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No More Pulling Punches – Game Director Scott Phillips Talks Tweaking the Fundamentals in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
Post by nachosjustice @ 02:10pm 07/10/15 | Comments
AusGamers’ Nathan “nachosjustice” Lawrence sat down with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Game Director Scott Phillips to discuss what’s new for the yearly iterating series, and which mechanics have been improved.

AusGamers: I wanted to start with how you go about choosing the specific time period that an Assassin’s Creed game should be set in. Obviously, there are a lot of people online who feel it should be certain periods and I’m sure you take that into account, but where do you go, especially in terms of escalating on what’s come before, how do you choose what’s the right time period for the next Assassin’s Creed game?

Scott Phillips: That’s a very… it’s a very subjective process. There are so many interesting time periods. There are so many things we could possibly do. Obviously a lot of people are involved in making sure that we’re consistent with what’s been there in the past. And that we’re consistent with where we want to go ultimately. So it’s a lot of people with a lot of different opinions. We go back and forth, we look into it, we drill into this time period and see, ‘Okay, what could we possibly make out of that?’ And then we sort of pit those ideas against each other and make a choice.

AusGamers: Does there always have to be this kind of forward trajectory in terms of moving through time. I noticed that as soon as guns came into the series, you’re like, ‘Okay, where are they going to go with this?’ I’m assuming it’s not really ever going to go to the future point where you’re basically playing Splinter Cell stuff or something. But do you ever get worried about having to move the technology forward to escalate what happened in the last couple of games?

Scott Phillips: No, I think it’s great to be able to jump around. There’s nothing else like Assassin’s Creed that allows you to be a historical time traveller and check out those different time periods. I think with, I haven’t played them, but I think with one of the episodic ones is set in a completely different time period. Anyway, it could be… it doesn’t need to be this linear trajectory. I think that’s one of the great things about Assassin’s Creed.

AusGamers: Where do you start with Syndicate specifically? Is it with the characters is it with the setting is it with the idea of new mechanics and things you want to bring into it? What did you start with?

Scott Phillips: A lot of those sort of happen at the same time. I’d say the one that sets the framework by which we have to look at everything else is the world, the setting, essentially, the time period, the location, the people, and then we start developing, ‘Okay, what are the characters that would exist here? What is the story we want to tell with them? What’s going to be fun gameplay and fun mechanics for them to be involved in?’ It’s… all of those things sort of happen at the same time, but they all have to go through this lens of the time period. That’s the key thing.

AusGamers: I noticed that these two protagonists [Jacob and Evie] have quite a lot of banter and it’s quite light, especially compared to some of the other Assassin’s Creed games, which I’ve felt can get quite heavy and get a little bit dark. Is this a deliberate decision to make it a little bit lighter, or is it going to get into some darker territory?

Scott Phillips: We definitely wanted to have the relationship between Jacob and Evie to be light, brother and sisterly sort of jabbing at each other and maintain a little interest. I think we’ve done a really good job of delivering characters that are memorable and interesting to watch go through the arc of the story and how they do change and how the world affects them. But I think we set out to make sure they were very interesting, fun characters.

AusGamers: What about in terms of delineating between the two of them? I noticed, specifically with the upgrade system, that there was some kind of universal upgrades, if I’m correct, between the two of them, and then there was some upgrades that went outside of that. Does it go a bit deeper than that, or do these characters play the same?

Scott Phillips: They’re very different in terms of what they’re best at, in terms of the skills is one way you see Evie has a few skills that are specifically for stealth. Jacob has a few skills that are specifically for combat. You’re also going to see it visually in how they engage in those activities, like, they’re going to act differently. Evie is more precise with her movements, Jacob is more focused on maybe more wild movements that are more powerful but waste a little bit of energy. So they’re both assassins at their core, but then what they focus on at the end does tend to be unique and drive them towards different aspects, which makes it interesting to play between the two and to have their character within how you’re playing the open world and those missions with them, because it will feel a little different depending on who you play.

