GDC 2018: 10 Years of Evolution of the 'Assassin's Creed' Brand:
By Colum Blackett
Jean Guesdon took to the stage at the 2018 Games Developer's Conference to reflect on the Assassin's Creed Franchise.
This article breaks down the presentation, and reflects on some of the key moments and highlights.
Jean introduces himself:
- Has worked on Assassin's Creed Brand since 2005
- Game designer on AC2
- Creative Director of Assassin's Creed Origins and Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag -
(Jean is wearing an AC Origins T-shirt, with an AC1 Hoodie creating a contrast between then and now, new and old. - Col)
Audience members are shown a quick video with snippets from Assassin's Creed Game Trailers/Cinematic Cutscenes to introduce the brand.
- It's worth mentioning that the Movie was not shown at all during this montage.
Jean begins the presentation by breaking down the evolution of the franchise in to three catergories.
Creating Assassin's Creed:
- 2004: Prince of Persia: Project Assassin - Team behind POP prepare for next gen (PS3& Xbox 360)
Next Gen POP becomes Assassin's Creed
- New IP was to be a more mature take on the Action Adventure Genre.
- New - Modern - Refreshing
Set during Middle Age, but not to be too medieval (Creative Decisions were made)
- Have a more realistic treatment - M Rating - Big step forward
"The reason behind the present day in the first place is really to create relatedness between the audience and the setting"
- Game set during Third Crusade, but the team wanted the overall experience to feel really modern
DNA/Animus = Edgy - Alowed the game to be at the forefront of new generation of games.
- Assassins & Bird of Prey - Overlooking targets from above. The crest which evolves through time - Clear reference to an eagle.
- Hidden Blade: Well suited to the fantasy of an Assassin - No other games had this weapon.
- Animus Technology: Allow a linkeage between past and 21st Century
Entering the open world genre - Moving from a linear platformer to an open world game
- Parkour allowed for navigation outside of missions. Can be performed everywhere in city
- Big step for the team - Required new technology - Anvil Engine created in order to render fully interactive cities.
- Allowed for a variety of new interactions
- New engine also enabled for photo realistic characters.
- Enabled large crowds to be on screen. (Around 100 NPCs on screen at once)
- AC 1 was fastest selling new IP
- Mixed reviews: People liked Assassin Fantasy - Narrative - Altair
- Game lacked things to do
- Too much repetitivity - Some journalists asked if AC1 was just a tech demo
- AC2 had to deliver the full experience of what Assassin's Creed could be.
- It was to clear what had to be improved upon in the next game.
- Repeat the Commercial Success of AC1, this time fixing all of the issues it had.
- Team thoroughly analysed AC1 - 'post-mortem of the game conducted'
- They found that missions in AC1 did not ask players to do what they liked doing on their own
- Example - Game asked players to sit on bench before pickpocketing - Playing alone, players just liked to parkour, fight etc.
Breaking down AC1 provided for the Team, aspects that could be fixed in the sequel.
Helped the team to break down core aspects of gameplay in to three pillars.
- Social Stealth
Entire game (AC2) was designed around these pillars.
- Enemies & Factions would challenge these three pillars
- Side missions were also based on them
- Gameplay loops supported and made players use pillars
- Pillars acted as a 'recipe' for gameplay
It was clear to the team that the franchise was about History - "Making history everyone's playground"
- From day 1, started to work with historians, to get people immersed within a living time period.
- Decisions made to let players 'live history', and be part of it.
Example - Meet Da Vinci as a young, dynamic man.
History was the core of the experience.
- "AC2 had to solidify the rest of the narrative"
- In 2008, Team developed "The Onion Structure"
- Video Game Layer
- Present Day Layer
- Animus Layer
- Past Layer
Theory of the structure of the Assassin's Creed Universe
- Layers are connected
- Within the video game is the Present Day layer, where you enter the Animus Layer where you explore the past layer via gentic memories.
Once this was solidified, the team could expand concepts with the narrative such as Subject 16's Puzzles which linked to the First Civilisation.
"Around the Historical period, we were developing the Present Day, and the First Civ Lore creating a strong narrative.
- Allowed for more content
- Team only had two years to deliver AC2
- Team internally used design documents
- Extensive use of playtests to secure quality of the game.
This helped the team to solidy how they were producing Assassin's Creed
- AC2 was the first AC game to have multiple teams work on a game.
- Team worked with Annecy Team (in France) who developed the Villa.
- Singapore Team developed secret locations.
- Second Team in Montreal created - In charge of bringing "exotic moments" in to the game - Da Vinci Flying Machine etc
End of 2009, AC2 released, and the team could celebrate.
