Designer of Games Like Mark of the Ninja and recently Firewatch, Nels Anderson Interview with Timothy Courtney

Interview Published: 02/28/2016

Interview with game programmer and designer Nels Anderson, who worked on games like Deathspank, Mark of the Ninja, and Firewatch.

Timothy Courtney: Do you remember what first got you excited about development and made you start learning to code?

Nels Anderson: So I didn't actually start learning anything real about programming until I went to university. Growing up in Wyoming in the 80s-90s with only a crappy dial-up connecting to a still relatively primordial internet meant there weren't really a lot of opportunities to learn that stuff. I mean, I could have gone down to the library and checked out a book about programming or something, but the idea was so foreign since I literally didn't know a single human being who was a programmer, it's something that just never occurred to me. Instead, I spent a lot of time designing tabletop games (D&D and other RPGs of that stripe) and creating something from whole cloth, putting it in front of my friends and seeing them enjoy it was tremendously satisfying. That reaction to something I'd designed was pretty formative for me and the programming part only came later.

You grew up in Wyoming, similar to where Henry is stationed in Firewatch out there with the wilderness. I saw a picture of a bull elk standing alone in a burned out forest from the 1988 Yellowstone fires and it gave me chills. How aware were you of it all as a child, and what was that like being near all that?

I was pretty young at the time (5) so I only vaguely remember that summer. What I do remember was the constant grey-brown haze and smell of smoke that stayed in your house, even long after the summer was over and it was snowing again. And while fire is ultimately healthy for a forest ecosystem, you could still see huge amounts of Yellowstone that was just blacked hillsides with tiny charcoal matchstick tree trunks for years and years after the fire.

Did you get recruited out of Wyoming? What led you to Vancouver?

Oh no, I'd been making games professionally for years in Vancouver before Campo Santo started. I moved to Vancouver in 2005 for graduate school. I went to undergrad at the University of Colorado in Boulder for Computer Science and then headed up to Vancouver for grad school (also in CS) in 2005 and I've been up here ever since. While Wyoming is just too rural for me to ever live in again, I'd probably lose my mind if I was ever too far away from the mountains and the woods, so Vancouver is a pretty nature fit.

I have a much better knowledge of the games out there and games coming out, but I used to play so many games before I got into development. Development is kind of all consuming. It turns games into work and makes you dissect all the magic. How has it affected the gamer side of your life?

Eh, not really. I know some people have that problem, but I can definitely still enjoy playing games without feeling like I just have to be mentally tearing them apart. I'll still consider the decision they've made, of course. The biggest thing for me is probably that I have to triage what I'm playing a lot more. If there's a game that I know is competent but that I also suspect won't really have any new or interesting ideas, I'm probably going to give that a pass.

When you were designing Mark of the Ninja, you didn't let the focus go to "action". There's a lot of attacking and action, but stealth is paramount. Were you ever tempted to make the game more action focused, like more attack moves or weapons?

We never wanted that, no. Early in Ninja's development there was more a combat system, not because we wanted one but because we wanted there to be some kind of consequence for being spotted that wasn't just instant failure. So there was this more complex stance-based combat system where you'd fight the guard that spotted you and either take them out and be able to disappear again or just eventually get wasted. The problem was, because there was so much going on there, to playtesters, that felt like it was an "important" part of the game just because we'd clearly put so much effort into it. And this meant that people kind of just charge through the levels after the first time they were spotted. So we kept honing that back and the more we pared it down, the more people engaged with the sneaking, observing and planning- the systems we wanted them to engage with in the first place.

Mark of the Ninja harkens back to Ninja Gaiden, but taking full advantage of modern technology. Yet, it stayed 2D for that classic platformer feel. You focused on making stealth fun, but is there anything you wish you had still added or maybe left out of the game?