AusGamers: And you can’t play an Evie memory as Jacob, or vice versa, right? They are specific memories for each character?

Scott Phillips: They each have their own set of missions, yet. Evie has her missions, Jacob has his missions, and then there’s a whole set of gameplay and missions that either one of them can play.

AusGamers: Okay. I found the addition of the rope launcher really, really interesting, because I think one of the things that I’ve kind of gone back to in terms of Assassin’s Creed and testing is the free-climbing system, and the moments where it doesn’t work so well. Do you find that the rope launcher is there to say, ‘You don’t have to use the free-running now,’ or is it something that’s on top of it?

Scott Phillips: To go back to the framework at which we look at the game, when you start in London in 1868, it’s, I think, I’m pretty sure, it’s the tallest city we’ve ever built with the widest streets we’ve ever had. So when we started prototyping the city and looking at, okay, how’s it going to be to move around this city, you can quickly realise that climbing a six-storey building or climbing Big Ben, which is enormous, is going to be quite long with just the parkour, so we quickly prototyped something with the rope launcher and figured out that it solves that problem. Then as we developed it further and continued iterating on it, we found that it fitted really well with the parkour itself. So you use the rope launcher for longer-distance movements, and then the parkour for medium-distance movements, and then for extremely long distance, you’ve got the vehicles to travel across the city.

AusGamers: Is it faster? I felt that the climbing was a lot faster than what I’d experienced before, but taking into account that I didn’t play a whole lot of Unity, I might be remembering things differently. Has it been sped up?

Scott Phillips: We’ve tried to remove… we’ve tried to make sure that it is as fast as possible by making sure that those movements are tight and controlled and focused on getting you where you want to go. We don’t want to delay you. We want to minimise that delay as much as possible. We did a lot of work on prediction of where the player wants to go and making sure that that system allows you to have as long as possible to change your mind, so there’s a system that if you’re running at a ledge and you change your stick direction, and almost up until the last frame of the animation, you can change your direction. So we’ve done a lot to make sure that the parkour is as responsive as possible.

AusGamers: I also noticed that, but I couldn’t really repeat it in game, but I noticed there was a time when I ran Evie towards an edge and she pulled up short and stopped. I was curious, is that the game trying to tell me I wouldn’t be able to make that jump?

Scott Phillips: When you hit an edge and if you don’t continue with just the right trigger, it’s because the distance is too far down below you. What we set out to do with the parkour is to make sure that the player has what we refer to as RTA/RTB [right trigger + A / right trigger + B], which would be the Xbox controls. Essentially it’s parkour up and then parkour down, and we wanted to make it more obvious and more clear cut what does what. So parkour up will always take you up walls and make you go above and climb on top of things. RT [right trigger] will take you in the core trajectory, you’ll always be moving forward as fast as possible, and then RTB or parkour down will take you down as fast as you can possibly go. So we wanted to give the player more control over where they wanted to go, which can sometimes mean that until you’re used to how you should use the system, you’ll get stopped sometimes because we don’t want to blend every movement mode to the point where you’re confused and you don’t know what you’re going to get. So you may get stopped sometimes until you learn how to use the system a little bit better, and then you’ll feel much more in control of that character.

AusGamers: I definitely feel from what I’ve played that this is the best instance of the parkour, especially because I think the trouble with trying to streamline controls in the past is that you’re trying to read the player’s intention versus what actually happens in the game. Is this the first one in the series to return to the idea of separating running from the free-running? I remember that being in the first game and loving it, and then it was automated to a single button after that, and now there’s separation again. ‘Oh, great, so I can just run and not have to worry about running up a wall.’

Scott Phillips: We definitely made… very early on we decided that we wanted to make climbing different to just running. We wanted to… because our worlds are so incredibly complex now and detailed and covered in objects and people and environmental details, we need to give the player the tools to effectively deal with that world and do what they want, and I’m glad to hear you say that you really enjoyed it and think it’s best in series. That’s great.

