Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag: How Ubisoft Turned a Stealth Franchise into a Pirate Sim

"Life's pretty good, and why wouldn't it be? I'm a pirate, after all." - Johnny Depp

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Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag‘s Caribbean setting is sun-dappled, tropical and thoroughly tattooed, a sultry archipelago of jungle-scapes, cerulean skies and grizzled buccaneers. You play as Edward Kenway, father of Assassin Creed III‘s Haytham, grandfather of Connor and all around pirate neophyte as the game begins.

Your story is his story, rising through the pirate echelons, rubbing elbows with everyone from Blackbeard to Anne Bonny, working to hammer out a kind of egalitarianism that’s often overlooked in Hollywood’s rush to mythologize pirates as unshowered, bloodthirsty, money-grubbing mercenaries preying on the weak like peg-legged sociopaths.

I recently spoke with Jean Guesdon, Black Flag‘s creative director, who let me run around the room with the game question-wise. Here’s what he had to say about the series’ shift from conspiratorial intrigue to full-throated freebooting. Black Flag ships for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on October 29, followed by next-gen versions for PlayStation 4, Windows and Xbox One on November 15, 19 and 22, respectively.

Thank you for speaking to me in English. My French is terrible. You probably get that a lot.

It’s a pleasure, and forgive me my mistakes.

Not at all. So you’re the guy whose job it’s been to maintain series continuity. Tell me about that.

That was my job after Assassin’s Creed II. During that game’s development, I was a game designer, and at the end, Ubisoft established a group to maintain the consistency of the franchise while making sure we were also extending it. I was responsible for the content side, so my job was to be in touch with any Assassin’s Creed project and its production, communicating what the franchise was about and what were the pillars of both the gameplay and narrative. So from the comics to short movies to the games on any of the consoles, I’ve touched all of it.

Why go with a numbered installment instead of a named one like Brotherhood and Revelations, since Black Flag‘s technically a prequel to Assassin’s Creed III?

Honestly, that was a big debate internally. We shifted from one position to another because we thought both approaches were legitimate in the sense that Black Flag…yes, it could have been only named AC: Black Flag as a prequel to ACIII, because we wanted to tell a story with these two parts and games.

But at the same time, we’ve always said that a new number represents a new hero, a new character and a new setting. When we started creating Edward and the Caribbean and all the new gameplay, we thought it was strong enough and fresh enough to deserve, properly, the number four. This is why in the end we said “You know, both are right, let’s have both.”

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18th century colonial history often involves first-person accounts passed along by the folks doing the colonizing, and I’m assuming pirate accounts of their own history is even more anecdotal. What sort of research did you tap to bring the 18th century Caribbean to life?

We knew we wanted to do a pirate game, but we wanted to do it AC-style, so it was about respecting the history and bringing valuable information to the audience for their own personal knowledge. When we were determining which period would be interesting, we were drawn to this decade prior to 1720, the so-called Golden Age of Piracy, when the most famous pirates gathered together in Nassau, Bahamas trying to establish one of the first democratic societies. This, we thought, was really, really interesting and perfectly in line with one of our pillars — that we tackle only key historical events.

We discovered tons of things, like this incredible cast of pirates. We didn’t anticipate that we’d meet Blackbeard, Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane, Calico Jack — all these guys for real, gathered and bound together in Nassau.

Did you go much off-legend with some of the characters?

Oh absolutely. First we lifted tons of anecdotes from events that really took place. After that we crafted our own story within the historical material. So yes, there were some events that we decided to drop because we couldn’t technically create them, or because it made the story too complex.

During the 1700s, over three million slaves were imported to Caribbean colonies. To what extent does the game engage Afro-Caribbean history?

We didn’t want to ignore this, but it’s also not the central theme of Black Flag — we’re instead doing something that deals with this in the downloadable content. We introduce the character Adéwalé, a former slave, who’s the quartermaster and second in command of the main ship after Edward. And this is not the white guy taking command over the black guy, it’s purely a friendship between them.

For example, Edward is this guy who comes from the British Isles. He’s a regular sailor, not really aware of the politics and state of social conditions in the Caribbean. So at one point he says to Adéwalé, “What would you do if you got rich? Would you return to Africa?” And Adéwalé says “What? I don’t know Africa. I’ve been here. My place is here in the Caribbean.” And this is the type of message that we want to transmit, you know, don’t go making assumptions about people, just ask them and they’ll tell you where they’re from or what they’re about.

Prior AC games had Desmond and Abstergo to ground the historical gameplay, but in Black Flag you’ve replaced Desmond with a faceless, nameless character — us — roaming the halls of an Abstergo subsidiary. Are you still telling a future story here?

Not in the same sense as the prior games, but yes, what we call internally “the present day” will remain in our games, except that in Black Flag, you’re in first-person, playing yourself in the offices of Abstergo Entertainment in Montreal researching data for the company.

Why did we do that? Because you’re right, the thing that kept the previous installments one cohesive universe was the present day where you played as Desmond.

The thing is, we had to make the brand and the franchise slowly evolve, to move from a heavily single-player offline game — think about the first AC — to something that would allow us the luxury to make the franchise more connected. And with next-gen, we can have more people playing simultaneously, and we had to reflect that and to set up the conditions that would allow the franchise to endure.

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But what about that future story? That’s a key part of the series’ allure, isn’t it? This sense that you’re working through the past to solve some future mystery? Given what happened at the end of ACIII, is that meta-mystery gone from the series?

