A dive into the multiple studios behind the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
To celebrate the release this Friday of Assassin’s Creed: Origins we are going to explore the series and its weird and wonderful world. Whether it be foible, folly, or flourish, we will look at the worlds, the ideas, and the studios, to revel in a decade-long franchise that’s shifted the gaming landscape. For more AC Week articles, go here.
It now seems almost quaint that the original Assassin’s Creed involved just one studio, Ubisoft Montreal. What started as Prince of Persia: Assassin was soon spun out as its own IP after moving too far away from what defined a Prince of Persia game.
This became what we know as Assassin’s Creed (2007). On release, it received a decent critical response, with some caveats. The assassinations and exploration of the Holy Land worked well, but it was criticised for lacking substance elsewhere. The game exceeded Ubisoft’s expectations so a sequel was green-lit, moving the setting to Renaissance Italy.
Assassin’s Creed II (2009) rectified all the main concerns players had with the first game, whilst also improving the exploration, free roaming, and general narrative of the game. It’s held up as the perfect example of how to make a sequel, and sure enough it outshone its predecessor critically and commercially. It also triggered an annual release schedule – quite the task for one studio.
Ubisoft Montreal alone could not make this a reality; it would need help. Ubisoft already had studios dotted across the globe, and many of these had been geared towards support work. Ubisoft Singapore had worked on the PC port of Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, with Ubisoft Quebec developing PSP and Wii versions.
For the next project, Ubisoft Montreal remained the lead studio but saw production supported by Bucharest, Singapore, Quebec, and Annecy (known for Splinter Cell’s multiplayer). The result was Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (2010), and for the first time in the series, the game took place in a single city – in this instance Rome.
This was the largest individual urban area that Ubisoft had ever created and despite initial assumptions that this was to be a glorified expansion to the previous game was instead a full game in its own right. The multi-studio approach made it possible in such a tight timeframe, and with Annecy’s assistance, it incorporated a surprisingly fun multiplayer mode.
The same approach continued for Assassin’s Creed: Revelations in 2011. The same studios were involved, along with Massive – which Ubisoft had only purchased three years prior – who would be developing Desmond’s puzzle sequences.
With other studios sharing the load, Montreal had the flexibility to begin working on a future entry whilst development was still taking place for the current game. This meant that Montreal exerted much higher control with Assassin’s Creed III (2012). Annecy returned to develop the multiplayer but it was Ubisoft Singapore that had the most notable influence. Assassin’s Creed III saw the introduction of naval gameplay which was a significant addition to the series, greatly expanding its scope. Its success was a guiding light for the next game in the series.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013) saw a return to the multi-studio approach, with Quebec, Bucharest, Kiev, Montpellier, Annecy, and Sofia providing support. Set on the high seas and focusing on the popular naval element, Black Flag is considered a high-note for the series. While Montreal still lead the development, it was Singapore that built its backbone.
Taking a cue from its namesake, Assassin’s Creed Rogue (2014) is an outlier amongst the series. Still considered canon, it was released only on the previous generation of consoles; meanwhile, another brand-new entry, Assassin’s Creed Unity, only graced the new generation of consoles and was the first in the series to do so, boasting a new engine (AnvilNext 2.0). Whereas before, Black Flag released for both generations, the support studios meant Ubisoft could straddle a generational divide with two different games simultaneously.
Rogue used the same engine (AnvilNext) as Black Flag and shared many gameplay elements that were subsequently absent from Unity, most notably naval gameplay. Taking place after Black Flag but before III, Rogue took a new direction by casting the player as a Templar who had left the Assassin Order.
Whilst Montreal was involved with this entry, Ubisoft Sofia took point, supported by Quebec, Chengdu, Milan, Bucharest, and Singapore. This was not the first time Sofia took the lead for an entry in the series, having previously developed Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation for the Vita. Released alongside III and set in a similar period but in Louisiana, the game was a classic example of the multi-studio approach: bolstering its main entries with side projects and exploring new locations.
Meanwhile, leading the charge on new consoles, Unity was unfortunately leaden with bugs. As talented as the people at Montreal are, balancing so many versions of Assassin’s Creed was bound to take its toll. Ten studios were involved in developing Unity (deep breath): Toronto, Kiev, Singapore, Shanghai, Annecy, Montpellier, Bucharest, Quebec, Chengdu, and of course Montreal.
Though it was by no means a failure, still largely receiving a positive critical response, the negative player response was down to a cavalcade of glitches and no small amount of fatigue with the series’ formula. The collectathon aspect of the series had reached breaking point with Unity, its map filled to bursting with empty clutter. The disparity between versions also pointed to a possible crack in the multi-studio approach, with the PC version received a dire port.
Ubisoft issued an apology for the state Unity was released in, offering the first DLC, Dead Kings for free. What’s more, for those who already purchased the season pass, a free digital Ubisoft game from a choice of six was offered – on the condition that they forfeit their right to sue Ubisoft regarding issues surrounding Unity.
In July 2014 Ubisoft had announced that Ubisoft Quebec would be the lead studio for the next Assassin’s Creed game, marking the first time a core entry was not led by Montreal. The logic behind this move wasn’t to lessen Montreal’s load, but a desire to invest and expand Quebec.
The result was Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (2015), taking the series to its most modern setting: London 1868. Victorian London had been one of the few settings high on the wish list of players, so the game was off to a good start. The series had long reached the stage where it was impossible for a new main entry to be the product of an individual studio, and so Quebec was supported by the usual suspects.
Syndicate also saw the introduction of Ubisoft Reflections, renowned for their vehicle physics, having developed the Driver series. The studio brought the horse-and-carriage mechanics to the game as well as helping with other vehicles and damage systems.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was well received by critics and players, but sales were flagging. Ubisoft acknowledged that the lower sales at launch were due to the negative reception that was generated from the unstable release of Unity. Players were hesitant to part with their cash.
Because of this, Ubisoft make a statement in February 2016 that the series would be put on hold. For the first time since Assassin’s Creed II, there would be no new annual release that winter; as outlined by Ubisoft CEO, Yves Guillemot, the extra time would allow for a focus on quality that would benefit future games.
The extra time allowed Ubisoft to delve into new projects. The multi-studio approach allows these teams to use the expertise gained from working on Assassin’s Creed and put it towards their own projects. Ubisoft Annecy developed Steep in 2016, taking inspiration from being near the Alps and their expertise at creating multiplayer games, to create a connected extreme snow sports game.
Ubisoft Singapore is doubling down on its expertise in naval combat and developing Skull & Bones – revealed at E3 2017. It looks to be a fusion of its pirate theme with the kind of online multiplayer Ubisoft has developed in games like The Crew and the aforementioned Steep.
With the release of Assassin’s Creed: Origins this Friday, we’ll see if the extra time is really what the series needed, or whether it’s now too much of a behemoth to reign in. With plenty of studio support as ever – Kiev being brought in specifically to develop the PC version alongside consoles – there is a lot riding on the success of Origins. It isn’t just the series returning to its origins either: Ubisoft Montreal is once again taking back the helm of its flagging ship, hopefully steering the blockbuster series out of choppy waters. The horizon holds promise.