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AusGamers Assassin's Creed 3 Developer Interview Video with Philippe Bergeron
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 12:23pm 06/10/12 | Comments
AusGamers caught up with Ubisoft Montreal's Philippe Bergeron for a mammoth discussion about Assassin's Creed III. This one is a must-watch (or read) for anyone keen on the next chapter in the Assassin's Creed series...

Watch the full video interview embedded above, or click here for a direct link.

AusGamers: Welcome back to AusGamers, you are here once again with Stephen Farrelly. I’m out at Ubisoft’s head office in Sydney, Australia. We have a very special guest with us today: Phil [Ubisoft Montreal Mission Director, Philippe Bergeron], who has come all the way over from Montreal -- from Ubisoft Montreal -- to talk to us about Assassin’s Creed III.

We’ve been sitting down for about an hour and a half, just playing through the game, and having a conversation about it. There’s a lot of people really, really keen on this one; it’s probably going to be one of the bigger games this year. It’s the biggest undertaking you guys have done with this franchise since inception.

Let’s talk about that point, that stepping point for you guys in the office. Obviously there was a lot of exploration of Ezio, a lot of subtle exploration of Altair -- who’s actually my favourite assassin; although I am growing towards Connor a little bit. Can we talk about the genesis of going with the American Revolution, finally leaving Europe and that sort of stuff. Where did all that come from, and what was the process, in terms of length, and where you guys went?

Philippe Bergeron: As far as the idea, this started out back in ACII; we had a general idea that we were going to deal with the American Revolution. Then we went our separate ways and did AC: B, and AC:R, [Brotherhood, and Revelations] and developed Ezio, like you said. Then once we actually got to working on this [Assassin’s Creed III] ... there’s a team, that after ACII, started working on this. I joined a little bit later, and we basically started thinking “what does it mean to be in the American Revolution”, and then started developing Connor as a character from there.

We didn’t necessarily want to deal with a character that was American, or a British coloniser, we wanted to have somebody who was more third party to this conflict, so we would have the American Revolution as more of a backdrop, and tell more of an assassin story with the American Revolution as the backdrop to it.

That’s where we came up with the Native American character. We don’t talk about it too much, but Native Americans had their own thing going on, as this [the Revolution] was happening. It was basically like a whole bunch of people that weren’t from there, that came in and took all their lands. So that’s really where the idea of the Native American came in, where he was seeing all this where “you guys are just taking all our lands, and taking all of our culture”, and meanwhile, everybody sort of ignores that aspect of it, and it’s more like the identity conflict between Americans and the British. So there’s a big part of that: develop Connor from there on.

Then it’s a three year development cycle from there, where we just improved our tech to be able to deal with forests, and colonial cities which are much more spread out; new free-running abilities, and climbing abilities to sort of conquer all of this land.

AusGamers: Were the two teams talking? When you were kind of working in parallel, obviously you’re working on new tech, meanwhile the other team’s finishing up some of the Ezio stuff. Obviously there needs to be back and forth to maintain a consistent sense of narrative, but was there much talking to the other team at all?

Philippe: Yeah. We have a brand consensus. So all the different core teams meet regularly with each other, because at the very least, the narrative team is one and the same -- we all talk to each other really, in as far as: where we want to bring the Desmond storyline, where we want to bring the Connor storylines or the Ezio storylines. So everybody sort of agrees on that, and we’re moving the whole thing along.

As far as tech goes, usually we sort of constantly monitor what the other teams are doing, and check as they’re doing it, say “oh, that could be interesting”, and see [if] we are going to take their code, or make our own version of it? Or once it’s actually released, then we often modify it for... this feature: do people like it, or do they not like it, and if they do like it do we already have something to compensate for that? Or do we take their code, and try to integrate it into ours to make something completely different?

