As we gear up for our Splinter Cell Conviction hands-on next week Mike takes a look back at previous attempts at multiplayer, and what they could mean for Conviction...
The rules are simple. Splinter Cell Versus is a two versus two asymmetrical game where each side has its own strengths and weaknesses, its own job to do, and its own way of doing it.
Mercenaries defend a series of nodes with guns, grenades, remote mines and detection equipment; Spies attempt to hack the nodes using smoke, chaff, a taser, and a lethal neck snap. Spies play in third person; Mercenaries play in first. Spies infiltrate; Mercs defend. Spies are lethal at close range; Mercs are lethal from afar. It was, and still is, the smartest, most tightly-designed multiplayer game ever made.
Now Lead Designer at Ubisoft Annecy, Arnaud Mametz was then the Design Lead on Splinter Cell's multiplayer game. Like GRAW, Splinter Cell's multiplayer component was built at a studio far from the solo game, and even used a different engine.
"After Splinter Cell's debut at E3 in 2002 Ubisoft wanted to see what a multiplayer game based on the Splinter Cell universe would look like," explains Mametz. "The task was given to Annecy because of some online prototypes we had worked on and because we were finishing our project. A very small team was dedicated - just two people including myself - and one month later, we had our first rough design, explaining the game pillars and foundations, and five minutes of gameplay explained in some kind of comic book.
"When we started, people thought 'a Splinter Cell online game - it's not possible; you're crazy!' They were quite right! We spent six months building the game before Live was even running, but when (Creative Director) Gunther Galipot joined us in January 2003, eighty percent of the elements were designed. We had one acrobatic team versus one armed team, the gadgets, the vision modes, the game modes, and so on... but we still had a long, long way to go."
PANDORA TOMORROW (2004)
Galipot's suggestion to force Mercs to play in first-person defined Splinter Cell Versus. On near pitch-black maps, Spies could creep in relative safety - hanging from pipes and beams, diving into air ducts and vents, and leaping and vaulting over obstacles and traps. The Mercenaries keep their feet firmly planted, but can use a torch and laser to peer into the darkness, and use vision modes which detect fast movement and Spies using electronic gadgets. Most decisively, the Mercenaries can see from which direction noises originate on their HUD, allowing them to track a careless Spy by sound alone.
"Once we found the 'spirit' of Splinter Cell, we had to build the Mercs' controls from scratch. Sam Fisher's controls were not online compliant, either. Everything was designed for a stealth solo game: pace, animation, and so on.
"And then there were design challenges. To be honest, creating the maps for Pandora Tomorrow was a nightmare. We spent months just working out what a good map for this asymmetrical game system looks like. We had no references; no 'must haves'; but we knew we couldn't use the single player 'corridor' maps so we tried and tried again until we found a good recipe."
The solution was an epic playtesting schedule. For almost a year, from the moment a working prototype was active, the team played every day, not just for balance and bug-checking, but to teach themselves how to build an asymmetrical game and to balance weapons, maps, and basic movements so neither side became too powerful or too weak in certain situations.