Ubisoft's Creative Head Talks The Future Of Assassin's Creed And Splinter Cell
A 30-year veteran of Ubisoft, chief creative officer Serge Hascoet has his fingerprints on every game the French publisher releases. His editorial staff is currently on a strong run, overseeing the successful reboots of core brands like Assassin’s Creed, Rainbow Six, and Ghost Recon. We spoke with Hascoet about the evolution interactive entertainment.
Let’s talk about building new IP. There are some interesting examples from Ubisoft where for Assassin's Creed III the Singapore team built the sailing technology, you doubled down on that with Black Flag, and now you're breaking that off and creating a unique pirate brand with Skull & Bones. How do you decide when you want to turn a new gameplay concept into a new brand or bring it into the fold with a pre-existing franchise?
I think there is no one rule. It's case by case. For Skull & Bones, it was the the team in Singapore’s idea. They proposed to move forward for something like Skull & Bones and we decided it was a good idea to test. It was their choice. Sometimes it's our choice at HQ, sometimes it's their choice. We have to believe in the ideas, and the ideas can come from people who know how to do games. We have to believe in the idea and if we believe in them then we decide to make the game. We moved from Prince of Persia to Assassin's Creed because we thought the prototype was compelling enough to do something new and fresh. Once again it was a team idea. But, it's case by case. You can look at all of our creations, and you can see it's a mix between us – me and my team – the dev team, possibly [Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot]. It's very organic.
How has the editorial team at Ubisoft HQ evolved over the last decade? Do you handle pitches in a similar way or has it changed?
We have a process for the pitch, because otherwise we could have too many pitches, and it can be debilitating for a team to hear “no.” We want to protect everybody, so there is a process to go to the studio boss first, and if the studio boss is very happy the pitch comes to me. I have some VPs that handle all the brands, and I have some people around them who are experts in the IP. This pool of very experienced people helps me decide what is good and what could be very successful. Eight years ago, the editorial team was quite small, maybe 10-15 people. And now there are 80.
With Origins and Odyssey, it seems like Assassin’s Creed is moving away from the assassin fantasy to enable more player expression to play the way they want to play. Do you worry it's moving too far away from that or do you feel like it's still anchored in that fiction?
We have the same question internally quite often. With Odyssey, we discussed that. I found we are lacking some of the flavor of an assassin, so we are working on that. We don't want to move away. We want to respect the brand, but we also want to improve it. I think the RPG mechanics are really improved, but we need the leap of faith, the sound, all of the good stuff of the previous games.
But I think it was a good decision to move away from the previous fighting systems to the new one. It's added value for the player. We are careful about the brand; we work on it. When you allow the player to customize their character so they can remove the hood, it's okay because this is a player decision. We don't have to force the player to look the way we want them to look. The philosophy we have for all the games is player expression, player freedom, and autonomy of the player.
We once again have Assassin's Creed games in back-to-back years. Are you planning on releasing yearly editions of Assassin's Creed moving forward?
No – it depends. What we did was we built two teams – one in Montreal and one in Quebec – and we wanted to give them enough time. I played Assassin’s Creed Odyssey last November, and it was nearly finished. For us it's not a question of annualization, it's more a question of quality. If the team has enough time to produce and polish something, if it's at the highest quality, I think people can enjoy an experience of 80 hours every year. It's possible, but I’m not saying we will have one every year. It's not the plan.
Ezio is almost always named people’s favorite assassin. One of the things that separates him from the others is we spent more time with him. He was the star of three games, and we got to live his life story – it wasn't a fleeting experience with one person. Do you think about that when designing new assassins?
The most interesting thing about Assassin's Creed for us is to explore history, not characters. When we decide what's next, the main question is, “what the next period is we want to visit?” That leads everything. When you jump 100 years or 1,200 years, it's hard to have the same character. Maybe in DLC we can go further. I agree though, when you saw the old Ezio in Revelations, it was very powerful. But the context and time are the most important priorities.
With Bayek and Aya’s stories, you left an opening to return. The ending was much less resolute than other AC games.
I don't want to discuss it, but there is a plan. When we create characters as strong as Ezio, it's a pity not to go further. But then Bayek and his wife are powerful characters. Maybe something else will push forward, be it a TV show or a movie.
You told Le Monde you want Ubisoft to move away from cutscenes. Do feel like with a game like Odyssey, where you are introducing more choice into the narrative, that you are going that direction? Are you are where you want to be?
It's going in good direction. It's not what you ask the team to do, it's how you ask them to do it, and the transition is very slow. Movies, television, books are not the same as games. In the movie you are a spectator. In games, you should be always an actor. If you want to be a spectator, it should still be a player decision. The games shouldn’t decide for you. We need to give this kind of freedom to the player. Fewer cutscenes is a good direction, but what will be the best will be when the player won't be in front of a cinematic if they don't want to be. We discuss this approach every time. Cinematics are not good when they are forced. What I say to the narrative people is “Be so good that the player will want to go meet the characters. Attract the players, don't force them.”
What most excites you about interactive entertainment right now?
There are so many things to be excited about; it's a marvelous industry. Everything changes very quickly. VR was a buzzing last year and it's still my favorite technology. One day it will be the most important thing. It's not there yet. But China is here. And free-to-play games, like Fortnite, are a part of a newly exciting space. We have new spaces everywhere. Our business is full of possibilities.
You know what is missing in this industry? A soul. Video games are about gaming, and gaming is not about entertainment, it's about learning. When you learn, you have fun. But when we are just entertainment we are losing something. I question the team about what real benefits the player will take away from the game for their real life. Right now, we don’t do enough in this area. This is what excites me, how to make something that lets you have the most fun while also having something beneficial for your life.
Do you think interactive entertainment needs to move away from the primary verb being 'kill?'
Yes. Some board games and card games have higher benefits than video games because when you play the board game you are analyzing people’s faces. Do I want to cooperate? Do I want to believe in you when you are in character? This knowledge – gained while you are having fun – is very beneficial for your life because it will improve the way you read people's faces. We have to understand how we can change games and the rules to have this kind of benefit.
Looking back at this console generation, we have a lot of mature games with mature themes. Far fewer games targeting younger audiences have come from major publishers. All the kids are playing Minecraft and Roblox, experiential worlds where they can build and craft things, but I don't get a sense that servicing these players is high on the to-do list for major publishers. Why is that?
It's not our will not to go there. We have some games designed for younger audiences, but when we do Rayman or games like that, we don't sell as much as Assassin's Creed. The team wants to be successful and sell millions, and we have more success with the more adult-rated titles. Still, we have brands like Child of Light, Rayman, Rabbids, and Mario + Donkey Kong, so we have plenty of them. Starlink. Just Dance. But people know Ubi from Assassin's Creed, Rainbow Six. So I won't say we won't make more games for younger audiences. As I said it's an organic process to decide during the internal vetting process, but people generally propose more mature themes.
When both Beyond Good & Evil 2 and Wild were announced, Michel Ancel said he planned to split his time evenly, but making games is really hard and it takes a lot of attention to detail. I know he's more of a creative figure who specializes in conceptualization, but is he still splitting his time between the projects?
Yes, he does.
Partnering with HitRecord for user-generated content to be used as in-game assets is an interesting direction to go for Beyond Good & Evil 2. If it's successful is that an approach you want to apply to your other brands as well?
I love it. What I ask the team generally is, if you want to do a game in Bolivia, Montana, New York, or whatever the place, it's a win-win situation to ask the artists from that location to bring their talent to the game. It's not that easy to do. We have the will, but it doesn't happen very often. So maybe this is the best way to do it. For instance, when we did Montana in Far Cry 5, I wanted the artists from Montana to have their art inside the game to flesh out the towns and to have local music. You have a band somewhere on an old farm and the band is from Montana – this is what I would love to get to, so we have the most believable worlds. But that move to local integration happens very slowly, so maybe this collaboration will enable it and be a good example. We'll see if it works, but we believe in it.
Speaking of things moving slowly, let's talk about virtual reality. How far off are we to the point where you feel consumer interest will be stronger?
That's a good question. I don't know. There is something wrong at the moment, I don't know if it's the price, I don't know if it's social component, I don't know what it is. What I know is in 10 years AR and VR will blow your mind. Maybe it's not video games, maybe it's something else that will make it mainstream. Like your phone now, it's indispensable. You can't live without it. We’re not there yet with AR or VR. It's big, it's expensive, it's a non-social interface, but when you experience it, it's potential is obvious.
One thing Ubisoft does well is build immersive worlds. I love the Discovery Tour, which has always seemed like a natural spin-off for the Assassin’s Creed series. Doing that in VR though, when you're standing in the world, it's much harder to convince someone it’s a real place and not just a playground.
You are right, this is what I want to do. The thing is, our engines are not ready for that yet. As soon as we do it, and we have some R&D on it, yes, we will be able to do many different things with the worlds we create. I think it's kind of a wasted opportunity to create a game world like we did with Egypt in AC Origins and use it only for games. We already have education, entertainment, story narrative in our game world. But when you are VR, you feel the scale. It changes everything. I have some prototypes of Assassin's Creed in VR, but progress is very slow.
Locomotion is still the main inhibitor to first-person experiences in VR. Do you feel like you are making progress in that or are you still banging your head against the wall?
We accepted that the solution is teleportation. In my real life I would love to teleport – I look over there and then I am there. It would be a dream for us in real life, wouldn't it? So, it's okay to teleport.
