Game Director Scott Phillips and Narrative Director Mel MacCoubrey discuss the biggest transformation Assassin's Creed has ever seen.
Fans of Assassin’s Creed may not have fully recognized Ubisoft’s history-laden franchise when the publisher formally unveiled Assassin’s Creed Odyssey at its media showcase during E3 2018. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to shake things up every once in a while, especially if you’re giving players what they want. Ubisoft believes it’s doing that by giving players choice.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for the first-time in series history has been turned into a full-fledged open-world RPG. The game is set in Greece during the 30-year Peloponnesian War, about 2500 years ago. As Game Director Scott Phillips noted, history has always been the “playground” for Assassin’s Creed but “we wanted to go even further.”
“We didn’t want you to relive an odyssey, we wanted you to create your odyssey,” he said. The publisher is promising “autonomy like never before in a Ubisoft game” with more freedom, more impact on the world and more personalization. Choice is at the very core of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
In a GameDaily interview the day before Ubisoft’s official media showcase, Phillips explained that his team at Ubisoft Quebec sat down with the editorial department at Ubisoft to figure out where to go with Assassin’s Creed next, following the warmly received Assassin’s Creed Origins (which was in Egypt).
“We wanted a time period that was flexible,” he noted. “We wanted the player to be able to deliver on that choice. We didn't want you to be restricted. In the past, there's been sort of the code of the Assassins. We didn't want the player to be restricted in what they could do just with that. If you want to be a bad guy, if you want to be a jerk, if you want to lie, you can do all that. Those are all your choices. If you want to kill civilians, if you want to steal from people, again, they're your choices.
“But the world feeds that back to you… you're going to see an impact [from] that, and on the characters and the world, and on mercenaries. People [could be] chasing you in the game — you're going to feel that conflict in the game.”
As any historian would tell you, Greece’s history is incredibly rich. The time period was a pivotal moment for western history, and foundational for art, science and politics. This is something that Phillips and his team quickly came to learn.
“Initially, my first thought was, ‘Man, I don't know much about Greece.’ And then, we started looking into it, talking with historians, watched videos, read ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ and all these other books… There [are] a ton of gods and myths and legends and all these things. So it was super, super dense, and full of things for us to draw from, and especially with the Assassin's Creed lore, The First Civilization, the characters are based around Greek gods.
“We had a really strong connection to mythology and to the world that we live in today, with people like Hippocrates and Socrates that everyone [will] recognize. They're going to get to really question those people and learn about [them] and how they acted, [as well as] why they're important to us, even now, 2000 years later.”
It does seem as if there’s an educational component to the new game. Assassin’s Creed Origins did, after all, have a special Discovery Tour to enable players to learn more about ancient Egypt. Phillips didn’t have anything to announce on that front for Odyssey, however.
“Within the game itself, you can discover locations. And we've had a historian write information about hundreds of locations across ancient Greece. So as you discover the Acropolis or the Parthenon, you'll get additional information that you can read about those locations,” he explained.
Ubisoft definitely prizes communication and intra-communication between studios, especially under a franchise umbrella. So I would have regular calls with the Assassin's Creed Origins team, and try to understand what they were doing
Phillips’ team at Ubisoft Quebec had last worked on Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, which shipped in 2015. The franchise took a year off from consoles in 2016, but that additional time has proved very valuable for the upcoming Odyssey.
“We've had three full years to work on the game, which, for this size of game, is a good amount of time,” Phillips commented. “We've been able to accomplish some really, really huge changes, as you saw… I think we've been given a huge amount of assets, a huge team to deliver on this vision, and I think we have [succeeded].”
Phillips acknowledged that the different Ubisoft teams do pick each other’s brains when it comes to approaching a pillar franchise like Assassin’s Creed. Ubisoft Quebec has plenty of dialogue with Ubisoft Montreal, which made Origins.
“Ubisoft definitely prizes communication and intra-communication between studios, especially under a franchise umbrella,” Phillips said. “So I would have regular calls with the Assassin's Creed Origins team, and try to understand what they were doing, tell them what we're planning to do. Early on, we looked at, ‘Okay, this is where they're going, this is what they're thinking of doing.’ And then, we said, ‘Okay, well, we like some of these elements, and we're going to focus on taking them further, or we're going to go in a different direction and do something else.’
