A view from the director's chair of Assassin's Creed: Origins

Gamasutra talked to Assassin's Creed: Origins director Ashraf Ismail about leading gigantic teams while still chasing creative ideas in game design.

Later this year, Assassin's Creed: Origins will make its way to PS4, PC, and Xbox One, marking its return after a one-year self-imposed hiatus.

Set in ancient Egypt, the game follows the journey of Bayek of Siwa, an Egyptian assassin who lays the foundation for the Brotherhood seen in earlier games. Despite being an origin story, Assassin's Creed Origins does look to tread new ground by heading to a setting that's comparatively less historically documented than its sibling games. 

We caught up with Ubisoft game director Ashraf Ismail, who previously directed Assasin's Creed IV: Black Flag. We wanted to know more about directing games that have multiple studios involved, and why Ubisoft Montreal decided to explore ancient Egypt in this new game. 

Below is a (lightly edited) document of our conversation, which includes insight into how Ubisoft takes advantage of its multiple studios, and what advice Ismail has for other directors. 

What was the first thing you noticed about making the jump from designing games to directing an Assassin’s Creed game? 

Ashraf Ismail: So being game director at Ubisoft, I’m in charge of the overall experience of the game, the player's experience. So from mechanics systems to how all of the stuff is integrated into the narrative, so that touches upon, ‘Who are you in the world?’ We have a character that has a name and that has a background, but we also have to make sure that this character is a vessel that the player can inhabit and it can make sense for them to do the things you do in this game.

"As a director, it's macro, not micro. It's about giving a vision, and trusting your team members that the details will come from that."

As a designer, you're really in charge of mechanics systems going down to the very low level details of how does this work and what's the feedback for it, how does the system grow, and so on. As a director, it's much more macro, less in the micro details. It's more about giving a vision, giving a direction and trusting your designers, your team members that the details will come from them, but the direction it needs to go, it needs to come from the director. 

So making that mental switch, it's not easy. It's something I think every director struggles with for a while to understand that you're not coming up with the details anymore. You're giving a vision, you're giving a direction that hopefully somebody will surprise you. Like they'll still go in that direction and then blow you away with what they come up with because they're much more intimately into it at that point. 

I think one of the interesting things about the game industry is that directors aren't the sole author of a given work. Games are so broad, it's very rare that you can say this is one person's handwork. Ubisoft is a large company and we sort of joke about how many Ubisofts worked on a game. How does this direction process work when your studio is built across the globe like that? 

So yes, we actually have many studios involved. For Assassin's Creed Origins we have Sofia, Singapore, Bucharest, Kiev and so on. Montreal's the lead studio. 

"Different studios always come with a different flavor, and it's awesome. For example, Singapore worked on what we showed off at E3, and you'll see that the feeling of the environment is slightly different than the other places. It's cohesive, it's the same world. But you see that there is a flavor difference, and that's cool."

What that generally means is that when we start the project, the first, let's say, six months to a year, maybe even a year and a half we're a very small core team. That's really developing the vision, the direction of what we're trying to make. And once we feel solid about that, and once we have a good enough understanding of what that is, this is when we start building the team bigger. This is where we bring more people on, start introducing new studios where we can now give them the mandate, the vision. Understanding, let's say general scope, understanding the direction we want to take. 

But it's been defined at that point. That's one way of maintaining cohesiveness, let's say. And then, once the teams are starting to get bigger and we're really getting into the details of the experience, in Montreal we have a core team of people, that's the collaboration team. Their job is to take care of communication, make sure people get the answers they're looking for, make sure reviews are being done. 

So there's a team of people dedicated to just the internal communications of the team. And besides that, guys like myself, let's say art director, we travel to those studios every few months to make sure that, you know again, do people understand the vision? 

Having said that, we see the value of having so many teams because they, for me, at the end of the day, again it's always: you give a vision, you give a direction, but you want the people doing the work to surprise you. 

What we see with different studios is they always come with a different flavor of the same thing and it's awesome. So for example, Singapore worked on what we showed off at E3. And you'll see that the quests in that area, the feeling of the environment is slightly different than the other places. It's cohesive, it's the same world. You don't lose a sense of where the characters are. But you see that there is a flavor difference and that's cool. That's something we value.

So you're saying every Ubisoft studio sort of has their flavor, if you will? 

