Play Classics: Splinter Cell
We explore how sticking to the shadows put Ubisoft into the spotlight
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.