7 Interviews

Making waves: How Ubisoft built Assassin's Creed 4

By Nick Cowen on Monday 30th Sep 2013 at 4:00 PM UTC

The dreaded 'cross-gen' game is traditionally seen as the scourge of any console launch line-up.

Usually slapped together at the last minute with a handful of slightly prettier textures, these generation-hopping releases have earned the unenviable tag of 'cynical cash-ins for early adopters'.

The new Assassin's Creed doesn't look like that type of game.

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Ubisoft's Ashraf Ismail

Since its inception in the summer of 2011, Black Flag was always intended to release on the next Xbox and PlayStation consoles, Director Ashraf Ismail told CVG, and Ubisoft Montreal targeted next-gen specs early by developing for high-end PCs.

It's also seemingly avoided the temptation to tack on gimmicky features or modes which tend to define launch-window games.

According to Ismail, the difference between current and next-gen is immersion; physics are improved, weather is more realistic and the detail of jungle foliage is significantly better. Simply, it's looking like the definitive version of ambitious open-world adventure.

Having sampled a few hours of Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag on PS4, CVG interviewed Ismail about the project's ambitions and challenges.


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When Assassin's Creed III was released a lot of fans seemed to dislike Connor Kenway intensely. However, they seemed to like the naval battles in Assassin's Creed III an awful lot. Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag appears to address both of those issues, but we imagine that it's not a response to the fan feedback from AC III, right?

Right. We started this project over three years ago in the summer of 2011. From the get-go, there was almost like there was a perfect storm of stuff happening [around the AC franchise].

We knew that we had to ship on next gen - that was an edict handed down from upper management - and we knew we had naval battle prototypes [from AC III] and we did a lot of play-testing on them and we thought they were spectacular. We knew we needed to push the size of the game, but we also knew we needed a really strong concept.

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Also, way back in the early days, even before AC III, there was the Kenway family that was defined within the brand. There was Edward, Haytham and Connor and we had a pretty good idea of what the different characters were about. Edward was an Englishman and he was a pirate - that was literally the only definition of him we had. There was no personality to him, just that definition.

At the same time, AC III was pushing navigation through more natural environments.

So we had all of this stuff and I remember it was just one meeting where we all sat down and we were like: 'so, we're a pirate game, right?' There was no debate. We didn't have to pick from a couple of choices. It was really a case of, let's do Edward, let's do pirates and let's set it in an open world.

So how did the next-gen consoles impact on that?

The main impact from the next gen was... well, every time there's a new generation of consoles, I think as gamers, you have this expectation that you're going to experience something you've never experienced before. So for us, that thought effectively dictated that we create an open world - which AC had never done before - and a type of world that hopefully no one had played through before. So that's where the idea of a naval sandbox came from.

There was no debating or arguing in the end - even with upper management - even though we thought it would be really risky to infuse into the core AC experience a pirate theme and naval navigation as part of the core.

And deep sea diving?

Well the deep sea diving isn't part of the core - it's just something cool that's extra. The core is really free-running, fighting, stealth and now naval combat. In AC III naval combat was optional.

So it was a big risk, but we got a green light. From there, we quickly defined who and what Edward was. We knew the naval combat was something we were going to have to dedicate a lot of time to - especially now because we were introducing boarding.

Impressions: Sandbox Assassin's Creed 3 left a bad taste for in the mouths of many dedicated fans, but by far the most pungent was the sour tang of linear assassination missions.

How delightful it is, then, to discover that AC4's recipe is one of freedom and open-world tomfoolery. The sense of scale and adventure is impressive; although not entirely load-free (docking at some major cities requires 'fast travel'), Black Flag's naval playground is bursting with things to discover. Meanwhile, the crafting and hunting systems have been updated to better complement the sandbox.

Andy Robinson

I heard that coding the naval combat was a massive pain in the arse.

Oh it was. It was insane amount of effort. The hard part was the gameplay-driven part. You have to create this 3D object of a ship and it's not like a human, but it has to be controlled like it was an avatar. You have to deal with the camera and you have to properly implement the controls and on top of that there's the modelling of the ship. It had to look credible and getting all that right was a nightmare.

When, in the actual battles, when the two ships come together for a boarding sequence - that took a lot of effort to get right - but we knew these were investments we had to make going in. We knew that a large chunk of time was going to be devoted to that.

Now, let's talk a bit about story. You can't say too much obviously, but Desmond is now dead. His story is over and the player is now the franchise's future protagonist. Does this mean they share the DNA of the Kenways? Does their story have to dovetail with the past?

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No. There's a hint of this in AC III but we play it up in AC IV; the Animus tech has been worked on and improved upon to the point that anyone can use it to jump into someone else's DNA history as long as you have samples of their DNA.

Effectively there's been a transition in the Animus and you'll find out more about that in the present day world in AC IV if you choose to.

