Thief Interview: Action vs Stealth, Next-Gen, Reboot vs Sequel

Josh West


Thief questions answered by producer Stephane Roy and lead level designer Daniel Windfeld Schmidt…

Published on Apr 4, 2013

Also read our Thief reboot gameplay details to find out how it plays

What are the challenges you have faced in putting a pure stealth mechanic back into the game?

DWS: Even in the original Thief games, you had the mechanical eye to see further, so they already had some kind of aspect to them, right?

You're supposed to be the guy, Garrett is at the top of his game right, so you are very, very special. So if your question is related to, for example, let's say the focus, it’s part of the story as well.

Because Garrett always has this thing with the eye. We want to be true to some of the things that trademark the things you recognise from the character, that was a very important thing for us.

How will the combat vs action work out? Will you be freely able to maraurder through the levels if you want to?

DWS: This is the big question. Thief was always based on stealth, but even in the original Thief games you can be very aggressive. You can run around, knock people down and you can get some pretty nasty arrows too. Even though it was a Thief game he was still, even then, still playing very aggressively.

What we wanted to do was try to maintain that feeling of freedom, so in a straight up combat one on one mano-a-mano kind of thing, you’re at a disadvantage.

You’re against trained soldiers, this is your backup plan, this is the last thing you want to do when you get into a mess. In terms of how you can play, what we did when we did the analysis of the old games… trying to extract what was important for the Thief franchise, it was that we found certain patterns of players who played the game – and these are the ones we want to support.

For example; people like to play as ghosts. You can play our game completely without killing anyone, this is something that’s very important for us.

The objective is never to assassinate anybody, never to be aggressive, that’s not the main purpose of the game. But for some players, they find satisfaction in completely removing everybody from an entire playing field, and then afterwards you go like [claps hands together] ‘that was awesome, good job’ and you feel that satisfaction. And even when you start being aggressive, it’s always from the shadows.

One thing that’s very important is the shadow and light mechanic from the original Thief. We want to extract the feeling of empowerment from the shadow, when you control the sound you propagate around.

It's kind of nice to make sure you are always in control when you are in that space, it’s some of the things that the game mechanics and the franchise originality kind of funnels us into this combination, the core that we want to bring forward in this version of Thief.

SR: To make it short, we are working very hard to support how you want to play the game. So in the morning you are more aggressive, we can see it when you are using the mouse, keyboard and controller – the game will follow you. If you are more quiet and want nobody to see you, the game will answer perfectly.

It’s really a question of balancing. The line is thin between too easy and too hard and stuff like that. At the end of the day if its well done, you are going to enjoy the game a lot – because the game will support the mood you are in.

The mood are you in when doing a mission… you start a mission more aggressive but after that you have no more resources, alright please stay calm, stay quiet then – no more arrows so now go in the shadows.

DWS: It is a resource based game like the original Thief, you have to plan ahead. You have the BlackJack, with that one you can take anybody out without a cost.

Theoretically… you could kill anybody without them ever finding you, but how long can you stay in that strategy before you run out resources?

This is the same mentality behind the focus combat  that you saw today. All these things are completely optional – they are the players choice to use them. We are debating right now whether we add a button at the beginning of the game saying you cannot access these special overpowered… so players can brag about how awesome they were. 

What lessons have you learnt from the Deus Ex reboot?

SR: It’s a different team, because they are still working on some other product, so it’s a new team. But at the same time, my answer would be yes, because even if it’s a new team weve been able to see that how the type of problem they have, how they fixed it and like I said, the big lesson give us right to be wrong.

It’s a big task, especially with Thief because people are… hate or love this franchise, its really polarization. We have to be really solid, when we make a decision, we have to be able to explain why and to be sure it supports the DNA of the franchise.

At the conception it was just impossible to start and know which decisions are the right one. So we said okay, no panic, it will take time, but lets make it properly. Some time we are going to hit the wall, okay so lets learn about it and go in this direction. So this is a big lesson from them.

It’s not hazy. The people loving the franchise… I’m pretty sure in their mind, if we do something specifically… you won't forgive us. If we don’t have this feature [punches hand], we have to be careful. We did our homework, we are ready to give you information.

The game was first announced back in 2009, are you just making sure the core of the game…

SR: 2009 was the official announcement, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t start to work the day after on the product. It was also part of the strategy to help the recruitment team. It’s been a big challenge to find all the elements, because making a game is one thing.

It's not easy, but we are proficional but making a game really making sure its Thief, and not just another game, that one takes time.

Are there multiple ways to progress through levels?

DWS: The blackjack doesn’t kill anybody, it only makes them unconscious.

