This month, Ubisoft Montreal are taking us back where it all began in Assassin’s Creed: Origins. We caught up with Creative Director, Jean Guesdon.
I’ve been a stalwart supporter of the Assassin’s Creed franchise since I first marvelled at the horse animations in a demo of the original early in 2007. I even happily played – and enjoyed – Assassin’s Creed: Unity in its entirety, once the major bugs were patched. But by the time Syndicate released in 2015, like spent chewing gum, the flavour had waned. Although Syndicate was a solid game in its own right, in my opinion, it had stepped forward too far into the realm of modernity. After playing practically every Assassin’s Creed title launched, the mechanics felt tired to the point of feeling trite. So I was relieved to hear that Ubisoft was pulling the series out of the front line to rest and recuperate. After playing a little of the campaign so far this year, it feels like it was the right decision.
Ancient Egypt has been a speculated historical era for as long as the series has existed. The period architecture, culture and mystique offer up boundless opportunities for an Assassin’s Creed narrative.
“We decided it would be Ancient Egypt very early in the development process,” says creative director at Ubisoft Montreal, Jean Guesdon. “Work began on Assassin’s Creed: Origins right after the release of Black Flag, and from the start we knew we wanted to tell that story of the origins of the Brotherhood and that this story would need an ambitious setting.
“We were also at a time when the technology would actually allow us to develop an entire and seamless country. We chose this particular time period because it offers the most amount of mystery and discovery that we can get from Ancient Egypt.
“In this land of Gods, pyramids and mummies, Ancient Egypt triggers fantasies and mystery that we aim to deliver on in the most epic way possible. What is underneath the great pyramids? Who are these men with animal heads? Who were the Gods and what did they do? How does this all lead to the birth of the Brotherhood? This is what our players will discover.”
With over 3,000 years of Ancient Egyptian history to sift through for the Origins setting, the team decided against the more popular and well-known eras associated with the period.
“When you say Ancient Egypt, people mostly think about Rameses or Tutankhamun, but we did our research and discovered that there was not much at that time that could fit with the story we wanted to tell and the world we wanted to build,” Guesdon explains. “That’s why we finally chose to set the action in Ptolemaic Egypt and, more precisely, during Cleopatra’s ascension to the throne.
“It also allows us to alternate between ‘modern’ locations such as Alexandria and more old, traditional regions such as the city of Memphis that is much more organic, featuring recent buildings but also old ruins and mysteries. Last but not least, this very time period is a pivotal moment for Egypt. After centuries of grandeur and accomplishments, Ancient Egypt is now at the beginning of its demise. Soon the line of pharaohs will end, the gods will die and the way of life will forever change. A new world order is coming. And it all starts with these bigger than life people like Cleopatra fighting to ascend her throne, her brother and boy king Ptolemy the XIII, and legendary Roman leader, Julius Caesar.”
Interestingly, in terms of capturing the aesthetic of Ancient Egypt, Guesdon notes that the dev team decided to consult Egyptologists and literature for direction as opposed to conducting field trips to the region for research.
“One of the big differences from previous Assassin’s Creed games is that we go much further back in the time than in previous instalments. Due to this, we focused on working very closely with historians and Egyptian experts to help us fill in the gaps of Ancient Egyptian life not easily found in history books.”
Guesdon continues: “For some elements, this lack of reference also challenged us to create and illustrate parts of Ancient Egypt rather than re-create known history. For this, we heavily relied on the amazing work done by our art team to really capture the look and overall feel of what Ancient Egypt would have been like at the time.”
The pioneering Assassin’s Creed franchise has always been an ambitious series that adopted an annual release cycle business model following Assassin’s Creed 2 in 2009. But fatigue is inevitable, and the work involved in consistently trying to improve, expand and innovate a formula on a yearly basis would be an arduous – and indeed unenviable – task.
Taking a year out from the annual grind, according to Guesdon, has paid dividends.
“We revamped pretty much all the core pillars of the experience for Assassin’s Creed: Origins to make it much more of an action-RPG than previous opuses. Now, how the level of the hero compares with the ones of the enemies is crucial. This new RPG orientation also impacts the progression that allows for more specialisation than before.
“As for game systems, first of all, we radically changed the paradigm of the fight, moving from a paired animations system to a ‘hitbox’ system. With this new system, the players’ positioning as well as the size and the speed of their weapon decide if and how they hit their enemies.
“Secondly, we moved our narrative to a quest-based structure, so now players can pick up multiple quests, have them all be available simultaneously and decide their order and priority. This gives autonomy to players while giving us an opportunity to tell hundreds of Egypt’s stories. Players that delve deep into the quest system will experience intersecting stories, letting them explore deeper relationships and ties with in-game characters.
“Last but not least, we created from scratch a brand new AI framework. In Origins, most NPCs have full day cycles where they work, socialise, eat, go to the bathroom, sleep and so on based on their role in the world. Bandits ambush and steal, Ptolemaic soldiers collect taxes and protect their military locations, priests manage their temples, farmers farm, lions hunt, gazelles roam and sleep, etc. Most NPCs are ever persistent and will live their life even if the player is kilometers away.
“So while Origins is still true to the franchise and its core DNA, we have drastically modernised the gameplay experience to make it deeper and more open than ever before.”