The Perils of Assassin’s Creed

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Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is an example of how a shortened development window and poor resource allocation can ruin what should be an amazing game.

I play a lot of video games, mostly for this site, and sometimes for fun. Yet despite seemingly dedicating every waking moment to the medium, there are franchises that passed me by, if only because I just never got the time to play them. Assassin’s Creed is one such franchise – the closest I ever came to experiencing one of the biggest new properties of the seventh generation was when I watched a roommate play through Assassin’s Creed II. It didn’t look terrible, and the series stayed on my radar, but I just never found time.

Recently, Microsoft featured the fourth (sixth?) entry in the main franchise, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, for free on its Games with Gold program. I didn’t hesitate to download it, mainly because I had never played one of these games (and to do so for free meant decreased risk should I dislike it), and also because Black Flag scored some of the highest praise for any game in the franchise. No better place to start than with the best, I thought.

After nearly twenty hours, my impression is, to put it politely, less than stellar. I’ve always wondered how developer Ubisoft Montreal managed to release these games on a yearly basis, and still somehow feature these sprawling, open worlds with tons of quests littered throughout. It didn’t take long for me to get my answer – they don’t. Although the world of Black Flag may be huge, it feels shockingly hollow, and the missions are boring and repetitive. It’s not surprising that, just this year, publisher Ubisoft announced that they will not be releasing a yearly installment in 2016, instead choosing to spend some time developing the next entry in the series. A welcomed change for sure, especially given how beneficial long-cycle development can be.

After doing some of my own research, articles abound on what Assassin’s Creed as a whole did wrong, and why Ubisoft needs to take it back to the drawing board. Perhaps the most succinct takedown of what went wrong can be found in the always entertaining YouTube channel videogamedunkey, who just three days before I began writing this essay shared his thoughts on the franchise:

I don’t disagree with a single objection he raises in this video, and yet I still keep asking myself, how did Ubisoft get this so wrong? What allowed them to take an open-world franchise where the player takes on the role of an elite assassin, and somehow make it boring, cliche and shallow? In examining Black Flag, I think I found answers to those questions, and also a cautionary tale for other developers to heed.

The Perils of Short-Cycle Development

Assassin’s Creed is an ambitious franchise, with each entry growing in size and scope. To create a successful game of the size of Black Flag would take years to achieve – one only has to look at the years between Bethesda Game Studio releases to understand just how many developer hours go into crafting these worlds. Yet one look at the timeline of Assassin’s Creed games tells us that these games simply did not have the chance to benefit from long-cycle development – if anything, all of the flaws of this franchise point to a criminally shortened development window.

To best understand this, let’s take a look at each title in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, the developer of the title, the platforms the title released on and the date of its North American release. Keep in mind, the first Assassin’s Creed began development sometime following the release of 2003’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, most likely sometime in early 2004. We’ll also exclude titles released specifically for mobile, and only look at the home and handheld console releases, since these were all released under publisher Ubisoft.

 

Title Developer(s) Platform(s) Year of Release
Assassin’s Creed Ubisoft Montreal PlayStation 3

Xbox 360

Microsoft Windows

November 13, 2007
Assassin’s Creed: Altaïr’s Chronicles Gameloft Nintendo DS February 5, 2008
Assassin’s Creed II Ubisoft Montreal PlayStation 3

Xbox 360

Microsoft Windows

Mac OS X

November 17, 2009 (Playstation 3/Xbox 360)
March 9, 2010 (Microsoft Windows)
January 6, 2011 (Mac OS X)
Assassin’s Creed II: Discovery Griptonite Games Nintendo DS November 17, 2009
Assassin’s Creed: Bloodlines Ubisoft Montreal PlayStation Portable November 17, 2009
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood Ubisoft Montreal

Ubisoft Annecy (multiplayer only)

PlayStation 3

Xbox 360

Microsoft Windows

Mac OS X

OnLive

November 16, 2010 (PlayStation 3/Xbox 360)
March 22, 2011 (Microsoft Windows)
July 13, 2011 (Mac OS X)
Assassin’s Creed: Revelations Ubisoft Montreal

Ubisoft Annecy (multiplayer only)

PlayStation 3

Xbox 360

Microsoft Windows

OnLive

November 15, 2011 (PlayStation 3/Xbox 360)
November 29, 2011 (Microsoft Windows)
Assassin’s Creed III Ubisoft Montreal

Ubisoft Annecy (multiplayer only)

PlayStation 3

Xbox 360

Wii U

Microsoft Windows

October 30, 2012 (PlayStation 3/Xbox 360)
November 18, 2012 (Wii U)
November 20, 2012 (Microsoft Windows)
Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation Ubisoft Sofia

