Though Uncharted 2 may have snatched away most of the Game of the Year trophies, Assassin's Creed 2 stands out as another of 2009's most acclaimed and successful titles. Lead game designer Patrick Plourde candidly discussed Ubisoft Montreal's development process at one of the final panels during this year's Game Developers Conference and gave some surprising insight into what happens when a project's scope is altered in the midst of development.
From the outset, Assassin's Creed 2 took aim at the commercial success of the first game, as well as its vocal group of detractors. "I'm not gonna lie about it," Plourde said, "some people liked it, some people despised it. That's the way it is."
The way things would be took a surprise turn in the middle of 2008, months after the game had begun development in earnest. As Plourde puts it, a "curveball from upper management" requested a change in the game's scope. Ordinarily, ambitious plans may get trimmed down as a launch date draws near, but Ubisoft had decided to increase the number of features dramatically.
That number ballooned to over 230 and included components of many of AC2's new systems: an economic system; revamped combat; interactive factions; a notoriety system; new assassination techniques; the management of Ezio's villa; the Prince of Persia-like tombs; and more.
Plourde joked that the production crew, which consisted of more than 300 developers spread across three Ubisoft studios, should have been able to make quick work of it if they each took care of one feature. If only things were that simple -- and if only managing and communicating with so many people wasn't an immense task on its own. "Seriously, you know," Plourde said, "I don't think I know the names of half of the team."
While the number of planned features had been pushed up, the release date had not been pushed back. With no time to allow for last-minute revisions, Plourde and his team had no room for failure. "We didn't have that option, we had one shot per feature."
Ubisoft implemented a strong documentation structure to manage the pressurized effort and relied heavily on play-testing and data tracking to valuate its designs. Plourde noted that focusing on the game's core strengths -- what he called gameplay pillars -- was key in guaranteeing that players would have fun. In Assassin's Creed 2, the three most critical features were navigation, fighting and social stealth.
Interestingly, Plourde didn't consider the act of assassination to be among those pillars, and argued that playing as a trained assassin should render it a gratifying, casual-kill reward. He also defended the game's controls, which some had accused of putting platforming on autopilot. "The challenge doesn't come from the input," he said, "it comes from the environment."
And while Ubisoft worked relentlessly to construct stunning 15th-century environments and craft missions that would encourage players to make use of all of it, some notable problems arose during play-testing. Players weren't showing a proper understanding of Ezio's blending ability, which lead to increased difficulty during segments that relied on it. After agonizing over it, Plourde came up with a simple fix: instead of holding a button to initiate blending, it would start automatically once you entered a crowd.
Assassin's Creed 2 offered more tactical choices during combat than the first game -- including disarming moves and degrading weaponry -- but the designers discovered that players weren't exploring them and, as a result, considered the fighting repetitive. There was no simple fix for this issue, and the tight development schedule did not allow Ubisoft any time to polish the game, let alone the opportunity to revise combat.
Plourde didn't seem satisfied with that dangling thread and told panel attendees that the next Assassin's Creed game, which transports Ezio to Rome, would address the flaws in fighting. It remains to be seen how well that game takes shape in an even shorter production time (it's due by the end of 2010), but upon considering how much the developers accomplished with Assassin's Creed 2 within 18 months, you might just be able to give them the benefit of the doubt.