Ubisoft was lured to Canada by prolific Québécois lobbyist Sylvain Vaugeois, who saw the firm becoming the linchpin of a new digital economy for Montreal. The federal and provincial governments teamed up to give the company generous annual tax credits of $25,000 per employee for five years in exchange for creating 1,000 jobs. Montreal, which was experiencing a corporate exodus (following the narrowly defeated 1995 referendum on sovereignty), was desperate for investment. Mayor Pierre Bourque personally drove the new studio heads around in his little blue car to look for office space. They settled on an old textile factory in the run-down Mile End area. The operation got up and running in 1997 with 50 employees imported from France, as well as seven tons of Playmobil sets. The studio heads awkwardly explained to customs agents at Montreal airport that the toys were needed to train recruits in the basics of three-dimensional modelling.
The 2002 spy game Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell–Ubisoft Montreal’s first high-profile title–won critical acclaim for its advanced use of light and shadow, and sold more than seven million copies. The next two years saw another pair of hits with Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, relatively unremarkable “platformer” (think running-and-jumping) games that would go on to become part of a franchise that sold more than 10 million units.
Suddenly, Ubisoft Montreal was catapulted into the premier leagues of game development. The studio had expanded to nearly 1,000 employees, and a Quebec City outlet was in the works. Eager to capitalize on the successes, the bosses in France ordered another Prince of Persia game. They expected a follow-up within the fantasy adventure-themed franchise.
Instead, Montreal went rogue.
It was January, 2004, and, fresh off a long vacation after the frantic production of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, creative director Patrice Désilets wanted to try something different.
The new Prince of Persia was supposed to run on the next generation of game consoles, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The only problem was, no one knew what the hardware specifications of the new consoles would be.
“It was a good thing,” Désilets says, “because we just started to dream.”
Désilets saw an opportunity. He envisioned a game similar to the popular Grand Theft Auto series, where players could roam freely and accomplish objectives in any order they liked, though they were usually confined to city streets. In a clever twist, Désilets wanted players to be able to go wherever they wanted, without limit. If the player was curious about any structure visible within the game, they could climb on top of it.
The problem with building a more action-oriented instalment of Prince of Persia was that the series’ protagonist didn’t fit. “The Prince is someone who’s waiting around for the King to die so he can take his place, so while he’s a Prince, he doesn’t do much,” says Désilets.
While considering the dilemma, Désilets suddenly remembered a book he had read in college about the hashashin, an order of warriors who inhabited mountain fortresses in Persia around the time of the First Crusade. It was the perfect backdrop for this next-generation adventure. Thus, Prince of Persia: Assassins–the game’s unofficial title for its first two years of development–was born.
About 80 people worked on the game for the next two years, and by mid-2006, the team had a playable demo. By this point, Désilets could no longer hide what he had known all along–that this wasn’t going to be a Prince of Persia game. After years of subtly hinting at the truth, the team finally pitched Ubisoft’s management as well as its marketing department on the idea that they had come up with something genuinely original. To their surprise, management agreed, and Assassin’s Creed was officially born.
“I’m a bad employee because they asked me for Prince of Persia and I came up with Assassin’s Creed,” Désilets says. “I didn’t listen to my mandate.”
The big test came in May, 2006, at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (known as E3) in Los Angeles, the game industry’s most important showcase. The team showed off the prototype, and it was an immediate hit; Assassin’s Creed won numerous accolades, including best action/adventure game in the Game Critics Awards.