Splinter Cell: Blacklist and the Challenges of Stealth

Ubisoft Toronto's Patrick Redding explores the challenges of developing a modern stealth game, and how the next Splinter Cell aims to surmount them.

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Sam Fisher is a busy man. Ever since his debut back in 2002, this supersoldier has seen his series oscillate between strict stealth and dynamic action. Part of this shift in focus stems from the inherent challenges of the stealth genre and the tolerance of an ever-expanding target audience. Patrick Redding, game director at Ubisoft Toronto, explains how he and his team have approached these challenges, and what changes are coming in Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist.

CHALLENGE ONE: SATISFACTION

What is so satisfying about stealth? Some might think it's slipping past guards and moving unseen. However, as Redding sees it, this is just a result and not the cause. "Stealth--from a level design perspective--is not about avoidance. Instead, it's about building an ecosystem, and [that ecosystem] needs to feel like it has an existence outside of what the player is doing. That's why having a really [dynamic] AI is so important." Having an AI that acts human can make a level feel alive and introduce that bit of randomness that keeps you on your toes.

"Part of the dynamic of stealth games is that you're holding that power of life and death over the NPCs, but electing not to do anything with it."--Redding, on stealth
"When you arrive in a new environment you start out in stealth by default. You haven't been detected, yet, and even if the first thing you do is pull the pin on a grenade and throw it, you are still dealing with the current state of that environment. The output of your action is going to have a different impact on the [ecosystem] in that moment than in another."

For Redding and his team, choice trumps avoidance in the scenarios they create. "There's a lot of depth in using gadgets in combination, understanding how sound will attract the AI, knowing where to hide bodies, and so on. By giving all these tools to the player, and offering multiple paths in the environment, you're reinforcing that they have the ultimate choice in how this is going to play out."

"At the same time, you don't want conditions to be so fragile or so volatile that the player feels like they have no idea what's going to happen when they push a button or pull a trigger," Redding says. "For the player, the challenge is surveying the situation, observing the AI, and then putting together a plan. The fun is then executing that plan and seeing whether it plays out exactly how you thought, went a little differently, or having it all go wrong and needing to [escape]. That's what's satisfying for stealth players."

CHALLENGE TWO: DEATH AND FAILURE

Death is a tricky design for games. It challenges you by using the threat of failure, but if overdone, that threat will leave you too cautious to try anything new. As Redding describes it, finding the right balance has always been a moving target for the Splinter Cell franchise. "If you look at the original Splinter Cell, that threshold was set very, very tightly. If you made a mistake, you either died or the mission was aborted. With every subsequent entry in this series, that threshold has been made a little more forgiving to permit the player more options and prevent there being just one solution to a situation."

"By the time we got to Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction, we introduced this game loop called "PEV," or "prepare, execute, vanish." You would get into position, observe, and plan, and then act on that plan. And you always had the ability to break line of sight with the AI, who would then converge on your last known location. Of course, you could use that knowledge to set up a trap for them. PEV was our way of saying even if things go wrong and you get into a combat situation, that shouldn't be the end. [Combat] should just be the transition into another stealth experience."

With Blacklist, the team wanted to preserve those transitions between stealth and combat, while simultaneously tweaking the failure threshold once again. "What we've done is we've made it much, much harder to survive in an open firefight," Redding says. "Enemies now are [significantly] more dangerous, providing a much stronger incentive to remain stealthy." The hope is that you will adopt a panther style of play: picking off individual enemies while skirting around the threat of detection.

"The fluidity of Sam's movements has been improved to help encourage this panther style," Redding adds. "We really want it to feel like Sam is always multiple steps ahead of the enemy, which helps make the player feel more elite. When things go wrong, and you save the day, and you then disappear into the darkness leaving nothing but a trail of bodies in your wake--that, for us, is the game at its most fun. In our perfect world, we hope that everyone has the chance to pull that off."

CHALLENGE THREE: MASS APPEAL

Tolerance, specifically player tolerance, is yet another moving target for this series. As the desired audience for Splinter Cell games grows, the team must constantly question how much of the traditional, methodical stealth action an average player will tolerate. As Redding explains, "For us, we look at Splinter Cell and we look at the marketplace, and the challenge becomes, 'Can we make a stealth game that is going to appeal to a mass-market group of players?'"

"We owe a lot to the fact that, in the independent games scene, there has been a lot of willingness to experiment with new ideas in stealth."--Redding, on design
"We've circled that [problem] a few different ways. When we got to Conviction, we tried a slight variation on our stealth design. We thought maybe the stealth needed to be faster and offer the player more chances to be aggressive and dynamic in the environment."

