Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Interview with Ashraf Ismail and Michael Hampton

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Game Director Ashraf Ismail (Left), Senior Game Designer Michael Hampton (Right)

Thanks to Ubisoft Australia, we were able to interview some very special guests who flew in from across the globe to attend EB Games Expo 2013. Shortly after our interview with Kevin Shortt – Lead Scriptwriter/Story Designer on Watch_Dogs – we spoke to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Game Director Ashraf Ismail, and from Ubisoft Singapore, Senior Game Designer Michael Hampton. Topics covered included the process of working across multiple studios worldwide, the underwater aspect of the gameplay, how you can discover what happened directly after the ending of Assassin’s Creed III, Edward and how he may be perceived by gamers and more.

So Michael, I understand you had a large hand in designing the underwater sections and gameplay in Black Flag. Tell us about that part of the game and what the challenges were in creating something so entirely new for the franchise.

M: Yeah, so obviously there were a bunch of challenges. The main challenge was that we wanted to have the controls feel like it was a natural extension, swimming underwater feeling consistent with traversal on the ground. That was one challenge. The other big driving force and the vision behind it was that we wanted to make the player – the assassin – always so powerful, you know you’re always hunting people, always the man on the ground… we wanted to turn the tables on the player so that when you’re underwater, you’re vulnerable; you don’t have any weapons and you’ve got to use your stealth and your navigation and your wits as an assassin to survive, basically. To survive in this harsh underwater environment, and I think that’s what you’ll find when you play it.

It’s funny, just like with other trends, there seems to be a sudden influx of games with similar concepts that were previously uncharted. But I think exploring that underwater plane lends itself to a new, dynamic experience…

M: Yeah, and it’s pretty cool. We’ve got a bunch of underwater locations; there’s several different chests, and things like big shipwrecks and ruins and these dark trenches, so it’s really interesting.


Backtracking to the original conceptualisation, everybody loved the naval aspect of Assassin’s Creed III, so was that the jumping off point for Black Flag?

A: Not so much, because we started this game over two years ago. So when we started we had prototypes of the naval from AC III, and so for sure we thought that there was something really cool there, there was something promising. At the same time, we were shipping on next-gen – we knew this – so you know, when you think next-gen, when you think new consoles, you also think intuitively ‘I’m gonna play a game like I’ve never played before’. And this thought was actually what pushed us to start thinking about the naval sandbox. So in saying, instead of building just a city, we’ve actually built a world like we’ve never seen before.

And so that’s where the idea of the naval sandbox came in… that with a character like Edward Kenway – who’s actually already been defined before we started; he was gonna be the grandfather to Connor – it all felt like it came together. And honestly, when we began it wasn’t a debate, we didn’t have multiple options, we just said ‘we’re making a pirate game in the Caribbean, early 18th century’ and we just went with it at that point. So seeing the reaction to AC III was super positive… [It just reinforced your beliefs in the direction] Exactly, because we knew we taking a big risk. We were effectively saying ‘we have free-running and the fights, and now we’re going to ram naval combat into that whole system. That’s a very risky thing to do, so we were super thrilled to see that reaction to AC III.

So in the earliest of pre-production, even for AC III when you initially decided to include ship gameplay in any capacity, did you always want to make a pirate game, so to speak?

A: It wasn’t necessarily always planned, although we always wanted to do a pirate game – whether it would be an Assassin’s Creed or outside of Assassin’s Creed – but it’s really tough to do pirate games because you need: naval, you need cities and you need jungle environments. So you need a lot of diversity, and at some point we just felt like ‘okay, we’re at a stage where the foundation is so solid that we can build a pirate game’. We know how to build cities, all of a sudden with AC III we know how to build natural environments, so it was easy for us to build jungles… and then the naval combat; that’s where we put a lot of effort, in ‘how do you make this systemic, how do you make this open-world, how do you have a lot of life in this world’. So it wasn’t always going to be an option for AC to have a pirate game, but honestly, when we started it was kind of slapping us in the face. It wasn’t even a question – I think everybody in the room, when we sat down, it was like ‘we’re doing a pirate game, right!’


I was disappointed when Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned got cancelled…

A: Yeah, I was too actually.

Because we haven’t – to your points – had a good pirate game in a very long time…

A: That’s the thing, I always say that there is a reason why pirate games don’t exist, or they’re not very good to be honest. The last great one was either Monkey Island or Sid Meier’s Pirates; those were the last great ones and it’s because they’re so tough to do, especially if you want to be credible at it. There’s just so much you have to do and you have to do it well. And I feel like AC is one of the only brands that can pull it off, at this point.

So, in Black Flag you’re bringing back the stealthy assassination-focused multiplayer we’ve known for the last few iterations, but we’ve heard that there won’t be any naval multiplayer. Why is that? Were they some major technical challenges involved?

A: No, unfortunately we don’t have naval multiplayer. We had an early prototype way back, and it was quite amazing, but one of the biggest issues we had… okay, when we started the game, we told ourselves ‘we have to ship a really polished, solid game’. This was one of our mandates, internally, to ourselves. And so as the game production went on, we constantly reviewed everything we had in the game and we’d say ‘if it’s not good enough, we either put more effort on it or we have to cut it from the game’, because we couldn’t put the resources it need on it.

And the problem with naval multiplayer was that, when we assessed how much time we needed just to get the basics going, and deal with latency issues, having the progression system and having it so that people can’t cheat the game – because in multiplayer that is a big thing you have to worry about – we just didn’t have the resources to do it in time. And the scope of the game is already massive; this is the biggest AC we’ve ever built. So on top of that, having naval multiplayer… we just didn’t have the resources to do it. Having said that, you know I always tell people, if people love Black Flag and people want to see more naval stuff, I’ll be one of the first to push for having naval multiplayer in some future version of whatever game. So people just have to let us know that they love the game [Laughs].


