In an exclusive interview with GameSpot, Ubisoft Quebec opens up on lessons from the past: Female leads, Unity issues, and why Desmond is still the benchmark.
A moment of truth awaits Ubisoft Quebec. For the first time since its doors opened some ten years ago, this near-400 person studio has been entrusted with what is undoubtedly Ubisoft's most important commercial property.
This comes at a key moment for the Assassin's Creed franchise too, with painful memories tied to the previous entry, and its proprietors keen to demonstrate what the series is still capable of. For Assassin's Creed Syndicate, the latest entry in this garlanded series, the stakes are high.
How will Ubisoft Quebec rise to the challenge? At the heart of this story is Marc-Alexis Cote, the game's creative director, and Hugo Giard, its level design director. As part of a wider studio visit, both executives speak to GameSpot to discuss the lessons it has learned form the series' past, along with the vision it has helped craft for the franchise's future.
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GameSpot: Both of you have helped evolve Assassin’s Creed for quite some time now.
Marc-Alexis Cote: Yeah, we've been working on it together since Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.
Hugo Giard: Since January 2010!
Cote: Yes, that was when we started building a pitch for what would be the exotic missions; the Leonardo missions. We also came up with the tank mission, the flying machine mission, the boat, and the machine gun mission.
"We talked about which one was the best entry for us as developers, and we came up with the same answer: AC2 and Brotherhood nailed the Assassin’s Creed experience."Marc-Alexis Cote
What’s the essence of the series that you’re always trying to maintain as you move from one game to the next?
Cote: Well the core of the franchise has always been the fantasy of the historical time machine. Even though it’s not technically a time machine, because it doesn't transport you to another era, it still allows our fans to experience different periods of time. That’s the essence of Assassin’s Creed. As long as we fulfil that, it’s an Assassin’s Creed game. It's about giving the player the chance to visit another time and place.
That’s what has made the success of the franchise, and in everything we do--even those Leonardo da Vinci missions--when we started building them back in Brotherhood, they started from thinking about what cool stuff Da Vinci did and what if his inventions had been built for real. He made a design for a helicopter, which we once thought to put into the game.
Giard: Yes! You had to pedal the machine and the blades were all flying around and stuff.
Cote: Yes. Again, we as developers travel through time with our historical research, and we need to bring that sense of being amazed and being able to marvel. We need to expose that to the players.
I’d say that sense of historical spectacle was at its best with the Assassin’s Creed 2 trilogy (Assassin's Creed 2, Brotherhood, Revelations). The games that followed placed less emphasis on a single living city, in favour of driving a narrative that pushed players around the world. Is it fair to say that, with Syndicate, you're trying to maintain the focus on one place?
Cote: That is something we’re trying to do. It’s a very conscious decision on our part. Since the start of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, that is exactly what we wanted to do. We talked about which one was the best entry for us as developers, and we came up with the same answer: AC2 and Brotherhood nailed the Assassin’s Creed experience.
We analysed what we did with AC3, Black Flag, and Unity. Those were different choices with different experiences built for them. For example, in AC3 the story missions were driving the pace of the game. The story was set across the American Revolution, and the game forced you through that story with its missions.
Giard: I think what you’re saying [points to interviewer] is that you preferred the character-driven experience of Assassin’s Creed 2, and that’s exactly what we’re going for with Syndicate. We’re pushing forward Jacob and Evie, the way they’re different and similar, how they go about achieving their objectives inside London. Yes, the city is also going through the Industrial Revolution, but you’re not being forced to jump from point to point.
Would it be fair to say then that you’re going back to basics with the Assassin’s Creed franchise, in that you're reminding fans of what made it stand out?
Giard: What we're doing is what we prefer for our iteration of what Assassin’s Creed is. We can’t speak to the other teams and their desires for what direction they want to take it. But we felt that’s definitely the direction we want to take it.
There’s a lot of mystery behind how you pick the setting for your games. Marvel Studios, for example, lays out its entire timeline that guides what direction its future movies take. Is there a similar roadmap for Assassin's Creed? Do you know where it’s set two or three games from now, or is it more oriented around studios pitching ideas?
