Water, Water Everywhere: A Q&A with Ubisoft's Skull and Bones team
The first project led by Ubisoft Singapore, Skull & Bones is a high profile attempt from Ubisoft to take on the AAA “Game as a service” market. The team has ambitious plans for a game of high seas piracy including both PVP and PVE gameplay.
Gamasutra talked to several key members of the team about the development process and their aims for the title.
Marlo Flor (Senior art director; previously worked on Ghost Recon Phantoms, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate/Origins)
For an art director, what’s exciting about Skull and Bones?
Marlo Flor: The biggest breakthrough that we have would be the ocean tech that we have. It started with Assassin’s Creed 3, and you’ll see some of it in Assassin’s Creed Origins as well.
"We have a dedicated artist for the water. That’s his 24/7 job. Water guy. That tells you how much we value that."
We do a lot of sharing of the water tech, just across the bridge we have few rendering guys that we work with, we do a lot of sharing and improving on the water tech that we have. Of course both games have very different requirements; in our case we focus more on how the ocean moves and how it’s rendered.
The ocean is physical; it reacts to lighting pretty much how you would expect water to react. So we have a lot of parameters that contribute to the color and transparency of the water. We don’t simply think how transparent it should be, we have several types where we can create muddy or clear water or replicate how the ocean, Indian ocean, actually, looks in terms of the color and how it changes color through depth as well. So that creates a really convincing look for the ocean. Whatever time of day you see it in.
I saw on the Origins team they have a sandbox where they’re working with different types of water; seeing how muddy water flows into clear water, and so on. That’s the kind of thing you collaborate on?
Yeah, we get parts of that. For example, if we look at the game, Origins, a lot of it is lakes and rivers and we do a lot with ocean, which is more of a flowing type of water. So in terms of collecting sediments and so on, we don’t focus too much on that, but we focus a lot on how it moves and how it creates translucency.
Also the game Skull and Bones focuses on the fantasy of being the helm of a ship, so everything that we do in terms of how we realize the visuals from that point of view. So in terms of the effects, you see the spray, how the wind blows through your sail and a lot of these little details really add up the to the experience that we want to build.
How many people do you have just working on ocean technology?
We have a fair bit of a core tech, rendering team that specializes on upgrading the water tech. We even have dedicated artists for making the water. Pretty much 24/7 that’s his job. Water guy. That tells you how much we value that part of our game.
That’s the bread and butter of the game and also more importantly we realized it from a visual perspective, but also it’s a very big part of what our gameplay is. How to manage the tides and so on are a big deal. And it’s actually one of the biggest reasons that we went for a dedicated server game, to make sure that we replicate the ocean perfectly across every single player. This creates a fair balanced game that’s always predictable on every single client. It’s a very big deal for us to create that experience.
Wind is a major gameplay factor, and it affects the ocean too?
That’s one thing that we really focused on, how do we create that feedback? Can you physically see wind when you play? That one is a pretty complex effect to achieve, because we use a lot of ingredients, for example, we have this ocean spray, that when it sprays and it hits in the wind, it actually follows the direction of the wind. You can see it on the sails, on the ship they actually turn based on the wind.
Even droplets on the screen will actually drift towards the direction of the wind, so it’s a lot of these things that we use because for example when we see the screen, almost 80% of that will be your ship. We needed to find ways on how we can communicate to the player the wind direction at any point when you’re playing since it’s an integral part of our gameplay.
What are the other ways you’re trying to solve that?
For that we needed to basically merge the art direction with gameplay; there’s a very fine line where feedback can become cartoony in a way. For example if you create wind trails that are visible to the player that does the job feedback-wise, but it doesn’t necessarily fit the art direction in a grounded game. So we’ve focused a lot on immersion. From there you need to really find a good balance between something that’s readable and something that’s believable from a player’s standpoint.
As you say, the ship takes up most of the screen, How do you deal with that, in terms of UI, in terms of helping the player see the world?
It’s a constant dialogue between art and design, everything from the construction of the ship to managing the field of view for the camera. It factors into everything related to the core gameplay. For example, when we construct the ships, it needs to have a 360 view so that when you rotate your pad, you can see what you’re doing in terms of how fast the ship moves. We need to take into account how clear the view will be when you go into your broadside for instance. So a lot of that is really us working with design to make sure that, again, the experience is immersive, but also very fluid in terms of gameplay.
