Thief's Game Director Nicolas Cantin on its DNA
GAME NAME: Thief
DEVELOPER(S): Eidos Montreal
PUBLISHER(S): Square Enix
PLATFORM(S): PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
GENRE(S): Stealth FPS
RELEASE DATE(S): 27 February 2014
From the moment he walked into the darkened South Melbourne venue, Nicolas Cantin (above) was all about Thief. That’s really not a surprise when you consider he’s been working on the reboot of the iconic franchise since 2008. There’s no doubt about it, the man is passionate.
Still, passion doesn’t always result in a great game being produced at the end. Since we’ve started seeing more and more of the game, die-hard Thief fans seemed to become more and more concerned. Hysteria was at its peak when fans learned that the new game would feature an XP system that would reward players for killing, among other actions. The system was quickly scrapped, but their seemed to be an air of distrust from fans towards Eidos Montreal when all was said and done.
Sitting down with Cantin, my first question was of course about the pressures of producing a game that’s balanced for the die-hard fans as much as it is for newcomers to the series.
“[With Thief] we knew that the community was still there and very vocal,” Cantin began. “Before we started the project, we saw the same thing happen with Deus Ex [Human Revolution] when they [Eidos Montreal] announced that game. But, when we saw the success they had, it put a lot of confidence in us.
“We know the kind of game we have, and that it’s a true Thief experience. We know that the hardcore fans want that Thief experience, and we’ll provide that,” he said.
“But, we also made sure it’s a game for today. It’s got great stealth challenges and a great story. In the end, the DNA is still a Thief game and that was one of our main focuses.”
The challenges that Cantin referred to can be either player- or game-enforced. If you don’t want to use main character Garrett’s new “Focus” ability to highlight objects in the game world, you simply don’t have to. On the other hand, you can use the game’s custom difficulty settings to force game-saves exclusively at the end of each chapter, to not be able to regen health from in-game items… and, if you don’t trust yourself, you can turn Focus off completely as well.
“We’re confident that people will be pleased,” Cantin said, nodding. “If a hardcore fan wants a challenge, they’ll find it in custom difficulty. The custom difficulty settings were always there, and yes, they’re really going to challenge the hardcore fan and add to the experience.”
Eidos Montreal copped a lot of flak for the aforementioned XP system, but from the way the development team approached the game, it’s almost as if it would have been done away with even without fan feedback, in a way.
“We started the project in 2008, and took a long time to start the game. We had a really small team making really good decisions,” Cantin said. “One of our first decisions was to stay true to the original game; we were all fans. From there, we weren’t going to change it up too much. If we changed too much, we should have really just changed the name of the game.
“We want to respect the DNA of what a Thief game and who Garrett is; that was really important to our group. From there, it’s really cool that you’re going to play and feel like this is the old Garrett,” he added. “Staying within those constraints, I feel, made us produce some great content.”
In the end, the XP system wasn’t part of Thief’s DNA.
“We’re always rewarding stealth gameplay; with XP, we realised it was breaking the system,” Cantin said. “Thief is all about stealing; getting money and then spending it on items. We realised that from the beginning, you’re already a Master Thief in the game; so it’s not about progress.”
Fan feedback was important; the catalyst to understanding that the system wasn’t a good fit. “The XP system is still under the hood, but after seeing the feedback and wondering ourselves ‘should we getting rid of it’ – well, that feedback was really helpful to us,” he said.
Playing the new Thief, you can immediately see how the previous games in the franchise have influenced it. Still, gaming has progressed quite a bit since Thief: Deadly Shadows in 2004, and it’s hard not to see other influences in it too. Because of the first-person, slightly steampunk nature of the game, Dishonored immediately comes to mind. Lockpicking gives off a Fallout 3 vibe, and third-person parkour sequences simply scream Assassin’s Creed. Regardless of whether or not the older games influenced these newer ones, does Cantin like to hear those comparisons, or does he want Thief to standalone?
“I think those comparisons are good, cause they’re all good games.
“One of the first things I like to remember [about development] is people saying, ‘oh, you put a hoodie on Garrett, like Altair’,” he said, laughing. “Well, yeah, but I’m not going to worry about that simply because Altair exists.”
We couldn’t help but laugh at that ourselves; it’s important to note that Cantin was as involved in Garrett’s redesign in Thief as he was with the creation of Assassin’s Creed’s Altair whilst at Ubisoft.
“If you look at lockpicking, as an example, it’s the same as in old games without Focus. The HUD’s a bit different, but it’s still the same,” he affirmed. “You can use focus to make it go faster and it turns the situation to something really crazy. The elements work great in Fallout, and in Splinter Cell, and we tried to get the best of those elements while staying true to Thief.”
Again, Cantin stressed that it was possible to stray too far.
“We have third-person sequences in the game, but it’s still about 98% first-person. We realised that, yes, some sequences – not a lot though – work well in third-person. You can see more of what’s around you. It doesn’t happen often, but we still feel it’s an important part of a Thief game,” he said.
That means that a couple quick forays into third-person are acceptable, but don’t expect to be able to switch between first-and third-person at will, à la Fallout 3.
“In the beginning, we tried that a little bit; it was easy to try with the Unreal engine to go into third-person,” Cantin said. “But, we quickly realised that the most important thing in a Thief game – for it to be immersive – is seeing what you’re going to steal; seeing what’s around you, rather than seeing your character. Garrett is really cool and we’re really proud of him, and I think that’s why we’ve gone third-person in some brief scenes so you can see that.”
The design process also meant that multiplayer was off the table.
“Multiplayer didn’t respect the DNA of a Thief game. It’s a single-player experience; Garrett is a loner, and ignoring that would be moving too far away from what our game should be.
“Thief is a competitive game by itself; you can compete against yourself by replaying missions. If you missed some loot, you can head back in and try again. I think the prospect of that is really exciting, Cantin said.
If you’d rather compete against friends, the game has that covered too.
“Thief’s Challenge Mode will also be really competitive on that side,” Cantin confirmed. “We can’t wait for people to join in and to see who really is the Master Thief.”
Getting to the top of those leaderboards will take some creative thinking. Cantin was quick to give some pointers to those game to try.
“Bottles can thrown and shot in the air, using Focus,” he began. “When that happens, everyone looks up in the air, and you can either sneak around people, or run around and knock them all out. Things like that are also things we hope people will share using next-gen functionality.”
A big thank you to Square Enix and Nicolas Cantin for their time.
You’ll get the chance to experience Thief for yourself when it arrives on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One from 27 February 2014. We’ve previously published a hands-off preview of the game here, and our hands-on preview arrives tomorrow.