As the seventh game in an annualised series, some may dismiss Assassin's Creed Unity as just another safe entry in the series, but Ubisoft is taking a few risks with the latest entry.
Along with opting to finally cut ties with the massive Xbox 360 and PS3 install base, in favour of new-gen consoles, Unity is also the first in the series to feature co-op gameplay. There are also big changes made to the core parkour system and the potentially impactful addition of a Stealth Mode.
Ubisoft is keeping quiet regarding further gameplay additions, however there are suggestions that Watch Dogs, which flirts with online multiplayer couched within the core open world, may have offered a taste of what's to come.
Following Assassin's Creed Unity's E3 reveal we spoke to senior producer Vincent Pontbriand about the new directions the series is headed in, as well as why he feels now is the right time to explore Paris and the French Revolution.
The Assassin's Creed series adheres to a rigid annual cycle and your games are only in the public eye for a short time before release. How able are you to react to public feedback during a game's development?
That's a very good question. What we do very early, before we release the game, is we send out questions, we do focus groups, and once the games are out of course we have data tracking which allows us to have statistics on people's behaviors, how they play the game, how much of it they completed. We also do additional playests and get a lot of feedback very quickly.
Before the public reveal?
Even before the public reveal. So, based on what we want to do with our future games and the feedback that we get, we try to make the adjustments that are necessary in order to come up with what people want.
How much can that feedback influence the overall direction of the game, though? Have you ever received feedback that's lead to a fundamental change of direction, or it is usually only for minor changes?
No, it can happen, actually. I'll give you one example. When we released Assassin's Creed 3, which featured naval battles on a small scale, this definitely influenced us in building Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, because when we saw people's reaction to that additional feature that was in AC3, we said, 'okay, we need to try to build something that fully supports this, and push it to the next level'. So this is one big example of where were clearly influenced by consumer feedback.
But then it's all over the place - all the little things that people wish to see. For example, we know that two of the most requested features for a 'next' Assassin's Creed were the ability to play with friends on co-op missions, and to have the ability to customize the main character. So we're featuring both of these things in AC Unity.
Co-op is indeed something that people have been calling out for quite some time. Why have you chosen to hold off doing it until now?
Because it's very complicated to do. Assassin's Creed was always a single-player game to begin with. It took us three games to introduce PvP (player versus player). It was in the same universe but you were playing as a Templar avatar in a very separate game mode. In Unity, we set out to unify all these game modes into a single experience. That's when we decided that co-op should be the next main focus but in order to do that we had to rebuild all of our systems to allow them to be replicated over a network and working online. So it took years of development to reproduce and redraft all of our sandbox features for a shared online experience.
Jade Raymond teased pre-announcement that AC Unity was set in her favourite historical era. That said, why have you waited for the seventh game to visit the French Revolution?
We could have tried to do it earlier. We have a roadmap of ideas. We try to have a long-term vision for this brand, and the French Revolution was always part of our plans. The thing is, Paris is a very, very populous city. Even in the eighteenth century there were more than a million people. So we needed to have the technology to allow us to have these dense crowds. This requires a lot of processing power which is available now with the new consoles.
And also it requires the new tools and new systems to be able to craft something interactive and do something interesting with it.
After that, it's building the city itself, which is huge and features a lot of huge, iconic landmarks. These take a long time to create. The Notre Dame cathedral in our game took a year to build. That's just a crazy amount of work. It's a huge investment for just one building.
"We've taken the risk to be next-gen only. So we don't have to worry about the previous generation of hardware"
So you were holding onto this era in wait for the new generation to arrive?
We have parallel teams here at Ubisoft. So while people were finishing and polishing Black Flag, we were already quite far along on AC Unity, so the decision to build the French Revolution was actually made years ago.
The controversy surrounding Watch Dogs and it's failure to meet the visual benchmark set by its earlier trailers hash't been repeated with AC Unity - the game looks every bit as good as was promised. How were you able to achieve what Watch Dogs couldn't? It is down to Ubisoft now having more experience with the new platforms?
It's a simple answer - we've taken the risk in our decision to be next-gen only. So we don't have to worry about the previous generation of hardware - we can focus on targeting the new hardware and trying to make the best out of that. And also, we're at E3, we're coming out this year, we're just a few months from release. You need to show what you're actually going to ship at E3, that's important for us.
Considering the technical successes of AC Unity, do you consider going 'next-gen only' and leaving out last-gen consoles as the preferable approach going forward?
Not necessarily. I would have loved to have our game available for people who don't have the new consoles. It's just a matter of, again, the new technology and our wish to come up with a refreshed experience, rebuild all of our systems, make major new gameplay pillars, and have something that feels new all over again.
With titles like The Division and Watch Dogs, Ubisoft is very much leading the charge with the persistent online console games that break down the traditional barriers between single-player, co-op and multi-player. AC Unity now has co-op, but do you see the series transitioning to a more always-online future in a similar style to those titles?
It could happen. I mean we have an awesome narrative, which is that all of the adventures in AC take place inside the Animus machine. So it offers infinite possibilities, so something to look for I guess, eventually.