Learning the mindset of the latest espionage thriller from Ubisoft’s camp; discovering what decisions were made to refine, refresh and maintain the essence of the franchise.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist, based on our preview session, is poised to be one of the all time greats within the series. Deeper customization, seamless gameplay, and three strong modes make up the basis for SCB’s foundation, but how did it come to this? We managed to catch up with game director, Patrick Redding to find out the thinking behind this different, yet familiar, title.
Raymond Solis: Starting from the beginning, what was the mindset that influenced the approach to making Blacklist the way it is?
Patrick Redding: I think it’s fair to say, we were looking to synthesize a kind of unified experience out of some of the lessons we learned out of Splinter Cell Conviction. Not necessarily keeping everything that we did, but taking the things that were successful and well received and evolve on those. Like one of them was the notion that Sam is gonna do whatever he’s gonna do while he’s moving and it shouldn’t be a stomp, start experience. We knew that we needed to bring back a lot of missed features, but a lot of the kind of classic features that anchor Splinter Cell in the stealth genre. But give the player this extra fluidity and ability to take action with an elite feeling. The system should always try to be interconnected as much as possible because that’s what yields the depth of gameplay.
RS: In multiplayer you brought back Spies vs Mercs, which missed the boat in Conviction, why resurrect it now?
PR: I don’t think we felt like we had an option to not bring it back. To be honest, the absence of Spies vs Mercs in Conviction for us, always felt like an aperation. A kind of a situation that we inherited as a consequence of going back and redoing Conviction about halfway through the process. What we realized is that if we tried to push ourselves to shoehorn a half-assed version of Spies vs Mercs, then at the end of day we’d get lambasted bad.
RS: Certain aspects of single player, such as the money earned within the economy system, transferred over to multiplayer, however, upgraded gear did not. What’s the reasoning behind this?
PR: It’s important to note that some of the features are bar exclusive to Spies vs Mercs. We would’ve been tieing both hands behind our backs if the team had been forced to only use the exact same ingredients and the exact same features as single player and co-op. What we did instead was the basic mapping of the way the controls work, the basic gameplay needs to be the same. And then the kind of arsenal of gadgets that we give to different classes, those can be different, with parallels like mark and execute.
RS: How do the three play styles – Panther, Ghost and Assault – pay dividends to the player, outside of bragging rights?
PR: Certainly bragging rights are always going to be an aspect because players in Splinter Cell tend to be almost a little bit zealous in their pursuit of what they consider to be pure play style, but I think it’s important to note that there’s tangible payout for that, it pays into the economy for sure. Most players are not pure anything, right? They tend to fall somewhere on the spectrum. If you really try hard to be like a pure Ghost player or a pure Panther player or a pure Assault player, we will give you extra rewards for that. If you push that bar as far you can and you get that sort of gold threshold for that particular play style then you’re getting multipliers added to your winnings.
RS: Do those multiplies cater to special class-specific unlocks?
PR: We went through a few phases of development where had a much deeper model for how the upgrades work, but we ended up simplifying it and a lot of that is due to feedback we get during the course of play testing. So, no. In fact we keep that pretty simple. There’s the standard of pool of gadgets, however, there’s really limited gating to it. We don’t set out to say, “oh, you don’t get access to the tri-rotor until you play this many missions.” Because at the end of the day, you may not want to do that. You may want to play a little bit of single then focus heavily on co-op or Spies vs Mercs because you have friends that are playing. We try to be as unrestrictive as possible.
RS: From a narrative perspective, Splinter Cell plots have evolved in maturity and complexity over the years. In Conviction’s case, it was darker, grittier, and violent. What was decisions prompted the different writing approach seen in Blacklist?
PR: It’s two fold. One is we know that at the end of the day the important story is the story the player experiences for themselves through their own choices and I’m not talking choices like in an RPG game where you choose paragon or rogue, I’m talking like the low level choices, like how you’re going to approach a particular mission and seeing how the different elements of the game create these emergent outcomes. Splinter Cell being a high agency game with a lot of deep features has always been about that.
So we didn’t want to deviate from that too much by turning it into this kind of heavily scripted experience. That said, we also knew that at the state of art and where we are at the end of this generation cycle, people have an appreciation for what we can do with characters.
RS: I noticed that. SC usually has a very serious tone, with dry characters, but with Blacklist you have a quintessential comic relief character and everyone seems to have more personality.
PR: Right, and so because we can create personalities that have a sense of nuance to them, you can have a moment where Grim reacts to something with a facial expression, as oppose to just saying, “Sam you’re being a jerk.” Where now she can just look at him and you go, “Oh, Sam is being a jerk.” And what’s cool about that is that invites us to focus more on the characters and not get so swept up by this massive geopolitical plotline that people start to tune out.
I think unfortunately, that’s always been a danger, right? If you make this incredibly byzantine, complex plot with 8 different factions that are all double crossing each other and you try to navigate through the middle of that; the truth of the matter is, majority of players will accept that they’re living in a spy thriller, but kind of right off a lot of the detail, whereas if you make it about the characters, then your actions in the game world, the actions that you’re actually paying attention to, start to have this extra context.
RS: Many fans were disappointed to learn that Michael Ironside would not return to reprise his role as Sam Fisher. Was there a contract expiration? What can you tell us?
PR: So, no. There’s nothing sinister going on there. The process by which we makes games changes and evolves like everything else. And the process by which we take a bunch of actors and put them in a space together and we get them to perform has evolved. I think people have a very noble and understandable affection for the characterization that came with Michael Ironside’s voice, but we don’t make games by putting voice actors in a booth by themselves.
So it was important that we had all the options available to us. We really did look at everything. And at the end of the day, we said let’s cast this as if we were gonna cast this at a film or televisions show. Let’s find the actor that best embodies this character physically in terms of facial expressions and voice performance and that way what we can do is have this guy on a soundstage with all these other characters. Because that’s what the story is about, is about him interacting with all these other characters.
It was a choice we made and we feel very good about Eric Johnson. The best validation I can give you is we brought in our most vocal critics to get a chance to play the game and give us feedback.
RS: That’s great to hear. Most of the time, video game voice actors talk about this solitary, impersonal experience with the characters they’re asked to portray. Can’t fault you for that. Thanks for your time.
Splinter Cell Blacklist comes out on August 20th for Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U and PC.