How Making An ‘Assassin’s Creed’ is Like ‘Directing an Aliens Movie’

By | 2 years ago 

When any video game fan makes the decision to stop simply seeing games as a publisher’s product, and pays closer attention into the people actually making the game, one thing becomes clear: the most successful developers or creative leads are sought after by just about everyone. In the case of Ubisoft, the publisher has managed to overlap studios and teams to keep all employees working year-round, regardless of the game.

While that makes sense for developers working on asset creation, programming, or the technical aspects, the title of ‘Creative Director’ implies something less interchangeable. In the case of Far Cry 4 creative director Alex Hutchinson, it means shifting from one of the industry’s most story-driven franchises in Assassin’s Creed to one of the most free-wheeling. But it’s a change he clearly welcomes.

Hutchinson will be familiar to followers of the Assassin’s Creed series, having acted as creative director on Assassin’s Creed 3. In the world of AAA game development he’s about as outspoken as most creative leads are permitted to be, having defended the overlooked aspects of AC3, and expressed his frustrations at the racial assumptions people had about the next project being developed under his watch.

With Ubisoft gaining a reputation for shifting talent internally, it’s no surprise to see Hutchinson head up another title. But with AC3 being one of the most constrained Ubisoft games in recent years – both due to its setting and the need to wrap up Desmond Miles’ story – making the leap to Far Cry (a series with almost no through-lines or consistency) seems a challenging one.

We had the chance to ask Hutchinson about just that at a recent preview event, citing the fact that most players don’t understand exactly what being a ‘creative director’ entails. While the question may not be an unexpected one, it seems the answer varies depending on the property:

“That’s the big question: What can you bring from your experience on other projects, and what can you bring in terms of your experience in the games industry to make the core of this game better?

Assassins Creed 3 Header

“For me, big franchises like Assassin’s Creed 3 were always like being asked to direct an Aliens movie. You know what I mean? Or a Star Wars sort of thing, where you’re like: ‘Okay, I’m going to come in there and hopefully we’re going to put a stamp on it.’ But at the same time it has inertia, and it has weight, and it has history. And you need to respect that.

Movie fans will understand the point Hutchinson is driving at: that when properties have become larger than the people responsible for shaping them, their longevity becomes a top priority. That doesn’t necessarily mean that creativity is actively stifled or stalled by the publisher – Assassin’s Creed Unity looks to be taking entirely new approaches to several parts of game design – but when making ‘an Assassin’s Creed,’ most of the building blocks are established at the outset.

Naturally, then, Hutchinson seems to welcome the opposite challenges posed by Far Cry 4; a game whose only real defining feature is its mechanical complexity. It may seem like trying to herd a group of wild elephants, but when the restrictions are lifted, and the defined parameters are fewer, the kind of game where a crazed badger can be the most dangerous enemy is a welcome change:

“Far Cry’s a little bit more open, which is fun, because you get to kick over the chairs a little more and do something radically different. But it’s the same question: What is effective, what is going well, why do people love this? And then why do these other people not like it, or these other people not pay attention to it, and how can we change that?”

Far Cry 4 Badger Attack

In the end, Hutchinson explains, it’s ultimately the team members themselves who determine the identity of the game. But when the production team swells to include satellite studios – in the case of Ubisoft, spanning around the globe – it’s the singular vision that helps the parts of Far Cry 4 being made in Montreal, and those constructed in Toronto, feel like parts of the same whole:

“That’s the super high-level stuff, and of course you’re always working with other human beings on your team who have desires, who think the game should go this way… and it’s the same job as directing any creative project; of trying to find a unified vision that’s strong enough and clear enough that people can get behind it.

“You can get several hundred people who may even be at other studios to say: ‘Oh no no, it’s this. We’re making this.’ And if they understand it and it’s clear, then they’ll do a great job. And if they don’t understand it, and it’s murky, you’ll get… something.”

Time will tell if the vision defining the growth of Far Cry 4 has been unified enough to keep fans and newcomers satisfied, but it’s at least nice to know just how creative directors spend their days at work. Besides explaining it to gaming websites, that is.

Far Cry 4 will be available for PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3 and PS4 on November 18, 2014.

Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.