With stealth specialist Sam Fisher's next adventure nearing release (finally!), we thought we'd put some of your questions to creative director Max Beland, and game director for co-op Patrick Redding, in a special Splinter Cell: Conviction edition of Your Questions Answered. Everything's game, from delays to rumours of timed exclusives (yes, we asked the PS3 question). Read on for the answers you wanted.
dudester: How will the game appeal to someone who has never played Splinter Cell before?
Max Beland: My favourite example is hanging on a ledge. Every stealth game that has hanging on a ledge, the navigation is very slow. As a game designer it makes sense, because it's a stealth game, and I can't move fast because if I do I'll make noise. It's a classic game design reflex. But when you're playing, you're like, shit, I'm the best in the world. Me Max, I'd be faster than that. That's the beginning of the reflection that we started to have. We were like, wait a minute, he doesn't have to be slow, he doesn't have to be weak. When combat starts, it's Sam Fisher - he can shoot two guys super fast with a headshot. That's how Mark and Execute arrived. So, it was about building on the values of Splinter Cell, the values of any stealth game, but trying to deliver them in a more dynamic way. The genre is stealth action. We are more action than before. But what's interesting is that it's not stealth or action. Stealth is now something that can be action. The way we've built it, it's not like you're forced to take cover and shoot. If you try that on the harder difficulty modes, it doesn't work that much, so you still have to play stealth, but you're in control. We want you to go from stealth to action, from stealth to action, from stealth to action. The Last Known Position feature is a good example. When the action starts, you break line of sight, the last known position appears, and it's your way of attracting the enemy during the action moments. You can play cat and mouse games with the enemy. That is, to me, what a stealth game is also about - playing with the AI, knocking on the wall, whistling. The Last Known Position is that for us, but in the action part.
dazzadavie: How have you managed to make the Mark and Execute system not feel like the game is doing the work for you?
Patrick Redding: It's absolutely a fair concern. Of course, any time you're introducing a level of automation into any aspect of the play, people have a right to be concerned with that. They want to know that they're developing their skill at shooting and using the normal controls of the game. But yet every single person I know who has ever tried playing it quickly realises that it isn't a problem. Reassurance number one is just empirically, we're not worried about it because everyone who has tried it has come back saying, yeah, actually, it doesn't make it easier.
The thing I would offer is this: Mark and Execute brings two things to the game. The first thing it brings is an ability, under very specific circumstances, to get yourself out of trouble. In other words, it's not about I'm being super stealthy, I'm marking, I'm marking, I'm marking, I'm killing everybody, next room. I don't feel the game supports that style of play particularly. It tends to be more, when you're encountering enemies and being stealthy, your best advantage is to pick them off one at a time. You may be literally earning Mark and Execute tokens you never use that way, but it's not going to be in your interests to execute one guy, when you can just as easily shoot him because you've got the skills to do. That's one aspect of it.
Where Mark and Execute becomes incredibly valuable is, you find yourself ambushed or overwhelmed, and you pop an EMP, you need to get the hell out, you take out the guys that are immediate threats to you, and then you disappear so that you're able to return to your stealth situation and not be seen, and then you're able to get out of that. That reflects the dynamic of what Mark and Execute was always supposed to be about. It was always supposed to be that Bourne Identity moment of, normally he's moving invisibly and then there's that one time that the shit hits the fan and someone opens a door and stumbles across him, and he's like, oh shit, what do I do now? He breaks the guy's neck, runs into a hallway, pop, pop, pop, takes those guys out, dives out the window, now he's gone. That's where it becomes really cool. Players will appreciate having that "in case of emergency break glass" aspect mechanic. That's number one.