AusGamers: I was actually paying a lot more attention to the combat, as well, because I think it’s a feature in the past that has been people attacking one at a time, or this idea that you can kind of mash counter to win. And that tactic is not working here. What sort of things have you done to make the combat a little bit more challenging and dynamic?

Scott Phillips: Again, the setting sort of forced us to do certain things, make certain decisions, which is great. It’s always challenging, but it was really effective for us. It was in this time period, people didn’t walk around with swords and sabres and halberds and all that sort of stuff. So we needed to look at short knives and blades and hidden knives, and that sort of thing, guns and smaller things that can be concealed. So the combat needed to be over quickly before the police… this is the first modern metropolitan police that have ever been seen. You needed to make sure that combat was over quickly, so it needed to be close quarters, brutal and we wanted it to be fun, of course. Focused on the player being offensive as much as possible. We didn’t want players sitting back countering, which we’ve done in the past and I think has worked really well in past games. But, for us, the focus was on attack. We want you to attack and when you do need to counter, you’ll counter quickly and violently. We wanted you to also be doing crowd control: moving from target to target and then bringing them all down with a fantastic violent multi-kill to finish everyone.

AusGamers: Oh, right, and is that multi-kill just activated by getting everyone to low enough health?

Scott Phillips: Yes. If you bring them all to near death, you can kill up to four enemies at once. If you can pull that off, it’s quite tricky, but it’s very, very rewarding.

AusGamers: Is that a thing that you unlock?

Scott Phillips: You start off with, I think you can do two or three, and then you can increase.

AusGamers: Are there any big punishments for fighting the cops? I beat one up a bit, then ran away and hid, but I was curious as to whether there would be any consequences for me attacking police. Is that part of the game?

Scott Phillips: There’s… the police will respond to your actions if they see it. They’ll also whistle and call nearby police. Police can be on carriages, as well, to see it. We didn’t want to overly punish the player for actions like that, like, having some sort of longer notoriety-type system where they need to deal with the police knowing who they are. It’s just within that sphere where the player exists and where people can see him. It’s more centralised around you, it’s not a… the London police in White Chapel don’t know that you’ve done something in Westminster.

AusGamers: Right. So you don’t have to rip down posters, like in the old games. The future stuff is a big part of the Assassin’s Creed series, but it’s also something that, personally, I’ve found to be quite jarring. Do you find that a difficult thing to balance: the fact that you’ve got these future elements along with whatever you’re doing with the core historical experience?

Scott Phillips: It’s always interesting because I completely agree that it’s a core part of the franchise. It’s what allows us to do this historical time travel, that core of you have this device in the future which allows you to jump into memories of past ancestors. How we tell the story is always… it’s a challenge because we’re trying to look at, we need to tell you this story, and in London 1868, but we also want to move the story of the franchise forward, as well, so it’s definitely challenging. I’m personally a huge fan of the present day, but I know that it can be confusing for the players, and we need to be very delicate with how we deal with it.

AusGamers: Every time I write about this game, I keep referencing Peaky Blinders, and I was wondering if that is because that’s just me being obsessed with that show, or that’s actually a bit of an influence. And, if so, are there any other go-to influences in TV shows and movies that shape this game particularly?

Scott Phillips: I think we looked at everything. We tried to learn everything we could about the time period. I can’t say for me personally with that show. I haven’t actually watched it, but I know that our art director kept bringing it up multiple times as something that was very well done and executed of that time period very well. I think, for us, it’s always important to deal with historians, to ask questions about how did people live? What did they eat? What jobs were available? Like, learn as much about the culture, the location as possible. We work with multiple people, multiple historians who are well versed in the Victorian era. I read a historical book about the Victorian era, as well, and then my wife tried to get me to watch Downton Abbey. Personally, I couldn’t really get into it, but my wife loves it. She loves Jane Austen and all that stuff, so she was helpful as well, for me.

AusGamers: Great. Thank so you much.

Scott Phillips: Yes. My pleasure.