Earlier this month, I got to spend nearly an hour with Assassin’s Creed III, where I was on a boat, ran on some trees and stabbed a man in the face.
Before all of that revolutionary meandering, I got to sit down with highly in demand mission director Mission Director, and the owner of a very impressive beard, Philippe Bergeron.
MMGN: In Assassin’s Creed III we’re starting off with a new protagonist, can you tell us a bit about him?
Philippe Bergeron: His name is Connor, that’s his commoner name. His actual name, his Native American name, is Ratonhnhaké:ton [even after hearing it, I can't begin to pronounce it - Ben], it’s Mohawk. Our protagonist plays as a third person perspective on the American Revolution. You get to learn about the American Revolution from this third person perspective, but he’s much more interested in the survival of his village than Revolution per se. Revolution really plays more of a backdrop than a driving force behind the whole thing.
Of all the memorable moments in history, why the American Revolution?
We try to find interesting points in history that act as turning points. In this case, the American Revolution was one of the first civil wars fought on foreign soil, because everybody was British and they were fighting in America, and it became a war for identity.
For us, it was an interesting conflict and it fits in really well with the Templar and Assassin conflict [from the previous games] as well, with the Templars wanting to control everything and Assassins being about freedom and identity.
How does that fit in with the new mission structure? How did you go about ensuring each was unique?
We wanted to revisit everything from the beginning to make sure we weren’t just doing AC2.3. We looked at every system that we had from previous games and asked ourselves ‘is this feature still valid, is it relevant, do people have fun using it?’ If not, we ripped it out and evaluated everything we had to make sure it’s there for a reason.
If you think about the ‘world upgrade’ system, that doesn’t make any sense in our setting, especially for a Native American. He wouldn’t be buying other people’s houses. A lot of these features had to be revisited because of the context of the setting.
The American Revolution presented an interesting challenge for us in missions because of the battlefields that were prevalent at the time; we’re talking about 20,000 people on a battlefield at once fighting, which is something we couldn’t do in the past. In AC1, for instance, the whole concept of siege warfare was a big part of the third crusade, but we didn’t actually show it because we didn’t have the technical ability. Now, we’ve worked our tech around being able to support that aspect.
All of the crafting we did to create a stealth path and make you feel like an assassin blending into the crowds [in previous games] was unnecessary, as you could pretty much murder anybody.
You mentioned that you removed a lot of features that aren’t appropriate for Assassin’s Creed III. What have they been replaced with?
Let’s look at it through Tower Defence. It was something that worked in Revelations, but in our context, controlling land and setting up defences didn’t make sense. Connor is a much more solitary person, he doesn’t have as big a support group as Ezio did and he’s not as charismatic so he doesn’t gather large groups of people to follow him. It just didn’t make sense.
But the base concept of taking control of a district was still interesting and the difficulty peaks that came with getting control of a tower were also interesting. We went through all of the different parts of tower defence to determine what people liked and what they didn’t and what would work best in Assassin’s Creed III.
As far as the difficulty peaks that were associated with getting control of a tower, we worked on forts this time around. [American] Revolution era forts are the highest difficulty areas in the game, as getting control of a fort requires you to kill a captain, blow up the powder supply, take down a flag and then take control from the red coats and give it back to the population.
When I first saw AC3 at E3, the combat really caught me off guard because it was so different. What did you do to change it and why is it totally different this time around?
It’s a problem that we’ve had since the first game. Combat became more and more easy as time went on. It became the path of least resistance when you were doing missions. All of the crafting we did to create a stealth path and make you feel like an assassin blending into the crowds was unnecessary, as you could pretty much murder anybody. In Revelations, Ezio going up against 20 or 30 guys wasn’t a big problem, so that’s something, from the very beginning, we wanted to change. We wanted to make sure there was a little bit of difficulty in that, so that you felt that you were actually learning to play the game and can see yourself getting better as you play.
To achieve that, we remapped everything on the D-Pad. We had the puppeteer concept in the past and that created a lot of control issues in more recent games. There were a lot of buttons we weren’t allowed to use because we had an old control concept that had been used since AC1, which was really interesting for the time, but as the brand progressed with the bow, the pistol and all the assassins tools being added we never actually changed the control scheme. This time we changed it, to give you more access to all of these different tools.