It’s not gone, because you’re right, this is key to the franchise, and the conspiracy theories are interesting and keep people engaged with our universe. But what I didn’t mention in my previous answer is that in 2012, technically, the present day story of Desmond merged with our real world. Since the original AC, which came out in 2007, the present day of the game has been 2012, where you’re rushing to stop the end of the world before it happens.

What we decided to do is that now, our world, the one that’s around us right now, is the real AC world, which means that today you have Abstergo and you have assassin cells all over the place. You can also follow on a day to day basis something called AC Initiates, a franchise website that continues the narrative in the present day, and you’ll see this being used in the console games, too.

ACIII often subverted cherished American myths — I’m thinking mostly of Shaun Hastings’ commentary in the historical database. Will we see more of that in Black Flag?

What I can tell you without spoiling too much is this: Obviously you’ll still have a database, either on your console while playing or later on a companion application. You’ll have all kinds of entries, as you’d expect, but obviously they won’t be written by Shaun. Instead, you’ll be reading these entries from an Abstergo point of view, which could also be interesting. If you like Shaun, you will have to…I would say you’ll have to wait and see. You will hear from him again, that’s all I can say.

With Black Flag, have design advances allowed you to deepen the environments in ways that shift the balance further toward player freedom?

You mean next-gen?

I suppose both, since the current and next-gen versions play the same and only differ visually, right?

Yes. Do you mean, with an open world, how do we merge the fact that we want to tell a story about one character but at the same time let the player experience their own AC?

Yes, and has that aspect of the player experience — the ability to push the world without breaking it — advanced further with Black Flag?

The open world in Black Flag is full of different and varied opportunities for the player to mess around, find their own path, craft their own activities and so forth. But at the same time, we still want to tell the story of Edward Kenway, so there are still precise choke points in the narrative to make the story progress. But we also told the mission designers, “You know what, the missions should use as much as possible the systems of the world, that the player will play on their own outside of the main story.” That’s where we really give freedom to the player.

Pirate-themed games are kind of rare. You’ve got Sid Meier’s Pirates, obviously, the old Akella quasi-sims, the Monkey Island series and the odd strategy title, but that’s it. And aside from Sid Meier and Monkey Island, the rest is pretty niche. Contrast with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies — currently in the top 10 grossing film franchises of all time. Why’d it take until 2013 to see a sandbox pirate game?

That’s a good question. Honestly, I can’t judge what’s been done before, but what I can tell you is that we made Black Flag as soon as we felt we were ready to. Back in 2011, when ACIII was in production, we realized that we knew how to create all the ingredients that were needed to deliver a good, full-fledged pirate game.

Obviously because of AC we knew how to do cities, but then ACIII was about encompassing nature and the frontier and the naval experience. When we saw the first iterations of the naval missions from ACIII, we knew we had to do a better game. We had everything we needed to deliver it in a good fashion, without being too cliché, without being too limited. I think that to deliver a good, edgy pirate game, you obviously need a good ocean simulation, but you need more than that if you really want to immerse players and let them feel like they’re really living the life of a pirate. You need to have all the ground gameplay, for instance.

There have certainly been good pirate games. I think about Sid Meier’s Pirates, which still is a reference for me, where you’re seeing the entire Caribbean and your ship represented as a little toy. But with Black Flag, we now have the technology to deliver a very good, high-definition, real life-sized pirate game.

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How much does what you’re able to do in and to the world of Black Flag affect it in a permanent sense?

Our forts are similar to the Borgia towers in Brotherhood, if only in the sense that you have a vested gameplay interest in taking them over. They’re really strong, they have very heavy mortars that can destroy you easily if you’re not prepared and they’re defended by other ships, so…I mean, some of the areas in the south are pretty intense if you’re not ready.

So these are all part of the gameplay process whereby you’re conquering the maps, bit by bit, and these forts now become your allies. They’ll attack ships coming after you, and this is where it gets interesting, because now you can lure, say, some big Man o’ War ship over, and the fort will participate by attacking the ship for you.

What’s more, capturing these forts unlocks content, so some position in the ocean, say a shipwreck or naval contract, and so forth.

EA puts out its sports games every year, and that’s a major part of their revenue engine, but they’re often criticized for doing so because of the repetition. The AC games, likewise, have been coming out at a rate of roughly one a year, and that’s not counting all the mobile tie-ins. What drives the teams making the AC series more, the need for an annual installment to drive revenue or the creative parameters of the story and gameplay?

It presents a potential problem, but that’s the challenge we have, and I’d first point out that we have several teams working on these games, so it’s not any one team that’s making each game inside of a year. So the team that’s doing Black Flag is not the same team that delivered ACIII, that delivered Revelations before it and so forth. Really, we have two to three core teams working in parallel.

And so the idea here is yes, okay, shareholders want their AC every year, but on the other hand, when you’re given two to three years to deliver one of these games, when you compare yourself to the rest of the industry, it’s not that bad, especially when you have the support of the company. Yes, we want to do an AC game every year, but the company realizes what that takes and gives us the means to do it right. With Black Flag, we were actually seven studios working on the single player plus two for the multiplayer, so it’s not just “Deliver something.” We have the full support of the company.

On the other hand, we have our mandate, we know what we have to do, and for me this is the difference between a designer and an artist. Artists can do what they want to — they have their own creative strictures. Designers, while they get to be creative and want a certain amount of freedom, still in the end have to deliver a product that meets certain requirements.

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