Before the release of Blacklist, such games as Dishonored and Mark of the Ninja revealed that asking the average player to play in a stealthy way wasn't such a tall order. "We didn't have to be as dogmatic about [the speed] because we realized from a lot of other games…that playing in a stealthy way can be immensely satisfying for the player as long as it's readable and the player doesn't feel like they have to spend hours watching AI walk patterns."

Readability is the difference between making you feel like a silent predator lurking in the night and making you feel like just some dude squatting in the shadows. That sense of empowerment can push you to be a little more patient, within reason. "As long as it can be done in a reasonable amount of time, asking the player to engage in observation and planning is totally acceptable. That was a very interesting lesson in understanding what the tolerances are for typical players that we needed to learn."

Over the years, Redding and his team have encountered players of all varieties. "There will always be players who are willing to be extremely deliberate and will monitor one guard for a very long time. However, just because other players aren't willing to go to that extreme doesn't mean they won't engage in some observation." This tolerance has encouraged the team to tap into more of the series' classic moments--where the challenges (and the consequences) are stricter--if only for a moment.

"If you tell the player, 'In this area, these are the types of rules you have to follow--go!' a lot of players really enjoy that. There are some players who love being told what to do, and others who love having choice, so we have to treat [our game] as a kind of buffet. There are these hors d'oeuvre moments where we give the player some very rigid constraints and maybe open their mind to another style of play without forcing them to do it everywhere or for half-hour stretches."

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Discussion

445 comments
JoshGill8
JoshGill8

This game needs released immediately. I've been playing old Tom Clancy games waiting for this

Vixremento
Vixremento

"Bringing back stealth more in line with the original games". Yippee!!!

"Mass market appeal"...fail (granted I'm not sure they can mess up more than what they did with Conviction). I guess selling more copies is something I'll never win an argument against but all I know is that one of those purchases won't be coming from me unless this game really is more like the originals.

hellstink
hellstink

I recently bought the HD collection and I must say they really threw this game down the shitter, the maps were so much more complex, not only did you have to go slow to be quiet but also it makes you want to beat each mission as quietly as possible its sad i hope one day there is a a SC game that will live up to its true name :/

quakke
quakke

@1947gamer 

Sure. If you are willing to look through all the issues. Read my review of the game, and you will notice it is quite buggy.
But the game did have good concept, just bad execution.

senjutsu
senjutsu

Where is the Stealth? You move in the dark with 3 brith green lights on your head? You use a drone that no one seems to hear or seem for an unknown reason? You whistle to get ennemies get near you? Ennemies have "Google jammers"? Whaaat?

Frankly, this is not a stealth game. It's a stealth wanna be. I'll stick with Metal Gear Solid instead, lol. It's not even close. Still, this game might be fun, but it's more a 3rd person shooter than stealth. Maybe we could call this, 3rd person action-stealth-shooter? (Even games like rainbow six would fit that)

jethrovegas
jethrovegas

To be challenged by making a stealth game you first have to be making one.

1947gamer
1947gamer

The game didn't get rave reviews but if you like stealth try Velvet Assassin. I think it is a great stealth game.

WoZe
WoZe

Another great game from CANADA! The best games come from here! VIVE LE QUEBEC LIBRE!!

TopGunnas
TopGunnas

collectors edition day 1 buy

lionhearte22
lionhearte22

Love the fast paced stealth of splintercell and dishonoured etc, but i feel that the hardcore audience doesnt have such a problem with prolonged planning. Any one play operation flashpoint CWC? The meticulous watching from afar and slow approach was so tense and satisfying when pulled off. It'd be a shame to see this kind of tactical stealth disappear from our markets entirely


Shengy89
Shengy89

This article certainly raised my hopes up for Blacklist, because Conviction felt like a far cry from Splinter Cell games.

team_steve
team_steve

I'm in, looks great, hope they can release a polished stealth friendly game.

Errorcutive
Errorcutive

I just hope the new skill tree mechanic is just about your play style not the ending cause im starting to get sick about good ending equal pacifist and bad ending equal lethal elimination, cause that ruined the freedom of mission completion, maybe this game need to change that mechanic by making the opposite (good ending equal lethal massacare), or at least please dont make different ending for this game

twisted_outlaw
twisted_outlaw

maybe since they had to change the voice actor they should do a reboot of the series again. and go with an origin storyline ala Jason Bourne style.

twisted_outlaw
twisted_outlaw

They should go back to Chaos Theory and grow on that formula. I mean...it only won best Xbox game awards from pretty much every publication. Then they hacked it up and threw it away. Wtf?

esantirulo
esantirulo

I don't like the idea that a game is some kind of "buffet". A buffet is not for gourmets!