So, for instance: Revelations, when that came out, we were really looking at the Tower Defence, and the Hookblade -- which were some of the new things that they did. When it came out, we were, like, “do people like the Hookblade, do people like Tower Defence?”, and Tower Defence didn’t work out for a lot of people -- they didn’t really like it -- but there were some aspects of it that were really good, and those aspects of it, we did try and... well, we already had a solution for it, that already existed in the game, so that one was fine.

And Hookblade was something that... we didn’t want to put the Hookblade directly in, but we did want to sort of cater to the speed that it gave you for climbing, and that one we were already improving the climbing abilities, to be more like... almost like on par, as far as speed goes, with what Ezio was able to do. So we already actually had a couple of solutions. So we constantly already do that, like crosscheck between the different teams.

AusGamers: It’s a three year development cycle, and you still had to bring on another team, Singapore, to work on the naval stuff. Was that... did you guys try and do that in-house to begin with, and it just seemed like it was too much of an undertaking? Or was it that it just made more sense to outsource that -- obviously to another Ubi team, but... you know?

Philippe: That’s something that... all the ACs, as time goes on, we always have more outsourcing teams. So this time around, we already knew from the beginning that we were going to need Singapore’s help. They already helped us out amazingly on ACII with the Templar lairs, and on AC:B with the Wolfman stuff, and as time went on, they just developed more and more of their tech, and their capabilities and their design team, so it just made sense. We work really well with one another.

From the very beginning, it was suggested to do naval combat, but we already said “We can’t handle this at Montreal. It’s just too different to what we’re doing, and it would require an entirely different coding team to do this”, and so Singapore were, like, ‘volunteered’ in a sense.

So we got them over, and they started prototyping some stuff, and the first part of it that came out was like “Wow, this is really cool. Well, you guys just go back home, and work on a fleshed out version of this”, and then we had a lot of back and forth on that as time went on.

AusGamers: In one of the other interviews I spoke to somebody else about the game, there was this idea that with the naval stuff, nobody was one hundred percent sure that it would work. And now you have this thing that could be its own game. Is that... maybe it’s something you can’t talk about; maybe it is; it seems like it could almost be a splinter component to the Assassin’s Creed franchise, or even something that you could have in-house at Ubi -- it’s awesome fun.

Is it something that you guys have on the radar, in regards to potentially exploring it further, and making it a little bit deeper down the track? Because, it seems ridiculous that no other games have really capitalised on something like naval combat in this way, and with this amount of fun.

Philippe: It was sort of, as you said, we didn’t know whether it was going to work or not, and then when we saw that first version: “Wow, we can actually make an entire game out of this”. I would say that, even in ACIII, the amount of content that we have for it, some smaller games, that would be the same amount of content -- so there’s already enough content in there, to be its own game.

Then as far as the future goes; definitely. I think it’s something that people do enjoy already, we know. So we’ll definitely develop this further and see where we go from there.

AusGamers: Switching gears: one of the other things about this game that’s very different to the other Assassin’s Creeds is that it’s not as densely populated. There’s less narrow streets; you’ve got these really wide open areas. For you guys, switching from something like recreating Constantinople, and then going and creating forests, and these burgeoning cities that were still being constructed, how much did that change the mission structure, and level design, and things like that, in regards to traversal? Because you know, he’s a parkour free-running god, and now you’ve got these huge open spaces. Was it problematic to begin with? Or was it a challenge that you guys thought would actually change the game in a very good way?

Philippe: Well it was sort of something that at the beginning... we knew the era; we knew what we were getting into, and then very quickly we obviously knew: “alright, this is going to be a problem, and we need to take that as a challenge; we can’t avoid it”. If you think about the American Revolution, there’s all this unconquered frontier land; colonial cities are much more spread out. So we knew from the very beginning that we couldn’t just ignore it, we had to actually address it.

And that was something that we wanted to do from the very beginning, it was a design choice we did at the beginning to optimise our production. Because organics, like climbing rocks, climbing trees was a limitation if the character could not do that, and it created a convenient boundary for us. And as time went on, like, “let’s put down these boundaries as much as possible, and make it as free...”

