Interview: Assassin's Creed IV game director Ashraf Ismail on the future of open worlds

People are obsessed with pirate ships. Before we sat down to chat proper, Assassin's Creed IV game director Ashraf Ismail told me a story about how one playtester became so enamoured with the Jackdaw that he spent hours boarding it from every possible angle. "You know, we kinda needed to get some other things tested, but we let him at it anyway," Ismail laughed.

Ismail's in Sydney to show off a new build of Assassin's Creed IV, ahead of its release in November. During a hands on preview, another Australian journalist spent an hour trying to overtake an enemy pirate ship. He died dozens of times apparently (because it's a fairly high level feat to pull off) but eventually he did it without resorting to cannons.

People are obsessed with pirate ships. Ubisoft is banking on this obsession, because Black Flag will usher in one of the most dramatic changes to the Assassin's Creed series we've seen over the course of its six titles. Naval combat and navigation is one of the core mechanics in the forthcoming installment, which releases for PC on November 22 .

PC Gamer: You're working across six platforms and two console generations with Black Flag. Is there more pressure on this title than ever before?

Ashraf Ismail : For sure. As a brand there is a pressure to bring something new and something fresh, but in terms of the number of platforms, no - that's not really an added pressure. You can argue that with the next-gen stuff we need to raise the game a bit in terms of visual quality and immersiveness. So, yes there is multiple angles of pressure rising. But I think globally we deeply know as a dev team, as a company and as a brand that we need to surprise our fans. That was the objective when we started Black Flag two years ago: the key words were fresh and fun. We know we risk going stale, but the job is on us as developers to surprise people and that's one of the reasons we went with a pirate theme and especially with doing a naval sandbox.

When you think of next-gen people have this notion that you need to experience something that you haven't experienced before. Visual quality goes up, but the games also need to get bigger and immerse you more, and that's where the idea of the naval sandbox came from. Not that it's unique to next-gen, but it forced us to ask how do we take the city building that we know and just exaggerate and go much bigger and create a world that we've never had in AC, and hopefully which gamers have never seen. So yes, there is pressure but it's a really strong motivator for us to try something different and to take a risk.

I remind people that it's really risky to take a brand like Assassin's Creed, which is very successful in terms of sales and fanbase, and then to say “you know what, part of the core experience now is naval combat.” I love the fact that Ubisoft went with it and supported us in attempting to do this. It's a very risky thing and we could have totally screwed it up, but because of the pressure we know we need to take risks. It's been a positive experience.

Is there a risk there that you're fragmenting the series' core elements - freerunning, stealth, land combat etc - with the introduction of naval combat?

AI: Again, it's our job to ensure that the core of Assassin's Creed is there. We do have a brand team, which is outside of the development team. That team is composed of writers, designers, project managers and so on, and they look at the larger arc that is Assassin's Creed. There are people there who pay attention to what direction the game is going in and whether it is still fitting in with the brand pillars. Things like freerunning, fighting and stealth: these are really core and we're never going to lose those.

I always say there's a reason there are very few good pirate references in video games. Actually there's almost none. The best in my opinion is Sid Meier's Pirates. And that's because if you want to do a credible pirate game you need to have cities, you need natural locations, you need to have an insane naval combat system but also a naval world, and to do that in one shot... I don't know how any team could do it. There's few pirate games because it's a huge undertaking. We have such a solid foundation in Assassin's Creed, because Assassin's Creed 3 started pushing the naval navigation and nature, and they started the naval combat, so we had the ingredients in place. We could spend a good two and a half years developing something spectacular on those foundations. So yes, there's risk involved in whether the naval stuff fits into the freerunning, but I feel like when people play the game they'll feel like it's Assassin's Creed, yet the core experience will be so different and fresh that it will surprise people.

What are the most important elements of an open-world moving forward, apart from graphical fidelity? What do consumers want the most?

"We'll always have an historical element because it's core to the brand. Mark my words"

AI: For me, at its heart an open world game is a promise of an experience. The more immersed you are in that experience the more lost you can get inside the world. We worked pretty hard on making the world believable and credible. Having NPCs that look like real people who exist in that world, that's always been a tenet of Assassin's Creed since the first game. I think we can push that further. Beyond that - and this isn't a hint of any future mechanics - I personally feel like there will be some element of connectivity. We've seen games that are single player games that somehow try to integrate the idea of other people interacting with your world. I'm sure that at some point with Assassin's Creed, and with other open worlds, we're going to see more of this. Demon's Souls is a prime example of a single player game which is very personal which [nonetheless] let's other people interact with you. I think that's the best reference out there. I think we'll see more of this, but all in the hope of immersing you more in the world.

