This week sees the release of the latest in one of gaming's biggest franchises: Assassin's Creed.
In just a year Ubisoft Montreal has turned around Brotherhood – a game it insists is more than just Assassin's Creed 2.5. It adds multiplayer for the first time, and presents a game world bigger than any in the stab-em-up series.
On the eve of the its US launch (and only a couple of hours before Eurogamer's review goes live), we sit down with Assassin's Creed's design technical director Mathieu Gagnon to discuss the ups and down of Brotherhood's blisteringly fast development.
Eurogamer: How would you describe the experience you've had developing the game?
Mathieu Gagnon: Seeing as I've been on the Assassin's Creed franchise since Assassin's Creed 1, through different jobs – I was a tool tester on AC1 and a game designer on ACII - now being a technical director, it has definitely been a challenge.
The single-player aspect of the game was done in one year, basically. We finished off ACII, we went on vacation and started on Brotherhood. The multiplayer guys have been at it for a little bit longer, but pumping out a single-player game that's longer than the single-player game of ACII has been quite a challenge indeed in the one year we've had.
For me, it has been the experience of a lifetime. Hard work, long hours, but in the end, complete and total satisfaction with the final product.
Eurogamer: You're knackered?
Mathieu Gagnon: Oh yeah! We're going on vacation very soon.
Eurogamer: Time was a challenge, but was there any technical challenge you experienced?
Mathieu Gagnon: The Guild was a big challenge. The Thieves, Courtesans and Mercenaries on ACII were a first step, but we took it further with the use of the Assassins anywhere, anytime, during your missions. That was one of the biggest technical challenges – getting the Assassins to work properly inside the game.
The second was all the work we did on the horse. Getting the NPCs to ride correctly on the horses and getting the Assassin to fight correctly on the horse was a big challenge – all of this and making it seamless within the world.
The level design has implications with having the horse anywhere – it's the first time you can go inside the city with the horse. That came with its surprises along the way.
Eurogamer: Like what?
Mathieu Gagnon: The horse can jump, but you have to have a certain distance. You can't make that gap too long or else it doesn't look realistic. This added new constraints as far as building our world was concerned.
We had to go back and forth with the behaviour to make sure it properly worked with these constraints. It was an interesting challenge to add this new element to the game.
Eurogamer: Did you motion-capture the horse? How did you make it so realistic?
Mathieu Gagnon: We do have mo-cap sessions for characters. I'm not sure if we did it on animals, but we have very competent people. Regardless, when you mo-cap, you always have to go back and re-touch it by a human animator.
The guys did a fantastic job of doing so, because the result we have on screen is much better than in previous Assassin's games, and is a pleasure to watch.
Another thing our animators worked hard on was the fight system. Before, you were waiting for the enemies to attack you and taking that opportunity to counter attack. We switched that philosophy around for a strike first, strike fast approach.
Once you've killed your first enemy, that sets up a combo you can then chain all of the other enemies around you – provided you don't get hit or interrupted during this combo. It brings an interesting feel to the player. Also, it's visually exceptional because our animators changed a lot of the animations for the sword kills, dagger kills and the weapons we have in the game.
Eurogamer: What was the split between changes made based on fan feedback and those the team wanted to implement?
Mathieu Gagnon: The AC team in Montreal, we pride ourselves in listening to the feedback we get on every game we release and try to improve based on that.
AC1 got criticised for being repetitive. We came in with more gameplay and variety inside ACII – that was one of the main focuses we wanted to bring to it.
With Brotherhood we wanted to kick it up a notch because there were a lot of things left on the table during development of ACII. We always have our own ideas, but we do always listen to the feedback to make sure whatever gets criticised, we fix and make better.
Eurogamer: What was left on table from ACII that you picked back up for Brotherhood?
Mathieu Gagnon: We wanted to have more things that were systemic in our world, meaning the world would live with objectives you don't have to say, 'Okay, I want to do this now.' It just exists.
The Borgia Towers we brought in for Brotherhood is a good example of this. You have 12 Borgia captains that exist in the world. Once you've killed the captain, your goal is to capture the Borgia Tower. Once that's done the Assassins can take control over Rome and reduce the influence of the Borgia.
That was one of the main things – having more of these systemic ingredients, these alive ingredients that exist in the world, these missions, these objectives the player doesn't have to choose but can just do along the way.
Eurogamer: We're halfway through the lifetime of the current generation of consoles. How have you increased the visual level throughout the series using hardware that's stayed the same?
Mathieu Gagnon: Obviously we have amazing programmers and artists that can maximise whatever the consoles are able to put out. Due to the fact our engine has reached this maturity - we've developed on the same engine for four years now – we've always iterated on it.
Every time we iterate, every time we get this new little trick, this new little bit of code, this new artistic style to make it cheaper and still look beautiful, it allows us to push the consoles to their limit.
Eurogamer: Is there little room left from the current generation? Are you getting out the most possible with your engine?