Because it’s sort of silly when you think about it, because one of the first things you climb as a kid is a tree, and why can’t this character -- who’s, like, an amazing athlete and climber -- why can’t he do that? So from the very beginning, we knew we needed to invest in that tech.

So that changed... basically we changed the tools to be able to support that, and then on the design side, we had to sort of take that into consideration, and it did help us a lot. When you think about the cities, the fact that buildings are much more further apart -- it’s like living in farmland, where your nearest neighbour is, like, a kilometer away -- well, we still want to be able to gap from one roof to the next, and using trees to sort of traverse that really helps us a lot. So it was a really, really convenient tool.

Then on the NPC side, the fact that all of these things are much more spread apart, well usually in the past, the fact that it was very compacted, helped us spawn and unspawn NPCs or enemies. It was useful for us to simulate density. Seeing as things are much more spread apart, that was a much bigger challenge, so we actually had to improve our spawning tech to have more people spawn from further away, and swap in fake NPCs in a sense, so it gives you that same density, but on a wider scale.

AusGamers: And animals are obviously the new NPCs in the game as well. What was the challenge there for you guys, moving forward with that? Obviously there’s a separation. When you’re in the cities, you’re dealing with humans; when you’re out in the wild frontier, you’re dealing with animals.

You can obviously create more believable behaviours for humans in cities that people expect and understand, but out in the wild, it’s a little bit different.

Philippe: Yeah, we need to... basically we created a team that just worked on wildlife -- because that is our cry “Life of the Forest” -- so we had animators that specialised in creating animal rigs. So the wolves, and the bears needed a completely different rig -- obviously we can’t put a human rig in there, otherwise it would look like a dude in a suit [laughs] -- so we had to actually develop animal rigs, and the entire skin for those things, and do a lot of research just looking at “How do animals move, and what’s their interaction in the wilderness?”, so we developed expertise on the project.

AusGamers: Did you guys actually talk to the [Far Cry 3] team at all, because obviously, they’ve got their own ecology, and they’re working with animals as well? Was there any kind of AI syncing there?

Philippe: As far as Far Cry is concerned, for animals, they’re sort of worlds apart. Because they... they’re not in the same engine as us, they have their own thing. So it’s not as compatible as you would think. We can use their skins, but we can’t use their rigs and stuff like that.

I’m assuming some of the animators talked to one another, but I’m not in that department, so I don’t know specifically, but there wasn’t as much collaboration as you would think.

AusGamers: Now the other thing that you guys always do, and it’s always a big thing at the beginning of the game that says: Assassin’s Creed is always inspired by true-life events, but it’s a work of fiction, and everybody’s really diverse, and it’s a culture-laden team. The era that you’re in is really multi-layered: in many political ways; in many dark ways. There was a touch -- in some of the stuff that I played -- on slavery, which is something that hasn’t really been talked about too much in the lead up to the game.

How do you guys approach stuff like that, that is... I don’t want to use the word volatile, but it is pretty touchy, and not really explored a lot in videogames in any capacity. So for you guys, when you’re moving forward, and from a narrative perspective, and a respect perspective, how do you approach that?

Philippe: From the very beginning of AC as a brand, it’s always been something that’s very dear to our hearts, is we want to treat this with as much respect as humanly possible. So each and every time we come to a more, like, powder keg topic, we usually get consultants. Consultants is always the way to go, because you have your own perception of how things are, but these people are experts, theoretically, in that field.

So for instance, the whole Native American plight, for the Mohawk tribe, we have Kahnawake that’s really close to Montreal, so we’d actually go down there, and we had a Native American consultant that we’d constantly bounce ideas off, and see “Are we allowed to do this? Are we allowed to do that? What’s the actual... what are the tribal customs of your culture”, and things like that, just to see that we’re actually dealing with it in a more realistic way, than the metaphoric or stereotypical way that you would see in movies for instance. So we always try and take tact, as much as possible.

