Assassin’s Creed III was the game that essentially kickstarted me blogging, as I talked about the design of its different levels. That series of posts was pretty popular among the Assassin’s Creed community, though to be honest I tried to reread it and I think it’s just better if I don’t open up my writings from several years ago, because it makes me want to faceplant myself into the table (even if from outside perspective there’s no real reason to). On the plus side, that impulse at least shows that I’ve gained experience over the years.
Now I come back to Assassin’s Creed III in this ongoing blog post series I write based on the whole franchise, and the topic of mission design as well (though not any single mission in particular). I think the game is very suited for studying the principles of open-world level design, and not because it excels at it. When you take the game as a whole – it doesn’t. But it does have plenty of both positive and negative examples of open-world missions, which means their analysis provides very useful learnings that I’m going to share with you right now.
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.
I firmly believe that what we as game developers do is create experiences for our players. And all the different areas of the game, – cool gameplay, technology, narrative, audio – feeds into those experiences. How the wooshing sound of Hearthstone cards when you move them helps with that feeling of a physical card game. How the different sound cues of Left 4 Dead depending on the special zombie nearby influence the teamwork aspect of the game. How controls themselves are used as a narrative tool in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. And a game is valued best when it all works as a whole.
Creating and filling open worlds is a tricky thing. On one hand, you want them to be massive, expansive, provide a feeling that you have a whole sandbox to play in, and incentivize exploration. On the other hand, you also don’t want them to feel like there’s nothing to do, you want there to be content. Pretty much every open world game (that is not an RPG, I suppose) tries to mitigate this issue by adding a bunch of collectibles spread all over the world. That’s content that, if the player chooses to complete it, will have them explore every part of the map. But, to be honest, I consider most collectibles to be filler with very little value. What’s much more important is how the world is utilized in missions or other meaty actual content. And a game that I think is a very good example of open world usage in missions is Assassin’s Creed II.
Until the release of Black Flag, Assassin’s Creed 1 was my favourite of the series. But even Black Flag doesn’t have what made the first game truly special. Neither did II, Brotherhood, Revelations, III, Unity, Rogue or Syndicate. One can say, ‘Sure Stas, the first Assassin’s Creed has interesting ideas, great atmosphere, story, and provided a base for the franchise, but it got repetitive and boring, surely the rest of the series is a big improvement over it?’ Well… in a way yes. But in a way no. After all, ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted.’ There is one amazing thing in the first Assassin’s Creed that elevates the experience to a different level of immersion and none of its sequels has it. I’m talking about HUD-less design.
A little story. I was playing and enjoying Teslagrad. And then, unexpectedly, the pathway to the last section of the game appears to be blocked by a door that can be opened only if you have 15 scrolls, which are hidden and tricky to get collectibles. I had only 3, there was nothing indicating that those scrolls are needed for anything else other than a bonus (for example, there’s a secret ending if you collect all 36 of them, which is perfectly fine). So to get the rest I’d have to go back through all the locations I’ve been to and search for those scrolls. That made me quit in frustration. In retrospect, I have overreacted, however I still don’t agree with the design decision. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of locking content behind collectibles (and to a certain audience there’s nothing wrong in how Teslagrad does it), but I want to talk about how such gating can be made less frustrating for a bigger audience.
Being a more or less active part of Assassin’s Creed fan community, there are several things I noticed that are, one might say, constant among quite a big number of its members. For example, a lot of people say newer Assassin’s Creed installments that take place post-1700 don’t feel like a real Assassin’s Creed game because guns (and that’s despite the fact that our protagonist got a gun in Assassin’s Creed II, and our enemies received firearms in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood… oh, the irony).
One other thing that I see quite often is how the latest 2013 installment, Black Flag, is not assassin-y enough. That as a bombastic pirate adventure with a considerable naval part it’s a Pirate’s Creed rather than an Assassin’s Creed. One of the biggest reasons cited would be lack of stealth in comparison to previous games (Ezio’s trilogy especially, supposedly).
So I got curious. Whenever possible, I play Assassin’s Creed the stealthy way, and I remember quite a lot of stealth in Black Flag. So I wanted to compare how often stealth is a viable option in each of the games. And here are the results, a full spread sheet worth of information. Oh, and Assassin’s Creed IV has got the most stealth possibilities in the whole series, just so you know.
I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with video game achievement systems. The ‘hate’ comes mostly from the fact that I tend to really disagree with how they are used nowadays. I believe achievements can and should be part of a game’s design, but more often than not they’re relegated to just some medals for completing certain parts of the game or pure boring grind. There are also skill-based achievements, like getting a perfect run in Super Meat Boy, – I think those are perfectly valid since, well, you have to actually achieve something. But then there’s achievements that can motivate the player to experiment with the game, try out different things, and it seems to me there’s just too few of that.
Let’s just get one thing out of the way as soon as possible. Assassin’s Creed II has got a good story. It’s not as thought provoking as its predecessor’s, and it’s a simple one with a very straightforward character arc, but it’s still good. That being said, at certain points it suffers from bad pacing and poor writing (which seeps into the mission design and gameplay, which is one of the reasons I decided to tackle this topic before going to a more detailed Sequence 10 post). So I’m going to talk more about that today. Spoilers ahead, obviously.
Assassin’s Creed II is widely regarded as the best Assassin’s Creed game. And I love Assassin’s Creed II, don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of awesome things about it. But there are also quite a few flaws that it gets away with, in my opinion, and having repeatedly argued about these topics with a number of people over a certain course of time, decided to make a small blog mini-series. I’ll start with Sequence 9. Spoilers to those who haven’t played the game.