Assassin’s Creed III’s development was quite unique by today’s standards when you think about it. Starting all of three years ago, the development has seen new blood brought on board, as well as a significant shift in creative direction – thanks to the new setting, new faces and a revamped combat system to mention a few.
On the cusp of a full release, and arguably one of 2012′s most anticipated titles, TGL got the chance to sit down with the Assassin’s Creed III’s Creative Director Alex Hutchinson and Animation Director Jonathan Cooper to talk about everything from the new settings, to animation, to technology and just what the fans can expect from the final game.
Here’s how we got on…
The Gaming Liberty: Alex, you’ve worked on some pretty big titles in the past, can you tell us about your experience working on Assassin’s Creed III?
Alex Hutchinson: I think it’s been amazing, really. To get an opportunity to pick up on something that’s successful, or as successful as the Assassin’s Creed franchise, is rare. I mean, you can sometimes pick up on something that’s faultering, but to work with something established is great. We’ve been working on it for 3 years, we’ve had the full support of Ubisoft so it’s really exciting to work on a true blockbuster title.
TGL: Moving from Revelations to Assassin’s Creed III. Jonathan, can you tell us a little about the advancements made in animation, and what the fans can expect this time around?
Jonathan Cooper: Well we’ve added quite a lot of physics to the character. It’s cutting edge really when you think about it, but it was very diffuclt stepping into the shoes of the previous style of animation. That said, I think it works really well.
TGL: Working on Assassin’s Creed III means you get to experience something that many developers don’t – a rebirth of an already established franchise. This paradigm shift means gamers are front row spectators to an established IP going through an extensive evolution. What are your feelings about this process, the Revolution setting, and the new additions to the game?
AH: Well I think it’s one of the strengths of the brand, you know? Hopefully, one of the reasons we can keep it going for a long time is that there’s massive changes you can perform when moving to a new character, to a new part of history or something like that. We have the fictional wrapper which is Desmond, but apart from that, it’s really a blank canvas for us to do something new and hopefully get people excitied again. I just like the fact that we have a new assassin, new historical setting – the American Revolution – brand new player fantasies, combat that ranges from regular combat to naval, forests and animals – it’s a huge shift for us and I think, the fact that people are excited, shows that they want something new.
TGL: The establishment of Ezio as a character was one of the most original and rather intimate moments in contemporary gaming. We had the chance to experience his birth – moving his hands and feet – and then gamers had the chance to watch him grow to become a feared and respected assasin. What kind of efforts has the team at Ubisoft gone to to cement Connor as a character with the Assassin’s Creed world – be it through the narration, the animation or even general character development?
AH: The great thing about Assassin’s Creed III is that, where most games might take place over a few hours, a few days, or a week at most, our game takes place over decades. So we can go from a young Connor all the way through to why he joins the assassins, and how he gets involved in the Revolution – so I think we can show a more complete story. Hopefully this transition will show a portrait of someone that develops over time.
You have to remember, he’s not just someone that is an assassin at the start of the game – and just goes about his business, and then there’s a big “hoorayy” at the end of the game. It’s more like a character that has to figure the whole thing out for himself. We’ve tried to guard the plot of the game very closely inthe hope that people can actually experience it themselves when the game launches. Suffice to say, it’s an epic journey.
JC: Adding to that, remember that you’ll get to play as Connor in three different stages – which is pretty cool. You know, to help with this we stuck some kids in mo-cap suits and let them run around.
TGL: Kids are a real no-go zone in a game… aren’t they? Just look at the mods for Skyrim...
JC: Well there is kids in the game – but you’re not allowed kill them! <laughs>
AH: Yeah… can’t kill ‘em, can’t kill ‘em. You’re not allowed stab ‘em <laughs>
TGL: The structure of gameplay has really changed when you think of it – thanks to the new settings, new terrain and such. Can you tell us about the technical hurdles the team at Ubisoft have had to overcome to lift Assassin’s Creed III above the expectations of gamers?
AH: I think there’s a reason why very few games have fighting on an uneven terrain. Most of the time, if you see a tree in a game, there’s just static – just an obstacle you walk around. Well, we were very sure from the early stages of development that we wanted trees to be gameplay orientated. You know, the ability to be on the ground, or swap it up and be on a branch level. You can even use them as a foothold to assassinate someone from above – we really wanted to get this right.
