With Assassin's Creed 3 nearing completion after three long years of development, we sat down with creative director Alex Hutchinson at the Eurogamer Expo to discuss what the new instalment means for the series - and what will come next.
With considerably more development time than other recent games, can Assassin's Creed 3 finally rid the series of the dogged questions surrounding its annual release cycle? And will the development team be able to maintain the same level of quality next year? We try and put the Assassin's Creed annualisation debate to bed, once and for all.
Eurogamer: Ubisoft told Eurogamer earlier this month that the future of Assassin's Creed 3 hero Connor depends on player reaction. Does that mean another round of sequels is on the way?
Alex Hutchinson: It does all depend on the reaction, and so far that's been great. We'd love to do it. But we also see one of the big draws in Assassin's Creed is its new characters and new locations. So there's a desire to keep things as fresh as possible. Between those two feelings it will be a debate in the office.
EG: You say that like it hasn't happened already, but it's not that long away. How far do you plan ahead - you must have next year's entry planned out fairly well now?
AH: I think we've got better at this. The series' initial success was gratifying and then when we were told we'd be doing it every year... I think the whole leadership group was struggling to get it all together. We do have ideas as to where to take the franchise, but in terms of specifics it's all very malleable until it becomes the next bullet in the chamber.
EG: So at what point will you make the call whether this is another Assassin's Creed 3 sequel or something different?
AH: It's hard to answer that without giving spoilers... Our goal is to ship a game every year but never to develop a game in a year. So obviously there has to be some decision-making before the previous one comes out. If there's a huge response [to Connor] then obviously it will fit into our future plans.
EG: Would you always like to focus on a new protagonist from now on?
AH: As much as possible, yes. But at the same time it's always cool to see people come back if they're used appropriately. I like having the choice that, if people like the current guy, we can bring him back later. We just don't want to be boxed in where we're always stuck with one character, or where we always have to reboot everything. We want to go back and forth.
EG: At Gamescom you gave the analogy of a Radiohead album when talking about the Assassin's Creed series' annualisation. As long as the quality was there, you would buy a Radiohead album even if they released one every year. A lot of people's response to that was that Radiohead don't release an album every year because if they did so, it would be crap.
"Our goal is to ship a game every year but never to develop a game in a year. So obviously there has to be some decision-making before the previous one comes out."
AH: I read that as well. But the thing is, fans still have the assumption that it is just one team. Our band [at Ubisoft Montreal] does not put out an album every year, but the label does. I do agree, we couldn't put out a game like this every year and have it stand up.
EG: If there was no financial pressure would you still release an Assassin's Creed game every year?
AH: There are lots of ways to look at this. I assume the Eurogamer audience is a hardcore audience who buy lots of games. But we know statistically that most people buy 2.7 games per console.
I used to work at Maxis and know that a big percentage of the people who bought the Sims, just bought the Sims. Any game that sells over a couple of million copies is in the mass market and the mass market is probably only buying a few franchises. For them, there's an argument that once a year is not often enough. They have to wait eleven months for the next game!
It's about keeping your franchise alive in the eyes of normal people, not just for hardcore gamers. They know it's coming out, they know it's for Christmas. And it's not just us, it's Madden, it's FIFA, it's Call of Duty doing this too.
EG: Right, but your fans would say that Assassin's Creed is not like these series, which in some aspects remain very similar year after year.
AH: The argument comes back to what I said at Gamescom. If we can't keep the quality up, that's an issue. If it's amazing then I don't have a problem with it being released yearly - because we have more than one group of people working on it.
EG: The argument against this is Assassin's Creed: Revelations, which was generally seen as a casualty of the annual release structure. Will you risk releasing a full trilogy featuring the same character again?
AH: I don't think so. I don't think we'll do that again. With Revelations it wasn't the annualisation, it was the over-familiarity. If it had been radically different and cool then the annual release date wouldn't have been a problem.
EG: So why did you make a third game with the same character?
"With Revelations it wasn't the annualisation, it was the over-familiarity. If it had been radically different and cool then the annual release date wouldn't have been a problem."
AH: Well, I think these things always make perfect sense in hindsight.
EG: Everyone liked Ezio, right?
AH: Yeah, exactly.
EG: And then the third Ezio game came along and everyone was a bit...
AH: Right - we didn't know until it was done. It's easy to say - well, we shouldn't have added that feature.
EG: Like Revelations' tower defense?
AH: Exactly. It's easy to pick these things up in the rear view mirror, but it's not often as easy in development.
Everyone says Return of the Jedi is great until the Ewoks come in, but they didn't it set out [for people to react that way]. Games, like every creative medium, are a confluence of a lot of factors. If you could guarantee they were all going to score 9/10 you'd be rich. You'd be incredibly rich.
EG: So with Assassin's Creed 3 hopefully raising the bar to that 9/10 mark after three years of development, will you be able to keep up the same level of quality next year?
AH: I think we're doing better at it now just because we've had more time to plan. All the games are getting more time, more than perhaps they have done in the past.
Unlike other franchises, and there are probably some around here, which are stuck in a particular time or character, we can provide much other changes. It's easier to get excited about a new game.
EG: Which franchises do you mean?
AH: I'm sure you have some ideas.
"I think when all's said and done, Desmond is one of those characters you'll like once he's had his moment in the sun."
EG: Modern day protagonist Desmond bucks that trend. He's become a bit of a hangover - you're smiling because I think you agree - how do you invest players in these arc-heavy characters who do stick around?
AH: It's a huge challenge and I think what you're implying is true - none of the games have really pulled it off yet. I think when all's said and done, Desmond is one of those characters you'll like once he's had his moment in the sun. No one really liked Luke Skywalker during Star Wars. But when it finished you realised he was a "noob" with a character arc. So in retrospect I think it'll work.
EG: So we'll be playing as him again?
AH: Yes, that's something we really wanted to get to. And him doing things, rather than just complaining.
EG: And being a voice while we play Tetris.
AH: [Smiles] Exactly.