“This is why Assassin’s Creed is so beautiful to me,” says Jean Guesdon, Creative Director at Ubisoft Montreal, who has worked on several of the series’ most important games. “It’s a universe that can morph; assassins never were the exact same through the time periods. And so we have ways to keep creative, to keep the values – the more important iconic elements – while actually assessing, accepting, and embracing the specificities of each time period.”
Climbing to new heights
There are few things more endemic to Assassin’s Creed than parkour. Building on what Ubisoft Montreal had learned while developing fluid navigation for Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, the team working on the original game made the cities of Damascus, Acre, and Jerusalem like pedestrianised Grand Theft Auto maps, featuring then-unprecedented vertical scale. But while protagonist Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad’s adventures had allowed him to climb and sprint across the towering walls of the Holy Land, an internal post-mortem after release concluded that parkour was ultimately underutilised.
“A lot of the actual missions we were asking the players to do [in the original] were not relying on the strength of the game,” Guesdon says, who was a game designer for Assassin’s Creed 2. “And so we said ‘Okay, we need to use that as a gameplay block during missions’.”
To better integrate parkour into Assassin’s Creed 2 – which shifted the world forward almost 300 years and relocated the action to Renaissance-era Italy – the team created what they call ‘freerun highways’.
“It was literally a highway for parkouring where, at any given time, the player is able to identify a ramp that would lead up to the rooftops,” explains Philippe Bergeron, Lead Mission Designer on Assassin’s Creed 2. “It became more important to do so, because we added the ability to do air assassinations. We wanted to bring the player up to the higher levels of the city so you have more opportunities to actually kill people down below.”
Assassin’s Creed 2 featured a variety of new elements in its level design to ensure players would make use of the entire city rather than limiting activities to individual landmarks. Markers in the world, such as a white sheet, indicated routes that could be easily climbed up to the rooftops, and strong enemies on the ground would actively chase you to encourage seeking higher elevation. And when high above the streets, guards and snipers ensured that rooftops were not safe sanctuaries away from challenge as they had been in the original game. Combined, these elements made parkour deeply integral to experiencing Assassin’s Creed 2’s world.
Missions were designed to incorporate all of these ideas as well. Objectives chained areas together, and enemies would chase the player through districts. This simultaneously helped integrate mechanics narratively and develop character, too. Early on, for instance, protagonist Ezio Auditore da Firenze spends the night at a girlfriend’s house, but must flee through the city after her father discovers the two of you in bed. This section not only helps tutorialize free-running and stealth mechanics, but quickly establishes Ezio as a cheeky, hot-blooded Italian rogue.
Running with new crowds
Alongside parkour, Ubisoft Montreal knew it had to make improvements to Assassin’s Creed’s social stealth systems, an idea inspired by the crowds used in IO Interactive’s Hitman games.
“[Hitman: Blood Money] had a carnival map in New Orleans, and there’s a massive crowd of people that you could walk through,” Bergeron says. “There wasn’t that much behavior in them, but we still wanted to achieve that dream.”
“It was to completely nail this fantasy of being an assassin and not being seen,” Guesdon says. “Either you dominate the situation from above using the parkour, or you’re at the ground level, just disguised in the middle of everybody and nobody knowing that you’re there.”
While the first Assassin’s Creed featured groups of monks you could blend in with, the sequel offered a more challenging take on hiding in plain sight: the courtesans. “What would happen is, as you walk around with the courtesans, they would peel off one after the other as soon as you met guards,” Bergeron recalls. “So it was like having shield in a shooter game, where every time you encounter an obstacle, a courtesan would peel off.”
Alongside the courtesans, Ezio could also employ the assistance of local thieves, who would assist him while running across the city, and mercenaries, who could help in battle. The three groups bolstered Assassin’s Creed’s three main design pillars of social stealth, parkour, and fighting, which ensured the sequel both played better and was more varied than its predecessor. But all these elements are overshadowed by Assassin’s Creed 2’s biggest change: a full overhaul of the game’s structure.
