It’s a crisp wintry day in Montreal, but right now sat in the warm Ubisoft offices chatting to the enormously genial Sebastien Puel - producer on the impending and hotly anticipated sequel to Assassin’s Creed - you wouldn’t think so.
Puel has taken time out to talk with us after wrapping up an extremely busy period working hard on the next chapter in a franchise that carries a gargantuan weight of expectation upon its lithe, athletic shoulders. We quizzed Puel about handling the burden of so much hype and much, much more.
Be warned, there are a few light spoilers ahead…
Strategy Informer: First of all, we have to ask what element of the original Assassin’s Creed did you look at and want to immediately rectify for the sequel?
Sebastien Puel: The first game was more than successful, because I think it brought something that was very new to the industry in terms of visual quality in an open environment. With this kind of visual quality, where in the city you can see 600 metres away or whatever, doing that, there were still a few flaws that gamers and journalists spotted and the main one was repetition.
So, basically we started AC2 by taking each component of the game like fighting, mission structure and even the free running and then discussed how we can bring the depth that maybe was missing last time. The main focus was on mission structure. We wanted something that would be very legible to the player, so that when you’ve done this kind of sequence of investigation in a mission once, you start to know when you need to make a decision by yourself and maybe you develop in between.
We decided to go with a much more organic structure, much more mission driven, historically and emotionally. And we we’re building this towards around maybe 20 hours of gameplay, just for the main path. We were building it, just really taking the story and making sure that each mission is different. You can start with an assassination and then follow a lead, then use the flying machine, but there is no set pattern and at no point in the game can you know what the next mission might be. We wanted a game that at each point is not predictable and when you play, you’ll see that’s what we’ve achieved.
Sebastien Puel, producer on Assassin’s Creed II and hugely affable French fellow.
Ezio dives with real grace. And he can swim.
Strategy Informer: Did you take the criticisms levelled at the first game to heart or did they provide inspiration for the sequel?
Sebastien Puel: When you finish something as big as AC1, first you rest, and then you really take the time to read the forums and all the reviews, then that becomes background. I’m not saying that we’re ticking point by point everything we have and we decide after that, it’s more like having this general idea of what are the top two or three issues we need to address. But then we don’t always stick with that, because the creativity of the team comes first. But yes, we are listening and will be listening to any criticisms of AC2, because I think that’s how you progress with the game. You will see that AC2 is not just a sequel; it’s really changed in many, many ways while still keeping the same level of quality that was in AC1.
Strategy Informer: You say there were two or three issues you wanted to address for Assassin’s Creed II. If the first was repetition, what were the other two?
Sebastien Puel: Fighting and mission structure. For the fights, we just wanted to make sure we kept the core that was already very solid from AC1, but we wanted to bring much more diversity to the fights. So, more weapons on Ezio’s side, a very different class of weapons and in front of you, very different enemy AI. We’ve got big brutes, who are very hard to fight, then you’ve got the giants who run up to you – so I think different AI and a different combination of equipment, means a lot more strategies available to the player.
Strategy Informer: Was the era you’ve chosen for Assassin’s Creed II picked for its technological advances and diversity of weaponry, or was it another reason altogether?
Sebastien Puel: When we looked at the next time period, we were looking for something with broad scope and we thought about a number of things, like is the time period visually attractive? Is there any type of gameplay that is interesting for this time period? Florence, Venetia – the boats were something very interesting, swimming is very interesting. Then there’s the kind of characters you have, because that’s what makes the game truly interesting. How many famous characters do we have and how many stories can we tell with those characters?
There’re the possibilities in terms of gameplay, the cast of characters and the visual attractiveness of the world – those are the three main elements we choose. And we always want to choose pivotal moments in history. Moments that have real significance for the player, moments that actually shaped our world and Renaissance Italy is amazing for that. A lot of concepts that are very familiar to us today came from the Renaissance. Things like banking and a lot of political concepts we have were invented by people like Machiavelli, so all of this is very interesting not only because it was a gruesome time of blood and violence, but also because it tells us something about the world we live in today.
Strategy Informer: The further forward you’re advancing in time, can you eventually see yourself eventually encountering inventions like guns?
Sebastien Puel: It’s true. The more and more we’re advancing in time, the more we’re going to have to deal with that, but it’s not a concern. We’d just have to adapt the gameplay so that it works with the franchise. It’s more an opportunity for us to do something new. We’re not concerned about sticking to exactly what we have and doing the same thing in the next game.
Ezio gets all moody and pensive.
A huge pair of choppers.
Strategy Informer: What other time periods were considered before you agreed upon the Renaissance?
Sebastien Puel: I never like to go too deep into that, because I never know what time period we’ll use after that. If you play the game, you will go into the Auditore villa and you will go down into a room that belongs to the Auditores and it will tell you a little bit about the history of the family – more than that – it tells you about the history of the assassin’s lineage. You will see different assassins and I think most of them at some point might have been in possible settings for the game. It’s not definitive; there are more than that, but I think there are six of them that could be possible settings. You have to play the game. The answer is in the game!
