Assassin's Creed Brotherhood: How multiplayer was made
16th Apr 2011 | 16:30
Deathmatching is easy. Everyone understands Deathmatch, but making players abide by strict rules based around deception and guile in an online game is another matter entirely.
In Assassin's Creed Brotherhood's three online modes players assume the role of Templars in training, hiding in plain sight and moving through crowds to assassinate other human players. It's a game about inaction and observation more than action and speedy reflexes, and a game that could only have been made by the team behind Splinter Cell's unrivalled Spies vs Mercs mode.
By the end of 2007 Ubisoft Annecy had been split in two. After wrapping up their work on Splinter Cell Double Agent's failed multiplayer mode, half of the French team were moved onto Dark Messiah Elements while the other half backed up Ubisoft's core studios on whichever games needed extra hands.
It was a sad end for the team behind Spy vs Mercs, but a chance to work on Assassin's Creed II's campaign early in 2009 presented a new opportunity for Annecy to once again do what they so clearly do better than anyone.
"In January we joined the Montreal Studio helping develop the Villa and a part of the economic system," says Annecy's Lead Designer Arnaud Mametz. "It was an interesting collaboration which provided us with the knowledge required to work on the franchise, and around the same time we had begun the conception of a multiplayer experience around the 'Killer' game."
Played on college campuses around the world, Killer - or 'Assassin' - is a game played 24 hours a day until every target has been eliminated. Players have a target - a fellow student or someone who lives in the same city - and must plot a mock assassination, all the while being hunted themselves.
A squirt from a water pistol while out shopping, a note reading 'poison' taped to the bottom of a dinner plate at lunch, or a ringing alarm clock in place of a bomb under your bed means you're dead.
"Our Chief Creative Officer proposed we use that gameplay mechanic within the Assassin's Creed universe," Arnaud continues. "Assassin's Creed gives us everything we need - an open world, an assassin, and it just feels 'natural'. It was a match made in heaven, and we already knew what it meant to introduce multiplayer to a single-player focused franchise. saw it was a real chance to introduce something unique."
It had been six years since they made Spy vs Mercs for Pandora Tomorrow. The two-on-two game gave Spies all the benefits of Sam Fisher's stealth and agility with none of the firepower and gave Mercs a colossal gun and lead shoes.
With Spies climbing walls and seeing the world in third-person and Mercs armed to the teeth but locked in a first-person view it was a very different game for each side and a game unlike any other. It was an idea created in Pandora Tomorrow, perfected in Chaos Theory, and ruined in Double Agent. Brotherhood would have to get the formula right first time out.
"One of the most important lessons I learned from Splinter Cell is that when you develop a multiplayer mode, you're often creating a very different core experience with different controls, rhythm, pace and game pillars. The player often needs to re-learn everything when they switch from multiplayer to single-player, which isn't optimal."
"We believed that Brotherhood's multiplayer should be an extension of the solo experience, not a different one. We wanted each experience to be seamless, so that you could play each without an extra learning curve - if you had played one, you had to be able to play the other."
"The mission briefing was clear from the onset," Arnaud goes on. "We had to respect the single-player game pillars and extend them. Basically, we had to create something new without breaking the game spirit."
But while the controls are similar and the world is familiar, Assassin's Creed Brotherhood's online game feels very different to the single-player mode. It reflects some of the campaign's pillars but ignores the acrobatics, platforming, and combat the game is best known for.
In Brotherhood's online game, a kill is instant and stealth is something which works on the ground, rarely on rooftops. For Mametz the online game was a matter of timing and careful deliberate action, and Assassin's Creed at full speed would have been too fast to follow.
"We spent time researching and understanding the game pillars of Assassin's Creed - Free Running, Social Stealth, and Combat," he says. "We wanted players to be predator and prey at the same time, but to reach that goal we needed to offer the players some time and some opportunities to create these strategies.
"Choosing a high speed pace and a frenetic combat system did not create the tension we were looking for, so we decided to slow the pace and work on specific moments of the game where the rhythm can change.
"The first prototypes were clearly unbalanced, very 'run and kill' oriented," continues Arnaud, "but we kept testing ideas. We had to create everything without any references. Lots of iterations were necessary; looking and trying many things can create some frustrations but out of the tests came the ideas for the chase and escape sequences, and for the threat meters."
In each of the game's three modes there are opportunities to hide, opportunities to attack, and - occasionally - opportunities to take to the rooftops. Some players take it too far and spend far too much of their time watching and stalking their prey from above, but game-breaking play is thankfully discouraged with a points system which rewards stealthy evasion and lengthy setups.
"Our goal was a game where you have to be the perfect assassin: and a perfect assassin must use the best way to kill depending on the situation and also be aware of those trying to kill him. To reach that goal, players need to have the tools to prepare their attacks and be rewarded for that.
"We needed something that shows your performances and makes the difference at the end of the session. That's why the scoring system was created: it gives you rewards for what you've done; it adds an extra layer that rewards a 'good' kill. The finished game is all about quality of the kills, not the quantity."
Technical expertise made the ideas work. "Our game requires a consistent and believable crowd for the social stealth," says Mametz. "That had never been done before and it was a lot of work. Our kill system is based on close range animations that have to work from any angle and it was a real challenge to have something working and usable online. But after several months of tests and prototypes, we reached an important point in December 2009 - the fun was there and it felt like you were playing an assassin. It was an exciting moment for everyone."
A period of refinement came in the following months, and a PlayStation 3 beta did its bit to help along the final fine-tuning. "You can design the best game based on the best rules, but if they don't appear to the player as logical and understandable then players will not have fun. What we did was to work on the signs and feedback when you play.
"They must be coherent and consistent; they must convey the rules, trigger your actions, and explain the reactions. We've done a lot of work on that to make sure that the more important tools of the game are understandable and usable - the compass, the chase meters, the threat meter, and so on.
"Some things can still be improved - the explanations of the stun rules, for example - but I feel that what we've done is a great first step."
"I think that the huge amount of playtests we've done through the entire development process helped us to better understand the expectation of players on what the spirit of an Assassin's Creed multiplayer game should be. I still play the final game a lot against real players and I think that it looks quite close to what we had in mind from the beginning. It's so cool to see what was a crazy idea become a game players enjoy.
"With both Splinter Cell and Assassin's Creed, we worked on an online variation of a huge franchise," Arnaud concludes. "In both cases, we had the chance to create something fresh and something different. Splinter Cell was such good training for us, even if we didn't even realise it. And looking ahead, just like Splinter Cell, lots of things can be enhanced - from the core game to the game modes.
"Lots of things can and will be improved through patches and title updates. We're really thinking about support over long-term. We can improve the scoring system, and we can definitely improve the stun system too..."