“Assassin’s Creed’s structure, with the memory blocks, was a bit repetitive, and we were also lacking variety in terms of actions,” Guesdon explains. “This is why we massively reworked the global structure, with the sequences and the memories inside them, and added a lot of side content; other activities, introducing an economic system, having the villa that you could build and upgrade progressively that would give meaning to some other missions and actions. And so all this made AC2 a much more complete game.”
Rather than a series of targets you took down in largely similar methods, Assassin’s Creed 2 embraced its world, and turned Renaissance Italy into a playground filled with collectables, activities, and secrets. It’s a design approach that not only revolutionised Assassin’s Creed, but established the blueprint for many other open world games Ubisoft would go on to make. The impact of Assassin’s Creed 2 can be felt across series like Watch Dogs, Far Cry, and Ghost Recon – not to mention plenty of other non-Ubisoft games. It was a defining moment in the company’s history, and one that would impact the entire gaming community for years to come.
Assassin’s Creed 2 also added one small element that, at the time, no one on the team could have foresaw what it would evolve into. “We were allowed to have water as well,” Bergeron says. “Altaïr was afraid of water, he died when he jumped in it. Ezio was not. That gave us a pretty big dimension. It got us our boats for the first time.”
Two games later, after Brotherhood and Revelations had introduced assassin recruitment and management missions, the little gondolas coasting along the canals of Venice became colossal warships in Assassin’s Creed 3. Fascinatingly, the introduction of the galleons and broadside volleys of naval combat came via something of a destiny’s crossroad moment.
Creating a new frontier
“I saw a couple of designers reviewing a naval battle [prototype] and we knew it had some potential,” says Julien Laferrière, associate producer on Assassin’s Creed 3. The prototype in question had come in from Ubisoft Singapore; the team there had developed a ship-to-ship combat system, albeit without any specific Assassin’s Creed project in mind. The team at Ubisoft Montreal quickly realised that naval battles fit perfectly with their new American Revolution setting. Suddenly it made sense that new protagonist Connor wasn’t just an assassin, but also a ship captain too.
“Just this feeling of being on a ship, firing the cannons and everything, was something really powerful that we knew we had to explore,” Laferrière says. “It branched off very quickly from a prototype to ‘Okay, let’s include it in the game and let’s give the Singapore team this awesome mandate.’ So, that’s how it came to life, and the rest is history.”
Ships were not Ubisoft Montreal’s only bold move with Assassin’s Creed 3. To shift from Renaissance Italy to the colonial American frontier also meant a radical change in environments. After three games with Ezio as the protagonist, the series had become famed for parkour on tall European buildings, and the likes of 18th Century Boston had none of that. Instead, the world design team developed new freerunning routes through the natural woodlands of Massachusetts and New York.
This new frontier was a breath of fresh air for level designers. “For the longest time the assassin was limited to running around on architecture; rocks and trees were a no man’s land,” Bergeron says. “We were not allowed to go there.”
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But Assassin’s Creed 3 allowed Connor to go practically anywhere. “The first discussions we had was about tree navigation,” Bergeron recalls. “We added rock climbing, so putting your hands in cracks and stuff. What we lost in altitude, we gained in network. Because you were using vegetation, it was much more permissible to have wiry branches and slightly less predictable paths.”
“We added trees [into cities] to be able to bridge the gap between architecture, vegetation, and more architecture,” he explains. “These ingredients helped us create a slightly more organic looking city, and that paved the way for games that came after. You look at Origins and Valhalla, and now we’re mainly an [outdoor] environment game. We’re less about architecture and we’re way more about discovering rocks, and planes, and forests.”
Design evolution for both land and sea made Assassin’s Creed 3 a bold new chapter in the series’ lineage. But it was an awkward step forward; the naval combat was entirely separate from the land-based adventures, effectively making it feel like a separate campaign that had little influence on the main story. For what came next, Ubisoft Montreal knew it had to bring those components together.
