Assassin’s Creed 4: Black flag – interview with director, Ashraf Ismail, and senior game designer, Michael Hampden

Pirates of the Caribbean

It’s not long now until we get to experience the next game in the acclaimed Assassin’s Creed saga. Last year, in Assassin’s Creed 3, we followed Conner Kenway as he witnessed, first hand, the birth of the United States.

For Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag we travel back in time, buckle our swashes and dive headlong into the adventures of Conner’s wayward grandfather, the pirate Edward Kenway, as he pillages his way across the Caribbean. It’s an interesting and rather radical departure for a series that started out running long the rooftops of the Holy Land.

The other week I caught up with Ashraf (Ash) Ismail and Michael Hampden, the director and the senior game designer on Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, to talk pirates and next-gen consoles.

Hi guys. Can you tell me a bit about yourselves and your roles in the creation of Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag?

Michael Hampden: I started with the project almost two years ago. I’m a senior game designer on Assassin’s Creed 4 in Ubisoft Singapore. At the beginning of the project I was working with guys like Ash and the greater team to come up with the vision of the game. Then after that I was figuring out what Singapore was specifically was going to do within that scope. For the final six months of the project I was focused on the underwater portion of the game.

Ashraf (Ash) Ismail: My name is Ashraf Ismail and I am the game director for Assassin’s Creed 4. My job in the beginning was setting up the vision of the game, to set up what we wanted out of the gameplay and what we wanted out of the player experience. I was then responsible for ensuring that we got from that initial design all the way to actual production and finalising the features for the game.

AC4 Interview

Ok, so how long have you been working on the game?

Ash: We started in summer 2011. So it’s been two years and a bit. By the time we ship it’ll have been two and a half years.

The Assassin’s Creed series traditionally draws on historical events. Black Flag seems, from those phenomenal trailers, to follow the more familiar romanticised swashbuckling version of piracy in the Caribbean. How much real history are we going get to experience in the game?

Ash: OK, I’ll say that it is actually quite the opposite. We wanted to do a pirate game that was more authentic and gritty; that was more historic than the romanticised stuff that we see from Disney and Pirates of the Caribbean.

We actively went for a more authentic version of the pirate theme and to do that we actually had historians come in. The narrative is based on a book called the “Republic of Pirates” by Colin Woodard, which is a very authentic representation of that time period. A lot of the events in the game are real historic events.

We have a lot of historical figures that you meet as part of the main arc of the story, guys like Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch, Benjamin Hornigold and Charles Vane. We’ve tried to remain very true to who they were and how they would have behaved in that time period. We don’t tell real history, though, we tell historical fiction; so we intertwine our own story with historical events using historical characters.

AC4 Interview

Everybody loves the naval battles in Assassin’s Creed 3, how much did the fan’s positive reaction to Conner’s antics on the high seas influence the design of Black Flag?

Ash: We were, of course, thrilled that that people loved the naval battles in Assassin’s Creed 3 because it was a bit of a gamble when we started Assassin’s Creed 4. We had these prototypes for naval combat and we had done a lot of play-testing; so we knew that that there was something special there. But it was still quite a gamble to say, all of a sudden, “we have an idea for Assassin’s Creed and part of the core gameplay is naval combat; you know, with free-running, with stealth and all of a sudden naval combat as part of the core- you have to do it”. So it was quite a big risk. Having said that, it was fantastic for us that people loved it.

We saw the great feedback from AC3, but how much of it went into the design of Black Flag? I would say not that much. At that point we already had a direction that we were heading in. For sure, we looked at some of the things that didn’t quite work that well or little details that people wanted improvement on. But for the most part, by the time AC3 shipped and we had the reviews, we had less than a year to go until completion of Assassin’s Creed 4, so we had already set a direction for the naval core of the game. We were already going down that road.

Michael: It was really about figuring out what was great about the Assassin’s Creed 3 naval battles. Obviously we took the fans feedback into consideration, but also in AC3 we had something that was really cool but it was quite small, it wasn’t a core part of the game.With Assassin’s Creed 4 it was about making it deeper. We went from, I think, six or eight different ship types in AC3, to Black flag where there’s over forty different types of ship you can find in the game. There’s obviously much deeper and broader navel experience in Assassin’s Creed 4 compared to AC3.

