Assassin’s Creed III is the biggest game that Ubisoft, one of the world’s biggest game publishers, has ever attempted. That alone should convey everything you need to know about the scale of its ambition. At its conclusion, the project’s development cycle will have spanned three years. Roughly 600 members of Ubisoft Montreal’s staff will have worked on it, supported by numerous other Ubisoft studios around the world, including Quebec City, Bucharest and Singapore.
Over 5,000 unique animations have been created for the new assassin protagonist Connor Kenway alone, which would take over an hour to watch if viewed in sequence. Shifting the series’ setting to the American Revolutionary War meant the character team needed to build approximately 120 new crowd NPCs, just to ensure that it looked like the right century. The game boasts 145 brand new design features, each of which has an exhaustive sign-off document detailing how it should function in the game. Topping all this off is a muscular new proprietary game engine dubbed AnvilNext.
Yet in spite of the slew of high-profile releases from other studios slipping to 2013, ACIII will hit shelves at the end of October, which is precisely the target Ubisoft chiselled out at the very outset of preproduction. Walking through the so-called ‘Assassin’s floor’ during a recent visit to Ubisoft Montreal – surveying the vast expanse of desks, computer monitors and determined faces – it’s hard not to allow the sheer implausibility of the whole undertaking to leave us nursing a sudden bout of vertigo. How do you make one of the most ambitious games of this generation? That’s precisely the question we came to Montreal to answer.
The process of shipping any sufficiently advanced videogame is indistinguishable from magic. And you’ll even hear this kind of language from some of the magicians conjuring the voodoo. When we ask Francois Pelland, ACIII’s senior producer, how the project’s countless threads get braided together in order to ship the game on time, instead of talking about milestones and production pipelines, he indulges in a more metaphysical explanation.
“There have been a lot of discussions in the past,” says Pelland, “where people have been saying, you know, there’s this magic on an AC production. At some point we were saying, ‘This is weird. It’s that magic!’ And it’s really amazing. I have seen it a couple of times with the first playable prototype, or the end of preproduction, or the E3 build. Things converge right on the day. You leave at night at 11pm saying it’s going to be tough, and the next day you look at things and something’s happened. There’s something that happened in the past few hours…. When you say, ‘All right, this is it. It’s time to crunch. It’s time to put everything in,’ the velocity of this team, and the result you get is phenomenal.”
But even the most confounding of magic tricks has a mechanical explanation. And although it’s perhaps less romantic, the incremental journey to completing Assassin’s Creed III is little less remarkable.
In January 2010, Alex Hutchinson joined Ubisoft as the creative director of ACIII. He and a core team of about 20 engineers and designers sat down to begin high-level discussions about what shape the game would take. Assassin’s Creed II had just shipped and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but everybody knew they had to push forward into unexplored territory.
“You know you can’t ship the same thing over and over again,” says Hutchinson, reflecting on this moment. “So we had this weird problem of the company saying, ‘Change everything, but keep it exactly the same.’ We had to find that sweet spot between refreshing the brand and changing it so much that it isn’t Assassin’s Creed any more.”