Ubisoft Milan

PlayStation Vita

PlayStation 3

Microsoft Windows

Xbox 360

October 30, 2012 (PlayStation Vita)
January 14, 2014 (PlayStation 3)
January 15, 2014 (Microsoft Windows/Xbox 360)
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Ubisoft Montreal

Ubisoft Annecy (multiplayer only)

Microsoft Windows

PlayStation 3

PlayStation 4

Wii U

Xbox 360

Xbox One

October 29, 2013 (Playstation 3/Xbox 360/Wii U)
November 15, 2013 (Playstation 4)
November 19, 2013 (Microsoft Windows)
November 22, 2013 (Xbox One)
Assassin’s Creed Rogue Ubisoft Sofia PlayStation 3

Xbox 360

Microsoft Windows

November 11, 2014 (Playstation 3/Xbox 360)
March 10, 2015 (Microsoft Windows)
Assassin’s Creed Unity Ubisoft Montreal Microsoft Windows

PlayStation 4

Xbox One

November 11, 2014
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Ubisoft Quebec Microsoft Windows

PlayStation 4

Xbox One

October 23, 2015 (Playstation 4/Xbox One)
November 19, 2015 (Microsoft Windows)

The first data point that leaps out is just how many Assassin’s Creed games there are – 13 to be exact, released between the years 2007 to 2015 (a span of nine years). Of those 13 titles, developer Ubisoft Montreal is responsible for eight, many of which are part of the “main” series, developed over a period from 2004 to 2014. In other words, the much more popular titles, the ones that powered Assassin’s Creed to becoming the best selling franchise in Ubisoft’s catalogue. Looking at the frequency, there is no logical way that any one developer can put out this many quality game this fast, even if the employee count is more than 2,700.

In addition to these eight titles, Ubisoft Montreal also develops games outside of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Notable games that overlap with the development window of any Assassin’s Creed title Ubisoft Montreal has developed include:

These games aren’t minor side projects – Ubisoft Montreal was basically in charge of the Tom Clancy brand, as well as developing the Far Cry property, a major acquisition on the part of Ubisoft. And just for good measure, they were tasked with developing and launching a brand new intellectual property in WATCH_DOGS. Over the course of 10 years, Ubisoft Montreal has been responsible for 22 titles, all of them large, ambitious, AAA titles.

At the least, we can all agree that Ubisoft Montreal games do not follow a long-cycle development window (at least, the sequels they work on do not). Those 22 games over a 10 year span prove this to be true. When this is taken into consideration, many of the issues Black Flag suffers from begin to make more sense. These are flaws no developer with proper time and resources would make – a damning testament to the flaws of short-cycle development.

Everything And The Kitchen Sink

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Black Flag tries to be an open-world, pirate, assassin, RTS game rolled into one.

What stood out to me as a new Assassin’s Creed player was the incredible scope of Black Flag. This game has nearly everything crammed into its 1700s Caribbean setting – hunting, whaling, pirating and assassinations. Players begin this adventure as pirate Edward Kenway, who stumbles across a real assassin and kills him, assuming his identity (and skills, apparently). There are numerous upgrades to purchase or craft that assassins would find useful, and plenty of tactics to learn to complete the game’s laundry list of side quests. This in itself would be enough for a typical Assassin’s Creed game, but Kenway never lets go of his pirate roots, and eventually takes control of his very own pirate ship. This is where most of the game is spent – sailing from locale to locale, taking out Spanish and British ships and stealing their cargo and crew so the player can upgrade their own ship to take on larger Spanish and British ships that carry more cargo and crew. There is little assassinating that takes place on the high seas – combat is all about positioning the ship and firing canons at the opposition, dodging their attacks and occasionally ramming their ship.

Already, Black Flag is throwing a lot at the player, as both of these systems are fully expanded and could each easily make their own game. Hybrid genre games are a personal favorite of mine, and what all great hybrid games do well is moderation – the developers take a little from one genre and a little from the other, and mix them together so they fit and play nicely. Velocity 2X does this near perfectly – it retains the core elements of the top-down shooter and 2-D platforming genre, but it doesn’t allow either one to fully develop and grow into its own game. Instead, they find a nice balance, so players only have to learn one game and not two full ones. Black Flag doesn’t strike this balance, which results in 10 hours of exposition and a map legend that has more symbols than most alphabets (this guide needs a total of 85 maps, many of which cover the same sections multiple times over, just to detail every item and quest in the game).

But that’s just the beginning – in addition to the assassination and open-world gameplay, Black Flag also introduces a pseudo real-time strategy (RTS) game at around the 15 hour mark. Not only can Captain Kenway pilot his own ship, but he can now command his own fleet, which is accomplished by having players send ships out to clear shipping lanes, and then sell goods at various ports. All of these actions are handled in a menu, and the combat involved by clearing shipping lanes is basic at best.

