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Splinter Cell Interview: On AI, Systemic Gameplay, Old Engines, New Horizons and Keeping Sam in the Shadows
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 12:29pm 05/08/13 | Comments
AusGamers caught up with Ubisoft's Kristjan Zadziuk who serves as animation director for Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Read on or watch for what he had to say about Sam's next stealthy journey...


Watch the full video interview embedded above, or click here for a direct link


AusGamers: Gamers, welcome back to AusGamers. You are here once again with Stephen Farrelly. PAX Aus has managed to bring some alumni out to us, and in this particular instance, we’ve got a gentleman who is animating this very stiff version of a particular character [gestures to Sam Fisher mannequin; laughs]. We’ve got Kristjan, who is working on Blacklist, the latest Splinter Cell game.

I want to start with the controversy that happened at E3 last year, and I just want to talk about the idea that everybody freaked out, thinking that you’ve gone all action; that Michael Ironside’s not there anymore; it’s a total revamp of the series. Obviously, everything that you’ve just showed me in the demo that we’ve just had (you can read that preview a little bit later on), suggests that that’s not even remotely true. There’s plenty of stealth, it’s very much still a Splinter Cell game.



Can you talk about, I guess, the frustrations the team might have felt after that particular unveiling, and you don’t have to, but I’d really like a personal opinion on the things that E3 does in regards to stuff like that -- which happens to a lot of different companies: so many games tend to show this high-action, high-octane moments, without really giving you the meat and gravy of the game.

Kristjan Zadziuk: Well, you’ve got to understand, when we showed that game last year, we were lucky enough to be asked to be on the Microsoft stage, and on the Microsoft stage, you have a very short amount of time to kind of impress people and show off your game, and unfortunately, having a pitch-black, stealthy, skulking in the shadows demo, isn’t really going to do it.

So we knew we had to come with something that was going to cause some controversy. We knew we were going to do stealth -- we always knew we were going to do that -- so we thought “Hey, why not bring something a little bit different”. So we kind of went out there, maybe to shock, or get some sort of feedback. The good thing about going to that E3 was that it really kind of reinforced that going stealth was the right way for us, and it really reinforced what Blacklist was supposed to be.

So I think going to that E3, for me personally, it was great to... I mean yeah, sure it hurt: we get all the criticism and the feedback, and when we know deep-down what that game is going to be, it’s really kind of frustrating that we’re like “well, just you wait until we start showing more”... and as you’ve said, we’ve shown you this version, and we had a press tour back in January as well, and we’ve really started to show our mettle; we’ve started to show what Splinter Cell is.

So when we start showing that, it’s having the confidence in what we’re doing, to not want to go on the forums and say “Hey, we’ve got this, and got this; you can calm down”, and everything we knew we always had. The demo that we’ve shown you: it’s in London, it’s raining, it’s night, it’s stealth, you don’t have to touch anyone -- it’s non-lethal, or lethal, depending on how you want to go; you start using your gadgets, you start using the AI. That’s something that we’ve really refined over the course, and it’s actually been because of the feedback, and because the fans have seen it, and had eyes on it for almost a year and a half now. It’s been really good that we’ve been able to have a dialogue with the fans, and really develop Blacklist into something that is going to be a real true, classic Splinter Cell experience.

AusGamers: Let’s talk about the dialogue with the fans, because -- you’ve already spoken to me about this, but just so we can get it on the record -- obviously you guys have taken a lot of feedback from Conviction, and obviously there’s a massive fanbase built around the series. You kind of talked about tiers of things that fans wanted back, and that you guys as designers wanted back. Can you go through that process of choosing, and what you ended up with, from Conviction and the fans in general?



Kristjan: Well, I think Conviction was a necessary step. I think no matter how much the fans had loved the game, there was always going to be... I mean, the hardcore are always the loudest, right? So I think we knew with Conviction, that we needed to create that step, so we could actually get to Blacklist. There’s mechanics we’ve still got from Conviction -- we’ve obviously still got the mark and execute, and that is in Blacklist, but in Blacklist, we’ve evolved it, and we’ve brought in the hand to hand with that, with the new perfectionist mode. We also allow the ability to mark, but we don’t allow the ability to execute.