Bill Money (Game director; previously worked on System Shock, Assassin’s Creed Origins, Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Invisible War)
I don’t know how to sail, or necessarily even really understand how a sail boat works. Yet it seems necessary to have the player understand sailing on some level for Skull & Bones to work. How are you trying to do that?
"We try to break it down into simple, intuitive directional information. The telltales of the mast, the way your captain’s coat moves in the wind, the way the spray moves."
Bill Money: Yeah, it was a big challenge and still is a big challenge. We want to make the act of sailing and the art of sailing. Because people try to master sailing their whole lives. This is something that people take on at a very young age and they do it their whole lives and they never feel they’re master at it. But we want someone to feel like they mastered our game within the first fifteen minutes of play and understand how wind works and what the points of sail are and all these very complex topics of sailing.
We try to really break it down into simple, intuitive information. The telltales of the mast, the way even your captain’s coat moves in the wind, the way the spray moves. Give these little tells to the player and then give some visuals of like the dial at the bottom of the wind gauge turns yellow when you’re going in the wrong way, it turns blue when you’re going in the right way. So just it’s like a simple sort of stop-go thing. So take these complex things, break them down into simplicity. Not make it overly complicated, but still give that feeling of mastering these big ships.
When I played it, I felt like I was relying on the mini-map to guide myself. In fact with loads of games I just end up staring at the mini-map. Is there a goal to try and get the player to just never do that?
I think at the beginning of the game, naturally players will look at those signs, but by the time they’ve mastered the controls and mastered how the world works, we don’t think they’ll have to pay as much attention. And we did an exercise with Watch Dogs 2—Watch Dogs 2 has a sailing part of their game and we actually put a piece of paper over their UI, because they have a wind gauge on their sailing part. So we played it for a couple hours and we put just a blocker over the UI and we were able to play the game and understand how to sail without looking at the UI.
So one of our goals is to say, hey, this is a tool for you, but over time by judging the world, by seeing the world, by reading the world, you won’t even need that. You’ll be able to master the wind. And that’s your path to mastery is understanding how the world works.
What about no UI? Would you just want no UI?
Of course that’s a huge goal. Almost every game we put in as much UI as we think we need and then start pulling it back out and reduce to what the player actually needs. A goal would be no UI. But we believe we have great UI artists and we create just the UI that the people need to play. And of course we’ll be able to turn UIs off probably for streamers and things like that anyway that people will want those features.
What makes Singapore the place to make this game?
We had a unique situation where we worked on the water tech. We did all the water gameplay, the naval gameplay for Assassin’s Creed. And at the same time, we had another team working on Ghost Recon Phantoms. It was an online game, it was a free to play game that had lots of back end tools. And then the merger of those two, we just put those two together and said, okay, we can make an online game that uses this tech that we’ve been building, this water tech and this ship tech. And of course pirates, everyone loves pirates. This is an opportunity to build this IP based on our key specialties. Like we know how to build this game. And so it really was just a meeting of perfect storm of two things coming together.
Let’s talk about games as a service.
We want to provide a longer tail for players. And I think about maybe the cost per hour. In the past people may have bought a 60 dollar game and wanted to spend 15 hours, that’s what they expected. So it was 4 dollars an hour. We want to give them a game they can play hundreds of hours. So their cost per hour becomes super low and the value becomes super high for the customer.
"We want to give them a game they can play hundreds of hours."
Games as a service allows us to constantly refresh, react to the customers, make sure that they see our offerings more consistently. They know that we have every week, every season, every patch we give them something of value and they want to come back to the game. So we want to retain our customers over a long time and let them live the fantasy that they want to live. Provide them what they want. If we see they want certain things, keep giving them those things. If they don’t like things, change them.
Justin Farren (Creative director; previously worked on Assassin’s Creed Black Flag/Unity/Syndicate)
What are your goals for this project?
Justin Farren: Well, I think that the biggest and actually the most challenging thing that I’m responsible for is unifying the voice and the vision of the game across hundreds of people. You know, all of us have a different perspective on what we do based on our expertise, our own opinions, our experience with the game and my job is to coalesce that into a single understanding of the game.
That means defining the vision, defining the direction, the setting, the tone, and then working with the directors to make sure that we execute on that vision. And it’s a constant struggle, always having to reinforce the vision, always having to reinforce the direction and the decisions we make. You would think that it’s you do it once and walk away with it, but it’s a constant evolution.