We made something like Batman: Arkham City which, for us, was in a sense the holy grail of fighting. That was one of the main comments to come out of Batman, that the fighting was so good, so we thought ‘why can’t our fighting at least be on par with that?’ We looked at Batman and then looked at our game and tried to make things a little bit simpler to control and sequence the fight a little bit better.
Is there a significant learning curve for experienced Assassin’s Creed players? Are they going to have to relearn how to play the game?
I think there is. For really experienced players, most people take 20-30 minutes to adapt to the new control scheme, and that goes for the free running as well [as combat]. You can see it inside of an hour, as they begin to understand the controls. You have three hours to play this afternoon and when we did the same session in Boston last week we really saw players progressing. At the beginning of the demo, they were struggling a little bit with the controls, but through proper explanation of what’s going on we could see them becoming really efficient at fighting.
We made something like Batman: Arkham City which, for us, was in a sense the holy grail of fighting...We looked at Batman and then looked at our game and tried to make things a little bit simpler.
Would you say it’s a lot more stealth based than previous Assassin’s Creed games?
We tried to orientate the player back towards the stealth path. On the whole for Connor, a fight against five to six people is the realistic expectation. Anything beyond that and it starts to get much tougher. We also improved the notoriety system. Instead of being binary, where it’s on or off, it has a progression meter consisting of four levels. At the fourth level, we bring out a new archetype, which is our hardest enemy type. Then when you get into a fight against two of these guys it becomes a lot harder and you’ll constantly be fighting seven, eight or nine people. You don’t want to stick around on this level.
When I think Assassin’s Creed I think running across rooftops and scaling ambitious old-timey walls. In fact, this place reminds me a lot of Assassin’s Creed [implied we should totally climb it]. In terms of moving around the city, how has it progressed in contrast to the stark overhaul of combat?
We redid the entire behaviour set for Connor. The way that Ezio moved was not appropriate for Connor so we redid the entire animation kit and the way that you climb buildings has also been modified. This is in-part a reaction to the new character -- a Native American wouldn’t climb the same as an Italian. The fact that we have so much wilderness also required a new system and we needed to compensate for the removal of the hookblade that was added in Revelations. The hookblade didn’t fit in to what we wanted to do, but it made everything faster, so we made Connor much faster than Ezio without any equipment.
We’re heading towards the end of a console lifecycle, at least we believe so. What’s it like developing a game now compared to AC1 all of those years ago?
It’s interesting when you think about it. AC1 versus Assassin’s Creed 3 now is on the same console -- let’s say 360, it’s still the 360 as it was back then -- and while it’s not really the same engine, we didn’t redo the engine completely, we just made it better. By the end of a lifecycle you know your machine better, you know all of the nooks and crannies of it. For instance, we didn’t even think about the 20,000 NPC battles in Assassin’s Creed 1, as we didn’t think the machines were capable of doing it. As we went on, we discovered new tips and tricks that we could use, and in the end [Assassin’s Creed III] we succeeded in doing it.
If we swing back to missions, how do you -- as the Mission Director -- design a mission from start to finish? What’s your process?
We start with a meeting where we begin with the high level story. I sit down with the writers and the level designers and write on the board what we want our protagonist to do. From there, I go my separate way and talk with the mission designers. We break that down to determine what the player will be doing to achieve this story arch. I break it down into chapters, and then each chapter into mission steps and then each mission step becomes a mission.
That’s based off of multiple elements, but our historian will give us the main historical events and characters for the time period that we choose, in our case George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and where they were at any given time period. For instance, we thought we were going to use Benjamin Franklin more, but then we discovered that he was in Europe for most of Connor’s story, so we couldn’t use him as much as we thought. Once that’s established, we take elements from the historian’s list and from the other departments to see what they want to focus on and concoct a series of mission from combining all of that.
I should also mention, that since Assassin’s Creed I we’ve had a running document that I call “101 gameplay ideas.doc”, which is now over 1001 ideas of all of the mission ideas that we haven’t used yet because we weren’t able to or it didn’t fit with the setting. I always bring that back out to see if we can flesh it out within our current gameplay structure.
Thanks for your time, Phil! I daren't attempt the accent.
By Ben Salter