Splinter Cell: Conviction
- April 09, 2010 11:53 AM PST
The drama behind the next chapter in the story of Sam Fisher: Ubisoft Montreal's Creative Director Maxime Beland explains why the game is more than two years late, how it was completely reinvented halfway through production, and how the studio has a better grasp on the character of Sam Fisher as a result.
Details about Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction first emerged in late 2006 after Sam Fisher's first foray onto the Xbox 360, Splinter Cell: Double Agent, was met with a lukewarm reception from gamers and critics alike. Conviction was heralded as a radical departure for the franchise that had redefined stealth gameplay on the original Xbox, and cast the iconic superspy in a completely new light. No longer the wetsuit-clad, superhero-like wannabe Solid Snake of yore, Fisher was positioned as a Jason Bourne-style, pissed-off fugitive from justice.
Originally scheduled for a holiday 2007 release, Conviction was supposed to reset the franchise for the Xbox 360 generation. After missing its original deadline, the concept was eventually shelved, rebooted, and rescheduled as a late 2009 release before being delayed another six months.
It's unusual for an active development team to discuss the drama behind a difficult project, but that's exactly what the Splinter Cell group at Ubisoft's Montreal studio has done in this exclusive look behind the curtain at one of the most anticipated action games of this console generation.
Creative Director Maxime Beland bounds into the cramped conference room at Ubisoft's Montreal studio with a visible wince. He drops into a chair and rubs his knees, complaining of straining the muscles in his legs. He has just returned from a day of snowboarding on a rare Sunday off from the grueling schedule of getting Splinter Cell: Conviction finished. He's noticeably excited at the prospect of communicating his vision for the franchise, and shedding some light on why the game has taken nearly four years to complete.
Beland is not the original creative director on the game. Nor is he the second. He is, however, the project lead who's primarily responsible for the direction of the game that you will play on April 13. Prior to taking over the project in early 2008, he was the guy who helped shape the meanderings of the original Assassin's Creed into a cohesive gameplay experience, and before that he spent three years crafting Rainbow Six: Vegas.
"When I got here there was a creative director on the team already," Beland explains, revealing that he was originally hired as game director by Producer Alex Parizeau, who he had worked with on Vegas. "The original idea for Conviction was to make the anti-Splinter Cell game," he reveals. "It was super interesting, and there was a lot of Bourne Identity influence to it, but the project was taking an awful lot of risks. Taking a known franchise that has some set core values and some set expectations, and saying that you're going to do a complete one-eighty on it is very, very risky."
To highlight his point, he rattles off the crimes against Splinter Cell that the original Conviction was committing. "If you're doing a Splinter Cell game, you have to build on the core values," he explains. "Stealth wasn't there, it was now stealth in the crowd where Sam would try to blend in with lots of non-player characters that were walking through the environment," he explains. "It was kind of like the stuff in Assassin's Creed.
"The cool gadgets weren't there either," he continues. "It was all improvised gadgets and using things you found in the environment as weapons and tools. Even the goggles were gone," he exclaims with a raised eyebrow. "The whole theme of light and shadow wasn't there, either. How do you make a Splinter Cell game without light and shadow?"
Between January and March 2008, Beland tried to tackle these challenges and draw on his previous experience to find the winning formula. "I tried for two months to make the old direction work," he explains with a sigh, "especially the stuff in the crowd. I had a year of experience with crowd gameplay from doing Assassin's Creed, but it just wasn't working out." Acutely aware that the game was already late, the team was under an increasing amount of pressure to actually ship something.
Though little of the original direction for Conviction was ever shared with the press, an early playable area was demonstrated in which Sam was seen evading the police in a crowded marketplace. While it was very effective, it was markedly different than anything seen in previous Splinter Cell games. "When it comes to the crowd stuff, the beauty of Assassin's Creed is that you're in the Animus," Beland states, referring to the computerized simulation that the hero of the game is jacked into throughout the experience. "When you f**k up, it resets. It's okay to have moments where the crowd runs away because you're in the Animus, and you can explain why it gets reset. The suspension of disbelief is not broken in Assassin's Creed because you know you're in a simulator. Game design-wise you can justify one hell of a lot with it. When you're making a Splinter Cell game though, one of your core values is realism. If you're in a park and you blow up a propane tank on a hotdog stand and the crowd runs away, you just can't expect that everyone will come back a minute later. In real life, you know what would happen in a situation like that. People might die, others would run away, and the cops would come and close down the area. The world wouldn't be able to reset for gameplay reasons."