Giard: It’s more complex than that. There’s an overarching plan, but also freedom for the teams to pick something that fits their style. One of the things that the Quebec team has always wanted to bring to Assassin’s Creed is innovation. For us, it was super important that we pick an era where we feel comfortable, and that’s in an era of innovation, which is why we chose the Industrial Revolution.
There was the opportunity for us to define exactly what we wanted to do two and half years ago when we started up the project. But as a first leadership experience on the franchise, other than on the DLC, it was important for me that the team be able to find comfort in their skill for innovation.
It’s about being free to promote the ideas that give the team ownership. Without going into detail on how the decisions are made, it’s really important that the team knows that the vision comes from Marc and us, we’re on board, and we should all take ownership of it.
There must be a huge desire to leave a unique mark on the franchise. How do you balance that with the reality of working to a framework which is established, proven to work, and still quite healthy?
Cote: I think our motto has been to prove often and prove early. For example, when we first brought up vehicles, the first reaction was “well, if it was so easy to do, we’d have done it years ago.” But we wanted to prove that it could work. It’s the same as the boats on AC3, the mentality that we need to prove our innovations and that’s how we should approach everything.
We’ve been doing that pretty much since Brotherhood, we said “yes, we’re going to put a cannon on a carriage and you’re going to shoot from behind” and people said it was never going to work.
"The Assassin's Creed series story is still going somewhere, absolutely... I can’t go into details about the present-day story, other than to say it is coming back, it is going to make sense for our players, and they’re going to understand the conflict between the Assassins and the Templars."Marc-Alexis Cote
Do you think that existing outside of the Assassin’s Creed studio rotation for so long has afforded you the ability to be more free in your thinking?
Giard: Even if we’re far from the other studios, we’re also kind of right next door at the same time. We’re all collaborating together to the point where I could name so many people on the other teams that have expertise we need. At the same time they need our expertise. I’m not saying we’re one big happy family, but it’s not like we stay in our corner watching them and they sit in their corner watching us, we work together.
Early in the franchise's life, people spoke confidently about the fact that the series was building towards something, there was an event or narrative path that was referenced. Over time, people have become unsure. Is the series still going somewhere? Unity ended in a way that dismissed you and your actions in a big way.
Cote: The Assassin's Creed series story is still going somewhere, absolutely. The overarching story is divided up into cycles. So we had what we called the Desmond cycle, which ended with AC3. Black Flag was the transition point between the Desmond cycle and the new cycle.
So what people were hinting at in the very first Assassin's Creed was that date, in December 2012, when the world ends. For the final game in that arc, which was Assassin's Creed 3, we had to ship it in line with that real-world date. We knew that. I remember when we were on AC3 we kept saying “this game can’t slip, it can’t be delayed, we’re not going to change the Mayan calendar.”
That was the end of the Desmond cycle. And then we started up the new cycle, which I think will become much clearer with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, without spoiling it. I can’t go into details about the present-day story, other than to say it is coming back, it is going to make sense for our players, and they’re going to understand the conflict between the Assassins and the Templars.
One of the things that’s been super important for me and for the team is to make sure the player feels in the present-day story that he or she has importance. That what they’re doing is helping the assassins in their war against the Templars. That they’re not just sourcing data for someone.
Giard: Without going into detail, it’s what justifies 95 percent of your experience inside the game, so it was essential. But I know we have to keep hush-hush.
That was going to be my next question. It seemed like the battle between the two sides hasn’t had much of an impact on anything happening outside of that timeframe. It’s good to hear you’re going back to that. During the transition period, as you called it, the modern narrative moved away from having a defined character like Desmond, to being about you, the player in Abstergo. It kind of felt like a compromise to eliminate Desmond and resolve his story, but still keep the modern day bits. Will a central character return?
[PR]: The present-day matters will be talked about later on.
Giard: [Laughs] I think we’ve already said too much.
Let’s talk about characters. Post-Ezio, it seemed like Ubisoft had trouble getting people to connect with a protagonist as much as they did with Ezio. There were shades of him in follow-up characters, which didn’t quite work. What’s your strategy with Jacob and Evie Frye?
Cote: I think Ezio is pretty much a legend at this point in the franchise. He’s a hard guy to top. He’s a character we really hit the mark with.
Giard: He had it all [Longing sigh].
Cote: I think it’d be a mistake to emulate that or try and recreate Ezio. I think our fans can tell when we are trying to go for Ezio again.