Sailing on new waters
The inception of Assassin’s Creed 4 may not have come from the source you’d expect, however. “Actually, this one came from marketing,” Guesdon says. “They said ‘Whoa, these ships, we need to do more’.” And so the pirate fantasy of Black Flag was born.
By AC4, Guesdon was in the role of Creative Director. At the helm of this new ship, he helped develop a new vision for an all-encompassing experience of the Golden Age of Piracy.
“I remember one of the first questions the team asked me was ‘How do we mix Assassin’s Creed fantasy and pirate fantasy?’” Guesdon recalls. “And to me, the answer was we needed to come up with one coherent and unified game. I didn’t want to have an Assassin’s Creed game on the ground and a pirate game at sea.”
Black Flag broke Assassin’s Creed 3’s barrier between land and sea; you could walk from a city to the docks, board your ship, and sail out to sea without a single loading screen. Furthermore, its Caribbean map – a huge archipelago of islands – was a true open world, unlike the large but separate cities of past games. It was the breaking of that technical hurdle that made Black Flag’s themes come alive.
“Boats like that are just freedom, basically,” Guesdon says. “You’re the only master on board. After God, it’s really you in charge. Where do I go? This is this message playing just for you.”
The team realised it was important to make all elements of Black Flag integral to the experience as a whole. “We made sure to always try to think about how we ensure what you do at sea would benefit your activities on ground, and vice versa,” Guesdon explains. “To create the sense that both are really interesting, and I can’t just limit myself to one.”
Much of Black Flag felt familiar because it was built atop of Assassin’s Creed 3’s biggest triumphs; the natural landscapes of the Caribbean islands can trace their origins back to the American frontier, and the new combat options – including a brace full of flintlock pistols – is rooted in the dual-wielding birthed in its predecessor. But the glue that bound all this together is Black Flag’s true secret weapon: not a cannon or a cutlass, but a man called Edward Kenway.“It was important for us to show that the world of Assassin’s Creed is bigger than just always being an assassin,” says Darby McDevitt, scriptwriter on Black Flag. “I think it would be akin to, if you were making a Star Wars game, and you always had to be a Jedi. I don’t think the universe would work as well.”
Han Solo analogies aside, Kenway’s privateer-turned-pirate background brought a fresh perspective to the overarching narrative of the series. Rather than being a stoic member of the Assassin’s Brotherhood, he was a chancer looking for profit.
“We thought that if this Assassin’s Creed universe has any legs, it should be able to depict the entire world under the influence of the Assassins and the Templars,” McDevitt says. “So it was the first time that we said, ‘Let’s show this conflict from the outside, looking in.’ And so at the very beginning of AC4, Edward Kenway steals some assassin robes. He doesn’t know who this person is, but he knows that there’s going to be money at the end of it.”
Stealing those robes sparks Edward’s growth from rebel to honorable captain; still an outlaw, but one who can live up to the promises he’s made to his family back in England. And by focusing on Edward’s journey, Black Flag manages to avoid the pitfalls of over-reliance on MacGuffins like the Apple of Eden, a sci-fi device that the series has frequently fallen back on.
“We needed to give him a personality that he could grow out of,” McDevitt says. “And I think people who stick with the character understand that, and they know it’s about a man finding himself.”The sea-faring adventures of Captain Kenway came together fluidly, but Assassin’s Creed isn’t just about the past. The present-day narrative is the thread that links the entire series together, and one that had frequently frustrated players. In Assassin’s Creed 3, the story of modern protagonist Desmond Miles had been concluded in what many fans saw as disappointing fashion, and so Black Flag had the opportunity to reinvent what the present-day framing story could be.
“We were feeling the limitations of constantly having a single man get into an Animus and relive the memory of a pivotal assassin ancestor, simply to sort of find an artifact or a MacGuffin or find some kind of thing in the past that was crucial to the present,” McDevitt recalls. “So we hit on this idea that maybe there was an Animus that could take anyone’s blood and any third party observer could go in and observe anyone else.”
