Building a blockbuster: Assassin's Creed 3

Building a blockbuster: Assassin's Creed 3
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

August 21st 2012 at 5:40PM

Ubisoft Montreal creative director Alex Hutchinson discusses the virtues of existing franchises versus new IP

Assassin's Creed has grown into one of the games industry's leading franchises since its first release in 2007, with the highlight anticipated third entry into the main canon set to launch later this year.

The latest entry into the series is led by Ubisoft Montreal creative director Alex Hutchinson, who has worked on a number of games in his illustrious development career.

From working at EA as lead designer on brand new and groundbreaking IP such as Spore and work on The Sims 2, Hutchinson has experience on both sides of the market.

Having spoken at GDC Europe on how developers can maintain momentum on a large franchise, Develop spoke to Ubisoft creative director about the advantages of new IP compared to sequels, and how Ubisoft manages development of such a huge game at the the world's biggest studio, whilst also collaborating with a number of its other branches.

Is providing fresh ideas into a longstanding franchise such as Assassin’s Creed as important as keeping the current userbase happy or is there a balance?

I think balance is really important. I think that lots of longstanding successful brands, and you can list a million of them from Star Trek to Star Wars or even newer shows with shorter runs like Lost or Breaking Bad, have this core goal of trying to make sure you keep your audience but also grow it.

A lot of people misinterpret that as shipping the same thing over and over again, but I don’t think that’s true.

I think you need to identify the core elements that your fans love about the game and stay true to those. But a lot of other things can change, and things that seem quite radical can change and seem perfectly fine, because if you don’t change it you’ll stagnate and die.

So you don’t agree with the view that longstanding franchises are stifling creativity in the industry?
I don’t think so at all, especially in the video games space. The idea of a new IP versus a sequel being innovative or being more or less innovative based purely on the title is ridiculous.

I would maintain that most new IP first person shooters are closer to existing games than many of the Assassin’s games have been to previous versions; they just have different titles.

Within Assassin’s Creed 3 we’re trying very hard to make sure it’s true to the core of the franchise but new people can get on board. They don’t need much previous knowledge and hopefully it’s a big step up.

How are you going to make it different and innovate it?
What we tried to do was to go back to roots and say, at its very base level, not in terms of narrative or even in terms of mechanics, but in terms of its core gameplay pillars the game is about navigation, combat and social stealth.

And really if you think about it they’re broad enough to encapsulate all genres, not just Assassin’s Creed.

Most games encapsulate parts, or at least navigation and combat, these are core game principles. So we said it doesn’t mean the assassin is all about climbing on buildings, it means the assassin is about climbing and free-running.

I think for the first time in a video game we created a forest that’s a three dimensional playable space where trees are more than obstacles. That alone is a big step.

In our game you can attack from above, through forests, along the ground, you can hide in the brush. The forest itself is a game space, whereas usually they are just assets to avoid.

We’ve tried very hard to bridge the gap between action adventure and light RPG in the sense that with previous Assassin’s Creed games we knew the strengths and something we could do was powerful story, and we’ve done a lot to take that up a notch, but we really wanted second tier activities that the player can engage in.

The idea is that as you go about your main story you’re always being lured into side narratives and side activities throughout the world, making it much more open world activity based than previous games.

The whole fight system has been redesigned so that’s basically a brand new system in terms of animation, player logic, strategy, the whole works.

The lead designer was telling me the other day that we deal with individual features with what we call feature sign off documents, or FSOs, and there are hundreds of new FSOs in the game.

Those can be everything from new objects that you can interact with in the world that has gameplay possibilities to whole systems, so it’s a big one.

Would you say some consumers are perhaps confused with that they want? People buy existing IP but the same people also say there is no new IP and there’s no originality.
Sure. As someone who has worked on both and launched new IPs like Spore, which was about as crazy and new as you can get, and then worked on existing IP like Assassin’s Creed, a lot of your development challenges aren’t that different.

But I agree that the audience says they want one thing and then they don’t vote with their feet, or at least with their wallets that often.

In the marketplace, when they’re standing in the store, they often find truly new ideas strange and off-putting, whilst they find existing ideas and shapes comforting.

And this is not true of video games, this is not a comment on the video games audience, this is the human audience. So that’s why I think it’s especially important for existing IPs to innovate and try to move forward because we know we have a customer base.

So we’ve done huge things in Assassin’s Creed 3 that we would never have had the budget or the opportunity to do in a new IP just because we would have spent all our money and time getting to a base entry level.

For instance, seven to eight years ago when we were working on the PlayStation 2, the naval part of our game would have been a standalone product that you would have paid £60 for. We would never have been able to try that these days.

