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Assassin’s Creed III lead designer talks maxing out hardware, making waves, and feudal Japan (interview)

With Ezio Auditore’s trilogy complete, Assassin’s Creed III looks to refresh Ubisoft’s other annual money-maker with a new hero, a new era and setting, and what are arguably the most impressive naval warfare sequences ever placed in a video game.

GamesBeat met up with Steven Masters, Assassin’s Creed III’s lead game designer, who was in surprisingly good spirits considering the amount of pressure that must be riding on him. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the previous title in the franchise, was a bit of a letdown, so the future of the entire series is undoubtedly dependent on the success of Assassin’s Creed III.  When you take into account Ubisoft currently employs an astonishing 500-plus people dedicated to the franchise, Assassin’s Creed III doesn’t need to just be good. It has to sell. A lot.

GamesBeat: Okay, I have to ask: How does Connor’s ship take on so many other ships without sinking? Is that historically possible?

Steven Masters: No, absolutely not. [Laughs] The ships of this time, they would take like an hour to set their sails, right? That’s not an intensely fun experience for a player. If you wanted to get into the technical stuff about rigging, then maybe that’s….

GamesBeat: A totally different game. 

Masters: Right. [Laughs] For us, we wanted to give you the experience of being out there on the ocean and being able to engage in these huge battles. Historically, what they would do is they would line up. They were called ships of the line, right? You would have a set of frigates or men o’ war literally in a line. They would maneuver for hours to get a tactical advantage over the other fleet. And then they’d engage by sliding alongside each other and just pounding the living hell out of each other. That’s a type of experience, but we didn’t want to create that.

We wanted something a little bit more dynamic and engaging. Something that players would have fun experiencing and messing around with. In the same way, when we do the battles on land, we don’t want you to be part of the line infantry. You’re an assassin; you’re there with your own agenda. You’re not there to be just another part of the war machine. You come into these battles with your own agenda, your own targets. You’re not necessarily fighting on one side or the other. You’re fighting against the Templars. It’s a very different style of experience. But we think it’s superfun. It’s dynamic, it’s fast-paced, and it’s action-oriented. It gives people a really fresh, different experience inside of the universe.

GamesBeat: The tower defense sequences in Revelations were not particularly well received. Is the naval warfare an answer to that? A sort of “minigame done right”?

Masters: The reason the naval works for us is because, in an action-adventure scenario, you’re navigating and you’re shooting. Or you’re navigating and you’re doing combat. These are core pillars for the land game. When you’re free-running around ina city or climbing the crazy rock faces on the frontier, that’s an awesome navigation sequence. And then you’re in there, and you’re in hand-to-hand combat with the people that you’re fighting.

These paradigms sort of translate directly across into the naval experience, just in a different context. It’s a very different setting, with a different visual flavor to it, but it’s the same core experience. You’re navigating and you’re engaging in combat. In that sense it fits more cleanly into the package of what Assassin’s Creed is.

GamesBeat: For the record, I liked the tower defense, I just didn’t like that I would be doing something else and all of the sudden I have to rush to the other end of Constantinople every five minutes. It was like bowling in Grand Theft Auto IV all over again.

So how do Assassin’s Creed III and the PS Vita spin-off, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, overlap? How do you plan for that?

Masters: The best people to talk to for that one are actually the Liberation guys. We do happen to overlap. They unlock some functionality for us. But like I say, they can give you the full details on that.

GamesBeat: With the emphasis on naval warfare, it left me wondering: As far back as the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 era, dynamic ocean wave effects were starting to be possible, and everyone was trying to one-up each other in that area for a while. Are those water effects something that, this many years later, are a bit easier to do?

Masters: Well, we are absolutely maxing the hardware. We actually put something like around 70 percent of the resources of the console toward rendering the ocean. Because it has such a fine fidelity in the wave simulation, and it’s entirely physics-driven as far as the behavior of the boat and everything. It’s absolutely crazy for us, the amount of detail inside of it. And also because it’s dynamic. We can scale it on the fly. You can go from these calm, beautiful, scenic Carribbean coastlines, beautiful blue oceans, to these sudden raging storms with 20-foot swells and you’re crashing over the edges like crazy. All these things put together, it’s incredibly taxing. It’s a really difficult thing to put together, but we have some superstar engineers working on that. They’ve delivered a great thing for us.

GamesBeat: It’s funny that you said that about using the hardware for the ocean, because I was actually wondering: Some believe that this current generation of consoles went on for maybe one or two years too many. Do you feel like you’ve definitely reached that cap?

Masters: You know, limitations are a great thing to work with. We always find that we can push the hardware and discover new tricks and new ways to squeeze juice out of the machines. I think what you’re seeing with us is one of the greatest and most spectacularly broad games of this generation. For me, it’s not really a problem. It’s always a struggle to make sure that things fit into memory and we’re respecting the various budgets. But personally, I like having those constraints. It forces us to focus on delivering what’s important to the game. For me it’s not a bad thing at all.

GamesBeat: Creative Designer Alex Hutchinson has gone on record saying that Desmond Miles is getting boring, and that Assassin’s Creed III will likely be his swan song. But can Assassin’s Creed really go on without Desmond? Isn’t he kind of like the anchor?

Masters: We’re not actually talking about Desmond at all, I’m afraid. They’re not letting me do that. But he’s going to be in the game, and he’s going to have an important role.

GamesBeat: Last year, long before Assassin’s Creed III had been revealed, I asked one of the Assassin’s Creed: Revelations team members about feudal Japan as possible setting for a future game. And they said there are lots of possibilities, but feudal Japan was definitely a popular choice, internally.

Then recently, Hutchinson said that the fans have really boring suggestions, including feudal Japan. So what is the actual opinion behind-the-scenes? Is feudal Japan a boring suggestion in your opinion?

Masters: I wouldn’t say it’s a boring suggestion. I think that quote is slightly…it’s an interesting one. Alex has a certain way with words. He has very strong opinions, and he likes to bring them forward to people. That makes him a great creative director, but….

The thing with feudal Japan, for me…we could do a phenomenal game, and we love to go to all those pivotal moments in history where things really change and become different for humanity. It’s obviously a rich moment in history. There’s a lot of interesting gameplay possibilities. But I feel like I’ve played assassin games in feudal Japan before. There are other examples.

GamesBeat: Have you played a good one, though?

Masters: No comment. [Laughs] But they exist, and they’re out there. I think what’s interesting for us is being able to take on really fresh and different perspectives that people haven’t seen before. Nobody had been to Jerusalem in the Third Crusade. It was the Third, right? Just making sure I have my facts straight.

Nobody had been to the Renaissance, run around in Venice and Florence and places like that. So going to the American Revolution, again, it’s a fresh and novel experience. That’s what turns us on as creators. Being able to go somewhere that hasn’t really been explored before. There’s plenty of people with opinions on this, of course. We’re an enormous team. We have 600 developers working on just this iteration. There’s a lot of opinions on where we can go and things that we could experience. I’m sure we could deliver an amazing game in that sort of time frame. But personally I want to go somewhere fresh and different.

GamesBeat: Okay. But when you guys run out of ideas…Feudal Japan.

Masters: Believe me, human history is such a wonderful playground. We have so many possibilities.

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