Klei Entertainment Interview
Hello everyone, it's Ben from Pixel Judge and today I've got the pleasure of speaking with Jamie Cheng from “Klei Entertainment”, the team behind Mark of the Ninja, Shank and Shank 2, Eets, the upcoming Don't Starve, and some other fun animated games across the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.
Ben: Welcome Jamie.
Jamie Cheng: Thanks for having me!
Ben: Klei was founded 7 years ago and has always been a very small but devoted team. How did Klei originally come to be? How has the team matured and grown, and what lies ahead of Klei in the near future?
Jamie: Klei was originally just 3 of us - me, Alex and Marcus, working out of a basement trying to make a game. It was a pretty tough slog those first few years, but about two years in we started working with Jeff Agala, and from there we slowly and steadily grew our team and craft. I feel 2012 was kind of a breakthrough year for us in terms of the marriage between tech, art and design. I’m pretty darn excited about our upcoming games in the next few years, and how we’re going to hopefully push the medium.
Ben: I see that you worked at THQ, developing A.I. on Warhammer 40K before founding Klei. In your experience, what are the differences between working for a large company and running your own small outfit.
Jamie: Relic is an awesome place to work. Ultimately the difference is that we get to make our own processes and decisions. I wanted to get away from the large, multi-tiered teams. Most games Relic make have more programmers than we have staff, for example.
Eets was the first fully developed and published game by Klei.
Ben: Any thoughts on THQ’s current financial troubles, or their recent appearance in the Humble Indie Bundle?
Jamie: With regards to the THQ bundle, I do think it’s a bit unfortunate about the games not being cross-platform and DRM-free, but also absolutely understand the logistical nightmare of trying to get that to happen on those games. I think it’s a net positive, but I get that it went against some of Humble Bundle’s supporters’ core values.
Ben: I'd like to ask about “Don't Starve.” The art style and gameplay look quite different from your recent hits. What kinds of features and aspects of the game and gameplay are you excited to see people experience, and what inspired you in the making of this game?
Jamie: It’s a game about the fun and wonder of exploration. At its core it’s an unforgiving wilderness survival sim and I think players get the most enjoyment as they poke and prod the world to see what it does, then use that knowledge to further their agenda, whatever they make that up to be. The idea of the game came from a small 2-day game jam in 2010 - Kevin and Ju-Lian worked on a deserted island simulator written in Python. Even at its crudest state, it was already interesting to see the systems interact with each other.
Ben: I'm looking at the site for it and I see that players are able to discuss the game and help in the game's shaping and evolution. Has that already started? How involved would you like your fans to be with development in general?
Jamie: We treat community to be a very key part of the development process for Don’t Starve. As we update our game, players give us feedback on how our updates are affecting their play. Because the game is randomly generated and the systems interact with each other in unpredictable (and wonderful) ways, it’s very hard for us to know exactly how our changes will affect the world, and we constantly adjust based on the behaviours and feedback that we’re seeing from our fans. The danger of course is that if we simply tried to please everyone, we’d end up with a soulless game that basically doesn’t offend anyone. Our goal is to stay true to our vision, and interacting with the community to get there.
Ben: So what stage is Don’t Starve in right now - what do you all think needs the most work?
Jamie: The game will officially launch in March, and we’ve detailed out our roadmap right here.
Don’t Starve looks different to any other game by Klei.
Ben: Mark of the Ninja has been a huge success, what were some of the challenges of creating a 2D stealth game? Is sidescrolling a boon or a hurdle?
Jamie: It’s a constraint that both helped and hindered us. From a development perspective, we had no comparables as a starting point, because all the stealth games that are usually referenced are 3D. However, it turned out 2D is fantastic to show clearly to the player the information they need. It took a ton of experimentation, but ultimately being 2D allowed us to break new ground in the genre.
Ben: Shank and Mark of the Ninja in particular have been compared to the art of Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Powerpuff Girls). Where does your team get inspiration from and how is the typical art direction process handled?
Jamie: Jeff Agala is our creative director and guides our art direction for each game. In general our entire team is involved in the process of finding the right tone. There’s a tight feedback loop of game design and art where each feeds upon each other. For example, in Don’t Starve the gameplay gives players a sense of being alone in a strange, creepy world. This fed directly into how the art direction, and in turn gave inspiration for the types of creatures that inhabit the world.
