Q&A: We chat with game director Scott Phillips about the PS4, Xbox One, and PC game's dual protagonist setup and more.
Assassin's Creed Odyssey is a big, beautiful, and bold game, and one of its standout features is the ability to choose to play as a woman, Kassandra, or a man, Alexios, right from the start.
Ubisoft Quebec's previous Assassin's Creed game, Syndicate, also featured male and female protagonists but not on the level of Odyssey. That older game featured brother and sister assassins Evie and Jacob Frye with a character-swapping setup throughout. For Odyssey, Phillips said the team learned from that game but wanted to go "even farther" with player choice in Odyssey.
Playing as either Alexios or Kassandra does not affect the story or gameplay. However, both characters have different voice actors and character models, similar to how the male and female Commander Shepards were treated in Mass Effect.
We recently chatted with game director Scott Phillips about where the idea for the dual protagonist system came from, the extra development work it required, the feedback so far, and more. You can read our full interview below.
Ubisoft declined to answer our questions about how Odyssey's marketing focused more on Alexios than Kassandra and if Ubisoft is committed to bringing back the dual protagonist option for future instalments in the series, as Phillips himself had suggested.
The publisher also declined to reveal statistics about how many Odyssey players are playing as Kassandra versus Alexios, nor did the company respond to the controversy at E3 2014 when a representative said making female playable characters in Assassin's Creed: Unity would have doubled the workload.
GameSpot: Where did the idea come from to allow players to choose between a male and female hero in Odyssey? Was this something Ubisoft had in mind for previous games?
Scott Phillips: Coming off of the experience we at Ubisoft Quebec had on Assassin's Creed Syndicate with Jacob and Evie Frye, we knew we wanted to go even farther with Odyssey to incorporate the notion of protagonist choice. With the setting of ancient Greece and especially because of the Spartan heritage of our protagonist, we felt it was a great fit for Assassins Creed Odyssey. Ultimately, giving more players the chance to feel that the protagonist is their character and that they are making their choices is key to what we set out to deliver with Odyssey--a game where promoting player choice was central to every decision we made.
Can you talk about the creative and technical challenges of employing such an ambitious option? I can only fathom how many different parts of the game it must have touched.
From player dialog, to NPC lines, to player gear, to animations--the choice to pursue male and female protagonists certainly impacted many aspects of the game.
As an example, on Odyssey we built a huge new interactive dialog system, and this actually gave us the ability to build it from the get-go with that option for male or female protagonists. So in a way it was easier than it would’ve been to try and retrofit it into an existing system.
Another example was on the writing side where any line that used a specific protagonist name or mentioned a gendered pronoun had to be written and recorded twice and had to be selected at run time to match the choice the player had made. For example "Get him!" needed to have an alternate line recorded and technically set up to allow for the NPCs to say "Get her!" when the player was playing Kassandra. This certainly put additional work on the audio and writing teams but because of our experience on Syndicate we already had the technical knowledge and basis for how to accomplish this.
Ultimately, everyone on the team was fully invested in this from the beginning and did everything they could to make it happen--which has given us the great results we have in Odyssey and allowed players to be more connected than ever to their protagonist.
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What did you hear during pre-release tests about the dual protagonist system? What did people say early on, and how did that feedback shape what you launched with?
The vast majority of feedback we've received during playtests over the last year is the same as we hear now--that players love the option to choose between Kassandra and Alexios because it makes them feel more connected than ever to their character and their choices. So in effect, that early feedback reinforced that we had made the right decision.
I read an interview with Ubisoft chief creative officer Serge Hascoet where he said Odyssey was nearly finished 11 months ago. How much of that time was spent on elements of the game related to the dual protagonists or the story?
Serge was probably referring our "Alpha" state, that we reached roughly a year before our launch this October. What this meant was that all of our major features and most of the content of the game were in and fully playable from start to finish at a rough state. As an example, only some areas of the game were fully voiced by actors and the game was only roughly tuned and balanced. It gave us our first real chance to playtest the full game--both internally on the team and with external playtesters--to get a sense of where we needed to make adjustments.
At Alpha we had no doubts that the protagonist choice of Kassandra or Alexios was key to the experience.
The story beats for the entire Odyssey story--reuniting your family--were present in the game and went through minimal changes after Alpha. Some of the world and character content was not yet fully fleshed out but other elements were nearly done--so players at Alpha could get a good sense for the game, but still had to make some assumptions because it was not yet fully voiced by actors.
What did remain at that point for the story was the massive effort of writing, revising, and recording all of the content needed to deliver this enormous game – so there was never a shortage of work and iteration over those intervening 11 months.
Now that you've launched, what's some of the feedback you've heard so far from fans about the option to choose?
What we hear from the vast majority of players is that they love the option to choose and the seamless way in which it was integrated. It gives them the ability to feel like more than ever Assassins Creed is their game with their choices--and that makes us extremely happy.