Giard: Jacob and Evie were built from scratch. We wanted them to be their own personalities, and as much as we love Ezio--and we know the fans are crazy about him--we’re not trying to carbon-copy him while hoping for some sort of success. It’s more important for us to create new and unique characters, then see how they develop over the course of the game.
Cote: I think one thing that kept us from doing Ezio is that you’ve got two characters. Having Jacob and Evie, we worked on defining their relationship and building a good, credible difference between the two. They needed to have cool opposition, but still have the brother and sister feeling between them. I think this takes us into a whole new territory as a franchise. It’s something we’ve never explored and can’t wait to see what our fans think of it.
Giard: It’s a relationship that’s never existed before in the franchise. You’ve always had people who were fighting or people who were in love. Now we have siblings, which is a relationship that brings with it certain constraints and certain advantages, as well as certain emotions that are really fun to explore.
Cote: It’s so funny because some people feel very strongly about Jacob, others feel really passionately about Evie. I’m an Evie.
Giard: I’m an Evie as well.
How much texture are you planning to give that dynamic? The easy point of comparison is Grand Theft Auto V’s three characters. What made that interesting was that they regularly clashed. Are Jacob and Evie always on the same wavelength, but just have differences in approach?
Cote: For me, the whole game and the narrative is defined by how they clash, how they work together, and how their relationship evolves.
Giard: The different way they go about achieving basically the same objective is what creates that conflict. You can’t forget that they have both been trained by the same person, they’re both assassins, but they see the world in completely different ways, yet their objective is the same. Obviously, they’re not going to go about it in the same way, and that creates a conflict that makes the emotions so much more interesting.
There was some controversy surrounding female protagonists with Unity. Many will be thinking the inclusion of a female protagonist is paying lip-service to critics, it’s a reactionary choice that’s trying to save some face for the franchise. Is that a fair comment?
Cote: What I’d say is that they’ve both been part of the experience from the very beginning. Cynics will be cynics, and it’s unfortunate, but we’ve been so focused on build this game the way we want with those two characters. It’s not done to pay lip-service, it’s done to build a great game.
When we were building this experience we asked ourselves “how can we make it feel new, how can we make it feel fresh, how do we avoid telling the same story?” That’s where we came up with the idea of having two protagonists, which evolved into having twin protagonists, and a brother/sister relationship that we’ve never explored. That started two and a half years ago.
Giard: A long time ago. Cote and I always shared the same vision when it comes to that. When I play Mass Effect, I always had FemShep, it’s just something that I find more compelling. He’s right, cynics will be cynics, I don’t know if there’s anything we could tell them that’d change their minds, but it’s always been what we wanted to push forward. Nothing changed when that stuff happened.
Cynics aside, there’s a fear that it might not be coming from a sincere place, which could lessen the impact. Is it fair to describe Evie as a “true protagonist” as opposed to a side-kick for Jacob?
Cote: Yes. Absolutely! The only way to answer this is to have people play the game. When they do they will see there is no way she’s bolted on.
Giard: Seriously, if we had changed our vision last year when the controversy broke, Evie would feel completely shoe-horned, you would be able to sense it. But because we planned it for so long, everything about her flows perfectly in the story with Jacob. You would know if it didn’t.
Cote: Yeah. Jacob and Evie are everywhere in the story talking about events and doing things. That relationship is such an integral part of the storytelling.
Giard: Believe us!
"[Including a female lead] is not done to pay lip-service, it’s done to build a great game."Marc-Alexis Cote
You have bold ambitions for Syndicate. What are you doing to make sure your launch build isn't as buggy as Assassin's Creed Unity?
Cote: For one, we’re iterating on a lot of ideas from Unity and perfecting them. We’re building on the work they did on the AC ecosystem.
One of the other things that I hope reassures people is that we’ve shown a playable demo at E3 this year, which is a first. We had more than 30,000 people play the game and we gathered feedback. That’s something we’ve never done in the past and never this early.
Usually we get our playable demos in September, but we had one in June this time. We’re putting the game into the hands of people much sooner than we’ve ever done because the game is in better shape than it has ever been. I am quite confident that we’ll nail it on October 23.
Assassin's Creed Syndicate ships on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on October 23.