Play Clas­sics: Splin­ter Cell

We ex­plore how stick­ing to the shad­ows put Ubisoft into the spot­light

Play (UK) - - Contents -

When it comes to con­sid­er­ing the in­creas­ingly vast his­tory of clas­sic ti­tles in the games in­dus­try, it can be hard to find some sort of con­clu­sive ev­i­dence as to which and why cer­tain games have en­tered into the ethe­real hall of fame while oth­ers were left nip­ping at the heels of those greats that stood be­fore them. For the ear­lier games of the Eight­ies it’s a lit­tle eas­ier to un­der­stand: these are of­ten games that

‘did it first’ or, if noth­ing else, at least did it bet­ter than any­one else. The Nineties still of­fer a lit­tle more lee­way for ev­i­dence, with de­vel­op­ers find­ing their feet in the 16-bit era, but truly dis­cov­er­ing in­no­va­tion with the in­ven­tion of gen­uine 3D gam­ing. It’s in the early 2000s where things start to get a lit­tle bit tougher; on pa­per. As a rel­e­vant ex­am­ple, it would be tough to point to Splin­ter Cell as a sure­fire, multi-mil­lion sell­ing game. Ubisoft cer­tainly be­lieved it would be, but it was hard to say that a shooter based on the more sub­dued brand of mil­i­tary from Tom Clancy would have found much suc­cess, and even with the re­lease of Metal Gear Solid, stealth still seemed less mar­ketable than ac­tion equiv­a­lents. But Splin­ter Cell was never meant to be ‘just’ a stealth game. In fact, it started life as some­thing else com­pletely.

“I was work­ing at Ubisoft as a pro­ject lead, as the creative direc­tor for a pro­ject,” says Francois Coulon, the man who would be­come the key creative vi­sion be­hind Splin­ter Cell. “The game was sup­posed to be a rev­o­lu­tion­ary ti­tle,” he ex­plains, “that was a blend be­tween two types of game­play. You would have a strat­egy core layer where you would see some­thing from above – a map like War­craft II – and then you could go into any unit and play them in third-per­son or first-per­son view.”

De­spite the in­ven­tive­ness of it the game was ul­ti­mately scrapped, the hard­ware at the time sim­ply un­able to meet the de­mands of such a con­cept. How­ever, the orig­i­nal uni­verse – a “shat­tered world” with a se­ries of is­lands based on key cap­i­tal cities – was kept, and it was here with this li­cence where Coulon would con­tinue his work.

“At some point some­thing hap­pened at Ubisoft Paris,” re­calls Coulon, “called Ubi Free. It was a vir­tual union that had been set up by three peo­ple, I be­lieve, and they sent an email to ev­ery­body at Ubisoft to say that the Guille­mot broth­ers were dic­ta­tors, that the work con­di­tions were very bad, and so on. It was pretty weird to be hon­est, be­cause that was not the case.” De­spite that it still caused some pres­sure for Ubisoft Paris, driv­ing the Guille­mot broth­ers to “sort of over­re­act”. Ger­ard Guille­mot, in par­tic­u­lar, saw it as a big­ger prob­lem, and de­cided to take ac­tion. “He said, ‘Okay, there is noth­ing we can do in this coun­try, we can­not run a creative com­pany here, so I’m leav­ing France and I’m go­ing to New York and I’m go­ing to bring some creative peo­ple with me over there.’”

Coulon and a num­ber of cre­atives from Ubisoft Paris left to form a New York of­fice, with the Shat­tered World IP fol­low­ing along as part of the di­vorce set­tle­ment. “We went to New York and we went there to try and cre­ate this shooter, which was – at that time – the first shooter that Ubisoft had been do­ing.” Up un­til that point Ubisoft had pri­mar­ily been known as the Ray­man de­vel­oper. The pop­u­lar PS1 plat­former had given the com­pany some recog­ni­tion for mak­ing games rather than pub­lish­ing, but it ar­rived at a time when the age of the 2D plat­former was com­ing to an end.

The com­pany al­ready needed some­thing to stand out in a to­tally dif­fer­ent and not so cutesy way. “It’s not that they were against vi­o­lence,” adds Coulon, “but no vi­o­lent game had been re­leased by Ubisoft so far.”

