Ubisoft Quebec's creative director and MD discuss diversity, open-worlds and game-breaking bugs
Last year’s Assassin’s Creed Unity was not what many fans had come to expect from the franchise.
Critics and players alike slated the game for its plethora of bugs that appeared at launch and a lack of diversity amongst its playable characters. It proved to be a misstep for Ubisoft’s blockbuster IP.
This year, it’s Ubisoft Quebec’s turn to take the reins with Assassin's Creed Syndicate. It’s the first time the big release of the year is being handled outside the Montreal studio. But having been in development for three years, has the studio been able to learn the lessons of last year?
Ubisoft Quebec MD Nicolas Rioux tells Develop it’s “confident about [improving on] some of the issues we saw last year”, and has taken the action “necessary to ensure this will not happen”. The game is built upon the same game engine built during Unity’s development, meaning Ubisoft Quebec was able to build further on what the Montreal team had already created.
But given last year’s issues, if the game was not ready, could Ubisoft afford to delay its biggest game, and something that has become an annual release? Rioux simply remarks that a delay “would not happen”, and says Ubisoft has extensive playtesting in place to ensure most issues are caught before launch.
One of the major changes for Assassin's Creed Syndicate is the use of both a male and female protagonist. Ubisoft received heavy criticism last year for its all-male leads, and faced further backlash over suggestions that it would be too much work to fully animate a playable female character.
But there’s a different tact this year. A female lead and the inclusion of a transgender character form part of Syndicate’s cast. But Ubisoft Quebec and Syndicate creative director Marc-Alexis Côté says diversity is not simply about adding a playable female character, it’s about much more than that.
“Diversity, for me, it’s a lot about changing the mindset,” he says.
“It’s about changing our reflexes that we have when we build a story. I’ve had the chance to work with many female writers on this project, who’ve challenged me a lot about the way I would cast some roles, for example. Because by default, and it’s something that’s very a dominant attitude in the industry, but not just in the video game industry, in the movie industry as well, you get a role and you’ll think of a male first to cast this role.
“And there are roles in which you can swap the genders very easily. And not just in the main roles, but in everything that populates the world. This is something that we’ve been very careful about doing, And again, thanks to all the female writers who have been working with me on this project who have been challenging this particular aspect of the way we think about building our stories and building our world.”
An immersive open-world
Another key aspect that sets apart Syndicate from Unity is the lack of multiplayer. Côté says the decision to focus on single-player was made to get back to the roots of the franchise.
“We’ve enriched this experience with multiplayer over the years, but it felt to me that we had to go back to our roots, to have focus as a development team as to what kind of experience we were building,” he states.
“For us it was about refining the experience and enriching it with new tools and building a city that made more sense, that felt more alive than ever. So that’s where we wanted to invest this year, on stuff that people, and let’s not kid ourselves, all our players play the single-player experience when you buy an Assassin's Creed game, but not all of them play the multiplayer. So what we wanted to do was really focus on where people spend their time, which is the single-player.”
The city of London has been squeezed into a 2km by 2km map in Syndicate, but that doesn’t mean there’ll be any shortage of famous landmarks fitted in to the game and missions to fulfil.
For some, a daunting part of any open-world game can be the overwhelming number of story missions and side-objectives to complete. Côté says this is something the Quebec team gained feedback on from players, and has made steps to improve the situation for Syndicate, while still giving the player plenty to do.
“Some of the things we’re doing to address that is a more progressive unlock of the different elements," he says. "So the more you zoom out [on the map], the less icons you have available, only the most important stuff becomes available on the screen. And when you zoom in, that’s when you see the chest you want, that’s when you see the collectibles and everything. [This is] to make sure that the density of icons is never something that will just overwhelm you.”
Côté adds that the studio is also aware that side missions can sometimes be unrewarding, and has made lengths to tie each objective into the overall narrative of conquering London.
“In previous games you would have stuff you would do in the open world and stuff you would do in the main story,” he says.
“So right now the main story is about conquering London, and the open-world is about conquering London. So most the activities you do will participate in the player’s goals. So it helps you, the activities being linked narratively like that, helps you makes sense of the different activities. It makes you be able to organise them in your brain, which is something that’s very important to make things more accessible.”
Ubisoft Quebec appears to have learnt from many of the missteps of Unity, and has taken lengths to improve upon criticisms, of a lack of diversity, game glitches and unfulfilling side missions, and today's generally positive Assassin's Creed Syndicate reviews show that Ubisoft's treasured IP may just be back on track.