The man who dreamt up Assassin’s Creed is working on a new game, the first thing you’ll be able to play from him since 2010. The long-time corporate game developer who has gone indie after an acrimonious split from Ubisoft is also level-designing his new office so that it’s a bit different from any other video game studio.
Patrice Désilets figures people will be expecting something exciting, so he wants to play with that. “In their minds it’s ‘Oh we’re going to see a video game company.’ And to them it’s the future,” he recently told me. “There are robots.”
There aren’t really robots, of course. Games are wonderful things, but game development looks boring, hence Désilets wanting to add some interesting twists to the floorplan of his new Montréal studio, Panache. The small company’s atrium will look like an office from an old James Bond movie. Employees will enter through a corridor, but, for visitors, there will be a hidden door in a bookshelf. Désilets wants to surprise people (so long as they don’t read this piece first, of course) when he or his colleagues emerge from behind a bookcase to greet them.
“The entrance brings you to another meeting room with a table with four chairs,” Désilets continued. “This is more like an insurance meeting room from 1998. It’s really cheesy, with a whiteboard and with beige filers, really ugly—corporate. But there is this orange glass wall in the studio, and once you get in it’s all high tech and white, all the walls you can write on, there are no more boards. The entire studio is a place to write and design, and we have our desks. There is one table in the middle of the space where we have our meetings. You cannot hide. This is also a pool table. It can transform.”
Patrice Désilets has been designing video games since 1997, most of that spent at Ubisoft where he was the creative lead on the acclaimed Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and then the first three big Assassin’s Creed games. He’s less seasoned as an office architect but has had to wear more hats now that he’s trying to make games as an indie. We met most recently at E3 at a cut-out in the Los Angeles Convention Center far away from any big gaming publisher megabooths, just him and a longtime producer colleague from Ubi who co-founded Panache, which now boasts a seven-person team.
They’re making a game called Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, which Désilets wants to be nothing less than a third-person action/survival game about the dawn of humanity, from the predecessors to Homo Sapiens to our kind’s eventual dominion of the planet. The game? “It’s Civilization tech tree meets Assassin’s Creed,” Désilets suggested.
“For me it’s fascinating that those little one meter chimp with a kind of weird brain kind of took control of this planet and is totally destroying it,” he said. You’ll play through that. “Your character and family will have the scars of your decisions... We’re not into caveman yet, we’re before that. We go up.”
In truth, there doesn’t seem to be much game there yet. Désilets’ E3 trailer for the game is mostly conceptual and ends with just a brief glimpse of the game’s starting character. The map is there, he told me. “The first-draft character is in it. We’re working on behaviors, how you work with the jungle.”
He’s thinking they’ll start players as an Orrorin Tugenensis, a pre-human species from some six million years ago. Then evolve from there, skipping players ahead, from episode to episode, through evolution. “So we do an action sequence telling you the first time when we stood up,” he postulated. “We let you sprint, see forward then leave you in an open world and you survive as long as you can. In a later chapter you will eventually have a family that needs to survive, a tribe that needs to survive, but that is in the next chapters.” He wants to tell the story of the discovery of fire as part of his video game, and do the same with animal domestication, all chapters of this adventure.
The game will be released in episodes, each one polished by his small team to look and feel as good as the kind of big-budget games he was making at Ubi. His dream is to release a whole bunch of chapters and wind up with a big 25-hour game like the kinds he used to make.
Games hatched in creative game designers’ brains all sound amazing, as does Désilets’, as did the famously over-promising Peter Molyneux when he talked a decade or so ago about a never-released caveman role-playing game called B.C. Désilets can say nothing other than that he knows what he’s doing and is keeping the initial scale of the game small so that Panache can deliver. He wants to show something playable at E3 next year.
Désilets says he’s been thinking about the game for a couple of years, his colleague, the producer Jean-François Boivon interjecting that he’s only been doing it for pay for one. That’s a hint of the storm they’re also in, a second unhappy split with Ubisoft which has forced Désilets to twice spend a year not working on games professionally in accordance with Canadian law and the terms of his departures from Ubi. The first split had seen him jumping to THQ to make an epic at the ill-fated company’s Montreal studio. “THQ wanted the Assassin’s Creed-killer,” Désilets recalled, but then THQ went under and Ubisoft, of all companies, bought Désilets’ studio and took control of that game, 1666, which has never been seen in public. Désilets and Ubi split again and he sued them for control of 1666, a game he now says is “somewhere sitting on a shelf and nobody can touch it.” He walked past the Ubisoft booth at E3, he told me, but says he didn’t really look. “I never thought of doing a Victorian Assassin’s Creed, so this is a stranger Assassin’s Creed.” He’s left at least that baby of his behind.
He doesn’t sound bitter or out of the loop. Work on 1666 had kept him busy and sharp, he says. He’s excited about Ancestors and some other games that are more of a deviation from what he’s made before. He’s almost too cheerful. I asked him if he was just hiding how he really felt. “I’ve got not a lot of masks,” he replied. “I am zen. In the end, we’re making games, dude. We’re so fucking lucky. My studio is a four-minute walk from where I live in my neighborhood. We’re painting the walls.”
Correction - 6:05PM: This article originally misidentified Désilets’ colleague as Jean-François Mailloux, who may work at the studio but was not the one with Patrice at our meeting at E3. That was Jean-François Boivin, who co-founded Panache. I apologize for the error.