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Assassin's Creed Origins Ashraf Ismail Developer Interview: Deserts, Egyptian Mystery, Water Traversal and More
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 06:52pm 14/08/17 | Comments
We chat with Assassin's Creed Origins lead Ashraf Ismail about numerous aspects of the genesis of the Assassin's Guild in Origins, and also in tackling ancient Egypt as playspace. Read on for what he had to say...

While chatting with Assassin’s Creed Origins game director Ashraf Ismail, the talented developer started off our interview worried about the build of the game we’d played, concerned we’d had a lesser experience due to a few bugs in the build. Thankfully we had a near-flawless gameplay session with it, much to his relief. Read on for what he had to say once the nerves settled…

AusGamers: I didn't have any technical problems at all. And yeah, it was great, just largely overwhelming, really, because of the absolute size of everything.

Ashraf Ismail: Yes. Go on. Did you look at the world map?

AusGamers: I had a brief look, but I just got really immersed straight away. Like, I climbed to the highest point that I could just to kind of have a look at the lay of the land. I loved the heat shimmer effect, and [other] things like that were really fantastic.

Ashraf: Should we… I’m going to reveal something here.

AusGamers: Okay.

Ashraf: So we have this thing called ‘Desert Overheat’, which is a system that is meant to... the idea is when you are being consumed by the heat that you see, like, a lot of effects. [So] you start really falling into some kind of haze. We had to tone it down for the demo because that wasn't the purpose of the demo. We left a little bit of it on, which was that shimmer.

When it's on and you're in the middle of the desert and you're lost in the desert, it's fucking awesome.

AusGamers: How big is the desert? The span of the game, really. I mean, I don't need the square kilometer type thing, or whatever.

Ashraf: How big is the desert component? So, we knew when we started the project that we didn't want people to hear Egypt and instantly think desert. The map is huge. It's a very lush and exotic landscape that we have and we wanted to represent Egypt, at the time, properly. So, they're a very lush location. The Nile Delta is incredibly lush. But there are quite a few desert areas. So, yhere's the Great Sand Sea, the White Desert, the Black Desert, the Eastern Mountains -- which is mountains but it's more deserted mountains.

So, there are portions of the map for sure that represent that. And there's actually a purpose and reason to go and explore these areas, [and] because we wanted that the desert experience was super unique to our setting; our context. In terms of its presence, I mean, it's a part of the world. It's really integrated into the world. I'm not sure if I can give it a physical description in terms of size. I'm not 100% sure, honestly speaking. But the wilderness is very important in the game.

So, it's not just desert. I mentioned a bunch of them, but we have the Libyan Plateau, which is a really beautiful part of the world. We have the Faiyum, which is a mix of a massive lake with deserts on each side, but also mountainous regions. There's the Qattara Depression, which is another form of desert. So we tried to really represent Egypt as much as we could. As I said, the world is really vast. It's a country that we built and we tried to really do it justice.

AusGamers: You guys are showing it obviously on [Xbox One X], probably as a means to show off the 4K -- the true 4K value of the visuals. In terms of [Microsoft] building such a strong machine, is the game a seamless open-world or will you have different parts that need to be preloaded or gateways or anything like that?

Ashraf: So yeah. The full Egyptian world, it's completely seamless once you're in the world.

‘Travel wherever you want’. This was something we wanted to improve on even more than… you know, in [Assassin’s Creed] Black Flag, ‘seamless’ wasn't important to us, we wanted you to transition quickly between being on a… well let's not talk about it [for now]. For us here, we wanted to push it even further. And because of the technology advancements we were able to push it. A lot of the tech we built for the game was meant to allow us to enter a city from wherever you came from. There's no loading, it's all seamless. Whether you go underwater, in some deep caverns, to go really deep under a pyramid -- it's all seamless. That was important to us because it makes, if you put the technical aspect aside, it just makes the world feel a lot more credible. You know, every time you have a loading screen it does... there's a moment where you pull out of the experience. So we tried it as best as we can to limit that. I think we've achieved something really great in this world. But yeah, it's fully seamless -- everywhere you go you just get into it.

AusGamers: Does that include interiors? Because I noticed a lot of the strongholds I went to, obviously there are just big open areas, [and] obviously Egypt wasn't all locked doors and things like that in that time period... so, is largely what we're going to get is what was represented and what we played? Or will there be deeper interiors that you throw at us?

