickloading with rewards for choosing to reload less often) probably makes sense.

For a stealth game that's mostly about being good at perceiving patterns and generating solutions, where the actual implementation of those plans is the simpler part, unlimited quickloading might be better for that kind of play experience.

Luis Guimaraes
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Whatever you said I like first, read last, Bart! :D


When I say the player must be protected it's not every player, but some players do and are very good at destroying the experience for themselves and spreading bad word about the game (specially true for game reviewers). And that's pretty much the player I'm talking about.

The problem is when the players gets to the point of saving, taking a shot, saving if it hits, reloading if it fails and hard-trying again until it hits. And people does that. And then tell everybody how easy and boring the game is. Sadly it's something we have to account for when designing a game.

Apart from that I choose quick-saving loading anytime. So making limitations to quick-loading is more about making adjustments to put quick-loading in the game instead of simply using checkpoints.

And you better have time to play games because you're listed in my focus group for an upcoming thing ;)

Bart Stewart
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Thanks, Luis! We seem to share a lot of design ideas, with some different perspectives.

If you think there's something I can do that would be helpful, I'll make some time. :)

Luis Guimaraes
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Hell yea o/

Just getting to play a spoiler-free alpha/beta version and giving opinion is enough. It's no System Shock 3 but we're try to make some nice stuff. :)

Ozzie Smith
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I love Mark of the Ninja. I think it's the best stealth game I've played in years. So few stealth games make it feel like actually taking a stealth approach is the best way to play (so many stealth games have such a low consequence for getting caught and make the player so overpowered that players need to self-impose handicaps to make the game fun).

The only thing I would change is that I would have made it so that players lose points for dying. About half-way through the game I realized that it helped my score out if I just got myself killed and restarted from the last checkpoint if I got spotted instead of waiting out the alert (becuase getting spotted loses you points, but dying just resets everything). I hated that I knew how to game the system a little bit lol.

Again I really loved this game and I hope that all future stealth games learn lessons from it.

Ron Dippold
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What I found interesting is that I played Mark of the Ninja shortly after Dishonored and a lot of the same design decisions and even specific powers and play strategies popped up. I'm sure this was not direct copying, just convergent evolution. Where they diverge is that Dishonored is less completely transparent about AI and detection zones, but allows the gigantic open areas that Anderson says didn't work well in 2D. Corvo can also take a lot more damage than the Ninja can.

I'm waffly on everything being indicated visually - to be clear, it worked great in Mark, but I'm not sure all the visual clutter would have worked well in Dishonored's less cartoony 3D world (come to think of it, Batman: AC did a bit of this, but only in detective vision mode). Also, it did take me a while to get used to Dishonored's stealth model (especially after Thief - Dishonored is not as lenient), but I did eventually get quite good at it. Also, since Corvo can survive being discovered much better, the instances where you mess something up and then have to recover can be some of the most interesting in the game. But of course it's a bit more satisfying when you get the Ninja through a nasty situation.

So I'm going to throw my hands up and say they were both fun and it was interesting to see where they made the same choices or different choices.

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Everything I hear about this game reminds me of Commandos, pretty much the only stealth game I've really enjoyed. It's nice to see another stealth game come around with a very clear ruleset and good feedback.

Luis Guimaraes
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Have you player the first "Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive"? I think it's even better than Commandos in the genre, Robin Hood not as good. It's one of my favorite stealth games.

My #1 is still probably Ultimate Assassin 2 thou: