Thief Interview - Bringing Next-Gen Into the Light

Lee Bradley

Right, before we start let’s get something out of the way. Eidos Montreal’s reboot of the classic Thief series has been confirmed for PC, PlayStation 4 and next generation consoles. It has not yet been indicated that the game will appear on a Microsoft platform. Any suggestion otherwise is pure speculation.

Got it? Good. Then let’s get on with it quick before someone hits us over the head and drags us into a dark corner.

Thief is back and behind closed doors at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco recently we got to see it running in all its sexy glory. This is one of our first, substantial looks at a next-gen game and we couldn't be more excited. We’ll have a full preview for you soon, but in the meantime read on for a transcription of the round-table interview we took part in with Producer Stephane Roy and Lead Level Designer Daniel Windfeld Schmidt.

Get comfy, because we cover a whole load of ground here, from the advantages and disadvantages of the next-gen, to how Thief has been reinvented for a modern audience and more. No more sneaking around, the next-gen is upon us.

Can you talk us through the development of the game? You originally announced it back in 2009. How has it gone from that to next-gen?

Stephane Roy: Alright, so 2009? That was a long time ago. Keep in mind that we didn’t start immediately to work on that after the announcement. Part of this announcement also was to help the recruitment team, making sure that people understood, ‘Ok I will have a chance to work on that type of game if I...’ because it’s a big challenge to attract talented people in Montreal. There is a lot of competition. 

Also we had to do our homework for this franchise. It’s a lot of ingredients and we have to decide how we do it and stuff like that. So at the beginning, it was really a question of deciding what type of gameplay, what type of experience the player should have. Making a game is a complicated task, but at the same time we wanted to do it. 

But now I have a question for you. Do you feel Thief is back? It’s important for us, because yes we can make a game with this guy and running but is this Thief according to you? So we feel now we have the ingredients, we feel that it is about time finally to talk about it. 

At the beginning it was not a question of which platform or generation. Like I’ve said it could have been that it’s a board game. Most important is that we decide what type of experience we wanted to deliver. After that we said, ‘Ok, now we think we know what is the DNA of the franchise, how we will deal with that.’

The next-gen is there to support this immersion. There’s is no more pixel in your face now. If I pickpocket and I get really close I’m going to see your watch and not pixels filling up the screen. And there is no ‘Oh, please wait. Loading’ when you go to a new area. There isn’t. So the next-gen for us means nothing is pulling you out of the experience.

So it has been a big challenge. Especially for this guy *motions to Daniel Windfeld Schmidt* to make it happen. Like, 10 years ago in the original Thief, how do you call it, the rocket?

Daniel Windfeld Schmidt: Rockets of death. If you caused an alert they would home into you, even if you were hid in the darkest corner they would still know where you were. 

SR: So at that time, it was Ok. Today speaking, we did a focus group and stuff like that and the majority of people said, ‘Ok, no. He saw me but I don’t want to press the reset button, it’s not game over.’ I want to do something, you know? So, we said we’re going to give you the tools to protect yourself, but at the same time we are not making a game for a soldier, for a killer. Your job is to steal.  

What can we do to make sure you understand and accept that? That you can be in the Thief universe without being a killing machine. It has been a complicated process, but finally I think we’re there now. I’m sure you will let me know if you’re not.

DWS: Carrying on from that. There’s a lot of ways of playing it, but it always comes back to being a thief. 

In the original Thief you could be very aggressive, you could run on carpets, jump between carpets and knock down guards. And a lot of players did that. It was a good feeling; you cleared an area, knocked out all the guards and put them in dark corners and now you can just walk through the area. That’s still something we wanna support. 

And also, if you just wanna go through and be ghost that’s also an option. If you just wanna run around and use your resources to take them out, that’s also an option. It’s not a very long term, viable strategy - this is a resource-based game. You’re not going to be able to play Rambo. You’re not able to just push through this game. You have certain challenges, you have arrows, but they cost money. You can’t just keep using all your resources because eventually you are going to hit a wall and not have that option any more because you used it. 

So what are you gonna do? Now you have to revert back to just being undetected. So that’s the balancing part of our approach, to allow you to play the way you want to, but everything has a cost. We’re gonna leave that up to the player. 

Square Enix and Eidos has recently rebooted Tomb Raider also. Lara was not the same Lara, she was younger and more serious. Is this the same Garrett?

