Internet Piracy: We’re all making the next Assassin’s Creed

Your friend and mine, helpful games-centric internet man Stephen Totilo, kindly invited us into the heady world of games design think tanks last week. In his fascinating post he details the many questions asked of him by the good people at Ubisoft, specifically with regard to his opinions of Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag, pirates and the continued evolution of the series.

I might be a bit naive here, but I always thought that video games were made by dead smart people with a flair for both creativity and technology. It appears I was only half right though, and they are in fact merely dead smart people with a flair for technology, with the creativity part coming from anyone they can rope into giving them a bit of guidance. That’s a bit unfair really; it would be more accurate to call them too creative if anything, their ideas formulated and then quickly flung at a whiteboard like so much airborne faecal matter. It’s then up to you, dear members of the think tank, to decide which bits stick and which slide lethargically down the glossy surface of development, onto the carpet tiles of ‘maybe next time/glad we didn’t bother to code that bit’.

I recognise the need to understand how players interact with your game, what parts they enjoy and how they envisage a series like this continuing on into the future. After all, only a foolish individual would deliberately offer up something they knew no one liked. At the same time though, should the players of the sixth AC game really need to be asked if they enjoy stealth gameplay? “Excuse me young sir/madam, I understand you’re in the market for a stealth-action game, correct? Well, have I got a treat in store for you then. Wot we’re going to do this time is take all that stealth nonsense out - we heard from our think tank that no one actually likes that part - and this time you’ll just run around hitting young children in the face with bits of wood. It’s the natural next step in our lauded ‘franchise’.”

Other questions are a bit ridiculous for other reasons. One section asks for opinions of every new weapon featured in the game. Another, questions the minutiae of each individual gameplay mechanic that is - and ever has been (let’s face it, I don’t think anything has ever been fully removed) - featured in the series. Again, I appreciate the value of these sorts of opinions, but you’d think the game had never been play tested, such is the absurd specificity of some of the questions. “Did you like the various ways you can assassinate people in this game about assassinating people? Remember, it features all the methods of assassination you’ve been using for years, so if you say no we’ll be quite upset that you didn’t mention something earlier.”

It’s not really a case of AC IV never being play tested though, is it? What we have here, which is exactly why I’ve been sarcastically dropping the words think and tank into sentences, is an egregious case of design by committee. It appears that certain individuals within Ubisoft are so eager for us to keep giving them money (who’d have thunk it?) that they are willing to let the mindless whims of the game playing public dictate the series’ future trajectory. Questions like “how did you find it embodying a Master Assassin (in this heavily assassin-based series)?” galvanises this air of desperation and creative bankruptcy. “Please. Please. Whatever you want us to do we’ll do it. Just please keep buying these assassin games. We’ll even take out all the assassin bits if it turns out you all prefer pirates. Or we could keep the assassin-pirate things and just change the name. Would that be better?”

This is a dangerous road to embark down. By all means tighten up your mechanics, AI routines, pathfinding, geometry, modelling: anything really, as long as things improve. Take bits out, mix bits together, have more of this and a little less of that. But please, don’t ask people “which three ‘chapters’ of our game did you enjoy the most?” and then just do them again next time with a slightly different pirate-to-assassin ratio.

Consumers generally only know what they want from a product - if Ubisoft want to treat AC as such then I’ll happily oblige - in relation to other products. A little feedback on your current thing can always be useful, but delving to the sordid depths of ‘the mortar’, ‘the ram’ and, oh my, ‘the fire barrels’ is getting dangerously close to letting the inmates run the asylum. I haven’t got a clue how I’d design an open world pirate-assassin/assassin-pirate game for good reason: I’m not a game designer. If you asked me though, I’d tell you that I’d like the next Assassins Creed game to be a comedic romp; an off-brand version of the anti-institutional racism yarn Blazing Saddles. It’s a great idea in my head, influenced as it is by other artistic endeavours, but it probably wouldn’t work as a video game.

That’s the point really: nothing great can ever be produced without a singular driving vision. I’m not suggesting that people who harbour these don’t work for Ubisoft; I’m sure they’re toiling away, being ignored by those heading up the think tank. By asking everyone who played a game to effectively decide upon the direction of the next, you inevitably risk spreading yourself too thinly attempting to please as many people as possible. Take on general feedback, by all means, but when it gets to the point where you’re asking about everything from the individual weapons, right up to core tenets of the series, it might be best to just throw everything away and let your developers start again. I reckon they’d thank you and make a pretty good game to boot.

20 Comments
20 Comments
Edited by KidDynamo04

Well, the problem is that games like assassin's creed are too big for "Creativity". When you have one gun, and it's a cannon and it takes 20 minutes to load, you can't miss with it. It HAS to hit. Creativity is for small studios of 3 or 4 people making a game around a breakfast table.

I wish AAA games weren't the focus of the industry but... there it is.

Edited by joshwent

Of all the AAA devs to complain about, Ubisoft should be near the bottom of the list. In this world run by military shooters, a company that can decide to hire thousands of people and risk hundreds of millions of dollars to give us an immersive experience in detailed ancient cultures should get all the props they can deserve.

