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Development of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction

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This article is about the development of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction, which went through a long development phase spanning a long time frame. The concept design from 2005 to the final version are drastically different, with changes and reworks made constantly by Ubisoft Montreal.

2005 version

Conception and R&D

Once Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory was completed, the Splinter Cell team in Ubisoft Montreal's studio started the conception and R&D for Conviction.[1]

Mathieu Ferland was senior producer on Conviction. His role was to support the producer and development teams with all high level issues they may encounter. He also closely monitored the Splinter Cell brand evolution, especially since Conviction is based on new core gameplay innovations and new setup.

The first thing they did when they thought about rejuvenating the gameplay was making sure the core team would be made of long time veterans of Splinter Cell. They knew the strengths of the gameplay, as well as things they had always wanted to address. Basically, Splinter Cell had always been strong as it was very environment centric. When they developed the light and shadow gameplay, they offered gamers a new approach, a new way to “read” and interact with their environment. ConViction would bring the same benefit, but this time through the dynamic environment. When the developers played Splinter Cell and began looking for shadows in other games, they realized that now, they were looking to interact and make some of their strategies in other games involving all the elements in the environment. They also realized this was not the best strategy when the environment was not designed this way.[1]

One of the ambitions of the Splinter Cell team for Conviction was to take the same opportunity of next-gen consoles to provide gameplay that was not possible before. Splinter Cell's core mechanics used to rely on lights and shadows. This was the major innovation of the original Splinter Cell, supported by a new technology, to achieve technological feats that were not unimaginable on previous consoles. For Conviction, they wanted to keep the particular relationship the player was developing with his environment through his experience. Only, as a fugitive, the relation needed to be faster and the player also needed to think faster. They called this new gameplay: “improvisation”. This stealth relation with the environment remained an important factor; but tools and mechanics for the gamer were completely supportive of this new fugitive context: the player would need more than just shadows to stay alive. Their ambition was to propose a never before seen gameplay experience, supported by new technologies and new game philosophies. While they were very cautious about the Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell universe and continuity in the brand, they wanted to change the core gameplay and be proactive to new opportunities in the industry. They also wanted to propose more fun, more quickly, and enlarge the fan-base by proposing an experience that was more accessible but not less exciting.[1]

Development began September 2005.[2]

Technology

Since lights and shadows were not the core gameplay for navigation; the developers needed to think of how a fugitive would behave. They concluded that he needed anything he could use in the environment to survive, so they developed a full dynamic environment. Being able to pick any object in the environment to use it as a weapon or as a defensive tool was not an easy task when the time came to deal with physics, animation, AI behavior and consistent lighting. Innovation needed to be part of these technical challenges and they made it happen. Changing an environment is a complex topic technically, but making this progression believable through AI and other component is a great achievement they were very proud of.[1]

In terms of middleware, Havok was used to work closely for physics, but they developed their own animation and interaction system with physical objects.[1]

They needed a very strong dynamic environment to sustain the fugitive experience they wanted to create. The fugitive’s art is improvisation, and using his environment as an inventory was the key to translating this art. They decided to create their own system to have maximum flexibility with their game intention. Also, as they are in a systemic environment (simulation), they needed to be able to have every component closely linked to the environment.[1]

To develop a dynamic environment that results in a new innovative gameplay, they needed to develop and merge many concepts.[1]

  • Physics: the majority of objects are interactive and are part of the physic simulation. It was a huge challenge in term of processing power using one of three cores of the Xbox 360 processor only for these computations.[1]
  • AI: they had to create a real dynamic navigation mesh for NPCs, so they could react to changes in the environment – triggered by the player or by other NPCs. For example, if you’re moving an object, AI needs to detect the size of it and behave appropriately, either to avoid it or to walk over it.[1]
  • As in previous Splinter Cell games, all the lighting was dynamic. This time around however, they needed to develop a real time ambient occlusion module in order to maintain a high level of consistency and realism considering unpredictable changes in the dynamic environment.[1]
  • A new animation module needed to be developed in order to appropriately attach character movements to any moving object in the dynamic environment. In other words, they needed to develop a system to link IK technology and the information about every “pick up” point on objects to make the animations believable in such environment. They called this module the Handle System.[1]

Since Conviction was exclusive to Xbox 360, there was no need to think about specifications of other consoles and to develop common solutions. This freedom allowed more flexibility and better represented what the Xbox 360 was capable of.[1]

Game mechanics

There was a game mechanic called "Focus Vision" and it worked like a sixth sense. When activated, it allowed the player to see where enemies have moved to, even if they're behind a wall or other obstruction.[3]

Story

Conviction was meant to be a standalone game rather than a direct sequel and the storyline was intended to be clear and consistent even if the player hadn’t played previous games. However, Splinter Cell fans would recognize some interesting subtleties.

Conviction was set two years after Double Agent.[2]

Sam Fisher

Sam Fisher had evolved a lot through the first four games of the series. He used to be a soldier, then became a double agent where he had to make choices between opposing orders. Now, faced with a new situation where he’s a fugitive, he would no longer act upon orders but had to trust and follow his own convictions.

The Splinter Cell development team were in a similar situation, they grew up along Sam and their perception of the medium has changed: They wanted to mix gameplay ambitions with a stronger narrative. Also, they wanted to share the vision they always had for Sam but that they couldn’t fully explore while he was in “soldier obey order” setting.