You can go through without knocking anybody out. You can get through this without ever being seen, or heard or ever causing any form of situation – we are bringing a whole new level of difficulty. This variation in the basic set up, but on top of it, yes there are other ways of bypassing opposition.

Is it tough to build levels around the three phases?

SR: It’s tough on the budget. [laughs]

DWS: I want this feature, I want this feature!

SR: Exactly, the team is really creative. Everybody wants to have the best escape, and sometimes okay… but can we recycle a couple of game mechanics? [laughs] It’s a good tool for the rhythm of the game.

DWS: The objective is to steal stuff, because that’s what you do, that’s your craft.

SR: This gameplay loop is a high level one. [Stands up and makes his way towards me] At the same time, you’re there and then, oh this iPad, I have my eye on it you know? So you can see it almost as an infiltration – pickpocket is the stealing phrase and after that I get the fuck out of there and I’m escaping.

It has been years since the last Thief game, do you think a dedicated first-person stealth game is still relevant today?

SR: I think the best proof is Dishonored. Dishonored proved that the interest is there. Obviously there is a lot of comparison, for me its amazing to see how Thief has been a good inspiration for Dishonored, because Thief is the godfather for that type of game. It is the roots. Definitely the timing for us is just perfect, because the door is wide open for us.

So it's perfect timing?

DWS: We played it ourselves and we think they did a really awesome job.

SR: People like you, I’m asking for your help… you played the original one you know, so you know that Dishonored has been inspired by Thief. But for a lot of players – let's say a teen or he’s 20 - and for a lot of people and they are going to see us and ‘oh ok, the inspiration is Dishonored’.

DWS: A lot of people heard about Thief but never played it, right? The Thief universe has a lot to offer.

Was it ever intended as a sequel or always a reboot?

SR: No. From the beginning it was 100 per cent sure that its to restart it, to reinvent it, to make sure that you are going to perceive us as part of the future and not part of the past.

It’s crystal clear since the beginning; we restart it but again, by respecting the DNA of the franchise. But no,no,no it’s not a sequel – Garrett is back, a bit like Chris Nolan did with the Batman for example. It’s Batman he still has the same mental problem with the bat and stuff like that, but his suit has more modern aspects and not just this thin Adam West … but at the same time everybody will tell you that this is Batman, there’s no problem, it respects the franchises – it emphasises what we are doing now.

Did you flirt with adding in more third person aspects?

DWS: One of the things we tested in the old days was a whole third person version of this game like Deadly Shadows had. But something that was really missing was that immersion when you’re pick-pocketing people when youre really up close, when you’re close to the wall… almost hugging the wall, just hiding in the shadows like ‘no,no,no don’t detect me! Don’t detect me!” this is something that the first person brings a lot more tension comes more of this ‘I'm really here, I'm really hiding.’ You get a little distracted in third-person and this is one of the reasons we kept it in first person.

SR: I like the takedowns, it’s a reward. You feel really powerful, but its quick so you are back in the universe. We worked very hard to make sure the camera transitions are smooth.

Thief is well known for its fantastic AI – how will this translate to this new iteration? Will your presence extend across the city?

SR: The City is kind of alive – we are going to see something similar with the NPC. The more you progress through the story if something happens the guards will say ‘is it him?’ Now in the city they understand ok that something is happening, but it's not anymore cat… is it him? maybe it is a fucking cat! We really want to make sure you feel you are a part of the story. This one is a big challenge.

DWS: In terms of the gameplay the AI has a lot more nuance. How would you expect humans to react, and how do we make sure the player sees and gets that feedback. And that’s a big task to get that right. If you see a dead body, you would expect him to pull his sword and sweep the area and make sure everything is clear.

This is going to pressure players that create disturbances to have to adapt to the search patterns of the NPC’s. When you’re in the shadows you have an advantage, you have an advantage to exploit NPCS. But when you’re out in the open they will be searching for you, instead of some cat or something in the alley. And this is where the nuances come in a little more with the cat and mouse gameplay with the NPC’s.

Considering the game has been in limbo for so many years, is Thief something that wouldn't be possible on current gen systems?

SR: The starting point, the ignition of this process was not relative to the tech. Let’s say it’s a board game, we going to have the same speech today about what we want the universe to pull you in and what type of feeling you should have. Next-gen is really interesting to us is for the immersion. Now if you check something there is no pixilated textures or something like that. Like Stephen Iger said this morning, you are almost be able to smell the city.

The dense city, the immersion, this is where the next generation is really great for this type of game. It’s not a question of having more polygons or big explosions, no no no. You are going to be Garrett in the city, and when you are going to see the hands peaking it will be your hands you know. This is where next gen helps us. We are going to be able to avoid the ‘loading, loading, loading’ – now it's no more loading, because next gen is there.”



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