Yes, they can't take as many design risks as a team of 2 people because the cost of creating the scope of their games prohibits that. One person might decry that as quantity over quality, but a lot of us yearn for those big games that you can only make with a gigantic team. It isn't about sacrificing design, it's about taking sure steps to ensure that you can continue to push what you're doing, and not go immediately bankrupt.

And to be clear, they test individual weapons, because they test everything. It's very easy for a creator to become enamored with their work to the point where they can't assess it objectively and become hesitant to change, even if it's necessary. I'm an animator, and I constantly have to go through the pain of forcing myself to delete a day's worth of work because it just came out wrong. I'd love to be able to show my stuff to a panel so they can say, "Yeah, that one part sucked", and I'd feel more justified in getting rid of something I put a ton of effort into.

Basically, it's wrong to assume that this kind of testing is all about throwing up their hands and just making whatever people want. It's about ensuring the quality of what they've already done, and making sure they'll appeal to enough people to continue to get more and more awesome in the future.

Posted by pyrodactyl

@joshwent said:

Of all the AAA devs to complain about, Ubisoft should be near the bottom of the list. In this world run by military shooters, a company that can decide to hire thousands of people and risk hundreds of millions of dollars to give us an immersive experience in detailed ancient cultures should get all the props they can deserve.

Yes, they can't take as many design risks as a team of 2 people because the cost of creating the scope of their games prohibits that. One person might decry that as quantity over quality, but a lot of us yearn for those big games that you can only make with a gigantic team. It isn't about sacrificing design, it's about taking sure steps to ensure that you can continue to push what you're doing, and not go immediately bankrupt.

And to be clear, they test individual weapons, because they test everything. It's very easy for a creator to become enamored with their work to the point where they can't assess it objectively and become hesitant to change, even if it's necessary. I'm an animator, and I constantly have to go through the pain of forcing myself to delete a day's worth of work because it just came out wrong. I'd love to be able to show my stuff to a panel so they can say, "Yeah, that one part sucked", and I'd feel more justified in getting rid of something I put a ton of effort into.

Basically, it's wrong to assume that this kind of testing is all about throwing up their hands and just making whatever people want. It's about ensuring the quality of what they've already done, and making sure they'll appeal to enough people to continue to get more and more awesome in the future.

I certainly hope that's true because an AC game designed by the masses scares the shit out of me.

Posted by joshwent

Well, I don't work for Ubi, so I can't tell you that my perspective it true at all. What I can tell you, is that it's almost guaranteed that this same exact "design by the masses" was done of every single other AC game in the series, and most of them are pretty amazing.

Listen to the commentary in any Valve game, and they describe how they test every aspect of every puzzle and feature and dialog and everything for years. The quality shows in their end product, without becoming sterile, homogenized, or sacrificing a drop of the "vision" that the OP is trying to argue is the only outcome of this process.

In other words, finding out what's bad in your game will probably make it better.

Posted by Veektarius

I'm not terribly surprised by anything you're saying, though the 'three favorite chapters' bit explains that odd rating they asked for at the end of each one. I was saying to myself, "What's the point of this? This isn't a community mod that other people can choose to download or not based on my rating" but in hindsight, optimizing the balance of content for the next game makes sense. I should have given almost everything a 1.

Posted by MMMman
@joshwent said:

Listen to the commentary in any Valve game, and they describe how they test every aspect of every puzzle and feature and dialog and everything for years. The quality shows in their end product, without becoming sterile, homogenized, or sacrificing a drop of the "vision" that the OP is trying to argue is the only outcome of this process.

In other words, finding out what's bad in your game will probably make it better.

That would be a fine thing to say if it accurately represented what I was writing about. Valve's penchant for testing their games to perfection is quite legendary for good reason. It is certainly true that they focus test almost every aspect of their games before they are released to ensure everything holds up to very heavy scrutiny. That though, is before the games are released. Valve make games they want to make and then ask other people if those games play well. Then they improve upon things with that feedback. They don't go in with Narbacular Drop with a mind to create Portal, only to change it to a third person points-based shooter because they are more popular with focus groups, do they?

Tightening, tweaking; anything along those lines is great, necessary even, but that's not what that survey was asking at times. "What do you reckon to that Uncharted, ey?" went one of the questions, "wot would you fink if we made an Assassin's Creed game like that? You'd buy it, yeah?" It's grubby in my eyes - hence the cockney type - and is in no way the same thing as testing your design to its limits while you're making the game.

Posted by GERALTITUDE

Whatever, devs have been doing this forever. It's called reading forums and talking to fans. This is just a formal version.

Valve listens/talks to gamers too, they just don't do it through formalized surveys.

But yeah, fuck those assholes at Ubisoft for giving a shit what any of us think. Mindless, creativity-sapped beggars. Just disgusting.

Posted by Rorie

Please remember to one-star every eavesdropping mission. Thanks.