And Michael, Ubisoft has studios worldwide, practically in every continent. So what’s it like being based out of Singapore, working with the guys back in Montreal and so forth?

M: It’s all about collaboration and communication. It’s the type of thing where you learn very early on that you can’t receive an email and then not send a response for 2 or 3 days, because the turnaround time is just too much and you’re actually stopping people from getting stuff done when you’re doing that. So everybody on the team – a lot of people in Montreal, a lot of people in Singapore – hadn’t necessarily done this type of work before. So it’s just something we learned as the project went on; how to do this, how to do it better. Ash came down I think a couple times to Singapore, and myself and some other guys went over a couple times to Montreal too. So that helps a lot as well. You’re going to have some arguments about stuff, so it’s not always gonna be smooth sailing, but overall, you can’t do a game of this scale in one studio any more – it’s just not really possible, unless you want to wait 6 years for it, which I don’t think our fans do…

A: And if I can just add to that, in Montreal we actually have a team of people that are just purely dedicated to communication and collaboration. So it’s a team with a game designer, production manager, a technical artist and these people, it’s their job that for any studio – including Montreal – if we needed to get info to Singapore or Singapore needed info from us, these people’s sole responsibility was that; to make sure they got the info in a timely manner. So it’s a process that’s been developed… I mean, AC II was the first AC that was actually developed across multiple studios, so we’ve been learning and improving this process for a few years now.

So back in the early days, when the game was rumoured to be in development…

A: Yeah, there were one or two leaks [Laughs].

Just a couple. [Laughs] People thought that this was going to be another spin-off, if only because of the time-gap between main entries in the series. But what constitutes this being a main entry in the series; is it the fact that it’s the first on next-gen and there’s lots of new technical achievements tied to that, is it because we have a new character? Are those things what define this as Assassin’s Creed IV?

A: Those are some of the details, but I will tell you… the main thing, the biggest thing, that having a new number signifies is that the core gameplay experience is gonna change. So with AC III, it was the idea that now we have these natural environments, you have a new hero… you do naval missions – although those were side missions – but you have navigation through those natural environments, and then you have the winter and the seasons. So it really signifies the idea that the core gameplay is changing. In our case, it’s the fact that we have this brand new world unlike anything we’ve built before, naval gameplay is directly part of the core experience, you have a crazy progression system… it’s the first of any AC that actually has a massive challenge curve in the game. So, because we have naval enemies, we have ships that are inanimate that you can upgrade and you can have more canons, more defences. You know, previously we had human enemies and you’re an assassin so you can kill them in one shot. But now that we have ships, we have a progression system and a real challenge in the game. So the pure experience of AC is drastically different, and that’s what signifies a new iteration, a new version of the game.


In regards to the story, people will be wondering – because of the pretty destructive way AC III ended – how Black Flag carries on from that?

A: So, we pick up a little bit after the end of AC III, and there is an arc that is being told so we’re carrying that arc forward. So effectively, in the present day you have a new hero that you play – the idea being that you play yourself, in first person – but you’re an Abstergo Entertainment employee, and you’re researching the life of Edward Kenway and you don’t know why. And you don’t know why Abstergo is; you’re just a guy working for a company. As the story progresses, you realise there’s a nefarious reason behind everything; Edward does something in his life that’s very valuable for the templars of the present day, and this is what they’re actually after. But of course, everything to do with Juno, everything to do with the ‘first civ’ – this stuff is a part of it, and this stuff progresses as well.

We also have a lot of optional content that, if you don’t care about the present day, you don’t have to do. But if you do, you can exit the Animus at any time and you can explore this Abstergo Entertainment place and there’s hours of content in there. You can find out what happened to Desmond after AC III; you can find out a lot of the mythos and the details that, for the people who love that kind of stuff, there’s a lot of info there for you. I won’t ruin any of the surprises, but the beginning is really… we treat the player as a ‘newb’, and this is something that we wanted because, even though this is AC IV, we wanted new players to be able to come in and that’s why both Edward and the present-day character are new and fresh to the assassins-templar feud. But of course, things pick up rather quickly and things go from there.

And how do you think Edward is going to be received? Because we saw with the fan feedback how combative people’s opinion were as it relates to Connor in AC III, but Edward is more brash and arrogant – he’s living the pirate life for Christ’s sake!

M: I mean, overall, I think pirates are kinda fun, so you’ve already got a pretty good attitude about him going into it. But the thing is, Edward is a very real character. No one is perfect; everyone has some internal flaws or difficulties that they struggle with and you’re gonna see Edward dealing with that throughout the game and learning and growing during the story. So I think the fact that he’s so relatable, and you can say ‘maybe I would have done that in the same situation’ or those sorts of things, that will make you feel kind of bonded to him and I think that’s the main thing.

A: I think people are going to love Edward. He’s an amazing character… [He’s charismatic] He is charismatic, he’s very funny; there’s a lot of humour in the narrative and the writing. And beyond that, you can connect to him, he’s human, he has flaws and the story is actually about him figuring out who he is in life, effectively. So you go on this journey with him and I think that’s gonna make people connect with him and really love the character.

M: And he’s a freaking bad-ass! He’s got 4 pistols, and slashing everybody up with cutlasses! I mean, you know, what’s not to like?!

Absolutely, you can’t not love that! Okay, thanks for your time guys!

We want to thank Ashraf and Michael once again for their time, and Ubisoft Australia for making the interview possible, of course. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag releases for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii U on October 31st; the Xbox One and PC on November 22nd, and the PlayStation 4 on November 29th Australia-wide.

I am a graduate of the Bachelor of Interactive Entertainment (w/ major in Games Design) course at Qantm College, Sydney.

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