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An Assassin's Revolution

Gamasutra speaks to Alex Hutchinson, creative director of Assassin's Creed III, to get a peek into what it takes to create a game of this scope and scale across multiple studios -- and to hear how difficult it is to refresh a franchise that's already had four installments this generation.

Ubisoft is facing something of an uphill battle with Assassin's Creed III. While the series has had major momentum since its introduction, the company has blown through so many games, it's difficult to chart a path for the franchise. Though it's the third game in the franchise by number, it's the fifth to be released this generation.

How can creative director Alex Hutchinson hope to keep the series fresh and exciting for players? Why did the developer decide to set the game during the American Revolution, and how did it tackle the theme -- and make it relatable to today's players?

Hutchinson answers these questions, and more, in this new Gamasutra interview.

This is your first time working on an Assassin's Creed title. Was there something you were looking forward to bring to the series?

Alexander Hutchinson: When you inherit something that is very successful, your first role is not to screw it up. That was rule number one; make sure you leave it in as a good of a shape as you got it.

We had lots of ideas coming in, not just for Assassin's Creed, but for open-world games in general -- for game structure and how you can bring different experiences in a sandbox environment. I built a lot of sandbox games at Maxis, and there are a lot of different angles you can take.

So I had plenty of ideas when I came on, but I was also conscious that there is a big learning curve in making sure you get steeped in the franchise, and you don't try to take it in a direction it doesn't want to go.

Were there any unique challenges or pitfalls in creating the fifth game in a series?

AH: Whenever you are in a long-running series, everyone's like, "You need to change everything -- but don't change anything." You have to satisfy fans, and you have to stay true to the core pillars of the game, but you need to rethink and reinvigorate as much as possible.

We stripped back a lot of things that have grown up over time. We decided that people thought Assassin's Creed is about climbing buildings. Instead of buildings, we went to the frontier and to forests. I think that feels a lot fresher than a new style of architecture to climb.

It's that real balance of finding enough new to keep people excited and hopefully to attract new fans and making it easy for new people to get into, but at the same time not losing in touch with your heritage. Realizing you're building a consistent and cohesive universe.

You said you began working on AC3 before the sequels to AC2 came out. When those were being developed, and then came out to both criticsm and praise, did that effect AC3?

AH: We worked very closely with those teams and many members of those teams joined us along the way -- when Brotherhood wrapped up, we got people from there; when Revelations wrapped up, we got people from there. It's one big unit, even though we were working on separate titles sometimes.

You know, we pay attention. We looked at what people loved. We looked at Brotherhood and people were getting into using the Brotherhood. We thought this was an interesting idea, you not being alone in the world, but we didn't want to do it the same way. If there is something that is very successful, we tried to take the core principle there and see if we can fit it in into our game.

We like each game in the franchise to be relatively stand alone. So we had the idea of six people that you meet, that have unique stories, that have their own missions associated with them, in AC3. So it's in that same vein, but it's not identical. Similarly, we look at features that aren't received well. If they're not resonating with people, then we know to just avoid them.


What new opportunities for game design did the setting of the American Revolution provide?

AH: We started the game in January 2010, so Assassin's Creed II had just hit. It feels like the franchise is into the fifth game, but when we started on this we barely launched the second game. So there were a lot of questions about how much do we need to change.

People were very excited about Ezio and the setting of The Renaissance. It's now a different mindset. Now it seems very obvious that a big change was necessary, but there were a lot of debates early on.

We felt that a new assassin and a new time period is something that would really resonate. And we wanted to go someplace that other games hadn't and hopefully people would be surprised, where people would want to know how we could make the franchise work in that setting.

All of those things, plus the idea that thematically the American Revolution, at least in its retelling, is about control versus freedom, power versus slavery. We like that because it fits very cleanly with the ongoing argument of assassins versus templars.

The game is coming toward the end of this console cycle. How has working on these same consoles for all these years, how much has that helped you on this one?

AH: As a designer, I love it. I like the stability of the tech that I know that works. I like the fact that you can start with a headstart. On day one, I can get a character on screen, I can get him running around and moving around. We can use existing mechanics and prototyping new ones without having to go back to zero.

Just on the design side -- not on ideas that require new tech, with naval, we had to work from scratch and with navigation we had to reset -- I like it. People know what the console can do and what it can't do. You have existing technology to prototype. You have a team that knows the direction you are running in. I love the end of console cycles.

What about keeping players interested at the end of a console cycle?

