Assassin’s Creed will go down as one of the most recognisable franchises of all time. Brave enough to semi-exist in a virtually unexplored time in human history, Ubisoft’s run with Ezio Audtore is now drawing to a close. What will the new game offer that previous outings didn’t? We recently had a chance to speak with Ubisoft’s Level Design Director Falko Poiker about the new additions to the game, about shorter development cycles, if Assassin’s Creed is inspired by the Uncharted series, news about an heir to Ezio’s throne and life after Revelations…
Here’s how we got on…
The Gaming Liberty: Falko, the narrative in the Assassin’s Creed franchise is quite a deep one. With the story leaping between both past and present, and an array of characters to factor in – what can fans expect this time around with Ezio?
Falko Poiker: Well the story is our primary focus, at least at the Montreal Studio, as multiplayer is handled by the French Studio. But we really wanted to make the story a very strong, very character driven narrative. So I’m hoping that our story will be among the best in the series. But yeah, what can Ezio expect? Well a host of new characters, both fictional and historical to name one. Obviously a strong presence, at least in the demo TGL played was the character Suleiman. He’s a 17-year old version of Suleiman the Magnificent, who will become one of the most celebrated sultans in the history of the Ottoman empire. Characters aside…there’s also a few big stroy twists in there – but I can’t say much about that.
But here’s the thing. We had a strong mandate going into this. We were treating it with a lot of respect by thinking “Ok so here we are, the final chapter in the Ezio trilogy”. We really wanted to avoid doing things that were done before.
TGL: Speaking of the story, is it difficult to weave all three main protagonists (Ezio, Altair and Desmond) into one coherant package?
FP: That’s a good question actually, and too be honest no, not really. The focus is definitely on Ezio, so in terms of attention, it’s not a difficult thing to combine them. What was difficult though was getting timing right; when do you transfer from one character to another? You see we have very strict rules about what the Animus can and can’t d,o you know? If we wanted to show things from later in Altair’s life, well that would be impossible as the Animus wouldn’t allow for it. The way that we made it happen was through the keys that Ezio finds.
So how can we get the player to find these keys without making it a simple treasure hunt? How do we integrate it into the main story line and even explain what they are? There’s a lot of details that the fans will really jump all over – that are not really too important to the majority of players, but at the same time explain it enough to satisfy the long-term Assassin’s Creed fans – which is crucial to us. So that’s quite tough.
TGL: During the hunt for keys there’s clearly a strong emphasis on cinematics, dare we say, the whole thing felt a little Uncharted-esque. One scene in particular saw Ezio struggling along collapsing platforms in a desperate bid to escape the horrors beneath him. Does a franchise like that inspire you guys when dealing with intimate cinematics?
FP: Well maybe I guess. But for me personally – whatever. I just like to make a good game, and I don’t really care where the ideas come from. Uncharted is definitely one of the big models that people are looking at though, that much is clear. You know the Villa attack in Brotherhood?
TGL: We remember…how awesome right?
FP: Ah! Well I worked on the Villa attack. I actually worked on everything in the Villa but my concentration was the attack. Well I kinda’ got sick of people saying “We wanna do it like Uncharted”. That’s the difference here – our game is not Uncharted, so let’s not obsess about another game. They were clearly thinking Uncharted was a better game and I think that’s a really bad attitude to take. You know, I have a theory that the team behind Uncharted are thinking “Let’s make Uncharted more like Assassin’s Creed!” – at least that’s what I’m hoping is happening. <laughs>
You see, people really want to make our game, in many respects, like Uncharted. It’s contradictory to our vision. Our game is very open-world, full of choices and there’s a wide range of objectives so players can really do what they want. To have those explosive set-pieces like Uncharted – you have to know exactly where the player is going to be all the time. That’s why it doesn’t work for Assassin’s Creed as our world is completely open.
TGL: So for you guys, it’s more about beefing up the action when the time comes.
FP: Exactly. It’s one of those things as a game designer, you know? You can’t mix the two. It would be too easy for example if we had a building collapse under the player, and players being players, they would find or do something to…basically fuck that up. <laughs>.
TGL: There’s always people aiming to expose glitches in games…
TGL: Moving onto setting. This time around we obviously have a change in scenery. What, do you think, Constantinople offers that Rome didn’t?