Keep in mind, this entire system isn’t even mentioned until well after all of the assassination and open-world combat has been introduced. Not only does this overwhelm the player, but these three different games aren’t combined in a way in which they play off each other – the RTS elements have little impact on assassinations, and the status of the player’s pirate ship doesn’t increase the chances of success during assassination missions or the player’s fleet. Every idea Ubisoft Montreal had for this game was put into development and added to the final product, seemingly regardless of playtesting or polish, because there was likely no time to playtest or polish any mechanic.

This lack of time to playtest properly also means that the game’s structure is disorganized and often redundant. In most games, the order in which the player learns new abilities and unlocks new items or levels is meticulously planned, in order to maintain an internal consistency. It makes little sense to teach the player how to earn in-game money after they have completed several missions that reward them in-game money. When a game pauses the story and action to teach the player a new mechanic, it needs to be a mechanic that hasn’t been used already by the player.

Black Flag breaks this basic rule so often that I began to wonder if I accidentally glitched past certain barriers in the game and was completing end-game content long before I was supposed to know it even existed. I was collecting items that were later revealed to be plot-specific, long before I knew what they were and long before I was introduced to the light puzzle elements that accompany them. I took on several assassination contracts hours before I learned about the secret order of assassins and how to find their super-secret hidden job boards. I unlocked sections of the overworld map by destroying forts, only for the game to hold my hand on a mission that taught me how to destroy forts and take them over, hours later. Basically, I went into the game already knowing how to run, and hours into it the game paused and taught me how to crawl. If this happened once, it would be forgivable, but this happens constantly in Black Flag, because those first 15 hours are filled with exposition on how to play as an assassin, pirate and fleet commander.

Poor Resource Allocation

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This is the lobby of the fake video game developer the player character works at while playing Black Flag – it’s unnecessary and a waste of developer resources.

With so much redundancy and so many ideas crammed into one title, Black Flag lacks an identity, which is a gigantic problem in itself, but it’s made worse by the fact that the world, and the missions in it, are simple copy and paste jobs. Each mission is essentially the same (videogamedunky was not exaggerating when it comes to the amount of trailing missions – nearly every main story mission involves a section that simply requires the player follow another character), and they litter a world that feels hollow and fake. There is no illusion – the player isn’t magically transported to the Caribbean, or to the 1700s for that matter. The world lacks detail, such as variations in the landscape or non-playable character (NPC) AI that reacts to what is happening in the world. This means that any action the player takes in this already shallow world has no consequence. There’s little incentive to play Black Flag as a stealth game – simply walk right up to a British soldier, draw your swords, cut him down right in the middle of a busy market, then just drop your controller and go make a sandwich, because there’s no reason to pause this game or worry that something bad will happen. A few NPCs will react, but all will return to normal in seconds.

If it’s not clear by now, the short-cycle development was made even worse by poor resource management. So much time was spent teaching the audience how to play three separate games that no time was spent on crafting a unique world and filling it with interesting missions. But there are other, in some ways more shocking, examples of poor resource management that led to the demise of this promising title and franchise.

Assassin’s Creed is notorious for how it frames the plots of each game in a modern story. Technically, players aren’t directly controlling an elite assassin throughout various time periods – they are experiencing the memories of these assassins as they are extracted from DNA. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but what shocked me is how much time was spent on crafting this modern story. Black Flag has an entirely separate mode in which players walk around the corporate headquarters of Abstergo Entertainment, a fictional game developer (fictional in two senses – that it only exists in a video game, and that in the world of Black Flag it is actually a cover-up for a far more sinister company). Players will scan barcodes, hack co-workers computers and talk to one-dimensional characters. There are an untold number of art assets, voice actors and character models that are necessary for a project like this, and yet there is nothing rewarding or fulfilling about wandering the fictional offices of a fictional game company. If anything, these sections actively prevent the player from engaging in the activities that Assassin’s Creed bills itself on, such as stealth and assassination, by dedicating necessary resources where they aren’t warranted. While those elements suffer, players will be given a fully developed employee handbook to read over, complete with sections on health care benefits and dining options at the fictional office.

All of this could have been cut from the game, the resources diverted to actual gameplay and world building, and it would be better for it.

In addition to a poorly conceived modern story, resources were allocated to develop a multiplayer mode, which has oddly become a staple of the single-player focused franchise. Although Ubisoft Montreal did not work directly on the multiplayer for Black Flag, another Ubisoft developer did – Ubisoft Annecy. This means that the project leads for both teams had to spend time coordinating the production schedule, and Ubisoft as a publisher had to split their time between two studios on one game, monitoring progress on each. Although Ubisoft Montreal was off the hook for multiplayer, it likely still impacted them, albeit indirectly. Further complicating matters was a focus on DLC, microtransactions and social gameplay, all of which can be best summed up with one of the most confusing start menus in modern gaming.