Oozyrat
Oozyrat

Sounds very promising actually! I'll miss Ironside, but I have to admit I'm a lot more excited for the game after reading this. I really think they should've done two parts to the E3 trailer: 1) The part they did that was a fluid mechanics 2) All stealth (the trailer really didn't show off the excellent AI that their teasing in this). Also glad to hear that they're making combat a little more lethal. In Conviction I used the Five-Seven and trigger-fingered half the game in the open because it was simply fun. Also, this is probably the first instance where a developer said "appeal to a bigger audience" and it came out good lol. A lot of developers are simply too afraid to stick too their roots and listen to the long-time fans. If the games needed more action, then they wouldn't have gotten this far. Glad to see a lot of innovation and stealth in some recent games. Hopefully they keep it up! Good luck and I hope the game is good and sells just as well :)

roguebot
roguebot

The Assassins's Creed series has become less stealth-based with each release. After reading this article, it's easy to understand why. It must be difficult to develop dozens of polished stealth missions when you've got an annual deadline hanging over your head. In AC3, I felt more like a Terminator T-800 than a stealthy assassin.

neonblueshadow
neonblueshadow

I was getting more and more turned off by the newer splinter cells, and their apparent transition towards cartoony mechanics and pacing. They seem to be playing with those mechanics again and dialing back in to be a bit better paced for a stealth genre. I never expected realism from any of the splinter cell games, but I didn't expect the ridiculous cartoon type gameplay I saw in the newer ones either. Also, I dislike Sam fisher being on his own, his gadgets and back up logistics make him more fun. 
- So, while this looks better than conviction, I'm not sure if it will appeal to me as the previous splinter cells did. I found satisfaction in doing the whole 'waiting in the shadows and planning my move thing'. And i'm just not sure if this one will deliver on that. The QTE and action sequences shown make me nervous....

acemcgregor
acemcgregor

This may sound odd, but does anyone miss (Conviction included) being in full control of your movement speed? In the past two there was either standing and moving or crouching and moving, with no speed control through how hard you pushed on the analog stick. To me it added extra depth (and tension) to the gameplay because it felt like I was in control of sneaking up on an enemy and that if I pushed too hard he might hear me.

ollie_sr
ollie_sr

At first I was worried because the great thing about Conviction was that it was clear when you were hidden and when you were not. You we're either good in the dark, or out in the light. I didn't notice that when the light on his back is green, you're in the shadows. I like it! :)

JURGMANDR
JURGMANDR

This isn't splinter cell as far as I'm concerned. I find its lack of Ironside disturbing. Maybe I'll rent it, seeing as I liked Conviction (minus some of the bullshit non-stealth parts).

FobusMaximus
FobusMaximus

I just replayed Conviction, and I have a few thoughts on Blacklist. 1. That story was flat-out terrible. It's told from some random guy's point of view? Sam just goes on a killing spree (outside of his "Fifth Freedom") but it's okay because if he kills enough people he'll end up saving the country from one of the stupidest threats it has ever faced? Silly hogwash. Blacklist needs a much better tale like those found in the original three SC games.  2. The mechanics for Conviction are just fine.  There are a lot of complaints that it just boils down to two "win" buttons, but in Chaos Theory all you did is sneak up on someone and pull the trigger to "win". At least this looks a bit more like a Splinter Cell utilizing all of his tools. You can defeat four enemies by going hand to hand with one, quickly shooting (executing) two, using a gadget, and taking down the other one all in a quick (believable) motion. The alternative from previous games was wait for each of them to be alone so that you could knife or not knife them in the back. And forget about shooting in the older games. Generally useless. Add to these mechanics and they'll be just fine in Blacklist.  3. Sam Fisher is Michael Ironside. He just is. Sometimes, you just can't replace an actor. I know he already is, and I know it won't change, but Sam should not be the Splinter Cell you play as in Blacklist. Here's a fresh idea: Retcon that awful co-op campaign ending, and bring back Archer as Sam's protege, replacing Sam as the "best" Splinter Cell. Then Ironside doesn't have to do Mo-Cap (or as much of it), there's no need to change Sam's face or voice, and we don't have to explain why a guy who has to be at least 45-50 years old by now is taking out whole terror cells single-handedly.

icebox98
icebox98

probably the most interesting splintercell game..... 

skizzel
skizzel

Ghost is the only actual stealth mode. it actually took planning and shadows and thought to pass this part of the level.

 the others took no gadgets/ way less time and challenge panther is pretty much knife the easy guy on the outskirts line up a QTE kill push one button get 3 kills walk or run to the room wheres there's a tech guy blocking the goggles you aren't going to need cause your shooting everyone open the door QTE line up the rest push button kill everyone else with out need for aiming.

assault is COD third person actually there was probably more stealth in COD then there was in assault in this.  Assault is shoot out all the lights so AI gets retarded and doesn't know where you are and then spray bullets at them till they die and run to the next room.

rann89
rann89

I could've written this entire article in one sentence. How to do stealth in 2013: just make the game easier.

