I spent the Sunday before the 2018 Electronic Entertainment Expo locked away in a cool, climate-controlled room packed with PCs running Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Ubisoft had invited the media to go hands-on with the new open-world adventure for around an hour, but first the publisher took some time to explain how this game is different from its predecessors. Unlike most of the previous games, Odyssey is a full role-playing game. It is the end point of a transition that Ubisoft started with Assassin’s Creed: Origins.
But what does it mean that Ubisoft is making an Assassin’s Creed RPG? Well, I spoke with Odyssey director Scott Phillips about that, and he explained the studio’s thought process.
“’History is our playground’ is sort of the motto of Assassin’s Creed,” Phillips told GamesBeat. “That was a starting point for us … [but we] wanted history to be your playground, not just ours. We wanted you to interact and change things. It’s the type of game, honestly, that I wanted to make. The sort of open-world game with choices, with RPG elements of customizing your gear on multiple parts of your body, customizing your abilities and mapping them where you want to on the controls. It’s really about making it the player’s game.”
Odyssey will give you plenty of choices about how you will approach your specific adventure. You can play as either Alexios or Kassandra, you can romance a huge number of characters, and you can approach missions however you want.
In the clip below from my play session, you can see some of how this works. In this video, I took a mission from Socrates to go free a radical freedom fighter. I went in and killed all of the guards to let him go free, but when he lashed out wildly at me, I killed him, too. When I went back to talk to Socrates, the conversation reflected those gameplay choices. But had I avoided killing the guards and/or the radical, that discussion would have played out differently … and the results of those actions could have had consequences on other parts of the game.
But while Odyssey is an RPG, it’s not going all the way toward something like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. You don’t design your own character, and Ubisoft still has a broad tale it wants to weave for players.
“We wanted to tell a story, but we wanted to give you as much freedom as possible within that story,” said Phillips. “It’s going to be different for every player, but the core of that is going to be the same, because that’s part of what Assassin’s Creed is. That’s the DNA of Assassin’s Creed. But we wanted to take that in our own direction by making you — allowing you to choose a lot of different things, small and large, that have an overall impact on that story.”
Here’s the full (but edited) transcription of my interview with Phillips:
GamesBeat: Was it always the plan to start releasing Assassin’s Creed games on an annualized basis again?
Scott Phillips: Near the end of Syndicate, in 2015, Ubisoft Quebec, the core directors’ group, started planning for what we wanted to do next. We looked around and talked to the Origins team about what they wanted to do. Then we looked at, okay, where do we want to set the game? For us the key things we wanted to bring were a bigger focus on RPG, making it a true, full-on RPG, as well as bringing back full seamless open world naval, and then putting it in a time period that was iconic to history, western history, with people like Socrates and Hippocrates, really giving you this amazing world to explore.
GamesBeat: How do you expand Assassin’s Creed while remaining true to the series?
Scott Phillips: “History is our playground” is sort of the motto of Assassin’s Creed. That was a starting point for us. We always want to choose a super interesting time period. Ancient Greece and the height of Athens is super interesting, because it’s the earliest in the time period Assassin’s Creed has ever been, 2500 years ago. We’re in a period where the whole of Greece was at war, with the Spartans and the Athenians fighting each other. It gives us this great setting.
Then the world itself is beautiful, with this lush, open sea, the snow-peaked mountains, lava-filled volcanoes, underwater areas to explore, the paradise islands we have here at E3. It’s a beautiful, varied world to explore. We wanted to bring choice, like I said, to make sure that players can make this their playground, their odyssey. We wanted history to be your playground, not just ours. We wanted you to interact and change things. It’s the type of game, honestly, that I wanted to make. The sort of open world game with choices, with RPG elements of customizing your gear on multiple parts of your body, customizing your abilities and mapping them where you want to on the controls. It’s really about making it the player’s game.
GamesBeat: This is an RPG, so did you ever consider letting people make their own characters?
Scott Phillips: That’s where the balance of Assassin’s Creed versus an Assassin’s Creed RPG comes in. We wanted to tell a story, but we wanted to give you as much freedom as possible within that story. It’s a narrative. It’s going to be different for every player, but the core of that is going to be the same, because that’s part of what Assassin’s Creed is. That’s the DNA of Assassin’s Creed. But we wanted to take that in our own direction by making you — allowing you to choose a lot of different things, small and large, that have an overall impact on that story.
GamesBeat: People really responded to Bayek — do you wish you could have continued his story?
Scott Phillips: It’s great that people love Bayek. I’m glad they had more time with them in the DLC. But when we start a game — three years ago, we wanted to tell our own story. We wanted to set it in a time period that we felt was the most interesting for us in ancient Greece. That’s a time period that put Bayek out of the question very early on. We couldn’t continue the story of Bayek. I think players will really engage with Alexios and Cassandra and make them their own. I hope and believe that they’ll be as popular as Bayek, if not more.
