Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and the Importance of Cutting Features
Most of the time game development is looked at from the perspective of building. A plan is made, foundation is created, then a carcass, then everything is properly put into that carcass. The terminology used is reminiscent of building as well. And in that context, cutting features out is something very undesirable. It’s like we’re constructing a modern top of the line skyscraper but for one reason or another have to build it without proper air conditioning. And whenever features are being brainstormed, most of the time it’s about what to add.
And while there’s nothing wrong with viewing game design and development as building, I think it would be very good to also look at it all from the perspective of sculpting. Sculpting is not about building from the ground up, it’s about removing parts of what you have to create something whole. In case of game development, cut out (or greatly modify or simplify) a feature to make the overall experience better. But this needs to be thought out, just like sculpting, it’s not about removing absolutely any part of the product, it’s about making a positive impact by getting rid of something.
To provide examples why this is important, I’m going to talk about Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Last week we discussed Brotherhood and how the game creates a unified experience. Revelations takes all the systems from its predecessor (and adds some new ones), but it doesn’t achieve the same results. That’s because the game doesn’t cut out or change things that were designed for a different kind of experience, and in the end while everything is technically functional and technically connected, it doesn’t feel as wholesome.
Before I go on further, I want to point out a couple things. First, judging by the interviews, Revelations was created in 11 months (which honestly I think is incredibly impressive, considering this is an open-world title). That’s a very strict development cycle, it’s understandable that there would be risks if one or another feature would be cut, and there wouldn’t be enough time to properly playtest how it would work out. Secondly, I as the person analyzing the game have the advantage of hindsight – seeing how the whole product looks like when it’s finished. This is something that might be very tricky in the midst of development. All that said, let’s continue.
Economy. I don’t think that until Black Flag there was an Assassin’s Creed game with a really solid economy system. Assassin’s Creed II had economy which easily transformed itself into incredibly huge money generating flow to the point that you didn’t have to worry about practically anything. But it was fine anyway, because the game had the whole experience of building back up your little town and it felt awesome to see how it transforms and evolves.
Similarly, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood had, really, the same issues, only slightly alleviated by the fact that the scale was much larger. It wasn’t a little town, but whole of Rome itself. And its process of strengthening your economy, that being going around the city and buying out buildings, is not exactly interesting on its own. The goal of bringing Renaissance to Rome as you liberate it from the Borgia – that’s what made it engaging, how it all fits in context.
But in Revelations, there’s no perceivable reason to go through the process of buying out every shop in the city. Istanbul is thriving, not set up as something in decline. And it is a plot point that Assassins have a very strong presence in it – it is in fact Templars who are the underdogs this time, trying to get back to power. Which also conflicts with the open-world set-up that was borrowed from Brotherhood, that at the beginning the Templars are in control of most of the city, and you have to liberate the districts and rebuild the shops. You also don’t really want to buy any of the buildings, as doing so increases Templar Awareness which, when high enough, prompts them to try and take over one of your Dens.
The process of buying shops should just be cut out. It’s enough to have them locked when a district is not under Assassin control, which is what happens in the game anyway even if you did purchase them. And the economy perhaps could be refocused on the Assassin Dens for an additional layer in territory control instead.
Speaking of territory control, it would also make sense to rebalance the starting areas of Assassins and Templars, and maybe even to make it so Templars capture some of the areas close to the beginning of the game, just to show the point of them being previously on the run but trying to regain control.
Now, this still wouldn’t make the whole system tied to the narrative, as who controls the city, – Assassins or Templars – isn’t exactly the part of the main plotline, which is more about Ezio’s personal journey, but it’s ok. It’s established that it’s what Ezio would do as a character, helping out his fellow Assassins in the city in parallel to doing his own thing, so unrelated to main content territory control loop is not out of place. Open-world and the main storyline don’t necessarily have to be tied in together really closely like in Brotherhood, just enough to make sense why we would do one thing or another.
Then we have the Brotherhood mechanics, more precisely the overall loop surrounding it that was borrowed from the previous game. In Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, it makes sense that Ezio, being one of the few Assassins in the city, would spend time recruiting new people for his cause, training them and building up a team. And it was connected with the liberating districts, with each Borgia tower destroyed and area freed, you could recruit one additional apprentice.
