The latest issue of GameSetWatch's market-leading sister publication Game Developer magazine, available for subscribers and for digital purchase now, includes an exclusive, in-depth postmortem of Splinter Cell: Conviction, written by Ubisoft Montreal's Patrick Redding, Alex Parizeau, and Maxime Beland.

First revealed in 2007 as a notable departure from previous games in the series, the game was later drastically changed to fall more in line with player's expectations of the popular stealth-action franchise.

The final game shipped as an Xbox 360 and PC exclusive, featuring striking presentation elements and action-friendly gameplay, as well as multiplayer modes for both competitive and cooperative play.

These excerpts, extracted from the December 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine, reveal various "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" highlights from throughout the creation of the game.

Along the way, the creators of Splinter Cell: Conviction discuss the benefits of the game's re-focused direction, as well as the difficulties of appealing to both casual and core players and restarting many of the game's critical elements from scratch.

Clear And Focused Direction (Once The Vision Was Set)

After deciding to make significant changes to the title in the wake of its 2007 reveal, Ubisoft Montreal found establishing clear goals helped the game deliver on its promises:

"Beland established a standard language for describing the target experience, and that message was applied consistently both internally within Ubisoft and externally during the marketing of the game. Sam would move and behave like the proverbial “panther.” This was the reference point in the character’s animations, and for new game mechanics designed to empower the player with a credible approximation of Fisher’s ruthless super-spy efficiency.

Clear player experience targets gave the team the confidence to make decisions and to tweak the game’s systems in support of Sam’s predatory aspect. The result was a player fantasy that lived as much in the depth of Conviction’s systems as it did in the fiction surrounding Sam’s work for Third Echelon.

But that fiction also did its part to shift the game’s emotional center out of the geopolitical spaghetti of most Clancy titles, by focusing on the apparent death of Sam’s daughter in a drunk-driving incident. For a character that had previously been defined as a self-aware chess piece, this made his concerns and anxieties immediately more relatable.

The decision to ship Conviction as an Xbox 360-exclusive title brought increased support from Microsoft. This working relationship proved vital when submission schedules were shifted around late in production to allow for more polish time. Having been briefed on the overarching intentions for the title, Microsoft was in a better position to offer flexibility. By the time the game was revealed on the Microsoft stage at E3 2009, content for the single-player campaign had been precisely scoped. The demo itself showcased real systems and data. What was shown was what shipped."

Innovating On In-Game Presentation Elements

One of Splinter Cell: Conviction's most notable visual elements is its use of projected visuals onto the game environments, which helped the game maintain continuity and player direction.

"Graphics were a key pillar of Splinter Cell from the very start of the series. In the intervening years, graphical fidelity has become a commodity of AAA games, essentially the price of admission for any title that hopes to compete. This raised the bar for the Conviction team as we worked to push the production values on scripted events and other story-driven moments in the game.

Conviction’s visual signature is probably the use of projected media—movie clips and text splashed across in-game environments for the player to see at the right moment. Projections allow the game to show important dramatic beats without resorting to non-interactive cutscenes.

This technique also helped preserve the seamlessness of in-game continuity, further supported by delivering the game without cuts, hiding load-times behind continuous camera transitions that follow Sam from location to location, or offering a preview of the next chapter’s objectives. This fed stylistically into the game’s relentless forward momentum, reinforcing the theme of Sam’s personal mission and the aggressive, strike-from-the-shadows dynamics."

Restarting Game Mechanics From Scratch

Recreating many of the game's critical elements from scratch put a lot of pressure on the development team, and forced some mechanics and features to be left out altogether.

"Conviction’s original direction, while intriguing as a concept, proved to be unworkable as a fully-featured game experience. When Parizeau and Beland joined the team in early 2008, the game as it existed then was so far removed from the core mechanics of the series that Ubisoft felt one of its key franchises was in potential jeopardy.

Even though the “panther” concept was envisioned and documented relatively quickly, implementation could only be accelerated by so much. Many features that are a given in a Splinter Cell game, such as dynamic lighting, two-handed weapon firing, and gadget management literally needed to be recoded from scratch. Any new mechanics needed to sit on top of these must-have features, putting further pressure on the timetable and creating considerable bug risk.

For example, the black and white filter that tells the player they are hidden from nearby AI was functionally dependent on the restoration of the light and shadow system. It was impossible to make changes to ambient lighting or the nuances of shadow gradation without impacting the logic of the black and white filter, which made it harder to debug and prevented us from giving the effect the degree of visual polish we wanted.

Unfortunately there wasn’t time to rebuild everything. Analog movement speed was abandoned in favor of a simplified run-walk system. The ability to pick up and hide dead bodies was never recreated, nor was lock picking, nor the full variety of door-entry mechanics."

Accessibility Versus Core Appeal

With the game's new direction, the team hoped Splinter Cell: Conviction would appeal to casual and hardcore players alike, though at times the game struggled to satisfy either group.

"Stealth games in general occupy a relatively narrow niche, and Ubisoft needed to expand the franchise’s appeal or risk it falling between the cracks, pleasing no one. Earlier chapters in the Splinter Cell series had emphasized a fairly punishing model of stealth play that required painstaking observation and concealment, and which generally ended badly if the enemies’ suspicions were ever aroused to the point of violence.

Opening the series up to new players who were wary of its reputation meant devising completely new mechanics and streamlining much of the complexity from the original systems. Unfortunately, some much-appreciated features—like the ability to move dead enemies, or use a knife for close-quarters kills—fell by the wayside because they were never included in the original design requirements, and there wasn’t sufficient time left to reintegrate them and polish them to the standard of the earlier games.

Among other things, the compounding development pressures left the team without enough time to implement and polish a true “realistic-hardcore” difficulty setting that would have better satisfied the desire of some players to tackle the game in a more traditional way."

Additional Info

The full postmortem of Splinter Cell: Conviction explores more of "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" during the course of the game's development, and is now available in the December 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine.

The issue also includes a feature on generating procedural explosions and debris, a detailed look a Quick Time Events, and an in-depth look at augmented reality using the OpenCV library, and much more.

Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of December 2010's magazine as a single issue.