Ubisoft on the 10-Year Evolution of 'Assassin's Creed'

“At that moment, we knew what Assassin’s Creed was."

Last year marked the tenth anniversary of Assassin’s Creed, the popular Ubisoft franchise that spans multiple games and console generations. But as with the historical events they depict, the path to reaching that milestone had some twists and turns - as well as a few failures.

During a presentation at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, creative director Jean Guesdon talked about how Ubisoft managed to keep the brand fresh and interesting for over a decade. It all started in 2007 with the original Assassin’s Creed on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. Critics gave it mixed reviews, but the game sold well and was a technical showpiece for Sony’s and Microsoft’s then-current systems.

However, as Guesdon explained, it wasn’t until the sequel that they finally figured out what the brand should represent.

They identified the main gameplay pillars (including fighting and navigating the world) and spruced up the setting — Renaissance-era Italy in the case of AC2 — so that players would be excited about reliving history. The team also took the time to solidify the narrative structure of the universe and the multiple layers it contained: the game, the present day story with hero Desmond Miles, the Animus (the machine that allows characters to explore genetic memories), and the past.

And then Grand Theft Auto IV arrived. Guesdon said that the open-world blockbuster convinced Ubisoft management that they had to “beef up” Assassin's Creed 2 and increase its scope. But the studio needed more resources, so it enlisted the help of other Ubisoft teams for the first time, including Ubisoft Annecy in France, Ubisoft Singapore, and a second team in Montreal.

The hard work paid off. Assassin's Creed 2 was a huge improvement over the original game and is still considered one of the best entries in the series overall.

“At that moment, we knew what Assassin’s Creed was,” said Guesdon.

In the years that followed, Ubisoft turned Assassin’s Creed into an annual franchise. It released sequel after sequel, each of which introduced new features. Some of these ended up appearing in multiple games (like the naval combat), while others were quickly abandoned after the first attempt (the tower defense sequences in Assassin's Creed: Revelations). The point, Guesdon emphasized, was to try new things to keep Assassin's Creed relevant.

That’s why, in 2010, Ubisoft established an ambitious transmedia strategy. Assassin's Creed-related stories could now be told in books, comics, and films. The team came up with a series bible with explicit rules so that other creators would know what they can or can’t do in their stories. According to internal marketing slides that Guesdon showed, the Canadian developer studied other successful franchises like Star Wars, James Bond, The Lord of the Rings, and Superman.

It all culminated in the 2016 film that starred Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard — it was a critical and commercial flop. However, the creative director noted that Assassin’s Creed did help increase awareness of the brand around the world, most notably in Asia.

“Each product is [a standalone experience]. But as a collection, it makes the [intellectual property] bigger than the sum of its parts,” said Guesdon.

For the latest game, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, the developers knew that the series needed to change dramatically. But they wanted to do it without totally starting over. So they revamped the combat system and told a story about the beginning of the Assassin Brotherhood, making it easy for new players to jump onboard.

In a way, Ubisoft had been building up to Origin’s soft reboot for years. In Assassin's Creed: Revelations for example, the team killed off Desmond because he had, more or less, outlived his usefulness. He was vital for establishing the narrative in the early titles, but after five big adventures, Guesdon said his story was too “constricting.” Desmond represented just one of “potentially thousands” of stories in the Assassin's Creed universe, so it was time to let him go.

The studio had similar reasons for jettisoning Juno — the all-powerful being first introduced in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood — to the comics. In a Q&A session that took place after Guesdon’s lecture, he explained that while hardcore fans wanted to know what Juno was up to, the rest of the audience didn’t really know or care about her. The team couldn’t justify using her as a major plot point in a new game. The only way they could “offer a sense of closure” was to tell the rest of her story somewhere else.

These and other changes over the last 10 years reveal a crucial factor about Assassin’s Creed’s ongoing success: It never stays in one place for long. Ubisoft and its many subsidiaries are constantly trying to reinvent the franchise with each new game, paving the way for even more merchandise and novelization tie-ins.

At the end of his talk, Guesdon gave one last piece of advice to the audience.

“Creation in general … is all about the Tai chi mentality. Be solid, know what you want to do. At the same time, be flexible so you’re able to adapt to opportunities and issues. And remain open so that you can work with others. who will help bring [new] solutions and ideas,” he said.