So what is that vision?
I thought a lot about what type of pirates we wanted to make and one thing that really stood out to me as I started to research the behavior of pirates was that they behave the same way that predators do in nature. They do it without remorse, they do it with basically a sense of purpose that reflects their nature. And we wanted to create a system that really made you feel like a predator. Made you feel powerful, gave you the tools at your disposal, made visibility, distance, the weapons that you have, the wind, something that gave you power and control over your targets. And that became really easy.
"We looked at things like terrain fear factor, the idea that prey will shift to a safer spot that has less opportunity just to stay alive."
We looked at things like terrain fear factor, the idea that prey will shift to a safer spot that has less opportunity just to stay alive. And we created our AI with models that behave exactly the way that prey do. Those are things that are interesting to me to see the synergies. Most prey behave four or five different way. They will either attack back or they will group together to fight.
I’m sure you’ve seen the nature videos where a pack will all of a sudden turn and fight back at a lion or they will call for help or they will pop their quills out or use like a skunk. And all of these behaviors, they’re standard. There’s only a few, and every animal has this inherent nature to it. So our AI behaves the same way, and so our predators act the same way, they view the other predators as competitors for the resources, for mates, for territory, and so we create an ecosystem that reflects that. We’ve got lots of synergies that are easy for us to exploit that make it easy to understand what your role is in the world.
You’ve only shown PVP so far, but I understand this relates to the “Hunting Grounds” mode you’ve announced? Do the pirates act like predators, with their own ranges and competition, like old lions who get weak and other lions encroach on it?
So that—we talked a little bit about kingpins, right? Those are the pirates that are established in the region. If you can envision those as being the old lion and that our players are the young upstarts, they’re going to take him down. And the older guys, their whole role is to maintain the status quo, the power, the structure that they have, and to hold it at all costs.
We want players to ally together to build the toughest gangs so they can take down these kingpins and then maintain their control over the trade routes themselves. So the Hunting Ground should give players the resources they need to fuel their progression, their customization and also the things that their guild may want to do collectively, if they have a particular objective we want to give them the means to control those Hunting Grounds.
So is the idea almost to create a sort of… comprehensible EVE Online? That ebb and flow of empire on a smaller, understandable scale?
There are definitely—I play EVE, I was actually in Goonfleet. (Please don’t print that, everyone will hate me if they know I was in Goonfleet,) I was in Gamma. I was a Gamma Bee. So I played years in EVE and the one thing that I appreciate from games like that is the ability for players to assume the role that’s right for them. And that’s something we take very seriously.
"As soon as you make the decision to sail with other players you’re going to have choices to make. Do I ally with this guy, do I betray him? Do we gang up together and terrorize other players or do we just kind of chill?"
I know that in our Hunting Grounds I want players to feel like when they engage in combat with another player it’s by choice and that when they betray the other pirates around them that that puts them in a direct and understandable alignment with or against other players. So the Hunting Grounds should feel that way and PVP should feel natural and emergent. It shouldn’t feel forced, we’re not trying to create just an area where you go in and shoot for no reason. We want players to have meaning when they engage in PVP.
The other thing that’s really tough in games is to take a PVE player and convert them to a PVP player. So we have to give players a mechanism so that they have the right tools, that the game is not different when they go to PVP and that they have the choice in how they engage other players. If they want to sail solo, I mean, I said that onstage, if you want to sail solo and play in the Hunting Grounds and only fuel your own progression, great.
But as soon as you make the decision to sail with other players you’re going to have choices to make. Do I ally with this guy, do I betray him? Do we gang up together and terrorize other players or do we just kind of chill? I know that, me, I’m going to sail with my daughter and then she’s going to probably not want to fight other players. And then when I want to fight other players I’ll go do my own thing.
Pirates historically weren’t that great at being allies, though.
So, you know, we are historically inspired, but we are creating a world that has its own internal logic and most pirates didn’t even want to shoot their cannonballs because they’re expensive. And so what they wanted to do was fear, make the other crew be so afraid that they would surrender without having to have any bloodshed. What we want to do is create a logical reason for why pirates fight. It’s about the resources that are in the world. So those are probably the rules that we want to reinforce that really make conflict valuable, meaningful, and impactful for the player.