DWS: It’s the same one but this isn’t a prequel, like in Tomb Raider. With us it’s not a prequel or a sequel. For the first time the title of the game is just Thief. That’s it. So it’s really to emphasise that it’s a restart. So to help you to understand what is the thinking process behind it, let’s see it like what Christopher Nolan did with the Batman, for example. It’s still Batman, it’s still Bruce Wayne, but at the same time Batman outfit feels that, ‘OK, we can shoot at him and he wont’ die.’ It’s not like Adam West. But it’s still Batman, it’s the same thinking process behind it. This is how we see Thief for this market.

SR: In terms of Garrett, when we were looking at him and seeing what we wanted to bring over, he was like a cynical character, he talks to himself, he likes his solitude, he works alone. The original Garrett was just such a special character that he kinda stuck out from all the other heroes. And he’s not even a hero, he’s an anti-hero. He doesn’t wanna save the world, he just wants to be challenged. For me that was a very important pillar. That’s who I wanted to be when I was playing this game. And you can get into all kinds of funky situations because he’s like, ‘Nobody’s done that before? Excellent. I want to prove you wrong.’ That’s his mentality and that’s why we picked him.

Basically he’s the same guy.

I’d like to hear about the reinvention of the series and what you’ve done to make it relevant. What have you done? How is this still Thief, but updated for modern times?

DWS: So one of the things when we looked at the original Thief, was about the darker, lighter, shadow. They didn’t have a lot of polygons to work with. They were very constrained with what they could do, they did an amazing job. But when you start putting in graphics like this it dilutes the perception of what options you have in the environment. So if you can only afford to make a table and a few things in a big room, there’s going to be very easy for the player to think, ‘Ok, this is what I need to do.’

But when you have a lot of very nuanced surfaces and light sources, how do you sort that? How does the player understand what’s interactive and what’s not? Part of the solution is we give the Focus Vision to those who wanna put down the controller for a week, come back and just pick it up again. There’s some tools and some helpers that they can use to pick the game up and be reminded. Those are optional, by the way. You can remove all those helpers. 

So we worked very hard on communicating to players when it is dark and when it is shadow and when it is light. Around the screen you’ll notice an icon and when you go into the light it pops. So there’s a lot of these things to make sure you understand what’s going on, within this complex environment and still make all the choices you have very logical. They’re very symbolic. You know, so we’ll have a table in the middle, but on the one side it’s light and on the other it’s dark, versus just having this big gradient zone. 

This is the kind of high level design that we have to look at to make sure it fits within the game design, bring it from the original Thief and make it fit into the high fidelity graphics. 

Do the takedowns factor into that? I can imagine the takedowns will be heavily criticised when Thief comes out. In the original Thief, Garrett was very weak, he couldn’t do one-shot kills. In the demo it felt more like Dishonored or something like that.

DWS: So we did actually have one-shot takedowns in the original Thief. You could do headshots. You just had to get behind them. So for us it’s about getting into the position to be able to do that and using your resources smartly. You have very limited resources. We didn’t show it here, but we have a system that’s not based on the Focus resource.

In the mission we showed today Garrett used every one of his resources, and that’s very costly. And it depends on the balancing and the difficulty and so on. You can even disable the whole Focus system if you want to. If you wanna play it old school, have fun. We will support it. 

But if you don't have these resources, you have to be really, really careful. You have to get into position to take these takedowns, which is not easy. There’s a stealth takedown, aerial takedown and those are the kind of things you can do free if you get into the position, if you get the enemy into the position, you can lure them over there by using some of your tools. But the third-person is more for the combat-oriented. But we have a melee system which is a fallback. And that is pretty tough to play on a one-to-one. Taking on a guard one-on-one is difficult.

SR: The takedowns you see, you can’t just go spamming everyone like that. You still have to get into that position behind, like you did in the original games, and take someone down. The difference now is you can do takedowns from above.

I see your point of view because it’s a part of the challenge with Thief, we started to change bits of the game, there is a lot of passion behind the franchise so like you said I can imagine a lot of people that are going to be pissed off because there is. It’s difficult when you talk about a couple of features. It’s difficult to have a rational conversation, it’s emotion and passion. “No, you cannot do that!” Like that. “I’m expecting something from this franchise and you cannot play with it.” We have to be careful.

