Assassin's Creed III: The Tyranny of King Washington Interview: Marc-Alexis Côté - “At One Point We Had Lightning Coming Out of Connor's Eyes!”
Written Monday, February 18, 2013 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
In development for a year, Ubisoft is changing things up with its DLC strategy for Assassin's Creed III, moving away from the conventional historical storyline and going with something far more fantastical and supernatural.
Set in an alternate reality, The Tyranny of King Washington paints an altogether different picture of events following the American Revolution and transforms Ratonhnhaké:ton into a hero who acquires extraordinary powers that aim to change up the established Assassin's Creed III gameplay.
Ubisoft Quebec's Creative Director, Marc-Alexis Côté knows a bit about the Assassin's Creed franchise having worked on Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and other titles in the series, and as he shows off The Tyranny of King Washington, his passion for the project is infectious.
We talked to Côté about the upcoming DLC in depth, revealing more about the powers, the origins of the alternate timeline, lightning firing from Connor's eyes, being careful not to trash an iconic American figure, and a lot more besides.
Oh, and tread carefully. There may be one or two light spoilers...
Where did the idea to pursue an alternate reality and storyline originate?
It really started from Assassin's Creed II. When we were looking back at what we'd done in the past, there was always this desire to explore and explain why we put a picture in ACII of George Washington with the Apple of Eden. That was one of the starting points we had. The second point for an alternate reality was when surveying the field of DLCs before embarking upon this project, I made a list of my top three things a DLC has to have, and one of the main things was it has to bring new gameplay to the table.
If you've played a game like Assassin's Creed III for 40 or 60 hours, I mean to have you play for an extra 7-10 hours, it needs to bring something new to the table. But that's where the new idea of the powers and abilities came in, and we thought there was something super-interesting to explore with the Native side and the belief that they're more connected to nature. That's when we merged the two ideas of exploring what George Washington could have done with the Apple and this idea of bringing new powers into Assassin's Creed III and really making those powers crazy. Like, there's no way to explain it in the normal world, so that's where the alternate reality comes in.
As the episodes unfold – as you'll see - the experience is canon, and I don't know if you unlocked the Memory Fragments, but if you unlock the three of them in the first episode it gives you access to a video. Each episode has a video and the overall video is about two and a half minutes long. You unlock about 40 seconds of it in each DLC. By the end of the DLC it really explains how it all got started. How did Connor end up in that alternate reality? The three episodes really follow each other and by the end, you're going to have all the answers about what this alternate reality really is.
Did you ever feel that The Tyranny of King Washington was something of a risk given the more conventional nature of the DLC in past Assassin's Creed games? If so, was that part of the appeal of going for it?
Absolutely. It is a risk, because whenever you're creating something new, there's always a risk to it. We feel like DLC is a good place to take what I call a calculated risk, because those new powers really play on something that is core to the experience, they play on the fantasies that we've given to players for the last five years. By making navigation, stealth and combat a bit different, we're playing to the strengths of the franchise and just boosting it. So it is a calculated risk, but I feel like it was more of a calculated risk a year ago [when we started developing the DLC] but I'm really happy with where we stand today and what we're going to deliver to players. It's going to be really interesting for them to explore these new abilities within the game world. It just gives you another reason to revisit the world you've already seen.
With the DLC being in development for a year, has it always taken the same form, or has it been through a lot of transition and change in that time?
At one point we had lightning coming out of Connor's eyes and he had the power by drinking the blood of Benjamin Franklin! (laughs) Marketing didn't like it! No, just kidding... But seriously, just preparing for this tour, I just dug through my first pitches for this project and it stayed surprisingly stable. There was always this idea of having the powers, but for example, on the first blank slide there was lightning shooting out of Connor's eyes and he had these glowing blue eyes. The thing with the blue eyes, there is part of that stayed throughout the development, because I don't know if you noticed, but when Ratohnhaké:ton gets his first power he gets war paint tattoos, then he gets more tattoos in the second episode, and then when he gets his last power, his eyes turn blue.
So, we're not drinking the blood of Benjamin Franklin, don't worry about that, but there's something of that idea that stayed. But it's always been about the Apple of Eden and George Washington and powers, so that just evolved.
When you visit the Sky World to obtain your powers, it essentially looks like you're inside the Animus. Is the Animus going to feed back into the story, or are we entering spoiler territory?
It's Animus-inspired, but because the Sky World in the mythology is white, so it starts that way, but you'll see the look of the Sky World evolve throughout the episodes. You'll have to stick with us a while to see how the Animus is related to all that.
Do you still have the full Frontier to explore?
It's half the Frontier, but I'm happy you thought it was the full Frontier! With the experience we're creating, we didn't want it to feel too vast. We wanted it to feel populated with side quests and everything, so we decided that was the sweet spot. The Frontier is such a huge environment that we didn't want it to feel too big.