Weapons

Once you’ve run away from Third Echelon, the player would need to find new resources on their own. Old friends and new contacts would be the key to get what you wanted on the black market. This loss of gadgets forced Sam to rely more on his instinct, on his ability to detect important things and to focus on them based on his skills and vast experience as an agent. Gameplay mechanics changed a lot in Conviction; weapons and gadgets needed to evolve as well and Sam’s instinct remained an important influence.

Levels

The only publicly-displayed demo of Conviction was a level called "Washington Park", based on West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C..[3]

The goal of the level was to erase a security tape and then set a bomb on a car to fake an assassination attempt on a character that resembled Lucius Galliard.[3]

The level had roughly 250 civilians and 30 enemy NPCs. The 30 enemies were constantly on the lookout for any signs of the player's presence. The level consisted of several paths, both populated and empty, large crowds and smaller pockets of people, and buildings to go into and out of. Some of the enemy NPCs were out patrolling while others were assigned to guard key locations unless extenuating circumstances drew them away.[3]

The cops only have a rough idea of what Sam looks like, so once in the park, Sam could vanish into crowds or act like the little people by using various contextual widgets in the world; talking on a public phone, admiring a monument, listening to a lecture or relaxing tramp-style on a park bench. Distraction is another tool.[2]

"Different actions have different values, pushing people and breaking things is a small value, stealing something is much bigger and shooting your gun is huge. There are really many different degrees of distraction."
― Dany LePage

Too many 'big' distractions could lead to police locking down the area, evacuating civilians and calling in Third Echelon agents - heavily armed government nuts who know exactly what Sam looks like and how to fight him. Playing Conviction without crowd cover is like playing Chaos Theory with the lights on.[2]

Leak

Promotional images, artwork and the logo of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction were leaked on September 21, 2006 in a RAR archive that displayed a different version of the game that had actually been released. The first screenshots were revealed on a message board with photographs of screenshots in a magazine featuring shots of Sam Fisher with long hair and a full grown beard, throwing chairs, tossing people around, blending in with a crowd, and engaging in a firefight from behind cover. The videos also showed vastly improved lighting and shadow effects from Double Agent. Also, it appeared as though Conviction would feature gameplay similar to Ubisoft's previously released game, Assassin's Creed. This, as mentioned previously in the article, would have included blending in with an interactive crowd.

First trailer

On May 23, 2007, Ubisoft released the first trailer for the game. It demonstrated a more casual-looking Sam interacting with objects, such as tables and chairs, to disable enemies.

Release date

The game was intended to be released for Christmas 2007 as an Xbox 360 console exclusive and also be available on PC.

Videos

Splinter Cell Conviction presentation05:50

Splinter Cell Conviction presentation

Gallery

2008 version

Change in direction

Maxime Beland became Creative Producer of Conviction in January 2008, joining Conviction's new producer Alexandre Parizeau, after finishing work on Assassin's Creed in November the previous year.[4]

Script and level design

The previous team had decided that Washington was going to be the main setting of the game. It was decided to keep that aspect of the script.[5]

Level assets from the 2005 version were reused:

  • Malta
  • Lincoln Memorial
  • The White House map

Out of thirteen maps, four were from the old version that were there at the beginning.

After decided on what maps the were going to keep they rewrote the story, put the maps in and then created all the levels.

Highway of Death level

The inclusion of the level was a major decision made early on by the developers to add variety to the game. The feedback that they got was not as positive as they were expecting.[6]

Mechanics

A lot of things were remade from the ground up for Conviction. So it wasn’t a decision of cutting mechanics as much as it was deciding if the developers wanted to re-implement them. Because they were changing the gameplay to make it faster and more dynamic, mechanics like moving dead bodies were not the highest priority of things to do.[6]

Mark & Execute

The inspiration behind the Mark & Execute feature came from action movies. 

The developers wanted the player to feel like a well-trained agent and to adopt the persona of a Hollywood action hero.



Interrogation and torture

The developers were careful to justify why Sam was being so aggressive in the story, in the narrative and in the emotional context. They needed a story context that justified it and Sam looking for the killer of his daughter allowed for that. However, they didn’t want to do gratuitous violence so they shied away from more explicit actions like swirlies[7] and eye-gouging.[6]

Multiplayer

It was exactly the same thing for the adversarial game mode and omission of Spies versus Mercs. They really wanted to make sure that what they were going to do was the highest quality possible and didn’t want to pursue adversarial. With adversarial there’s a lot of balancing and because they were changing the gameplay, it would have been a suicide mission to reinvent the stealth gameplay and at the same time try to do adversarial.[6]

E3 2009

The game resurfaced at E3 2009, with a completely new visual style and a different Sam. The developers confirmed that the "new" Conviction had been in development since early 2008, commenting that "the gameplay has evolved a lot" and "the visual direction is simply much better". The game was given a November 2009 release date at E3, but was later pushed back to the first quarter of 2010.

Delay

After initially announcing a release date of February 23, 2010, Ubisoft delayed the game again until April 2010. On February 4, 2010, Ubisoft officially announced that the game will be released on April 13, 2010 for Xbox 360.

Demo

On March 18, 2010, the demo was released for Xbox 360. The demo includes an interrogation scene, and a gameplay scene which allows the player to fully get a grasp of the game's new features.

Gallery

References

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