Historically, you've tended to work with other development studios like Crytek with Far Cry and Techland with Call of Juarez. Do you still take pitches from studios outside of Ubisoft or is your focus on the internal studios?
The focus is on internal development. We don't say no, but we aren't looking for external development partners especially hard right now. We are open to smaller opportunities if there's a win-win scenario with a small team and we believe in it. This is what we are looking for: a small team doing something with a small scope but with the highest production quality. Also, we are looking for partners on more arena sports games, like Rainbow Six. We are not looking for partners to develop big worlds or big new brands, because it's hard.
Some Ubisoft brands have fallen dormant in the last 5-10 years. Do you have a roadmap for any of that stuff you want to share with fans so they know yes, you hear their calls?
I love Splinter Cell. I love Prince of Persia. I can't disclose any information at this time, but I can say we are fighting for resources. It's not a question of will, it's a question of means.
Do you feel there are any genres or platforms Ubisoft isn't well represented in that you'd like to get into?
We don't do as well in mobile because competitors are better than us. Now, everybody is talking about battle royale, but we think there are 15 different companies making those games, and like mobile, only two will be successful. Many will be killed along the way; I don't know which ones will survive. I am working with my team on what's next. It's important to understand why games like Fortnite are so successful, but it's not so we can copy it. It's to do something else, but with the same disruptive approach. So, we have plenty of ideas. We are testing a lot of ideas internally, and maybe only one will go to market.
How do you feel about your technology base right now? What are the immediate future things you need to do to evolve the way you need to evolve?
We have many technologies, so it's case by case, but Assassin’s Creed has no multiplayer mode, and that is very important for the social aspect of gaming, so we are looking for that. Also, when you want to change something in the world in our games, right now the player has to download 20GB.
Do you want to create a more agile tech platform?
Yes, I want our game to become a place where there are many changes and new events. Even in Assassin's Creed. We have to change our games’ agility. We have to consider mobile crossovers. There are millions of changes I would make. For example, the number of players. Today, our online technology could support 100 players, but at what cost? If we remove the crowd and stuff like that in Assassin's Creed we could make online easier ... it's a case by case basis. If a project needs 100 players at the same time then we can do it, but we need to find the added value.
We are also lacking on quality of service in some areas but we are improving this a lot with Rainbow Six Siege and now For Honor. The Division and Ghost Recon are also great for services. But we need some more agility with our services because one of our goals is to for our games to become – I don't like the word – a platform. We need to provide new services and new content to the players, and then they will come back and see something new and compelling in the worlds. This type of technology is not yet ready for us.
Traditionally, when you ship a game a lot of the team moves off the project. But with the frequency of updates with a live service game like Fortnite, that team is going full bore 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There isn't that moment to catch your breath after the game comes out. In a culture where burnout is already a real possibility for everyone because we're talking about passionate creators who want to spend more time making their games, how do you keep that quality of life in balance if live services is the future?
You're right. With Rainbow Six and The Division post-launch, the teams were so tired. They were very exhausted because the online tech was not good enough. That is why we decided to do Operation Health, it was the sanity patch both for the players and for the team. It was how to improve the game to spend less time to maintain it. So, it's a new topic for us and we work hard to improve the teams’ lives. We don't want game as a service to become game as a slave for the teams.
I've met a lot of Ubisoft employees over my 20 years covering games, and there is a lot of talent in your buildings. But compared to other publishers, there seems to be a higher turnover rate with creative directors. A lot of senior level people like Patrice Desilets, Alex Hutchinson, Clint Hocking, and Dean Evans end up taking their talents elsewhere.
Yes, but Clint came back. Our turnover rate with creative directors isn’t that high, but each time it's painful for us. It's part of life. It's a very hard job, with a lot of pressure coming from everywhere – internal, external, the players. We support them as much as possible.
Going back to one of your earlier points, do you think you would have retained more of that talent if you had more of the means to get more projects off the ground?
It's case by case. I know it's not always because of Ubisoft. It's could be because of the special context of that particular point of their life. They want to move somewhere else or they don't feel the passion anymore or they want to express themselves differently. For Patrice, he wanted to do something else outside of Ubisoft and he wanted more freedom. It was okay. I think Ubisoft offers creative directors have a lot of freedom, but we have deadlines too. We have the framework of open world, more systemic than narrative. Sometimes when someone wants to do a more narrative-driven game, then it's not as easy for them at Ubisoft. We offer a lot of freedom and opportunities, but within a framework. Sometimes it can be a philosophical issue, but it's case by case. With Dean, I won't explain all the reasons he left, but if you want the messages they sent me before they left, I can show you. They loved Ubisoft.
We have 45 creative directors in the studio, you can ask them. They are more than happy. Even if it's hard.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Game Informer.