Mathieu Gagnon: Since the consoles have been there for this time, we're pretty much there. You can see in all of the games that exist right now, seldom do they look as good as Assassin's Creed.
The reality is having this maturity brings it to a certain level where we just have to deal with the constraints and push it as far as we can.
Eurogamer: If I've never played an Assassin's Creed before, why should I play Brotherhood?
Mathieu Gagnon: I'd first suggest you look up what our story is, what the premise is. The premise of the AC franchise is the Assassins versus the Templars throughout history.
If you're a history fanatic, the franchise is also about reliving key moments in history. What's interesting with Brotherhood is we went back to the Renaissance and Italy because we felt we hadn't said everything we had to say about this period and this character that is Ezio.
If you just look it up, find a bit of information about the story, and find it interesting, for sure the gameplay is going to sell you. I hate the word 'formula', but our controls work really well. They've been consistent since AC1. You can pick up and play this game easily.
Eurogamer: Can people use Assassin's Creed as a learning tool? Is it accurate enough for people to learn from?
Mathieu Gagnon: Graphically, we do try to get it as spot on as we can. Developers who have travelled to Rome are amazed at how much, when you're there and beside certain landmarks, it's exactly the same as in the game.
Also, we have great writers who look up their historical facts. A lot of the characters that are in the game are real characters that existed. We do interpret as far as our story is concerned, so it is not necessarily a learning tool, but definitely something to entice you to look at the history of what happened during the Renaissance in Italy.
My Wikipedia is always next to me when I play AC. Even being on the dev team, it does throw me curve balls I don't expect and I have to look them up because I'm just not that knowledgeable as far as history is concerned.
Eurogamer: Any examples?
Mathieu Gagnon: The Subject 16 puzzles are very cerebral. That's one of the parts of the game where I was like, 'What? What's he trying to tell me?' And then I go look it up and figure out, 'Oh yeah, that did happen in real life.'
Eurogamer: What was the biggest criticism of ACII from fans?
Mathieu Gagnon: I don't know if it came up in reviews or consumer feedback, but having the ability to replay any mission, any time, to me is huge.
You had in ACII the Flying Machine mission, which was different and out of context. But you could only do it once. Now we've come back with these types of missions that are out of context as well – this time around they're called the Leonardo Inventions, the Flying Machine was one of Leonardo Da Vinci's inventions. But we've pushed it further. We've added more of those.
Not only do you get to have these new experiences, but you can, once you've completed them, go back to the DNA and select that mission again and do it over. To give incentive for the players to replay those missions, we've added optional objectives during the course of your mission you can complete. For example, 'Do not get detected during this mission.' If you do get detected, we show it up on screen, saying, 'Secondary Objective failed.'
This means at the end of the mission you'll only have a 60 per cent synch total. You're trying to get full synch between Desmond and Ezio, so having 60 per cent synch total makes you think, 'Oh, I'll go back, play that mission again and try to get the 100 per cent synch this time around.'
I don't know if that was part of the criticism that came up in the reviews, but me as a developer, that's one of the features I'm so proud we got in Brotherhood.
Eurogamer: Did you explore co-op for the campaign? What are the design challenges there?
Mathieu Gagnon: Co-op for the campaign is quite tricky because we've been a single-player franchise from the beginning.
It's not something we haven't thought about, but for a one-year endeavour of pulling out a game as huge as Brotherhood is, it wasn't on top of the priority list. I wouldn't go as far as to say we didn't look into it, but it quickly became obvious that we'd never have time with the resources we had to actually make this happen in a triple-A manner. That's why it was left on the table.
Will it come for other games? Your guess is as good as mine.
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Eurogamer: But co-op can work. It's technically possible.
Mathieu Gagnon: For any game, anything is technically possible provided you have the resources and the right programmers, artists, level designers and game designers to make it happen. It's all a question of time and resources.
Eurogamer: Is the Assassin's Creed story and the periods it will deal with mapped out so in future games it all ties together and you avoid plot holes?
Mathieu Gagnon: What's beautiful about this industry is we always have to adjust. I don't think anything in this business can be planned out five years ahead. It's really difficult because you never know what's going to happen.
Is there a new console coming out? Is there a new peripheral coming out you want to exploit? The same goes for the story. We have really good writers that I'm sure have a long term vision for the franchise, but I don't think there are five scripts written for the five next games.
We make enough effort and they have enough work for the current game they're working on that that long-term hard evidence doesn't really exist.
Eurogamer: But there will be someone somewhere who has all this information in his or her head.
Mathieu Gagnon: As developers, we're passionate about it. Especially the AC team – when we're at work we just talk about this game all the time. Obviously there are discussions about what's coming next. Like I said, we have talented writers who have already had this brainstorming part, of where is the franchise going? Of that, I am certain.
Eurogamer: What's next for the team?
Mathieu Gagnon: Vacations! That's what's next. As far as further than that, we'll see what our managers have in store for us.
Mathieu Gagnon is design technical director of Assassin's Creed in Montreal.