Staff
Posted by MonkeyKing1969

My guess is only 1% of players are really rating teh chapters, what is happening is a few people rate teh ones they really worked for them or did't work. I don't think Ubisoft will look at teh numbers or the rating except to say, "Well that mission really worked, this mission really didn't...what can we learn from that?"

In fact, the player RATINGS probably matter 1000% less than the hidden statistics that Ubi gets from the game itself. The statistics that are show are what matter because ist is not subject to "opinion" - how long it took, what was completed/missed, where players died or got stuck, and if people really did engage with the mission enough to rate it at all are what matters. Yet, all the companies are doing that, every developer is looking at the in-game data even if they are not looking at it as critically or a scientifically as they should be. I have no fears about what players say, because if it is refuted by data then nobody will listen to a crank that says a mission they did fine on was "crap" or a mission where teh player when around to collect everything was 'not engaging'.

Posted by SunBroZak

I dunno, when your video-games get as big as your Assassin's Creeds or your Call of Dutys, I think it becomes less of a personal project and more of a product. I imagine there's going to be a few more Assassin Creed games before they're done, and in order to fund the development of large games like that, you want to bring in as much of an audience as you can. Not try and make a statement.

Look to games that are made by a few people, or that simply don't have sequels, if you want to see more of a "vision".

Online
Posted by Dallas_Raines

Focus testing? Sounds like censorship to my American ears.

Posted by Nodima

This has to be the most cynical thing I've read in a while...

Edited by Brendan

I feel more torn than the OP, who is fully in one camp, and the commenters here, who are fully in the other.

Stuff like Mass Effect 3's "choose the female main character's look!" scheme bothers me. That specific situation didn't have great material impact on the game but anything that can just be decided by the fans like a bag of Doritos can't have very much meaning in it.

On the other hand, focus testing (like what Valve does) clearly works and doesn't have to create a vapid experience. I suppose it comes down to execution, and the AC games feel like they have mostly become gaming fast food.

Posted by MMMman

@brendan: I'll admit that I did consciously place myself in that camp to make my point, as exteme as it turned out. I think your fast food analogy is spot on, especially thinking back to how uncompromising the original AC was.

Posted by Brodehouse

I don't think it's wrong to say that Assassin's Creed has lost its central vision (when he went to THQ, then came back, then left again), and is now in a place where it's just replicating itself with small variations. The Assassin's Creed team are not taking their own experiences and using them to present something new, they're looking at What AC Already Is and What People Want and adjusting from there.

Wow, I just created a system with both intelligent design and evolution.

Posted by Sammo21

@mmmman: Games like Assassins Creed will never be driven by the community. That's a big budget, AAA title...those has huge teams, production plans, and a budget that doesn't lend itself to such a direction. I am interested in what makes you think that the first AC was "uncompromising". I guess this is a semantics argument, but I found it to be the series without question literally rinsing and repeating the exact same 4-5 concepts in the same order for 12-13 missions.

Edited by Brodehouse

@sammo21 said:

I am interested in what makes you think that the first AC was "uncompromising". I guess this is a semantics argument, but I found it to be the series without question literally rinsing and repeating the exact same 4-5 concepts in the same order for 12-13 missions.

At their core, all video games are repeating the same 4-5 concepts for 12-13 missions. What makes the first Assassin's Creed uncompromising is just what they decided those 4-5 things would be. Most games would force you to kill everyone in a locked room, AC forces you to sit on a bench and listen. Most games would force you to perform an elaborate jumping combination to reach your target, AC has you walk slowly in a group of monks. While you were best off following a critical path, the fact that it gave you any leeway at all to decide how you would assassinate your target was something you only saw at the time in other uncompromising games like Hitman.

Posted by Nekroskop

Stephen Tortilla? But I thought he was out saving damsels from rude internet comments and making click-bait articles on Kotaku. Did he finally see the light. Does he realise that people don't want to hear more about it?

Great, maybe I can visit that smoking ruin of a site again now that the danger is over.

Posted by MMMman

@sammo21: pretty much exactly what @brodehouse said. Furthermore, do you remember how unrelentingly serious the first game was? The sequels (at least the Ezio ones) were full of little gags and humerous exchanges, but that first one, Christ was it straight-faced and miserable. I liked that about it quite a lot.

Edited by ArtisanBreads

@rorie said:

Please remember to one-star every eavesdropping mission. Thanks.

This is why I don't mind this in this game so much in particular. In a lot of ways, to me, AC IV is good in spite of itself how the missions are designed.

Just telling them the eavesdropping and tailing missions are awful could improve the next AC game a lot. Maybe make it more Far Cry like sandbox (that's my hope).

Anyways some feedback is good. It's a fine line but playtesting and changes made from playtesting have really improved games plenty of times. So it's not a situation where I would just decry the use of feedback. Yes they have gone some interesting directions with the feedback on AC IV but to me it's so open and specific that it's very honest in a way I respect. A big problem with focus groups is a small group of people speaking for the masses. At least when I can rate every single mission after I do it, Ubisoft can get some good specific information from as much of their audience as they can.