Unlocking the future: Eidos Montreal on next-gen development

Unlocking the future: Eidos Montreal on next-gen development
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

March 4th 2014 at 12:00PM

Thief developer discusses the advantages of the new consoles, the importance of supplying the current-gen consoles and why some things remain thankfully unchanged since 1998

Thief has the arguably unhappy position of being the first major next-gen launch since the Xbox One and PS4 arrived on shelves.

Yes, there was January’s Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition from Thief publisher Square Enix but this, like the majority of day one titles available for the next-gen consoles, is merely an update of titles from the previous generation of home consoles.

It means that all eyes have been on Thief to prove that the new generation can maintain the momentum of its launch – and it has delivered. While review scores are mixed, Eidos Montreal’s reboot of Looking Glass Studios’ pioneering stealth series took No.1 in the UK charts this week.

“The window has been great for us,” Eidos Montreal’s art director Nicolas Cantin tells Develop. “There is nothing around, and I think we are unique from a gameplay perspective, not just in this launch window but compared to what has already been released on the new consoles.

“People have probably finished the two or three games they bought before Christmas, and now they’re looking for something new. So I think we have a great opportunity here.

Lead level designer Daniel Windfeld Schmidt adds: “The quality expectations are pretty high. We had a really awesome artistic team so hopefully you’ll be able to see that we’ve really tried to push the quality as high as it can go.”

THE NEXT GENERATION

Thief was announced back in 2009, with Eidos Montreal dedicating a small team to pre-production while it hired new recruits to work on the title, then planned to be a sequel to 2004’s Thief: Deadly Shadows.

In the five years that followed, the next generation reared its head in the form of Xbox One and PS4, and the game was finally re-announced as a series reboot for the next consoles. But why did Eidos Montreal wait for the new consoles, rather than pushing Thief onto the multi-million selling Xbox 360 and PS3.

“The next generation allows us to do a lot more, we can add more stuff,” says Schmidt. “You can do bigger effects, better graphics and it helps the immersion, which was a big part of our mandate.”

It also allowed the team to harness the latest technology, specifically Thief’s engine. The original Thief games by Looking Glass Studios were built on the proprietary Dark Engine, tech that has not been used since 2000’s Thief II: The Metal Age.

Rather than attempting to rework an engine that was already a decade out of date, Eidos Montreal opted for the more cutting edge technology of Unreal Engine 4.

In the old Thief games, you’d go into a room and see a table and a chair, because that’s all they could afford to do at the time. Now there are 1,000 objects in there. We actually went a little crazy.

Daniel Windfeld Schmidt, lead level designer

“There are a lot of things to think about when choosing an engine,” explains Cantin. “We announced the project a long time ago to make sure we were hiring the best people, so we had to think about what they were trained in using. We had to also think about what the engine could offer us, and what support there was for the engine itself.”

Schmidt adds: “Unreal fit with all our criteria, and now we have a heavily modified version. We wanted to make sure we invested correctly in making the game the experience we wanted it to be. We've heavily modified it to become the Thief engine.”

The result is a world that looks far more atmospheric and detailed than those of the previous games. Even simple things like staging have come on in leaps and bounds, making protagonist Garrett’s playground all the more enticing.

“In the old Thief games, you’d go into a room and see a table and a chair, because that’s all they could afford to do at the time,” says Schmidt. “Now there are 1,000 objects in there. There are some big levels filled with some awesome stuff. We actually went a little crazy.”

SHADOW OF THE PAST

It has been sixteen years since Thief: The Dark Project first crept onto shelves. While fans may complain later games feel like different beasts to the first two, it is perhaps understable given how the nature of development has changed.

“We have bigger teams nowadays,” says Cantin. “We need a good production crew to help us do what we want to do. Communication is important: we need to make sure our overall vision and intention is well communicated to the team so that everyone understands what we want to do.”

Schmidt adds: “The industry is more established, with more capable people in it than maybe there were at the time. Playtesting is a big part of it. Studios have picked up a lot of good habits that help production today. And you have to, in a way, because you want more people to play your game so you want bigger, more beautiful games but that comes with a cost: namely having more, highly experienced people helping you to push your game through production.”

Communication is important: we need to make sure our overall vision and intention is well communicated to the team so that everyone understands what we want to do.

Nicolas Cantin, art director

Cantin agrees that the relationship with playtesters is invaluable to developers today, joking that “we aren’t making games alone in a corner anymore”.

Of course, not everything has changed since Garrett first stalked into our lives. In fact some things have reverted to old practices, as Eidos Montreal discovered in 2009 when it was still hiring.

“Conception-wise, it's probably more like it used to be, with smaller teams bouncing ideas around,” says Cantin. “But as soon as you're in full production, you need a lot of people on board and working together to make sure that vision comes across.”

THE GENERATION GAP

Like so many next-gen titles due out this year, Thief still has versions available for the current generation of consoles – something that makes sense given the vast install bases both Xbox 360 and PS3 have around the world.

However, that doesn’t mean current-gen gamers will be picking up watered down versions of the new Thief. Eidos Montreal was keen that the difference between the two versions would be minimal.

“It also important for us to have the same gameplay experience across next-gen and current-gen,” explains Cantin. “It was a real challenge for us to make sure the experience was almost the same across different platforms.”

Unusually, Eidos Montreal actually decided to keep development of the current-gen version as an in-house project, rather than outsourcing it to another developer.

“I think we wanted to maximise everything, to make sure we didn’t limit ourselves,” says Schmidt. “By doing it ourselves, we knew exactly how to do it properly and it didn’t limit us, even though we had a lot of platforms to develop for.

Cantin adds: “We had a good pipeline, and I think it was easier for us time-wise and to have the same people working on the basics and then making them better. It was faster at some points, and it was a lot easier for directors to validate both versions. It really streamlined the production. We didn’t have to think too much about things that were specific for each platform.”

You want more people to play your game so you want bigger, more beautiful games but that comes with a cost: namely having more, highly experienced people helping you to push your game through production.

Daniel Windfeld Schmidt, lead level designer

Of course, developing the same game for two generations of hardware introduces a plethora of new limitations. Did Eidos Montreal find it difficult to make a Thief that took full advantage of the next-gen consoles, while still delivering the same game on older machines?

“Sure, we had some constraints that we had to respect,” says Cantin. “I said I wanted us to have the same experience, so things like lighting, I think, were limited. But we really pushed the technology to do everything we wanted to on the gameplay side of the current gen versions. It made it easier to put on the next-gen consoles as well.”

Schmidt argues that hardware has less of an impact than you think when you’re creating a certain type of gaming experience: “The original Thief was 16 years ago and that worked. So we focused on making sure that core gameplay is essentially the same as the original, and that wasn't hardware dependent. The hardware dependencies were things like lighting, sound, feedback – all those things that create immersion – so that's what we wanted to push. The core experience had to be solid, and we knew this long before the next-gen consoles had even been announced, when we were at the pre-conception stages.”

While Eidos Montreal hired a number of people to develop Thief, the studio was always careful to make sure its team didn’t become bloated. Recruitment was carried out cautiously, ensuring they had just enough people to develop both the next- and current-gen versions of Thief.

Cantin and Schmidt stressed that Eidos Montreal focus on monitoring their team sizes so that no voices get lost. Everyone has the chance to say something about the game's development.

"Sometimes we can take a little bit more time to work on something, but we want to make sure it's polished and that we have our best people working on it,” says Cantin. “Because the more people you have, the more diluted your game becomes and the more difficult it is to validate things and make your game consistent.”