Realistically it was something that took the animation team almost 3 years to get right…
JC: We got it right at the very end! <laughs>
AH: Right at the end! Literally! Well, the tree climbing and running came along about half-way through development – and we just kept’ polishing it. We were worried that it would be like Crounching Tiger Hidden Dragon if you get me? We really didn’t want players to feel a lack of weight while running along the tops, but I think in the end it feels grounded, physical and solid.
JC: We spent a long time on technology to make sure Connor’s feet actually hit the gound – which is one of the hardest things to get right on slopes and tree tops. You have to remember, we have some of the original animators still here, and I don’t think they would have stuck around if we didn’t give them something new and something fresh to work on. When we started the development with uneven surfaces and treetops, they just jumped at the opportunity.
TGL: Jonathan – Thanks to the established titles that came before, you essentially have a library of code and animations at your fingertips. How many of the previous animations did you bring over?
JC: Well we didn’t replace everything, but we did replace everything that was important to defining the character – like walking, running, jumping and more. We completely revamped the fighting, jumping system and animations for Connor which really helped to make Connor feel a lot more energetic.
We calculated the other week that we have over 7,000 new animations in Assassin’s Creed III. That all builds up to over 1 hour of brand new animations.
AH: Well, even that’s gotta’ change you know? In previous Assassin’s Creed titles – you were out of the water or swimming. But now, you have subitle things like hands moving towards the water when diving and a whole lot more. We really touched almost everything in the end. It’s a process of seeing what works. At the very beginning when we were first prototyping the game, we took the Ezio model and animations and placed them in the Assassin’s Creed III world. We used that to see what works – we literally threw him into the frontiers.
The great thing about this approach is it allows you to see what works and what you can build on. In the end, I feel, we replaced about 90% of the content there, or at least, polished it to a new level.
TGL: The introduction of firearms into warfare saw a complete change in tactics – in essence, the fundamentals of war changed completely. Was it difficult to balance the history of warfare and the inclusion of such weapons, with the previous melee based combat?
AH: I think it was diffuclt to find the right balance, and not become a shooter if you get me? Introducing too many guns begs for a better aiming/shooting system, and by bringing about such changes you change how you feel about the game entirely. We wanted to make sure we were a close combat game – being the assassin means getting in close and personal. We really didn’t want to become a shooter.
Thankfully though, the older guns were terrible. A musket would take about 2 minutes to reload, and the accuracy was appauling – this is why they stand in a line when firing. It’s a slow process really, so we decided to structure it in a way so that there would be a moment before they fire at you. During this period you can hide or grab a meat shield. Once they’ve shot once, you can use this opportunity to get in close and finish the job. We really wanted to keep it as melee-orientated as possible.
TGL: Another element of the game which has changed significantly is the combat. It’s arguably more visceral than ever thanks to the dual-melee ability. What can the fans expect from it, this time around, that they didn’t see in previous Assassin’s Creed titles?
AH: I think the biggest thing is, and we were joking about it as we watched people playing, when we say it’s a new combat system – we really mean it’s a new combat system. The buttons have been revamped so if you use the older controls – you won’t do so good this time around!
So, for example, we took away the targeting system – you don’t need to lock onto someone with LT anymore – you just have to face them. We kept run on the right trigger, so you can exit a battle when you need to. The counter system is also revamped – so it’s not a simple counter-kill anymore. Players can now pick what they want to do after a counter. So now you can counter, counter-kill, counter-grab, counter-disarm and more. We’ve tried to make it a deep meaningful fight system that will give you hours of interesting gameplay, rather that a system you simply spam.
JC: With the new combat system, you really have a system that runs a lot smoother than ever before. It allows you to land more hits and at a faster rate than previous Assassin’s Creed titles – as you can spin around and take out multiple opponents with real fluidity.
TGL: Previous Assassin’s Creed games attempted to innovate with elements, some more successfully than others, like the dungeon defense mini-game, the dying of clothes and so on. Is it difficult to innovate while developing an established IP? The fans expect so much, but the problem exists: if you change it too much, the fans could reject it…
AH: I think Assassin’s Creed III brings about the biggest changes since…. well, Assassin’s Creed II really. Everything from the new free-running, what you can free run on, the setting, the history, the environment, the naval battles, the combat, the weapons and more. It’s really a huge delta for us. But it is a challenging like you said because we felt there was a “change everything, but change nothing” kind of feeling among the community – and that’s difficult you know? But we decided, you know what fuck it – let’s make the best game we possibly can for the players. If that means breaking limbs and resetting them – then it’s worth it.