After struggling with the direction of the game, and the differences of opinion about how it should evolve, Beland eventually submitted a radical new proposal in March 2008 that would return to the core values of Splinter Cell. The new version would once again focus on stealth, bring back the gadgets, and reintroduce the notion of light and shadow into the core gameplay. "Instead of just doing another game in the same way as the previous titles, I proposed that we change the angle," he explains. "I wanted the stealth gameplay to be very different. Traditionally it's very slow, and requires you to study the patrol patterns of the bad guys. It's not permissive, and I wanted to change that. I wanted to take Sam and turn the whole stealth thing around. If he's supposed to be the best in the world, then he should be able to run without making a sound. Me? In real life I can't run silently, but Sam should be able to."
Ubisoft's management bit on the proposal. "In Paris we have what we call the editorial team that is led by Serge Hascoët, our chief creative officer," Beland explains. "They are the people that give the mandates to all of the teams around the world. They approve the direction and give feedback. They steer the games to where they want them to be." Hascoët's group was already dissatisfied with the direction of the original project, and agreed that it wasn't really Splinter Cell any more. After Beland's presentation they agreed to reorient the project, and made him creative director, overseeing all aspects of the game.
"In March we officially changed the direction," Beland states proudly. "A big part of my message to the team was that I wanted the player to feel like a panther, not a grandmother," he laughs, before offering up an example of what he's getting at. "Hanging onto and creeping along ledges in stealth games is the slowest and most utterly f**king boring mechanic you can possibly imagine in a video game. I was playing Metal Gear Solid 4, and that scene on the boat at the end of the game. I was super-immersed in the whole thing, and I was running away from bad guys and climbing up the walls and just hanging there. Snake moves so slow! I was so frustrated, because all I could think about was the fact that Snake is supposed to be really good at his job. He's supposed to be something better than that. The core gameplay in stealth games shouldn't be slow; it shouldn't be about studying patrols for 10 minutes before making a move."
This notion of making the player feel "like a panther" is something that Beland and the rest of the leads on his team return to again and again as inspiration for what they consider to be a new approach to stealth gameplay. In Conviction, Sam can run quietly, he can dangle from a ledge and take out bad guys, and he can navigate environments effortlessly much like his compatriots in the Assassin's Creed franchise. "It's a big change in philosophy, but I think it works," Beland shrugs.
Once the new direction was approved, Beland had until June to prove to Ubisoft management that his gambit would work. Changing the direction at such a late stage meant that much of the work that had already been done was redundant. The team would have to rebuild technology that had previously been left out, while trying to salvage some of the effort that had already been put in. "When I arrived we had six months left on the project. Maybe it would have shipped in September," Beland explains. "Clearly that wasn't going to happen now, so we just embraced the whole idea of change while trying to keep as many of the art assets that had already been built."
In June 2008, Beland would have to present a new story, a new gameplay concept, and a whole new justification for the new approach to the game. "We wrote the new story synopsis, we designed and started building the 'panther' navigation for Sam, and we pulled everything that we needed together in a big PowerPoint presentation," Beland reveals. "One of the philosophies that I really wanted to get across was that simple inputs should always give great output. At the time we had a weapons improvisation system that was left over from the original design and I was really interested in keeping it in. We have our hand-to-hand button, which is B on the Xbox 360 controller. If you press the button when you're near a guy, Sam will take them out with his hands. If there is an object that Sam can use though, he will automatically grab it and use that instead. As we got close to our June meeting it was working for things like monitors and candle holders. Basically, it had two shapes it could accommodate: boxes and sticks. We had a 10- or 15-minute map that we were ready to show at that meeting that was full of objects and it was kinda cool from a combat perspective, but we ended up cutting it.
"Now, don't get me wrong, throwing a monitor at a guy's face is kinda funny," Beland laughs, "but it's not that silent. With the sticks it was super hard to find objects that we could put in the environment that would make sense for Sam to grab and use."