Splinter Cell Q&A

We talk to Ubi Soft about the GameCube and PlayStation 2 versions of Splinter Cell.

Ubi Soft's Splinter Cell has made quite an impression on gamers since its release last year on the Xbox. Its stylish approach to the stealth action genre garnered it a loyal following on Microsoft's console, and this year, GameCube and PlayStation 2 owners will have a chance to walk in secret agent Sam Fisher's boots. We recently spoke with Domitille Doat, producer of the PlayStation 2 version, and Francis Coldeboeuf, producer of the GameCube version, to find out how the game has fared on those platforms.

The PS2 version has been in development for a full year now.
GameSpot: How long have the two versions been in development?

Francis Coldeboeuf : Splinter Cell GameCube has been in development for about eight months.

GS: When did you start work on it?

FC: We started the development on the GameCube engine for Splinter Cell in July 2002.

Domitille Doat: We have been working on the PS2 version for about a year.

GS: How closely was Ubi Montreal involved with the games?

DD: The Montreal team was very helpful. We were in regular contact with Mathieu Ferland, the producer of Splinter Cell for the PC and Xbox, who is located in Montreal. We also brought some key members--seven, in fact--over to Shanghai to work with us on a day-to-day basis. Of course, coding for the PS2 and GameCube requires different skills than coding for the Xbox and PC, and our Shanghai team is very proficient developing games for the PS2 and GameCube. They really understand the audience for each platform and helped in the development of versions that were tailored to the specific needs of GameCube and PS2 gamers.

GS: Could you give us a detailed explanation of how the PlayStation 2 version is being developed?

DD: The lighting in Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell is so important to the gameplay that it's almost a central character. Therefore, translating the great effects we saw on the Xbox to the PlayStation 2 platform was our top priority. We assigned our best engineers and graphics people to developing the light effects--specifically, dynamic and interactive lights. Creating these effects required nearly two months of total dedication. To create a realistic shadow-rich environment, we had to design a dynamic lighting system based on a strong engine. We relied on the Unreal engine for the PlayStation 2, which gave us the power and flexibility we needed. Our goal was to offer the player even more interaction with lights and shadows than was possible in the Xbox game. We felt that the Unreal engine could make that possible.

The developers know that lighting plays a crucial role in establishing Splinter Cell's atmosphere.
Our eye was always on the finish line, and we knew that the final result was what we would be measured by. While our final goal was concrete, how we would reach it was not--we knew it was going to take a lot of expertise and creativity to bring our vision to life. When selecting algorithms, we looked into a variety of solutions--whether they be scientifically precise or rough simulations--for any given problem. Sometimes, a mixture of solutions had to be used to balance the graphics quality and the demands placed on the engine, specifically in terms of the frame rate and memory. After solutions were implemented, the parameters were fine-tuned with the help of graphics designers to achieve the best onscreen result. Finally, each feature was allocated a certain CPU or GPU time, as well as a limit of memory usage. The engineers were responsible for optimizing the code to satisfy all these restrictions.

The main feature, of course, is the whole light and shadow system. With the implementation of the light map, dynamic lights, and projected shadows, we were able to create an atmosphere on the PS2 that was true to the essence of the game. The lighting of the character changes gradually depending on the light position and the visibility indicator.

Specifically, the engine supports the following:

  • Prerendered vertex color light.
  • Real-time light for spotlights and breakable lights (the light map is recalculated in real time when the light is switched on or off).
  • Shadow-casting light that casts a white spot on the places it can reach. In the game editor, graphics designers set which objects need to cast shadow and which objects need to receive shadows. By rearranging the rendering pipeline, we are able to render shadows on characters and static objects.

The developers want to maintain as many of the Xbox's effects as they can.
We realized that Splinter Cell had a lot of unique elements, but we wanted to attract players with our stunning visuals. After all, they would have to pick up the game to discover all the features! So we added some visual touches like the soft physics system, which uses what we call "soft body." Soft body is anything in the environment that is not solid--curtains and flags, for example. We thought that this unique effect made Splinter Cell stand out from other games.

