How Mark Of The Ninja saved Klei Entertainment from starvation

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Nels Anderson is staying in a bed and breakfast on the Isle of Skye, and checking the reviews for a just-released game called Mark Of The Ninja whenever he can find a Wi-Fi spot on the rural single-track roads. Anderson is the game’s lead designer, and he works at 30-person Vancouver developer Klei Entertainment. This is September 2012, and Anderson is about to discover that the game is Klei’s biggest hit to date.

Mark Of The Ninja reinterprets the immersive, moody stealth genre as a vividly animated 2D side-scroller, an experiment that makes the uncompromising systems of the genre accessible without making them dull. Anderson has been invited to talk about the design at the 2013 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, where his game has been nominated for two industry awards. While the studio can’t discuss sales numbers, founder Jamie Cheng confirms it was a huge success for Klei, so significant that it marks a new beginning for the company. As a result, Anderson is not out of the Mark Of The Ninja business quite yet.

Today, in a Vancouver office building that also houses a geological survey company and a worldwide pork packing firm, Anderson is bringing to a close the project that’s defined his professional life for the past two years. Though Mark Of The Ninja has already been released, he’s been hard at work on an upcoming special edition of the game. He’s penned 12,000 words of developer commentary and is building a new level from the ground up, a job that seems much harder now he’s the team’s only full-time designer and working in a compressed timeframe.

“It did seem easier,” Anderson reflects on the process. “There’s, like, 24 separate things that all need doing. Any one of those could take several weeks to do. [One is] like: make the encounters [between the player and enemies] and make them good. What does that mean?”

There’s a higher standard for game design at Klei since the success of Mark Of The Ninja, too. “We can’t accept anything less any more,” says Cheng. “It’s raised the bar of what we can do.” Before, Klei was best known for its two Shank games, both action-based brawlers. “I look back on Shank,” he admits, “and think it’s not such a good game.” If Cheng is hard on himself, it’s because he’s deeply idealistic about what his company should be making. Each one, he says, should be a deep new experience. “That’s the guide we use to make the games. That’s what I hope people see when they pick up a game. They see that it’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not just a slick, put-together game.” Cheng tells his colleagues that he’d rather Klei closed its doors than make a game it’s not proud of.

“I look back on Shank and think it’s not such a good game,” admits Klei founder Jamie Cheng.

Before Klei, Cheng was an AI programmer with Dawn Of War developer Relic Entertainment. Soon after Relic’s 2004 acquisition by THQ, Cheng left to start his own company in the belief that “there is a better way to [do] game development. There is a great, sustainable way to do game development.”

Cheng wanted to build a different kind of workplace, though he didn’t know then exactly what it would look like. “I said I’d like to build a company where it’s not expected that we’re always doing overtime and we’re always doing crunch. The response I got was, ‘Well, good luck with that.’”

Klei was born into a challenging environment. There was little scene or support for indies in Vancouver at the time, and without a robust infrastructure for digital distribution, studios relied on publishers to sell their game. “I actually didn’t know where I was going to make my money from,” says Cheng. “I had no idea.”

In the beginning, he was just trying to survive. Low on savings, he pitched proposals for ‘depressing’ contract jobs, including making a game based on the Bratz licence. Every pitch was rejected, which he’s thankful for in retrospect. “We were forced to just build our own stuff and try to sell it, because we couldn’t get anything else.”

The experience strengthened Cheng’s conviction to have the studio produce original, high-quality work. “I saw around me all the contract job people living on brutal margins, not owning anything, and then dying out when the market crashed. It was very clear that it was a terrible business idea to do contract work. You don’t get the creative fulfilment, your morale is low because you’re working on shitty stuff, you can’t control quality, which is really important because if you can’t control quality, your reputation suffers.” If Klei’s Bratz proposal had been a success, “maybe we wouldn’t be around any more”.

Cheng hired Jeff Agala as Klei’s creative director in 2007, which “transformed the company”. In a team that then consisted mostly of programmers, Agala – a cartoon animation director – established animation and animators as part of the studio’s identity. “Because of Jeff, animation, from the very day I started, has been highly valued at Klei,” says animator Aaron Bouthillier. “We’re trying to elevate the art side of things as much as we can.”

“[Agala] and I work amazingly well together,” says Cheng. “He’s slightly technical and I’m slightly artistic. [Those sensibilities have] merged together. Our company ended up being built that way, where the people here are multitalented. We call them T-people.” The horizontal bar of the ‘T’ represents proficiency in a single discipline, while the vertical is an ability to engage with a variety of others. Bouthillier, for example, finds himself contributing more and more to the early development of design and gameplay concepts, and helped craft the story and characters for Mark Of The Ninja.

Klei’s offices house about 30 staff, including a number of multitalented ‘T-people’ who can cross design disciplines.