Yeah, it's something like that. I'm not sure we can put a name on it, like this studio is this or that, but you do feel that, yes, the general work from this studio has its own unique flavor. And that's actually, for a huge game that has a massive scope, that's actually very cool. It's very important, because then as a player, it's almost a slight refresh without necessarily saying it's a new mechanic, it's a new character. Even though there's tons of new characters, but it's really something refreshing. We put value in it. And it helps us ship the game with this scope. 

Ancient Egypt is a time period that we know, obviously some stuff about, but it's also such a huge time period that there are more holes compared to the other eras that Assassin's Creed has been set in. How much do you have history guide you and where do you have to strike out on your own? 

"We have an internal rule, loosely the thirty second rule. If somebody can find a piece of info in thirty seconds online, then we try to stay credible to that. So for characters like Cleopatra and Caesar, historic figures, events like the siege of Alexandria, these are much more documented. "

So for the first two years of this project, when we were this very small core team, a lot of that time was spent in doing research. Also building prototypes and so on. So for example, one of the guys here, Maxime Durand, he's just right there. He's our brand or team historian. He's doing a lot of research, building let's say a portfolio of the time periods we're looking at and what happened. And so we use this to help us, yes, build our perspective of what Egypt was at the time. 

There's a French artist named Govanne, who I'm sure if you saw his work, you'd recognize it. It's very famous architectural drawing work. He did some unique art just for our game to help inspire us. So we do a lot of research to the best of our abilities. But for sure, there's stuff that we don't know or there's big holes. And this is where we give ourselves a bit of room to have our artists inspire us. 

So for example, we know that these temples, even the pyramids, were really brightly colored. But we don't know what that looks like. And we don't really have any specific look of that. So here we have room to play with that. 

We even have, let's say an internal rule, which is sort of called loosely the thirty second rule, which is that if somebody can find a piece of info in thirty seconds online, then we try to stay credible to that. If it goes beyond that, if you really have to dig and it's information that we can't find or don't have, here we have a bit of room to play with that. So for characters like Cleopatra and Caesar, let's say, historic figures, historic events like the siege of Alexandria, these are much more documented. 

But there's parts of the world that we barely have any info on, and here we have room to play with that and kind of see how far we can inspire ourselves with the recreation.

Assassin’s Creed games manage to have these top-level ideas that help define each individual title. What got you interested in the setting and characters of ancient Egypt, and what do you hope players take away at the broad level about who these people are and what they’re about?

"We looked at different time periods in Egypt's 3500 year history, and what we saw was, we wanted an Egypt that was still ancient Egypt."

So when we started, we said, we're set to over a thousand years before the first AC. So it's a cool opportunity to talk about that Brotherhood that we know from AC1, their rituals, their symbols, the way they construct themselves. It's a cool opportunity to say how that came to be. But it wasn't a bunch of people that sat in a room and said, 'Hey we're bored. Let's start a group.’ 

The idea was that we wanted this kind of very personal story about people who are suffering from very common [problems]…something that you can connect with or understand. And that somehow through this journey of unraveling this problem that they're going through, that this gives birth to something that ends up lasting for over 2000 years.  

Now the question was, how do we make sure that that birth is also deeply intertwined into Egypt? Why was Egypt the place and why was a character like Bayek, what was it personally about him and his personality and his belief systems and his belief of what Egypt was, why was that crucial to starting that? So that's kind of what we felt we needed to bind to make sure that this experience felt unique and felt like it made sense. And I sincerely hope for fans that they'll see some seeds that we plant, they'll see that, 'Okay, in AC1 that's what that meant.’ 

And for new players, it's okay they don't need to know it because we're showing them the origins of it. So I hope that people feel that, yes, that group that I know has lasted for so long and for fans that's so important to them, I understood why it was in Egypt, why it was Bayek, why it was this journey and this problem that he starts at the beginning of the game that got him there.

What is Egypt in this time period? This is the sort of question you say you want the game to answer, but why is this the time period where these ideas start to take place for these characters? 

"When we look at Egypt in 49 BCE, this is a time period where ancient Egypt is still thriving, but it's at the beginning of its demise."

When we decided on this specific part of Egypt, because ancient Egypt spans 3500 years. And we looked at different time periods and what we saw was, we wanted an Egypt that was still ancient Egypt. We wanted an Egypt where the mythology of Egypt, the religions, the cultures of Egypt was still vibrant, but one that our own character Bayek, even though he's Egyptian, even though he's part of this land, he could find mystery intrigue. That he could surprises and discoveries as the player will.

