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Interview: The next Patrice Desilets

Assassin's Creed 3 creative director Alex Hutchinson explains how he wants to reshape Ubisoft's star IP

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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.

It's not.
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.

Zoom

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.
Yes absolutely.

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]

Zoom

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.

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