The lights are on
Moving into the next-generation consoles, Ubisoft was planning on leveraging the new technology to deliver another Prince of Persia sequel. Instead, an assassin was born.
Serge Hascoet: Before the new consoles were announced, we started working on a new engine. It was originally for Prince of Persia, but at one point we saw the potential to create a new IP.
Yannis Mallat: As it probably is with any company, when you’re coming off a successful initiative, it gives you the confidence to try something new. That’s how we managed to convince Christine and Yves. Serge was already convinced because we were talking regularly.
SH: We had some influence from a book I was reading called Alamut. Patrice Désilets and Yannis loved the book too, and Patrice had some sci-fi concepts he wanted to integrate as well. It was a merger of great ideas.
YM: We tried to take a snapshot of what the game would eventually become through a small pre-rendered movie that showcased the gameplay, the setting, and the character. We ended up with an assassin in a Third Crusade environment climbing a wall and performing stealth assassinations behind guards. Then we added a fight sequence, and had him leaving the city on a horse with a huge open world landscape before him. That was it – everyone was sold. We had no tech at the time but we knew what we were [aiming] for.
Yves Guillemot: The team came with a new set of animation and graphics that showed a huge potential of using new technology to create something outstanding. So we said, “Yeah, it can become an IP in and of itself. Let’s work and put enough financial backing to that team so that they can build an engine and really go for it.”
YM: We worked with historians and Middle Eastern specialists when doing all the research. Patrice, writer Corey May, producer Simon Tremblay, and art director Raphaël Lacoste were thrilled at the prospect of visiting something that actually mattered in terms of shaping today’s world. It also happened in a very interesting environment, visually speaking. So it was easy for the team to get absorbed in the work up to the point where we were actually visited by the Aga Kahn movement. The Aga Kahn is the descendant of the prophet Mohammed and of the Ismailis – the very first assassins. That was quite a scary moment actually. They came to the studio, and they wanted to make sure they were being portrayed in the correct way. But the research was the easy part. Where we had our heads hitting the wall was trying to land all those beautiful fantasies into a working engine. That was not fun.
YG: From the beginning it was open world, with all the problems that come with an open world. It took a long time for us to learn how to do it, but because we had the quality graphics and animations it quickly became a project where we chose to put more resources, more energy, and time. It took four years to do.
YM: This game was only created because the team loved each other. Otherwise it would have collapsed. The reason this game was possible was because those guys had already gone to war together [with Prince of Persia]. There was a mutual respect between, for example, the lead engineer and the lead level designer that makes up for the fact that both guys didn’t always have the answer for the other’s question. In any other team, this would have turned into chaos. But because it was that team, it worked.
AC: When I first saw Assassin’s Creed, I thought, “We did it again. After Prince of Persia and Splinter Cell, that’s another jewel.” We were very lucky that we came at the moment when maybe there were not that many new franchises. We profited by filling that empty space.
YM: Since Splinter Cell, Assassin’s Creed was the first game to really rally everyone at Ubisoft from marketing and PR to production and editorial – it was a rallying event for the company and that felt good. Everyone was behind it and moving in the same direction.
AC: Some journalists were not impressed about the quality of the game – they were saying that sometimes it moved slowly and so on. But I think the spirit behind it and the gameplay was so unique, so fresh, that a lot of consumers loved it. The word of mouth spread, and I think it gained some new categories of people that were not playing before.
YM: A lot of people love it, but a lot of people hated it, which gave us a very precise road map in terms of what to do next. The fact that the game was generating so much noise – positive or negative – was a tremendous help for us. The feedback was this extra core team member always with us in every meeting reminding us what the game was lacking, and how the game would be greater with this and that. It was helpful.
Two years later, Ubisoft Montreal released Assassin’s Creed II, a sequel that corrected many of the shortcomings the public found with the first title and also made the bold move of shelving original protagonist Altaïr in favor of Desmond's Italian ancestor Ezio.
YM: The introduction of Ezio was a hot topic for quite some time. It’s the kind of topic that you have to compartmentalize to create an argument. When you decide to just talk about that point by removing it from the whole, then of course we can argue. But when you look at the whole series, then it’s not an issue. When some folks got their hands on the new playable build with Venice and the new setting, then it was okay that Altaïr was just part of the brand and not the icon.
After Assassin’s Creed II, Ubisoft Montreal lost one of the key contributors to the franchise when creative director Patrice Désilets left the studio.
SH: I made a mistake of not being as close to him as I should have been at this time. Maybe he had something to speak about, but now it’s all water under the bridge. I’m sad he left, but it’s life. You know, Spielberg and Lucas don’t work that much together anymore, and it’s part of life. I think it was time for him to go somewhere else to see if the grass is greener.
YM: Patrice’s departure was a surprise. We’re all sad, but it helped us test the fact that we believe in our people to take over new challenges. We managed to prove that the strength of the franchise and the team does not rely on one individual, as good as he could be.
In just four years since its release, Assassin’s Creed has become the most popular franchise in Ubisoft history, racking up over 30 million units sold. Even after Désilets’ departure, the series has continued to court success with last year’s Brotherhood and the promising 2011 entry Revelations.
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