You worked on Black Flag, are pirates something that you personally have—
It’s why I came to Ubisoft. When I was—I was actually a farmer. I left Microsoft and took some time off, I became a farmer and then I knew that there was an opening in Ubisoft and I came here, I met with the team and they said, “oh, we’re working on something pirate-y” and I was in, instantly.
The opportunity to work on a pirate specific game that only focuses on piracy is a dream. It’s a childhood thing that we all do as kids. Something happened to me, also when I was little, when I was 9 or 10 years old, my house burned down and one of the things that we had recovered from underneath the house was a big wagon wheel. And we had taken that wagon wheel and we actually nailed it to the fence post and we played pirates with it and so there’s a—I have a real affinity for the fantasy. And we want to bring it to life, and not just the naval combat, we want to make you feel like you’re really a pirate on the high seas in the Indian Ocean.
What are the historical and cultural pirate touchstones that you’ve used?
I mean, we take inspiration from the things that you see, not just Black Flag that we worked on, but the things that you see in pop culture, media, comics, movies. Those are things that obviously give us a frame of reference, but living in Singapore. Singapore is not just a technological hub of Southeast Asia, it’s really the hub of some of the most intense pirate activities in history.
I went to Malacca last year to visit, they have a maritime museum that has lots of the history of piracy of Southeast Asia. So there's lots of regions that are rich in history here that we can draw from. And the research that we’re doing, we have a very active team that does historical research to give us the type of stories that we want to bring to life, too.
The plan for Skull & Bones is that it’s a AAA game in that new trend of games as a service. How do you plan for that as a creative director? You aren’t just putting a game out and then done.
Making games as a service is new for a lot of us. We were, at the studio, learning with Ghost Recon Phantoms. And so that allowed us to understand how to build the community and react and adapt to the community’s needs. That’s fundamental for us, so the first thing we’re doing is building that relationship with the community. As far as developing a roadmap for the game to take us into new places, the Indian Ocean is rich with history and regions that people have never explored in a video game so that—Our goal is to expand over time, those regions and introduce those regions to players in a way that gives them new fantasies, new types of gameplay, new ingredients to play with.
The biggest issue we’re going to have as a team is getting too far ahead of ourselves and making sure that we have a really strong foundation for introducing new ships, new classes, those new classes require strong balancing investment. So that when we add new things to our world, it makes sense, it’s been tested by the community, that we do vet it, and that it does have a place for new roles. Other games have flooded with games and classes at launch, we want to make sure that we have a very scalable system that allows for new gameplay to emerge. A new meta to lay on top of PVP, those are things that we’re thinking about now.
How much do you consider gameplay balance?
Our core experience team, their goal is all of that. Not just the combat aspect, but the physics of the ship. Our ships, our ballistics are all physics based. And so they balance everything in our world, down to the impact of wind on your ship and how much it causes or affects your turning rates, those things are balanced for every ship, every class, every type, and that team that’s their whole focus.
When you think about these AAA games as a service, I’d think right now the king is Overwatch. Overwatch people understand on a basic level, because it’s like “you’re a guy, and you’re shooting other guys.” How do you you get the average consumer to think “oh, I want to command a ship, and do ship combat.” That’s a lot more foreign.
Well, accessibility is a big thing and making sure that we develop the tools that the player understands and he can master, those things are slowly things that we’re rolling out. You see a taste of that in our tutorial. But we want to show players the accessibility first. So the wind shouldn’t be something that overwhelms you, the weapons and ballistics shouldn’t be something that are too foreign. The ship behaves in a way that players should be able to learn over time and feel the depth the longer that they play, but the accessibility should be something that within the first two hours you should feel comfortable sailing on your own, you should understand the wind, the basic weapon systems, and how to interact with your crew.
But what is it at first glance that’s going to make them go “Oh, I want to play a ship combat game, rather than one where I shoot people.”
The fantasy of controlling what was effectively the most powerful weapon on the planet, that’s what we want players to feel when they see a picture of a ship and the big rows of the cannons, I want them to feel like that’s more important than a pistol. And that having 120 cannons and mortars and rockets and other weapons that we’re working on, those things should feel like, I want that. I want to be in control of that ship and I want to be at the helm of a ship and a weapon that’s so powerful that nations and empires will yield to me.
Disclosure: Ubisoft provided Gamasutra’s flight and accommodations for this press tour.