J. Paul Peszko goes undercover with Ubisoft to report on the making of its first next-gen game, Assassin's Creed, which fuses technology, game design, theme and emotion.
The year: 1191 AD. The Third Crusade is ravaging the Holy Land. You are a master assassin named Altair, cunning and ruthless. Your mission: to take out principals on both sides who are propagating the hostilities. But be careful. Your actions can throw your immediate environment into chaos and change the coarse of history.
It lasted nearly as long as the Crusade it replicates and involved a small army of professionals. Assassin's Creed, the ambitious first next-gen videogame created by Montreal-based Ubisoft (Prince of Persia, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell), has taken four years and a corps of some 300 artists and technicians to complete.
Produced by Patrice Desilets (who also serves as creative director) and Jade Raymond, this highly anticipated game recreates the 12th century Holy Land with the Third Crusade raging through the cities of Jerusalem, Damascus and Acre. Open-ended and teeming with interactive citizenry, the historically accurate locales serve as the theater of operation for the treacherous and skillful Altair. "Assassin's Creed attempts an ambitious blend of organic design, freedom of gameplay, crowd behavior and social realism within an authentic historical environment," Desilets observes.
"Assassin's Creed is totally interactive," states Technical Director Claude Langlais. "Rather than specifying what actions Altair will take, the player hits buttons corresponding to his various body parts and the game attempts to figure out what action should be taken. Also, the game's 'social stealth' -- the ability to blend in with a crowd by performing actions that would be socially inconspicuous -- is a huge selling point."
The Assassin's Creed team also included Vincent Pondriand (associate producer), Mathieu Mazerolle (lead engineer), Alexandre Drouin (lead animation) and Raphael Lacoste (artistic director).
The design decision to make everything interactive required Ubisoft to build a new engine and completely redefine the way they work. On most games, modelers and level artists spend most of their time thinking about making great looking levels, but on Assassin's Creed artists also have to learn level design rules. Since there are huge open cities it is not possible for any one person to own the creation of a whole map. Artists instead have to work cooperatively to build the city, some focusing on houses, others on landmarks and others on objects. Furthermore, it's not enough just to make sure that your house looks good and fits within budgets. On Assassin's Creed, artists have to start by making sure that their design works with the character and level design rules and only after that can they think about making it look good.
Developers started by evolving the system that they used on Sands of Time to assist Altair's climbing and jumping across buildings. Their main goal was to generate interaction points automatically, so that the tedious task of flagging interactive edges could be done by the tools instead of level designers. It required a fair amount of testing from their level designers to mature the system, but it was functional and ready for production relatively quickly. The time the Ubisoft team spent developing and testing the tools has more then paid for itself. There is no way they could have manually flagged every ledge in each of their three huge cities to be interactive.
The crowd was another important gameplay ingredient. The developers wanted a more action-packed type of stealth, one that was much faster than traditional stealth and that really took advantage of all of the work they put into crowd simulation. Instead of using the hidden in shadow rule, they used the rules of everyday life: you are hidden when you are behaving in a socially accepted way. Think about walking around in a crowded city such as New York or at a crowded concert. In crowded circumstances, it is very easy to go unseen by simply obeying rules that everyone knows: follow the crowd flow, walk at the right pace, don't aggressively shove people out of the way to make room for yourself, don't start yelling at the top of your lungs, etc. So, they put these real life social rules into the game, which makes for an intuitive environment and also a lot of fun when a player decides to break the rules by shoving people around and causing a commotion that go against the norm of everyday life.
This means that each civilian is a gameplay component that can either help or hinder the player's progress. In order to create a crowd that the player can use as a strategic advantage, the Ubisoft team had to build a layered system. There are four levels in all. The lowest level handles the individual needs of the population and creates believable street life when the player does nothing. The highest overarching layer manages the crowd's global Alert State, dictating the amount of crowd panic and triggering specific military tactics. In between there is a whole lot of code to handle crowd allegiance so that the townspeople's attitude toward you evolves based on the actions you have taken. It is quite complicated when you dissect the system in technical terms, but to a player the system will seem very intuitive because the rules are based on everyday life. If you do things that are socially acceptable you are anonymous and therefore hidden. If, however, you start behaving in an abnormal way, climbing walls in broad daylight or pushing people around, you are likely to attract the attention of the crowd and they may then alert the guards or your target.
It took a lot of work to achieve such a result: the challenge was not only to create complex AI reproducing believable human crowds but also provide new gameplay opportunities. Ubisoft invested a major part of their pre-production efforts on prototyping, testing and tuning their crowds to be believable, immersive and fun. What they have finally developed is a mix of many different systems that they feel provides the best combination of second-to-second action and longer-term strategic crowd gameplay.
Ubisoft's primary aim was to create a unique gaming experience that Deselits likes to refer to as a "Flower Box" game. It's a sandbox experience that is heavily story driven. Players have the freedom to complete missions when they want and using that strategy that they find the most satisfying, but all of these missions are tightly woven into an intricate story and are essential to the big reveal at the end.
