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: Gamers, welcome back to AusGamers. You are here once again with Stephen Farrelly, talking about one of my favourite topics in the world: Assassin’s Creed. I’ve got Hugues -- who’s come over for PAX Australia -- to talk to us about the game. I’ve already spoken to some [Ubisoft] people out at E3, and seen the game at E3; have seen it again today... gorgeous; beautiful game.
So let’s talk about crafting a world that isn’t specifically cities any more. There’s been, kind of, bridges to the cities that have seemed empty sometimes, but now you guys have gone “well, you know, there’s a whole ocean out there!”, and an ocean is a really big place to begin. So for you guys, were there challenges in approaching that, and was there a challenge in making an ocean a really systemic place for players to find emergent gameplay, and find things that they just want to go off on their own and do? Or is that a stupid question, because it’s an ocean?
: Well there are several aspects to it: we’re extremely proud to bridge a few things. One is the pirate setting, and pirates were about freedom, were about exploring, were about being stealthy, so we’re trying to combine all of this on the ground, and on the sea. But even more than that, in a seamless way from ground-to-sea, sea-to-ground, and sea-to-ship. You can climb on any ship at any moment, you can board any ship in the game, and I think that gives options. It gives a huge amount of choice to the fans, and that’s what we are battling every day as developers, to make sure it’s possible, and to make it as accessible and as seamless as possible.
: The Assassin’s Creed series -- apart from the first game... the second game had, I guess you would call them extensions. In that world with Ezio, we saw a lot of his life. Conor’s world obviously, did expand quite a long time in the single-player campaign. Is there a reason you didn’t jump into another chapter in his life, and went straight to Assassin’s 4? Is there a particular philosophy behind that?
: We started the development of Assassin’s 4 before AC3 got finished, and right away, when we came up with the naval battles in Assassin’s Creed 3 and we started playtests, we saw that the ocean simulation was really coming together, and was really beautiful, so we knew we were on to something. That era, between the 17th to 18th centuries is full of geopolitical plots -- the Caribbean, the New America -- there was a lot happening [there], and that’s where this whole assassins and templars plot is coming together. So trying to bring that to life, there was nothing better than the pirate setting to make it real.
: To get back to my first question: did you guys come across much challenge, in terms of creating such an open world? It’s the first time that the Assassin’s Creed world has been so large.
: As game designers, there’s always a balance to find between... we have a story, a main story that’s very scripted, with sequences that you have to follow, and we have the toys. Historically in Assassin’s Creed, you had big cities where you could just wander and explore and trigger side quests. Now we go beyond that, with an entire ocean, and the entire Caribbean to explore.
So what we’re doing is really also leveraging what Ubisoft’s learning how to do. I think Far Cry 3 was exploring some great balancing between the main mission, but also I’m building my own story; I’m crafting, and I’m progressing through the game; and we’ve partnered with them. We look at the data of how people played Assassin’s Creed 3, and how they played Far Cry 3, and then we tried to improve, in particular, things like fast-travelling, things like how to hold your hand to explore certain gameplay and new mechanics, but at the same time, give you the freedom to just go the other way if you wanted to go the other way.
: I actually wrote a feature on hand-holding in Far Cry 3, it was one of my most disliked features of the game, but I played the game right to the end because it was such an amazing game, and it’s a really good point that you bring up. At what level to do you guys find... you mentioned when we were playing the demo: you talked about playtesting, and what players were wanting, and the feedback that you got from Assassin’s Creed 3, and Far Cry 3.
For you guys: is there a kind of a movement, in terms of adoption for players, where there are more mainstream players coming into hardcore games, so you feel you have to cater the hand-holding to them? And do you feel that negates players like myself, that have been playing videogames my whole life, and designers like yourselves. How do you approach that, and what’s the end result for you?
: There are a few golden rules that we have: one is always to try to introduce new gameplay and new ingredients, and making it non-boring, so it’s not like a tutorial. The first time you’re going to find something in the game -- a new feature, a new boss -- we’re going to help you, and onboard you to go through that experience. After that you’re going to be on your own, and that’s fine, because we’ll have showed you the first time, how to deal with it. So that’s the first step.
Then we add what we call a lot of ingredients, and ingredients add a lot of depth to the gameplay. So if you take the Jackdaw, which is Edward’s main ship, at the beginning of the game, he has just a few cannons, he’s a bit light, and we’re going to trigger around you, enemies that you can defeat, and step-by-step you’re going to learn how to do that. Then we’re going to give you chain shots, then we’re going to give you the opportunity to board your first ship, and then heat shots, and then you can de-mast, and move forward and have a more complex experience, until at one point, if you equip it with more protection and more guns, you can probably tackle your first Man of War. But we won’t throw you right away against a Man of War.
Now if you start exploring the world, and go the completely opposite direction to which we were hoping you would go, you might face that Man of War. And that’s ok, you’re going to learn “Oh, that’s a fish that’s a bit too big for me to catch”, and you’ll come back and learn. But we’re making sure that we never really punish people.
If you want to love a game and never throw the controller, you need to realise that there’s always a way for you to go around where you’ve blocked yourself, and that’s where we’re working on with play-tests, and with analysing user behaviours.
: Speaking of user behaviours: what was the main feedback that you got from AC3, coming into Assassin’s Creed 4 overall? But then very specifically: what changed in terms of the naval combat? Because when I spoke to you guys about Assassin’s Creed 3, it was “We’re kind of taking a gamble with the naval stuff”, and it turned out to be one of the strongest points of that game, obviously, and now you’re celebrating it in greater form here.