While work on the shooter had al­ready be­gun, and the Shat­tered World uni­verse al­lowed for some in­ter­est­ing sci-fi el­e­ments, there was one par­tic­u­lar gam­ing ex­am­ple that had sparked in­spi­ra­tion within Coulon for what form – par­tic­u­larly in terms of how it should be pre­sented – Ubisoft’s first shooter should take. “I re­mem­ber show­ing the Guille­mot broth­ers the

I was go­ing to take the tom Clancy li­cence and I was go­ing to make a very mass-mar­ket Con­sole game with the li­cence

first Metal Gear Solid and say­ing, ‘Look, this is the game that we should be do­ing’. MGS was only us­ing one en­gine and they were do­ing the cin­e­mat­ics of the game in the en­gine. It was to­tally seam­less be­tween the videos and the game­play: it is mise-en­scene, and that’s where we should have been go­ing.” That was the di­rec­tion that Coulon wanted to take, but not ini­tially for its stealth game­play but in­stead the way it was a “mix be­tween a movie and a game,” some­thing that – with the new of­fices in New York – Coulon and his team would start pro­to­typ­ing for a sim­i­lar sort of cin­e­matic ex­pe­ri­ence.

What that ul­ti­mately meant was a long ges­ta­tion pe­riod. For al­most two years the team were pro­to­typ­ing game­play el­e­ments within this Shat­tered World uni­verse, lever­ag­ing the con­cept to cre­ate new and in­ter­est­ing ways of play­ing games. Un­be­knownst to them, how­ever, the shooter was be­ing held back while Ubisoft looked for a suit­able IP to at­tach it to. The com­pany was keen on devel­op­ing the idea but averse to risk­ing a new, orig­i­nal fran­chise on new plat­forms like the PS2 and the Xbox. And so pro­to­typ­ing con­tin­ued, all the while these in­ter­est­ing game­play sys­tems were be­ing taken and im­ple­mented into other games that were be­ing de­vel­oped by Ubisoft.

In fact, dur­ing this pe­riod the New York stu­dio was down­sized due to costs, and many of the team mem­bers were then sent to Ubisoft Mon­treal. The creator of this Shat­tered World would leave at this point, tak­ing the con­cept with him and in fact pro­duc­ing an an­i­mated se­ries called Sky­land (with no re­la­tion to the toys-to-life se­ries). With noth­ing but a generic shooter left and no li­cence to at­tach it to, it was about time some­thing came along. “Then one day I heard that Ubisoft had bought Red Storm En­ter­tain­ment,” says Coulon, “which was a stu­dio cre­ated by Tom Clancy and that had done the first of the Rainbow Six se­ries.” This was fi­nally the op­por­tu­nity that the game that Coulon had been work­ing on for so long needed.

“I said to them that Tom Clancy is su­per mass mar­ket in terms of his books, sell­ing mil­lions lit­er­ally and movies with Sean Con­nery, Har­ri­son Ford and this kind of stuff. Very rep­utable ac­tors, all with the li­cence of Tom Clancy.” Coulon adds that there was lit­tle knowl­edge of the name in videogames be­sides Rainbow Six, which it­self was a ‘hard­core’ ex­pe­ri­ence and not very main­stream at all. “I de­cided I was go­ing to take the Tom Clancy li­cence and I was go­ing to make a very mass-mar­ket con­sole game with the third-party li­cence,” says Coulon.

Next came a need to fig­ure out what it was with the Tom Clancy li­cence that the team could ac­tu­ally lever­age for its shooter. “I called the head of le­gal, I asked what the rights that we bought were and what could we use. We couldn’t use a lot of things, be­cause ac­tu­ally Tom Clancy is di­vorced and so we couldn’t use cer­tain li­cences due to his ex-wife.” With­out a li­cence, then, it was up to the team to de­vise some­thing that could be used, and as a re­sult they ended up set­ting a prece­dent for the name Tom Clancy and videogames: while they wouldn’t utilise ex­ist­ing Clancy prod­ucts, they could still pro­duce some­thing that felt like Clancy. “And so we read all the books, saw the movies – which we had seen al­ready any­way – and we tried to de­fine Tom Clancy: it was a thriller, that was the word, he’s some kind of in­sider, he has some kind of gad­gets and he’s very geo-po­lit­i­cal – it’s al­ways set in a dif­fer­ent coun­try, and so on. And so we said, ‘Okay, let’s do this; it’s like James Bond with­out the hu­mour.’ And that’s how it all started.”

It was ac­tu­ally here, and not with the Metal Gear Solid in­spi­ra­tion, where the game switched to in­cor­po­rate a much more stealthy form of game­play. “We did the first pro­to­type, and we thought about the stealth thing from the be­gin­ning. We changed the game­play from be­ing a shooter to, let’s say, a smarter shooter. The in­spi­ra­tions were ba­si­cally Metal

Gear Solid, but also Thief and a bit of Deus Ex also – for the free­dom of the char­ac­ter and the way that you could do many, many things.”

