GamesBeat

Ubisoft’s creative director on why hooded assassins still fit in the American Revolution (interview)

Alex Hutchinson is the creative director on Assassin’s Creed III. The game is one of the biggest video games of the year, and Hutchinson’s job is to make sure that the creative vision of the game captures the imagination of gamers, who are getting new Assassin’s Creed games every year. We talked to him about everything from why the assassin, Connor, will still be wearing a hooded costume in We caught up with him on Sunday for an interview. Here’s an edited trancript of our chat.

GamesBeat: Tell us what you do. 

Alex Hutchinson: I’m the creative director on Assassin’s Creed III, so I’m the only non-suit here this evening. Ask me any development questions you want, or I can give you a spiel on where we’re at with Assassin’s Creed. We started Assassin’s Creed in January 2010, Assassin’s Creed III, so it’s been a long haul on this one, but we really think we have something special to show. Have you guy’s played Assassin’s Creed before? Yes?

GamesBeat: I saw the preview this week…

Hutchinson: So you’ve seen a bit on Assassin’s Creed III already, you know it’s a new Assassin, a new time period, a bunch of new player fantasies and all that stuff.

GamesBeat: I’m curious about what was finished when you started on this. It’s parallel development on this, right…?

Hutchinson: What was finished on Assassin’s Creed III? Nothing…

GamesBeat: Was Revelations even started yet?

Hutchinson: No, we started development before… Revelations was a twinkle in Yves’ eye, yeah, and there was no Brotherhood either. Both of those games were started and finished while we’ve been working.

GamesBeat: That’s what I’m curious about, how do you have a continuous story when you don’t know what your other colleagues are doing yet?

Hutchinson: Well, the biggest part of our story, obviously, is the historical character, and he’s all new. So the biggest chunks of our game were built from scratch, whether it’s mechanics or history or story. We’re really only continuing Desmond’s chunk. So we just worked with those guys to make sure that all fits together. You can see that in Brotherhood we figured out where we wanted to go, and Revelations wasn’t so much a detour, but that story was very contained in Desmond’s universe. So we’re just making sure that everything fits together and that you’re learning more about the backstory and learning more about the universe, but not necessarily driving Desmond’s story the same amount of every time. We built a brand team over that period as well, so we’ve been working really hard to make sure that, moving forward into the next series of games, that we have a really clear and a really clean plan about how we want to do it.

GamesBeat: When you’re in the pitching phase, you’re saying how this Assassin’s game would be different from the others, what were you guys saying about it, on a high level?

Hutchinson: Well, for us, it wasn’t quite a reboot, because obviously the franchise is very healthy. But we really wanted to go back to basics and say, what is it that people really liked about it? And reinvent all those things. We didn’t change the pillars. If you think about it, that’s combat, navigation, social, and stealth as the gameplay pillars. And this idea of being both an Assassin and a tourist in time, those are sort of global fantasies. We didn’t change those, but pretty much everything else, we erased and started again. How you fight, how you climb, why you would fight, why you would climb, same with stealth. What the period was, what the character was, what his motivation was, what the story was, everything else for us was new. It was kind of the opportunity to build a new IP within an established brand. That’s how I pitched it to the team, as close to a new IP as you can get with a giant budget in modern game development. Use parts of the engine and parts of the backstory… But we had enough time to sort of go back to basics and hopefully reinvent it. You’ll tell us in about four months.

GamesBeat: The climbing through trees part, where did that come from?

Hutchinson: Well, for me it was always like, people say Assassin’s Creed is about climbing on buildings. And to me it was always, no, Assassin’s Creed is about climbing. It’s not buildings, it’s just the object. As much as architecture can change, a building is a building. It’s not that different, really, in terms of what you’re doing. So we wanted a new fantasy, we wanted a new behavior. What we realized was, when you’re climbing a building, the feeling is a little bit like a curtain coming down. You don’t see and you don’t see, and then you come over the top and you have a vista. But when you’re climbing a tree, you always have peripheral vision. You always have a sense of where you are. So we really like this idea that as you’re climbing you’ll be more aware of your surroundings. We could create a form of climbing that was still functionally the same, but strategically for the player would be very different. Once we got on that, then we said, okay, is it possible to do something in organic environments? Video games are very… Basically, when you’re making a video game, you have to create rules. You’re creating rules both for the player and also development. If I’m taking cover in a game, there’s a rule about how high that cover has to be, right? Because your character is a certain size, it has to be visible, it has to function, you have to tell the art team to make it at least a meter high or whatever, there’s a shape… It’s the same with climbing. Historically, all the climbing was gridded, you had handholds 30 centimeters apart, you have 30 or 60 as your two sort of shapes, so you’re character’s doing either this or this. You know what I mean? What we realized was, if we blow it out and we do ranges, so you have a 25 to 70, and anywhere in between, you can create organic shapes. The same with these, if we have mins and maxes, we can create organic shapes, we felt that we could do a forest, we could do a cliff, we could do a believable environment, natural environment, it didn’t feel like it was made out of Lego blocks. Once we got that and we started to have some base building blocks, and obviously at the same time we’re working on… Who is this character, why is he doing what he’s doing? Why is this period in American history useful for us and important for us? Can we tell a good story there?