FP: There’s a few reasons why actually. There was already a story when Ezio went to Constantinople – which was originally the main story behind the 3DS title, but that never happened. When we develop stories, we don’t simply randomly select a region; we actually do a lot of research into life events, history and more. People don’t know much about it in general, I guess, because it’s Istanbul, it’s not a Western City.
People know a lot about Rome, Italy, Venice and even Leonardo Da Vinci. Why are people and history classes so obsessed with people from those time periods? That’s because it’s the Muslim history – not the Christian. So it was a real pleasure to delve into the world and, I guess, in many respects, help to educate the player in some repsects.
TGL: Working with a region that’s not as explored as that must be a golden ticket to stretch creative muslces, don’t you think?
FP: Yes and no. We always want to make sure it’s accurate to the point where someone that actually lives in the city doesn’t feel like we’ve stretched the truth too far.
TGL: With characters and locations such a key aspect to the soul of the game, can you run us through what it takes to create set pieces? And how do you go about constructing missions?
FP: Behind the scenes…what it takes! Whoah that’s a lot to talk through! Ok so we have two teams right? So I’m the Mission Design Director but within the company I’m known as the Level Design Director. This traditionally means you make the spaces and the missions yourself. But in Assassin’s Creed – you can’t have one guy do it all you know? So the city is being built at the same time as the missions are being designed and built. As we’re developing the story, the map of the city is opening up piece by piece. While we work in parallel, we get to a point where we can think “where do the missions take place?”. With the city fleshing together, and the districts forming, we can then place the missions in the city. Mission Designers can then play it, test it and give feedback on what works and what doesn’t. In the end, you’ll have something some more uniform and you can work with that you know?
TGL: So obviously this is the end for Ezio. How does it feel for you guys to witness his story coming to an end?
FP: I’ll be honest with you, because I’m so involved in the technical aspect, I don’t have the same emotional connection with say those that just play it as fans. Have you seen Assassin’s Creed Embers?
TGL: Not yet…
FP: Well I’ll admit, I didn’t get a little teary at the end of that…there’s a thing… a connection you know? It’s kinda’ sad… <laughs>
FP: You guys will laugh now but it’ll get you too!
TGL: We’re not laughing at the tears shed, hell, we’ll shed tears for Ezio no problem!
FP: But how does it feel? Exciting really. I mean we’re probably only one of the only games out there that spanned an entire life you know?
TGL: Sure we were there from the start…his birth. What a beautiful moment…
FP: Like how many games are out there that don’t show an evolution like that? Like a noticeable one. We experienced his birth, then when we was like what…19? Now, we’re experiencing him as an older person.
TGL: Old or not – his appetite for women is still very much intact. From the demo we played, his eyes are still watching the girls go by.
FP: Well you’ll see some interesting stuff in the full title. Like there’s an interesting side plot where, obviously he’ll have to produce a child…
TGL: An heir to the Assassin’s guild…
FP: Exactly. But what’s weird is that, in the side missions, he’s not a ladies man at all. He’s kinda’ shy you know? He’s finally found a woman he genuinely likes.
TGL: You mean, instead of wanting to…you know…
FP: <laughs> Yeah that sorta’ stuff. You have these exchanges between the characters which are purposely awkward you know? She’ll say something that he just doesn’t get.
TGL: We know the feeling…
TGL: With the development cycle of the latest Assassin’s Creed titles becoming shorter, and fans criticising this, do you think people worry about nothing? I mean surely with a library of textures, animations and sounds in place – it’s just generally easier to put together something that which would have taken a lot longer from scratch?
FP: I think that the people that are criticising development cycles have never worked in games, so I think they don’t really know what they are talking about. It’s not easy to run a full development in a year you know? You don’t have time to redesign a system so you have to run with it and trust your work. Honestly, I really enjoy it though. One thing that works to our advantage is that we don’t design everything from scratch – like you said. Look at Assassin’s Creed II – they revamped the AI, built a small economy system and more. When you’re working in a development section – you’re always waiting for new features to come through. Sometimes they’ll appear and not work well, they might not have eveything you want, so you’re constantly playing catch up with features. But with Assassin’s Creed we already have a system in place – the tools are mature you know? So from day one you can start making stuff.
TGL: From the previous games you have the clothing dye, banks and economy in place and even the ever-popular mini Assassin missions.
FP: Exactly. So we know the gameplay, there’s way less guesswork and we can get on and grind out the new product. Under those circumstances I guess it’s not really hard to make a new game, but I’m always suprised at how much we can get out with a new title. But at the same time I’m not suprised you know? We have a amazingly talented team, working full-time on stuff that has already had its bugs worked out.