To further improve the graphics quality, we support a number of supplemental features and special effects. Some of them are unique to the PS2 version:

  • The aforementioned soft body function. This allows for the realistic movement of curtainlike objectswhich is improved by adding environment mapping to them.
  • Thermal-vision and night-vision goggles. We set an initial heat intensity for each object. The actual dynamic intensity is computed by factoring in the initial heat intensity, the distance to the camera, and the body temperature of the characters. By adding blurring effects and noise functions, we were able to reach a thermal-vision effect close to those rendered with a pixel shader. Similar techniques are used for night vision as well.
  • A new water effect. Computationally expensive, but we optimize the code using VU to achieve acceptable frame rate.
  • Depth blur on both thermal and night vision. Objects are clearer as they come closer to the camera.
  • Focus blur in sniping mode. The focused-on object is clear, and the other parts are blurred.
  • Simulated hot-air turbulence in heated areas.
  • Mirror and reflection effects for glossy surfaces.

The sound engine supports triple streaming from the DVD to offer simultaneous voice, ambient sound, and theme-based music. To achieve this, we optimized the DVD streaming code and created tools that reorganize the streaming data layout on the DVD and support more-efficient data loading. Dolby Surround Pro Logic II is also supported in our sound engine, which offers players a nice alternative to the standard 3D audio.

The game's sound engine can deliver three discrete audio streams at once.
GS: How about the GameCube version?

FC: In the GameCube version, we were able to achieve an amazingly realistic water effect that relies on indirect textures. Even the waves look really good--and that's pretty hard to do! The GameCube version also has a shock-wave effect that is tied to the sticky bomb. Combining 3D and 2D effects, used with indirect textures, we've implemented a unique shock-wave effect that is available only when playing on a GameCube linked to a Game Boy Advance.

GS: What can you tell us about the connectivity between the GC and GBA versions of the game?

FC: Players will benefit from a top view of the current play area when a GBA is plugged in. The GBA will also provide you with a "wireless" communication tool, allowing you to access computers, trigger wall mines, and control turrets. Also, a new secondary weapon is available thanks to the link: the sticky bomb. Fired from the SC-20K, this bullet can stick to anything, including walls, objects, and NPCs. When triggered, it releases a sound wave that disables nearby enemies. A top view of the surrounding environment will help you to decide when is the best moment to trigger it. Combined with an original visual effect, this nonlethal weapon has proved to be a great help for hard times.

GS: Why did you include the connectivity?

The PS2 port features several graphical effects created specifically for that version.
FC: The Nintendo GameCube and its Game Boy Advance link cable provide a unique gameplay element to the player: a second control and a second viewpoint. We wanted to take advantage of this very specific element to provide a real help to the player whenever he or she needs it. The additional gameplay elements linked to the GBA are gadgets that are not necessary to progression but will make your life much easier if you start to use them. We believe the players will turn instinctively toward their GBAs as soon as they want to be stealthier and spare more lives.

GS: What were the challenges in bringing the game to each system? How did you get around them?

FC: Splinter Cell on the Xbox was so popular that expectations for how the game would look and play on other platforms were very high. It was very challenging to achieve the same high-quality effects from the Xbox version using the very different hardware of the GameCube and the PS2. We relied heavily on our experience and creativity to develop implementations specific to each platform that produced a consistent and high-quality result.

DD: If you'd like a specific example, the thermal vision was very complex. The model of Sam you see in normal vision was not adapted at all when you activated the thermal vision on the PS2--Sam became some sort of liquid character. He was almost cartoonish! We had to change the Sam model when thermal vision was activated. We then had to create the glow effect around all the characters and blur the background to add a real sense of perspective and a final polished effect. Last but not least, we had to make sure the environment was perfectly in line with what the gamer would expect--pipes should be hot, the fridge should be cold, and, last but not least, a dead body should cool until it finally becomes room temperature and has no heat signature.

GS: What graphical and gameplay elements did you feel were key to preserving the experience of the Xbox game?

Feedback on the previous versions of Splinter Cell was taken into account during development.
DD: We didn't want to sacrifice anything! No concession could be made when it came to the lighting and shadows. We also wanted to ensure that the AI is flexible.

GS: Has any of the feedback on the Xbox version of Splinter Cell affected the development of the other versions?

DD: It was great to have feedback on the Xbox version as we were deciding how to shape the PS2 and GameCube games--especially because we knew expectations were running high! And, it was fun to work on a project that everybody was so eager to play. We spent hours analyzing the play test results, reading forums, and poring over the reviews. Of course, the PlayStation and GameCube fans vary slightly from Xbox and PC players, so we were also careful to consider their user experience when we were making decisions about various features. We are very pleased with the results! We have succeeded in creating versions that provide game fans with the high-quality, enjoyable game experience they expect from Splinter Cell, with little twists that make playing the game on each console an experience unique unto itself.

GS: Thanks for your time.

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