So we started to use tools that we created in Conviction, and using the dialogue from the fans, we’ve also brought back a lot of the feeling and the feel of the fan favourite, which is Chaos Theory. So we really, truly feel that Blacklist is a nice kind of marrying of those with Conviction. And this again, is probably part of the reason why we went to E3 last year, because we had that, I suppose, an actiony version of Splinter Cell.

But we have the three different playstyles: we’ve got assault, we’ve got panther, and we’ve got stealth. If you play stealth all the time, and you’re completely ghost, great; we allow you to do that. If you want to go guns blazing, and just pull out your rifle and just start shooting people in the head: again, we allow you to do that. But to us, I think we felt that player-choice is at the heart, and when you play that panther style -- that in the middle style -- that’s when the game starts to become really fun, and that’s where we feel that Splinter Cell is at its strongest. When you’ve got all those styles together, it really starts to allow the player to make that decision. There’s nothing more satisfying than you seeing a situation, solving a problem, dealing with that, and making you feel like you manipulate the AI to do what you want.

So that’s something I think we’re really proud of. I’m really happy with it from an animation standpoint as well. I know the AI team have worked really hard on that as well, so to me it’s something that we’re really looking forward to people getting their hands on.

AusGamers: Now you just kind of brought it up anyway. But we’re talking about systemic gameplay here; we’re talking about a bunch of systems that players can utilise in any way they see fit, to navigate the sandboxes that you’ve created for everybody. Obviously it’s not an open-world game, but can you talk about approaching emergent gameplay, from an open-player perspective, in terms of giving everybody all of these tools, creating level-design, and a world that feeds back, not only in tone, but also in terms of positives and negatives for the player. How do you guys approach that? Even just saying that sounds like it’s the hardest shit to do.



Kristjan: Yeah, it’s tough. You don’t know what a player is going to do right? So we want to leave all these choices out, and I think I’ve mentioned [this] today [but] if you give people too many choices, they end up picking nothing, and they end up doing nothing. So we’ve got to be really careful about how many options we give players. So we feel that, again with the three different playstyles, that we’ve started to categorise things, and the cool thing is that we don’t penalise you for any way of playing, we kind of use our scoring system as a way of ushering you down a certain route. We’re not forcing you to play assault, we’re not forcing you to play stealth, we’re not even forcing you to play panther, we’re just kind of suggesting it. The power of suggestion is something.

Obviously we have a story that we want to tell, but we feel that if we give these effectively sandboxes, where the AI are completely dynamic, and are completely systemic, you can start adding gadgets together, and you could start using reactions. You could start with knocking a light out: you knock a light out, then maybe someone will come over, they’ll react to that, then you use that to your advantage, and maybe a proximity shocker underneath that guy, that guy will react, and then you can use that. You could fire a bullet past someone’s head, and they’re going to react to that, and again, you can use that to your advantage.

We really wanted to build into our AI reaction system, and by doing that, it kind of allows all of these realistic, systemic, emergent gameplay [opportunities]. I think Splinter Cell is kind of known for that. We didn’t want to script anything. We were happy with the way a lot of the AI were reacting in that E3 demo you were talking about, and we wanted to push that through. You’ve got the London map, where it’s rainy, it’s wet, and electricity and water don’t go together, so we start to use that to our advantage.

The fact that AI kind of team up, and they start backing each other up, if they start getting scared, they’ll go back to back, we use that as a weapon. And the fact that Sam is strongest when he’s in the dark: so you start turning the lights out -- you don’t even have to blow lights out, you just turn the lights off, and everyone will go “Huh? What was that?”, and they’ll start reacting to it. They don’t start screaming “Fisher! I’m going to kill you”, they’ll react nice and subtley. So that emergent gameplay to me, is really satisfying when that happens.

Building those levels? You’d have to speak the level design director on that. It’s not an easy task, and as I said, we’ve got an extremely talented team that work well together. It’s not like the level design guys will just go off and do their own thing, they talk to the animators; the animators talk to the AI guys; we’ll talk to the programmers; everyone kind of works together, it’s like a dialogue going on. I don’t think there’s any magic formula, that’s the thing, it’s like every project at Ubisoft kind of has their own way of doing things.

AusGamers: Well, in and of itself, it’s systemic in design right?



