Assassin’s Creed’s Tech Master Leads Us Through The Series’ History

by Jeff Cork on Aug 22, 2014 at 09:00 AM

Ubisoft has been developing Assassin’s Creed games for nearly a decade now, with the series spanning across two console generations. A lot has changed since those early days – those crowds of several dozen NPCs have certainly grown – but some aspects are the same. Ubisoft’s technical engineers are continually pushing themselves to see what’s possible, all the while trying to wrap their minds around hardware that may not even have final specs. I spoke with technical director James Therien, who’s been on the series since the first entry, to learn about his Assassin’s Creed experiences.

Therien has been working on games for a while now, or, as he puts it, “I’ve been in the game industry for longer than I’d care to remember.” He did programming work for titles including Star Trek: Bridge Commander, Secret Weapons Over Normandy, and Medal of Honor: European Assault. He was working at EA’s Montreal studio when companies were starting to anticipate Sony and Microsoft’s post-Xbox and PlayStation 2 plans. At the time, Therien says that EA seemed unprepared. “They sort of at that time didn’t know what to do with the new generation,” he said. “I could see that the AC team really had a clear idea of where they were going.”

“I joined Ubisoft in 2005, and actually I started right on Assassin’s Creed 1,” Therien says. “That was the big time of the old-gen transition, and it was really exciting because Assassin’s Creed was really an amazing proposition. They sold me at the pitch, just with videos and what they wanted to do, like the open world and the interaction with the environment and the parkour – it was already in the concept video back then, and I said I want to work on this game.”

Therien started working as a graphics programmer, but he says the studio had that aspect of development well in hand. He shifted his focus over to A.I., particularly in the way that players interacted with crowds. When the game shipped in late 2007, interacting with that many NPCs was a highlight. He and the team started much smaller, however. “At the very beginning it was 10 NPCs, maybe 15 NPCs, and I remember Patrice [Désilets, the designer of the first two games] telling me, ‘Imagine if we could have 40 NPCs.’” Looking at the crowd density of Assassin’s Creed Unity – Ubisoft says up to 12,000 characters can appear on screen at a time – that target number seems quaint.

Assassin’s Creed was a beautiful game, and its modest crowds were impressive at the time, but it wasn’t without problems. Its mission objectives were panned (remember sitting on a bench?), which is something the studio wanted to address with its sequel. That meant a significant remodel. “As we say in English, the foundations were not very solid,” Therien says. “In AC 2, we basically rebuilt the foundations and made sure that everything was much more structured. We gave more tools to the mission designers, like more ways of putting missions together basically, and it was a good result. It was still a slightly short project – 18 months for AC 2 – but I think we got a really good game after that.”

Therien went on to work on Assassin’s Creed at a brand level, focusing on the franchise as a whole. There, the big technical problem centered on Ubisoft’s determination to release new entries in the series on an annual basis – something that he says remains tricky. “Trying to devise a strategy or technology to constantly evolve yet ship every year is no small task. That still is one of our biggest challenges.”

Working with multiple studios wasn’t new – Assassin’s Creed II was developed by Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisoft Singapore – but Therien says that they started developing several games simultaneously starting with Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, right after Brotherhood. The secret, he says, is to know that each core game has a limited shelf life.

“First, our first goal was to ship an AC ever year, but at the same time we wanted to make sure that we had high-quality games,” he says. “You can do that as a second iteration, like with Brotherhood, which I think is a really good game, where you have a whole team from AC 2, and everybody comes in and they’re experienced and they know what the game is and it’s a polished thing, they just do another iteration of the game really quick. But you can’t do that two times. It gets tired and you can’t innovate as much and have any big breakthroughs. You need multiple projects in parallel, and that’s what we’ve been doing.” 

Therien says the core team that started developing Assassin’s Creed Unity split off in an early version of Assassin’s Creed 3. “When we started, you have to think back almost four years, we had no specs for the machines, so we really had to think and project what would the power be, what would the choices would be, like the future. We made some good choices, we made some less good choices, but what we did a lot was invest in iteration. The biggest guess we did was to say that to make sure that people could work fast and that the work that they produce is meaningful. We have good people, and they’re going to produce a good game.”

Backing up a bit, how does a team begin working on a game when hardware specs aren’t yet revealed? Essentially, they guess. “We basically picked a high-end PC at the time and said, ‘All right, it’s going to be about that,’ but we had no idea what the CPUs were. We were actually lucky, because the PS4 and the Xbox One are slightly different, but it’s the same base – not like last generation, where you had radically different architecture. That was really good, because we were able to engineer everything to run on basically the same machines, so we could make it run everywhere.”

Like he says, it’s a similar process to what happened as Microsoft and Sony were still nailing down the hardware that would become the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. “The platforms were nonexistent at the time. We came out about a year after – it’s pretty much the exact same timeline. What was more difficult in terms of last gen was the PS3 being so different. That proved to be quite a challenge, but in the end it worked out, but it took some really smart people. That’s the thing here, because Ubi is so big we have really, really experienced people, so to solve the really hard engineering problems we usually have the talent to deal with that. It’s not something that you do with a small team.”

The crowds are going to get a lot of coverage in Assassin’s Creed Unity, and for good reason – they’re huge. At the same time, the studios working on the game are doing a number of technically challenging things, including a new lighting model and audio tricks. For example, since players will be able to seamlessly go into interiors for the first time, they’ve had to add sound occlusion – where ambient noise changes as characters move from exterior to interior spaces – to support the addition. Therien says it all comes back to his team, and the drive and passion they have for the series.

“The thing is, we keep on working,” he says. “We try to be the best every time. I think everybody is really proud of their work. Each time we see something and we think we’ve optimized to the last little bit, we look at it fresh again and we start over. That’s what we’ve been doing every year.”


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