Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell is making a comeback. After years of dormancy, Ubisoft Toronto (the studio responsible for the franchise’s most recent entry, Splinter Cell Blacklist) is hoping to revitalize the franchise and has begun work on a remake.
A lot has changed for the studio since it launched Splinter Cell Blacklist in 2013. In the last few years, the studio put out Starlink: Battle for Atlas, Watch Dogs: Legion, and most recently Far Cry 6. Shipping two AAA games during a pandemic is no small feat, and to understand more about what the studio learned during this time, where it’s going with Splinter Cell on the horizon, and how the studio is reinforcing its commitment to the well-being of their employees, we spoke with Managing Director Istvan Tajnay.
Ubisoft Toronto got started with Splinter Cell Blacklist in 2013. Where was the studio then and how has it evolved since?
Istvan Tajnay: Blacklist was the catalyst for building the studio. It started with about 20 people that had moved from Ubisoft Montreal, and we basically recruited the entire team over the course of that game’s development. Of course, the biggest change since that time is the studio shifted from being fully focused on one project with one team, to multiple teams working on multiple projects in parallel.
So up until 2013, Ubisoft Toronto was a one-project studio. Everybody was fully focused on Splinter Cell Blacklist, from the development team to the HR and recruitment teams. Since then, we’ve had to learn how to collaborate in a more transversal fashion across different projects and support each other through that effort. It’s been a big evolution for us. Blacklist laid a super strong foundation for collaboration, and the next evolution was obviously to do that on multiple projects.
Splinter Cell has been dormant since Blacklist. What does it mean for the studio, as the last people who touched it, to be able to bring it back?
IT: I mean, very clearly for me, it's excitement, pride, and responsibility. Excitement, because it feels like a Splinter Cell game is among the most-wanted comebacks in the games industry. Pride, because Splinter Cell is fully part of the studio's DNA, and the studio’s roots. And responsibility, because we know how high the expectations of the fans are for us to modernize the brand while making absolutely sure we don't lose any of its essence; we want to make sure that Splinter Cell fans really love it.
Where were you when the first Splinter Cell came out? What was your reaction to it? Do you have any personal memories from back then?
IT: Well, I wasn't working in the game industry at that time. I joined it two years later. But I remember having played the first Metal Gear very intensely, and I remember where I was when I first saw Splinter Cell. I was at my local Fnac in Brussels – that’s where a lot of people in French-speaking Europe bought their videogames – and I saw Splinter Cell running on a huge screen. I just remember being blown away by the visuals. There was something there that was far ahead of anything else being done at the time. Of course, I remember playing it later when I got an Xbox. It was the first title on Xbox I played.
As much as I enjoyed the stealth genre with other titles, I remember being impressed with how unique the Splinter Cell experience was. How uncompromising the focus on stealth was, and how it redefined what stealth meant in a videogame. I also remember how every single element of the game – graphically, from an audio perspective, every single piece of design – was really conceived to focus your intention towards stealth and espionage.
In less than a year, Ubisoft Toronto put out Watch Dogs: Legion and Far Cry 6. What have you learned from those two games? And from less-recent games, like Starlink?
IT: First and foremost, what we've learned is what it takes to ship games of this scope at a high level of quality. We've also learned it's incredibly challenging to produce two games, two AAA games of that scope, almost at the same time. The keys to doing this are collaboration, resilience, and trust -- even more so in the context of COVID -- in which most of us were working from home. With Starlink, we learned that we're capable of producing something completely new and unexpected. That we are capable of innovating and delivering within game genres that weren't previously part of our studio’s wheelhouse.
When players hear that Ubisoft Toronto is making a game, what do you want them to think?
IT: I want players to be taken on a transformative journey. I want them to experience a gripping game filled with purpose, immersion, and challenge. I want them to play because what they're doing in the game feels really meaningful to them. I want them to keep playing because they're so immersed in the game world that they feel a strong sense of belonging to it, and I want them to feel like they're growing as players because the experience is ultimately challenging.
You were appointed managing director in February 2021. What has your journey been like? How did you get to that point in your career?
IT: I've always been very interested in the art of storytelling, specifically within literature and animation. From there, it’s what got me into games in the first place. I was hooked on the medium of videogames as a young kid in 1984, when my best friend’s dad brought the Famicom back from Japan two years before the NES launched in Europe. That pretty much hooked me.
When I was thinking about how I could contribute to making games, I was interested in the craft of turning a concept, an idea, into a compelling product. That's the main reason I became a producer: I felt uniting talented, inspiring people around a common focus is where I could add the most value. So I took that journey from QA to producer, with all the steps in between. I continued that journey all the way to Toronto, which I see as a new opportunity with a super interesting future, in a new city, working with a very passionate group of people.
Having worked at Ubisoft for almost nine years now, I've had the opportunity to visit the studio prior to taking the role. I have family in Toronto, so obviously I knew how incredibly diverse and international this city is, and that's also reflected in our studio. Before I joined Ubisoft Toronto, I also had the chance to work on Far Cry 6 while I was leading Ubisoft Berlin. Now that I am here, I’m really excited to build the next chapter of Ubisoft Toronto and build on the solid foundations that have been laid.
You took on the role during an interesting time, at the height of a pandemic. What are you most proud of for the studio during your time as managing director?
IT: I'm extremely proud of the Watch Dogs: Legion team for delivering top-notch post-launch content with the Bloodline DLC and with the Legion of the Dead online zombie mode, all while in the context of a pandemic. I'm also very proud of the energy, drive, and resilience that the Far Cry 6 team has shown to ship and continue to support an extremely well-executed, true-to-the-brand Far Cry experience in that same context.