AusGamers: Were there any historical components that you actually sort of just steered completely clear from, because it might have just been too volatile?

Philippe: I would say slavery is actually one of those, that we didn’t want to go into too much. Because we could have taken it on as a challenge, but to do it properly, we would have had to take time, like an entire portion of the game was dedicated to slavery. Because it’s not like... you don’t want to talk about slavery in an off-the-cuff way. It’s a huge issue, so you want to address it...

And at the same time, we knew that Liberations [Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation for PlayStation Vita] was coming out. Liberations deals with slavery, it’s the core plot of it. So we already have a game that deals with it, so we don’t need to address it right away, and we’d rather leave it to them, than just have it off to the side as a mention.

AusGamers: Getting back to gameplay, you’ve got this open-world and you can kind of go and do whatever you want, but everything’s kind of segmented. For you guys, from a structural point of view, and from a pacing point of view, how did you approach the space that the player can exist within?

The last few games were quite large, and a lot of the time you’re trekking for a lot of time, and not really doing anything. We talked a little bit about emergent gameplay before, but how have you guys handled the space that you had to deal with, and just tying it all together in a coherent way for the player to always be interested to go somewhere?

Philippe: That one we were actually playing both Skyrim... actually, we were playing Skyrim at the time, and it was a really good example, where you walk around Skyrim, and there’s always something in a given grid metre, where “Oh there’s something here”, then you move around “There’s another thing there”. There’s always something attracting you. So we always have, within the minimap, you always needed to have an icon drawing your attention.

So from the very beginning we had our different gameplay silos: be it the main mission path, be it the the Liberation gameplay events, the smaller low-level assassination contracts, or courier missions that... we developed a whole bunch of mission subsets or objective subsets, that we could then, once we had our main path tracked in the map, then we had our second palette, which was, I don’t want to say “the filler”, but the way to sort of complete this environment.

So we would analyse “Alright, what’s our map usage? What’s our heatmap, and where do we have more dead zones?”, and we have all these interesting gameplays that are not as environment-specific as the other ones, so these ones we can use to sort of fill in the space.

AusGamers: Finally, I’ll finish it up with a question about Desmond, because he hasn’t really been spoken about too much in the lead up to release. Where can players expect that portion of the storyline to go, and do you have a quantifiable percentage of time that you’ll spend as Desmond, versus the time you’ll spend as Connor?

Philippe: If I break it down and compare it to sequences in the game, Desmond has approximately a sequence and a half, to almost two sequences of content to him. He has more, which from the very beginning for me was really important, to actually spend more time with Desmond, because for a certain amount of time, he’s been in a rut. He’s been sitting on a chair not really doing anything.

And players have spent a lot of time with him, so we actually wanted to give him time in the game. And we need to address him. We wanted to sort of move him forwards; take him out of that chair, and bring him to the next step, and make him progress as a character. So we spent... it was very important to make that step.

AusGamers: Is he based visually on anybody from the office? Because he actually looks exactly like one of our freelancers Kosta Andreadis, and when you see this video, once it’s played back. I’ll make sure we actually have a side by side picture, so you can see that.

Philippe: Which one? The one from ACIII, or the one from Revelations?

AusGamers: The one from Revelations.

Philippe: Because the one from Revelations, I would say look at a picture of Alex Amancio [former Assassin’s Creed Creative Director], and they’re really, really similar. I would call him more classic Desmond. So the Desmond that we’ve had from the very beginning, in all of the games except for Revelations, is based on an underwear model in Montreal, who I think is Jean Paul Gaultier’s [French fashion designer]... I think one of his favourite models or something like that. So yeah, we don’t use him anymore, but...

AusGamers: That’s amazing. Well, we’ll leave it there, because underwear is a perfect place to end any conversation about assassins [laughs], but yeah thanks very much for your time today Phil, and the game looks fantastic, so congrats.

Philippe: Thank you very much.

AusGamers: Cheers.
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