Heh, not really, actually. It's actually pretty nice, and rare, to be over 3 years away from Ninja's release and still be really satisfied with how it turned out. The only thing I occasionally think is about the game's optional objectives. Each level has 3, but some require the player to eliminate enemies but the rest of the game supports playing the game totally non-lethally. It would have been nice to have those objects all support a non-lethal playstyle, but I'm also not even sure there's a way to create 36 unique objectives that all interesting but *also* support a lethal or not-lethal approach, so I don't exactly dwell on it.

How much were you into DnD back in the day? Are you into tabletop RPG's?

Oh yeah, I was a dork lord back in middle school and high school. We played a lot of D&D, but also Shadowrun, Mage, Paranoia, etc. I still actually have a group that gets together weekly for tabletop RPGs, although we'd moved a bit away from the crunchy, almost miniature-based wargames that some tabletop RPGs are now and more into weird indie RPGs like Fiasco, Prime Time Adventures and Apocalypse World. A bit more emphasis on interesting stories and a bit less on rolling die.

The Witness just came out and it was a matter of about 3 days before I noticed most of the top headlines were about what it didn't do right, like why it isn't fit for a specific impaired group. Blow seems like the kind of developer who spends a great deal of energy on details and making something as good as he can, but is it ever enough? Do you think people are just looking way harder for something to criticize or is it legit criticisms?

I think video game writing growing out of buyer's guide-esque product reviews is something we still see echoes of, even though there's tons and tons of great writing about games out there now. I do still sometimes feel like the conversation about a work is led by "What didn't this do 'right?'" instead of "Why is this interesting?" and that bums me out sometimes. There's definitely less of it now though, so I'm not pessimistic or interesting. But the more review scores are scuttled, the better writing about games becomes, so hopefully more writers and outlets toss overboard their need to give a game a discrete number that supposedly measures its entire quality, the better off we'll all be.

Would you consider doing a sequel or a prequel to Mark of the Ninja, and if so, what kind of direction would you be interested in taking it?

I don't work for Klei Entertainment anymore and Mark of the Ninja belongs to them, so whether there's more Ninja or not is totally out of my hands now. But there's definitely one idea I have for creating a novel but still interesting 2D stealth game that I'd certainly be happy to make if all the right circumstances lined up.

In Firewatch, the player gets to steer the relationship between Henry and Delilah. When designing that, were you thinking of a good number or amount of variations in the final nature or outcome? How important was it to make enough different variations and content possibilities there?

There's a specific story in Firewatch, so it doesn't have a crazy branch structure like Until Dawn or something. But we still want out of our way, heh sometimes biting off more than we could chew though, to support the player being able to approach the game however they see fit. That doesn't translate into 50 different endings or something like that, but in small moment-to-moment details, in-jokes the player develops with Delilah, etc. Hopefully when two people finish the game, they can talk about "Wait, you did what? You found that where??"

Did you camp out in the wilderness as part of the R&D for Firewatch, and if so, did you have any epiphanies out there? What was it like?

Heh, we actually did! Almost the entire team spent a weekend camping in Yosemite (since it's within driving distance of San Francisco, where a lot of Campo Santo members are located) and it was actually really wonderful. We didn't realize it at the time, but there was a old fire lookout about 2 miles from our campsite, so of course we went and visited it. We poured through the drawers, looked at all the old notebooks and folders- basically role-played Firewatch in real life. It was great.

Mark of the Ninja is a very tight dark world, and Firewatch is very open and bright, but both let the player do what they want and play the way they want to. They're also both balanced, like they both could have had quick frills, but you limited that. Are player choice and gameplay balance two of the most important principles in your design philosophy? What kind of things do you keep in your mind at all times when designing a game?

I certainly think so, and I think one of the things that separate Firewatch from other narrative-centric games is Firewatch is very player directed. You choose where to go, when, what to spend your time looking at, etc. The game doesn't just present a "scene" and then wrap up and whisk you to another "scene." Hopefully that gives the sensation that the game is listening and reacting to what the player is choosing to do (within the constraints of what the game is about, of course) in a way that more tightly-scripted narrative games do not. That's something that's super important to me as a designer and a notion I plan on continue to explore in future games.

