The grand halls and corridors of the Musée de l’Armée in central Paris are a fitting location for our conversation with Vincent Pontbriand, senior producer on Assassins Creed Unity. He looks at ease in these grand surroundings. “This is the first time in Paris for a lot of our team. They have been working on this game for nearly 4 years, so for them it has been quite overwhelming to see Paris for real”. Vincent now has four Assassins Creed games under his belt, giving him great perspective on the games industry as a whole. In this candid interview with GodisaGeek, he explains the reasons behind Unity’s French Revolution setting, why next-gen only and what his team have done to bring more variety to the much anticipated Assassins Creed Unity.
So, kick us off with how long you guys gave been working on Unity?
“Too long. I’ve been working on Unity since AC Brotherhood, we got to take a vacation after that game though. So that would make it January 2011, so it’s been close to four years. We got our mandate and had to figure out what that meant (for the series), the mandate was “Create the first fully online Assassins Creed”. So we decided early on that the French Revolution would be our setting, and that we wanted to bring in online co-op. That meant figuring out how we took this big sandbox, single player experience and making it work for multiple players. When we made the decision to go next-gen only, that meant bringing in extra programmers and engineers to get the work done.”
At what point in the development cycle was the decision made to go next-gen only? “Pretty early on, it was still in the first year of development. What I wanted to do was to at least have a high end PC version, with better graphics, because I started to see other games be marketed with their PC version as the lead platform. We got confirmation that next-gen hardware was right around the corner, so we said lets really connect to the next-gen, so we can get this right. That meant removing all the dead weight; remove the constraints of trying to innovate but also making a version for last gen.”
It’s a welcome decision; people are waiting for games that really harness the power of their hard earned cash! “Yes, it was also a courageous decision, in business terms, because there is still a huge market share there. But, if we are going to innovate we need to remove the weight on our shoulders of developing everything for everyone.”
So you knew early on that the setting for Unity would be Revolutionary France, Why? “AC is known for using strong pivotal moments in history, there are many of them, obviously, and not many of them could work for the gameplay, they might work in terms of the setting but you need to have cities, crowds, things that are part of the AC brand. You know I’d love to see an AC set in South America, with the Mayans, but it would be a difficult fit. Revolutionary France, specifically Paris, seemed right early on because of the city, the crowds, and the political warfare; we could fit assassins and templars in that setting. It was in our Top 10 – and a lot of people speculated on it, and they were right! We were just waiting for the right moment to do it.”
But why Paris specifically? “Obviously the French Revolution took place all over France, so we could have gone to Lyon or Montpellier, but the most interesting events took place in Paris, and, you know, it’s pretty big, so it was going to be difficult to do more than one city, so we made the decision to make Unity more like AC Brotherhood and focus on the one city, and make it big and varied enough to keep it interesting. This allowed us to be very focused. There is no need for means of transportation, wildlife, crafting and hunting.”
I know you weren’t involved with Black Flag, but tell me, did dropping the naval theme of those games make you nervous at all? Because that has been really popular with gamers. “Yes! Although we couldn’t have known how popular that setting would be with gamers, because none of those games were out when we started this project. I’ve been nervous in the past with other gameplay additions, like adding hunting and crafting to AC 3, or the Naval setting of AC Black Flag.”
“Piracy made me nervous because it is such a bold setting. When you start doing pirates, the next setting is ninjas! It’s just so big. So I was afraid, because we were going back to a truer AC series setting with the French Revolution. All of these things made me nervous, but hey, we are smart, we are still doing the naval thing with AC Rogue, still capitalising on that market.”
What have you done to add more variety to the missions? “An advantage of being very focused is that we don’t have to worry about horses or carts or boats. Our idea was to go back to that core fantasy, of being a true assassin. You know, you get your contract, you find the guy, you sneak up on him, and you kill him, that’s the core gameplay loop. We had the idea of more constrained mission areas back in AC1, better realised with high production values. What was missing back then was all the systems running in the background to make it work. What we have now is systemic gameplay, with a crowd ecosystem, which lets us have way more fun with the mission design. We saw it work really well in Far Cry, so we wanted to have missions that were dynamic, multiple ways to approach each mission, this ads replay value. We think we have included stealth, our fantasy was to stealth in, kill and stealth out. We think it is possible now, it’s hard, and people will fail at it, but it’s possible, and that was never something you could do in previous Assassins Creed games.”
Something that has always fascinated me, have they ever thought about creating an alternative vision of the future for an Assassins Creed game? I know that AC plays with history, but has an altered future ever been on the cards? “Many times, we think about it all the time. Right now our stance on this is that the closer we are to modern timeframes, the higher the expectation is that we need to be similar to other games. 20th century, even 19th century, it’s all firearms, electricity, no more sword fighting. Suddenly you become a shooter, like Watch_Dogs, Watch_Dogs is Watch_Dogs, or we become like Splinter Cell, we don’t want that, we want to be Assassins Creed. As for a future settings? That is something else entirely. One day if we do spinoffs, and we called it Alternate Creed, it could work.”
London next, then? “It has to be on the list. I would love to see a game set in England. But, well, you will have to wait and see.” And of course, we have to end with the all-important question: Where do you keep your ketchup? “In the Fridge! Although I do like room temperature ketchup…”
Thanks to Vincent for his time.