Assassin’s Creed Origins was the culmination of 10 years of learning, innovation, and evolution that grew the Assassin’s Creed series from a single game into a massive multimedia franchise. Origins’ creative director, Jean Guesdon (who also directed Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag), has been with the franchise almost since it began, joining the original Assassin’s Creed team during its last year of production in 2006. At the 2018 Game Developer’s Conference, Guesdon took the stage to reflect on the series’ successes, its missteps, and how far it’s come over the past decade, beginning with the creation of the first Assassin’s Creed.
Defining the Brand
“Back in 2004… the team behind Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time got the mandate to prepare for [Xbox 360 and PS3], and to also reinvent the action-adventure genre,” Guesdon says. Over time, their ideas for a new Prince of Persia evolved into something that was faster, edgier, and more grounded in reality than Prince of Persia’s fantasy setting. There was a push toward something more mature, something focused on modernity and realism while presenting a new kind of take on the Middle Ages.
“One important [decision] was to have a more realistic treatment, and to accept the M-rating,” says Guesdon. “This was not the case with [Prince of Persia]. This was a big step forward, also. And with this realistic treatment came the present day [setting]. The reason behind the present day in the first place is to create relatedness between the audience and the setting.”
Assassin’s Creed’s present-day storyline, which revolved around protagonist Desmond Miles reliving an ancestor’s genetic memories in an ultramodern lab, balanced the medieval action with DNA imagery and synthetic stylishness, creating something unlike anything that came before. At the same time, other stylistic elements emerged that would become hallmarks of the series, not the least of which were the beaked hoods and eagle-related names of the series’ protagonists. The association with eagles is more than cosmetic, says Guesdon; it’s visible “even [in] the posing of Altair, and in this notion that the Assassin is really dominating the situation. He is overlooking the world from above, ready to strike whenever he wants.”
Among the breakthroughs of the first game was the creation of its open world, through which players could freely parkour in ways that had only really been attempted in Prince of Persia’s more linear platforming levels. This was no mean feat, and it pushed the developers to create new technology, the Anvil engine, to render the game’s highly interactive cities, photorealistic architecture, and crowded streets.
“When you develop the engine at the same time you develop the content, there is a risk,” says Guesdon. “Builds are not stable enough, so you cannot properly develop the gameplay and the full experience.” When the game arrived in stores, says Guesdon, it met with immediate success – but also heavy criticism. “We had mixed reviews, because we were lacking of things to do,” says Guesdon. “There was too much repetitiveness. Some of the journalists even said, ‘is it just a tech demo?’ … We really needed [Assassin’s Creed II] to deliver the full promise of what Assassin’s Creed was.”
Refining the Formula
In creating Assassin’s Creed II, Guesdon says, the team’s mandate was straightforward, but extremely challenging: replicate the success of the first Assassin’s Creed, while also fixing all of its problems. “We thoroughly analyzed Assassin’s Creed, doing a postmortem,” he says. “What we realized was that the actual missions of Assassin’s Creed 1 were not asking players to do what they were enjoying. We were asking you to sit on a bench and pickpocket guys, while when you were playing alone, you just liked to parkour, to fight, and to blend. This was the first learning that helped shape Assassin’s Creed II. We identified our three main gameplay pillars: the fight, the navigation, and the social stealth. And the entire game was designed around these pillars.”
The specialized guards you faced in Assassin’s Creed II – the Brutes, Agiles, and Seekers – were each designed to challenge you on one of the three pillars, while the mercenaries, thieves, and courtesans you could hire each bolstered a particular pillar. “So in the end, all the design loops were focused on actually supporting and making players use these pillars,” says Guesdon.
Assassin’s Creed II is also where the series’ multilayered narrative began to really take shape, with a bigger focus on the First Civilization and the centuries-long conspiracy behind the Templars. The developers also took a more involved approach to history, working with historians in an effort to bring the Italian Renaissance to life.
“When talking about history, it’s not about… a very old engraving of a very old man,” says Guesdon, pointing to a picture of an ancient, bearded Leonardo da Vinci. “The Leonardo da Vinci that you meet in the game is this young, petulant, and very dynamic man. And we think like that – we were giving players the joy, the excitement to live history, to be part of it.”
With just two years to create the game, the developers had to change the way they worked, collaborating with multiple Ubisoft studios to shoulder different aspects of the game. Ubisoft Annecy developed the city-building management sim in Monteriggioni, while the then-new Singapore studio created the secret locations players could discover and parkour through. A second team in Montreal, meanwhile, added some of the game’s more exotic moments, such as the da Vinci glider mission and the mountain carriage chase. This cross-studio collaboration would become instrumental in the series’ development going forward.
Keeping It Fresh
“If we talk about yearly releases, it only could be done working with multiple core teams,” says Guesdon. “I’m not talking about multiple teams collaborating on one game. This was a brand-new thing. It was big. It was actually having multiple core teams working in parallel. If you look at the first core team, the original one that made AC1, they were behind ACII, also.”
So while that team went on to create Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood in 2010, Guesdon says, a second core team in Montreal began work on Assassin’s Creed III. Then, in 2011, as the first team began work on Assassin’s Creed Unity, a third team was formed to develop Assassin’s Creed Revelations.
In addition to these core teams, multiple supporting teams worked to create specific aspects of each game – and if those aspects weren’t working out, the compartmentalized approach would make it easier to cut or alter them. And in the midst of all this collaboration and parallel development, the teams had one overriding goal: “Each game had the mandate to stay fresh, to bring something new to the franchise and to the gamers,” says Guesdon.
In Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, that meant the addition of the Brotherhood – which let players recruit and summon Assassins into combat – and multiplayer, while Revelations added the hookblade and Desmond’s modern-day “Animus Limbo” segments. From Assassin’s Creed III’s wilderness and Black Flag’s seamless naval world to Unity’s co-op and Syndicate’s dual protagonists, each new installment brought something original to make it unique.
“Some of them lasted, for example the naval [exploration], some of them didn’t – think about the tower-defense Templar stuff in Revelations,” says Guesdon. “But the idea was to try, to always try. Even if we knew the global structure, every single game brought something [new] to the players and the franchise.”
The series’ narrative also got a shake-up with Assassin’s Creed III, which brought the Desmond storyline to a close. “[Desmond’s story] was really important, because it was the glue between all the episodes, all of the first games. It was connecting time periods that had nothing to do with another… but at some point, it was really becoming constraining,” says Guesdon. “We wanted… to be able to put the audience at the center of our universe. Our vision behind that was… when Desmond saved the world, the real world and our fictitious world were colliding. Since then, the present day of Assassin’s Creed is our real world. We wanted players to actually be part of this universe.”
Instead of Desmond and his genetically preordained destiny, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag introduced Abstergo Entertainment, which Guesdon describes as a way to make genetic memories accessible to everyone. Its present-day protagonist was meant to be the player, who experienced the story from a first-person perspective. The idea was expanded in Assassin’s Creed Unity, with the player contacted by the Assassins through Abstergo Entertainment’s Helix device – and with Unity, Guesdon says, the series hit a snag.
“If you remember Assassin’s Creed 1, [Unity] had some similarities, because there was a lot of work being done at a very low level in terms of tech,” says Guesdon. “The engine was massively revamped, with some fantastic rendering things. Today, Unity is still one of the best-looking games ever. But at the same time, we moved to a one-to-one scale [world] that had an impact on the navigation, and so the gameplay was affected. We fell again into this trap of working a lot on the tech, and not allowing the teams that create the content [enough freedom] to actually come up with something new.”
This, Guesdon says, created “the perfect conditions for the perfect storm,” leading to a game that was visually polished but lacking in gameplay innovations. It also initially required that certain content be unlocked with the Initiates website and app, which wasn’t well received.
“Having content locked in the game that was asking you to do things on the website, people were like, ‘What’s that for, exactly? Are you kidding?'” says Guesdon. “In short, we probably flew too close to the sun. We were a bit overconfident. And this is why Syndicate had to really focus on quality, which the team did very, very well.”
A New Beginning
When development began on Assassin’s Creed Origins in 2014, it was clear that the series was due for a “big-league refresh,” Guesdon says. “The four big directions I gave to the team were: We need to show that we mastered open-world creation. We need to find a better if not perfect balance between story and player. We need to be a not-skippable episode in the AC universe, and to remain a connected game, even without co-op. We need to show that being part of the community brings value to your overall experience. We are not a competitive franchise, but the community’s very strong, and we need to leverage that.”
The goal was to give players more freedom than any previous Assassin’s Creed, building interwoven systems that players could experiment with to create their own fun – luring predatory animals into bandit camps, for example, or using carefully laid oil pots and a torch-lit arrow to trap enemy soldiers in a surprise inferno. To make this more achievable, the developers pursued what Guesdon describes as an “archipelago” structure, with a procedurally generated world filled with handcrafted “islands” of content – the cities, landmarks, and noteworthy geography of Ancient Egypt.
“It’s good to have a big world, but we needed to fill it in a meaningful way,” says Guesdon. That next step involved the creation of global artificial intelligence to govern the world’s inhabitants. “Think about it as a [real-time strategy] AI set on top of an open-world game, where people have their [own] agenda,” says Guesdon. This helped create a believable world that could also bring together the game’s overlapping systems – governing fire, weather, predatory animals, physics, hostile bandits, and so on – to create emergent situations the developers hadn’t originally envisioned. Along the same lines, the fighting moved from a system of paired animations – locking the player and an enemy into pre-animated sequences depending on whether, say, a hit landed or was blocked – to hitboxes, creating more openness and versatility in how players and enemies approached combat.
“It was a cultural shift for the developers, not just a technological one,” says Guesdon. “We kept repeating to the team, we should focus on the experience, and not the scripting or hard coding. Players don’t care about our coding, they just care about their experience. We needed to understand that losing a bit of control would bring more fun to the players, rather than creating issues.”
The changes would be deeper than a more dynamic world, though. A big question the team had to keep asking itself was which elements Assassin’s Creed Origins should keep, and which ones it should change. Huge buildings were rare in Ancient Egypt, so climbing became more focused on cliffs and mountains, gradually expanding to nearly any vertical surface in the game world. Viewpoints and Leaps of Faith were kept, but the mechanic of using them to unfog the world map was removed, because it “was feeling very old,” Guesdon says.
Another iconic element that needed a change, says Guesdon, was the Hidden Blade, which he describes as “the nuclear weapon of Assassins,” and which was getting in the way of character progression. If players can kill anything with one Hidden Blade strike, the team realized, they won’t care about raising their level or upgrading their weapons. The social stealth, meanwhile, was removed entirely, because it didn’t make as much sense for Bayek’s character. “He’s not per se an Assassin, he’s more proto-Assassin, more of a warrior,” Guesdon says. “It doesn’t make any real sense to have him with big axes hiding among civilians. So we decided to focus instead on environmental stealth.”
Assassin’s Creed Origins capped off a first decade largely defined by collaboration, with each Assassin’s Creed bringing together multiple creative forces to try new things, improve whatever didn’t work previously, and give each installment in the series a unique identity. “You need to be able to adapt to opportunities or issues, and remain open, so you can work with others that will bring you solutions,” says Guesdon, “It’s this constant flux between solidity – not stiffness – and flexibility.”