GamesBeat: Why does he have the Assassin’s hood? It almost seems a little out of place, historically…

Hutchinson: Ironically, it’s not. I’ll send you a picture if you’re curious, but if you were a trapper in 18th-century America, you wore a white hood, I kid you not. In the middle of winter. We have full-on period drawings of the big white hood, which was funny… Once we found that we were okay with… Like, it works, it’s historically supportable, but yes, I agree with you, not a lot of people in the cities were wearing that. Then it becomes a question of recognition. We have one of the few characters in video games where most people, we can put up a poster of our new guy and people say, it’s the Assassin. Right? And that is worth a billion dollars. I don’t care what you say, if somebody says, do you want to take that away, the answer is no. Noooo, we really don’t.

GamesBeat: But you don’t know his name.

Hutchinson: Nope.

GamesBeat: And you don’t need to.

Hutchinson: No! There’s the iconic element that comes with that hood, and then the rest is by the game, you know? Who is he, why is he doing this, what’s going on, why is it important? Watch the Sony show tomorrow…

GamesBeat: But it does seem that you can’t hide as well in a crowd anymore…

Hutchinson: There’s a little bit of that, but you played AC2, right? And ACB and all those things. There were very few people walking around Renaissance Italy carrying 47 knives, a sword, an axe, giant pauldrons, greaves… And I bet after an hour in the game it just wasn’t in your mind. It’s amazing. There’s a certain level of… If there’s white in the environment, if there are other characters with elements of white in their outfits, if there are other people with the same sort of racial profile and the same sort of shape and size, it doesn’t feel that out of place. Come by the booth, we’ll run you through Boston. But yeah, absolutely. It’s a decision, we talked about it a long time. How long should the hood go, how should it fit an Indian…? We have such an iconic character and such an iconic profile that we’ll work very hard to preserve that. There’s lots of other things that you’ll see as the campaign unfolds.

GamesBeat: You keep the hidden blade for some of the same reasons…?

Hutchinson: Well, I think the hidden blade will never go out of fashion. You’ll always have a reason to have… I mean, in any period in history, there’s hidden weapons of some variety. But I do agree with you, it’s part of the brand identity. How you figure it out and how you use it. Our version is kind of a switchblade, so it goes out and then it can rotate, it can be held more like a knife. That was basically because we wanted Connor to have a particularly two-handed fighting style, and a two-handed fighting style where you have one weapon and the other arm is waving like this…

[Hutchinson starts to demonstrate with table silver]

Hutchinson: Don’t worry! It’s only a butter knife, it’s not going to cut you! But it’s not going to work. Whereas if you have the other one, you have a thrusting weapon and a striking weapon, you can do some really beautiful animations and some visceral combat.

GamesBeat: So the tomahawk is very useful now?

Hutchinson: The tomahawk is a great weapon, yeah. I think the good thing… We picked a native American lead character for many reasons. One, that he could stand outside the conflict, he wasn’t American and he wasn’t British. Even though, again, there weren’t really Americans either… He wasn’t a Loyalist and he wasn’t a patriot at the time. We wanted someone who had a different perspective on it. And also because he came with gear, you know? If we were saying, I’m recruiting you into the Assassins as a native American and you were that person, you would bring things you were comfortable with. So the idea that he would be comfortable with a tomahawk, comfortable with a bow, it was juicy.

GamesBeat: Are there certain periods you’ve said no to?

Hutchinson: No… I got into trouble for making fun of feudal Japan and Egypt. But the reason I was making fun of them is because… There’s nothing we’ve said no to, but there are some ideas that have been done before. You know what I mean? And feudal Japan… If you’ve played a video game in the last 15 years, you have been a ninja or a samurai guy 25 times. So if we have this franchise that can do anything, our first rule should be, don’t do something that everybody else has done. That should be the rule.

GamesBeat: World War II…

Hutchinson: World War II, yeah. The funny thing is though, as soon as you say, yeah, everyone’s done it, you think, you know what, though…? World War II, if I was the messenger on the battlefield, I’m not doing the shooting, immediately it gets a little more interesting, right? If I’m not out there with a gun, okay, now I’m starting to get excited about your idea. So yes, any idea would work. But I wouldn’t do World War II, I wouldn’t do feudal Japan, I wouldn’t do Egypt. Just because other people have been there.

