Your friend and mine, helpful games-centric internet man Stephen Totilo, kindly invited us into the heady world of games design think tanks last week. In his fascinating post he details the many questions asked of him by the good people at Ubisoft, specifically with regard to his opinions of Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag, pirates and the continued evolution of the series.
I might be a bit naive here, but I always thought that video games were made by dead smart people with a flair for both creativity and technology. It appears I was only half right though, and they are in fact merely dead smart people with a flair for technology, with the creativity part coming from anyone they can rope into giving them a bit of guidance. That’s a bit unfair really; it would be more accurate to call them too creative if anything, their ideas formulated and then quickly flung at a whiteboard like so much airborne faecal matter. It’s then up to you, dear members of the think tank, to decide which bits stick and which slide lethargically down the glossy surface of development, onto the carpet tiles of ‘maybe next time/glad we didn’t bother to code that bit’.
I recognise the need to understand how players interact with your game, what parts they enjoy and how they envisage a series like this continuing on into the future. After all, only a foolish individual would deliberately offer up something they knew no one liked. At the same time though, should the players of the sixth AC game really need to be asked if they enjoy stealth gameplay? “Excuse me young sir/madam, I understand you’re in the market for a stealth-action game, correct? Well, have I got a treat in store for you then. Wot we’re going to do this time is take all that stealth nonsense out - we heard from our think tank that no one actually likes that part - and this time you’ll just run around hitting young children in the face with bits of wood. It’s the natural next step in our lauded ‘franchise’.”
Other questions are a bit ridiculous for other reasons. One section asks for opinions of every new weapon featured in the game. Another, questions the minutiae of each individual gameplay mechanic that is - and ever has been (let’s face it, I don’t think anything has ever been fully removed) - featured in the series. Again, I appreciate the value of these sorts of opinions, but you’d think the game had never been play tested, such is the absurd specificity of some of the questions. “Did you like the various ways you can assassinate people in this game about assassinating people? Remember, it features all the methods of assassination you’ve been using for years, so if you say no we’ll be quite upset that you didn’t mention something earlier.”
It’s not really a case of AC IV never being play tested though, is it? What we have here, which is exactly why I’ve been sarcastically dropping the words think and tank into sentences, is an egregious case of design by committee. It appears that certain individuals within Ubisoft are so eager for us to keep giving them money (who’d have thunk it?) that they are willing to let the mindless whims of the game playing public dictate the series’ future trajectory. Questions like “how did you find it embodying a Master Assassin (in this heavily assassin-based series)?” galvanises this air of desperation and creative bankruptcy. “Please. Please. Whatever you want us to do we’ll do it. Just please keep buying these assassin games. We’ll even take out all the assassin bits if it turns out you all prefer pirates. Or we could keep the assassin-pirate things and just change the name. Would that be better?”
This is a dangerous road to embark down. By all means tighten up your mechanics, AI routines, pathfinding, geometry, modelling: anything really, as long as things improve. Take bits out, mix bits together, have more of this and a little less of that. But please, don’t ask people “which three ‘chapters’ of our game did you enjoy the most?” and then just do them again next time with a slightly different pirate-to-assassin ratio.
Consumers generally only know what they want from a product - if Ubisoft want to treat AC as such then I’ll happily oblige - in relation to other products. A little feedback on your current thing can always be useful, but delving to the sordid depths of ‘the mortar’, ‘the ram’ and, oh my, ‘the fire barrels’ is getting dangerously close to letting the inmates run the asylum. I haven’t got a clue how I’d design an open world pirate-assassin/assassin-pirate game for good reason: I’m not a game designer. If you asked me though, I’d tell you that I’d like the next Assassins Creed game to be a comedic romp; an off-brand version of the anti-institutional racism yarn Blazing Saddles. It’s a great idea in my head, influenced as it is by other artistic endeavours, but it probably wouldn’t work as a video game.
That’s the point really: nothing great can ever be produced without a singular driving vision. I’m not suggesting that people who harbour these don’t work for Ubisoft; I’m sure they’re toiling away, being ignored by those heading up the think tank. By asking everyone who played a game to effectively decide upon the direction of the next, you inevitably risk spreading yourself too thinly attempting to please as many people as possible. Take on general feedback, by all means, but when it gets to the point where you’re asking about everything from the individual weapons, right up to core tenets of the series, it might be best to just throw everything away and let your developers start again. I reckon they’d thank you and make a pretty good game to boot.