These were es­sen­tially the cen­tral as­pects of this pro­to­type and the game that would come to be known as Splin­ter Cell: an em­pha­sis on stealth, the abil­ity to ex­tin­guish light­ing and to con­trol the shad­ows, and the lib­erty to tackle a stage or sit­u­a­tion how­ever you wanted. It goes with­out say­ing that the pro­to­type blew Ubisoft man­age­ment away and the game was green­lit im­me­di­ately, throw­ing the team into pro­duc­tion and giv­ing Coulon the op­por­tu­nity to ex­pand his team con­sid­er­ably. Bet­ter still, he was to get a pro­ducer, free­ing him up to re­main in charge of the creative di­rec­tion of the game it­self.

“The orig­i­nal team [be­fore mov­ing into pro­duc­tion] was ac­tu­ally five peo­ple from New York who were ab­so­lute be­gin­ners that we had hired fresh out of univer­sity. Those peo­ple came to Mon­treal, they fol­lowed me to do this game.” They in­cluded Nathan Wolff, lead de­signer, whose gameog­ra­phy be­gins and ends with Splin­ter Cell since he de­parted the in­dus­try af­ter its com­ple­tion. Then there was Ed Byrne, who de­signed many of Splin­ter Cell’s in­tri­cate lev­els, David Kelina who worked on its AI, and then JT Petty, who was the scriptwriter for the first two games. “For all of those peo­ple this was their first game ever,” adds Coulon.

It may well have been a bless­ing in dis­guise, how­ever. Videogame de­vel­op­ment had now reached a point at which it had set­tled into a groove, and while the team sizes have es­ca­lated over the last few years, the pro­cesses were mostly set in stone by the turn of the mil­len­nium. As such, the idea of hir­ing com­plete new­com­ers to be­come leads of a brand new IP is some­thing many would have balked

Ifyou put­the peo­ple In the right un­der­stand­ing of whatyou’re do­ing then you’re em­pow­er­ing them to be Creative

we had been ad­vised to Change the story, it wasn’ t clear what would hap­pen so It was a bit touchy

at. Coulon never said so while speak­ing to him, but there’s a sense that the small five-per­son team pro­to­typ­ing ideas for two years be­fore pro­duc­tion even be­gan had lead to a num­ber of in­no­va­tive and clever twists on stan­dard shooter game­play that had never been seen be­fore. Facets of Splin­ter Cell, such as the re­mote cam­eras and the split jump, the heat vi­sion gog­gles and the means to read how hid­den Fisher was were just some of the more well-known ad­di­tions to the game that helped it to stand out.

Splin­ter Cell felt fresh in so many dif­fer­ent ways, but its nu­mer­ous game­play me­chan­ics – and how they could all be utilised to play the game in the way that you wanted to – was un­doubt­edly the thing that made it stand head and shoulders above its com­pe­ti­tion. Even bet­ter was how one fea­ture’s in­clu­sion would then end up in­spir­ing another team mem­ber to use that tool in a new or in­trigu­ing way, a par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable ex­am­ple be­ing the abil­ity to use the heat vi­sion gog­gles to track the but­tons pressed on a key­pad. “That was smart, I ad­mit,” Coulon laughs. “That came from the coders, that’s why I think it’s smart.” He goes on to ex­plain that his method as a creative direc­tor was to in­spire idea shar­ing, not to bel­liger­ently en­force the kind of game that he wanted. “As a creative direc­tor, the way I work – and I’ve done the same all through­out my ca­reer – is that I am not the kind of guy who knows ex­actly the game that he wants and is go­ing to im­pose it on ev­ery­one. I don’t know the game I want, so I have more dia­logue with ev­ery­body. Which means my role is to make sure that ev­ery­body un­der­stands the creative vi­sion of the game, what we’re go­ing for, what are the main pil­lars of the game­play, and just to have ev­ery­one come up with cool ideas.”

This method, as it hap­pens, is why Splin­ter Cell is so rife with cool tech and fun gad­gets to play around with, tools for the player to make use of. “So a coder came up with this heat-sens­ing light treat­ment, which was pretty in­no­va­tive at the time. And then some­one sug­gested some gog­gles at some point, and then some­body else said, ‘What if we could use the ther­mal gog­gles for the key­pad?’ So it was a com­mu­nal idea. If you put the peo­ple in the right un­der­stand­ing of what you’re do­ing then you’re em­pow­er­ing them to be creative. And many of these ideas came about like that. I have no way to tell you that this one came from me, this one came from this guy. They all come from many peo­ple.”