What some people don’t understand is that we work with tools you know? So the quality of the tools will determine how fast we can work. A three year development cycle on unstable tools will always be beaten by a one year development on stable tools. Let’s face it, we know what the game is like, we already know what it’s meant to feel like, so there’s no guess work at all. When you work on a new title and don’t know what the feature set is like, there’s a lot of guess work involved like “How many steps can he take before he’s spotted?” or “How high do these boxes have to be so players can hide behind?”.
One big disadvantage of a short cycle though is the timeline for cinematics. Like, once you do the mo-cap you can’t do it again. Sometimes you’d look at cinematics and think “that’s not what I wanted”, so sometimes you have to change the missions to accomodate it. This is a huge compromise for me as I spend all my time telling them what it should have been like! <laughs>
TGL: That’s can’t be an easy thing to deal with?
FP: That sucks! <laughs> Like recording a major actor can be expsensive too. Afterwards there could be a moment where you need a re-recording or a different word instead? Nope – you can forget that. So that’s a clear disadvantage.
TGL: Can you run us through a typical development day behind the scenes at Ubisoft?
FP: I find these kinds of questions tough to answer. A typical day for whom? Me? One of the production floor guys (since I’m a director, I spend a lot of time evaluating, giving feedback and in meetings with other departments, so I don’t actually create anything directly in the game editors for the game)? And most critically, which part of the development?
For a production floor guy (Mission Designer – a subset of a Level Designer), at the beginning of the development they are typically brainstorming and/or putting together Design documents that establish what their levels or missions should be. In the middle of development, their day would typically start with getting the latest version of the engine/editor (with the programming team working on the engine/editor nonstop, the designers need to continuously have a current daily version otherwise bugs will be introduced) and then diving in to create their Mission – be it scripting timing/logic based objectives, placing patrols/static enemies/mission givers, or working out layout changes with the city designers. A typical day also involves a lot of playthroughs of their missions, to ensure that all the work done so far still works (occasionally, work done by another department will break a mission).
Lastly, at the end of development (after Beta), the Mission Designers have a concrete list of bugs that keeps getting piled on daily, so their daily tasks will be determined by whatever a tester somewhere in Romania will find that is wrong with their mission. At the end of development, the playthroughs are also more frequent, as the Mission Designer knows best how their mission works – they can’t rely on a tester to find everything that’s wrong.
TGL: Going foward with the franchise, what are your hopes for any future titles that bear the Assassin’s Creed name?
FP: I’m a history buff, so for me no matter where we set the series, I always dive in and am super excited to learn more about the location/time period chosen. Where do I think they should go next? Hard to say… I’d love to explore medieval and renaissance Europe more, but we’ve done that now so it’s probably time for a fresh outlook. For me personally, I’ve always found it would be great to go for the ultimate stereotype and blow everyone away with our unique take on it – I’m talking about feudal Japan. Ninjas would make the perfect Assassins, Samurais make a perfect contrast. It’s such an overdone stereotype, that I think it would be fun to give it a go. That said, I’ve talked about this often here at Ubisoft, and I don’t think it’ll be happening any time soon. Assassin’s Creed’s strength at the moment is going where nobody else is, so most believe this is part of the magic formula. I disagree, but I’m only one person.
TGL: Finally, do you have any advice for people that want to get into level design, or even just into the games industry? What type of experience would stand out to you and why?
FP: 1. Play lots of games. Study them. Why were certain decisions made? What would you do that’s “better”? Why do you think they didn’t do what you think would make it better (because I can guarantee you that the development team thought of your idea)?
2. There are lots of college and university programs to get into games. It’s almost a requirement now to get your foot in the door. Take a good program, get good marks.
3. Build something yourself – build multiplayer maps for your favourite game, create mods, create indy games. These kinds of things show us how you think, and also get your name out there.
4. Don’t get into a game company as a tester thinking it’ll move you “up” the ladder to eventually be a Level Designer. While this career path can work for some people, it’s very rare because game companies need good testers and are reluctant to let good experienced testers move on to other jobs. It’s better to come in as a junior level designer and move up that way.
TGL: Falko, thank you for your time and the best of luck with the launch of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. We’re eager to see how it all ends.
FP: It was nice chatting with you guys. Thanks!
Assassin’s Creed: Revelations launches November 15th on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, and November 29th for PC.
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