Last week we caught up with Jean-Francois Boivin, associate producer on Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, to chat about Heavy Rain, the convergence of films and games, and the challenges of making a multiplayer mode that doesn't just copy CoD.
Q: In the presentation you just gave, someone had to ask whether the action was playable, or whether it was a cutscene. What do you think about the fact that games are becoming a lot more film-like these days?
Jean-Francois Boivin: Do you mean philosophically, or in terms of the Assassin's Creed franchise?
Q: Both, I suppose.
JFB: I'll answer the philosophical question first. I think that eventually video games, movies and the like will all be one and same medium. I can very easily see an Assassin's Creed movie in the future, or a Spider-Man movie, like Spider-Man 9, and you put that stuff in your console and then you just watch the movie. Or perhaps right off the bat, do you want to watch Spider-Man 9, or do you want to play Spider-Man 9? And it's the same quality, the same thing. And then you can pause it, and you say, "Oh I love this scene - I'm going to play this scene." I can see that happening, and we're starting to have a glimpse of the possibility with games like Heavy Rain - which, I have to say, changed my life.
JFB: It changed my entire look outlook on interactive entertainment. This is a glimpse of how we're going to bring the video game industry to the next level of commercialism. I can see my mum playing a game like Heavy Rain - [something] much more accessible, obviously, but just the murder mystery and choosing where you want to go and having 22 different endings and just wanting to re-play that story over and over again... I can see that happening. Now, to answer your initial question about cinematics vs Assassin's, we always wanted to keep the player engaged, and Assassin's is a very story-driven franchise. One of the ways we keep the player engaged is to keep them involved, on a controller level, in the story-telling. There are a few ways you can do that. You can do it through Quick Time Events and so on, but we always want to keep the player involved. The worst thing, in my opinion, that you can do to the player in an action adventure environment is to have them put down the controller and watch. Without knowing it, at the core of your attention level, there's a drop there that can be measured scientifically. We don't want that. We want to keep the player on a high, all the time. Super concentrated, super focused.
Q: You're saying there's a disconnect, because you're not taking part in what's going on?
JFB: Physically, there is. Biologically, there is. And you don't want to do that, you want to keep players entertained at all time.
Q: I recently spoke to Ron Gilbert, and he was saying something similar - that he hates cut-scenes...
JFB: Hang on! The operative word in my previous statement was "action adventure". There are some games where it totally fits. If you put me in a Japanese RPG, I'm expecting that, and I want that, right? For me it fits, and if it doesn't have that then it doesn't have that flavour, so that's what I want. But in an action adventure, the name of the game is... in order to stay 'action adventure', you need to have consistent action and consistent adventure. And if your controller is down, you have neither.
Q: If you look at Assassin's Creed, it's a very accessible game in terms of its controls, but there's still a lot to keep track of. Going back to your playable Spider-Man 9 concept... do you think that games like that will retain that level of complex controls? I loved Heavy Rain, but the controls were basically just movement and a whole load of shorthand commands - and even that was too much for some people.
JFB: On the very surface it didn't seem like a very technical game, but it's a hugely complicated game to produce. That is a behemoth of pure, raw, blunt engineering. And how they were able to make it if you play on easy mode, to make it accessible, that is a jewel! I cannot say enough about this game. That's where I see myself in the future someday.
Q: A game like Heavy Rain?
JFB: It's not exactly that kind of stuff, on a Cartesian level, it's more that kind of feeling that I want to give to the player. The one thing that sold me was the scene where I was in the park with my kid. There's no point system, or life system - they don't have those concepts at all, right? Because of the scene beforehand, where I was very stern with my son - he had to eat write and do his homework, and I sent him off to bed in an hour, and with everything that had happened in the past he was kind of pissed off with me - when there was that next scene in the park with him, I felt obligated to spend quality time with my child. They were able to make me feel guilty about how I acted before, without any kind of reward except how I'm feeling. And to do that is brilliant. A lot of people tried to do that, and not a lot of people were able to do that, and these guys pulled it off. Man, I can't even say how frickin' amazing these guys were at making me feel things - without any kind of reward.
Q: The big thing that separates films and games is, of course, gameplay. Watching a film is a passive experience whereas playing a game is an active one, and a lot of people are worried that as films and games converge, it'll be the gameplay that will suffer - that the hardcore elements will die out. Are you worried that will have an impact on games like Assassin's Creed?
