Interview: The next Patrice Desilets
17th Aug 2012 | 07:48
So how stressed is the man who has stepped into the shoes of Assassin's Creed's spiritual father, Patrice Desilets? How does it feel to spearhead production on what is likely the most expensive and important individual game project in Ubisoft's garlanded history?
How stressed is Alex Hutchinson?
"Incredibly," he says instantly, not fazed at all by the confession.
"Any job you care about is stressful. I got very good advice from a producer years ago; He said the only solution to stress is repeated exposure. It's kind of true. You learn to ignore it. These days it's like a dull roar."
To bring an acute sense of awareness to his task at hand, I tell Hutchinson that he's effectively been brought in at Ubisoft to create The Godfather Part III.
"The bad one?" he jokes, still unfazed.
"Seriously though, I know what you mean, but the reaction people have to the game is what is making it all worth it."
What about Patrice? How does it feel to work under the meteorite-sized shadow of Assassin's Creed's previous creative director?
"Well, there's enough pressure on the game as it is, but actually a few of the Ubisoft guys that joined THQ had stopped by at E3 to take a look at our game. They gave us some really great feedback. That was a brilliant moment, to be honest."
But the nod from Desilets' team will likely be far from Hutchinson's thoughts on the week of October 30th, when his career-defining project launches across retail around the world. By then, the Australian-born developer will be absorbed in early sales projections, endless review scores, and engulfed by fan feedback on forums and across social media.
Either that, or he'll be on holiday.
Read on for our full Q&A with Hutchinson, which took place at one of the world's leading games industry events, GDC Europe. We discuss the future of the Assassin's Creed franchise, Ubisoft's policy of innovation, positive discrimination towards Japan and, if only too briefly, Anne Robinson.
Interview: Alex Hutchinson, creative director, Assassin's Creed 3
CVG: Your personal story is of someone who has climbed the ladder in the industry, starting as a journalist and now spearheading one of the industry's biggest IPs. What would be your advice for people starting out in game development?
HUTCHINSON: I think the main thing is don't be precious about what you're doing when you start out. Many people want to create their dream game from the start, but just do whatever you can. The great thing about this industry is that people can smell it if you're ambitious or talented, so if you work hard you'll naturally move up the ranks. If you really do want it, someone will notice. You can't fake passion.
That also sounds like advice for creative directors and studio managers too; it sounds like you're saying they should spot talent and help nurture it.
Oh yeah, you have an obligation to bring good people in and pass on the favours that you got on your own way up.
I get the impression you worked immeasurably hard in the early days where you made several licensed games per year. It all sounds a bit barmy.
Yeah it was insane. Back in the day there was this real sweatshop mentality in the business. I still think it exists, but it has moved to mobile and free-to-play and other segments of the industry.
That low-to-mid-end licensed game, which used to be the money maker for a lot of smaller studios, doesn't exist on consoles any more. I think it exists on mobile and PCs though. It's interesting because I remember when people were claiming that the PC market was ready to die. I mean, I've heard about the end of the world coming for the last thirteen years.
I used to be worried, because at certain stages over the years I thought that the kind of games I like to make were dying. But as a content creator, you realise that there's no point caring about hardware and platforms. I mean, one will always emerge in which you can build the kind of games you want to.
Perhaps it's the opportunities that come with the hardware that gets people interested. I'm sure you can remember the first time the Wii controller was revealed, for example.
Yeah the Wii is funny, because I remember when it first emerged people thought it was going to be another failed Nintendo console, but it had something that is fresh and interesting. That should be the message to all hardware manufacturers: If I can do something new and unique with the hardware, then it's far more likely to be a success.
You've been brought in to spearhead a massive IP that is cherished by fans. How do you find a balance between making your own mark on Assassin's Creed whilst remaining true to its roots?
Well I've been incredibly lucky on this one. Ubisoft has given me the chance to build Assassin's Creed 3 from day one with enough time to do it properly. Quite often a creative director will inherit a project when it's half finished and under a very tight schedule, so your chance of making an impact is very limited.
Assassin's Creed 3 was always a three year project. We had the terrifying prospect of knowing the exact Assassin's Creed release date. October 30th, 2012, was the first thing we knew about it, so we had a chance to do a lot with it.
