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How Ubisoft rebuilt Splinter Cell from the ground up with Blacklist

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell has been one of Ubisoft’s flagship franchises for the last decade. The trifocal goggles lit by green have become iconic in gaming, and the name of Sam Fisher stands alongside some of the most memorable heroes in gaming history. But despite the franchise’s visibility, the series wasn’t for everyone.

maxime-beland-1The older Splinter Cell titles were not easy games. Anyone that played the CIA level in the first Splinter Cell and tried to get through completely unseen probably still has the psychic scars to show for it. As the series aged, it became a bit more balanced towards a mainstream audience, allowing you to go on the odd rampage when things got frustrating, but it was still a stealth game at its core. That changed again with the release of the 2010 Splinter Cell: Conviction, which honored the stealth aspect but had a far greater action slant than its predecessors.

While fans and critics praised the game, Splinter Cell diehards decried the watered-down stealth and the short campaign.

With this generation of consoles on the wane, Ubisoft wanted to get out one more Splinter Cell title before Sam Fisher makes the inevitable jump to the next generation. To do that, it created a new development team based in Toronto, whose first task was to focus solely on the creation of a new Splinter Cell. Dubbed Ubisoft Toronto, the studio is being helmed by Assassin’s Creed producer, Jade Raymond, while the game is under the creative direction of Maxime Béland (pictured to the right), who we recently spoke with about the making of Splitner Cell. Béland, a 15-year gaming-industry veteran, is very familiar with the franchise, having worked on Conviction as well.

The task at hand was a difficult one. How do you take a game built around stealth and then present it to as wide an audience as possible that tends to go more for action games, without alienating the core audience that enjoyed the game precisely because the stealth made most of the action obsolete?

The answer that Ubisoft came up with was to start over from scratch and treat nothing as sacred. That began with the story and the way the game was presented. 

“When we started on Blacklist we knew that story was going to be very important for us. We knew we wanted to change the structure of the game,” Béland told us. “We knew that we wanted to have a game that would tell a strong story. We added a story that we’re really excited about that would not just be a story about terrorists, but also about Sam as the leader of Fourth Echelon and what that meant for him.”

splinter-cell-blacklist-4There was something of a synchronicity at work in the creation of the game. In the story, Sam is tasked by the President to bring down a group of terrorists known as The Engineers, who have compiled a list of exponentially increasing attacks on America, known as the “Blacklist.” In a first for the series, Fisher will be in charge and the way he interacts with his group known as Fourth Echelon will affect both the story and the way the game plays. Sam is no longer the lone wolf, he is the leader of a wolf pack. They look to him, and he must learn to rely on his team. In some ways, it is similar to the task facing Ubisoft Toronto.

“It was kind of interesting – for us it was a parallel. We’re all starting the Ubisoft Toronto studio, and then we have Sam that’s starting Fourth Echelon,” Béland told us. “So there’s some interesting parallels between what we’re doing and what Sam’s doing.”

One of the biggest and most immediate changes to the game should be obvious to any fan of the series the moment they hear Sam Fisher speak. For over a decade the character was defined by the voice work of actor Michael Ironside, whose deep and commanding tones helped to breathe life into the character.

Eric JohnsonIt’s difficult to imagine Splinter Cell without Ironside. But the actor, who is approaching his 63rd birthday, was no longer a good fit for the technology at work. For Blacklist, the development team completely embraced motion capture technology that covered everything from the movements of the actor to the facial mannerisms they project while speaking the lines. Ubisoft Toronto used the same technology that the film Avatar utilized, which meant that whoever took over the role of Sam Fisher needed to be deeply involved and prepared for a demanding physical experience.

“We knew it was a big thing to change Michael,” Béland said. “We were very stressed… it wasn’t about finding another Michael Ironside, it was finding a new Sam.”

The motion capture was an important feature for the developers. There will always be a role for animators in gaming, but a series like Splinter Cell is an escapist fantasy that puts you in the shoes of a super spy. It is an iconic role that has been with us for decades since characters like James Bond first appeared. But more than that, it is an archetype that humanity has always embraced. So for Blacklist the more realistic the look of the game the better.

