Xbox 360 Interview

Splinter Cell: Conviction with Patrick Redding

Ubisoft's game maker reveals his (chaos) theory

In the middle of a week where Ubisoft are wheeling him about on European press tours, Splinter Cell: Conviction's Multiplayer Director Patrick Redding describes himself as "hyper sleep-deprived". You couldn't tell: he appears eager and animated when discussing Sam Fisher's latest espionage escapade. The enthusiasm was definitely infectious, but before running off to get stuck into some of Conviction's early levels (a preview of which will be available on the site soon) I managed to sit down for a few minutes to discuss the game's delays, some of the best bits of the co-op campaign and why a perfect bromance is a bad idea.

How did your team initially approach the co-op compared to the single-player?

There aren't too many artificial barriers between the production processes, but on the design side we really knew pretty early on what we were going to be doing with the foundations from a gameplay point of view.

Have you worked on Splinter Cell before?

No, this is my first one.

Are you a fan?

Honestly, I was playing Splinter Cell before I even considered working for Ubisoft. It was by a weird coincidence that Clint Hocking, a friend of mine from Vancouver from before his days in the gaming industry, had gone to work there and I knew he was working on Splinter Cell. I tried it and I was like, this game kicks ass, and it was later on that he suggested "you might want to come out for this".

Have you played them all, then?

Yeah, yeah, of course!

Which one is your favourite?

Chaos Theory is my favourite, for sure.

Damn right it is!

I think that's a bit of... that's low fruit hanging freely! It was the same team that had done the first Splinter Cell and given that opportunity to really iterate and refine; close the gap on a few of the things they, frankly, ran out of time on [with the first game]. Which is the normal life cycle of a videogame, right? You abandon it about 95-99% of the way through and don't really get to finish anything.

Do you think Conviction will become your favourite?

I really do think they are different, you know? Chaos Theory still fits very much within the paradigm of a mission-based, very Tom Clancy universe structure in terms of narrative and locations and actions. I feel like this one is more contemporary, in terms of the kinds of stylistic choices that we've made.

It's a really tough question. Like I said, Chaos Theory is near and dear to my heart because, obviously, I only had to come out of it as a player. This one's going to be very hard for me to look at objectively having worked on it. But I think it will become many players' favourite Splinter Cell.

Do you think the repeated delays might have given the game a negative stigma?

I don't worry about that. I honestly don't. Of course, the game's coming out. All the game has to do in order to effectively counter the majority of that phenomenon is to come out - you know what I mean? To me, a much bigger question is, when a game's been delayed that long, is there a danger of it generating too much hype or expectation? The standard that you are setting for yourself is that we're not shipping the game 'till it's ready. People understand that games ship at that sweet-spot where, basically, it's not practical from a business perspective to wait any longer, and it also ships at that spot where the developers say 'we don't think there's anything more we can do to make it better'.

There are all these things going on there that are inherently imperfect, but the games come out and they're generally good if you put the time in on them. I think that's the real issue. I'm not worried about people - are there really going to be people out there that refuse to play the game because it got delayed?

There are a few cynics...

If the game is well received, and people like it and it gets good reviews, I don't see anybody flat-out refusing to play it because it got delayed.

This is one of the few 'when it's done' games still in existence, right?

I don't think we are philosophically operating in the same space as that. It's never that we're going to push it indefinitely, it's that there's always going to be certain franchises that we have elevated standards for: Splinter Cell is effectively the franchise that put Ubisoft Montreal on the map, and debatably was the major turning point of Ubisoft as a publisher. So we have to be very, very careful with it.

Part of that is strategic and good business sense, and the other part is that, as developers, we revere it. We don't want to be the ones that screw it up, and there are a few brands under the Ubisoft slate that are like that. To a certain degree I think Assassin's Creed is even more that way, although now they're in such a strong position, having worked in this deliberate incremental way, that they can continue to iterate on that game now in a very timely fashion.

Can you see that happening to Splinter Cell down the line?

I think it has to. I don't think any developer at this stage of the game is thinking in terms of wiping the slate clean every time they go back to the trough on it. Unless we're just going to stop making them, and I just don't see that happening.

Tell us some of the things the team's done over the course of the development that you're really proud of.

We have some things going on in the co-op story that I think people will be talking about for a while! I'm extremely proud of those. I wish I could talk about them, but I'm also really determined not to.

I think one thing, which I probably said a long time ago that I was especially proud of, is that we managed to find some specific gameplay features that help to generate dramatic moments dynamically without having to script them. So, for example, the mutual save that can occur when you have a player that's wounded, that's knocked down and can't move and is bleeding out, and a player that comes to his rescue and gets grabbed in a choke-hold in his line of sight, and what we get is the guy who's wounded sitting up and taking the shot and freeing his captive friend, who then runs to his aid.