Before Mark of the Ninja, you programmed much of DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue, a parody RPG which was like a surreal mixture of Pulp Fiction, Diablo, and Castle Crashers. Was that the first time you really started getting some design input? What was that experience like?

A little bit, yeah. My role on that was gameplay programming, implementing a lot of player-facing systems. So while the high-level details were being delivered to me by someone else, there were still a lot of small decisions I'd have to make when implementing a mechanic. I think Jon Blow said "Programming is the last mile of design" and it's absolutely true, so getting able to tweak and decide on those small things was pretty satisfying. It was also deeply surreal working with Ron Gilbert, as I'd loved Monkey Island growing up. Having him sitting two desks away was initially intimidating, until I realized he's just a normal guy (and actually a really good programmer).

Cinema is so much more evolved than games as a medium. Right now, so many ideas that have been turned into movies haven't been explored in games yet. Are there any movies out there that you said "I'd like to make a game like that."?

Not really. If anything, I think the way some people cling to filmic traditions can be a bit inhibiting and I'd rather see more exploration of systems and player agency, the things that make games different and interesting. But that being said, holy hell, do I admire Mad Max: Fury Road. It's so specific and focused, but never falls in love with itself and pukes unnecessary information all over the audience. It's overflowing with style but never wastes a second and that kind of restraint - in a film that ostensibly seems utterly unrestrained in its aesthetics - is incredible and I'd be so down to do something like that.

Is it enough to make a really good game these days or is marketing help very important?

I'm not sure it was ever enough to just make a really good game. In the past if you did that, you'd still have a publisher doing the work of making people aware your game exists. It's just with the growth of the independent development scene, now you also have to do that awareness building work yourself or find someone very good at that to partner with. Games aren't just competing with other games in terms of the audience's time, they're competing with literally anything else anyone could do with their spare time, so being clear about why your game is interesting and worthwhile is more important than ever.

Do you think VR gaming is going to be more than an elitist or niche thing within the next 5 or 10 years? Are you excited about VR development?

Some of my friends here in Vancouver are working on some VR projects, especially Fantastic Contraption, that are incredibly cool. The room-scale stuff that Valve does is actually incredible. Now, I'm not sure how broad that that will actually go, since you have to dedicate both a lot of space and hardware to making it work. But certainly it's more viable now than it has been at any point in the past, so I'm curious to see where it goes even if I personally don't have a huge project I'm just itching to make in VR.

Are you working on any pet indie projects? Do you go home and prototype at night in the basement?

I live in an apartment in Vancouver, we don't have a basement. Heh, I do have a small side something I'm working on right now, but that's only been since the core of Firewatch development finally wrapped up. I usually not a huge prototype tinkerer, but this has got me pretty excited, so we'll see where it goes!

It depends on the project and sometimes the systems in place, but personally, what language is your favorite to code in and why?

Hmmm, I've always been a profoundly mediocre programmer, so all the memory management inherent in C++ is something I'm happy to leave behind using C# for Firewatch (even though I know, yes, its garbage collection model is pretty awful). We used Lua for all the scripting on Ninja and I actually grew to like that a lot too.

Do you have any tips for someone who wants to start developing and designing games too?

Start now and start simple. There are *so* many resources available for someone who wants to learn how to make games. Download Gamemaker and just start figuring out how many make something simple. Something incredibly simple, like recreating Minesweeper or Arkanoid. Tom Francis (creator of Gunpoint and Heat Signature) actually did an incredible YouTube Gamemaker tutorial series that I'd recommend to almost anyone.

After Firewatch, what would you like to take on next?

Resting! ;) We actually have no idea, beyond the usual post-launch support and bug fixing. Depends on how many people think Firewatch is worth laying down cash for and what that enables our next game to be.

Where can people go to follow you and your work?

I'm on Twitter at @nelsormensch and post (admitted, very rarely now) at above49.ca. For Firewatch, folks can follow @camposanto or visit firewatchgame.com!

💘 Interview by Timothy Courtney

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