Yet while it’s clear to see how two years of pre-pro­duc­tion could lead to so many in­ter­est­ing new fea­tures that ul­ti­mately be­came iconic to the Splin­ter Cell fran­chise, one thing that wasn’t quite so clear was how Sam Fisher, a man who was meant to be a for­get­table sleeper agent, ended up be­com­ing such a well-loved char­ac­ter. So we had to ask, how did Coulon help shape this as­pect of the game too? “I was not in­volved,” he ad­mits, “be­cause I am a French guy. I can’t al­low my­self to judge Amer­i­can names or voices, I left this to the Amer­i­can

peo­ple. The first script that we had in New York we did with a French scriptwriter; this was be­fore JT Petty, and when we were do­ing the story at the very be­gin­ning the name of the char­ac­ter was Mr Cay­den. We thought it was cool, ex­cept that ev­ery­body laughed at us. They told us that he sounded like a dumb guy or what­ever, so for ti­tles and for names I left all that for na­tive peo­ple.”

How­ever, Coulon’s in­ter­est in geo-pol­i­tics was a nat­u­ral help, even as­sist­ing scriptwriter JT Petty in craft­ing a glo­be­trot­ting ex­pe­ri­ence that would match Clancy’s nov­els. “I was not in­volved in the name Sam Fisher,” he ex­plains, “but only in de­cid­ing who he was. JT Petty was not su­per fa­mil­iar with geo-po­lit­i­cal plots, so I told him how I wanted it to be in terms of the geo-po­lit­i­cal story.”

The story it­self felt darker, covert and so much more tan­ta­lis­ing than any other shooter of the time. It was hard not to get a sense of the brood­ing Ja­son Bourne from the griz­zled voice of vet­eran su­per sol­dier Sam Fisher. The game’s orig­i­nal name of Third Ech­e­lon, in fact, was born from the news of the early 2000s that the United States, un­der a se­cret government code name of ECH­E­LON, had en­abled pow­ers to in­ter­cept and mon­i­tor a wide range of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions – some­thing that out­raged many cit­i­zens. This is where the fic­tional Third Ech­e­lon was born, the name of Fisher’s se­cret government op­er­a­tions em­ployer. It all added to a sense of in­trigue and con­cern around the covert actions of na­tions on a global scale.

“We wanted it to be Clancy,” high­lights Coulon about

the story it­self, “and you know, in the end Amer­ica wins... well, it’s not that sim­ple, it’s much more sub­tle in gen­eral. But the in­ter­est­ing thing about the story is that the game started in ‘99 and of course it be­gan de­vel­op­ment in 2001. If you re­mem­ber Splin­ter Cell starts with an oil prob­lem in Geor­gia, ex­cept ini­tially – when we first did it – it was Azer­bai­jan. Be­cause of 9/11, and be­cause Azer­bai­jan was a Mus­lim coun­try, we didn’t want to por­tray this. We had been ad­vised to change, it wasn’t clear what would hap­pen from this event and what would go on with the world, so it was a bit touchy.” This only helped the game tap into a par­tic­u­lar global mood of the time. As such, while Ubisoft made fur­ther ef­forts to cap­i­talise on what was al­ready a promis­ing pack­age – the mar­ket­ing sur­round­ing the iconic three-light gog­gles for ex­am­ple – it be­comes so much eas­ier to see why the orig­i­nal Splin­ter Cell be­came such a smash hit, go­ing on to sell over 6 mil­lion copies and be­com­ing one of the best­selling games on Playsta­tion 2.

Coulon ex­plains how it felt at the time, as it might have for any de­vel­oper of big name games: “So when you say you have Tom Clancy, the game­play is very real, from a tech­ni­cal stand­point it works per­fectly, the story is cool and you have a great voice ac­tor – it should work. Of course it’s go­ing to be a suc­cess, you be­lieve in it, but many things can make you doubt.” Coulon pauses for just a sec­ond: “Some­how it worked out.”

Some­thing Splin­ter Cell did well was em­power play­ers to make them feel like covert se­cret agents, and gad­gets like the snake cam­era were piv­otal in do­ing just that.

As Coulon had in­tended, Splin­ter Cell man­aged to reach key points through­out the story just by hav­ing the player take part in them with­out the use of cutscenes.

Mak­ing use of split jump al­ways helped to cre­ate a sense of achieve­ment, de­spite know­ing that the map was de­signed in such a way to al­low for its use.

Full-on com­bat was an op­tion, too, but a chal­lenge to achieve and not nearly as sat­is­fy­ing.

The ad­di­tion of a vis­i­bil­ity me­ter was im­por­tant for the player to know when they were safe and when they were likely to be spot­ted.

A GBA ver­sion of the game was de­vel­oped and re­leased at the same time, but nat­u­rally - with a 2D per­spec­tive - it couldn’t achieve any­thing like its con­sole equiv­a­lent.

Heat sen­sor gog­gles had a num­ber of uses, all dis­tinct from one another. They were a great ex­am­ple of how just one ex­cel­lent ad­di­tion can pro­vide a myr­iad of game­play op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.