If we said we were going to do a full sailing simulation of ships and cannonry people would have said there’s no existing metaphor for this, no one’s ever made this game before, how’s it going to work? What if it isn’t successful?

But as part of our franchise we can peel off a percentage of the development team, and focus them on that, safe in the knowledge that if it’s a big success it’s a win, but it’s not going to sink our franchise on its own if it’s not 100 per cent.

As the franchise becomes more ambitious and grows a larger team, how do you manage to keep that creativity and how does your approach to development change?
I think it’s a big challenge. I’m fortunate - or unfortunate depending on how you look at it - to have worked with big teams for the better part of a decade now, and it’s always a challenge.

I believe it’s all about ownership. You can’t own everything from the top, you need to have progressive ownership so everyone can own their part of the game.

I remember a quote that always annoyed me, that big game development is a disaster because apparently someone working on FIFA who spent six months modelling toes. But I thought to myself, yes there’s always going to be someone who has a functional job, but that’s a bad description of something that can be great.

We try to keep each group as small as possible where they own everything from the naval experience through to the combat system and navigation, which are owned by their own groups.

All of these individual islands of people are much smaller than these massive teams and we try as much as possible to make them understand how their part fits into the whole, what needs they need to serve and give them as much freedom as possible to make it amazing.

We try to stay flexible; we’re a very open team. Anyone can walk up to my desk or the producer’s desk and just say ‘I have this amazing idea’ and I honestly believe if it is an amazing idea we’ll back them up.

It sounds like a very democratic process

It gets less democratic as time goes on. Everyone is allowed to have an idea, but not every gets to make the decision. But everyone is allowed to pitch, and if you have good people, the good pitch will win.

With multiple studios working on the same game, how do you make sure everyone is working toward the same aim?

It’s very much in the same vein. Within our team we have sub groups. The cleanest break you can imagine is we have the studio in Annecy in France that works on multiplayer. It’s very clear for them where there workload starts and ends.

It’s harder when you work on systems within the main game, and obviously the more they’re networked within the overall game structure, the harder it is.

But you want them as much as possible to have one or two crossover points with the main game and then within their game to have as much control as possible so they are not waiting on answers for minor features or minor technical issues.

Other studios do this as well, the multiplayer in Gears of War has been done by People Can Fly. There are two groups within the COD franchise that do the multiplayer and I think they’re even breaking up maps now. That seems to be a structure that most big studios follow.

Is that just because it is just necessity now as games are becoming so big?
Exactly. I think we’re separating into these blockbusters that have to deal with these problems, and more focused smaller games that don’t need to deal with that problem.

Everyone’s keen to make this a qualitative divide but I really don’t think that it is. There are amazing huge games and terrible huge games, same for small games. As someone who buys a lot of XBLA and PSN games, I don’t think the strike rate is any better there than it is for a big budget $60 game.

You didn’t mention medium sized games?
I don’t think they exist anymore.

Why do you think that is?
They use to be licensed games and slightly crappy games. I say that as someone who worked on those, and not as a judgement call.

It use to be the way if your studio was coming up you would get a deal to do Barbie’s Racing Ride, and you would try to build some tech and experience and roll that into a bigger game.

I think all those licensing deals have gone to Facebook and other social media channels. I don’t think they see the value in a $60 box product anymore.

I think that one is actually a boon for the business; it means that if you spend $60 you’re less likely to get a terrible licensing game.

But it is also a sign that those mid-range games were still trying to make blockbusters with a tenth of the budget, and I think that’s a terrible mistake. No one goes out and makes a Star Wars competitor for $50 in the movie business.

But we spent a lot of time with people making shooters to go against Call of Duty with four per cent of the budget.

Having worked on games such as Spore and AC3, what is the difference from a development perspective between working on a new IP and a longstanding franchise?
I think the cross over first is in both games you are always trying to make the best game possible. And that’s a combination of identifying the possible space and deciding how much risk you want to embrace, and then running at it.

That’s the core strategy and the commonality as you’re trying to see how much new stuff can we embrace without putting the whole thing at risk.

I think there are base structures on Assassin’s Creed that are established, and we have more of a base that is already successful so that makes it a little easier from that perspective.

You can mimic some features you had before if you must to avoid some risk, whereas on Spore we were out in the weeds and we were really trying to do everything new, so on Assassin’s Creed it’s a little bit safer.

But at the same time you get exactly what you were asking at the start where you get some people saying ‘well it’s going to be the same’. So if you want to grow the audience and hit more people you have to embrace more risk.

You can play it safe on some features but if you really want to go big, even on a sequel, you have to make really risky decisions. So I think it’s more the same than it is different.