Number two is, having to do the actual leg work of marking enemies and then setting up in a position to use it offensively rather than defensively, introduces a tactical element to the game, where I'm using my vantage point, I'm using the fact that I'm shimmying along pipes or ledges, to move through the space and say, man, I need to get through to here and I need to take some of these guys out, but I really don't want to get into a firefight. So I'll take the extra time and I'm going to do the additional work to mark a few of these guys, and then try to get into the perfect position where I can execute as many of them as fast as possible. It's actually extra work. So by doing it, the reward is, yeah, bing, bing, bing, they're down, there's fewer guys you now have to engage in an open shooting match, but there is that aspect of that's who you are. You're a spy. You're an elite operative and an infiltrator, so your ability to setup those ambushes and then trigger them all at once, same as it would be if you were placing C4 charges and detonating them, it's just your detonating the charge in this case is about you pulling the trigger and being guaranteed to eliminate them. Those two types of gameplay, once players start to see that that's what those mechanics are about, the emergency defensive stuff and then the tactical ambush offensive stuff, they'll understand that it's not a press Y to win game button at all. It's really something very different.
SexyJams: Why do I not have the game in my hands today like it was first stated? In other words why the delay?
Neon-Soldier32: Do you think all the delays are worth the final result?
MB: The last delay, that brought us from February to April, was really to finish off the game properly. It wasn't like, we looked at the game and we were like, oh my god, we're missing six months and we forgot a map! It wasn't that. It's a big game. We have eight hours of single-player story. We have six hours of co-op story. We've got Deniable Ops, that's going to take you like ten hours. It's 20 hours, maybe 25 hours to complete all of the modes. We've got the PEC system with all the weapons you upgrade. It's a big game. There's a lot of stuff. So it's complicated. The team has been working really hard making everything work, and then just polishing the little things that weren't as shiny as we wanted them to be. We played the game a lot to make sure the difficulty levels were fine. We're still doing that as we speak. We're doing some final adjustments to the realistic mode. The normal mode we're happy with, but the realistic mode we want to make a bit more challenging.
Neon-Soldier32: Is there anything that you wish you had put in the game that never made the final cut?
PR: Oh yeah, we killed a lot of babies! Interestingly enough there were a few mechanics we had planned to include systemically, which we turned more into exotic gameplay. For example, you'll occasionally see us use dual EMP effects to knock out the power in a particular area for an objective [in co-op]. We had played around with for quite a while, allowing players to simply trigger dual EMP, like synchronised EMP discharges, any time they wanted to. But what we discovered was it was way too powerful. It quickly overpowered the setups and tended to neutralise the AI in large areas. Really it turned into a cake walk. We were like, well, that's not that much fun for the player. We need to at least preserve some of the challenge. That's an example of something we killed happily because we realised it wasn't going to make the game more fun.
In other situations we did it because we realised we were probably opening up a can of worms from a complexity point of view. You'll see, for example, that we have what we call a lock door entry in a few places, where the two players need to work in tandem tin order to breach a particular room and enter it. We had actually looked at a systemic version of that, which would have been a little more stealth focused, that we could theoretically apply at any door in the game. And we played around with it. I still think, and Max and I talked about this as recently as a few days ago, that that's a cool idea, that introduces an element of stealth into the co-operative gameplay, that you always want to try to encourage in a Splinter Cell game, and that it's something that would have been nice to have systemically. But the reality is, if we'd done it, we would have been opening a door to a less quality experience, just in terms of polishing the game. It could have generated a lot of bugs. It could have ended up working in a few ways that I don't think we wanted to inflict on the player, frankly.
That's always the case. My philosophy on cutting things is that, game design is always both an additive process at the beginning and a subtractive process at the end. In fact, I actually embrace the subtractive part of it as much as the additive part of it. It's very liberating and freeing to be able to say, we've designed within certain constraints, but now we're going to help simplify things in order to make what we have better. I always find that's relatively easy to do. Even though it feels like you're killing your babies, the reality is you're going, no no no, this is good. It means we're focusing people's efforts, and the production's efforts, on a smaller set of issues. That way we can try to make this really good. It's the middle part that sucks. It's the part where you're sitting and trying to mould it and you're not sure if it's going to make it or not. That's the hard part.
Karlius: Where do you take inspiration for the Splinter Cell games? Are there any particular movie influences?