So you knew within a few days into the project when Assassin's Creed 3 was going to launch?
Yeah well Assassin's Creed has entered into this phase of becoming an annual franchise. I do find it amazing that people have the idea that this concept somehow is less creative. Since when is something less amazing if you get a new one every year? If Breaking Bad was shown twice a week I'd watch it twice a week. If Radiohead put out an album every six months I'd gladly buy one every six months.
What we're saying is that, if a game is good enough, you can put it out as much as you want. But from the production side, it is a stress.
Was the game originally intended for next-generation consoles? I ask because the game uses new tech and when the project started, publishers expected to see new consoles by now.
We always had plans to do this on current generation systems. Obviously our technology will transition forward though.
Do you think the engine gives you a competitive edge, in that you're already more familiar with tech that will be used on next generation systems?
I think it's a bonus to be part of a group of studios that all use Anvil across a lot of projects, so everyone is learning how to use the tech. EA has the same with its Frostbite tech though, so I feel a lot of companies are already prepared for the next generation.
The real issue is going to be cost. Cost is a huge issue moving forward. A game has multiple cost structures in terms of how much you spend making it, but only one rigid price structure in terms of selling it.
I can't give away the development costs, but I can assure that Assassin's Creed 3 costs multiple times more to make than other games on the shelves, but we're charging the same amount for the game.
Usually the cost of developing sequels goes down. It's almost like a way of recouping the outlay of the first game.
Yeah that's why they're done. If people want these massive triple-A blockbusters, people will have to accept that we have to make our money back somehow. It's rare that you'll make your money back on the first one.
Assassin's Creed 3 is a huge undertaking - we went back to basics on a number of things, including tech.
Doesn't it have the biggest production team ever?
Yeah it might. We might have won that dreaded award that no one wants [laughs].
'Please welcome to the stage, the winner of the Most Persons Employed Award'...
[Laughs] What a nightmare. But I've been lucky to have worked on different teams of all sorts of sizes.
It's hard to foster a culture of creativity with such a huge team.
We need structure though. People are still given creative control over their own part of the game. There was that famous story of the guy at EA Sports that was stuck with designing character noses, and everyone kind of went crazy about it.
That's fine, but the thing is that guy would be in charge of this one section, and then if he does well he's in charge of more, and it goes on. I think that story misunderstood the whole concept.
I get the impression that Assassin's Creed has moved from a trilogy and into a franchise.
It wasn't the original plan to be an ongoing series, no, but it became the plan. The curse of success, for want of better phrase. Any revenue that a publisher can get to make riskier projects is cool with me. People say it's the dark side of capitalism but it's more like communism; we have big projects whose success pay for the little projects.
But if you can keep a series interesting and fresh then I don't see why it shouldn't go on. Nintendo has been great at reinvigorating their franchises, as have other Japanese companies, so we feel we can too.
How big is the challenge of keeping Assassin's Creed fresh and interesting as a franchise?
We were reading reviews about Revelations and a few people were asking whether this was the end of the franchise, and we were thinking 'er slow down'. I mean, I'm no huge fan of Metacritic but the game got an eighty on there. That's not too bad really.
But the way we see Assassin's Creed 3 now is as a franchise, like Mario or Resident Evil, that will have its ups and downs.
Why do Nintendo get it right? It releases a new edition of the same franchise every year and no one bats an eyelid. Why?
You want my real answer? I think there's a subtle racism in the business, especially on the journalists' side, where Japanese developers are forgiven for doing what they do. I think it's condescending to do this.
Yeah. Just think about how many Japanese games are released where their stories are literally gibberish. Literally gibberish. There's no way you could write it with a straight face, and the journalists say 'oh it is brilliant'.
Then Gears of War comes out and apparently it's the worst written narrative in a game ever. I'll take Gears of War over Bayonetta any time.
It's patronising to say, "oh those Japanese stories, they don't really mean what they're doing".
You feel there isn't a fair universal standard?
I just think the simple question should be; is the story any good?
I would say, and this is a testament to how much people care about narrative, that Assassin's Creed 3 has hit a nerve with its themes and settings.
