Through the hustle and bustle of Gamescom 2018, I got to speak with Scott Phillips, the Game Director of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, about some of the core changes coming to the game, the return of naval combat, and how the team came to decide on Ancient Greece as the game’s location.
Here’s the full interview:
Q: Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey are quite the departure from what the Assassin’s Creed series was traditionally known for. What’s it been like, as the Game Director on Odyssey, to come through and develop the series into a fully-fledged RPG?
S: Yeah, we wanted to make Assassin’s Creed Odyssey a full-on RPG since we started three years ago. We were talking with the Origins team and what they were doing, so we knew their direction and we knew we wanted to go even further in terms of the progression and especially in terms of choice and customisation, and the player being able to play the experience that they want to have.
For me it’s been super cool — I’m glad to have brought the RPG genre to Assassin’s Creed, as it’s the style of game that I really love to play. I love giving players those options and hearing them talking about what they did differently and how they had different experiences with the game.
Q: Do you think the Assassin’s Creed series was ripe for the change? It does feel like a natural fit
Absolutely. I think with big open worlds, you have to have strong systems and mechanics and I think Assassin’s Creed has always had strong bones in that way. Now we’re trying to focus on having a strong narrative, a very strong choice structure for the player, and giving them a lot of options, which is something brand new for Assassin’s Creed.
Q: Obviously the Apple of Eden played a major role in the Assassin’s Creed series, and seems to continue to do so with Odyssey. Since the series has been running for so long, how much of a challenge has it been to still work with things like the Apple of Eden and the core history that the series has been known for?
It’s been a challenge. There’s a lot of fans of Assassin’s Creed, and I mean I’m a fan of the series myself. There’re people within Ubisoft, there’s people within Paris, there’re people internally… so there are always discussions regarding if the choices we’re making are the right ones. Ultimately I think what we have is an awesome game, and I think the choices we made were the right ones — they’re all fully justifiable I think.
Initially, some people may see those choices as things that don’t fit or won’t know how that fits into the game, but as you play you will understand why these things fit and it will make sense. We tried very hard to respect [the series] and to make things fit the structure and lore that Assassin’s Creed has had. That’s why the Apple of Eden or the Spear of Leonidas were all first civilisation things — they all tied into that history that I think is so cool about Assassin’s Creed.
Having this story throughout time that you get to see from multiple different time periods and in the present day… I think all of those are key to the game.
Q: How difficult is it with a series like Assassin’s Creed to keep it feeling new to the player? Obviously, Odyssey is introducing dialogue choices this time around, so talk me through that process.
It’s a lot of iteration. We had a team where none of us had done that sort of dialogue choice thing before. Our tools were not necessarily built for doing that so we had to develop a lot of core architecture, all of the dialogue systems, the cameras, the animations… all of that stuff from scratch, and we had to learn a lot about how that worked technically and also how it worked creatively. Like how do we give the player choices that seem either valid or at least interesting, and then we also tried as much as possible to stay away from black and white choices and go morally grey or choices where it’s not really clear what’s going to happen so you’re more surprised.
I think, as you’ve seen over the last five or ten years, developers have gotten much, much better at that so the bar for us was very high to bring that into the game. I think we’ve done a good job with it.
Q: Odyssey takes place in Ancient Greece, which is something a lot of fans of the series have been asking for for quite some time. Was the location always the target during early development, or did you have other ideas for locations elsewhere as well?
Oh yeah, for sure. We discussed lots of things. There’s always discussions going on within Ubisoft, within the teams… we see things within the community as there’s always surveys asking about the most desired setting. So we have a lot of information on what people would like, and then for us it was also important to make sure it’s something we think we can do and it’s something we’re excited about. All of those things really lined up for us behind Greece, so it was our strongest choice. But yeah, obviously there were a lot of other things we discussed.
Q: Naval combat is back, too. Talk me through the process of getting that back into the game, and how it, I suppose, is quite a natural fit for the location?
So very early on we knew we wanted the game to be called Odyssey, with the core idea of the game revolving around you going on an Odyssey and an epic adventure through unknown lands, discovering new things. And when you look at the topography of Greece, islands are key to it.
We didn’t want to just have small ships where you’re using them to travel just small distances. We wanted to make an experience where you’re traveling very long distances, you don’t know what you’re going to discover, you want to go off and see this tiny island in the distance… we wanted that sort of experience in the game. And so we knew a lot of people really loved the naval experience in Black Flag, so again the bar for us was very high.
We had to reach that, and we also had to keep it within the setting too. We’re not pirates so we don’t have cannons and we don’t have these giant ships. That said, the Greeks fought a lot of their battles on the sea — the Athenians were a powerhouse because of the sea. There’s a lot written about it and a lot of evidence surrounding it.
We’ve also recreated a Trireme, which is the type of ship that the player has where it has 170 rowers, it’s completely man-powered and sail-powered, and has you using archers and marines throwing javelins and the like during naval combat. So the combat was actually really cool and it gave us a nice angle to give players something they were familiar with so the controls will feel familiar, but then to also give it a new style, a new visualisation, to make it fully seamless so the boarding is seamless and you can do it at any time, and really make something that feels a bit familiar but also feels fresh.
Q: Origins was excellent in giving players a lot to do in the game, and for those actions to feel like they had an impact on the game world. What’s it been like to develop side activities and quests for Odyssey?
Yeah, it’s a challenge to fill this giant world that we have and to make sure that you’re engaged and interested. We had to have strong progression mechanics and a strong economy so that you felt like the actions that you were taking were interesting — so that you were enticed to do other actions, maybe? We wanted to sort of distract players and make them try to do other things or try out other content.
Exploration is part of the core of that, and discovering new locations and finding new objectives is key to that. We also have message boards in the world where people will ask for quests or contracts, too.
Really, we wanted a different spectrum of quests where you’ve got the main and the side which are very similar quality, and then you’ve got contracts and bounties as well as little events in the world. With that said, it’s a big challenge to find the right mix of those things, and we playtested a lot to find out what works and went with more of that.
Q: After getting hands-on with the game I was really stoked to see Medusa make an appearance in the game. It must be great to have that Greek mythology to call back on and use in the game?
Mythology was key to Ancient Greece, it’s where a lot of our myths and legends [that] exist even now come from. If you say Medusa 95% of people will know exactly what you mean, or at least the story or the idea of it.
It gives us access, really, to tie it in with how the first civilisation characters are named after Greek gods and they assume these Greek styles to their history. To have all the artifacts and tie all of that together and make it make sense within Assassin’s Creed has definitely been a challenge. However, Medusa did exist — she existed because of a civilisation artifact, and so it loops both the mythology and the first civilisation’s science fiction aspect with Assassin’s Creed very well. And I think we try to pay homage to what was important during that time in Greece and the myths and the legends were a very big part of them, and you’ll have many of them to find and explore throughout the world.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey launches on October 5 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
PRESS START ATTENDED GAMESCOM 2018 AS A GUEST OF UBISOFT. THIS DOES NOT PREVENT US FROM COVERING OTHER GAMES AT THE EVENT, NOR DOES IT HINDER US FROM PROVIDING HONEST IMPRESSIONS ABOUT UBISOFT’S SHOW LINE-UP.