Kristjan: It is, yeah. It’s completely organic, and again, that’s kind of the fun. For example, the panther playthrough kind of organically happened. It was that kind of middle ground where we realised that the game is most fun when you’re doing a bit of everything. So if you start using the gadgets and then start taking people out, or avoiding them, and then start switching it up, that’s when the game is at its best.

The trick is to get people to play those playstyles, and we don’t want to force it. If you force anything, then they’re not going to want to do it. It’s like stubbornness, you know “Nope. I’m not going to play!”, so we don’t want to do that.

AusGamers: So the other side of the fence for all of that though, is that obviously you have a story to tell, and you can give the players all the tools they want in the world, but unless you’re Fallout or Skyrim, ultimately it is a path, and it is guided, and you guys have done a very good job of that. Do you ever feel like you’re stripping the player back from some of that, I guess the reward on the way that they’ve created their own gameplay playthrough, by pulling them out and into a cut-scene?

It’s a bit of a thing at the moment, and I find that it’s jarring when games pull me out of what I’ve been doing, to throw me into a cut-scene. And I realise that you’ve got to get story moving along, and you’ve got to give exposition, but where do you guys stand on that?

Kristjan: We’ve obviously changed from Conviction, where the philosophy was that they never wanted to pull you out of gameplay. With Blacklist, we’ve gone with a more cinematic feel. That is a change in philosophy that is maybe because of the new studio, but also, we found with Conviction, that the pace was sometimes hard to keep up with. If you just use one camera, and you’re never cutting, and you’re trying to make sure that the camera is... it slows things down, and it restricts the amount of stuff you can do.

We’ve managed to cut from different perspectives, and we can tell a story from all of these different angles now, which we couldn’t have done in Conviction. We’ve also got this brand new performance capture studio, which we really wanted to give its legs to. So at some points we’ll have sixteen or seventeen actors on stage at once, and they’ll all kind of be reacting and riffing off each other. That would have been hard to do in Conviction, with one camera move.

I think that where I stand on that, is that I’m a gameplay guy. I’d like to keep it in-game as much as we possibly can, but we also know that sometimes, as you said, to tell the story properly, and to get that point across in the quickest, most efficient way possible, sometimes you have to go a bit more cinematic. I think as long as it’s appropriate, I think that’s ok.



AusGamers: There’s a lot of history with the character. As an animator coming into it, can you a) talk about what it takes to animate someone of Sam’s skill levels and ability, but also just to animate a game that is built around all of the systemic stuff that we’ve been talking about. So, very specifically: AI reactions, are very important, because when you’re not telling a story in cut-scenes, you’re telling a story in the world. What are some of the challenges you face, and how deep have you guys gone? Did you go out with elite guys at all, or anything like that?

Kristjan: [laughs] Well, yeah, the philosophy for me is that you’ve got to be true to the history of the game. We can’t stray too far, because it is a storied franchise, and it’s kind of not owned by us, it’s owned by the fans just as much now. If this was a new IP, we could kind of do whatever we wanted, because no one would have seen it yet, but it’s not, it’s Sam Fisher, and everyone kind of has an idea of what that guy is supposed to be.

So the trick for me, was to try and come up with: ok, how would that guy evolve? How are we going to make him more grounded in that world? So it started for me, connecting into an animal, this is where we talk about the panther playstyle. To me, the animal relationship/direction with Sam is that he’s a panther, panthers are a cat, cats land on their feet, so you’ve got somewhere to go from.

Cats are also very fluid, so we wanted to try to make sure that everything was in motion, and everything was working in a certain way. When it comes to reference, we work with a guy that I like to coin as the real Sam Fisher, he’s a guy that I obviously can’t talk too much about his background, but it’s a guy called Kevin Secours. Now, Kevin Secours is someone I found in Montreal.

One of the designers on the team in Montreal used to train with this guy, and when we were throwing around ideas for the original Blacklist, was like “Well, maybe you should go and speak with this guy; I think he’s got a bunch of very interesting things, and basically he’s got a bunch of weapons, and you should go and see this”. So I went over to see him, and he’s a really wiry guy; doesn’t look like he’s that threatening; has a beard, and just doesn’t look that scary; very calm. Then I went to his dojo, and all through his dojo it’s just weapons everywhere. There’s knives, guns; just all sorts of crazy stuff.

