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Assassin's Creed Brotherhood: Designing the Considerate Kill


Before playing the upcoming Assassin's Creed: Revelations, Joystiq looks back at the creation of the franchise's first multiplayer installment, Brotherhood.

"It was a very difficult game to design, and making it accessible was even harder. We were starting from scratch, with no benchmarks. It's not like a shooter where all you need to know is how to shoot the bad guys."

If there's one thing we get, in every way that anything can possibly be gotten, it's the shooting of the bad guys. Games don't even bother to include tutorials for that part anymore, and reviewers treat it as a begrudging axiom when they have to differentiate between the year's big multiplayer offerings.

When Damien Kieken, multiplayer game director for Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, says it was difficult to make the game -- and then to make it accessible -- he's speaking to a peculiar and notable absence. If you're shooting the bad guys in Assassin's Creed, you're doing it a bit wrong.

Once it was formally announced in May 2010, Assassin's Creed Brotherhood seemed emblematic of the predictable, ho-hum annualization of big-budget franchises. It would be launched within one year of the last game and feature a multiplayer mode, which put it up against two stigmas at once: the "rushed" game with "tacked-on" multiplayer.

"There aren't many options when players have fears about your game apart from proving that your concept is solid," says Aymar Azaizia, production manager for the Assassin's Creed brand. "That's why we were showing the game as soon as we revealed the multiplayer, and that's also why we wanted to have a beta."

Players and critics were presented with a game of subterfuge and murder set in bustling towns and markets of 15th century Italy -- at once a perfect fit for Assassin's Creed and a clear oddity amongst gaming's giants. Despite being lumped in with the campaign mode's dreaded one-year development time (which eventually yielded a widely praised hit), a team of over 60 people at Ubisoft Annecy had been working on multiplayer for almost two years before Brotherhood was announced, mindful of predominant shooters while deliberately attempting to diverge. "Yes, there was a temptation to look at shooters and we still are looking at shooters, simply because those guys have done an amazing job on this generation of console," Azaizia says. "We have ambitions for our multiplayer and it's a normal part of the process to benchmark your game against the best. We don't want to provide the same experience, but it's interesting to provide a fresh experience with features that are seen as must-haves nowadays."

Much like Assassin's Creed 2, Brotherhood's design is upheld by three pillars of interaction: navigation; stealth; and fighting. While the navigation is largely unchanged in the multiplayer setting, leading to vertiginous chases across rooftops when covert behavior is no longer valid, the "social stealth" aspect is expanded beyond the single-player game to include multiple agents, for a truly social experience. "The social stealth pillar is, I think, even stronger in the multiplayer than in the single player with all the core gameplay based around crowd, hiding places and observation, because you are tasked as a player to find your target in a crowd while trying not to be found yourself," Kieken explains. Whereas Ezio Auditore somehow manages to blend into a crowd while he's draped in auspicious cloaks and sparkling armor, the personas in Brotherhood are less unique, one of many identical guises that populate the streets. (Fact: 11.25 percent of the entire level's population look like you.)

"The game is more focused on quality kills than quantity kills."- Damien Kieken, multiplayer game director

With the identities of human players obscured within clusters of computer-controlled nobodies, shooting the bad guys is no longer the intrinsic behavior on which participants can coast. A multiplayer tutorial teaches the fundamentals of this brave old world, but it doesn't teach you how to play the game (noses raised!) properly. That's left to the overarching feedback and design, which starts by reducing Brotherhood's Errol Flynn fights to concise decisions.

"We don't have the same fighting pillar as the single player and we don't even call it fighting, we are more focused on the 'kill situation,'" Kieken says. Get close to your target, give the button a quick stab and it's over. Halo's SWAT game type, where a single headshot is practically all that counts, comes close to approximating this simplification, though even it requires quick aiming and dexterity before a point can be added to the scoreboard. In Brotherhood, your pre-kill processing is used up in identification and planning, and there's none reserved for jousting with an opponent.

Flattening the fabric in this area introduces wrinkles elsewhere in the game, which has to step backward and liven the moments that transpire before the body count grows. A dynamically adjusted army of civilians, varying between sixty and 120 during a match, flow along paths and suffer sudden urges to shop when it appears a player might need a hiding spot in a market. The best assassins, Kieken says, are the ones who move in these A.I. rivers and know when to play dumb (and, you know, act like the computer).

Ironically, NPCs sometimes exhibit human behavior because of an erratic attempt to stay in those same rivers -- it's a near-bug that the designers decided to keep as an almost-feature. "Sometimes they run or change their direction briefly to catch up with their group. Those times they behave like humans. This doesn't occur often, but we decided to allow these behaviors happening in the game to make the NPCs more difficult to identify and make the player question himself about the true identity of the characters."