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Was Ubisoft aware of the direction the series was going when making Assassin’s Creed 3? Is there a master plan or are you shooting from the hip?

Ash: We have multiple development teams working on the game. On top of the development teams we have the brand team. The brand team is made up of designers, writers and production managers; they look after the overall arc of where Assassin’s Creed is going and how each game fits in that arc.

We do give ourselves the flexibility to stretch certain parts, or to jump certain parts, but effectively there is a global arc that is being told. The story is pushed along by events in the present day, hence why the the present day is an important part of the Assassin’s Creed games and part of that global arc.

So yes we when had AC3, we knew where that was going with Assassin’s Creed 4. We knew we were going to do a pirate game. We generally knew where we wanted to take it; what events in the Templar’s and Assassin’s feud of the present day were in progress. AC4 is part of that grander story arc that we are telling.

AC4 Interview

For Black Flag’s story have a new protagonist in Edward Kenway. How is he different from the lead characters that we’ve played with before?

Ash: Edward is a really unique character. We had a lot of fun making him because we wanted a guy who was likeable, who was connectable and who was also human; someone who wasn’t a super-hero. At the end of the game you are not saving the world, you are not saving all the assassins.

The definition of Edward is that he was a poor British man who had the delusion that fame and fortune brought happiness, and so the life of piracy lured him in and he went for it. Then, in our story, he meets with the assassins and they teach him the creed. This creates an internal conflict inside Edward of should he believe in the creed philosophy or his life of piracy, fame and fortune.

The big difference with Edward is that his story is about self-discovery. It’s not about revenge or about duty; it’s him figuring out who he is in life. The backdrop to all of this the pirate republic and, of course, what is happening between the Templars and assassins; but really the story is about Edward figuring out his role in life.

Edward is also very charismatic and pretty funny. He is also very selfish. We actively gave him deep character flaws to make him human, to make him connectable and to show him to be vulnerable at a certain point. I don’t mean physically vulnerable, I just mean that he makes mistakes. He tries to rectify those mistakes but in doing so his selfishness kicks in and he goes about it the wrong way; for me it makes him a very human character.

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I’d like to talk a little about the game’s open world. With Assassin’s Creed 3 I went exploring, but it felt like I was going against the structured mission path. How does the open world work this time?

Michael: Black Flag is all about discovering things in the open world. We’d love it if people got distracted and just did open world stuff for forty-five minutes at a time whilst they were on their way to a main path mission. That’s kind of how we did the open world; so that around every corner you are going to find a new surprise, a new activity a new challenge or something to do.

We encourage players and we want them to go and get distracted and have a little fun. Obviously we still have a great main storyline, so it always draws you back; you always want to know what happens next. The game is all about freedom so at the end of the day we want the player to do what they want to do, when they want to do it, and that’s what you will find with AC4.

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So just how big is Assassin’s Creed 4’s world?

Michael: It’s the biggest open world that we’ve ever done. We have over fifty unique locations that you can go to in the world. There are tons of little islands everywhere that you can visit. There are so many different activities. It is huge and seamless so you know you can drive your ship right up to an island jump off go, explore the island and jump right back on your ship. It’s all about fluidity, having one big world and not just a huge game with several worlds. It’s one huge open world that’s all connected.

AC4 Interview

So we’ve got an interesting new character and a huge open world to explore. What do you think players are going to enjoy most when playing Assassin’s Creed 4?

Ash: Most definitely the pirate theme, which is really strong in this game. When we set out to make this game we had the goal to make the definitive pirate game, because there are not many good pirate games out there. I’d say Sid Meier’s Pirates was the last really great pirate game. So for sure I think people are going to love the piracy element; the boarding, Edward’s fighting style, the story and the characters you meet.

But personally, for me, I think my favourite thing about the game and I think one people will appreciate is that the way the open world is structured. You know you have this hub, which is the ocean, and then you have these points of interest, the islands.

On these islands you’ll find caves or a plantation, or an underwater sequence and so you go there and you explore the area for half an hour to an hour. But when you leave it’s like you hit a reset button mentally, because when you see the next island you are excited again. It’s not just because that new island is going to have new art, it is also going to have new functions for you; there’s going to be cargo that you need to get, or there’s going to be a gold chest that you need to find.

