Directing Splinter Cell: An Interview With Maxime Beland

by Matt Miller on Jul 17, 2012 at 08:00 AM

Blacklist represents a brand new direction for the Splinter Cell franchise. Not only is the game exploring new territory in game mechanics and storytelling, but the game is also the first installment to be crafted entirely at the new Ubisoft Toronto studio. Creative director Maxime Beland tells us more about the game and just what Sam Fisher has in store as he launches into a new adventure. 

What were your goals coming out of Splinter Cell: Conviction and starting with Blacklist? What were the specific things you wanted to do differently?

Maxime Beland: We went through around 80 reviews on the web. And I read through everything. We made a huge excel sheet, which featured how many journalists liked it, how many features they didn't like. So I have stats. I know exactly what was liked, what wasn't liked. There were three things that we knew we needed to fix. One is spies versus mercs. We're doing it. Then, graphics. That was the second thing that journalists weren't happy about. We agree. So we’re removing the black and white filter. And we worked a lot on the graphics. We have a kickass team of programmers, artists, directors; they're super good. And the last thing was scope. The single-player was not long enough. And for us, that was interesting because we felt that Conviction had maybe a 7 hour single-player. But then there was a lot of co-op content. We were like, we have a lot of content, but people aren't seeing it. So when we started to think about it, and we were like, how do we increase the playtime of the game? So obviously, one element is an important, strong storyline. We have this concept of the SMI [Strategic Mission Interface] and blurring the lines between co-op and adversarial. And that's what we're doing. We're not making three games that are separate. My goal? I'd like to ship with no main menu. I'd like you to start the game, you get a little intro, and then you're in the plane, you're in front of your SMI, and that's your menu. And you're always online, you're there. You pull up your world map and you're, like, I want to play this one mission. Then you have a friend that joins, and you bring up that map again and join your friend. So, like that's the first half of that answer. And the second half is expanding the range. For us it was super important that we look at the range of stealth and action. The first Splinter Cell games were really stealth-oriented. And you couldn't go much into action. Then Conviction had a little bit more action, but we lost some stealth. Now, on Blacklist, we're really trying to expand on both sides. A little bit more into action, but a lot more into stealth also. Because we feel that we lost a lot of that with Conviction.

Tracking back to Conviction and the other previous games – each game sort of has a different version of Sam. What is this version of Sam this time? Who is this character this time around?

I think on a character side, we're going to see Sam be very different than before. Because, first of all, he's the leader. So he's got that pressure on his shoulders that is a lot bigger than before. In Conviction, he was kind of working for himself so it was more of a personal drive. But now he's got the lives of millions at stake. This new idea of him being the leader, it's very interesting for us. Especially with the relationship to the other characters. In the game, you know, Grim's coming back. It's very interesting for us because in the beginning of Blacklist, based on the events of Conviction, there's going to be amazing tension between the two, right? And our two actors, because we're doing performance capture, we've got the two actors Eric Johnson and Kate Drummond, when we started to do the moments where they are interacting together – it's amazing. And it's hard because we have Sam Fischer who has a lot of presence – he's strong. And if you look at Eric, he looks a bit like a Viking. And we needed an actress that could stand up to him. A powerful woman who is smart. And Kate is doing an amazing job. We've got those moments where, because we're doing performance capture, they don't need to talk; sometimes they can just look at each other. And then you get everything. So, at one point, we were doing some performance capture, and I got some shivers. And what's cool is we've got that tech now, we can translate it to the game.

What is the Blacklist?

The idea about the Blacklist started when our writer was telling me that the United States, in real life, they have soldiers in 2/3 of the countries in the world. And I was like, wow, that's crazy. And then we were seeing what was happening in Libya and in Syria. All the communities, the people, were interacting together because of Twitter, because of Facebook. They were talking. We thought about the concept of united we stand, divided we fall. What if the bad guys do that? If you're a bunch of rogue nations and you band together. There's 10 or 12 of them. So the Blacklist is that. It's basically, they're together, and they say, get out of our soil, or we bring the war to you. They don't want to fight this in their schools, they don't want to fight this in their churches. So, they're, like, we'll bring the war to you. So they release the Blacklist, a series of attacks that not only are attacking American targets, but they're attacking American values.

But the US doesn't know what these targets are?

Exactly. The way they're going to announce their plan to the world, they're going to give their ultimatum. It's going to be on websites, they're going to be hacking some stuff, it's going to be really cool. And they're going to name all the attacks, you know, "American something," "American something." And the "something" is an American value. And then there's going to be timers next to each of them. And then, you know, "You're still in our countries." Boom. First attack. "You're still in our countries." Boom. Second attack.

So, is the forming of Fourth Echelon and Sam coming on board when the first one of these attacks occurs or something?

I can’t answer that quite yet. I will say that we had this challenge because of the way we ended Conviction where Sam was like, “I'm done.” So we needed to have a very strong reason for Sam to accept to come back and to be a leader. And I think we found it. So, definitely, at the beginning of that game, we're bridging the gap between Conviction a little bit. But we're also setting up that’s it’s credible; Sam's back.

Is there any conscious effort these days to tie together the different Tom Clancy fiction areas? When you're working on a new Splinter Cell, are you looking to the other Tom Clancy franchises for narrative connections? Or are you trying to distance those different franchises?