Even half the Frontier is a lot of space to fill, so can you tell us more about the side quests you've got in the DLC?
The side missions are about helping the people. Because one of the motivations with Connor and not Ratohnhaké:ton is fighting oppression, so this is still in him as Ratohnhaké:ton, and his main motivation is still to avenge his mother and kill George Washington, but he cannot stand oppression. You get people that are starving, you get convoys that are rolling through the frontier, and people that are being attacked by wolves and other animals who'll you'll stumble upon and you can help. There's no secondary story to the side quests, they're events that are there to reward you for intervening and helping, playing the role that Connor and Ratohnhaké:ton play in this experience.
You talked about being able to combine Ratohnhaké:ton's powers. What kind of potential combinations are there?
For me it's one of the most rewarding things. It's like there's a pleasure to performing actions in a game and for me that's what makes a game shine; when you get pleasure out of the manipulations you perform. Let me give you an example: in the second episode you get the Eagle Flight power, so you can just target any part of the environment and almost teleport to it. You transform into an eagle and fly to it. Let's say there's a guard on the ground and you get other guards patrolling around him, you can target that guard and boom! You can take him out, transform, select your wolf cloak and just vanish. Guards see a big eagle smashing on the guard and then it just disappears, so they all bunch up and then you can just sneak out, switch to Eagle Flight and swoop away.
You can make targeted kills and then you can escape the situation. For me, performing an action like that is super satisfying. It's not something we require of the player in missions, because it's more of an advanced kind of thing, but it gives you this pleasure, and a tip is to map it all to your d-pad to combine the powers more effectively. Then when you get to the last episode with the Bear Might, you can go back into that same scenario I just gave you and target that enemy with Eagle Flight, Wolf Cloak so that the guards bunch up, and then smash into the ground with your Bear power, then just escape. You can set these kind of traps for enemies like that. That's how you combine them.
With the powers changing the gameplay quite dramatically, were there any modifications you had to make to the game engine or was it flexible enough to support the new abilities?
With the powers, the Eagle Flight was definitely a challenge, because we're moving very fast. It's the fastest speed we've ever moved in an Assassin's Creed game. It used to be the horse, and just to give you an idea, the speed of the horse is actually controlled by the loading speed of the engine, so it can't go faster than we can load data. We really pushed that for the Eagle Flight, because to make it fun, it needs to be fast.
The Eagle Flight was one of the biggest technological challenges, because in Assassin's Creed it's all about accessibility, so we really wanted to make it easy for players to target anywhere in the environment and there's a lot of automation that goes into it, meaning it was a tough challenge to solve. Another challenge was that we have never built a DLC so big and ambitious at Ubisoft with so many new features, and it completely transforms the gameplay experience, so we've had to build support into the engine to support the DLC.
Was the eagle sequence in the main storyline of Assassin's Creed III a jumping off point for the Eagle Flight power?
No, it's brand new stuff. It's completely different. We've never done so much in-depth analysis of the environment around the player to detect where you can fly to, so no, it's all brand new code. In fact the amount of code that's been written for the DLC is really impressive.
It's not often that we hear about a DLC that's been in development for a year. Has the time helped free up the development team from a creative standpoint?
One of the main challenges we've had is making this episodic content, and seriously it's been the biggest challenge I've had. For me, it's been more challenging than ACIII itself. Once you deliver one episode, there's no turning back, right? It's constant pressure and the plan needs to be perfect, so out of that year, we spent about six months just planning for it. You can't reach the last episode for example, only to find out that the Bear Might power isn't possible.
We spent a lot of time prototyping everything, making sure that all the tools were in the toolbox before we actually started production, and this fitted in really well with the development of ACIII, so we spent six months in planning and pre-production, and then we started production work once ACIII was finished. We had a good solid plan, and as you can see there are many cinematic sequences and there was a lot of planning with the mo-cap to be done. We have about an hour of cinematics overall across the three episodes.
While there was a lot of planning, what was exhilarating is the great support we had from headquarters. They wanted us to change the perception that people have of DLC.
Was there ever a concern that there might be controversy or a bit of a backlash in taking a historical figure like George Washington and subverting his reputation?
There was a bit of a worry, but it dispelled once I explained the story. You're seeing George Washington as a mad king, but you're playing it and realising how it evolves and ends. For me, the end of the DLC is super satisfying, and it will feel satisfying to players throughout the world, Americans included.
By the end, people will realise where we were going with this. For me, it's a bit like Lost, so you begin and there's a big polar bear and you're like “what the hell is going on with this polar bear?” Our ending is better than Lost, don't worry! (laughs). By the end, you'll see that everybody will love the story. It's all explained. We're not taking a historical figure and trashing him for no reason.
Assassin's Creed III The Tyranny of King Washington: The Infamy is out on February 19th for 800 Microsoft Points. We'll have a review for you soon.