The game needed someone that could keep up with the physical demands of the role, but more than that it needed an actor that understood what he was doing and why. The actor wearing the mo-cap suit has a huge amount of influence on the character and the way they come across in the game, so Ubisoft Toronto needed someone who actually cared. After a grueling casting process that spanned America and Canada, the developers all agreed that the right person for the job was 33-year old Canadian actor, Eric Johnson.

“I’ve worked with a lot of different actors since I’ve been making games, and you have the actors that are really good, but they don’t care,” Béland recalled. “Video games… it’s not really important for them. It’s easy money and they just do it. They come in and they’re not prepared, they come in and they’re like ‘you want it that way, I’ll do it that way’ blah, blah. But Eric is like completely the opposite. He’s passionate about it.”

splinter cell blacklistJohnson began his acting career in 1992 at the age of 13. Since his debut he has gone on to work on both film and television in all genres throughout North America, although his most well-known roles to date both came from sci-fi shows. After landing a recurring role in Smallville as Whitney Fordman, he went on to star as the title character in the short lived SyFy Channel original Flash Gordon. He currently stars in the Canadian police drama, Rookie Blue.

“When we’re doing performance capture, if he’s [Johnson] got a free second he’s going to talk to our tactical advisor about how to hold his gun better, how to really be Sam right,” Béland said. “So the first time he met our tactical advisor, that guy was like ‘ok, here’s Sam’s gun, go home and practice this.’ I think he probably went to bed with that gun, just holding it… It’s great to work with actors that give a shit, that care about games. It’s fun, he’s bringing a lot to the game. He got comfortable very fast with the role, also where he’s like ‘no, I don’t think Sam’s would do this,’ we can have exchanges.”

Kate DrummondAlong with Johnson, the production also saw several characters performed by people new to the series, like Kate Drummond as Grimsdóttír. In the series, Grim and Fisher have had their issues, and the game makes sure to emphasize the tension between the characters. Because of the heavy use of motion capture, these exchanges peppered throughout the game needed real-life believability.  Drummond was chosen both for her acting skill as well as her chemistry with Johnson.

As its first title, Blacklist was important to Ubisoft Toronto for more than just for financial reasons revolving around the success of the game. The title would also prove its viability as a studio for future projects. The responsibility weighed heavily on everyone involved.

The new economy system in Blacklist represented another fundamental change from previous Splinter Cell games. It influences both the way you play, and the way you approach a mission. Through the economy system you earn credits that you can then spend on upgrading anything from your weapons and gadgets, to the suit you are wearing, all based on your preferred style. If you chose to go stealth, you can equip boots that muffle your footsteps, or if you want to fight, you can increase your body armor.  

Once you have your loadout, you are then dropped into a mission and given multiple ways to complete it. There are three types of play at work that you can choose from: Ghost, Panther, and Assault. Ghost is what you might expect; you earn points for remaining unseen and making it through a level without the enemy even knowing you were there – this includes not killing enemies. If you do choose to eliminate a few enemies but do so from cover, you then fall into the Panther category, which is similar to how Conviction played. The final category is Assault, which is pure action game. The level itself will be based on progress, so you won’t know what your score in each category is until the level is complete. You will likely earn a few points in each class, but the more you stick to one strategy, the more credits you earn to buy gear. These credits can also be earned and used for co-op and multiplayer modes. 

BlacklistThis may still raise the hackles of longtime fans of the game who enjoyed the previous titles because of the difficult stealth missions. The option to play without being seen is still there, but it is now just one of several ways to play. The series has been moving more and more in this direction, so it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise. And while it may also offend the purists, it turns out there aren’t that many purists left despite the vocal outpouring form the Internet.

“Most people play in a very action way,” Béland said. “And when I say ‘most people,’ it’s 90 percent. It’s interesting because if you read the Web, if you read certain things, you’re not getting that vibe. If you go on our forums everyone wants stealth. But every time we bring in play testers they grab their controllers and they want to shoot someone.”

