Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Thief's Risky Reboot

Shamus Young | 16 Apr 2013 15:30
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A bit over week ago we saw the first real trailer for the upcoming Thief game. This led to a fresh round of outrage and frustration from the fans. It should be noted that that's been the fan response to every previous scrap of information regarding the game. At first they announced it would be titled "Thi4f", and people hated it because... well, obviously. Then they announced that they were going for a "less goth" Garrett, which confused fans since the original Garrett wasn't goth at all. It turned out to be a misunderstanding, but when fans of this slow-paced, thoughtful, and tense PC classic hear phrases like, "We wanted to bring him more for the modern audience of today's console market. [...] He's now in the game doing more action moves and that's how we wanted the costume and the suit to reflect that," it naturally makes the fans nervous.

The latest announcement to worry fans is the news that Stephen Russell will not be returning as the voice of protagonist Garrett. So fans are naturally upset. Again.

Now, I can understand why fans insist on Russell. In the earlier titles, we didn't have in-engine cutscenes. We didn't have mirrors where we could see ourselves. You couldn't look down and see your body in the game. For the fans, Garrett was defined solely by his voice and some stylized drawings. This seems like another betrayal from a team that has yet to demonstrate that they "get" the setting or the protagonist of the game they're developing.

Having said all this, I'd be willing to give someone else a shot. I'm a huge fan of Russell, and his work in defining the character is undeniable, but I'll concede it's entirely possible to make a good Thief game without him. I didn't think Deus Ex could work with cover-based shooting and I couldn't imagine Max Payne set away from New York, but both Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Max Payne 3 showed there was lots of room for creativity in these games as long as you get the mechanics and the tone right.

My problem isn't that they're replacing Russell, my problem is that they're doing it for about the worst reason in the world. They're doing it because they need a voice actor who can perform stunts for their lavishly animated cutscenes. The idea is that they're using some sort of super-capture system that will motion-capture the performer's body, while at the same time doing some kind of facial capture and voice-recording.

This. Is. Bonkers.

Note that the first game had cutscenes that were conveyed with little more than a voice-over and some drawings. Aside from giving the game a unique feel, they were also ridiculously cheap to produce when compared to, say, a BINK video of pre-rendered 3D characters and environments. "Cinematic cutscenes" are not something fans expect from this series. Sacrificing something they do want for something they don't want and which goes against the conventions of the series seems pretty self-defeating.

This is a game about a loner who sneaks around in the dark and takes things that don't belong to him. You don't need many supporting characters, they don't need to say much, and they can spend most of the time in shadows. Garrett is stoic and deadpan most of the time, so his face doesn't need a great deal of emotional range. And since the unpopular redesign, Garrett now wears a ninja mask anyway. Also, this is a first-person game. So what is it that these cutscenes need to show that requires unified body, face, and voice acting? Are we going to get a cutscene where Garrett pulls down the mask and enacts the "I could have done more" speech from Schindler's List in a teary-eyed closeup? How does this extravagance help this game?

This is the continuation of a ruinous trend in game development. As I've said before: Developers are spending too much on their games. Square Enix is apparently losing money with stellar sales figures. I said it four years ago, and I said it last month. We're seeing developers devouring millions of dollars in pursuit of stuff that makes games riskier to develop without making them more fun to play.

It was just last week that we heard that Tomb Raider had paradoxically failed to meet sales projections and at the same time outsold any other title in the franchise. Also remember that face-capture has been tried in the past, and it didn't save L.A. Noire developer from financial implosion. While we can't directly blame the technology for the financial losses, I don't have a lot of hope that this newer, even more ambitious full-performance capture is going to generate enough sales to justify its own price tag.

A smart person will look at how much they can expect to make and devise the budget around that figure. But right now developers seem to be picking an absurdly high budget and then asking themselves how they can sell enough copies to cover it. The new Thief game looks like it's trying to make this same mistake. It's a mistake that has done incredible damage to the industry, with THQ and Square Enix being just the latest examples.

I'm sure full-performance capture is an impressive and interesting bit of technology. I'm sure it will look lovely. But it's a feature you can't afford, for fans that don't want it, in service of a game that would be just fine without it.

Shamus Young has a blog, a book, a podcast, a webshow, and a background in software.And also a family.

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