GamesBeat: You’d have to figure out how to use the hood there, too…

Hutchinson: This is the challenge for every project, because as I said it’s iconic… There are definitely some periods where… World War II, it would just not work. That’s another issue. Feudal Japan I think you could actually do it…

GamesBeat: Sci-fi, I guess?

Hutchinson: Sci-fi you could do it. Because you could make it up. I don’t think we’d do sci-fi either, though, because obviously history is the thing. History is the basis of the franchise, the idea of being a tourist in time means you want to go places like these tipping points in history, which is now the reason why we chose the American Revolution. Even though this is America, this is the founding of the country, it’s the debt incurred by the French that leads directly to the French Revolution, it’s a civil war fought on foreign soil for the British. There are German conscripts, the Hessians were a huge conscript army, you have most of Europe down there as well. It’s an international conflict as well as being an American conflict. It’s always funny for us. I don’t think we’ve done a great job yet of having a really pithy response to this, but everyone’s always like, oh, the American Revolution, it’s just about America. It’s actually not about America at all! Strangely enough, what happens after this is about America, but the story we’re telling, the lead-up to it, is actually about England, if you think about it. It’s a British colony. It’s about Britain and France, and a war that was going on for centuries before this, and being played out on foreign soil. We always get caught or taken aback by the question about America. We spent six months doing research and it’s really not much about America at all. The big debate in America at the time was about how British are they and should they leave… Even a lot of the patriots felt very strongly that they were British. And a lot of them went back after the conflict.

GamesBeat: How does the Templar and Assassin story overlay into this red-versus-blue thing?

Hutchinson: That was the fun bit, if you think about, again… And a lot of this is a little bit of retcon, looking back on history, but there’s the idea that the American Revolution was about power and slavery and control versus freedom, no taxation without representation, and all these sorts of ideas of what drove that conflict. Whether you want to really dig into that history and debate that or not… That’s also the core debate of the Templars versus the Assassins. The Templars don’t think they’re bad guys. We’ve tried to never paint them as fist-waving bad guys. These are people that people are sheep and they need to be controlled, but they’re trying to help them. They honestly believe in their version of the universe that they’re being helpful. We want believable bad guys. We don’t want evil, I’m taking over the world and blah blah blah. Whereas the Assassins believe that freedom of choice is what should drive humanity. We thought there was a really clean match between the arguments in the American Revolution and the arguments in our sort of fictional conflict.

GamesBeat: Which platforms is it, is it just PlayStation 3 and Xbox?

Hutchinson: It’s every platform under the sun, basically. Wii U, PS3, Xbox 360, PC.

GamesBeat: So how are you going to exploit the Wii U?

Hutchinson: Yes. The answer is yes. [laughs] No, the best thing we’ve been always saying is that it’s fun for once, for a very brief period of time, to have analogous hardware where it’s the same game on all four platforms. It really is the same game. The map on the game pad, we’re going to put the full map there, so you’ll have a little bit more peripheral awareness on the Wii U, and you’ll be able to weapon-switch and tool-switch live on the game pad. There are some cool little features. But really, we’re just trying to offer as clean an experience on PC, PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii U as possible, and hopefully let the content do the talking. Not get too caught up in custom builds.

GamesBeat: What would you say is the most ambitious platform for you now? Is it the PC, now that consoles are getting so old…?

Hutchinson: It’s tough, because yes, the consoles are starting to get a little long in the tooth, but they’re still the vast majority of our audience. They’re our primary platforms. We build on those. The PC for sure will be higher-res textures, and if you’ve got a beefy PC it’ll run as smooth as glass. There are advantages to that. So yeah, visually, it’s probably the strongest. But I think the big TV in your lounge room is still the most comfortable expression of the game. It’s a console game at its heart, it’s not a mouse and keyboard game.

GamesBeat: It seems like you have a lot of material to work with… What are you doing outside of the game? Will you have things online that we can look at, character bios, diaries, video…?

Hutchinson: For sure. The cool thing in the game is that we have the Animus database. Which is like the living history of the game. And we’re looking into ways to support that on other platforms. I’m not announcing this, so don’t take it that way, but I’ve always thought it would be amazing to have support on other platforms, like if I had my laptop with me or my iPad with me, the database is just spawning next to my face. Know what I mean? It’s like, oh, you met George Washington, here’s the Wikipedia on George Washington. You’re like, oh, that’s really interesting. I can engage with it or not engage with it. So we’re always looking for ways to extend it. Obviously everything is constrained by time and money, and willingness as well, of various parts of Ubisoft… But we see it as a multimedia brand. We do comic books, we do novels, we do figures and all this. There’s always been talk of movies. So we see it as something that can go anywhere. As much as possible.