Using an ability called "Templar Vision" highlights users amongst the drones temporarily, also making it apparent that Brotherhood isn't solely hinged on sniffing out humanity and then stabbing it. To the detriment of psychological cat-and-mouse play, the multiplayer mode depends on a range of abilities that bestow brief advantages, usually at the expense of subtlety (most obviously when you decide to drop some blinding fireworks in the middle of the market). Within Brotherhood's game-within-a-game conceit, which sees players drafted as networked simulation test subjects within the Abstergo corporation, abilities are close to sanctioned cheats. (Of course, this raises some questions about Abstergo's plan. If hacking the system is condoned, are these subjects really learning anything? Are they being trained to be an army of Captain Kirks?)

Ubisoft Annecy spent much of its development time tweaking the balance of abilities, scrapping unsatisfying implementations (such as the crossbow, which might be given another shot in Assassin's Creed: Revelations) and tailoring the visual feedback from each item. An early version of the smoke bomb had to be toned down when it could be deployed without delay, and the disguise had its fanfare removed before it became helpful. At first, players were outright told that their prey had changed shape.

Kieken makes it clear that the real hero of Brotherhood is playtesting -- "a hell of a lot of playtesting," he adds. "I'm sure it is the most playtested multiplayer game in Ubisoft history and maybe even the most playtested across all games. During the last months we were at more than one playtest per week with real players. We've also tested the game internally a lot, like all developers of multiplayer games do."

Playtesting not only helped to balance abilities, but ensure that each multiplayer map afforded enough routes and chances at obscuring visibility. It was also a test for the game's communication with players, whether presented in the form of animations, status messages or even the scoring system. Are players being informed enough to play the game in the right spirit? "Your approach will define how you kill your target and that is key in our game," Kieken explains. "The game is more focused on quality kills than quantity kills."

To emphasize and implicitly enforce this quality-driven murder, Brotherhood's scoring system knocks the legs out from under the run-and-gunners and bestows huge rewards on understated victories. If your maneuvers go unnoticed, in other words, the game will pay special attention to them. "A stealth kill will always have a better score than a rushed one," Kieken says. A hasty, ultra conspicuous kill nets a paltry 100 points -- the equivalent of what a target may earn while escaping. "Notice also that when you launch a chase you can't earn kill bonuses anymore, so the skill really comes in playing stealthy and running at the right moments." Counting kill bonuses, a well-improvised assassination can earn over ten times the amount of points that a crazed murderer could. (Internally, Ubisoft developers have managed to devise a pattern that can generate a massive 6,500 points from a single, deliberately orchestrated kill.)

"I'm sure it is the most playtested multiplayer game in Ubisoft history and maybe even the most playtested across all games."- Damien Kieken

The score gap between overt humans and those who stack their tallies with bonuses -- earned by killing in disguise, or further delaying a kill by poisoning a target and calmly walking away -- grows wider and more educational as a match goes on. "We noticed that players that stay in a game over an hour start to really get it," Kieken says. "Then we have different layers of complexity and it's only the invested players that get all the rules of the game."

A notable failure in training players manifests with the stun move, which many mistake for last-minute means to counter or defend against an incoming kill. "The stun is one of the moves that's harder to learn," Kieken admits. "Players really need to know that they will only be able to perform it by surprise. Doing it on a hunter that noticed you is a losing battle." Those repeated losing battles, coupled with insufficient indication as to when it's too late to deploy (always), eventually drove Ubisoft to an inelegant solution: updating Brotherhood's in-game news page with a point-blank pro tip.

An inadvertent stumble out of stealth isn't a disaster in front of an unobservant hunter, but the simulation can help in outing an obvious player by placing a red marker over his head. If it occurs within the camera's view, it's fair game. "What it means is if your pursuer is using high profile moves, such as running, jumping and using some abilities, while being too close to you, the chase will start," says Azaizia. Ubisoft also introduced a vibrating alert of sorts, with the controller grumbling if you behave wildly in an enemy's view. "We came up with it one week before the E3 Demo and we immediately saw that it helped the player learn that running in front of his target is bad," Kieken says.

The June 2010 E3 demo was a demonstrable milestone for the game's design, with Ubisoft Annecy changing how it guided players to their targets. At first, the target's location was highlighted by a cloud of chevrons, but testing revealed the visual aid to be inscrutable to most players. An elegant, deliberately imprecise compass was added instead, just before members of the press got to play the game for the first time. "Design wise, when we implemented the compass, it really changed the readability of the game," Kieken says. "It was a big success in our quest for accessibility." The compass gives an immediate goal and a vague indication of a target's distance, direction and height, without spoiling one of the game's most interesting facets.

Assassin's Creed Brotherhood has violence at its core, as all shooters do. Killing is approved within this briefly networked society, but you might say that certain methods are frowned upon and even punished. A good player is considerate of his target, hidden in a group of red herrings, and especially concerned by his behavior as it's perceived in public. Though whipping out a gun and shooting someone in the back gets the job done, it's the loudest, least elegant method possible. It is, in a game filled with assassins, hidden blades and sudden stab wounds, a rather inconsiderate way to kill.

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