It took hundreds of developers across Canada, France, China, and Singapore to get the game completed on time. Interestingly, along country lines, you can find some specific signature stamps. At Ubisoft Singapore, for instance, they ruled the water — this relatively new Ubisoft studio was in charge of ACIII‘s massive ocean battles.
How does one create a puzzle piece that fits into a whole? How does one go about creating a new style of play on a scale that hasn’t quite been realized before, without taking the player out of the existing universe? How much realism is too much? After all, real galleons don’t turn on a dime, and they certainly don’t reload their cannons in seconds.
We spoke with senior producer Hugues Ricour in the company’s Singapore office to discover, from a design standpoint, how this new mode of play was created.
Where do you start, with a new feature like this?
Hugues Ricour: We focused on the ocean simulation and the impact of the wave physics on the boat for two aspects of gameplay. The first was the navigation of the boat, and the feeling that it’s an element that is being impacted by the world it is in; the weather, the wind, and the waves. You will feel that during the navigation sequences, during the storm. But also you might have a rogue wind just behind that rock, because there are wind pockets coming up, just like in the ocean. And all this was the first thing we wanted to recreate. So, most of the work has been physics and of course visuals and dynamic weather with transitions from movement to stoppage.
All of this has an impact in the second phase, which is the combat. So, the idea was that we don’t just do this to look pretty or for just navigational changes, but it has to impact the gameplay and combat, adding layers of difficulty or layers of interest as you progress into the game.
When fighting against the environment, like turning against the wave and changing your firing pattern if your ship is on uneven keel, how did you balance the realism of that versus how fun that is? I could see fighting against the elements being initially frustrating.
So, that was a constant concern for the last eight months, as you can imagine. [laughs] The first big one to tackle was the boat speed. These ships, if you look at the reality, they were very, very slow. They would take minutes to turn. And obviously cannons would take minutes to reload as well. So this naval combat in reality was lasting several hours, sometimes up to several days.
One of the references is Master and Commander, and if you look at the story, there are some fights that last for days in the movie. So, obviously we had to approach this slightly differently. We made a lot of tests with the boat speed, with how fast you can turn, with the impact of the wind direction, how much you’re penalized when you’re facing the wind or not, reload speed of the cannons, and so on. I’ve read so far very few comments that mention, “Aw, it’s arcade-y and not realistic.”
Actually, a lot of the comments from the fans and the press are that we reached a nice balance. There is a level of unrealism in Assassin’s Creed when you climb and so on. We tried to recreate, I think, an immersion thats as realistic as possible.
I feel like there may be an extra learning curve for players because the understanding of boats in general is not as high as it was for, say, our grandparents, who might actually have to use that as a method of travel. So, things like headwinds and that sort of thing might be new information to people. Did you have to do some research to figure out how much you actually needed to communicate to players about what boats can and can’t do, at least within your universe?
Yes. We did a few field trips. One of our designers even took sailing lessons. Obviously, that was to understand basic mechanics of sailing. The largest part of the effort was based on the tutorials and the first time you put Connor at the wheel. Once [players] passed that, our fans are super sharp, and very, very quickly they do things that even surprise us.
But these first few moments require handholding. We do things to introduce difficulty very progressively. So at first, you learn how to navigate, and the [ship] Aquila has no cannons. Then we immobilize the Aquila once you equip it with cannons, and then we just teach you how to shoot. It’s in a bay, so very calm waters. What you shoot at is actually shipwrecks, so they aren’t moving as well. And the next mission is small boats that are moving but are fairly easy to destroy. As you progress, you’re going to have a first storm. And then at one point, you’re going to meet your first man-of-war, and that’s a gradual increase of difficulty…
I’m curious about figuring out how to do targeting — because you couldn’t really aim all the cannons at one specific area in reality — and also the decision to stick with a third-person perspective for the character on the ship. That seems very challenging to undertake when you’re trying to communicate a massive scale battle, to keep the camera behind the guy.
About the third-person view, it’s a very conscious decision. We did a lot of tests which showed the number one rule is we want you to feel that you’re playing Connor, and experiencing what Connor would experience on his ship. So, staying close to him, and using the third-person camera view was very critical and very important to us.
In several moments, you get an amazing feeling that you can only get by being on the boat, like a man-of-war charging at you and hitting your boat, or when a rogue wave hits and splashes on the deck, or when hear your cannons firing, and the experience of seeing your crew right in front of your eyes, maneuvering to make that happen.
You’re positioned quite low compared to the ocean, so you actually see these waves and the 3D movement of these waves and all the water effects and so on. So, all these for us required this specific camera.
The shooting is interesting. First you have the reload times, which are a bit tricky because in reality it would take probably longer to wield these guns. Then you have the accuracy, where we had to find the right mix of distance [to the target] and how far [the projectile] goes. So you can even play with the waves, and if you have the right inclinations, they’re going to go further and higher. We had to play a lot with that [targeting] line that you’ve seen when you play on the ocean.
Also, as you’re progressing within the game, you buy more cannons, and they provide this firepower that gets very impressive. We needed something else, and that something else has been added with the swivel guns. The swivel guns allow us to break the pace of the reloads of your regular cannons. You can shoot at any moment. They reload much faster, and they are much more… It’s not a targeting system. We thought about a first-person shooting type of mechanic, but again we wanted to stay as Connor as the captain of the ship, so we wanted to do a sort of auto-target cannon system. And it adds pacing to the experience, especially when you’re trying to be accurate when you shoot.
Editor’s note: Ubisoft provided travel accommodations in order to facilitate this interview.