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Leaving the comforts of linear design behind to create the first Assassin’s Creed

Developers that worked on the original Assassin's Creed game recall the title's origins and the technology that allowed them to move from a linear story to an open world game.
"When you give freedom to people, it’s more about systems, and the system will take care of a bunch of narrative moments.”

- Creative director Patrice Désilets recalls the early development of Assassin's Creed.

Polygon has published an extensive oral history that speaks with developers across several disciplines to chronicle the origins of Ubisoft’s flagship series Assassin’s Creed. The game itself was born from the Prince of Persia series, but would eventually go on to become its own entity during development.

Still, moments from Prince of Persia, specifically the latest entry (at the time) Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, inspired moments and elements that would eventually make their way into Assassin’s Creed. For example, creative director Patrice Désilets recalls how two concepts that were cut from Sands of Time for technical reasons, a crowded palace and rooftop to rooftop traversal, became cornerstones of Assassin’s Creed thanks to the leaps in tech that came with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 console generation. 

But even with technology on their side, transitioning from the more linear gameplay and acrobatics of Prince of Persia to an open-world game like Assassin’s Creed introduced a fair amount of challenges to the team. 

“We spent [a] lot of time building and designing the game on paper. We knew that we were good to build levels that required traversal, but we had no idea how to make [the game] open wide,” recalls lead level designer David Chateauneuf. “A linear level full of traversal is easy to do because we were controlling the path and the pacing. Creating an open world is much harder because we were not controlling every time where the player wanted to go.”

Chateauneuf notes, in the ‘A Living World’ section of the oral history, that this required the team to approach level design differently than it had with linear games in the past. The solution, he says, on paper was to highlight critical places and objectives and then focus on polishing the fluidity of movement in the paths players would take between each of those landmarks.

“We were used to placing all the athletic ingredients at specific points to match the animation of the hero,” says Chateauneuf later on in the conversation.  “And we were used to controlling the sequence of gameplay. With Assassin’s Creed, we had to think in full 3D. Think as a 3D grid. We had to fill the streets [and] the façades of buildings with lots of objects in order to give lots of option to the player, so he would never get stuck in his path. Also, we had to think about objects that would make him go up, objects to make him go across big gaps and objects that would allow the player to go down — like the famous haystacks.”

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