When we first realised that this was possible, we assumed it would be an edge case, and then we started seeing it in play tests and it started happening when we were showing it to journalists. It's still a relatively rare thing, but it's not super scarce, and we realised we needed to start building content to support that. I was very proud of that because, having worked as a narrative designer in Far Cry 2, that's the kind of memorable moment I'm most proud of - it's not having the big scripted thing where a plane crashes into a building, it's the moment where something happens in the mechanics and in the systems of the game that players really feel like they own.

Other things? I'm really proud of the way in which our story guys were able to bring the two actors that play Archer and Kestrel together into the booth and really get these guys recording their dialogues together, so that we feel like there's some chemistry between them. So it's not like there's one dude on Tuesday, and the other guy came in three weeks later and recorded his lines. They're really playing off each other and I think you can feel it. But I'm biased.

Oh, and I like that it was done for systemic content as well as scripted content. I think it makes their relationship believable. We've had people say "thank you for not forcing these characters to have this kind of perfect bromance", and I think I know what they're alluding to: they're saying they don't need it forced down their throat, you feel like [their relationship is] evolving and it's natural and organic. It's good that their relationship is working for people.

What about the other stuff we've seen: Fisher as a 'predator' and the Prepare, Execute and Vanish cycle?

We don't seem to talk that much about P.E.V. in our current communications, because I don't think we have to explain it that much to people. The thing that we do often talk about, though, is this idea that, traditionally, the limiting factor in your actions, and in the choices and actions that the player has in a Splinter Cell game, is 'will this cause everyone to be alerted and, if it wakes up the enemy, how screwed am I?' I think all that we've tried to do is say 'let's give the player this gameplay loop that allows them to get out of trouble if they get into it'. We're not saying go get into trouble, we're saying you're going to try and be stealthy, you're going to try and make this happen as smoothly as possible - you're a professional, you're a spy, that's what you do - but the difference is, since the last Splinter Cell game, people have gone to a bunch of Bourne movies, watched a bunch of seasons of 24 and they've seen a lot of James Bond movies where there's moment where our hero, who's normally absolutely polished, professional and instinctive in every way, gets himself into a whole bunch of trouble. He suddenly finds himself cornered, and the way he gets out of that is really reflexive - it's really like bing bing bing I killed those guys, boom out the window, done.

So, P.E.V. for us, it's a lot more about what happens when shit hits the fan.

It's just a bit of jargon though, isn't it?

We use terms like P.E.V. because I think there's a lot of game design jargon that is not accessible to people. If I was sitting around and talking about our low-level gameplay loop, or our mid-level gameplay loop, lots of people would know but lots of people wouldn't. Those are the kind of things that designers think about, and programmers and developers and artists and everyone else also have to think about so we can represent to the player correctly.

The point is, you know, that loop which is really what is driving moment-by-moment the choices that the player is making and also the output of the game, that's really what we're talking about. Rather than sitting around and talking about what our low-level loop is to the press, which is really obscure, instead we say let's just make sure the players understand that we're talking about the idea that you're going to have to do a certain amount of tactical play.

Do you think you've struck the right balance with the gameplay in Conviction?

Yeah. I think so. Balance is always, of course, one of the hardest things to arrive at, and one of the things that we obsess over and second guess ourselves on the most. But I think that now, in terms of player actions, I feel like we've got it. The only other thing for us is like, is the AI tough enough? Is the AI smart enough? It's always that mix. You can always make an AI too tough, you can always make an AI that's so freakin' smart he can see you from a mile away. We have to make sure it's fun, so we always have to try and find that kind of sweet spot, and that's why we support different difficulty levels. I think our biggest thing is we've looked at what our normal difficulty is, what our realistic difficulty is, and even now we're like 'you know what? We can push the realistic a little more'.

Do you think the Tom Clancy framing is less important now?

It clearly defines one end of the spectrum, with HAWX and EndWar at the other end. I think that the reason that it does is because it's a fundamentally a solo experience, really, I mean we're doing some things with co-op but, ultimately, whether it's one agent or two agents it's about these lone covert operatives that are working in the shadows. It's always about the things that are happening before the war starts, either to prevent it or ensure victory during it. I think it has a different flavour than a lot of the other Clancy titles, which typically happen with the crisis in full swing.

I'm not completely dialled in on what's happening with Rainbow Six at the moment, but I do believe that if you take a larger snapshot of all of the Clancy franchises you're going to see that there's a continuum there. You can draw a straight line.

But it has to evolve, too. Anytime you have a shared universe you're treading in the same murky water as every comic book company, every television show that's ever had a few spin-offs. Look at Stargate: it's weird to think that Stargate Universe occupies the same continuity and world that SG-1 does. They really feel like fundamentally different places, and a lot of that is aesthetic - it's what science fiction turned into post Battlestar Galactica!

I think that we also have to be responsive to a new generation of gamers with different tastes and difference influences in their media lives.

Our thanks to Patrick Redding for answering our questions and encouraging us to dig out our old copies of Chaos Theory. Splinter Cell: Conviction will be released for 360 and PC on the 16th April.