Eric Johnson Mo Cap
Image used with permission by copyright holder

But while the action will be there if you want it, that doesn’t mean the game won’t still offer a traditional Sam Fisher adventure. Far from it. Keeping the stealth aspect was a huge part of the development. While planning out the way to define the three categories, the developers had a discussion regarding what the classic “ghost player” was, and they came up with two defining traits:

“The first one is non-lethal. Non-lethal is very important for the fans. If they need to take out someone, they don’t want to kill, they want to be non-lethal. And the other one is no one can know you are there. No one can see you, an alarm cannot ring,” Béland confirmed. “The ghost player is the perfectionist. It is the player that wants everything to be perfect. He doesn’t want to be sloppy, he wants to leave no traces.”

While you can’t make everyone happy, Ubisoft Toronto is trying its best to make as many people happy as possible. The developers all took a huge chance to join the studio, despite the publisher’s pedigree. The team has close to 200 employees in the main office, and people relocated from around the world to join the new studio in Toronto. Even under the powerful Ubisoft banner, it was still a risk. 

Splinter Cell: Blacklist“The one thing that I wasn’t expecting is that because we’re a new studio, most people took risks to come,” Béland recalled. “It’s not like we started a studio and hired people that all got laid off from elsewhere or people that didn’t have any jobs. The people that we hired, most of them were people that had jobs elsewhere and decided to take a risk and come with us. So the team is hungry, the team is passionate. “

While the game was developed in the new offices, the team took advantage of the reach of Ubisoft. Blacklist is a unique game and it feels original, but there is also a homogeneity to Ubisoft action titles that bleeds through. Sam Fisher’s movements wouldn’t be too far removed from an Assassin’s Creed game, and certain functions of motion – like seeing a marker to tell you where you can move to next while in cover as seen in last year’s Ghost Recon (among other games) – can also be seen in Blacklist. A good idea is hard to contain, and Ubisoft’s various development teams have plenty of good ideas.

“There’s a lot of stuff that Ubisoft does to facilitate communication,” Béland said of his parent company. 

Twice a year the various Ubisoft creative directors meet in Montreal for a team dinner to discuss the challenges they face with peers. It helps the developers to make connections that can serve them in the future. At one point Béland even reached out to Steven Masters, the lead game designer on Conviction that went on to be lead game designer for Assassin’s Creed III. Masters was happy to help out and voice a few opinions on gameplay mechanics. Blacklist moves and plays like its own game, but there is a familiarity to it that is based on a massive network of developers working together to fine tune their trade and make the controls as fluid as any game on the market.

Splinter Cell Blacklist
Image used with permission by copyright holder

It’s an interesting time for the Splinter Cell franchise. At the moment, Blacklist is the biggest game on Ubisoft’s upcoming docket of releases. If rumors prove true and the next generation of Sony and Microsoft’s consoles come out around Thanksgiving, then Blacklist could also be among the last wave of major franchises developed for this generation of consoles. But beyond that, the property has also seen interest spike thanks to the news that Ubisoft’s fledgling movie division was developing a Splinter Cell film for the big screen, with Tom Hardy stepping into the title role.

Movies based on games have traditionally not fared well under Hollywood’s stewardship, but with Ubisoft itself at the helm, things could change. Besides, the property is among the more Hollywood friendly already.

“Of course it would work,” Béland said of the possibility of a successful Splinter Cell film. “If you can make James Bond, Mission Impossible, and all those types of movies, of course you could make a Splinter Cell movie.” 

The production of that film is still in the early phases, but while the developers will certainly have input, they won’t actively be involved in the making of the film. Béland is a game developer, and he knows that his field of expertise is not in film. He may be consulted to read a script for his opinion, but things like pacing in film, or hitting the emotional high notes on the screen are vastly different from those in gaming. In other words, he will leave it to the experts. Thankfully, with Ubisoft in charge of the development, the IP should be in good hands. Just like the upcoming game appears to be. 

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Ryan Fleming
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Ryan Fleming is the Gaming and Cinema Editor for Digital Trends. He joined the DT staff in 2009 after spending time covering…
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