The Art of Espionage
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 8 (August 2003)

The Art of Espionage

By Karen Moltenbrey

Game enthusiasts get a taste of what it takes to be a secret operative in Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, a new computer/console game from Ubi Soft Entertainment. In the game, players assume the identity of Sam Fisher, a member of the National Security Agency's top-secret group, Third Echelon. Fearing for the lives of American CIA agents who vanish mysteriously, Third Echelon activates Fisher to locate the missing operatives and, in the process, disarm an even more volatile situation involving a potential nuclear conflict.

Splinter Cell, first developed by Ubi Soft's Montréal studio for Microsoft's Xbox console, received numerous industry accolades for its graphics and action, including Console Game of the Year at the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences 2003 awards. Recently, the developer ported the game to all the major platforms, including Sony's PlayStation 2, Nintendo's GameCube and portable Game Boy Advance, and the PC. (Ubi Soft's Shanghai studio spearheaded the PS2 and GameCube efforts, while the Montréal division handled the PC and the Game Boy Advance port.)

One of the more compelling features of the original title, from a technical standpoint, is the lighting and shadowing systems with real-time shadow casting, which give the game its visual identity and a sense of realism. To create these effects, the artists used numerous vertex and pixel shaders. Starting with a black scene, they added light contributions for each illumination, using a proprietary tool added to the game engine for this purpose. The shadows, meanwhile, were generated with a shadow-buffer technique. As a result, every object and character in the game casts a shadow, and these shadows interact with both characters and environments seamlessly.

"We have many different lights—parallel, point, spot, projectors, volumetric, and more—working together to give the scenes a unique look," says Francis Coldeboeuf, producer of the Nintendo GameCube version, released in late spring by Ubi Soft's Shanghai studio. "Not only does the lighting look real, but it's all interactive and actually part of the action." For example, players often have to blend into the shadows to avoid detection, and must consider even ambient lighting as a potential threat. Furthermore, players can complete a mission by choosing from three vision modes: regular, night vision, and thermal vision. "The lighting and shadowing are so integral to the gameplay that the lighting system basically becomes a character."

Because of this unique characteristic, Ubi Soft knew that players would scrutinize the lighting and graphics on the new platforms, and the company was determined not to sacrifice quality in the process. To accomplish their mission, the teams spent one year tweaking the different versions. In fact, the Shanghai studio spent three months prototyping a single mission on the PS2 before achieving the desired look for the imagery.

Each hardware platform, including the PC, has different specifications that had to be considered. For instance, the GameCube has far more texture memory than the PS2. Therefore, the artists had to employ different artistic tricks and techniques to maximize the game graphics so they would look as close to the originals as possible when running on the different machines.

According to Coldeboeuf, the original version was created with realism in mind, so the artists used a large number of pictures, movies, and documentaries as references to create credible environments and characters. The subsequent development teams followed the same path, watching the same references so they could achieve similar results. "But we couldn't always re-use what had been done earlier. Sometimes we had to create all new sets of textures or models to fit our [content-creation] hardware and the targeted hardware," he says. "We were able to follow a strict art direction that was congruent with the first game, which helped make those changes appear as seamless as possible."

"Splinter Cell has the same visual identity across all the platforms, but the technical solutions differed," Coldeboeuf notes. One approach was to hire a 2D artist specializing in "Tromp l'Oeil," a technique that uses sophisticated textures to trick the eye into believing that an object is real. The benefit of using this method is that some textures in the game look as if they are 3D but are actually 2D, which is less demanding of computer memory. "By using 2D textures, we could maintain a similar look to all the imagery, even on less powerful platforms," Coldeboeuf adds. Moreover, the Tromp l'Oeil combined with Ubi Soft's lighting effects enabled the studio to achieve a surprising level of image realism.

Porting its Xbox title Splinter Cell to the other major game platforms required developer Ubi Soft to use various techniques to retain a consistent look to the game graphics, despite the differences in the hardware.
Images ©2002/2003 Ubi Soft

To re-create the game for the various systems, the groups employed the same basic tools used to create the original release. These include Epic Games's Unreal Engine as Splinter Cell's core hub, and the Unreal Editor for constructing the various levels. The artists also used Discreet's 3ds max for modeling and animating the objects and characters, and Adobe Systems' Photoshop and Web Technology Corporation's Optpix iMageStudio for texturing the imagery.

Additionally, the teams employed numerous in-house tools for the lip sync and physics simulations. "With our [proprietary] soft-body feature, spider webs sway in the wind, flags flap, and curtains rustle, for a high level of realism," says Coldeboeuf.

Another innovative feature is that the player is not led down a linear path, but is instead encouraged to experiment with gameplay strategies. "There is no 'right' way to do anything; it's all a matter of individual style," says Coldeboeuf. "You can play with guns blazing or use stealth to hide and become invisible." The player, in fact, can choose from a wide range of actions—nearly anything that would be possible within that particular setting in the real world.

While the game content and graphics are nearly the same across all the platforms, there are some unique aspects to each version, whether it's a new level, different gadget, or exclusive gameplay element. For example, the PS2 version has four exclusive levels and 30 more minutes of cinematics.

Ubi Soft also took advantage of the connectivity between the two Nintendo systems. Linked to the GameCube, the Game Boy Advance will give players a secondary control and an additional point of view to the action—for instance, a top view radar image of the surrounding game environment. The player will also have limited access to remote controls, allowing the person to trigger mines or control turrets from a distance. Also, completing the title on the GameCube unlocks five exclusive levels on the Game Boy Advance.

"Realism, action, and intelligence are Tom Clancy's trademark—from his books to his films to his games," states Coldeboeuf. "Everything he does is meticulously researched, and if it's not actually real, it must seem credible." And Splinter Cell is no exception.

For the most part, this means heightened realism in the imagery. "To make something look real, sometimes it has to be exaggerated, and there are certain expectations and exaggerations that we can meet through symbolism and representation," says Coldeboeuf. For instance, people expect the moon to be full during the night; when watching the sky, they want to see clouds. "Collectively, these elements give the player a feeling of realism. Movies have been using these tricks for years, now we're using them in games."

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior technical editor at Computer Graphics World.

Adobe Systems
Epic Games
Web Technology Corp.