Grenadeh
Grenadeh

The only challenge is "Should we actually make it stealth or should stealth be an option like in AC?" Frankly Splinter Cell Conviction was like 0% stealth, but the original was too much stealth. You could hide a body in the depths of the earth and they'd find it, no killing allowed.

khatibi22
khatibi22

As a devoted Splinter Cell fan, I do care if the game is more action based than stealthy, Sam Fisher looks and acts younger, looses his original voice actor, etc. Either way, I look forward to play Blacklist as well.

robertcain
robertcain

As far as I see the greatest of modern stealth games including MGS4 and Dishonoured have placed emphasis on sneaking around whilst at the same time offering the more direct option for those who love action. The problem with Splinter Cell since Conviction was that action was pretty much encouraged as a pose to the careful and diligent stealth gameplay the series was known for.

Freboy
Freboy

I got a generally positive impression of this interview. However, one thing was a bit laughable:

"Before the release of Blacklist, such games as Dishonored and Mark of the Ninja revealed that asking the average player to play in a stealthy way wasn't such a tall order."

Oh yeah? So that finally sunk in. "Hey guys, here's a strange thought, but perhaps we don't need to make Splinter Cell more like CoD to sell more copies."

Here's the thing: CoD - and BF of course - already exist. They has the biggest player bases and (presumably) best tweaked combat system. If other developers try to mimic them, there is a very high risk that they will merely make a sub-par imitation.

A game needs to stand on its OWN merits, and appeal to gamers who (a) don't like 1st person multiplayer shooters or (b) do like those games, but are looking for a change of pace. From this interview, I got the impression that Patrick Redding (thankfully) gets that.

Payasoplas
Payasoplas

@senjutsu In MGS you can run over a metal catwalk making lots of noise  and the enemies won't even notice you, That's not stealth...

rann89
rann89

@WoZe Eh, not that great. I don't anyone that's played a Splinter Cell after the first one. They said themselves that they made stealth consistently easier and easier since the first one. If you want a game where you can just as easily assault through as hide, there are better games out there. 

Field_Commander
Field_Commander

@lionhearte22 average players have a life and can't afford to spend half a hour just watching some random AIs patrolling around.

and those average players make up of the massive majority of the market.

in the end, money talks.

stuka443
stuka443

@lionhearte22 yeah I played CWC about 10 years ago, some of the best gaming related memories I have comes from those stealthmissions:)  

splinter10
splinter10

@twisted_outlaw I thought you'd say cause YOU thought it was a good game. Not cause you read in some publications it was a game.

res123123
res123123

@acemcgregor  Yep looks like this is the same as Conviction, one movement. Totally takes away that feeling of full control and gives you that arcady feeling when moving. The AI looks awful, alot worse than Conviction by that last bit with guards not bothering with cover in a fire fight.     

Cybrggame
Cybrggame

@awhite33 I don't think Splinter Cell is all about stealth. I think its part of the iterative development of all their future games. Far Cry 3 definitely saw some influence from the Assassin's Creed series, and I'm sure we'll see the influence of this game on other Ubisoft titles in the future -- Games that won't necessarily focus on stealth.

Oozyrat
Oozyrat

@JURGMANDR Even though I love stealth games, I have to admit when Sam figured everything out (don't want to spoil it just in case someone hasn't played it) and he auto-targeted everyone, that was probably one of the most bad*** things in a game imo lol.

Oozyrat
Oozyrat

@rann89 Seems like the opposite for me. It could be wishful thinking but he clearly stated that firefights would be much harder, encouraging to stick to the shadows. Also you can most likely switch the difficulty anyways. I just hope the AI is good and fluid

rann89
rann89

@Cybrggame @awhite33 The trend you're seeing isn't some new development method. It's the trend of dumbing games down.

rann89
rann89

@Oozyrat @rann89 How hard can it be? Okay, firefights are hard. Except you never to worry about getting in a firefight because your silenced pistol isn't heard even by an enemy in the same room you're shooting it. So not only do you have a literal silencer, but you have an automatic targeting system that immediately kills at LEAST 3 people in one action without a single thought or reaction required by the player. Unless you have to sneak through a hallway that's 30 feet long and 5 feet wide with 20 people in it and no vents to crawl through, I don't see how you could possibly mess up. I won't even get into "Oh, sneaking through the room too hard? Just jump out a window, crawl along outside, and bypass half the level".

senjutsu
senjutsu

@Oozyrat @rann89 Play MGS instead, you'll see what hard stealth games mean. Not satisfied? Try getting a fox or cameleon rating (no one in the game got killed, not one in the game ever saw you or heard your steps). This is a real challenge. Still, you need to be patient, it's not for everyone (less "action packed").