JFB: I think there's always going to be a market for hardcore players, but there's obviously going to be a much larger market for people who are not hardcore players. To bluntly answer your question, no I'm not afraid that the mechanics will be sacrificed for storytelling and whatnot. I think we'll always find ways to challenge the hardcore players. For example, Fallout would be a great movie, and if you play on hard level Fallout you're a pretty hardcore player. So there are ways that you can merge them, but it's a one step at a time thing. I don't think it's going to happen any time soon, where we have that kind of merging, but I see that happening in the next 10 years, for sure.
Q: Well, before then... I wanted to talk to you about the multiplayer in Assassin's Creed Brotherhood. I'll admit that I was a bit sceptical about the idea, but you guys seem to have pulled it off! Did you have any reservations about your approach to that side of the game, that it would be a difficult thing to pull off?
JFB: Well yes, of course! The core of the thing is that we had to keep it true to our universe, to our four pillars: steal, social, navigation and fighting. We've been thinking about it for a couple of years, we went back to the drawing board many, many times, played around with a couple of concepts and figured out what worked. I think there's this dichotomy in the gaming world, that the people who are sold to multiplayer don't care about single-player, and the people who are sold to single-player don't necessarily care about multiplayer. The wink we give to that in our universe is that the single-player [game] is Assassins, and the multiplayer is The Templars. I think in the end we're giving a lot to the single-player, because we're giving a full single-player campaign - so they won't feel cheated with Brotherhood, because they had what they wanted. But at the same time the multiplayer is not a shooter-type. It follows the core mechanics of Assassin's Creed, so if you're really good at Assassin's Creed this multiplayer would probably be something you might be interested in playing, because you already know how to play. And on the other hand, the hardcore multiplayers might say "I'm going to try this multiplayer. Hey, this universe is kind of cool! I might look into the single-player." So I think it's a win-win for Assassin's Creed as a whole.
Q: Do you anticipate multiplayer becoming a core part of all future Assassin's Creed games? I know you can only speculate now, as it'll surely be based on how well Brotherhood is received...
JFB: I think so. It is speculation, but I think we've done a really good job doing the multiplayer, and there's a lot of room for expansion in that universe, so I see a multiplayer component being there for a long time.
Q: It's tough for people making multiplayer modes. Bobby Kotick claimed the other week that 60 per cent of the people on Xbox LIVE are there to play Call of Duty, and while that was pretty arrogant you know that he has a point, in that so many people just stick to shooters. Do you find that off-putting when you're designing something that's deliberately not just another shooting deathmatch game.
JFB: Exactly. We didn't want to do that. We didn't want to emulate Call of Duty. First of all it would be highly pretentious for us, coming into that area, to go head-to-head or compete with Call of Duty, because they are so good at what they do. They are perfect at what they do. It would be a disservice to our fanbase, it would be a disservice to our franchise to try to emulate something like that. We need to stay true to what we are, and we need to stay true to our core values. That's the way we're going to respect our core audience and that's also the way that we're going to attract new players. Because our game is so unique at the very core of it, Assassin's Creed as an action adventure is very unique - just the setting, and whatnot - and that's the way we're going to shine and make our own space. Philosophically, you never shine when you're riding somebody's coattails. You always have to do your own thing in life, and you can see that in history, you can see that in business, you can see that in technology, you can see that in art. You can see that in human evolution, biology. As soon as you start doing your own thing, that's when you have a chance to shine and survive, and then flourish.
Q: There's a lot of coattail-riding, though I guess that's understandable...
JFB: It's a recipe, of course. Big Macs are arguably the largest-selling hamburger in the world and everybody's trying to make their own version of the Big Mac. Who's being really successful at it? Not that many people.
Q: So you're making pizza. Or perhaps lasagne?
JFB: Yeah, I think so. I think we're making... Not to say...It's a hugely bad analogy to say... You're putting words in my mouth! I don't really like it. I never said that Call of Duty or shooter multiplayers are Big Macs!
Q: No, it's fine - you were drawing a comparison, I understand.
JFB: It's just the clout of the Big Mac. Everybody knows what the Big Mac is, right? Everybody's trying to imitate it, and nobody's been that successful doing it. It's just an analogy.
Assassin's Creed will be released on November 19 on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360