As far as the Kenway's go, Connor landed up on the side of the Assassins because his village was burned down and his mother was killed. Will AC 4 address how Haytham landed up on the side of the Templars when his dad was an Assassin?

Well, actually there's a lot of information on this out there already. Most of it's in a tie-in novel called Assassin's Creed: Forsaken. That's more about Haytham and you effectively get the end of Edward's life in that book. We're dealing mainly with Edward's origin story in Assassin's Creed IV, so it's not really about Haytham or Connor. It's not like we completely ignore Haytham. We have fun with it. But I don't want to say what we do with it.

What were the main challenges in shipping a game on two generations of gaming platforms?

We didn't want to have two versions where transition across the map was seamless on next gen and the current gen had a loading screen. So we pushed the tech on the current gen as much as we could to achieve that - I feel we're pushing those platforms as much as we can. It's the end of a generation and we know exactly how they work.

Impressions: Sailing On PS4 sailing feels satisfyingly tangible, even more so than the last game, whether it be via the gratifying 'clunk' of a completed wheel turn, or the rocky ocean waves bouncing the vessel about like a rubber duck in a jacuzzi.

The biggest improvement over AC3's naval play is the combat, with a variety of new cannon-based weapons ensuring battles are faster paced and, thanks to new long-range mortars, don't require players to be within spitting distance of their targets.

Andy Robinson

It actually took a little while to get to this open type of world. We had many prototypes of what we could achieve, but in the end we decided on one open world.

The big difference between the generations is the immersion - it's improved on the next generation. So, for example, the cloth in the sails is actually driven by the in-game wind system. Every piece of foliage has proper physics. The rain beats down properly. It's the same world, but the next gen version has quite a few notches on the current gen. Everything's much more hi-res.

Was there a conscious decision on the part of Ubisoft to make Assassin's Creed the franchise to bridge the generation because it's always been so visually lush?

Yes. There wasn't any question. We were shipping on both generations. But it's also a big business decision; there's such a huge install base on the current gen titles that it doesn't make sense to not ship an Assassin's Creed game on them.

There are very few games that are doing both gens - Watch Dogs is obviously another one.

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How daunting was the prospect on shipping on both generations?

It was in the beginning, but it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be, mostly because the architecture of the two systems is much more like a PC. Part of our tech team was also focussed on next-generation from the get-go.

It wasn't that tough. It wasn't any where near as tough as the transition from PS2 to PS3. That was a nightmare. It was horrific. As a developer it was terrible. But this generation [transition] has been incredibly smooth. We were working directly with Sony and Microsoft from the beginning. We actually had the specs on the hardware very early on and we were able to give feedback and discuss features and so on.

So it's been very smooth to be honest - and we have very senior tech guys who have been in the industry for a very long time, so we didn't have much trouble, to be honest.

You obviously can't talk too much about the future of this series...

But you're going to ask anyway...

...but the map seems to get bigger and bigger in every single Assassin's Creed game and the new buzz genre for the next generation is that of the 'persistent-world' genre. Ubisoft already has two of these in development - The Crew and Tom Clancy's: The Division. Do you think that this genre would be a logical evolution for the Assassin's Creed series?

It's very possible. It is a hot topic these days, it seems, so it's very possible. Another way - and I'm not hinting at anything here, but I just believe it will go [this way] - would be more social. But not forced multiplayer. I mean somehow having a single player experience but being connected.

To the core experience I think this is something that will possibly happen because there's such a massive effort from first-party and even from internally within ourselves to have something like this. You'll still be playing the single player game, you could still be alone, it's okay - but somehow you're part of something bigger. That's a place where I feel we'll see AC go. And that could fit with the persistent world concept.

Impressions: Multiplayer A recent press demo allowed a turn at Wolfpack mode, which AC3 players will remember well. If you never played it, it's essentially a co-op match in which four players team up and make attacks on roaming bands of AI-controlled enemies. The more foes they dispatch, the more heavily armed they become. There's an additional requirement to defend chests from the AI, which also confers points to each player.

The problem of communication persists in Wolfpack. In order to get the most out of it, players need to work as a team. Unless they work together they won't make the higher levels of synchronisation and they certainly won't enjoy the experience as much. There's something rather thrilling about stalking a patrol as a group and then leaping from the rooftops and shadows in one co-ordinated move. It's certainly more enjoyable than running around the map in a discordant mob, randomly slashing at targets and innocents alike.

Nick Cowen

When are you guys going to stop messing about and just set Assassin's Creed in Victorian London?

(Laughs)

You've got everything there! You got the Masons, you've got the Hellfire Club...

You've got great architecture!

You've got Jack The Ripper!

You've got Jack The Ripper! Yeah!

So... Victorian London?

I can't talk about the future of the series. But hey, it's a great setting. It really is! I'm sure we'll keep it in mind!


Black Flag is scheduled for release from October 29 in North America and from November 1 across Europe on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. PC, Wii U and next-gen console versions will release on November 22.

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