AH: You don't get any cheap wins. The beauty of a new piece of hardware is everything looks shiny and fresh, so even the same old ideas look new. You don't get that cheap win on old hardware.

Also, I think it's about just making it fit. [On current hardware] we can start with some existing mechanics and build on them. And every time we add something, usually the previous team, especially on Assassin's Creed, had filled the box. So we had to find creative ways. We can have animals in the game, but primarily they need to be in the wilderness. Why? Because the crowd isn't in the wilderness. We had to be smart about putting things together and finding space for it. The game is just so big, that we can't have everything running at the same time.

You mentioned the new systems, the Homestead and the naval battles. When you set out to make the game, do you purposely decide to create new systems that are different?

AH: When you start it out, you want it to be new and as amazing as you can. What we tried to do is look at the time period and look at what's appropriate. We are really about the American Revolution. And the two ideas that struck me were, why did the British surrender at Yorktown? Well, the French fully blockaded the entrance to the port. What are they throwing over into the water in Boston? It's tea. What are they throwing it off of? A ship. There are boats everywhere in the history. When you combine that with the fact that no one has made a good third-person action adventure game on boats, it was just a great opportunity. And it felt appropriate to the game we were making.

Similarly, with the Homestead. We knew we wanted a homebase for the player. In an open world game, it's important to have an anchor, so you are not just running around endlessly. And then we started thinking about, "What is the cliche of the American Dream?" Anybody with enough hard work can make something of themselves. What if we have a whole bunch of people who want to make something of themselves and if you just give them that little bit of a kickstart, they can start to prosper?

So we liked the idea of the wilderness being conquered and people building businesses around your house. People moved to America for a new start, to make something of themselves, mostly. Those that came willingly. So we thought that this was a cool fantasy, and an appropriate fantasy.


How difficult was it to manage the multiple Ubisoft studios working on AC3?

AH: As always, the core is Montreal; the base maps, the core climbing and combat systems, the story and cut scenes, are all built in Montreal. But we try very hard to find these focused opportunities for other studios to help out. With our prototype naval system, it was some guys here who then went to Singapore, and they finished it. We built the Homestead mechanics with guys in Quebec City. And Multiplayer, as always, is being done in France.

The goal is for those elements to be self-contained. Even if they fit into the main narrative and they fit into the economy of the game, they should be big features that those teams can own and really put their stamp on. So none of the game feels like it was built by committee.

Working with such a big team, how do you keep it cohesive and keep it creative?

AH: It's a huge challenge. Even just dealing with two people in a different time zone is problematic. When you are working with multiple teams in multiple time zones, all of them working in the same code base, all of them working on the same game, it's a huge challenge -- especially when you are as narratively driven as we are and trying to keep it cohesive. I think the bigger challenge is that since you are making one game, the game itself is bigger than the sum of its parts.

We launch the naval from the main game, but you go into a side narrative thread for most of it. It's something the other team can control, working with a writer here. But they can build the mechanics -- they don't have to compromise with our guys as much. As long as they have the ins and the outs of the feature they're working on or the system they're working on. Even an internal team, more than 80 people, really can't own a game in its entirety. You need a group that is going to own the combat, a group that is going to own navigation, a group that is going to own different parts that they can finish and feel proud of.

Did you have any moments where you felt like it all came together, or that moment where feels like it was all going to fall apart?

AH: I think you always go back and forth between those two moments over the course of development! The challenge of this one is you got so many disparate systems and they're all being built concurrently, some of them in isolation.

There's that magical moment where you put them all into one box. That's the moment where it means a lot, when you think, "Oh, I think we're going to get away with it!" People thought naval was not going to work or it was not going to be that interesting. So it was very satisfying when we demoed it on the Sony stage at E3, just to hear the reaction of the crowd. That was very validating.

And we were always very worried that tree running would fail, because it would look like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, just running along the trees. Or it would look like Tarzan, and we'd be getting this sort of animalistic feeling to the character. What we wanted obviously was a human, grounded feeling that felt a lot like climbing the buildings. There was a lot of fear about the prototypes. But in the end, I was really happy with how that turned out.

For naval, I remember our design technical director Marc-Antoine Lussier saying, "So we make a game that's about open world, huge spaces, generic crowd, where you can do anything you want. And you want to make a game with unique people, on a moving ocean, high detail, where everything is specific. You want to do the opposite of what the engine was built to do." And so he was very skeptical. Which is why we sent some amazing engineers to [the team in] Singapore to look at it. They didn't know how unlikely it was to work, so they made it work.

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