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The amount of extras on this menu is staggering, and a telltale sign of what Ubisoft values most about this franchise – its ability to make money by any means.

The single player campaign isn’t front and center, the options menu is hidden, microtransactions that help speed up game progress are prominently displayed and new DLC is splashed everywhere else. The focus isn’t on getting players into the game and enjoying the base, vanilla experience – the focus is to get the player to spend more money and to convince their friends to join them, so they too can spend more money after purchasing the title. This method seemed to work – Black Flag has sold over 11 million copies, making it one of the most successful games of the past five years. However, as Ubisoft’s recent change of heart on the franchise has shown, this short-term success may have long-term consequences.

Learning From Past Successes

With limited time for development, and with resources so poorly managed, Black Flag may have seemed like a lost cause. It would be, by most standards, but Ubisoft Montreal is in a unique position – they have worked on multiple titles that each execute the mechanics Black Flag aims for, and they succeeded in those endeavors. But that’s the most frustrating aspect of Black Flag, and of short-cycle development in general – Ubisoft Montreal had the keys to success right in their own hands, and they still didn’t have the time to properly use them.

In Black Flag, the default movement speed for players is dreadfully slow – Kenway moves at such a slow place that walking any distance at all is frustrating and tiresome. However, given the size of the game world (the whole map comes in at roughly 230 square kilometers, or roughly 88 square miles), there needs to be a way to move around at a faster clip. This is where free running comes into play – if the player holds the right trigger, they will run in whichever direction they are moving with the left analog stick. In addition, when in free run mode the player will automatically parkour up the sides of buildings or over obstacles, making for, in theory, some exciting chase sequences. However, Kenway seems to want to show off his parkour skills every chance he can get, and will go out of his way to leap over a barrell or stop running to climb up a chimney, only to jump right back off of it a second later. In Ubisoft Montreal’s mind, this is what free running is supposed to look like:

However, in order to pull that off, the player needs a level of patience that is inconsistent with the “it just works” mentality of free running mode. In reality, this is what moving around the world on foot will look like for most gamers:

The sad thing is, Ubisoft Montreal absolutely nailed this mechanic in the 2008 release of Prince of Persia. That title also features a free run mode, and although the levels in Prince of Persia are much more linear, the parkour elements actually do work. An overview of the gameplay highlights just how simple it is to pull off some daring acrobatic feats, with little complexity or interference:

This same short-term memory also applies to other important elements of Black Flag, such as stealth and navigating and exploring the open world. Black Flag puts an emphasis on player’s using stealth tactics to complete missions, but it makes a few mistakes – the player slowly unlocks some of the most basic tools for stealth, instead of having them at the beginning of the game; there are few options of escape if the player is accidentally caught while on a stealth mission (the game’s AI is so broken that I would often run in a circle until the enemies no longer spotted me, at which point I would dive into a pile of leaves and the enemies would return to their overly-scripted routines); and each stealth mission has one basic path the player must follow to complete the objective. All of these mistakes were worked out and replaced with better mechanics with the release of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, a game that released on the original Xbox. And when it comes to exploring the open world, Ubisoft should have taken a page from their own playbook, and included the variety seen in Far Cry 3. Unlocking new sections of the map was handled by climbing radio towers and deactivating a jamming signal, and fast travel locations were unlocked by clearing enemy-controlled outposts. Although climbing radio towers eventually grew old, the outposts had just enough variation to prevent them from feeling too repetitive, but in Black Flag, each synchronization point (which unlocks fast travel points) and fort takeover (which unlocks new sections of the map) are far too repetitive to hold any interest over more than a couple hours. It’s frustrating to see a developer find so much success with these elements in their very own games, and somehow have that not translate to their biggest franchise.

Take Your Time

By releasing these games yearly, and placing so much of the development burden on one studio, Ubisoft ensured that each Assassin’s Creed game couldn’t get the proper time and attention needed for such ambitious projects. It’s a real shame, because hidden somewhere in Black Flag is the skeleton of a fun game. But those interesting ideas were never allowed to grow, because the developer had to meet unrealistic expectations.

It sounds like Ubisoft finally listened to the growing complaints of fans, but I’m worried the damage may have already been done. What was once a top-selling franchise has seen a decline in recent years, and whether Assassin’s Creed can recover remains a mystery, but it’s a mystery we shouldn’t have to solve in the first place. This ambitious idea, that a team of 2,700 developers spent the better part of a decade working on, could have been something truly great, if only Ubisoft would have allowed for a long-cycle development window. But instead they abandoned it for a steady stream of mediocre-to-poor revenue generators, and now they’re stuck picking up the pieces of this once promising franchise. The short-cycle development ensured that, against all odds, Ubisoft would find a way to make a series about elite assassins boring. Let’s hope a year or two off changes that.