So can you talk a little bit about what you learnt overall from AC3, but then get into the specifics of the naval stuff?
: Sure. So I think what we learnt in AC3 is that the fans want to get into the action with the main character as fast as possible, so you will play with Edward very quickly. He’s a pirate right from the start of the game, so he’s a very interesting character -- brash, rebel, violent -- right away, and you’ll have to tame him, and he will become and Assassin as you’re playing through the game. So that’s a different angle, and it’s something quite different from AC3.
We also want to reinforce the stealth, so back to the roots of Assassin’s Creed, pirates -- especially during daytime, and in cities -- were trying to be as unnoticed as possible, so to complete missions, you probably need to play very stealthily because the guards will be much stronger.
Now to the naval battles: yeah, we’re super-proud, because that was done in Ubisoft Singapore, and I represent the Ubisoft Singapore studio today. The reaction of the fans was just amazing, so again, here we added some depth -- some more weapons to the ship, more upgrades, more customisation. You will noticed tonnes of improvements in the boarding sequences, in particular you can board by jumping on the other boat, or climbing into masts and sails and jump from there; do air assassinations from the mast, and so on.
You can even use the swivel gun (I think I showed you that earlier) and start shooting the guys on the other ship’s decks. And that adds, again, options and choices for how you want to perform the boarding.
: Now over the years, many seafarers have come back with crazy stories, and you’ve got this... not only do you have an ocean, but you also have the Bermuda Triangle in your play space. I know there was some weird stuff in AC3, but I’m curious to know if you’re going to kind of perpetuate the old sea-shanty style song/larger-than-life type of stuff, with Krakkens, or giant squid or something (probably, you’re not off the coast of New Zealand)... but is there any of that sort of stuff that people can kind of look forward to?
: Yeah, absolutely. Assassin’s Creed is about recreating history, so we are not going toward the supernatural kind of events. However, the ambient life, and all of the things that were happening at that time are going to be represented. So definitely sea-shanties, you will be able to unlock some of these, and they are just amazing this year, they are very pirateish
. Then we have a few activities that are very fresh, like underwater, where you have a diving bell where you’re supposed to explore shipwrecks to get treasures, and avoid sharks and so on.
There’s another activity, which we call harpooning, which is basically survival mode for pirates, with hunting and whaling. And we have a very interesting mini-game that we’ve developed, where you’re in this small boat, and fighting against these giant monsters that are ten times bigger than your own ship, with a few harpoons, and “Here you go”, hunting at sea. And these really depict what the 17th and 18th century life at sea was, and we’re very, very proud of that.
: So recreating Moby Dick to a degree?
: To a degree...
: You’re jumping around between cities and fishing villages in different places. Did you guys approach the NPCs, and the ambient life of the human characters with that in mind? Are we going to come across places where they don’t speak English? How are you juggling that, or as you say, it’s a recreation of history in your own eyes, so just streamline it a little more for the player, to make it easier to understand?
: What’s interesting is that you have to recruit crew. So as you wander through taverns, cities and villages, you have to recruit people; sometimes save them, then that crew will help you to board ships, or to sail other ships for the fleet meta-game that we have -- where you can send other ships on missions in the Caribbean to loot more. So that’s one aspect.
I think a lot of it is just exploration; there will be a few factions in the game: Spanish, British obviously, and pirates, so you have a sort of reward system and wanted-level for each faction that you can play with, and that adds to that systemic toy that we were talking about, where things can happen in the world -- you can be hunted like privateers, based on what you’ve done before and how you have behaved.
: I want to wrap up with a question about tech, because over the last couple of weeks, I’ve spoken to many different teams from Ubisoft, and what amazes me is that you guys craft these beautiful games, but nobody’s working off the same engine; this is insane to me. You’ve got The Division, and you’ve got Watch_dogs and you’ve got AC4, and you’ve got Splinter Cell, and everything is running off a different engine.
Is that problematic internally, in terms of pipelines, and sharing assets and things like that, or does it help, because each team is versed more directly in the tech they’re using?
: I beleive it helps. Of course it’s a bet; of course it’s a specificity to Ubisoft. At Ubisoft, what matters is the creativity, and you are free to pick whatever tech you want, that can take you where the creative vision is. In the case of Assassin’s Creed, Anvil was the right tool; we’ve expanded on it; it allows the huge world, the free climbing, and all the pillars for Assassin’s Creed, which is the buildings with navigation, the stealth, the crowd and the combat.
So from the others, a lot of sharing within Ubisoft studios. We have seven or eight studios working on Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, and as I mentioned, in terms of design -- of “How do we design an open-world?” -- we share with Watch_Dogs, we share with the Far Cry guys, to understand “Ok, what worked? What didn’t work? How did you resolve this specific system?”. If you look at the watchtowers in Far Cry 3, they are a sort of Borgia Tower kind of gameplay that we had in Assassin’s Creed in the past. So that really helps.
In terms of assets, art assets can be shared; we have a common pool of assets that artists can pick in. But you know, that’s the joy of being a game developer: there’s a lot of challenges. As far as the other priority, with the seamless terrain in Black Flag, making sure that you can go from ground to sea in a very fluid and accessible way.
: Alright Hugues, well we’ll leave it there. Thank you so much for your time today. I can’t wait to see more of the game. Thank you so much. Cheers.
: You’re welcome. Cheers.