The best thing about it was that people had a view. That was perfect. People were debating it. We had no interest in writing about the patriots or the defenders of king and country. I mean, these are very boring stories. It's funny to see these debates online, and we just gave up trying to communicate on it because the game will speak for itself.
It's great that people care about narrative though, that they see it as something other than a facilitator for game play.
Yeah I would say that, aside from tech, we spent more time on story than any other element. We put together multiple drafts, and did a lot of performance capture, and the whole cinematics amounts to about three hours.
...Are you even trying to get a return on investment?
[Laughs] Yeah I know. At the end of the day, people think that these big projects are a butter churn, and it's simply not true. We're trying to do something that makes people amazingly excited. We want people to buy this game in the store and be tremendously anxious during the car ride home, desperate to play it. That's what it's about.
And we have this idea on our white board: This game is a new IP.
No well it is. If BioShock Infinite can win a best new IP award then so can we [laughs].
But seriously, this is a brand new assassin, in a brand new time period, on a game built with a brand new engine. The only thing we're keeping is this connection to the Desmond part of the story, and the notion of it being an open-world game.
Is that the future of triple-A development, then, that you can only innovate under the blanket of established brands due to commercial restraints and high risks?
I think that's part of it. If you want the development budget, then you have to give the publisher some sense of security. If you can find a brand that's flexible enough, like Mario or Resident Evil, where you can change about eighty per cent of it, then that's as good as it gets. You have big tech, huge support and a massive advertising push.
One of the elements of Assassin's Creed that it appears you want to shake up is the combat. Can you tell us more about that?
Yeah, Assassin's Creed's combat was always beautiful, but I wasn't sure whether it was very tactical. I think it got away with it because it looked so good.
But then games like [the Rocksteady developed] Batman come along and raises the bar. I've tried to get our team to look at that system and think about why it works.
It worked, by the way, because it was one of the only fighting games that keeps things simple. No one admits it, but most people don't understand nor attempt absolutely all the combination moves in a game like Devil May Cry.
But in Arkham Asylum, because it was so simple, everyone could do all manner of things in combat. For once you could do all moves, and it showed that clarity and simplicity is powerful.
So I told the team, if you need to cut half the moves in Assassin's Creed 3 then do it. And I wanted to get rid of the pointless things, like, why are we locking onto targets during combat?
In all honesty, I think that Arkham Asylum is probably a better fight, but we have managed to really improve our fighting system and merge it with the open-world adventure elements much better.
I'm not trying to be facetious, but if the true legacy of Assassin's Creed 3 was that it was the first game to get forests right, would you be satisfied?
Yeah sure. Lots of games have done forests but they are invariably just 2D landscapes - the trees are just objects to avoid. They might as well be lampposts. So we have thought about this a lot, can we make forests three dimensional, navigable spaces?
It's a tremendous design issue. Nature only looks like nature if it's completely random.
But for games to work they need to create predictable paths and clearly signposted structures, or at least they have so far.
I think there's all kinds of challenges within that, yeah. If things are not clear, how can you play? And if things are not clear from a design point of view, how can you give rules to an engineer so they can code?
The solution is in the versatility of the game's character. If a character crouches to about one meter in height, and is behind a crate half a meter high, within the rules of the game their cover is blown.
Our goal is to replace this with ranges, where the character can adapt to all sorts of surroundings. If you begin combining all sorts of different ranges, like the width of two branches splitting out, then suddenly you can create this character that flows through these random looking objects actually quite seamlessly.
Sounds like a lot of testing.
Yeah, a brutal amount [laughs]
Could you tell us more about Assassin's Creed 3 on Wii U?
Well, the cool thing is that Assassin's Creed 3 is the same game across all consoles. It's all the same game. No one has the cut-down version, no one has the elite edition. Wii U is visually the same as the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, and we're adding a little bit on the tablet controller.
Oh by the way, in Britain, Watch Dogs is the name of a tame BBC programme about consumer affairs. It's hosted by Anne Robinson. It's pretty much the furthest from cool that a brand can get.
[Laughs] Cool, I'll send out a note to the team.