In Revelations, this all is very questionable, as you get into the city with an already established Assassin infrastructure. In one of the first missions you train alongside your Assassin brothers and sisters. They’re present in quite a few of the main missions. There’s a lot of Assassins. And yet, you still get this loop of building up a team from scratch. More than that, like with the economy, there’s also a penalty if you participate in this loop. There are special recruit missions, which on the map look like generic recruit locations, and if you don’t have a spot in your team for a new member, then you don’t have access to that mission. So it’s actually undesirable to go around cities recruiting apprentices as you might not get access to all the content because of that.
Revelations introduces the Den Defense mode (tower defense essentially), which, I kinda like. It’s a bit underdeveloped, but it makes sense, with Ezio being a Mentor in the Order taking care more of higher strategic work. Now, this may sound crazy, but I actually think that if you take out the Brotherhood mechanic from Revelations, and would focus more on polishing Den Defense and the elements surrounding it, it would’ve been better. The meta-game in which you send Assassins on different missions could still remain, but tied more to the Den Defense and/or capturing Dens. The reception of the mode wouldn’t have been mixed if it was more fleshed out and integrated.
There are several arguments that I can make on the matter. One – the narrative implications. Ezio is in Istanbul as a guest for his own goals, it is established that he will help the Assassins obviously, but essentially it’s a side thing. And if in Brotherhood, since the whole game was focused on the goal of liberation, it made sense to have your Assassins be available in any mission, in Revelations it feels very strange that you take your Assassins with you to be able to call them at any moment as you go after flowers for the romantic interest. Even with the Animus wrapper that just feels weird.
Two – now this might be anecdotal evidence as the pool of opinions is not very big, but if you check forums and different discussions, you’d find that people are more attached to Brotherhood recruits than to Revelations recruits. There’s no real reason to care this time. Though I do like the Master Assassin missions in which you and your recruits hunt Templars.
But now comes the big one. The legacy feature that I think damages Revelations’ experience the most, that should’ve been cut to make the game more cohesive, are the ally factions: thieves, mercenaries, and Romani (a reskin of the courtesans). Now you might say, ‘woah, Stas, you’re proposing to cut the Brotherhood and allies and call it a good thing?’ Well, in context of Revelations – yes.
Allies in this game don’t have any relevance to the narrative or theme of the game. There’s no story characters who are part of these factions. There’s no content related to them outside of one mission for each faction. Outside of the Romani, the world doesn’t become richer or more detailed with their presence. And, most importantly, they draw away from one of Revelations’ more prominent new (or rather expanded) features: bombs.
Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood only had Smoke Bombs, but Revelations expands the system, introducing Bomb Crafting which allows to create many different bombs suitable for different purposes, and it’s a very versatile and engaging system, allowing you to manipulate the world in many ways. Except, only if you actually force yourself to focus on the system, because in the game factions make it fairly useless.
Why bother with scouting the area, looking for opportunities, seeing where and which kinds of bombs you can use, maybe to pit the two guard factions against each other so you could go into a restricted area unnoticed, when you can just pay 150 coins for mostly conveniently placed courtesans/mercenaries/thieves that will take of everything for you?
Here’s the actual point that I’m getting at. Revelations doesn’t have a lot of side content in terms of missions. And it’s fine. Not to mention that with less than a year of production and a total new city that requires a bunch of new assets it’s very problematic. What Revelations does have, is the potential to be a very engaging systemic experience, where content would come from interactions between all the different systems. Even if we just take the process of capturing a Templar Den. If you go in with no access to the Brotherhood or allies, just you, the crowd, and your tools (most of which would be bombs crafted for different purposes), there’s so many different ways you could go about completing that content. And if you add some design variations, it would be even better.
Revelations has all the foundation set up for the content to be systemic. The territory control loop, capturing dens, defending dens, bombs. But it’s held back by the legacy features inherited from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. And not just because they’re there and they add all these contradictions to the experience, but also because even though they’re inherited, they still take from the development time that could be put to use to flesh out the unique experience that Revelations could offer.
Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is still a fine game, with systems that make sense as systems. But it’s also at odds with itself when it comes to connecting it all together.
A cohesive experience is defined not just by what you put in and what you don’t. It’s also defined by what you take out. Cutting out things from a game can make as much positive difference as adding a new feature. And perhaps you disagree with my choices of what I proposed to cut, but I hope I provided enough arguments to show that there are conflicts which should be taken care of.
And just in general I think it’s is useful to ask ourselves from time to time as we go through the process of creating games: do we really need this feature/element/thing? Does it add to the experience? Or does it detract from it? Why? And make a fitting decision from there – should it be kept, changed, adapted, or, well, just cut or replaced with something else.
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