MB: There are a lot of movies that touch that fantasy of the elite spy. James Bond is a good example. Jason Bourne is a good example. James Bond is James Bond - he's a bit over the top, and it's more about disguises, but both of them have different elements that have inspired the original Splinter Cell, well not Bourne because it wasn't out! When you watch those movies, the stealth is not only hiding and waiting for a patrol to pass by. The stealth is about taking out a guy quickly, and then having a suppressed weapon, and navigating quickly in the environment, and then killing two guys. How do we deliver that? And that's why all of Sam's navigation moves are a lot faster than before.
SexyJams: Is the online multiplayer more like Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory (with death matches), or is it similar to Double Agent. Chaos Theory is to date my favourite online game ever made, so I would love a return to that sort of online multiplayer.
PR: It's tough to compare them because we're not doing asymmetric adversarial. And that's going to be my answer. We're focusing on spy versus spy, so the emphasis is not on the idea that you have one class of player who is overpowered in one direction, than then a different class of players who are overpowered in a different direction, and you're letting them duke it out and hoping that the balance is good. Because of the specific gameplay mechanics and gameplay killers that we have in Conviction, with things like Mark and Execute and Last Known Position, we felt like the emphasis was not going to be on mass combat. It wasn't going to be on squads of guys taking each other down. It was going to be on two elite spies, who are both extremely effective and efficient predators moving through the shadows and moving quickly along ledges and all that, with this extra mix of AI enemies. So it's really a different formula. To compare it to either Pandora/Chaos Theory, or to Double Agent, is a little difficult. Our co-op probably has more in common with the Chaos Theory co-op than it does with any of the other multiplayer modes. But specifically for our adversarial, it doesn't really have much in common with any of those.
Karlius: Why no PS3 Release?
pblive: What was the main reason for developing this for the 360 and not the PS3?
doomed89: How long do they plan to lie about Conviction not going to PS3?
MB: There's no PS3 version. No-one's working on a PS3 version.
Q: Never ever?
MB: Yeah. We're an exclusive Xbox 360 and PC title. That's it.
Q: Why is that right for Splinter Cell: Conviction?
MB: That deal was decided while I was on [Rainbow Six] Vegas. I've been on Conviction for two years - two years and a month now. So I don't know, this is Yves Guillemot and the business people that did a deal with Microsoft at the time. I think it's cool because the first Splinter Cell game was an Xbox exclusive. We've got a great relationship with Microsoft. They come often to the Montreal studio and they're helping us with optimising the code. They send engineers and stuff. We've got a really good relationship with them. From my perspective, we're Xbox exclusive, so, okay, sure, no problem. We're working with them and making sure the game is as good as possible and optimised on that platform.
Q: What benefit does the gamer get from Xbox 360 exclusivity?
MB: On a development side it's easier to only focus on one platform. It's not like it's impossible, right, to develop on both platforms. It's easy. You add more programmers and that's it. But for us it allows us to focus on the 360. There are also some decisions we take that mean we don't need to take a different decision for the other platform, like the controls. There's one setup of controls that we need to tweak and balance. The sticks on PS3 are not the same. Often shooting you don't put on the lower trigger on the PS3 - you put it above because the triggers on the 360 are concave, so your finger rests well on them, versus on PS3, the triggers are convex, so you slip. It's the same thing for cover. We've got a holding trigger for cover, but then that on PS3, it's not comfortable, because you end up getting in cover then your finger slips, so we have to put it on the buttons. The controls are always a big challenge. That's one less headache.
Every platform has what are called TCRs (Technical Certification Requirements). It's really boring stuff, but it's important. What happens when I'm playing a game, and I unplug my controller and plug a new one in right away? The game needs to pause. You can't crash. What happens if while I'm saving I remove my hard disk and put a memory card in, and unplug the network cable at the same time? Those are all very platform specific, and unique for a platform that you need to code and debug. That's a lot of time. So, by only shipping on one platform, we only have the Microsoft requirements to support. We don't have the PS3 requirements to support. And also the whole multiplayer part, like supporting the friends and all of that, obviously it's a lot simpler to only support them on one platform.
Splinter Cell: Conviction is due out on Xbox 360 and PC on April 16.