That third party observer would turn out to be the player themselves, rather than any scripted protagonist. This wasn’t a shallow decision, either – it tied into a broader narrative ambition called Initiates. “The idea was that if you were into the modern-day story, you would log on to Initiates and there would be constant, maybe weekly content,” McDevitt explains. “And the idea was to take Black Flag and start to fuse it with Initiates, so that you were actually part of the story.”
Initiates didn’t last long, and the program was completely shut down in 2015. The modern-day story in Black Flag, which ran into Unity, wrapped up in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate a few months after Initiates was retired. With that chapter done, a new approach for the present-day fiction needed to be found for the next project in the series, a prequel set in ancient Egypt called Assassin’s Creed Origins – and that’s where Layla Hassan came in.
“The whole direction with Layla was to have a little explorable space that you could discover”, says Laferrière, who was also associate producer on Origins. As a result, Layla’s modern-day sequences in Origins were far less frequent than in previous games, but were significantly deeper. Rather than being linear narrative chapters, Layla had a laptop that players could freely browse for more information on the larger Assassin’s Creed universe.
“We had a small team on the floor in Montreal dedicated to the present day,” Laferrière says. “They tried to craft every email you could find in a laptop and so on. The pictures you can find as well, there’s some little Easter eggs in there. That’s the sort of mindset that we were embracing for the present day.”
Crafting a new history
But Origins didn’t just reset the series’ modern narrative. It overhauled almost every aspect of the game. Combat, equipment, progression, even the series’ iconic hidden blade were all broken down and rebuilt. “We knew it was a necessary step forward,” Laferrière says. “It’s something that we were feeling for a long time.”
The multiple new directions of Origins all have their roots in one design decision. “We had the opportunity to do a full country with Egypt,” Laferrière explains. “It was about giving a lot of freedom to the player to discover this beautiful world. Obviously, it had to translate into the mechanics.”
The change in mechanics led to a shift in genre for Assassin’s Creed as well. Origins – and its successor, Odyssey – both resemble an RPG far more than the stealth action games the series originated as. The decision to add role-playing elements, where you could invest in skill trees to unlock new abilities, came with the realisation that the team was building a game that would demand dozens and dozens of hours from players. There had to be something to offer long-term player satisfaction.
“I feel that [in previous games] we were focusing a lot on the minute to minute,” Laferrière says. “Okay, I’ve got beautiful, fluid animations, when I plunge my hidden blade in an enemy, it’s really satisfying, and stuff. But I feel like Origins brought a very satisfying hour to hour gameplay.”
“We reward the choices of the player, but from a gameplay perspective,” he adds. “Not only from a tactical point of view, but really in terms of the time investment that the player is making into the game. You have a long term plan, you have a long term strategy for your character based on the gameplay style that you like, and the game really rewards you for it.”
Origins featured three skill trees which allowed players to build protagonist Bayek into the kind of character that suited their playstyle. And while those playstyles were familiar to long-term players – broadly speaking, dedicated to action or stealth – in Origins they felt very different.
For action, the new feel came thanks to an entirely new take on battle. Replacing the “parry-to-autokill” combo system, Origins introduced a more skill-based approach to combat. Mechanically, this meant that instead of being based strictly on a character’s animations, it used hitboxes; every character and weapon has an invisible box drawn around it, and if those items collide with each other, damage is inflicted.
“It’s a lot more reactive, opening up a lot of possibilities,” Laferrière says. “Prior to that, every single move had to be handcrafted by an animator or mo-capped and then paired with the NPCs. Now, the [hitbox] system gave us a lot of freedom to tweak and calibrate and balance. Yes, it’s still based on animations, but what’s driving it is really the data itself. What’s the range of your weapon? How much damage is it doing?”
“We wanted to have a system that would be satisfying after 60, 70, 80 hours of game time,” he adds. “The hitbox system was the way to go because there is a certain mastery to it, a certain rhythm. We needed it because we were going for the long play, basically.”