Ben: Stealth games traditionally have difficulties with certain mechanics such as restarting a level multiple times, weird A.I., not enough freedom for the player, etc. How has Mark of the Ninja evolved the stealth genre in your eyes?
Jamie: A lot of what we focused on was clearly giving the player the information they needed. This allows the player to go from an observing mode to a higher level planning mentality as they can see the rube goldberg machine go into action - if I do this, the AI will do that, and then I can do X, which will yield exactly Y. Tons of our mechanics go into helping this happen - stopping time, clearly delineating line of sight, visualizing sound, etc.
We also built a checkpoint and instant respawn system that had the following goal: if you’ve demonstrated that you can pass an area, we won’t make you do it again. All of these go into giving the player a feeling that they are in control, and that any failure is due to their own non-ninjaness, rather than some unclear, unfair mechanics in the game.
Ben: What are some mechanics or concepts you would like to see improved upon from Mark of the Ninja. Would some of the stealth mechanics work from Mark of the Ninja in a 3D stealth game?
Jamie: I think ultimately the stealth experience is about player agency - you acting on the environment rather than the environment acting on you. The more stealth games can clearly describe how my actions are going to affect the environment, the more interesting interactions I think we’ll see.
Shadows and extreme violence – a perfect match for a cartoonish stealth game.
Ben: What is your favorite stealth game, and did it ever influence the development of Mark of the Ninja? Can you name any inspirations so old that our readership won’t remember them?
Jamie: I personally loved the beautiful but flawed Mark of Kri and the original Splinter Cells. I believe Nels’ is Thief.
Ben: What sorts of things didn’t make the cut for the final game?
Jamie: Oh, a lot. We were extremely liberal in cutting features that we felt were cool, but didn’t add to the ultimate experience of being a stealthy ninja.
Ben: Was MotN ever going to be another type of game (3D, co-op, etc)?
Jamie: I think it went even further into the stealth genre than we originally imagined it, and that was definitely for the better.
Ben: Do you plan on making Mark of the Ninja 2: Ninja Harder?
Jamie: Whenever people ask me if we’re going to make a sequel, I always say: only if I think there’s more to explore, creatively. Right now, we haven’t made up our mind.
Ben: As I understand it, you all either made or helped with the cutscenes in Torchlight 2. What was it like working with the creative minds behind that series, and have cooperative efforts like that (and the port of X360 Arcade platforming game N+) inspired you all? Jamie: For us it was a nice side-project from our end-to-end game productions, and we’ve had a great relationship with Runic for years. I think Torchlight II is another example of how a small, focused team can create incredible experiences. Ben: Up to this point, what do you think Klei’s proudest achievement is and what do you feel your games’ real selling points have been? Jamie: I think our proudest achievement is building an independent studio that cares about both the medium and the people that work on it. I think people play our games because it really does create new, meaningful experiences, especially with Mark of the Ninja and Don’t Starve. Ben: Well I want to thank you for speaking with us today. Everyone should check out Klei's homepage, it's a hub with links to all of their games. We wish you the best of luck with Don't Starve, and we look forward to seeing it go gold! Jamie: Thanks!
Ben: As I understand it, you all either made or helped with the cutscenes in Torchlight 2. What was it like working with the creative minds behind that series, and have cooperative efforts like that (and the port of X360 Arcade platforming game N+) inspired you all?
Jamie: For us it was a nice side-project from our end-to-end game productions, and we’ve had a great relationship with Runic for years. I think Torchlight II is another example of how a small, focused team can create incredible experiences.
Ben: Up to this point, what do you think Klei’s proudest achievement is and what do you feel your games’ real selling points have been?
Jamie: I think our proudest achievement is building an independent studio that cares about both the medium and the people that work on it. I think people play our games because it really does create new, meaningful experiences, especially with Mark of the Ninja and Don’t Starve.
Ben: Well I want to thank you for speaking with us today. Everyone should check out Klei's homepage, it's a hub with links to all of their games. We wish you the best of luck with Don't Starve, and we look forward to seeing it go gold!