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Shaking up a franchise? Take nothing away, says Splinter Cell dev

Shaking up a franchise? Take nothing away, says Splinter Cell dev

Tue 03 Dec 2013 2:39pm GMT / 9:39am EST / 6:39am PST
Development

Ubisoft's Everett finds balancing the fresh & expected tough, but essential

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."

James Everett

"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."

James Everett

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."

James Everett

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."

7 Comments

Pete Thompson
Owner / Admin

160 78 0.5
I'm a big Splintercell Fan, I've played and loved them all and for me Blacklist was the best in the series so far. The campaign story combined with stealthy missions was fantastic. My only issue is that once the game has released they (Ubisoft) seem to either forget about adding content to extend the campaign, or only concentrate on multiplayer map packs or all the devs get moved onto new projects.. Ubisoft done the same thing with Ghost Recon by only offering 1 campaign DLC but multiple Map Packs..

I look forward to pretty much anything that Ubisoft release on console, especially if it's from the superb Tom Clancy (RIP) series.

As for playtesting, I don't find Splintercell games frustrating to play even on the hardest difficulties as there are nearly always multiple paths to an objective. which is something that a lot of other games should take note of..

Posted:7 months ago

#1

David Serrano
Freelancer

298 270 0.9
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.
I've said this before and I'll say it again... the core development community must stop referencing Dark Souls as a gold standard for game design.

Excerpt from Chris Bateman's 2011 player typology study:
The scores afforded to emotions did not conform to expectations. The emotions of play expected to score highly were fiero, excitement and curiosity. However, amusement, contentment, and wonderment all scored higher than these big three. Of the three, contentment had been hypothesized prior to the survey as being a key emotion of play that might be overlooked. The results confirmed this prediction, although there was little expectation that amusement and wonderment would rank so highly. Although Lazzaro later noted that wonderment was a full-body emotion, as powerful as… fiero (Lazzaro 2009), and connects it to curiosity.
The Conqueror style of play identified by the DGD1 survey, which corresponds to Nicole Lazzaro‘s ― Hard Fun and its associated emotions of frustration (i.e., anger) and fiero (Lazzaro 2009), draws attention to an important aspect of the emotions of play: even negative emotions may have a role in enjoyment. About one in five (20.5%) respondents stated that anger increases their enjoyment of play (consistent with the Conqueror play style), while the majority (42.0%) of respondents had a powerfully negative response to this emotion, reporting that they avoided games that make them feel that way. This distinction may be an important aspect of any future trait theory of play.
Dark Souls represents an extreme interpretation of what constitutes fiero and hard fun. Which is the reason why it appealed to less than 1 percent of its potential audience across all platforms. Core designers may subjectively believe Dark Souls was "fascinating" or "incredible," but over 99 percent of the core audience did not. They in fact, showed absolutely no interest in playing the "game." So the core development community's infatuation with a game which on no level reflects the preferences of almost the entire core audience is not only counterproductive... it's extremely dangerous. Because the average player will very likely respond to similar interpretations of play, challenge and fiero in the same way Ben Croshaw did when he reviewed Demon Souls:
I felt the best way to review Demon Souls would be to simply describe my entire experience. So in conclusion: f**k you Demon Souls! A challenge is one thing but trying to break down a f**king cement wall with your forehead isn't a challenge, it's grounds for getting f**king sectioned. Although I suppose succeeding in breaking the wall down would give a great sense of accomplishment, which is just as well because you will have lost all your other senses by then.

Posted:7 months ago

#2

Justin Shuard
J - E translator

40 144 3.6
@David

Sales never really equates to the quality of the game though, otherwise Justin Bieber would be the greatest musician in the world and the Transformers movies would be the greatest films ever. And even Justin Bieber and Transformers would only account for a single digit percentage of buyers when compared to the entire group of consumers listening to music and watching movies. Dark Souls sold around 2.5 million which, while not exactly GTAV numbers, is extremely impressive considering it was done with basically word of mouth alone.

I realize Dark Souls is a niche game that won't appeal to everybody (what game would appeal to everybody?), but with its innovative multiplayer, brilliant gameplay mechanics and excellent art style I can think of few better games to reference when designing a game. Some of us gamers like to have a sense of challenge and accomplishment once in a while. I might actually check this Splinter Cell game out based on this interview.

Posted:7 months ago

#3

Oliver Jones
Software Developer

21 21 1.0
I just started playing Blacklist last night. It is indeed excellent (so far). A welcome return to form for the Splinter Cell series.

Posted:7 months ago

#4

Adam Jordan
Community Management/Moderation

112 63 0.6
I have a gripe with this purely because in Blacklist, they "did" take something away.

I am a Splinter Cell fan (Restarted playing the original Splinter Cell again now that I have it on Steam) and pretty much played every title released. Now Blacklist is a great game, the mechanics are fantastic, the blend of action and stealth keeps both sides happy and the 3 paths you can mix and run with is lovely BUT if you compare the amount of hours I have played Blacklist with Conviction...there's a major difference with Conviction winning out by a long shot. I couldn't even guess how many hours I've played but I would say 12 hours for Blacklist and around 70 hours for Conviction on 360 and 5 hours on PC.

The reasoning behind all this is co-op, not multi-player but co-op. Conviction had a full fledged co-op campaign AND several little modes like Hunter, Last Stand and Infiltration> Blacklist has only the latter, with only 3-4 missions in each mode. I'm not a fan of Last Stand and neither is my friend, so we haven't touched them in Blacklist or Conviction but what I am saying is...they didn't keep co-op as it was and improved it...they simply took an aspect of it away and kept the entrails

I am now re-playing Conviction on PC, heck if the multi-player worked properly on PC, my friend and I would still be playing co-op on it purely because Hunter mode was fun, eliminate 10 enemies quietly through each stage of the map and if the alarm tripped, 10 more would pop up. I've lost count how many times we've played through each map including the 4 DLC maps and even the campaign. Not only that but I am playing the co-op again with my nephew and even got him hooked on Conviction.

Overall, Blacklist has made me happy in some ways but also made me angry. People will probably hate me for saying it because Splinter Cell started as a single player stealth game but I have enjoyed the co-op a lot more than I ever thought I would. In fact I would go as far as stating that Conviction's co-op is like playing a stealthier game of Army of Two

However the single player aspect is spot on

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Adam Jordan on 4th December 2013 4:16am

Posted:7 months ago

#5

Eric Leisy
VR Production Designer

114 124 1.1
I never really payed these games much mind, but I picked up SplinterCell Blacklist on a whim (and a steam sale) - and i was really pleasantly surprised at the quality of the game and how much I've been enjoying the gameplay.

Posted:7 months ago

#6

Isaac Kirby
Studying Computer Games Development

40 37 0.9
In support of Demons/Dark Souls, I think it stands out to other developers as a supreme example of an "A" Tier success in recent years.
It is not designed for a mass market, it is designed for a niche, and it hits is spectacularly. Each component of the game exists as needed, there is no "fluff" just solidity in all it does.
On the subject of its design, I think that, like Borderlands, its success is all the sweeter because it's bucked all the recent trends to make "more generic mass market" games, such as the direction Resident Evil took with 6 and Dead Space took with 3. It exists almost purely inside its own genre, things were "Doom Clones", then "GTA Clones", the term "Demons Soul Clone" will most likely be in use for any game designed to be as hard and mechanically tight as possible.
I appreciate Davids use of psychology of players, as this is an interesting field I admit my lack of knowledge in, but it really is a Gold Standard in development.

Posted:7 months ago

#7

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