GamesBeat: What does the moment-to-moment gameplay look like for the average player?
Scott Phillips: To me it’s a mix. It’s a thing where you’re going to engage with the narrative for a certain amount of time, and then you’ll say, I’ve reached a good point to take a break and go build up my character. I need a new weapon, or I want to get a new chest piece, because I want to be able to customize my gear to have more adrenaline-producing power. I want it to be focused on stealth. Something like that. You’ll be changing your direction quite often. We have things — both overall meta goals for you that you’ll follow, that we’re not talking about yet, but multiple things for you to follow meta-wise.
There are distractions and things we try to engage with you and pull you off the path. Just in traveling, you’ll see events, little things occurring in front of you that will call out to you. You might see someone attacked by guards. That person can give you a quest. Maybe their family was also taken. We have a very dynamic world that will constantly call out to the player to divert away, or even if you have a goal, maybe you’ll choose — oh, I want to spend five minutes to go do this other thing.
GamesBeat: If I want a specific item, do I go to a vendor or hunt it down in a certain quest?
Scott Phillips: We have blacksmiths, where you can buy that gear, but then if you want to get the best gear in the game, it’s going to be conquest battles, which are at E3. It’s going to be hunting down leaders, who are some of our strongest types of NPCs in the world. They’re systemic and dynamic for every player. You’ll have a different set of leaders in the world. There are mercenaries as well, who carry some of the best gear in the game. You’ll be able to discover them, as you can at E3, and then hunt them down. You’ll know what they’re strong or weak against, and what gear they’re carrying. You can really target specific—you can set yourself very specific goals if you want to dig into that type of weapon or this type of chest piece. Then there are other meta things we’re not talking about yet, but there are goals and ways to get that gear.
GamesBeat: How does the leader system work?
Scott Phillips: Ancient Greece was built of all these little nations. Those nations were allied with leagues, which were the Spartans or the Athenians. Each one of those nations has its own leader. Those leaders are systemic and dynamic. They’re different for every player – different names, different backstories, different ways they travel the world, different amounts of bodyguards. That’s where the Peloponnesian War logic system comes into the world. As they’re strong, they’re harder to kill. As you weaken them by destroying their resources, killing their soldiers, it makes them weaker and easier to kill, which then triggers a conquest battle, which can change the state from Spartan to Athenian control. It allows the world to be very dynamic and different for every player.
GamesBeat: I’m trying to weaken them over time, I take them out, and then they’re done? Can they push back against me?
Scott Phillips: Yeah, they get attacked by nearby states when they’re too weak. A nearby Spartan state might attack the Athenian state that you’ve been weakening by killing their soldiers and their leader. You can choose to help the invaders or help the defenders. A new leader will take power in that state and you can then either interact with that leader or you can kill them or take a contract to kill them.
GamesBeat: You have all these varied pieces of a larger game. There are the conquest battles, the open world naval, the general narrative. How do you build the flow between all of them?
Scott Phillips: We introduce things. We take our time introducing them across the game. The first three to five hours of the game are introducing you to Alexios or Cassandra, their setting, how they got there, the core mechanics of the game. And then you get your ship and it’s sort of, okay, go free, go explore the world. You can follow this journey to seek your family, or you can follow one of the many other things in the game. Like E3, you can just go explore the islands, find sunken treasures, build up your ship, build up your character, follow side stories. There’s a lot of options. We pace you at the beginning, and then you can go for it.
GamesBeat: What do you wish more people would ask you about?
Scott Phillips: In the core, the second to second, I think we have the finest tune and the best, the most fun version of what Assassin’s Creed can be on the gamepad. And then I think at the more meta level, what we allow you to do with choices, with options, with role play, with romance—I’m super excited for players to get their hands on that. I think it brings Assassin’s Creed to a whole new level of interactivity, of choice, of dynamism, of making history your playground. It’s not just a place where you see a cinematic with Socrates. You ask him questions, dig into his philosophy. Why does he think that way? You can make this world your own and dig into it deeply. I don’t think we’ve had that depth in the past.
GamesBeat: I was doing one of the mission early on where it’s the people the cave, Kira, and then–
Scott Phillips: Thaletas?
GamesBeat: Yeah. I was talking to him. Was I romancing him?
Scott Phillips: You have the option to. There’s dialogue options that will allow you to. It’s possible. It’s up to you, if you want to do that or not. With multiple characters throughout the game, you’ll see that across the whole experience. Whether you engage in that or not is totally up to you.
GamesBeat: Can I romance Socrates? That’s the big deal for me.
Scott Phillips: [laughs] No? I can say you do not romance Socrates.