And what we felt, is we checked into the building of the pyramids time period, but there was not much else. And what we felt, was, okay, when we look at Egypt here this is a time period 49 BCE, this is a time period where ancient Egypt is still thriving, but it's at the beginning of its demise. Cleopatra is about to be the final pharaoh. The era's about to end and there is this impressive clash of civilizations. You know Rome is coming. You have major Greek influence there. So what we felt was, it was like this crucible of history where it's literally the end of the old era and a new world is coming. A new world order is coming. And that somehow, it felt kind of epic that in death of one world, the birth of a new one, that what comes out of it is a group that lasts for the new world. 

So the idea is Bayek, he is, let's say, a personification of ancient Egypt. The idea is, when his world is dying, what does he need to do, what does he need to become to be part of this new world? And this journey is what leads to the birth of the Brotherhood. So the idea is this is an answer to a dying world.

What's your advice to developers who have a mechanic that they believe in and they know is fun, but want to add thematic depth explore more than just an arcade-style sense of design? 

So for me, I always look at, okay, graphics: beautiful visuals give you -- take this with a grain of salt -- give you five minutes [with a player]. So it's that wow factor that will catch someone's attention. Gameplay will give you a half an hour. This is really fun, this is really interesting. For me, at some point, experience is what gives you that 30, 40, 50, 60 hour. 

Now, when I say experience, it's not just within the game. It could be outside the game. For me, at some point, eSports is an experience. It's an experience from the viewers. It's an experience from the athletes, the people playing. It's a package. So what I always say is gameplay is uber important. It's the thing that's going to keep you engaged and keep you there to try to understand what it is you're experiencing. But at some point, the experience is what's going to keep people there and keep people coming back. 

"What is the experience? That's what I always ask. You can have a great combat system. That will keep a core group of people happy, but if you want it to be mass phenomenon, it has to be an experience that sells people, that excites people."

So with a climbing mechanic. Yes, climbing is great, but okay let's do a cliffhanger experience. Or a cliffhanger game, is that really an exciting experience at the end of the day? What the original Assassin’s Creed (which I didn't work on) but what they came to was, ‘okay, let's build an experience around being an Assassin, being in the Third Crusade.’ The climbing mechanic makes sense for the character. That might be a marketing point at somewhere. That might be, 'Oh, I love the climbing in the game.’ Okay, but the thing that was sold was you're an Assassin in the Third Crusade with this awesome hood and you can blend into the crowd.

The thing is we have to keep in mind it's -- What is the experience? That's what I always ask. You can have a great combat system. That will keep a core group of people, but if you want it to be mass, it has to be an experience that sells people, that excites people, that all the parts lead towards that experience. So the narrative, who is the character? The logic of the world, the mechanics it use. You know the mechanics at the end of the day, it's a language that the player is speaking to the game. 

You know, in our case, sometimes we start fiddling around with story ideas and so we're like, 'Okay, let's do a love story.’ Yeah and  I say okay, but remember, it's a love story that has to be told with stab, attack, defend, climb, parkour. So those are your [verbs], what kind of love story can you possibly tell?

And maybe someone brilliant will come up with a love story that uses those words, right? But that's the way the player communicates. So, experience is -- Game mechanics are uber important, it's what people need. But that has to be wrapped in an experience that can hook people and make it a mass of people.

Last question, how do you communicate that experience to other people when it's just a thing in your head?

Well, if you're lucky enough to have talented artists, artists help a lot.  But let's say you don't have that. What I would say is you have to be able to communicate whether it's through a presentation. Maybe you're just a great speaker and you can sell people. You're a great salesperson. Whatever it is, you need to be able to communicate this experience and excite people by it. Visuals always help for sure. More than visuals, videos are even better if you can have access to that kind of stuff, what I think will never work, and usually doesn't work is if when someone says, 'I have a great idea,’ and they cannot articulate it properly.

I've seen really great ideas die because people can't articulate. And this is one message that I have for my game designers, I always tell a designer that no matter how good your design is, that's only half the job. The other half is to sell people on it. Excite the people working on it. Make them understand what it is. Sell higher ups, sell me as the director to make sure that I believe that this is going to feed the vision of the game. So no matter how great it is, it's only half the job.

The communication part is the other half. So the more you can communicate more clearly the vision, which forces you to understand your own vision. Because I think a lot of people when they have great ideas, they might not have the full thing figured out. Sometimes it's just an idea and as soon as you start poking holes, when someone doesn't have an answer, that's when ideas will fall apart. So by forcing yourself to communicate or create a package of communication, you're naturally also strengthening the idea. 

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