With Black Flag, we want players to be completely lost in the Caribbean. What I mean is, you have a mission that is at the top of the map, but when you move in that direction the game world will keep inviting you to move off that path without you knowing it. Maybe if you find yourself, 45 minutes later, nowhere near that mission start, but you've done a bunch of harpooning and found a bunch of treasures and updated the Jackdaw, this for me is achieving a level of immersiveness that really only open world games can achieve. Those are the two fronts. We're always going to push the immersiveness layer, having systems that attract you and pull your attention. On a pure feature basis there will probably be more social stuff, though I'm not entirely sure how yet.

Assassin's Creed has become more generous with those distractions you mention. Is there an awareness within the dev teams that there might be a stretching point for these distractions? Is it possible to give the player too much to do?

AI: Yes, and I think the balance lay in what the purpose of this extra stuff is. We wanted to make sure that all the side missions and activities have a very simple function that a player can understand. So for example in this game, we're blessed to have enemies that are not human: ships, inanimate objects that you can upgrade, more cannons and hulls, more defenses. All this allows us to have a progression system, and this system is a really easy way to reward the player. You need gold to buy the upgrades, therefore as you start to understand the economy of the game you start to understand what activities you need to do to get that gold. So you think: I need gold so I need to do this and this, which is better than selecting from a bunch of random icons on the map and trying them out.

We run into issues when we just put in activities that have no real purpose and are just there as content. As a game director I won't do that - you can have some really cool stuff but it's just meaningless. So the balance is really about the purpose and the function: if I'm doing this activity because it leads me somewhere, then it has a place in the game. You'll see that in Black Flag: almost every single collectible, activity, side mission has a purpose, whether it's to upgrade the ship or to upgrade Edward. There's a function that's clear and simple. We focused on that because we know that people can get lost in all the extra activities in open world games that are just there [for no reason].

It's well known that naval combat and traversal was a difficult technical achievement. Specifically, what were some of the more difficult aspects?

AI: There are a million different things! I'll start simple: the ship is an avatar. There is this psychological connection with players where you have a 3D figure on camera and you start to associate yourself with that character. You understand that the shadow beneath it places you somewhere inside the 3D world. These are mechanics that have been developed over years, starting with the likes of Mario 64. They'd been explored before that, but Mario 64 really defined a lot of this stuff.

So all of the sudden we have this ship that's really big: its dimensions are awkward and we're not used to it, and so where do you put the camera? How do you shoot, how do you drive? And at the same time not only is it a massive 3D ship, but you also need to feel that it's a ship and still have it be fun to play and for it to be intuitive. When we started we had a lot of different prototypes for sailing, and some of them looked at sailing from a very accurate perspective. I'd say on some level they were fun, but on another they were completely unintuitive and unplayable. Just trying to sail and shoot an enemy was impossible. Finding the balance where it feels like a ship that you're sailing on an ocean which has physics and you can feel the waves and wind, but you can also be in a combat situation: to not overwhelm the player with too many variables is really tricky. It took a lot of time with R&D and prototyping and trying different things.

The ocean itself is honestly one of the greatest achievements we've made. It's fully physics simulated but we have full control over it. If we want it to go from a calm sea to an intense hurricane, we can do it. It feels natural and normal and logical and it's beautiful visually. The guys who pulled it off, my hats off to them.

With the Abstergo narrative backdrop Assassin's Creed could feasibly go anywhere. Is it possible the series could ever make a break from its historical settings?

AI: Feasibly, but I don't think that makes sense. One of the pillars of Assassin's Creed is that it's historical fiction. I think it's one of the biggest reasons why the series is so successful. Everybody in this world can love a certain time period or a certain historical figure, and I think one of our successes is that we go to time periods that you'll never be able to physically visit or see. We excite people around this concept. To me, it doesn't make any sense to have an Assassin's Creed game that doesn't have an historical element to it because it's core to the DNA. I've been asked about whether Assassin's Creed will make it to space in the future, and while anything is possible I think we'll always have an historical element because it's core to the brand. Mark my words.

Users are given the opportunity to rate missions , which will offer feedback directly to Ubisoft. Do you expect conclusive results?

AI: This is a very contentious feature in the game. I really wanted it in the game but our mission guys really hated it, which I understand why. We had many avenues of feedback, and one of the most important things a designer needs to be able to do is take in lots of feedback, whether its ideas or playtest results or just watching someone play and writing down notes. You need to absorb this information and then digest it. You don't take it at face value - some stuff you can - but you need to be able to digest and understand what is happening. For me this is just another avenue of feedback. Of course when we see a mission is rated extremely poorly then okay, something went wrong. We'll ask whether it was the writing, a bug, or was it just not a fun mechanic that was being used. On the other hand if something is rated really well, then for future games we can look at that and analyse why this mission was great.

Shaun Prescott

Shaun Prescott is the Australian editor of PC Gamer. With over ten years experience covering the games industry, his work has appeared on GamesRadar+, TechRadar, The Guardian, PLAY Magazine, the Sydney Morning Herald, and more. Specific interests include indie games, obscure Metroidvanias, speedrunning, experimental games and FPSs. He thinks Lulu by Metallica and Lou Reed is an all-time classic that will receive its due critical reappraisal one day.