"It was a struggle". That's Damien Kieken, the multiplayer game director for Assassin's Creed, on the prospect of incorporating competitive game modes into a series designed around single player stealth, freedom of movement and one hit kills.
The announcement of multiplayer in Assassin's Creed Brotherhood certainly raised skeptical eyebrows, but the end result won many over with its shrewd understanding of how best to transfer the series' strengths to an online arena. Even so, Damien admits that the multiplayer aspect was "quite complex and hard to get into".
"We saw that when players get it, it was OK, but when you begin you have a lot of things to learn", he accepts. "That's why we're bringing in the Deathmatch mode."
Deathmatch is just one of the new features being added to the multiplayer for Revelations, but it's key to understanding how Ubisoft's Annecy studio, nestled at the foot of the Alps on the Franco-Swiss border, is refining the experience to please as many players as possible. Deathmatch, Damien says, is their way of delivering "the same experience as Wanted, which everyone loved, but in a simpler way, with less rules, less things to learn."
It's also the first mode we get to try as we settle in front of our demo stations, and the difference is immediately obvious. I admired Brotherhood's Wanted mode for its fresh approach to online action, but struggled to make peace with its pace and ended every match as a human pin cushion. In my first Deathmatch, I place first with almost 9000XP.
In principle, little has changed. You still hunt another player, while someone else hunts you. The predator-prey relationship still works beautifully, blending the thrill of the chase with the paranoia of being stalked. It's the little tweaks that make it easier to get into, and more satisfying to succeed.
Screen furniture has been drastically reduced, losing the compass that pointed you towards your quarry in Wanted, and instead giving each player a unique character skin that you'll need to pick out in a crowd. The target portrait still changes colour to tip you off when you're close, but that's all the help you get. And it works, because suddenly you're relying on your own observational skills, your attention fixed on the gameplay area, rather than constantly flicking your gaze downwards to locate your target.
Those who prefer the old style of play needn't start writing furious comments about 'dumbing down', however, as Wanted returns as a legacy mode. "The main purpose is to keep the complex modes, and maybe more complex stuff for those who love it", Damien explains, "But we also wanted to bring new modes that are more streamlined and more straightforward."
Also new in Revelations will be Artefact Assault, a stealthy spin on the old Capture the Flag mechanic. Normally such an obvious addition would warrant little more than a weary roll of the eyes, but the unique qualities of the Assassin's Creed gameplay make it feel pleasingly fresh.
There are no rounds, for one thing. Just two teams of four, each trying to sneak into enemy territory to grab their flag. The map is divided into two, and once on your opponent's turf your role shifts from hunter to hunted, able to stun pursuers but not kill them, subtly changing the way you approach movement, combat and strategy.
What stands out most is how the emphasis on deception, evasion and misdirection fundamentally alters this most familiar of multiplayer setups. Using a disguise ability, you can stroll into the midst of your foes and snatch the flag like a ghost. You can loiter in crowds and pick your moment to strike. Teams can rush the flag from one side, while someone else slips in from the shadows and spirits the prize away over the rooftops.
There's a wonderful counter intuitive inversion of expectations at work. Most players instinctively go for flashy parkour escapes and bold grab attempts. I managed to get the flag back to base by doing the opposite, creeping in while everyone was distracted and then carefully walking back in disguise so as not to arouse suspicion. However you like to play, Revelations seems to find a way to let you specialise.
"Right now on Revelations we are doing different modes, maybe modes that are more oriented to navigation," Damien says by way of example. "We want to provide all experiences, but we know that some players just want stealth. Others just want to run. The idea, balance-wise, is to give tools to everybody. So if you want to run, fine, you can run, but we'll also give a tool to the stealthy guy to catch you."
"We improved the throwing knife. They're much more powerful, so you can be stealthy, see your target running by and use a throwing knife to stop him. In single player you're able to craft lots of bombs so we took one of those, the tripwire bomb. It behaves a bit like a mine, so if you're using stealth in a crowd you can place one of these nearby and if anyone tries to attack you, it blows up in his face and then you can kill him, or stun him."
One of the more surprising additions is a storyline exclusive to the multiplayer side of the game. As in Brotherhood, you're playing as a Templar trainee, using the Animus at an Abstergo facility. Now, however, when you hit specific rank checkpoints you'll be treated to cutscenes that take you deeper into the Templar world, revealing secrets from the dense Assassin's Creed backstory from the bad guy's perspective.
"We never want to break your flow of play", Damien reassures us. "That was one of the main mandates, so the storyline comes between games, while you're loading the next map or doing your customisation stuff. There's a warning that there's a story part coming, and then you can watch it or skip it. If you watch it, it will take a little longer to join the game, maybe thirty seconds after everyone else. If you skip it, we store it for you in the menus and you can watch it whenever you want."
The plan is for the storyline to unlock over the first 50 player levels, putting it within reach for fans who want the whole story within 30 to 50 hours of gameplay. For the hardcore, the game then enters Prestige Mode where those same fifty levels are looped 99 times. So, in theory, that gives truly dedicated players almost five thousand ranks to attain. Those who commit to the long haul will unlock more content.
Is there really an audience for such a mammoth grind? Apparently so. "The guy who played the most on Brotherhood, he played for more than 1500 hours," Damien reveals. "Doing the math, from launch he played at least seven hours per day. So we have fans like that, and they want to be rewarded."
Revelations also looks to be a more social game than Brotherhood, with the addition of what is currently called the Friends Hub. This is a simple drop down menu bar that keeps track of everyone on your Friends List and how they're playing. Much like the Autolog system that EA introduced to its racing games, it provides an additional layer of ambient challenge to a game that already offers XP boosts for performing specific feats. You'll also be able to issue 'dares' to your friends, goading them to kill another player.
The aim is to give players a real time picture of how their skills stack up against the community, as well as offering the stats needed to improve your game. "You can look at the different modes and see which one you're maybe not so good at," Damien explains. "Maybe it's because you're a lower level, so you need to progress more. Maybe you did less challenges. I know which areas I need to improve in order to beat you."
Story scenes, friends lists, prestige modes - it's a lot of framework to bolt onto a game that only made its first tentative steps into multiplayer last year, but it seems to make it stronger rather than buckling under the weight. Assassin's Creed doesn't play like any of the other big blockbuster franchises, and so Revelations seems set to continue the series' parallel yet uniquely tailored multiplayer journey.