Then the way that we’re working with that, is he was a fan of Splinter Cell anyway, so he knew I was coming, and we’d already exchanged a couple of emails, and he’d laid out all of these weapons that he thought Sam could use, and how he would use them. They were all of these improvised sort of things, and he was using kaftans, and using that, and starting to adapt with that, and I was like “That’s awesome!”. So we just started riffing off what we could do, and then I found that there was a load of things he was saying, that I would say “I’ve never seen that before in a game; we could do that”.



Then I mentioned to him, my philosophy that I wanted to make Sam a panther, and he was like “Ah, well then I’ve got this for you”, and he brought out this knife, this karambit, and this karambit is like this curved blade, which is the blade that we’ve got in the game, and it’s nickname is the panther’s claw. So it’s perfect.

So we started talking about all of the cover maneuvers that he could do, and how he could manipulate people, and we were like “Well, we want to put these... what we want to call abductions into the game”, and again, it kind of fit in perfectly, because Sam strikes from the shadows -- he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there, so what better way to do it than from cover? So we’re, like, “This is made for us”.

So we started to do that, and started to get him on set. And I’m not one of these animation directors that dictates how to do things, I like to work with guys that clearly know more about a subject than I do. I know what looks good; he knows the mechanics behind it, and all the biomechanics and how that would work. So we’d be in the mo-cap studio, and we’d just talk and say “Hey, I want to start here, end there, use this, do that”, and he’d go “Ok”, and that would be all the direction I’d give him, and he’d come up with maybe six or seven different ways of doing it, and, like, a menu where I could go “That one; I’ll have that one! That’s cool”, and that was kind of how a lot of the moves would work.

Then we also had him on set for the cinematics, and what would happen with that is, a lot of the time, our cinematics director David Footman, would be, like, “Well, I’m not really sure if that kind of looks good enough”, so we’d get Kevin on set and say “How would you exit a room? How would you enter a room? How would you do this? Is there a more interesting way you’d approach this guy?”, and that’s where the closer-than-ever move came from. When you approach people, you start to look around, you’re a bit more aware, and it’s something we like to call one step ahead.

So, it was this philosophy again -- and these are all philosophies that I use with my team -- it really helps kind of define: is Sam one step ahead? Is he close to his enemy? What’s he going to do when he reacts to them? Do they know that he’s there? How do they react to him if they know and they can see him? Then this kind of ties back into the AI behaviour and the subtlety there, and it was something that I felt was key to how we were working.

For me, it was like: if these reactions are subtle enough, then that’s going to start making it look real. I mean, every animator can overexaggerate an animation and make it look like “Oh no, I’m really scared!”, but it just doesn’t look right, you know? If they kind of go “Huh?” Then look around, and go “Oh, I’m just going to go and check it out”, and then they go over there, then that looks a lot more realistic, and again makes the player feel like they’ve manipulated the AI.



It’s not an easy task to do, and I had to work very closely with our AI team to make sure we adapted that. To me, the good thing about AI and animation together, is it’s kind of almost an opposite philosophy to gameplay and animation, because gameplay and animation, you have to put player control first. Whereas AI and animation, you can put AI reaction first, because you’re not beholden to things to have to react in a certain timeframe, they can react naturally.

So if you get a reaction, they can kind of have this elongated “Huh? Oh, ok, I’ll go and check over there”. Whereas if that was a player reaction, it’s got to be a little bit different.

AusGamers: That’s fascinating... it’s incredible that you actually worked so closely. Would you go out on a limb and say that this is actually closest to the real thing that you guys have come?

Kristjan: Yeah, I would. Splinter Cell, I think, kind of occupies a very unique space. We’re kind of the daddies of stealth, and especially at Ubisoft, Splinter Cell kind of holds a very dear place in a lot of people at Ubisoft’s heart. So we feel that we want to keep pushing, and pushing, and pushing, and to me, one of the core pillars of Splinter Cell is AI reaction: it’s how AI are going to be manipulated, and that sort of stuff. So I think we’re not done yet, I have a tonne of ideas for what could happen for the future, and whatever does happen, this to me is just the tip of the iceberg. But I feel that this is the closest that a Splinter Cell has come to having these realistic reactions. You’ve seen the stealth, and how it works, so...

AusGamers: All right, we’ll wrap it up with one more, which was the most amazing bit of information you gave me when we were playing through, which is that you’re working off an old engine, and you’ve brought it to life in such an amazing way. You’re talking about the end of a generation of games, and how they look on console, and it’s looking amazing.