Kevin Forbes joined Klei as a programmer with a background in animation. “I find that you really need to speak two languages,” he says. “One of the things I like about working at a smaller company is that you do get exposure to wider areas. I spent a year and a half [in triple-A development] working entirely on baseball defensive fielder AI and animation, and that is a vanishingly small piece of a not particularly meaty game.” Whereas on Don’t Starve, which has a team that numbers in the single digits, “you have to do a little bit of everything”.

Klei has no producers, which Cheng says “is only workable if the studio has T-people. If you don’t have people who understand other professions, you can’t understand how your work is going to affect other people…. You need someone else to see the roadblocks ahead of you. If you do not have T-people, [then] that’s a producer’s job. Without a producer and with T-people, I find it to be far more effective. The whole team works better. They all know more parts of what’s going on.”

“There isn’t really any hierarchy per se,” explains Anderson. “Jamie wears the crown, ultimately. But broadly, there’s a lot of trust for everyone to do what they think is in the best service of the games and the studio at large. If someone wants to step up, that’s awesome. That’s kind of how we approach anything, really. If someone feels really firmly about something, just do it. You don’t have the time, or the freedom, to worry about a lot of decision-making overhead in that regard.”

“We try to be as egalitarian as possible,” Forbes concurs. “I’m not a big fan of the teams where there is the designer who writes something down on paper and then throws it over the fence for some poor sap to evaluate.” Forbes, who began work on Don’t Starve as a programmer, soon ended up in the lead role, and is now responsible for the project roadmap and engagement with players and press. “It kind of just happened, I think… I mean, someone has to do it.”

Don’t Starve, in which players gather resources to survive each day on a weird island, was an experiment for Klei. Inspired by an important round of internal game tests held for Mark Of The Ninja, Cheng asked a small team to build a game that could be self-released in six months as an open beta, and then revised quickly and often in reaction to player feedback. The beta was put out in late 2012, and since then Forbes and his team have released regular content updates, technical fixes and balance changes in consultation with the community.

It’s been an unmitigated win according to Forbes, who cites access to an enthusiastic testing base, increased player investment and an early indicator of commercial viability. “I think it would be hard at this point to go back to… where you build something and no one sees it for a year and a half.” Players have connected with the Don’t Starve beta far beyond Klei’s expectations, not only taking to forums to share stories of discovery, but producing fan art and songs.

Beta players have a sense of ownership in the game. “They’re helping to shape the process as the game develops. [We] ended up making a very strong core community that helps us, with every update, to evaluate the work that we’re doing and to kind of keep us honest as to the game’s direction,” says Forbes.

Klei’s latest release, Don’t Starve.

Cheng hopes this is another turning point for Klei. “I didn’t like that we were releasing games and not engaging with our customers well,” he says. For Don’t Starve, Cheng revived the studio’s once-defunct forums and hired a community manager. “I wanted to better support our players and build that relationship with them over time. I thought it was going to take us a few years to do properly. I’m just as surprised as everyone else that it came so early… We’re selling [Don’t Starve] because people actually want to recommend our game.”

Like Anderson, Forbes gradually wound his game down as its release date approached, after which he’s committed to six months of further content updates with a smaller team. The prospect of an official release didn’t faze Forbes (“I think it’ll just be another update, to be honest”), nor do the following six months. “I’m easily bored. The thought of doing a baseball sequel was enough to make me quit my [previous] job. But I’m not sick of Don’t Starve yet.”

Klei has at least two more unannounced projects underway. The ability to develop this number of games at once only became achievable in the past year, when the studio reached a critical staffing level. Cheng says hitting that point was very much a goal. “We need the freedom to do what we believe is right for the game, to experiment with that. And in order for us to do that, we need to feel like we have choice, options, and that we aren’t bound to a single game or a publisher. Both of those things are important. Even if we were self-publishing and we only had one game, we would have to have that game hit. Otherwise our company is doomed. That would cause us to make the wrong decisions about the game, because we would make decisions that are less risky. We’d have to say, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do that, because it might jeopardise our sales.’ The stress level’s much lower, now, with multiple projects. We get to experiment with a lot more things.”

Future expansion is a possibility, but Cheng wants the size of the company to be driven by creative considerations. “At this point, I think we’re in a pretty good spot,” he says, and he’s more comfortable than ever with what Klei’s putting out. “From a design perspective, both Mark Of The Ninja and Don’t Starve were built with a lot more intention about what kind of experience we wanted to create than our previous games. I think our previous games were more about some snippet of an idea, but not fully explored.” The unannounced projects, he believes, push a lot further into conscious exploration of a concept.

“When we first started, we had programming down. We know how to code. And now we know how to do some art as well. But our design is still kind of floppy. [With] Ninja, I feel like we understand the craft a lot better. As a whole, we understand the craft a lot better. Now I’m excited to push that craft. I’m excited to see what boundaries we can push around. I feel like now I know how to make a game.”