Q&A: Ubisoft dissects Assassin's Creed

Creative Director Patrice Desilets talks puppeteering, the challenges of cross-platform development, and why AC won't feature multiplayer content.

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Not surprisingly, Assassin's Creed has been hiding in the shadows during its lengthy development cycle. Recently, we caught up with the project's creative director Patrice Desilets from Ubisoft Montreal to discuss some of the intricacies of the Scimitar game engine powering the title and to get a little more insight into the challenges of writing the engine from scratch. Check out GameSpot's latest hands-on for our thoughts on the game.

GameSpot AU: Environmental interactivity, particularly with crowds and the world surrounding the player appear to be paramount to the gameplay. Would Assassins have been possible on last generation's console hardware and still provided the same experience?

Patrice Desilets: This game would never have been possible on the last generation of consoles. Before the next-gen specs were actually announced, we had our own vision in mind of what next gen should be. Building a new engine from scratch allowed us to create the right tools and to bring this vision to life.

We started with the concept that the player should have full control over the Assassin's body and that the Assassin should be able to interact with the world in an intuitive and natural way. The new gameplay comes from how the living and breathing world reacts to your second-to-second actions. The need for artificial puzzle elements like moving walls or fire traps disappears because for the first time, we can base our gameplay on social rules and the natural traps found in real cities. So players will be able to tune the difficulty level of the game when choosing how they behave in the world. They will make the challenge easier if they follow the social rules and achieve all sorts of side missions prior to main assignments or harder if they decide to create havoc in the city before completing the mission.

I think next-gen consoles need to live up to their technological promise through compelling gameplay, not just more graphics. It's actually very easy to scale a game from PlayStation 1 to PlayStation 2 to PlayStation 3...but it's still the same game! As creators of interactive entertainment, we need to evolve from a technology-driven industry into one focused on player experiences.

Complete control over Altair plays a big part of the game.
Complete control over Altair plays a big part of the game.

GS AU: The E3 Media & Business Summit demo at this year's E3 Microsoft press event focused heavily on free running. Tell us about the unique control system you're developing for Assassin's Creed.

PD: Altair has over 1,000 different contextual moves. Obviously finding a way to map that onto a controller is a challenge. We did not want to confuse people with a million combos to memorize, so we had to take a different approach to controls. We were inspired by a "puppeteering" concept. To use the PS3 controller layout for reference, triangle is mapped to your character's head, square to your character's weapon hand, circle is mapped to your free hand, and X is mapped to your feet. Each body part then reacts contextually to the situation you are in. If you are in a fight context and you press free hand, it will allow you to grab and throw an opponent; if you are in a crowd situation, free hand will allow you to push the people out of the way. It's a new concept, so it takes a bit of time to get used to, but once you "get it" the controls are intuitive.

GS AU: How will item customizability affect your character's skills, including your interaction with the environment?

PD: Every time you rank up, equipment is restored to you. Sometimes it's a new weapon that changes the dynamic of fights--like throwing knives that let you dispatch enemies at a distance. Other times, you get items that change the way you interact with your environment. For example, at Rank 4 you obtain gloves that give you better grasping ability; this completely changes climbing and free running because you can descend buildings quickly by letting go and then grabbing back on. When you jump toward an edge, your new gloves allow you to reach and grab on to things that were previously out of reach. If you are falling because you have been hit by an arrow or other projectile, you can catch yourself before you plummet to your death. Other items like boots and special belts allow you to interact with the crowd in new ways. Ranking up is more than just getting a sword that does more damage; it changes your gameplay strategies.

GS AU: How hard is it to create living crowds rather than a group of scripted artificial intelligence characters clumped together? How much of the game relies on the environment's reactions to your behavior?

PD: As you explore the kingdom and its major cities, you will be confronted by a population ravaged by war. People of all types have become the victims of the power struggles between nations. You will have the option to discover and participate in side missions, as well as specific missions to help the people. In this way, it is possible for you to win the population's confidence and it will in turn help you in the completion of your missions. The crowd then becomes a strategic tool that you can use to your advantage to either help hide you during your approach or to slow pursuers during an escape.

GS AU: There has been a lot of speculation about the Assassin's Creed universe, including rumored plans to move between different time periods. What can you tell us about the Assassin's universe?

PD: We'll leave that for the player to discover?

GS AU: Will the PS3 version of the game include Sixaxis support? If so, how will it be used?

PD: We have prototyped this, but we are not sure yet if the prototypes will make it into the final game. We don't want to add control features, for instance, if they are going to end up feeling gimmicky. We want to make sure that everything in the game makes sense within the overall experience.

GS AU: The Scimitar engine was written from the ground up for this game (and allegedly another title). What were some of the technical challenges of designing an engine for three different platforms? Did you need to drop or scale features on any platform because they simply couldn't be brought to their full potential?

PD: The Scimitar engine was indeed written from the ground up, but with reusability in mind. Of course, some choices were made in developing the engine to ensure proper functionality across all platforms. One of the most important things was to be able to get the same results on all platforms, including our authoring tools on the PC. After that, it's really a matter of choosing what matters most to the player and offer the best gameplay experience no matter which medium is chosen. Once you have a clear idea of what you want the player to experience, there are (mostly) always ways to get it done, given time and some flexibility. The biggest asset is having a great team that's qualified and motivated.

GS AU: Assassin's Creed was originally announced as a PS3-only title. What caused the change to offer it cross-platform?

PD: Our ambitions with AC are high: We're aiming to deliver a completely new gameplay experience on a brand new engine. With AI, physics, animation, and graphics ambitions like ours, we weren't sure how many consoles we could support. But we always wanted to share our next-gen vision with as many gamers as possible. Mid-2006, we were finally able to prove to ourselves that we will be able to deliver on both systems without sacrificing the quality or innovation of our original concept.

GS AU: What can you tell us about multiplayer or online functionality in Assassin's Creed?

PD: Assassin's Creed will not feature any multiplayer or online functionality. We wanted to make a great game first and foremost but did not want to add a multiplayer mode just for the sake of it. It had to fit with the core gameplay experience, which essentially centers around a solitary assassin. Giving the player a great experience as Altair is the priority for the team.

GS AU: Patrice Desilets, thanks for your time.

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