Strategy Informer: How much more are we going to learn about Desmond? In the first game he was locked in the same room the entire time.
Sebastien Puel: Maybe it’s not very visible, because playing just the first game you maybe don’t really understand about that, but in our mind the first story we are telling is the story of Desmond. And his is the story of the franchise. Whether it’s the story of Altair or Ezio, it’s the story of one guy. So, yes we will be doing a lot more with the story of Desmond. It’s very visible in the second game where you are not locked in a room anymore and you will be able to get out of Abstergo, go to the assassin hideout and you will start to play more with him. He’s becoming more and more of a character that you play, which I think is one of the very interesting parts of AC2 and of course developing the franchise will mean developing Desmond. He’s the one. He’s the character, but we’re making an adventure that will last for many years to come and at the centre of our story is Desmond.
Strategy Informer: Despite the fantastic job Assassin’s Creed 1 did in creating such an evocative historical setting, there was one flaw in the immersion aspect since there was very little, if any spoken Arabic in the game. How have you chosen to approach language for AC2? Is there any Italian in the game?
Sebastien Puel: At the heart of what we’re doing is nailing a time period, nailing cities like Firenze and Venetia and making them believable. We went for a kind of mix of English and Italian for our English version, but we really worked on the finer details because we didn’t want it to sound like Italian-American. We really wanted to have this mix of Italian and English that feels like it possibly could fit within the time period. Another thing we’re proposing to the player is to play in Italian. If you want to play the real stuff at some point, you can always play in Italian with English, French or German subtitles. That’s certainly how you get the most authentic version.
Strategy Informer: What was the process behind moving from the cold and calculating Altair, to the smoother, more charming character of Ezio?
Sebastien Puel: At first it was a tough decision, because after AC1 we realised we’ve got one of the most attractive characters in the industry in Altair and you’d be stupid just to say, “we’ll put him aside and we’ll start with a new one,” and we knew that would be tough. But the way we see it from a franchise perspective is to say the character has to be the mirror of his time period and that’s really what we want to convey with the main character. Altair is a guy from the Crusades and he’s spent years in this religious war background, so you need someone who is a man of few words certainly – very secretive – and that corresponds to his time period.
Now the period’s changed to Italy, so first you’ve got an Italian who needs to be more cultured than Altair. He’s a man from noble stock; he’s a man who spent the beginning of his life not knowing he’s an assassin, living the good life in Firenze. He certainly has more panache and he’s more attractive, more open-minded than Altair. Ezio is also a good reflection of what a man from this time period was like and for the next time period, we will have a different personality and we will try to make sure that it matches the time period.
Strategy Informer: Is it difficult building a franchise around a character that always has to change?
Sebastien Puel: Yes. I think we’re among the first to do that and it’s always tough because you’ve got pressure from the community who love the game, and we have to tell them, no, no – for the sequel, you’ll be playing as someone else. It’s always tough to give up on what you think is a really good thing you’ve done, but it’s also very exciting at the same time. I mean, the team love working on characters - having a character that has different layers - and Ezio has a lot of different layers. He’s a bit of a womaniser, a very smooth guy, but then when he becomes an assassin he’s very focused and very secretive as well.
Strategy Informer: Assassin’s Creed had a very well-balanced and intuitive control system. With the amount of new stuff Ezio can now do, was it a challenge to maintain the same level of accessibility in the control mechanics?
Sebastien Puel: Pretty surprisingly, it was much easier than what I’ve known in previous productions. Why? Because at the beginning you have the contextual button system, which is designed to work with everything, so we don’t have the question of which button to use your hidden blade and what’s the button to use your poison blade. You select your poison blade and it’s always the armed weapon. So, we have something that is generic, you’ve learnt how to play with it once and then we can add as many extra ingredients as you want and you don’t have to change the control scheme. It was actually pretty easy, and for the player, I think very intuitive.
Ezio forgets he’d left his pet giant tortoise in the other boat.
This wagon bit looks ace.
Strategy Informer: What was behind the decision to introduce RPG elements such as the monetary system?
Sebastien Puel: We didn’t do it saying we wanted to add a RPG aspect. We’re still an action-adventure game and the pace of the game is still that of an action-adventure game. But if you want to add more choice for the player, if you want to add more depth to the gameplay and if you want to give the player the choice of stealth or going in with heavy weapons, you need to allow the player to make their own choices. To that end, we added the economic system, which gives you a motivation that goes on and on, as there’s always something new to buy. And it makes sense in Renaissance Italy to have shops and to have the possibility to change clothes, buy new weapons and armours – that fits very naturally into the game. We’re not leaning towards the RPG genre and we’re still very much an adventure game. This time, you just have more choices.
Strategy Informer: Thank-you very much for your time.
Sebastien Puel: Well, we’ve finished the game now, so that’s fine! (Laughs).