As Ezio faces his last stand with Assassin's Creed: Revelations next month, Ubisoft Montreal's Brent Ashe and Raphael Lacoste talk to Johnny Cullen about where the series will go next.
It's hard to believe how far Assassin's Creed has come in the four years since the first game was released on PS3 and 360. Initially announced as a PS3 exclusive five years ago at E3, the IP went multi-platform before release in November 2007.
Assassin's Creed II in 2009 showed the IP's true potential, with last year's Brotherhood cementing the series as a Ubisoft mainstay. Since ACII, we've been following Ezio in his quest against the Templars, but that'll all come to an end this November with Revelations, which promises to wrap up both Ezio's story and that of AC1 protagonist Altair.
Tying the narrative up in a bow is something that "feels good," according to presentation director Brent Ashe.
"I think it's important to do that when you construct a mythology that's complex and that people are really invested in," Ashe told VG247, speaking at Eurogamer Expo.
"I think it's important, like any other comparably good piece of the fiction, like TV shows we like or movies we like. It's resolution and the wrapping up of threads that's important. I think it gives weight to the narrative."
Art director Raphael Lacoste added that moving on will be "great for the brand."
The scale seen within every Assassin's Creed game has been incredible, but has only been made possible with this gen of consoles. As previously noted by Jonathan-Jacques-Bellette, Lacoste's predecessor at Ubi Montreal and now art director for Deus Ex at Eidos Montreal, the series was originally in development on PS2.
"It would be very hard to do that on PS2," Lacoste said. "But we tried to push the maximum we can do in the details. We try to focus on what is in the frame, but it's always a big challenge because you have to create a level of detail for everything, so you can display all of the city all the time.
"Also, it's an open-world, so you can see from each angle. We really have to pay attention to details in the camera angle everywhere, and, as we can climb, you can be very close to the details at the same time. It's still a big challenge, but we have a very well-trained team. They got some experience from AC1, AC2 and ACB; they're very efficient at doing that."
"We have a very well trained team, so we know how to do cities, we know how to create the landmarks. But you're right, I think we need to step back, to maybe take more time to do something fresh. It's still a big challenge, but we could make it with a little more time."
Ashe and Lacoste showed off the bombcrafting part of Revelations in their Expo dev session, a new feature where players will be able to make three types of bombs: lethal, tactical and diversionary. Bombcrafting's introduction came as part of the further scoping of interactivity in AC's world.
"We introduced aspects of the gameplay that play with the core system," said Ashe. "If you look at the Courtesans or the Mercs or whatever, it's something Ezio can interact with.
"The concept for the bombs came from the idea of taking that further and going, 'OK, let's make it centric to Ezio, let's make it something that the player can create and can make himself. And also, let's monitise the ingredients through playing into the economy system we've developed over the course of ACII and Brotherhood.'
"By using the ingredients as economy, it encourages the player to search these out, to buy and trade them. It reflects the nature of Constantinople."
When Ubisoft announced that multiplayer would be part of the Assassin's Creed series with Brotherhood, a lot of people - myself included - was very skeptical. Thankfully, as it would turn out, multiplayer was cleverly tied into the world of Abstergo and the Templars, while single-play remained all about the Assassins. It was vindication for Ubi Montreal.
"Because we have something like the Animus as a narrative device, it does allows us, within those constraints, to be creative and not make something feel tacked on," said Ashe.
"We spend the single-player version of the game developing the story of the Assassins for the most part; we focus on them."
Lacoste added: "And I think it's interesting to have the single-player story experience to really go through the story. The multiplayer is an expansion of the universe, but you create the universe and you have all the storyline in the single-player, so that works too."
Since this interview has been conducted, Ubisoft's confirmed it intends to end modern-day protagonist Desmond Miles' story with next year's iteration. But after that, where can it go? It's being talked about all the time, apparently, and is never off the table at Ubi Montreal.
"The answer to that is that it's always in discussion," said Ashe. "Like we said earlier, we're very responsive to what the fans like and don't like about the franchise, and we're constantly working to iterate and improve on that. And then, of course, the team itself is very, very creative and full of ideas of what's possible. I think the high-level answer is that it's always in discussion about what could be."
Also mentioned in the Eurogamer story earlier this week with the Desmond arc-wrap is that Ubisoft will seemingly stop its rapid-fire release mode with the series. Besides a two-year gap after AC1 - not including PSP title Bloodlines - the series has seen a yearly installment since 2009.
Lacoste admitted it could be time to back off.
"We have a very well trained team, so we know how to do cities and create the landmarks. I think we have a nice process, a nice workflow. But you're right, I think we need to step back, to maybe take more time to do something fresh. It's still a big challenge, but we could make it with a little more time."
Ashe added that the subject of "milking" the series is very much in their minds, noting it's a "double-edged sword."
"Because it's narratively driven, the games boast a high completion rate, and that's telling us that the gameplay is balanced to everyone's liking," he said.
"They actually want to finish it, like they really want to know what happens. If you make comparisons to television series; if the story's good, they care about the characters and it's compelling, they're not going to complain when a seasonal TV series comes out every year, right?
"That's not to say Assassin's Creed will come out every year, but we feel like the momentum of ACII, AC Brotherhood and now AC Revelations will create a complete picture of Ezio's life and also touch upon Altair. That's something we wanted to do and we think the fans will enjoy it. It's true, it's a bit of a double-edged sword; we don't want to put it out there if we don't think there's a compelling reason to."
As we rounded off our interview, the subject of the series' two most famous developers was brought up: former creative bosses Jade Raymond and Patrice Désilets.
Raymond was the public face of Assassin's Creed, but stood behind the scenes for Assassin's Creed II despite maintaining her executive producer role, while counterpart and creative director Désilets did the promo work.
Since then, the pair have left the Montreal studio, although Raymond remains at Ubisoft as the head of Ubisoft Toronto, currently working on Splinter Cell 6. Désilets, meanwhile, is currently working on something new for THQ at its Montreal studio.
But, as Ashe pointed out, no one is bigger than Assassin's Creed: Jade and Patrice included.
"It's always a multi-disciplinary and multi-person effort. Look at what Raf and his team do for the art side; and you've got the engineering side; the design side; each and every person contributes to the final result. In the end, the foundation that was created initially was very strong, strong enough to continue to succeed each version."
Assassin's Creed: Revelations releases on November 15 in the US and November 18 in the UK for PS3 and 360. The PC version has been delayed until some point later this year. Expect more from us on Revelations next week.