“So it definitely gives us an interesting viewpoint… And [while] it creates challenges for us, it gives us a huge base of technology for things that they invested in, like the navigation and the fights. We were able to improve those, but we didn't have to rebuild them ourselves, which allows us to focus on things like the narrative and the RPG.”
Focusing on narrative and branching dialogue within an RPG structure sort of screams BioWare. I joked with Phillips about it, but of course game creators and creatives in general all influence and borrow from one another. It’s what helps the medium to grow and evolve.
“I'm the type of person that I want to know every single thing about other people that have made games similar to what I want to do,” he told me. “I've been playing RPGs for 30 years, so all of those games are things I'm familiar with, and things we learned from, and tried to make AC. Like, we try to make an AC RPG, and not just any RPG. So it's a great connection between super-tight, well polished mechanics, with dialogues and choice and gear and customizing your abilities, and just giving the player a lot of options. So I would definitely say we learned a lot and tried to deliver on above and beyond what has been done in the past, with that AC flavor.”
Narrative Director Mel MacCoubrey explained that the new narrative RPG direction required intensive writing resources. There are about 23 writers contributing to the game overall, and the team crafted an in-house interactive dialogue system with over 30 hours of speech.
“We moved from traditional spectative-driven storytelling to one that is choice-driven,” she stated. “Before there was a lot of stress on cutscenes to tell the story, but as we move to a choice-driven experience this had to change. We wanted to create a relationship between the player and the game.”
The very first choice players will have to make is whether to play as the male, Alexios, or the female protagonist, Kassandra. And much like previous games from BioWare (Mass Effect, Dragon Age), Ubisoft has allowed for romantic encounters in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
“We chose a handful of characters that we thought we could treat truthfully,” she remarked. Those different characters will not have the same reactions to a player’s advances. As in real-life, people will have uniquely different reactions. “It really depends on the person you’re talking to, so it’s about talking to that person but not all your choices are going to work the same on different characters.”
Producing so much dialogue is an arduous task for the writing team, but it can be just as bad for the animators. Blockbuster titles like Assassin’s Creed have to be localized for numerous regions across the globe, and that means many different languages that need appropriate lip-sync movements with the characters in the game. At Ubisoft La Forge, the studio has engineered a special AI called Sound Matching, which can automate a lot of the lip animation for several languages. This was not developed specifically for Odyssey, but it will be utilized, spokespeople confirmed.
One thing that may not have been readily apparent from the media showcase is that Odyssey, like most AAA projects nowadays, will also be receiving the games-as-service treatment. It’s not suddenly going in the MMORPG direction, but Phillips was adamant about keeping players engaged.
Doing that level of content across hundreds of quests on a 16-kilometer-square map, it's a big endeavor. But I wouldn't do it any other way. It's awesome to make these huge games.
“We want players to keep coming back, to think of it as a hobby,” he said. “[We want players to say] ‘Oh, I'm not going to check my phone, or I'm not going to go on Netflix, I'm going to play this game, because I'm caught up in it. I want to come back to it, continue growing, continue experiencing stories in that universe.’
“It has similar aspects as MMOs or multiplayer-focused games. But for us, single-player is key. I love single-player games, and I'm glad to continue making these huge, open-world RPG-style games. I think people will want that, and they want more and more content, to continue coming back to it. And that's something we will deliver on in the future. We'll talk more about that post-launch.”
I remarked to Phillips that games on a scale like Odyssey with so many choices to integrate and test make me weep for the QA team. It certainly involves a lot more scrubbing for bugs.
Phillips observed that “giving players choice is one of the most awesome but also one of the most scary things you can do in a game. The more options you give players, the more ways they feel invested, and the more they want to feel invested. So you can't go part way.” There are also “a lot of ugly, ugly charts,” added MacCoubrey.
“It is a huge investment. I think we've done a really good job with it, but it is a hard thing to test all those options,” Phillips acknowledged. “It's also a hard thing to make sure that those options are satisfying… It needs to be something that you feel like, ‘Oh, man, okay. That's cool. That choice made an impact.’ Or, ‘I've found this thing, or this note before. That guy asked me for it, so I can give him the note.’ And he says, 'Oh, oh, you already found it.' Doing that level of content across hundreds of quests on a 16-kilometer-square map, it's a big endeavor. But I wouldn't do it any other way. It's awesome to make these huge games.”
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is set to hit Xbox One, PS4 and PC on October 5th. I asked the now obligatory question: “Switch?” Phillips responded, “I would love for it to be on the Switch, but right now, that's not one of the platforms we support.”