- They knew exactly what Assassin's Creed was at this point
- It was now time to move on and work on the expansion of the world.
The first thing that allowed the developers to expand the franchise was the creation of a brand team.
HR Content Tech Marketing
Develop Yearly Releases
Develop Franchise Awareness
Multiple Core Teams established (2010)
This allowed for several games to be in development at once.
- Changed everything - Franchise began to grow as teams around the world worked on different aspects of the games.
- Move from Collaboration Organisation to Co-Development Organisation
Here is the Origins Co- Development structure.
- Without Multiple Core Teams, the world wouldn't be the same.
Assassin's Creed also had to stay fresh
- Each game had to bring something new to the franchise and to the gamers.
Examples -ACB introduced a Brotherhood - Multiplayer
- AC Rev - Hook Blade - Present limbo aspects
- AC3 - Nature envronments - Naval Combat
AC4 - New Present Day- Seamless Naval World
Some aspects lasted, others didn't.
- (Example)Tower Defence in AC Rev
Mandate 2: Develop Franchise Awareness
- Transmedia -
Mixed results - Good things generally focussed on prequels or sequels - Renassiance for example was a good novel but didn't bring anything new. - French comic exactly what should be avoided - Same characters - different stories - Breaks lore
It was clear to the brand team in 2010 that every product should act as a standalone, adding to the universe, rather than contradicting it.
- Everything created in the brand becomes "The Truth" in AC Universe, and can be used later on.
- Team realised that they had to share the brand, opening it up to talent from other fields who could add to it.
For this to happen, fundamental aspects of the franchise had to be clarified: Brand Bible Created
- Can and Cannots - Explaining Concepts
- This allowed for the brand to stay on track
At the same time, tools were created so that everyone could keep track of the narrative.
- Keep track of all the connections and references - More than games - Keeping track of relationships, time periods, previous encounters etc
- Connections made between Transmedia and the Games - Everything acts as a standalone
- Links between Secret Crusade and ACR
Project Legacy broke the 4th wall, but brought new lore to the franchise
- Embers concluded Ezio's story - Couldn't be done in game, if the Team were to respect the rules of the Animus
- Assassin's Creed The Fall: Introduced Nikolai Orelov - Great results
- The Movie helped to raise the profile and awareness of the franchise, especially in Asia.
- Transmedia strategy is still running today
- Seen as the way to go to expand a big Universe
Jean admits that this strategy may have led them to go a bit too far.
- Breaking the 4th Wall
- Desmond's story became constraining - more stories had to be told. Desmond is important but his is only one the many stories.
Team wanted to put players at the centre of the universe (2011)
- Real world and AC world connects - Ficticious world and AC world collides - Desmond saves it
- "Since then, the idea is that the present day of Assassin's Creed is our real world"
"We wanted players to be part of this universe"
- Audience engaged in Globally Connected Universe.
- This is why Abstergo Entertainment was created. AC3 - Vita
- New ways to access memories, allowed everybody, not only Desmond to explore.
Assassin's Creed Initiates: Community Website, which was meant to become the Franchise Hub.
Jean shows the audience an the AC Iniaties platform Trailer - Players could unlock AC Lore, and delve in to conspiracies
- You could also earn rewards for your progress within Assassin's Creed
- Users were members of the Initiates - Participating
The platform also set in game challenges and gave players rewards
- Potential to craft identity on the platform
AC Initiates was popular with Core Fanbase.
- AC4 was a transition game in many ways to the new plan that wanted to immerse players
"This is why the Present Day of Black Flag was this first person version, it was meant to be you".
Ran along with the Companion App + AC Initiates
Hardcore fans were really in to AC Initiates and enjoyed it. Jean says that they maybe didn't listen to the majority of the audience.
(Interesting points by Jean, but doesn't mention "The Watch", which was another online community network which was only available to those who pre-ordered the game.
Initiates was available to all.
AC Unity (which started development in 2011 after ACB) was meant to be the new next gen game.
- Engine massively revamped to render giant crowds etc.
- Moved to one to one scale buildings which impacted naviagtion. - Gameplay impacted
Co-op mode introduced - Real focus on tech rather than content
Jean believes there was too much focus on tech, rather than content. Didn't deliver anything new.
- "We had a game that was wonderful in terms of art, but not renewing the experience enough"
AC Initiates locked content - Not all fans understood the concept
- Glitch that affected one graphics card only becomes a meme that circulates the internet.
Really hurt the game
(I would say that the British accents for a game set in France didn't help matters either)
Syndicate had a focus on quality.
- Fun game, interesting narrative, well polished.
- Twist of two playable characters
- Time for a refresh
Refresh rather than a reboot - important to respect franchise, and previous entries.
