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Stealth kill: how Mark of the Ninja outwitted the AAA colossus

"People say publishers are risk-averse, but I can't think of a riskier thing than betting 100 million on a single game"

Traditionally, the ninja stands for grace, lethality and a stylish line in dark pyjamas, but he also makes an apt poster-boy for the so-called "middle class" videogame - relatively under-budgeted franchises and new IPs that are being starved of attention by a small, self-satisfied group of megalithic, premium-priced shooters and sports games.

Under this school of thought, the market is kind of like a corridor full of guards with a target at one end of it. In years gone by, the ninja (the stealth subgenre) would have overcome material odds by sticking to the shadows (platforms where there's less competition), exploiting the vertical axis (cult appeal?) and so forth, but lately the guards have taken to shooting away all the handholds (price points) and leaving the lights on (dominating the marketing conversation). Also, the corridor has gotten narrower (the market is shrinking) and it's floored with quicksand (retailers reserving store display space for proven best-sellers).

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Not an entirely convincing analogy, is it? No, Klei Entertainment's lead designer Nels Anderson doesn't think so either, and as one of the minds behind the excellent Mark of the Ninja, he's in a better position to comment than I. An elegant, smartly executed stealth affair, Mark of the Ninja isn't the kind of game you expect to sell millions - and the same could be said of the studio's previous release, the bloodthirsty 2D platformer Shank. But does success have to be a question of millions? Anderson suggests that it's as much about what you put into a project, as what you get out.

"I love, love the space that we work in, and I certainly don't really have any desire to work in a very, very big context with a huge mega team," he told us in a wide-ranging chat following Mark of the Ninja's release. "Obviously there are plenty of things they can do that we can't do, but the opportunities that we have since we're much smaller scale is that we can be a little bit more niche, a little bit more particular and it's not as worrisome for us."

Founded in 2005, Klei has a permanent headcount of fewer than 20, and releases exclusively for digital platforms. It can't hope to rival the big boys for marketing presence, as attested by the surprise some of our readers expressed when Mark of the Ninja stole reviewer hearts last month. But it also has drastically less to lose. "If we move 400,000 copies it's like 'Oh my God!' That's a smashing success for us," Anderson went on. "Whereas if an "AAA" on-disc retail game sells 400,000 copies it's like: 'oh, an unmitigated failure!'"

"We don't have the challenge of building something that three, four million people will all be excited about, and that kind of gives us a lot of opportunities. Not just us, not just stealth games in particular - broadly, I think that's why games like Amnesia, and Braid and Limbo have been successful.

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"Those are games that almost certainly could never have been produced in a big AAA ecosystem, just because: 'will that thing appeal to this many people?' You can understand that when you have that many dollars on the line people don't necessarily want to roll the dice that way. That's understandable."

Understandable doesn't mean sensible, however, as Anderson goes onto elaborate. A publisher of EA's stature wouldn't be able to live off the proceeds from a game like Mark of the Ninja. But then, the same could arguably be said of something that conforms to a more popular archetype, like the forthcoming, distinctly Battlefield-ish Medal of Honor: Warfighter. Or indeed, any game that isn't FIFA, World of Warcraft or Call of Duty. Where's the sense, Anderson asks, in banking the fate of a company on a handful of games?

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