Not only did they want to enable a player to travel freely from one city to another but also build a character that could do more than 1,000 contextual moves, and paired this new freedom of movement with a highly interactive environment and crowds that let players develop their own style. Not only can you create your own path on the rooftops, you can also create your own flashy or subtle style for doing so or skip the roofs entirely and use a strategy through the crowd. Place a highly mobile and skilled Assassin in a fully interactive living environment and the possibilities are endless.
So, the Level Design team took a new approach that they call "Free Path." In most games the player is like a mouse that is asked to find the right path through a maze in order to get some cheese at the end. In Assassin's Creed, the player is given an array of tools and multiple ways to achieve each objective. A player could decide to clear the way by killing every guard in sight before finally reaching his assigned target or take a more subtle acrobatic approach to get to a target unseen.
The path and strategy is entirely up to the player's style and level of skill. You can chose to use the crowd to blend, master the higher-level rooftop gameplay or charge on full force. There is never a single right path to the cheese. The player is free to roam the countryside, explore cities and participate in side quests and missions to help the population or complete main assassination missions. All of these objectives can be accomplished in a variety of ways and in the order that suits the player's mood. They put a lot of emphasis on player creativity and set the whole game experience up so that you can develop your own playing style and adjust the level of difficulty and adrenaline to your liking.
Altair is able to investigate, interrogate, blend in and do battle with other characters. He also has nine character levels, which are activated as he accomplishes his various assignments. An important design aspect of Altair is the metaphorical resemblance to a well-known bird of prey: the eagle. Like an eagle, Altair will hunt his target down, observe his every move, then strike with a single killing blow. He is always in control, analyzing his environment so he can choose the best possible course of action, all the while keeping an incredibly low profile. In addition, Altair's outfit resembles an eagle aesthetically. His hood was designed like the beak of an eagle while his cape was inspired by an eagle's wings and deploys in the same way when Altair engages in certain swift acrobatics to give him an allure of weightlessness.
You start the game as a Master Assassin but mess up on your first mission. As a result Al-Mualim strips you of your rank and you spend the rest of the game trying to win back your standing within the Assassins. Every time you complete an assassination you rank up and equipment is restored to you. Sometimes it's a new weapon that changes the dynamic of fights such as throwing knives that let you dispatch of 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 onto things that were previously out of reach, and, if you're falling because you've been hit by an arrow or another projectile, you can catch yourself before plummeting 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 the gameplay strategies available to you.
Moreover, the Ubisoft team needed realistic animations to help make the world more believable and yet somewhat stylized to suit different game-plays.
In terms of tools, they used Autodesk's Human IK for motion capture and 3ds Max for keyframe animation. For the game's NPCs, they have 18 dynamic bones whose movements are calculated in realtime with physics constraints based on leg rotations, gravity, inertia, wind, etc. They also have about 20 other optional rigs available to dynamically animate all of the in-game accessories: hair, long sleeves, hoods, arrow casing, bags, etc.
For Altair they added a second layer that deforms the cloth by vertex and that uses his rag doll for collision. And since the physics setup wasn't always perfect, they also had the option of hand-animating the dynamic bones to correct areas in which the realtime simulation lacked precision.
Even though the action takes place in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade, they really wanted the game to have very modern and cutting edge visuals. Their visual signature aspires to be in line with the emotional experience that the player will live instead of concentrating on portraying a specific setting. Of course, each city is faithfully recreated, each of them with its own architectural and cultural style. But their focus was to give each location a visual treatment that would represent the emotional experience the player will undergo.
To achieve such a result, they used a lot of post-production vfx very similar to those used in movies. Indeed, Assassin's Creed's art direction and visual effects have been highly influenced by Man on Fire, Black Hawk Down and The Butterfly Effect.
As for the design of the cities, let's take an example: Acre. Through extensive research, they discovered that during the Crusades, Acre changed sides many times between Christians and Muslims, and that's what makes this city so diversified in terms of architecture and design. In 1191 there were many structures, which were used primarily for defense and others that were down right destroyed from the frequent assaults. The city had been under siege by the knights and soldiers for almost three years. The game developers have added a cold blue filter to give the city a more modern look and its own unique personality (post-war atmosphere). Each city in the game has its own filter, so players will be able to tell them apart in a glimpse of an eye.
But, ultimately, the look of the game is very different from the classic CG effects videogames often use. The gameplay also takes its influences from such modern elements as parkour and free-running. The idea of climbing anywhere happens to suit a master assassin like Altair, and it turns out that having this ability in narrow medieval streets filled with large stone buildings and gothic details creates great gameplay as well. Mixing modern free-running with a crusade setting ended up working so well for Ubisoft that they extended this approach throughout development into many different aspects of the game, including the story and art direction.
While other games claim to be next-gen with impressive graphics and physics, Assassin's Creed redefines the action genre by fusing technology, game design, theme and emotion into a world where your existence will shape events during this pivotal moment in history.
J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes various features and reviews, as well as short fiction. He has a feature comedy in development and has just completed his second novel. When he isn't writing, he teaches communications courses.