It's been a goal for us at Ubisoft to do a lot more cross-pollination. Because I think it's great. The reality is, making a game is already difficult. Just having a good story is very challenging. So, we talk with the Rainbow guys. We ask them what they’re doing. But it's hard to coordinate. It's a big logistics challenge. And, for me, my priority is obviously to make a great Splinter Cell game, a lot more than to do that cross-pollination. Although it's always something we want to do. We have meetings, dinners together; the directors, it's something we want to do, but the reality is, it's hard.

[Next Up: What are Fourth Echelon moments, and how does morality play into the new game?]

Let's talk a little bit about the individual gameplay features that you are trying this time around.

I think our big thing right now is killing in motion. On Conviction, my big thing with Sam was I wanted him to be more agile. And now that we've got that, it’s about the next step ahead. So, we're kind of working with our animation director to make Sam more fluid, and always one step ahead. So killing in motion is basically three things. The first one is active sprint. You run, you sprint, and you automatically jump over stuff. If there's a door, you bash the door. If there's something to climb, you climb automatically. We're making traversing the environment super easy. Then, if you're moving and you press Y to execute, Sam keeps his momentum, keeps the direction that you've got. And the last thing is hand-to-hand takedowns in motion also. So instead of stopping to do a hand-to-hand kill, Sam slices through the guy.

Tell me about the Fourth Echelon moments idea.

Because Sam's a leader now, we kind of wanted to have moments where the team could help Sam, right? And we don't want to go into a squad-based style of gameplay or anything. We love the idea that Sam is surrounded by amazing people that have different talents. And so the idea came that, what if in every map or whenever it fits the story or the gameplay, we have the team that comes in and is like, “Hey Sam! I'm here, I can do this for you!” So for E3, the example we have is that Grim takes control of a UAV drone and she's like, "I see you're overwhelmed. If you want, I can shoot it down." And what I like about it is that we're controlling when it's happening, but the player is in control of if he wants to use it or not and when he wants to use it. So you can decide on, I'm trying to do a stealth playthrough, so I don't want to have a big rocket that comes out on a tactical target against me. And then you start playing, and you've been stealth, and then you get detected, the s--- hits the fan, and if you've got Kinect, you just yell “Grim, now!” and then the rocket fires. So those are interesting. You can imagine the same idea with the opposite. Instead of being a rocket in the sky, it could be Grim hacking into an electricity system from a building. And she's like, “Hey, I know where you are, tell me and I'll turn off the lights for you or something.” And then you're like, “Yeah, Grim, turn off the lights,” and you're in the dark.

One of the things that's on display in the demo is a choice to kill a guy or knock him out. Those choices – are they largely specific to that moment, and the repercussions end there? Or do they affect anything later in your story?

The first thing is that Blacklist is a mature game with a very realistic theme. It's serious. I mean, when we saw Bin Laden, and they took him out, we were like, s---, this could have been Sam Fischer that was doing it. So we're always reading things like Danger Room from Wired. And we're always keeping up to date on that. We love the idea of putting the player in those situations that these guys are going through. I don't know if you saw Generation Kill, the HBO miniseries. You have to watch it if you haven't. These soldiers. They are heroes. They're fighting so that we're free, so that we're happy. They get into situations that are just awful. It's not a question sometimes of doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Sometimes it's I need to do the wrong or the wrong-er. What do I do? There's no good option. We saw – when they went after Bin Laden – they had a percentage chance that he was there. So what do you do? What if you f--- up? What if it's a school instead? We're seeing that a lot with the drones. If the likelihood is at 62%, do you blow the *** out of that? Is 65% OK? How about 35%? No? So for us, the interrogations are a bit of that. We want to put the player into situations that are like the one we're showing at E3; the guy just told you everything you needed to know. You're done. You're good. You're Sam Fischer. This guy is finished. Are you going to kill him? And we discussed a lot about morality. How can we have the player live morality and play morality in a game, and what we agreed upon after lots of interesting discussions was if you want to have true morality in a game, you cannot link it to mechanics or to a system. Because the player will play the system; he's not going to play the true world choice. If we told you, if you're the good guy, you're gonna get this, and if you're the bad guy, you're gonna get that, you're not thinking, "what am I doing here?" In those moments, what I would like is when you play them and you talk to your friend about it after, you say “I did this. What do you think?” “So for you, 62% is enough?” That's the kind of discussion we want; our team brings those questions up. And I think it's cool to make people reflect on it and hopefully grow as humans a little bit. Because we've got some guys everywhere in the world that are making those decisions every day for us.

I know the focus at E3 is on single-player. Is there anything you can tell me about what you guys are doing with cooperative or competitive multiplayer stuff?

Well, Conviction added amazing co-op, so we're embracing that. So it's going to be even cooler. And then spy vs. mercs was the number one requested thing from Conviction, so that's coming back. I think what's cool with it, what I'm allowed to say today is the idea that we're going to have to cross-pollinate, so regardless of what you're playing, whether is cooperative, adversarial, this is always a game about Sam. Sam's going to be making the money. The money goes toward Fourth Echelon and you can spend that money on Sam, on some co-op stuff, on some adversarial stuff. And that money is buying new weapons, upgrading new weapons, buying gadgets, upgrading gadgets, upgrading Fourth Echelon, so you're going to be upgrading the plane, and that's going to have some gameplay repercussions. And, also, Sam's tactical suit. I think that's super cool because it's not just a cosmetic choice for the suit. It's also linked with gameplay, so if you want to play more action, you can put on a bigger bulletproof vest. If you want to play more stealth, you can go a little bit lighter, be a little bit faster, or add boots that allow you to make less noise when you're navigating.

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