AusGamers was given the chance to send some questions about Ubisoft Montreal’s forthcoming Assassin’s Creed III to its newly appointed Creative Director, and Aussie ex-pat, Alex Hutchinson. We asked him about the new game’s direction and setting, how they’re balancing this with series expectations and much, much more. Read on for what he had to say...
We're obviously here to talk about Assassin's Creed 3 Alex, but just before we get there being that you're an Aussie and all, can you give us a bit of background on yourself and how you not only came to be associated with Assassin's Creed 3, but also its creative director?
I always wanted to work in games, but for a long time it seemed impossible. I was a kid living in Melbourne, playing games made primarily in England for the Amiga 500, with no art or programming skills and no idea what a producer even did for a living. It all seemed depressingly far away. I remember watching a virtual tour of the Bullfrog offices on the cover disk to The One
magazine and wishing I could work there but having no idea how to do it.
The closest I could get for a while was journalism, so I wrote a lot for game mags in the U.K. When I was a teenager I published a guide to Sensible Soccer
in Amiga Action magazine, which was the first thing I ever did, then later for a bunch of mags like PlayNation, Edge, GamesTM and others.
Eventually a friend mailed me an ad for a job as a game designer at Melbourne House, who has since closed down. I applied, got all the way to the final interview where they told me they weren’t giving me the job because I was ‘too creative’ and would likely quit. Luckily a few months later another job came up and the good people at Torus Games we’re kind enough to give me an opportunity to work there.
The 10-minute developer walkthrough video we saw shows off a lot of changes and advancements to the game and technology, but what has remained the same? Obviously this is a series about a lineage of assassins fighting a larger evil, but can we expect pacing, objectives, mission structure, exploration et al to be very much the same as what has come before? If not, are you at all concerned about disenfranchising the die-hard fans by totally revamping the series... how do you find that balance?
It was a huge challenge to find the right balance between changing the game enough to keep it fresh and exciting, and to make it attractive and easy for new players to jump on board while making sure that everyone who has been with us since AC1 was satisfied. We had endless meetings, lunch time discussions, after work arguments over beer, until we realised that what we wanted to do was to treat it like a new IP built around the pillars of the AC franchise, which still obeyed all of the core narrative rules of the brand, and fit within the established fiction.
We kept the idea that the gameplay was built around navigation, combat and social stealth, but we completely changed the way they were built and how the player would use them. We wanted a new assassin and a brand new time period, but we wanted them to fit into the history of the brand, so the character didn’t need to be aware of the brand history but players could understand him as part of a lineage.
We believe that AC3 is the perfect point for new players to join the franchise, but we’re also happy that longtime fans will be able to look below the surface and find many references to previous games and a new perspective on the AC mythos.
I noticed that the skyline in a few portions of the video looked overcast, can we expect a more dynamic weather system in AC3? If so, how will this play into the game's structure?
Weather is more than art for us: preparing for winter was a challenge for people in the 18th century, and wasn’t something we could ignore in this setting. Each of our maps have both a winter and summer version which will push the player to change their strategy, climbing trees to avoid being slowed by snow on the ground, or hunting enemies who are struggling to navigate through the frozen forest.
As enemies also leave a trail, it’s a new way to track people through the forest, helping make Connor a true predator in the frontier.
A lot of people have different ideas on where each era of an Assassin's Creed should be set. Many were screaming out for Feudal Japan, while others were talking about Victorian England - how, and why, did you guys end up in the American Revolution?
We’re always looking for fresh places and periods to set the game. We don’t want to go places that other games have explored, and even though America is a common videogame setting, America in this period is radically different. People will recognise some landmarks, but both Boston and New York in the 18th century are practically unexplored in games which made it an exciting setting.
Our story is an epic tale that crosses 30 years, from 1753 to 1783, beginning before the revolution kicks off, proceeding through its key events and finishing after the surrender of the British. We have an opportunity to include more historical events than ever before, with the player visiting Valley Forge, getting involved in key battles such as Bunker Hill and even becoming entangled in Paul Revere’s midnight ride.
Ecology also looks to play a big part in the game, especially since we were confronted by a bear within the first minute or so of the video - can you tell us just what kind of role? Will you be able to sell furs and the like? Hunt and eat off the land? Or will it just be there for aesthetic and obstacle purposes?
To us, animals are the ‘crowd’ of the wilderness. Players can obviously hunt the animals, but we really want people to immerse themselves in the tracking and trapping elements of interacting with animals. We want people to see some species just by navigating the world, but many others will require the player to use tactics and strategy to find and kill them. In a sense, we want players to assassinate animals more than just shoot them: this will result in different quality skins and other objects which can be sold but also used to satisfy side-quests in the game.
We also wanted people to have opportunities outside of the main story path to interact with animals and other new gameplay, so we’ve built several alternate gameplay loops that encourage the player to explore and then rewards them with more gameplay. Clubs are a good example. If the player hunts a lot, then the game will notice and send a character to meet them, who will basically say, ‘You seem like a good shot with that bow, have you thought of joining the hunting club?’ They will give the player an invitation which will allow them access to a previously inaccessible area of the map where they can join the club and gain a bunch of new side-challenges and rewards.
Gunpowder and pistols were in the last few games, but given this is set in a more modern time, how have you balanced melee versus ranged fighting? Obviously muskets are slow to reload and weren't very accurate, and our protagonist is obviously very nimble, but do you have any other tricks for the player in regards to this? Can you also talk about other changes you've added to the combat this time around?
Pistols and rifles are a feature of this period so Connor can use those, but luckily they’re single shot weapons and for enemies they were also notoriously inaccurate so we remain a primarily close-combat game.
We rebuilt the combat system from the ground up. Everything from the player strategy to enemy types to animations and camera implementation is new. Connor’s combat system is based around a two-handed fighting style, so he uses either tomahawk and knife, assassin’s blade and knife, and many other combinations.
It also allowed us to bring in new weapons like the bow, and to give him a different flavour in terms of his animations and tried to make it more fluid than ever: Connor can perform what we call running assassinations, where he can assassinate people in full sprint without losing speed.
In the demo, you talk about how the peds have changed over previous titles, and that every NPC you see on-screen has their own objective in-game. However, in previous titles this was touted during development also, but you visit cities over and over again and eventually notice pretty repetitive patterns - just how diverse is the game's non-combatant AI, and have any of the changes you made fuelled the concept of emergent gameplay? It seem like you're heading in a direction of less directed action, to a more organic approach to quests - can you talk a bit more about this?
Each game has improved the behaviour and believability of the crowd intelligence, but I think we’ve made huge progress on this version. The biggest additions have been to allow crowd member to be attracted to areas or interactions, and then to leave those and begin another action in sequence. No longer will you be able to watch people stay in a conversation for hours. Eventually they’ll go on their way. We also have a huge system that we haven’t announced yet built around some brand new gameplay that I’m dying to talk about, but we can’t announce for the next few months! But it will be centred around the most advanced and detailed NPC behaviours we’ve ever built.
This one is a long-shot given the game's new setting, but will we see a return to the platform puzzle-fuelled underground crypts and temples?
There are several secret locations and hidden challenge maps that will delve deeper into the mysteries behind both the Assassin’s involvement in the Americas, and also the Templars goals for the region. The details of which, I cannot reveal for the moment.
Thanks for your time Alex, we look forward to your responses and to hopefully catching you at this year's E3 expo!