- Refreshing the experience
- Think big: Empire had to be a milestone game.
- Image below shows a slide from a team meeting in 2014.
- Four big priorities for next game
The final priority focusses on the Assassin's Creed Community experience.
"And to remain a connected game. Even without co-op we need to show that being part of the community brings value to your overall experience. We are not a competitive franchise, but the Community's very very strong, and we need to leverage that."
"The idea behind modernising AC was really to have the focus in terms of fluidity and player's freedom"
Maximum freedom for the players
- More systematic, fluid systems.
- If needed AC needed to adapt - Remove constrains
Making a Modern AC had the aim of being: More systemic, more player friendly, more connected & a modernised pipeline (Allowing Devs time to focus on experience)
Archipalagos structure of the world
- Push an open world experience that focusses on discovery at affordable cost.
- Jean sshows audience video from an AC Origins prototype video, focussing on the Eagle. (End of 2014)
- Purpose of the Eagle was to redefine and understand the world, and the ways we interact with it. - The ways we see it
In order to create a living world, it had to be filled with meaningful content.
Fill world with meaningful life that has gameplay value, and provides non scripted surprises.
Evolving world - Emerging situations rather than scenarios.
- Make the game unpredictable
- Move to a hit box system - Made to be more challenging - more strategy - more reactive
- Meaningful weapons.
- Animations won't always match perfectly
- Cultural shift as much as a technological one.
- Focus on experience, rather than coding/scripting
Team had to accept that losing a bit of control meant more fun for the players
More Open, Fluid and Modern
(2016) - The balance was hard to find.
- Lots of new stuff to work on in comparison to past entries.
- Sometimes tensions between teams - had to find a balance. For example: Systems + narrative - Too much control of one = less narrative or less system focus
Big questions for developers.
What to keep and What to change?
Some aspects could be adapted rather than removed
Change - Make everything climbable
Keep - Synronisation points - Iconic - Changed - Discovery of world no longer depends on sync- No longer unfog the map
Social Stealth (Change)
Team asked themselves: Does it make sense for Bayek to blend in groups?
- Narrative sense - not an Assassin- more a proto- Assassin
More of a warrior, didn't make sense for him to use blending techniques for example.
Decided to focus more on environmental stealth.
Hidden Blade (Change) Hidden blade was one of the aspects preventing the game from having a good progression system.
- "We needed to accept that the blade would need to be upgraded"
(I really didn't like this feature in AC Origins. A stab to the neck should kill all enemies really. - Col)
- There were lots of chests in the game, but did they all need to be on the map? Remove clutter
- Changed the icon, so not every chest was mapped, but one icon that displays that there are still chests to loot in the area.
Respecting the identity of the brand
- Tried to create as many connections and links to past games in Origins.
Examples - Eagle iconography
- Cut finger for the hidden blade was important (Origins did a great job at displaying this imo. - Col)
- Posing of Bayek vs Altair: Similar stance, iconic of an Assassin.
The use of artefacts mirror past games
- As game is set before AC1, the team didn't want to add any new aspects to the POEs.
- The First Civ Treatment (Isu drawings)
- Same artist did First Civ art in AC3 and Origins to keep it consistent.
Amunet statue in AC2 link between the game and Origins.
- Revealed in Origins that Amunet is actually Bayek's wife Aya (Created a connection)
- In the Hidden Ones DLC, Aya's costume is directly inspired by the one seen on the statue.
The final scene of AC Origins echoes the first ever Assassin's Creed trailer. (Altair vanishes)
- Callbacks that echo previous entries and marketing material.
- Stay true to the brand.
Origins reintroduced a third person character who explores the past with an Animus, echoing previous Modern Day elements.
- Connections between past installments: Desmond Miles - William Miles - Layla.
William is Desmond's father - Using the computer had lots of references to other games and transmedia products, especially the movie.
The way AC was refreshed: Brand was respected
- Jean on key aspects:
Know your brand inside out (Bibles for team etc)
- Focus on pillars,features that are core to your franchise
- Grow your teams - Studios around the world allowed AC to grow.
- Work with others - Allows for creation - Transmedia products
- Listen to your audience
Tai Chi mentality
- Solid, Flexible and Open
Constant flux between all three elements
Jean also took questions at the end which are definitely worth listening to (47 mins in)
There's a really interestion question regarding shifting the Juno storyline to comics:
"Juno is and was really really important for part of our audience, but it's important to look at the overall audience. Not so many people actually know about Juno.
So, we knew it was important, we needed a sense of closure to this story, but that was not, and that couldn't ever be the core narrative of one big game. So that is why we can offer this solution."