There is a learning curve this time around, that I think, previous Assassin’s Creed games didn’t have. I’d like to think we got rid of the sense of fatigue from the franchise too. It’s like when you boot up a brand new game, and it contains the same animations, same walk animations and stuff like that…
TGL: Revelations felt like that. As enjoyable as it was, it really felt quite stodgy and all-too familiar…
AH: It’s the same with food right? Even thought you might love something, you can’t keep eating the same thing over and over. So I’m hoping the gamers really give it that hour or so to get stuck into it and understand the mechaincs and controls.
JC: It’s a fun challenge aswell if you think about it. Straying too far from what people think of as “Assassin’s Ceed” will be seen as wrong. So I think we ended up coming across a lot of things that refreshed it. Simple things like walk animations feel similar enough to be considered part of the Assassin’s Creed world, but they’re all different.
AH: Some of the new things, like the naval battle for example, are still based around the pillars of the franchise – navigation, social stealth and combat. But I think we learned that, if you have an action game, and you place a strategy game inside it…
TGL: We loved it…
AH: Yeah – it was terrific and quite a few people did like it, but it wasn’t what a lot of people expected – so it was a real gamble.
TGL: Assassin’s Creed III features quite a number of high profile historical figures. Is it difficult to portray them in their own respective light, rather than populating them with your own preconceptions of their character?
AH: Yeah it is actually. We’re very close to real history if you think about it. It’s fun though, as we know where people are in the time frame, and where they were – almost day by day – as the Revolution raged on. We know the big events that took place, and we also get to look at some pretty big events – and I think that resonates with people.
Meeting George Washington is a cool feeling you know? Much like Leonardo, it’s a unique experience. Not just because you read a book about him, but because you know a few things about him already and that, I think, makes that character feel a little magical.
TGL: So, the thinking behind working with these characters is that it helps to really humanise them?
AH: Yep. So, we want to make sure they are there – doing what they were doing at the right time. You cross over with them, but you don’t impact on them so to speak. You meet people like George Washington and he’s fighting a war, then you have people like Ben Franklin – and he’s setting up a printing press. These sorts of events help the player meet these characters while they are making history, but you don’t map your adventure on top of theirs.
JC: The writers, when you think about it, have a field day aswell as they go through the writings about these characters and I think, to a certain extent, we’re not showing the hollywood side of them – but instead the real versions of them. Alebit – an assassin’s view of them.
TGL: Symbolism can be a powerful message. When the curtain dropped, and the first artwork for Assassin’s Creed III was released, quite a number of established Assassin’s Creed fans appeared to be concerned about the inclusion of the American flag – and what that potentially implied about the direction of the game. Did the team anticipate the mixed response?
AH: It’s a difficult one really. There’s one end where you lean into the “Americano” side of things, in terms of marketing – and that’s a positive of course. But we also know that there’s some people that didn’t want, or don’t like the American twist on it. We were confident from the start that the game wasn’t going to be a “go Team America” kind of thing. It was a case of announce it, and sit it out for now… then let people play the game. It’s funny really because you can have 4 games come before you, and it’s always “in the middle” – it’s always gray – and now, some people assume that that’s it, this time you’ll “take a side”.
It’s also funny in a sense when you hear some people’s knee-jerk reaction. Some people thought it was all going to be pro-america ordeal. But… until the Revolution is finished there is no America – it was simply a British colony until then…
JC: As soon as you start playing the game you’ll hear Scottish, English and even French accents in there – so everyone is just from Europe! <laughs>
TGL: So… no Irish in there…
AH: <laughs> No, no… there is!
TGL: Well, we do have to respresent…
JC: <laughs> There is – so there you go!
TGL: Finally, what can the fans of the franchise expect from Desmond this time around? Previous Assassin’s Creed titles saw him building up his abilites… so things are really coming to a head now right?
AH: Well we’ll see a culmination of all that. Now, if you’ve been following the story, you know 2012 is an important year in the fiction of the franchise. We wanted to let Desmond have as much screen time as possible – in fact, there’s more Desmond in here than previous games, so we really hope the fans that are watching the story have that pay off you know? Most importantly, we want them to be happy.
Assassin’s Creed III launches October the 30th in America, and on October the 31st here in Ireland. PC and Wii U gamers will have to wait until late November to get their hands on it.