I dread telling developers what I dislike about their work. At preview events, that is. I have no qualms running games down on high-horseback via the ephemeral medium of Internet, but when you’re actually sharing room space with one or more members of a team, room space bought and paid for by the people paying them, wolfing what is thus indirectly their finger-food, downing their tequila, leaving fingerstains all over their very own dev units, snorting ground-up kittens from the chests of their very own wives and mothers… well, it’s hard to do anything other than grin radiantly in response to the awful, awful question “so, what are your thoughts so far?”
That’s rather naïve and ungenerous of me, though. Naïve because when PR folk stuff you full of free booze, grub and hookers, the idea is naturally less to feed you up as to feed up the score you’ll pluck from the recesses of your psyche six months down the line. And ungenerous because contrary to popular belief/CliffyB’s Twitter account, not every developer has an ego the size of Harrods. Most of these people are quite happy to entertain the idea that other people, knowing relatively little about the internal mechanics of videogame development, might nevertheless be entitled to analyse videogames. Most developers can take outsider criticism, in other words, even to their faces. Even from me.
Julien Laferrière is one of those developers. He was a Production Manager on Assassin’s Creed II, and is now Production Manager on Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. During our most recent hands on with the latter, I had the opportunity to pick his brains about three particular problems with the former. Just what has Ubisoft done to address matters? Brace for subheadings.
VGD’s beef #1: There was too little incentive to use stealth
If you’ve read my previous pieces on Brotherhood, you’ll know that one of my big issues with AC2 was that you weren’t really obliged to be sneaky. Leading man Ezio is an assassin, a deliverer of unexpected death. Ergo, he should be neither seen nor heard. Why, then, am I allowed to run up to this merchant in full view of all Roma, knife him in the ear, counter-kill a dozen Swiss guards, spend 30 seconds in a haystack and stroll away whistling?
Julien’s response: We’ve scaled objectives so that stealthier players are rewarded
“A thing we’ve introduced in AC Brotherhood is the constraints system, so that almost every mission in the game – once you’ve passed a few missions – they have a constraint, an optional constraint. Basically it might be “do this mission and don’t get detected”, for example. So a more casual player could just try to finish the mission, and somebody [more ambitious] could say “I’m going to do it without getting detected”. And in a way, it’s getting into some sort of a special relationship with the developers, because the guys who designed the mission, they’d say “well that mission would be really cool if you played it super-stealthy”. So it’s a way we’ve found to appeal to lots of different kinds of players.”
VGD’s beef #2: PS3 fans got sorry leftovers
Though a far sight from the staticky, juddering mess owners of the buxom black box were lumped with in 2007, Assassin’s Creed II on PS3 is still quantifiably inferior to its Xbox 360 cousin, with tearing in particular many times as rife.
Julien’s response: We’ve learned our lesson, tech-wise
“It’s really important to us of course to release our games on both platforms, and I’d say that the level of maturity and experience we have with the consoles makes us pretty solid on developing for both at the same time. We really know them inside out, so we can extract everything we can from the console. It just makes the whole development cycle easier, because we know them so well we can really focus on the gameplay and telling a story, making a good game instead of struggling with new hardware.”
VGD’s beef #3: Too many bolt-on features
As much as I enjoyed strolling through the precincts of my own, custom-designed Monteriggioni like the Renaissance equivalent of the Godfather, twirling my new wine-red cloak, mulling over the next shoe purchase, I wasn’t really conscious of a connection between these simple pleasures and, well, being an assassin. I also struggled to see many of AC2′s sidequests – rooftop races, beat-downs, poster-ripping, thief-catching, etc – as more than filler material.
Julien’s response: We’re doing more to tie peripheral content into the narrative
“The goal for Brotherhood was to offer the same level of variety by adding new layers – for example, the Borgia towers that change the whole experience – but to have everything tie into the main narrative more. So you might remember the beat ‘em up missions and the races from Assassin’s Creed 2 – now we’ve made them side-missions involving the different factions. So every time you do a side-mission, it might be a race, afterwards you might have a beat ‘em up section, but it will have some sort of story around it to justify it to the main narrative.”