Ubisoft Toronto game designer James Everett has one piece of advice for any developers trying to do something new with an established franchise: don't take stuff away. Speaking with GamesIndustry International at last month's Montreal International Game Summit, Everett said that was one of the key decisions the studio made when it set to work on Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
"At a root level, at a gameplay level, we took nothing away," Everett said. "We just made everything easier to get at, and we made it feel better. I think if you take the things people love and you find a way to amp them up without diluting them, I think that's probably your best bet."
For Blacklist, that meant bringing back a few things that had been left out in the series' last go-around, like moving dead bodies to avoid detection and using non-lethal takedowns on enemies. That approach helped the development team find a proper middle ground on how to push things forward for the series without straying too far from the core experience fans want, Everett said.
"If you try to slavishly reproduce it, then you're making someone else's game. If you try to make something else completely, then you're no longer making the game that you're starting from."
"If you try to slavishly reproduce it, then you're making someone else's game," Everett said. "If you try to make something else completely, then you're no longer making the game that you're starting from. I think you have to figure out what the game you're making is, and make it the best version of that."
When Blacklist was announced, there was a pronounced apprehension among Splinter Cell fans about whether it would be a 'true' stealth game or more of a standard third-person action shooter - an attempt to hit a larger audience. It should be a familiar response to any developer who's worked on a high-profile stealth or survival horror game in recent years. Everett acknowledged that pattern of fan behavior, reasoning that it should only be expected at this point.
"There aren't a lot of games in those genres, and the fans of anything are very excited and committed to the things they love," Everett said. "So if someone says they're going to come over and do something in this thing you love, if your initial reaction is a little bit concerned, that's understandable. Because you know you're not going to get a huge number of games that cater to the things you love so much, so you want every one of those games to be great."
While accessibility was a point of emphasis for the developer, Everett described it more as a streamlining, a process of getting the controls out of the way to let players control Sam Fisher more instinctively. Everett said the team refined the context-sensitive controls as much as possible to account for player intent, to infer whether or not the player standing next to a dead guard wanted to move the body or the rifle he dropped, whether a dashing Sam Fisher was going to run under scaffolding or hoist himself up on top of it, and numerous other situational quandaries.
"Dark Souls is incredible because frustration in Dark Souls is about the choices you made as much as they are the choices the designer has made."
The goal was to fulfill the series' stealth action fantasy of being Sam Fisher, but not make the character just another Superman plowing through hench-fodder as in so many other action games. While Blacklist initially allows players to behave as if Fisher were the sort of bulletproof tank seen in other games, Everett said the developers used the introduction of a heavy infantry enemy type to dissuade them from that approach.
"The heavy character was brutally hard if you run straight in like a shooter," Everett said. "We needed that moment of something hard to shake people loose a little bit from maybe how they're used to playing a standard third-person game."
That encounter, he said, was intended to make it clear to those same players that there were different ways to think about combat in Blacklist, about flanking opponents, or using gadgets to fool the enemy AI. But there's a thin line between challenging players and frustrating them. Everett talked about frustration as an unwanted attribute, but acknowledged that others have had some success blurring the line.
"Dark Souls is fascinating, right? Dark Souls is incredible because frustration in Dark Souls is about the choices you made as much as they are the choices the designer has made," Everett said. "The frustration is a result of you almost always knowing why you got boned. You know what killed you, and you know why. So you look at it and say, 'I won't do that again.' And then you proceed to find an entirely new way to screw up, which is awesome. If Dark Souls was genuinely frustrating, you wouldn't go back to it. I think frustration's something to avoid. Challenge though... Even the hardest challenges, so long as player feels and knows that they can learn from each failure, and that the challenge is surmountable in some way, shape, or form, those are the best games in some ways."
"There's no substitute for the experience of just watching players play your game...It is simultaneously the most enlightening, humbling, frustrating, and horrifying thing you can do, and everyone should do it all the time."
One of the most effective tools to make sure a game is erring on the proper side of the line between challenge and frustration is playtesting.
"There's no substitute for the experience of just watching players play your game," Everett said. "There's nothing like it. It is simultaneously the most enlightening, humbling, frustrating, and horrifying thing you can do, and everyone should do it all the time."
While the game was well received - Everett said one of the most rewarding reactions has been seeing message boarders go from skepticism to approval - the 'take nothing away' approach still had some drawbacks. One criticism about the game that stuck with Everett is that shotguns, which were included because it would have felt like taking something away from Fisher's arsenal otherwise, don't seem to have a strategic place in the game.
"Generally speaking, they make a lot of noise and they're really good up close," Everett said. "By the time you make a lot of noise, people farther away from you are looking to take you down. So from the moment you pull the trigger, it very quickly becomes the wrong tool for the job. I don't know that there's a good solution to that in Splinter Cell, and I don't think there necessarily has to be."