I recently had the chance to speak to Assassin's Creed: Syndicate world director Jonathan Dumont to find out how Ubisoft unravels and recreates the past inside its time-hopping franchise year after year.
Understandably, the process involves a lot of legwork, which meant that I couldn't fit all of Jonathan's answers into my article - The world design of Assassin's Creed Syndicate. It's always difficult deciding what to leave on the chopping block, and I'm a firm believer that sometimes the bigger picture is the best one.
So, with that in mind, I decided to post the full interview transcript here on my blog. There's a lot to take in, so if I were you I'd get started.
When it comes to starting work on a new Assassin's Creed title, how do you decide where to go next? What informs that choice?
Jonathan: I can’t speak for previous Assassin’s Creed titles, as Syndicate is my first one, but for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate there were many different people involved in the decision process, but, basically, the final choice boils down to what most excites all the people involved from a gameplay and location point of view, while allowing a good continuation to the meta-storyline.
The Victorian London and industrial revolution setting really pulled us in, because the era offered a lot of new gameplay possibilities due to the industrialization. The idea of having of a fast-paced Assassin’s Creed that involves modes of transport like trains, carriages and tugboats opened up gameplay possibilities that added to our core game pillars. The attraction of making the first modern era Assassin’s Creed, while still preserving a certain classic aspect to the game, which 1868 London offered, pretty much took over the whole team. Then, through early prototyping, we really felt that we could offer the right balance of novelty and classic gameplay to our players.
From a story perspective, and world design perspective, 1868 London is a time of change in almost every facet of society. Obviously, there’s a huge technological boom, but it’s also a time of social and philosophical changes, like Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, for example, that really started shaping society into what it is today. Creating a storyline and a world through that time, in the birth place of modern society, was very intriguing and quite stimulating.
With Syndicate, how did you go about realizing Victorian London? Where did that process start?
Gathering as much information is definitively the first step when tackling such a huge task. We were pretty lucky since photography existed, so we had a rich bank of real footage and photos close to our time period. We also read a lot of descriptive books about life in Victorian London to help get as much detailed information as we could. This went from what people ate, how many families lived under one roof in poorer boroughs to how bad the Thames River smelled in the summer months. We wanted to get a good detailed read on our setting. Our team historian, Jean-Vincent Roy, was really helpful guiding us, fact checking and finding answers to our questions. We also watched many movies & series set in Victorian London to get an idea on how pop-culture has portrayed the era.
As far as world design goes, we consulted maps of London to help guide us through our early world layout. We found very precise information on landmarks, parks, social-economic repartition throughout the boroughs, street layouts, slum locations … just a ton of interesting data. That information helped us build early layouts of the city, but we felt we were still missing the essence and texture of the city, the things that pictures and maps can’t convey, so Thierry Dansereau, our Art Director, and I went to London for a week and walked the entire city.
London is a huge city! We must have walked over 70 km and taken over 4000 pictures. Our trip was very enlightening and helped us make the right choices and solidify our layout. I was really taken by surprise by the beauty shots that can be found in London, it’s a much more cinematographic city than I had expected. I also had underestimated how the Thames River really offered great shots and divided the city into two very distinct areas, especially during the industrial revolution era. I could feel how the city offered such a huge array of contrasts. For example, the peacefulness of St-James Park, right in the middle of the city, couldn’t be felt from looking at reference material. The humbling sensation you have when visiting iconic buildings, like Westminster Abbey or the Tower of London. Those are things I had to live in order to be able to give a more visceral experience to our players.
Did you have to factor in story and gameplay decisions when building the world?
Definitely. World design in my opinion, is giving an immersive playground to promote exploration, discovery and player driven narrative. When building such a playground, I try to think about 3 things: create a believable world that stimulates the player’s curiosity and engagement, give players as many systemic gameplay opportunities as possible, and set a great aesthetic backbone for mission and storyline.
For example, the city was built with borough conquest gameplay in-mind to give meaning to player exploration and actions. Players that want to engage with the world, will have a meta purpose in doing so and everything is designed in order to make that experience rich and varied in gameplay opportunities. Trains loop through the city, you can rob their cargo, we have police and allies present throughout the world who can be used to change the player’s experience, and there is a traffic system with horse carriages that create systemic gameplay situations. Pretty much everything is focused on giving flavor to the player experience. So, yes, we do work closely with all other teams.
How true to life do you try and make the city? Is it simply a case of getting the major landmarks in place, or is it about trying to give an honest representation of what London was like in 1868 - down to each street, alley, and pub?
The goal is always to create the best player experience possible. Making a one-to-one representation of London would not have given that to our players. We knew early on that we wanted to use the technological progress theme of the era to create a faster paced experience. Carriages, trains, boats, and the rope launcher all pointed towards creating a huge city that had good traveling distances. When we tested and played around with the size of the city, from a traveling distance point of view, and once that felt right, we then knew how much we needed to build. We also wanted to have very distinct boroughs to support our conquest gameplay, with different architectural styles, moods, and crowd life. Those gameplay choices helped us make decisions when it came down to recreating 1868 London.
Still, it was very important to make London as accurate as possible, but to bend it a bit to fit our gameplay goals of conquest and faster paced gameplay. That being said, obviously, the Thames elbow shape was a must and landmarks had to be placed at the right location in relation to the river. So, for example, the clock tower, St-James Park, St-Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, Lambeth Palace and Waterloo Station, to name a few, are pretty much geographically in the right position, but we played with, and mostly shrunk, distances in between them to allow for better navigation flow. We also focused on certain architectural styles and kept them for certain boroughs to get as much contrast as possible.
All in all, players that know London will know where they are when playing and instinctively go in the right direction when trying to find a landmark or a park they know. Bottom line, I feel we have a pretty accurate Victorian London with some redesign to better serve gameplay.
What are the some of the biggest challenges you and the rest of the team faced during development?
We had to rebuild some of our tools since the roads had to respect game metrics in order to spawn and manage our traffic system correctly. Being able to travel faster also put a bit of stress on dynamic loading, so we needed to plan accordingly. As well as that, we also invested in making a new dynamic weather and time of day system. New features always have their share of challenges, but there are always solutions.
How aware do you need to be of how the characters themselves are going to be interacting with the world around them? Do you factor that in from the start?
You know what’s funny, while it’s all about making a great playable experience, some of our gameplay choices have actually made the game more realistic. For example, we wanted driveable horse carriages and to have a faster pace to offer new gameplay possibilities. The side effect to that was that we needed to create real streets with sidewalks to separate traffic from pedestrians to allow traffic to flow correctly and have pedestrian/traffic rule sets. The result is that we have a realistic and organized crowd system, since they walk on the sidewalks and wait at corners to cross the street, so the driving feature actually helped create and structure a more realistic London.
Have you ever had to drastically reshape the world to accommodate new gameplay features and story developments? How do you balance the three, and is there ever a tug of war between teams?
The world team took the decision to better serve gameplay early on and we designed the city with new gameplay elements in-mind, which made it so there was no issues between teams. London is very long from west to east (or at least the portion we wanted to recreate) and we had to condense it to have a fairly circular world map (which is better for gameplay), so Whitechapel was moved from the far east of the city of London to the north east.
Of course, some elements, like St-Pancras train station, were moved south a bit more to create better spacing. The train station locations are pretty accurate, but we did take a few liberties while designing the track system, since we wanted to connect them as much as possible.