Assassin's Creed isn't the sort of franchise to radically reinvent itself, but it's had more experiments than it often gets credit for. Since the series became annualized, each game has tried to introduce some new element unseen in the series so far. In Assassin's Creed 3, it's the naval combat. Lead game designer Steven Masters recently shared some insight to how these ideas go from concept to execution.
"Whenever you take something like the naval combat that's an enormous risk," Masters told Shacknews. "The important thing is just to take the risk for the right reasons. We have strategies within our design process for ensuring that a new feature or an idea is going to work within our core gameplay. Essentially, our core pillars are combat, navigation, and social stealth. Those are the absolute essence of the game. As long as we're building a feature that is going to satisfy or enhance one of those core pillars we know it's a pretty good bet, so it's worth taking the gamble on."
Masters said the naval combat fulfills the combat and navigation pillars, so the team knew it wouldn't be "completely alien" to newcomers. But he said it's important to choose the right goals and not muddy a concept by being too beholden to reality. "If you read about the tactics of this era, translating that into a game is dangerous. These boats would take an hour to set their sails," he said. "It's a process of iteration to get to that point." Inevitably, he says, this means some concepts don't work and are scrapped.
Designing these new elements is getting harder as ambitions run the risk of outpacing console power. In a generation that's lasting much longer than anyone expected, Masters said they're running into limits, but prefers to look at them as challenges. "The more comfortable and experienced you get on the platform, the more you can squeeze out of it," he said. "When we started [designing naval combat] we were facing an enormous uphill challenge. We were trying to do something that is completely outside the bounds of what our engine is good at. Our engine was built for city architecture and a static landscape that you navigate by free-running, not a physics-based wave simulation that you put giant boats on and have combat across the seas."
He said that if the game were defined by hardware limitations, the team might have shied away from that task. "In a lot of ways, yeah, we're hitting the boundaries of what the machines can do, we're pushing the limits all across the board, but there's always ways to find an approach to the problem." He remarked that these challenges can be a "massive undertaking," but experience on the platform makes it possible.
That said, Ubisoft doesn't seem eager to push out a demo of the naval combat. In my experience with the game, it played better than it appeared from videos, but Masters says the team doesn't want to misrepresent the game. "Packaging a demo that accurately portrays what the game is, we've never felt would be successful," he said. "If we put out a demo that's just the naval combat, for example, we would create confusion that it's just about the boats."
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He does hope, though, that the company's special care put into historical accurate resonates with players -- and he's enjoyed signs that fans appreciate the effort. When the company remarked at a recent PAX Prime panel that they had gotten native Mohawk speakers to play parts, it was met with a cheer.
"It's kind of gratifying that the work we put into preserving not just the history but the culture as well is something that people appreciate," he said. "With Assassin's Creed, it's kind of like a historical vacation in some ways, and you want to get the real flavor of what's happening there. So spending that time and effort and bringing some culture that people aren't necessarily familiar with is very exciting. So it's immensely gratifying to see that people respond and enjoy that."