For players looking to remain true to the series’ stealth roots, some relearning was required. The hidden blade had its always-instant-kill nature removed to reflect Bayek’s inexperience with it. Social stealth was removed entirely; instead of hiding amongst people, the environment was filled with tall grasses and other natural cover. This demanded entirely different strategies from players.
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“We were really focusing on the mechanic itself to blend in with the RPG,” Laferrière says. “It really felt like I’m infiltrating, I’m hiding, I’m using my long range bow to kill my targets, I was leveling up my hidden blade as much as I can. For me, that’s how the stealth was really rewarding in the game. It felt really tactical. I think that’s the take that we had on stealth, it felt more logical.”
The decision to eliminate social stealth mechanics was controversial, but was ultimately made to support the narrative, and because the RPG system changed the way missions worked. Instead of being presented in a linear order by the ‘sequences’ of the Animus, Origins presented gameplay in a non-linear quest format. Quests require quest givers, and that has a huge impact on both story and gameplay presentation.
“We needed Bayek to be recognisable,” says Guesdon, who once again took up the role of Creative Director for Origins. “Because we were embracing the quest [structure], you want people to come to you, to ask for your help, or to share something. And so for that reason, we needed to have a character that would be recognisable by the public. And so not being an assassin, because it’s set before [the start of the Assassins Brotherhood], was actually good for that. And so we had the opportunity to leverage that.”
Bayek was a medjay – something of an Ancient Egyptian police officer – and being a recognisable public figure meant social stealth was impossible from a fiction standpoint. This continued into Ubisoft Quebec’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, where protagonist Kassandra (or Alexios) is a known mercenary. And so social stealth remained absent for another game, traded for further RPG elements like dialogue trees and romance options. But for the next step in Assassin Creed’s evolution, being a blade in the crowd is coming back.
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Building new stories
“On Valhalla we reviewed [feedback] about the stealth, and we felt it was a good opportunity to bring back the social stealth,” Laferrière says, who is now a producer on Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. “Because you are a viking in hostile territory, it makes sense that you cannot always fight your way through. Sometimes you have to blend in, you have to try to hide.”
Alongside the return of social stealth is the resurrection of another lost Assassin’s Creed ingredient: the home base. Not seen since Syndicate’s rolling locomotive stronghold, Valhalla’s players will be able to build a Viking settlement which grows and develops over time. It’s an advancement of ideas that began in locations like Ezio’s villa and Connor’s homestead. “Yes, we had the villa, we had the homestead, but now it’s really reshaping the game structure itself because you have a village to care for,” Laferrière explains. “It’s not a side thing that is optional, it’s really at the center of your decisions. And it’s also the opportunity to see the consequences of your actions.”
Darby McDevitt also adds that, in his new role as Narrative Director for Valhalla, he’s trying a different approach with storytelling to help anchor the game in the Viking fantasy. “The [Icelandic] sagas are very interesting in terms of their structure,” he says. “They don’t tell a story. They’re actually closer to Don Quixote, where you have a character and they go on a series of adventures, but there’s not a driving plot like you would expect in a typical movie like a Lord of the Rings. The story itself is going to be more individual stories that all accumulate up into something larger, something greater than the sum of its parts.”
Along with a new approach to mythology in the form of the Norse pantheon, the siege warfare revealed in the first gameplay trailer, and the inclusion of both Norway and Saxon England as locations, it seems like Valhalla could be another major milestone in the history of Assassin’s Creed. But whatever evolutions the team at Ubisoft Montreal make, they won’t be the last.
“There is no formula,” Guesdon says. “All the teams working on all these games are working hard and always pushing to make the franchise relevant as a modern piece of entertainment. This is why the franchise keeps evolving and adapting. And if we keep this honesty we had at the release of Assassin’s Creed, where we always look at what we’ve done, what are the good things, the less good things, then I have no worry. There are so many talented people working on the franchise, and loving it, and wanting it to carry on, that it could last for a very long time.”
He smiles. “Long live the Creed. Really, I deeply believe in it.”
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Entertainment Writer, and long-time Assassin’s Creed enthusiast.