What is it like taking a leadership role at a time when most of the studio is working from home?
IT: I don't think it fundamentally changes anything because we're all in the same boat. We're all in the same situation. What’s key is being able to create rapport and relationships of trust with people that I haven’t worked with before, and that I haven’t physically met before. I feel like we've gotten really efficient with remote tools in terms of communication, collaboration, and exchange, and even creating events where we continue to build belonging and a feeling of togetherness – but when it comes to building very strong relationships of trust with direct collaborators, I do feel that can be a challenge given the remote work during the pandemic.
I put a lot of focus on communication and on exchanging with our team regularly to keep everyone updated on our studio’s progress and to understand the goals and needs of our team members. Obviously, video calls help, but that is a challenge I feel were we're all facing and it’s definitely part of the challenge of leading our studio, mostly remotely.
Now that the studio’s shipped Far Cry 6 and announced Splinter Cell, what are your mid- and long-term goals?
IT: In the mid-term, when it comes to Far Cry 6, we want to support the game for its entire lifetime to the best of our abilities and release some very compelling post-launch content. We've got a great lineup for post-launch.
When it comes to future projects, I want the studio to revive the Splinter Cell brand. To really satisfy its core audience that is very hungry for a new Splinter Cell and also broaden the horizon of the series to new players.
I see a bright future for the Splinter Cell. Beyond that, I also see us continuing to build upon our expertise in creating urban open-world, action-adventure games to deliver something new and groundbreaking in that particular genre.
How do you see the studio growing in the next three to five years?
IT: I like to think of it less in terms of just size and more in terms of growth goals. Our goal is really to continue growing our expertise, and be very focused and very clear on where we want to go.
In terms of games, we want to continue pushing ourselves creatively with the gameplay we create and with the way we tell stories. I really like the metaphor of the hero’s journey. I think it's one that applies very well to game-making as well, because it's all to do with meaning for the player. It's all about relating and belonging to a game world that the player feels strongly about. And it's also all about growth, improvement, and challenge.
I want us to continue to evolve and ensure that our culture and values reflect the studio we want to be. We recently unveiled a new set of core values – trust, integrity, excellence and care – to help guide where we’re headed. I want everyone at the studio to recognize some part of themselves in these four values and for us, collectively, to have something to aspire to.
I also want us to be a place where employees can grow and really consider their careers for the long-term future. And when it comes to our impact on our environment or partnerships, it's very important to me that the studio has a positive effect on our local community and on our city. So we will continue to work with local partners to grow the gaming ecosystem in Ontario, because there is still a lot of potential for further growth there.
Speaking of which, Toronto is an incredibly diverse city, as you’ve said. What's the studio doing to ensure that that diversity is reflected inside of its walls as well?
IT: You're absolutely right. I've really seen this since I've started coming to Toronto in the late ‘80s. What we're focusing on is for this diversity to be reflected in our workforce. This means we have to continue growing the diversity of our talent pool, and of local talent pools, by working directly with education partners in Toronto to support their curriculums through organizations like Youth Fusion to engage students in game development at a young age, and to make sure we reach underrepresented groups through programs like Damage Labs and Hack the ROM.
We also need to rethink our recruitment process and are in the process of adapting our recruitment philosophy to ensure we're reaching more diverse candidates that bring their own unique skill sets and approaches. We recently welcomed Erin Roach as Director of Diversity & Inclusion for the Canadian studios, and we continuously work with our growing D&I team to ensure we remain attractive as an employer to diverse talents.
Finally, we need to ensure that everyone’s voices are heard. We need to foster a context in which we listen to each other, where we're open to everyone's perspectives and encourage young talents to continuously grow their skills and feel comfortable taking on more responsibility with the right guidance.
Canada at large has become such a huge hub for videogame development. How's Ubisoft adapting to that competition and making sure that Ubisoft Toronto is still a desirable place for talented developers to work when the job market is bigger than it's ever been?
IT: Well, we're obviously looking at the competition to make sure that we are staying as attractive as we can. We’re continuing to transform our workplace culture and benefits to ensure we are a place where employees can grow and consider their careers over the long term. That includes providing more options and flexibility as an organization in how they manage their work lives.
What this means, concretely, is that we're changing our approach to time off. When an employee starts with us, they will receive six weeks of time off starting from day one. We’ve also improved our parental leave program, created a policy that ensures our employees can disconnect when the workday is over, and added more flexibility to the ways we work with opportunities for part-time work, and the possibility to work fully remote.
We've seen over the last two years that the hybrid model (working from the office and from at home) has allowed us to better balance our work and private lives. Ultimately, we want to allow people to contribute equally or more with an improved quality of life, so the new hybrid working policy at the Canadian studios will allow for the best of both worlds. Up to 100% work-from-home will be possible, provided team imperatives and production needs are considered.
Lastly, what would you say to someone who is considering applying to Ubisoft Toronto?
IT: We are in a unique position as a studio, having recently shipped two major games that we’ve been working on for the last several years – Watch Dogs: Legion and Far Cry 6. Now, as we move forward, this has given us the opportunity to pause, albeit briefly, and take stock of what we want to build. From the games we want to be known for, the culture and values of our team to the way we impact the community around us.
Anyone that’s considering joining our team has the power to shape what this future looks like, and if that's something that you want to do with us – we'd love to have you.
Ubisoft Toronto is hiring! Candidates looking to work on the Splinter Cell remake, or any of the studio’s upcoming projects can apply here.