Described by its creator as an action-adventure built on a sports game philosophy, Assassin’s Creed is Ubisoft’s ambitious next-gen big hope. Michael French talks design, technology – and bridging a gap between the two – with the creative minds behind the game, creative director Patrice Desilets and producer Jade Raymond…
The team came straight off Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and asked to start a next-gen game – can you talk us through why you made that choice and the impact that had on the game design?
Patrice Desilets, Creative Director: When we started the project we knew graphics are a given, that they will be better on next-gen. So gameplay is what we focused on because we think that’s what gamers are looking for. In defining a new kind of next-gen gameplay we have focused on interactivity and immersion.
Our goal is to create a world in which the player can interact with everything with no suspension of disbelief. We started with the concept that the player should have full control over the protagonist’s body and that he should be able to interact with the world in an intuitive and natural way.
You have fine control of the way you interact with the crowds in the street as well as all of the elements in the surroundings, so the need for artificial puzzle elements like moving walls or fire traps disappears because for the first time we can base our gameplay on social rules and the natural traps found in real cities. Place a highly mobile and skilled character in a fully interactive living environment and the possibilities are endless.
Was it important for you to prove you could take the lessons you had learnt from bringing fresh ideas to an old franchise and deliver fresh ideas and a fresh, original franchise?
PD: I am a little tired of the same old settings we find in games these days, and I wanted to ‘talk’ about subjects that touch me in a personal way. History is one of my passions, and the Crusades are a very interesting topic. But at the same time we learned so much about third person action character with Prince of Persia, that it was natural for us to continue our research on how to make a really good action game.
Personally, my own grail is to give action players the same freedom of movement found in sports games, but also a similar experience where no two ‘matches’ are the same. Another thing that was important for me when I started working on this project, was to have a main character that had ‘action’ in his ‘title’. When you do a game with a Prince, you have to find a reason for the action, since a prince is not an action character per se. But an assassin…
Other Ubi people describe it as ‘the GTA of action adventure’. Was that part of the pitch?
PD: It became part of the pitch when we asked ourselves what would players want in 2007, and we realised that linear paths would be over. I don’t know if we were right, but it was a conscious decision to add a freedom element like you have in GTA. It’s not a clone in any way but we were inspired by our play session of GTA.
The influences from both The Crusades and modern elements like le parkour – what’s the secret to, and motivation behind, merging two seemingly very different notions?
Jade Raymond, Producer: When Patrice and the rest of the core team started thinking about Assassin’s Creed we thought a lot about the player fantasy. We asked ourselves, ‘What do gamers want to do in a next-gen game that was not previously possible?’
“We all think that the sport of free-running is incredibly cool and wish we could do it in real life, so it seemed like a logical thing to try to deliver in our game. The idea of climbing anywhere happens to suit the hero well and it turns out that having this ability in narrow medieval streets itself creates great gameplay too.
On the subject of those environments – you’ve designed areas so that anything that sticks out 10cm or more could be grabbed by the player. What impact has that had on how the art team works to create environments and objects?
JR: That was one of the production challenges that we had early on in development. The design decision to make everything interactive required us to completely redefine the way artists work. On most games modelers and level artists spend most of their time thinking about making great looking levels, but on Assassin’s Creed, artists also have to learn level design rules.
Since we have huge open cities it is not possible for any one person to own the creation of a whole map. Artists instead have to work cooperatively to build the city, some focusing on houses, others on landmarks and others on objects. Furthermore it’s not enough just to make sure that your house looks good and fits within budgets. On Assassin’s Creed, artists have to start by making sure that their design works with the character and level design rules and only after that can they think about making it look good.
You say players can approach objectives however they want: how do you create a system that copes with the various different attempts people that play the game will think up? Is it difficult to do this without making the player feel forced down a funnel?
PD: What’s important in my opinion is that players have a set of tools to use and gameplay loops that ask for those tools. Then, it’s up to them to create their paths and strategies. Again, it’s a sports game with swords and free-running! But a way to ‘force’ players to follow certain rules is to have a story or a narrative structure that is really incorporated into the game, where the game is the story and the story is the game; where the main character of the script lives the same experience as the player. This is where game rules become really important. Your rules must be justified by the story and the story must not contradict your game rules. Then you have something special.