It was finally released in November, 2007, and Assassin’s Creed went on to become Ubisoft’s biggest hit to date, its various instalments selling more than 39 million copies.
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In a darkened conference room in Ubisoft Montreal’s basement in March, François Pelland and Alex Hutchinson, Assassin’s Creed III’s Australian-born creative director, are about to show me the genesis of their new game. The pair came on board in early 2010, after Désilets had a falling-out with management over creative differences (he subsequently ended up at rival publisher THQ), and after the series’ original producer, Jade Raymond, was promoted to head Ubisoft’s new Toronto studio.
The first game in the franchise followed Altair, a Crusades-era assassin, on a quest through cities such as Jerusalem, Damascus and Acre. Assassin’s Creed II, released in 2009, shifted the story to Renaissance Italy, where a mischievous nobleman’s son named Ezio Auditore discovers his family’s links to the assassin order. That game proved to be so successful for Ubisoft that it came out with two direct sequels, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood in 2010, and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations in 2011. With Assassin’s Creed III, Ubisoft has finally retired Ezio and shifted the focus to a new character, a half-English, half-native American assassin named Ratonhnhaké:ton, or Connor Kenway.
The franchise’s underlying story, however, centres on Desmond Miles, a modern-day descendant of this assassin brotherhood who is forced to use a virtual reality device that lets him experience the lives of his ancestors. From an intellectual property perspective, Pelland and Hutchinson explain, the Assassin’s Creed universe is cleverly constructed, in that it isn’t wedded to one particular character or setting. It can move freely from the Crusades to the Renaissance to colonial America without missing a beat.
The potential variety of settings is also why Ubisoft management believes it can release Assassin’s Creed games annually without the franchise getting stale. A road map for future instalments, is in place until at least 2019.
Pelland and Hutchinson show me a “mood” video, a trailer they put together early in their conception process that was intended to convey the new game’s essence. Toy soldiers and model buildings–harkening back to the studio’s Playmobil beginnings–stand in for the 3-D animation to come. Fife-and-drum music plays, giving the clip a real, colonial-era feel. The video was meant to unite the creatives behind a common vision. “One of the big disasters you can have is if your art team is over here making a fantasy game in primary colours, and your engineering team is making War and Peace,” Hutchinson says.
The next video Pelland and Hutchinson show me was made later in the development process. A hallmark of Assassin’s Creed games has always been the main character’s ability to run freely along rooftops and buildings. Assassin’s Creed III extends that ability into the natural world–a significant technical challenge. Hutchinson beams with pride that his team was able to overcome it.
At one point, the creators had planned to allow players to scalp their foes, but though this practice is historically accurate–scalping was a common battle ritual among some native American tribes–it was scrapped. “You know some creepy kid is going to do it, like, 50 times, and it’s going to be on the Internet,” Hutchinson says. “That’s all your game is going to be about. It’s the game where you scalp everybody.”
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While the gaming media loves Ubisoft, analysts aren’t terribly crazy about it. In September, only a handful were rating the stock a “buy.” In contrast, Activision Blizzard Inc., one of Ubisoft’s main rivals, has more than a dozen “buy” recommendations, even though it is often criticized by gamers for milking its franchises such as Call of Duty and Guitar Hero.
Some feel Ubisoft may be overfocusing on certain franchises, such as Assassin’s Creed, at the expense of others. The Splinter Cell series, for example, initially saw four releases in four years, which fatigued the market, while other franchises, such as Far Cry, go four years between releases.
“They need better planning,” says Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter. “Assassin’s Creed? I don’t get doing that every year and I think I’m pretty typical.”