GamesBeat: And how involved are you creatively with that, all the other…?

Hutchinson: We have a brand team, which is in charge of all the day-to-day of it, because it’s more than a full-time job just to do one game. But no, all the meetings for… Well, I shouldn’t say all the meetings, I’m sure you could find some that I wasn’t… But most of the other things that are going on, we try to keep an eye on it and keep it cohesive. If it touches ACIII, for sure. And if it touches the brand, probably. We work really hard to try and make it… If you buy all this stuff, it all fits. I’m pretty certain that… I don’t even feel like I’m going out on too much of a limb, but out of all the big franchises and lots of trans-media stuff and lots of other platforms, we’re the most consistent. We haven’t yet, as far as I know, except for one French comic book which is not canon, we haven’t contradicted ourselves or gone back on anything or cross-referenced incorrectly. We work very hard to do that, and at the same time not fall into that continuity freak land that can kill franchises, where, oh, this is funny, because in episode seven in 1968, you’ll remember that Captain Kirk said… If you hit that point, I always say, it’s way too much. You’re appealing to a very tiny splinter audience.

GamesBeat: So do you have a story bible…?

Hutchinson: Yeah, we have a huge bible. In fact if you come to the show, we’ve printed it out again, the actual bible, and it’s 500 pages long, a hardcover book you can come get from us. It’s impressive. Even for the people who’ve worked on it, it’s one of the things you look at and think, Jesus, is it that big? Is there that much…? But no, it’s super cool, and it’s nice to at least think that if you find a piece of information in there and you’re working on another game, like a handheld game, or writing a comic, you can safely use those facts and not fall in a hole.

GamesBeat: Is Connor going to keep up with the times and use more interesting weapons, like guns and cannons or…?

Hutchinson: Guns for sure, guns are a big part of it. You can’t fight the American Revolution without muskets, so they’re in the game. The good thing for us is, we’ve always thought that we’re a handheld weapon franchise and we wanted to stay that way, so it’s lucky for us that the guns are so terrible. They were lining up in lines to fire because you were hitting within six meters of where you were aiming. For some people, like the Green Mountain Boys and that sort of thing, they bought their rifles, and so they could hit things up to about 400 yards pretty accurately, but they were considered snipers at the time. They weren’t line infantry. They’re slow, they’re inaccurate. To reload one I think the world record is like two minutes and a bit, to reload a musket. It’s not quick. One of the big advances… To think about technology in a different light… What you had to do was, you had to get your pouch, clear your rifle, pour your black powder, get your ball, drop your ball in, stamp your powder… It’s a long process of grabbing things and doing this while people are shooting at you. One of the big advances if you think about technology, in the next period, right after us, they would ship little cartridges, right? Which were still the same thing, black powder and a ball, but in one. You would bite the end off and pour everything in. And you just shaved 30 seconds off your chance of death. It’s funny, right? You think about how we think of technology, and that at the time was like, wow, good thinking, Jim! You put the bullet in the black powder! And you made just enough so I didn’t have my giant pouch, it was one shot of black powder and one bullet, pure genius! Get outta here! And all your buddies died because they didn’t think of that one. It’s a funny old world. Or you went even more old-school and you had three kids behind you loading your guns for you. Hand you the gun, throw it, bang, hand you the next gun, bang.

GamesBeat: So what are we going to see at Sony’s conference, are you going to do a live…?

Hutchinson: We have something that you’ve never seen before, that very few people have seen before, so yeah. Sony’s a good day for us.

GamesBeat: You guys mentioned that there were four scenes that you’re going to show… Four demos?

Hutchinson: Four demos, yeah.

GamesBeat: So we only saw one just now…

Hutchinson: Yeah. Some of the others you can probably figure out, but I guarantee you won’t figure out the Sony one until you see it. Watch the show!

GamesBeat: Do you have anything in particular to remark upon about the fourth demo that we saw? He kills the deer, he sells the deer meat, and then he goes into the port and…

Hutchinson: The thing that I always like about this… It’s important to me, whenever we’re working on something, to show the actual game. What we were trying to demo in that particular bit was the fact that our game is not a game in a tube. You’re not going down a roller-coaster where you can only do this… Our game is an open world. Whether you shot those deer and whether you go and give over the deer or not and all this other stuff is actually your choice. We’re trying to show you that there are opportunities everywhere and that you can pick and choose which ones that you engage in. Hopefully that came across a little bit. It’s very hard to do it in a four-minute structured demo. But come by the booth and I’ll show you.


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