‘This game was made by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs’. This message, which runs at the start of every Assassin's Creed game, started out as a convenient disclaimer for the sensitive subject matter of the original game. After all the conflict between the Christian and Muslim faiths is often headline news. However, since then it has grown to explain so much more about Assassin’s Creed. Each entry in the series now has six or seven separate studios working on the same game from all corners of the globe. Now, that opening screen is more boast than disclaimer--and quite rightly so. The latest iteration--AC4: Black Flag--is one of the most ambitious global projects in games.
That’s why we decided to dig deeper into how the epic Assassin’s Creed games actually get made year after year. Sure, some games use a couple of studios to spread the work-load, but when you’re putting together a jigsaw that has its pieces scattered across Canada, France, eastern Europe, and even Singapore, it becomes a challenge just to keep track of everything, let alone meet deadlines and release a coherent game. To find out how it’s done, we chatted to several people from the Montreal, Annecy and Singapore studios.
Seven. That’s the number of studios working on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Montreal is the base, the creative nerve centre, while studios like Ubisoft Singapore work on the naval combat sections and Ubisoft Annecy craft the multiplayer. What’s the advantage to working like this? Manpower. Jean Guesdon, Creative Director on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag at Ubisoft Montreal, explains: “When you give a mandate to a different studio, you know they’re really going to focus on that specific thing. When you’re working as just a single team or even two studios, there’s a tendency to focus on fewer things to make sure your game gets finished. However, when we spread the content out like we do, to our different studios, features that might be considered optional or secondary become a priority to that studio. So that’s great for the overall game.”
By spreading responsibility for the varied features in the game, Ubisoft can afford to make Assassin’s Creed so diverse. We so often hear development teams say ‘We’d love to do co-op, but we have to focus on getting our story right’ or ‘Yes, spectator mode would be awesome, but we didn’t have time to make it’. By allowing teams like Ubisoft Singapore to create the naval battles in Assassin's Creed 3, Montreal was free to focus on the rest of the game--safe in the knowledge that the naval battles would be up to standard, because it was the sole responsibility for an entire studio.
Not only that, if studios really nail the aspect of the game that they’re working on, it can have a huge impact on the future of the series. Take naval combat for example--Black Flag is built around the idea of sailing and sea warfare, something an associate studio created for AC3.
“It’s a great accolade for us,” explains Karl Luhe, Associate Producer at Ubisoft Singapore. “With AC3 we really went for it and tried to create something new. Throughout our collaboration with Montreal we’ve really been building our team and our skills, and with the naval warfare it was pretty clear early on that we’d made something special. So, when it was decided between the studios that Black Flag would have a larger naval component, that was something we were very proud of.”
It comes as no surprise, given the reaction that other Assassin’s Creed studios had when they first saw the naval warfare in AC3. “When Ubisoft first showed naval warfare at E3 2012, everyone in the crowd was really surprised by it and blown away,” says Damien Kieken, Game Director at Ubisoft Annecy. “We had the exact same reaction a couple of months before E3 when they showed it to us as a gameplay sequence, via the newsletter. Everyone was like ‘That’s amazing’.”