Ashraf: Oh, no. No, there's a ton you haven't experienced. Interiors, there's a ton of interiors. Yes, this is seamless. There are locations in the world that are very complex in terms of architecture. For example, in Alexandria. Alexandria's one of our big cities. You know the great library. You know, there are mysteries and secrets about the great library. And so the whole interior of the great library is represented, and then some. So, yes, it's all very seamless, which you experienced. It's really more... the Faiyum for us is much more of a taste of the experience; what we wanted to represent, having water but also having desert; also having villages. That is all that region. But, cities are way more complex. Memphis is a whole other level of organic city. So where Alexandria is the more metropolitan, organised, educated -- let's say, ‘city’ -- ancient Memphis is old and you feel it.

And you feel that it's organic and it's curvy and it's a really wild architecture. I love Memphis, it's a beautiful place. Here you have vast caverns under the city. There's a whole Labyrinth under the city that's involved in quests. There's a story behind that. People get to experience that.

AusGamers: How have you handled the animus in modern day versus going back into the past this time around? Because I know, at some given point, the series kind of just went off the Desmond Miles track. That sort of meta-game has kind of taken a backseat to the bigger and better experience that everybody enjoyed. But there's definitely animus components to this, as we saw. And second to that question, there's so much cool mystery about Egypt, like, how old is the Sphinx really? And is there really a secret library under one of its paws? Like, all these really cool things. Have you guys utilised the Assassin's Creed template for that type of stuff and exploring that in really dynamic and creative ways?

Ashraf: Yeah. So for sure by choosing a setting and a context like ancient Egypt, it naturally means that we have to take in the fantasy; the mysticism that people have about it
today, and put our spin on it and even try to align with what we know for real. We have a lot of Egyptologists that are part of the core team that help us give flavour and knowledge about the context. But for sure, we wanted to give answers to who were these masked figures? Why were the gods animal-headed with human bodies? What's under the pyramid? What's under the Sphinx? We have our spin on that and we want people to explore that and discover not just what it meant to Egypt, but what it means to AC. And what it means to the brotherhood because all of this stuff has a meaning.

Bayek's story is not one about a guy who just decided, you know, I'm going to start a group of people who get together and do this. No, he goes on a personal journey and it's through the discovery of a lot of elements about the secrets of Egypt. That was important to us, that the narrative assumes the mystery element. That was really important to us, that the mystery of ancient Egypt was also encompassed in the character. For sure we touched all that stuff. We gave our spin on it. In terms of the animus aspect, so, you're going to love this answer. For this part of the campaign, we're not talking about this.

AusGamers: I love that.

Ashraf: I love it, too. I'm not good with interviews. So, we're not talking about that now, but for sure, you've seen it in the demo that there is an animus. And the menu system is a representation of that. That's all there is to say for today.

AusGamers: Okay. I came across a character, I can't remember her name, but it was a quest where her farm had been burned down.

Ashraf: Zahara...

AusGamers: Zahara! And then I went off and did quite a bit of quest with her. She kind of talks a little bit cheekily about wanting to find love and kind of gets a little bit enamored with Bayek. Is it going to be an opportunity for the character to pursue relationships in any capacity? Because you talk about having a deeper RPG system and a more systemic quest system... so are you allowing for that or are you still kind of following, I guess, a more structured narrative?

Ashraf: So we have a quest structure, which means that we have tons of quests in the world. There's hundreds of stories we want to tell. And this is Bayek's journey and his story through all of this. So there's a ton, a ton of optional content and in this optional content, the player does have the capacity to meet new characters and to potentially develop some kind of relationship with them. I don't want to make it bigger than it is, though. It's really a quest structure that is quite defined. But the player does have a power in that structure.

So, for sure, in the journey of Bayek, he meets a lot of characters and he actually does develop relationships. Different types of relationships with many different people. And that was actually something important to the character. One thing I say about Bayek, is he is the embodiment of Egypt. He believes in the rituals and the beliefs, but he also holds onto the ghosts of the past. And we expose that through meeting a lot of these characters and we start getting tidbits of his personality and what's happened to him and his journey even before the game began, to get him to the position he's in. And so it was important for us to have the character be able to develop relationships and have players engage in that.

AusGamers: I'm sorry, just to have to repeat myself a bit here -- the series has always had a unique but consistent meta-game tied to it, whether it was the Borgia Towers or being able to build up the Assassins and get them to an overworld map and it was kind of built around how well you train them and all those sorts of things. Are there going to be anything like that with Origins?