The original Thief was one of a kind, it stuck out from all the other games and it tried something new. Our goal is to aim for the stars and see if we can hit as high as they were at the time. And live up to the legend.

Both thematically and gameplay-wise Thief has already been compared to Dishonored. Has the announcement and development of Dishonored affected the development of Thief in any way?

DWS: So we played it and we had fun. It’s an awesome game.

SR: Because Daniel is smart and he will give a very detailed answer, I will answer your question first. The answer is no. It didn’t change our plan. But like he said, of course we played it. 

DWS: The source comes from the same place. Because they even announced that they had concept art based on Garrett. But when we were playing it we felt this is not what we want to do. This is not Thief for us. Because Dishonored was an assassin game about revenge and so on. For us it was like, you don’t have to kill anybody. It’s not what our game is about. You have the option to deal with situations, but we’re not about killing, we’re about the challenge of stealing inaccessible things.

We wanted to focus on immersion and down-to-earth relativity. Dishonored has some really cool mechanics like levitation and like magic, where we wanted to tone down the magic and go into a more mystical aspect of it. I think part of the lore is, there is energy and there is this mystical aspect of the lore. We wanted to keep that, it’s a very important part of the story too. But we didn’t want Garrett to shoot fireballs. We didn’t want to go there.

One of the big pillars is immersion, for us. Part of the design is relativity. For me to feel that I’m in this room I need a table I can relate to. I need doors I can relate to. I need humans I can relate to. If the tables were floating and you guys were monsters or whatever, it would be harder to keep grounded as a player. If I wanna feel like I’m in a real place we need to keep things grounded. And then when you have this mystical aspect on top, it becomes more awesome, even though it’s toned down. If everything’s magical you lose that connection to the real world. That was very important for us. 

SR: One thing that we were looking at for us, was what was the reception of that type of game. It has been a real pleasure to see that gamers really want to play that kind of story game. That’s really, really good news for us. There is big interest and that’s cool. People still want to play stealth games.

Do you think people will understand the difference between this and Dishonored?

SR: In the past I worked on the Splinter Cell series. So if I tell my mother I’m working on Splinter Cell, she doesn’t know what it is. But with Thief I can say I am working on a game, the title is Thief. And my mother, my grandmother will say, ‘Ok, so I guess it’s probably going to be during the night and nobody should see me and I will listen and hear and I will be above the law.

DWS: You’ve got a smart mother and grandmother.

SR: No! Come on, a thief is a thief. When you’re a kid you play Cops and Robbers. It’s exactly that. That’s what I like about it. Thief is a single word and it tells you most of the things you need to know. 

Thief is out in 2014.

  • This can't come out soon enough!
  • Insert random comment about how this is a ripoff/copy of Dishonored.
  • Hope people appreciate what this game offers instead of comparing it constantly to Dishonored. So ready for next-gen man. This and Watch Dogs have me super excited.
  • @2 Do you not get that "Thief - The Dark Project" came out YEARS ago, long before Dishonored?! "Thief" is the 4th incarnation of the series. It probably came out before YOU!
  • "Because Dishonored was an assassin game about revenge and so on." True. "For us it was like, you don’t have to kill anybody." Had they played Dishonored, you could complete the game without killing anybody (Clean Hands 100G). Another game where you don't have to kill anyone is Deus Ex Human Rev (Pacifist 100G).
  • I've never played any of the thief games but I am really interested in getting this one.
  • I played the fuck out of Thief, all of them, and I was young when deadly shadows came out! I cannot wait.
  • @2 if anything, dishonored and other sneak games are descendants of thief: the dark project. a lot of things in dishonored seemed to be paying homage to that game.
  • this looks very promising.. let's hope it delivers what so many of us hope for!
  • I cannot wait!
  • @5 Deus Ex: Human Revolution? Made by Eidos Montreal
  • This game looks pretty damn good
  • This looks like it will be a good reincarnation of the series
  • @2 They said in an interview that dishonored was inspired by thief and other games like it.
  • I'm pretty sure @2 was being sarcastic. If it were genuine, he would have actually made a comment about how it's a ripoff rather than saying "Insert random comment about how..." That said, I am quite interested in this game. I hope that they build the entire game around being able to play it however you want (esp. old school vs. modern). I know they said you can turn off the newer features and play it old school style, but that doesn't work very well if the game was built around the newer features. Case in point: Hitman: Absolution.
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