Can you kind of talk about why you guys went with the old tech, what’s the reason for that, and I guess the plans for the future. You just kind of mentioned that you’ve got a lot of ideas, so...

Kristjan: Well, I think when it comes down to the engine, it’s like each project at Ubisoft kind of has the things they specialise in, that they want to do. Obviously, you have Anvil with Assassin’s, and that has it’s things that it works for that. Watch Dogs are working with another engine, and that will be built with a certain thing in mind. With Splinter Cell, one of the things that our engine did better than any other engine was light and shadow, AI reactions, and all of that dynamic lighting. It was always known for graphics, right? So we want to keep pushing that.



We felt that we could maybe pick another engine, and go to that, but then we’ve got so many things that are inherent in the engine that we’ve got, that it was actually easier for us to adapt that engine, instead of just scrapping it. Especially with coming to Ubisoft Toronto as well, we had so much shared knowledge from Montreal, that it just seemed insane to kind of reinvent the wheel. What’s the point?

So we’ve got Fabian Noel, our Audio Director, who’s worked on all of the five previous Splinter Cells. He knows how to make this engine work better than anyone, from an audio standpoint.

AusGamers: He’s the occlusion master, I’ve met that guy before.

Kristjan: Yeah yeah, he’s super-tall too, so he’s hard to get on camera [laughs]. Then we had people that came from Montreal that were working on Blacklist, and it just kind of made sense to kind of squeeze this engine one more time, to try and get what we need out of it. It’s funny, because we actually found that when we got to Toronto, we had all of our new programmers kind of sifting through the code, trying to clean things up, and trying to find ways to push it even further, and I think one of the programmers found a line of code from the first Splinter Cell that was still there. It had just been commented out, but it was still there, so it really shows just how far this engine has come, and how it has evolved over the... I think it was about 2002 when Splinter Cell One came out...

AusGamers: ...but equally how much history you guys have embedded in the game.

Kristjan: Yeah, exactly. So there was all those kind of light and shadow systems built in there: building that into a new engine would be kind of like “Why are you doing that?”, it’s pointless. Then if we did that as well, then all of the games at Ubisoft would start to look the same, and we don’t want that to happen. So yeah, that’s something.

In regards to the future: I can’t talk much about that at the moment. I know where I want to go, as an animator, but I think people would kill me if I said that sort of stuff [laughs]. I want to keep pushing what you’ve seen. I know the team in Toronto are happy with where we’ve started to go, and I think that it would be really nice to start to have that consistency between teams, and with Ubisoft Toronto now owning the Splinter Cell franchise, I’ve got high hopes for where we’ve got to go. We roughly know what the core team is going to be for that, so I think Splinter Cell is going to be in good hands.

AusGamers: All right. Kristjan, last question: England or Australia for The Ashes? Come on.

Kristjan: Oh, I’m English, so... I don’t know, I’m not a huge cricket fan, but apparently we won, didn’t we? [laughs]

AusGamers: We won’t talk about it, but we’ve been terrible. But it’s been great, thank you so much.

Kristjan: No problem. It’s been a pleasure.
Read more about Splinter Cell: Blacklist on the game page - we've got the latest news, screenshots, videos, and more!



Latest Comments
Rumps
Posted 06:42pm 07/8/13
I actually really liked the E3 reveal... I liked the fact that when you were backed into a corner or had no stealth option you could pull things off like a pro instead of just getting destroyed by bullets when you were caught in the sun... That being said Chaos Theory was my favorite, so I am kind of hoping for something that goes back to those roots.
DeadlyDav0
Posted 11:11pm 07/8/13
Im a big fan of the splinter cell series.

Splinter cell 1, pandora tomorrow and chaos theory were all awesome. Double agent not so much and conviction seemed to be made noob friendly for console gamers. Zero Punctuation's review of conviction nailed its flaws, plus its locked to my uplay account, not steam :(

Hope blacklist improves things but im not holding my breath. I didnt watch any of the vids though cause i dont like paying attention to previews or any of that stuff.
Khel
Posted 11:05pm 07/8/13
Yeah, I quite liked what I saw of it at E3 as well, miss Michael Ironside as the voice, but I thought the gameplay looked really fun
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