Building the world of Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag

By Dave Cook, Thursday, 23 May 2013 08:21 GMT

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is set in Ubisoft Montreal’s most ambitious open world to date. Creative head Jean Guesdon tells Dave Cook what it takes to craft such a dense environment.

AC4: Black Flag

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag hits PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Wii U on October 29 in the States, and November 1 across Europe.

We’ve got the most recent Black Flag trailer here, and its full of pirate shenanigans.

Ubisoft is also running a pre-order hub for those ordering the game early. It’s called The Watch and it comes with bonus extras. Check out what you can get here.

The game may be set after the Desmond string of games, but Black Flag certainly won’t be ignoring him. Check out what the studio had to say on the matter here.

Ubisoft Montreal isn’t a stranger to open worlds, but the Caribbean environments of Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag are going to raise the studio’s bar considerably.

We’re talking a seamless world filled with islands, jungles, temples and towns, all connected by Edward Kenway’s ship the Jackdaw.

It’s a lofty vision that requires some serious technical clout under the hood, but the team is currently giving it their all.

Think back to the studio’s last release Far Cry 3, and the way that organic traits such as the lay of the land can prove inviting.

No one ever tells you to go off the beaten track in search of loot or relics, but some side roads were impossible to resist.

Visual signposting and areas of genuine interest are important in such vast play-spaces, as they remove the need for blatant herding techniques that might as well be giant signs that read, ‘filler content this way’.

Communicating this without actually saying it not only keeps immersion in the world high, but it avoids intrusive hand-holding – something I personally felt Assassin’s Creed 3 was guilty of almost every step of the way.

I recently spoke with Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag creative producer Jean Guesdon about how his team will turn its vast ambition into a reality, and to better understand the art of solid world-building.

“The world of Assassin’s Creed 4 is the most unique and fresh world we’ve ever built,” Guesdon told me. “This brings a lot of challenges in us understanding how to build this new world. We have three major cities and these are relatively easy for us to put together and give them unique flavor. It is our expertise.

“How they all link together with the 50 plus locations was a major challenge because we wanted the seamlessness to be there. It is very important for us that people feel this world is credible and something they want to explore. This need brings tons of technical challenges like loading, draw distances and spawning. We have worked hard to resolve these things.

“There are also player experience challenges. What motivates the player to explore this world? How do we pace the events and the experience on the ocean? How do we tell unique and memorable environmental stories for this massive world? These are questions that we have been working on resolving from the beginning and are excited to see players gauge our answers”.

There’s no hiding the fact that the towns of Havana, Kingston, and Nassau, as well as their neighbouring islands and bodies of water will make for a large environment, but we’ve all played through big open worlds before, and chances are many of you have – at times – found them to be sparse and under-populated.

It’s a dangerous flaw in world design, and it threatens to break your attention. I recently wrote a personal blog about why I felt the GTA series has long-suffered from this same problem, but like all games, it’s a subjective issue. I asked Guesdon how he and his team approached this very real threat.

“You are right that there is a balancing act in creating an open-world,” he replied. “We cannot build a small world, because it would make the player feel restricted, it wouldn’t give the player this sense of freedom that is inherent to the pirate fantasy.

“At the same time, we do have to make sure that the player never has a feeling of emptiness, or boredom. That is why we are implementing a brand-new system called the Horizon system to our game. When you take out your spyglass, no matter where you are at sea, you should always see something beckoning to you on the horizon.

“It could be an ally that needs defending, it could be a brand new island to explore, it could be a whale that you could harpoon. Our world is truly the most varied of any Assassin’s Creed yet, and we want to make it as lively and eventful as possible. The variety of environments and the unpredictability of events will, together, make it a world that you want to explore”.

These dynamic ‘Horizon’ events recall patrol spawning from Far Cry 3, where just as things seem to be quietening down, a jeep full of armed mercenaries would roll over the hill, forcing you to either scraper or stand your ground and fight. If the same rings true in Black Flag, it could make for many tense encounters at sea.

Of course, building the actual world is one thing, but you can’t create a historical backdrop without properly researching the real stories behind it, and as ever, Ubisoft Montreal’s dedication to the source material is as laser-focused as ever. I asked Guesdon about how far the team has gone in its research.

“Whenever we tackle a new era in an Assassin’s Creed game, we always strive to tell a story about the era rather than the setting,” he explained. “So for this game, it’s not only a game about piracy, but rather a game about life in the early 18th century Caribbean, that happens to focus on piracy because that was an important part of life at this particular time and in this particular place”.

“So, you will get to see how different Empires were struggling to keep control of the most important trade route in the West. You will see how slavery was an important issue in some of the colonies. Of course, you will see how privateers and sailors, discarded by their empires after the signing of the treaty of Utrecht, decided to fight back and take for themselves the riches that were right before them.
In light of this, it is definitely fair to say that it is a morally ambiguous setting”.

Speaking of morally ambiguous, Ubisoft has made no secret of Edward Kenway being something of a naughty bastard, so I asked Guesdon to give us some deeper insight into the man beneath the hood, and to explain just how closely he matches real pirates of the era.

“When researching the era, we found that the typical pirates seen in pop culture don’t match with the personalities of the true pirates that lived during the Golden Age of Piracy,” Guesdon explained. “Edward definitely matches the historical reality of these real pirates. He is a criminal with a very flexible moral code that matches most pirates of his day – a decent man with a penchant for extreme naughtiness.

“He is completely the opposite of the “good” pirates that we see in most media representations of piracy. With regards to his involvement with Blackbeard, Edward is very involved in his history. He is part of the Pirate ‘gang’, so to speak, and lives through the same events that they live through. The specifics will have to wait for another day, but yes, Edward will definitely get some quality time with most of the famous pirates of the era, including dear old Blackbeard”.

Just how the two work together remains to be seen, but we’ll know more as we approach the games release on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Wii U from October 29 in the States, and November 1 across Europe. For now, what do you think of Black Flag’s world? Does it sound inviting? Let us know below.

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