I feel like this is a really amazing way to consume an open world game. I actually think that more open world games should be built in this manner of having a hub with points of interest.

Of course the hub, the ocean, is full of life as well. We have dynamic weather, we have ships that need to be plundered, and we have harpooning zones and other events that happen in this world. So for me I think it’s really one of our best features. But maybe Michael has another view.

Michael: I totally agree with what Ash is saying. I’d like to add that another cool thing that players will discover during their adventures is the mastery of the tools, weapons and stuff that they have.

For instance, when you start the game your ship has some cannons and there are a couple of different things that you can do with it. But as your get further into the game you get new weapons and new tools- like the mortar heavy shot.

In Assassin’s Creed we’ve always had enemies that you can beat. This is the first time that you are going to come across massive ships that you can’t defeat when you start the game. Only once you obtain and master better equipment are you going to be able take out these bigger targets. I think that that sense of progression, of mastering and learning the tools, both on land and on sea is a really neat new addition to the series that people are going to enjoy.

AC4 Interview

Assassin’s Creed is a current and a next-gen title. What is the difference going to be between playing the game on the Xbox 360 and playing it on the Xbox One?

Ash: So the core Assassin’s Creed 4– being the story, Edward, the diversity of the land and the seamlessness of the world; this is the same across all platforms. The big difference with next-gen is obviously the visuals. Yes, they are much more powerful machines so we are able to pump out a lot more. But aside from the visuals, every time we build an Assassin’s Creed game one of our successes is that we build credible worlds; not realistic, but credible. Something that you can believe in. Something that has life, and for next-gen we have a lot of these features.

As an example, every piece of foliage in the world has physics on it. So when it gets hit by rain and there’s wind or when a character runs through it, it reacts properly; it just makes you believe in the world that much more.

Of course, for next-gen we also take advantage of the hardware. We take advantage of the dual shock controller, the touch screen, the touch pad and we have remote play on the vita. For Xbox One we take advantage of Kinect.

Having said all of that, it is the most beautiful Assassin’s Creed we have ever built for current-gen. We were pushing those machines to their limits. We’ve pretty much squeezed every ounce of power we can get out of them.

With next- gen the machines are just so much more powerful; which means that the immersion is better, the visuals are much nicer and there’s some extra features for the hardware.

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Wrapping up with a question that I should probably have asked last year, but I’m going to ask you guys anyway. What does French publisher Ubisoft have against my countrymen? I’ve never butchered so many Englishmen. Is it because of what we did to Napoleon?

Ash: Ha ha. I think it was probably a better question for AC3. For us you kill a lot of Spanish, you want to kill Spanish? But the British are also there. We just pick times that are fun; we don’t outright pick times that get you to kill British folk.

In our game, yes, there are British enemies, but there are also French, Dutch enemies and Spanish enemies. It’s accurate to the time period.

Michael: And you would love one of the main characters Benjamin Hornigold. He was an English pirate and he would not attack the Kings ships. So you can jump on and hang out with him; following his code if you want to.

AC4 Interview

And finally, if you had to put money down on a fight between all the assassins featured in the games: Altair, Ezio, Conner and now Edward, who would you pick to win and why?

Michael: It has to be Edward.

Ash: Yeah, it has to be Edward.

Michael: He’s got dual cutlasses, he’s got four guns. He’ll just take those other assassin’s apart. He’s a violent man. He’s a violent pirate and he knows how to fight ruthlessly, so my money’s on Edward; no bias obviously.

Ash: It’s a bit tough to say because we are very biased. But I would say, at some point, the assassins choose to train Edward and there’s many reasons way the choose him. One of those reasons – I’m not going to ruin the others because there are some pretty cool reasons – is because he is a devastating force on the battlefield. They wanted him as part of their deck of cards for those reasons.

He’s got dual swords and he’s got four guns. How can you beat four guns? I’m going to put my money on Edward.

Thanks for your time guys; I can’t wait to get hold of the game.

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag will be released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on 29th October in Australia and 30th October in New Zealand. Versions for Wii U, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC will be available from 21st November in both AU and NZ. 

Darren Price