Ashraf: For those types of systems, it's really more about Bayek as a story. And the goal of it was to say that this story leads to the foundation of the brotherhood.

AusGamers: So should we just say this is more in line with Altair's game in that sense? Because that was just about Altair's journey as well.

Ashraf: Yeah, I would say it's a hard comparison because the narrative structure is so drastically different. It's really much more -- this is Bayek's journey, you go through a ton of quests and there's a ton of optional content in the game. But it's also, for us, it was important to tell the stories of Egypt. And we've done a ton of research and we found some really amazing people that have existed. Scribes, priests, and we wanted to somehow represent them. And so we put all our energy into really telling these types of stories and having the experience be much more personal than, I mean, there are game systems, of course in the game [but] I wouldn't compare it to any other AC in that regard because they're not the same at all.

Just the RPG element, for example. The amount of effort the player has to put into customising and crafting their own character is way deeper and way bigger than what we've ever done before. I mean it's... I don't know how much you experienced in it, but at some point when you're playing the full game, you see that it's a full-blown RPG in that sense. Your weapons matter, your stats matter. At some point, based on the enemy, knowing what weapon best to use against that enemy. I don't know if you fought any guys with the big shields?

AusGamers: Yes.

Ashraf: The big power shields. For example, some weapons are way more efficient against those enemies and some weapons are not at all efficient against those guys. We want players to put their effort and mental kind of strategy on that aspect. I don't know if you noticed, but you have to craft the hidden blade. Or you have to increase the damage of your hidden blade, so you can't one-shot enemies. You can dedicate yourself to that and you will, eventually. But that was a way that you can't bypass the progression system and so on. So all the effort's really on the RPG, stealth, and Bayek as a character.

AusGamers: Okay, on that thing very quickly. So, I realised, well I didn't realise, one of the first things I did was jump in the water and go swimming because in the trailer that you
showed [the water] was beautiful. And the animations down there are incredible as well. And I realised I could use my weapon underwater. So can you talk a little bit to what we would be able to do with the swimming. Is that to fight crocodile attacks? (Laughs.)

Ashraf: Yeah, yeah. So when it came to the underwater… I'll say this for vehicles, for horses, for camels: effectively what we wanted is that whatever you're doing in the world, it's consistent. The controls remain the same. Attack is an attack wherever you are. So [you] pressing the button and it works. In terms of the underwater specifically, Egypt was actually lush with water at that time period, and so it was natural for us that we needed to be able to seamlessly go through it. And that there are opportunities and advantages for those people to explore the underwater. So there are underwater tombs. There are sunken temples. There are wells that you use to sneak into forts. So there's a lot that can be done with the water.

Ubisoft Singapore worked on the water in terms of the tech and it's stunning. The shots are beautiful. You know, as an example of when I'm playing, even of the demo in Faiyum, just the other day and I kid you not, I was just playing and having fun and then this happened. So at some point, a hippo comes to attack the boat I was on. It attacks, does some damage. I'm trying to shoot it. I dive out of the boat to try and go under it so I can come up because it's really doing damage to the boat. The boat starts sinking and I'm under it, so it was dragging me down. So I have to swim away from it. And I have this moment where I have a hippo swimming in front of me coming, the ship I was on just crashing, and you know, I know this is what we have in the game because this is our game, but it was a moment of okay, okay, okay everybody. Bravo. Well done.

So the underwater is as seamless [as the rest of the game] and it's not just “oh you can swim in it”. No, no, it's everything exists in it. Humans who fall into it, you can take your boat and ram into another one. The guys will fall into the boat. They'll swim, get back into their boat and curse you for it. If they're a guard, they might shoot you for it. Animals are there. So it's fully ingrained into the experience of the game. Pretty much anything you can do on land, you can do some version of it underwater. You don't have full combos. There is a basic combo of attack, but the point is we wanted you to hit the attack button and it's going to work. You want to move forward? It's going to work. The controls aren't going to change, and they're going to remain consistent. That was really important for us.

AusGamers: Okay, awesome. Thanks so much, Ash.

Ashraf: My pleasure.

AusGamers: I really enjoyed it.

Ashraf: Love hearing that, love hearing that. Thank you.

AusGamers: Hopefully we get you to do Australia soon.
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