If you made Assassin's Creed II this year, it was a good year — even if you had to trim the game, even if things didn't click until August, even if, for five minutes, you had to suppress your accent.
Patrice Desilets, creative director of Assassin's Creed II at Ubisoft Montreal, believes that "2009 was my best year ever," he told Kotaku in an interview recently.
Desilets and a team of more than 200 developers made a hit, a critically acclaimed game. That was just part of Desilets' year. He "learned to be dad," he said. He learned to deal with a two-year-old daughter "who could answer me back." He bought a house and renovated it. "It was a big beautiful year for me."
It's the gaming stuff that would probably most interest readers of Kotaku, and it's the gaming part of Desilets' year that was probably out of the mind of many Kotaku readers for much of the year, when Assassin's Creed II was just a whisper of a public relations campaign, when the aftertaste of the top-selling first Creed still lingered a bit sour.
For Desilets, however, 2009 and the making of Assassin's Creed II was a wild ride, one of nervousness and frustration, some far-flung trips, at least one bout of vertigo, the affirmation of one major addition to the game and the painful decision to make a few — possibly temporary — major subtractions.
Before 2009, when the work to make Asssassin's Creed II, a sequel to the 2007 hit, began, things were going well. Approaching the new year, though, that couldn't last. "It went pretty smoothly," he said, "And then six months through, we said, 'We're never going to make it.'" The game had to come out in November. But this second Assassin's Creed, a vast Italian Renaissance expansion of the template established in the geographically smaller and less structurally complex first game, seemed unwieldy. "We were in the middle [of development] and we said, 'How the hell can we finish that? How can we test that and make sure it works all the way through?'"
In the early days, the 2008 days and beginning of 2009, when most of us knew nothing about Assassin's Creed II, the stresses were about scope. They were also about variety, which, Desilets explained, wasn't good enough. When the game was released, reviewers and players would rave about ACII's "secret locations," linear missions requiring puzzle-solving and acrobatics by the game's Renaissance lead character, Ezio. These missions weren't originally in the game plan. "In the middle of production we felt the game may have been lacking some scope, some things to do," Desilets recalled. "We thought: Maybe we could add some new elements that are not in the game world we are building and are on the side." The Montreal Ubisoft team figured out a solution. Those levels got made, Desilets revealed, by a new team added to the project at Ubisoft Singapore. As best Desilets can recall, making a game bigger mid-way through production was new to him. "It was the first time in my career that it happened."
The end of spring 2009 was going to bring Desilets his most crucial moment of the year. The moment would last five minutes in early June, and he prepare for it for over a month. As his team toiled with the creation of the game, he and a developer toiled also with what would be a five minute live gameplay demo of Assassin's Creed II during the Sony press conference at the biggest gaming trade event of the year, E3.
"This little five minutes was almost a live or die thing for us," he said. "Of course it's just a video game, but we're showing you the game for the first time…. We hadn't shown you anything. We're showing you a brand new setting, a brand new character. Do you buy it or not?" Desilets is French-Canadian and to a largely American audience his English accent could seem thick. He worked to suppress it with the help of a presentation specialist. He ran through his pitch twice a week for a month, identifying and speaking key words and phrases, and memorizing the thing. The day he finally did it for real, on a stage for Sony, it went great. The press conference aired in Montreal, and Desilets' girlfriend called him to say that their little girl recognized her dad on the screen.
Past the nervousness of preparing the big presentation in June, one of the main sensations Desilets had was frustration. As the game's creative director he long ago had the game in his mind, months before it would be working on a development system.
"It's part of my job to have the game in my mind before everyone else," he said. The year 2009 would be, by its halfway point, a frustrated wait for what he had envisioned to actually work. "It's more frustration than being nervous. 'How come it doesn't work yet?' Then I see one build and it always happens like that. It happened on [my previous games, Prince of Persia] Sands of Time. It happened on AC1. I take a build home and I play in my environment, in my gaming room, and I can say, yes it is good or not"
This was in August. The build of the game he brought home was rough. You couldn't save in it. But a lot of it was there and Desilets got to have his "first playthrough of a broken game." It was the first time he could experience Assassin's Creed II's interlocking systems of assassination and economy all working together. "I said, 'You know what? It's going to be good, and it's going to work.'" Come September, he said, he was relaxed.
There was a stress, though, in the middle portion of the year. That's when it was clear that some planned parts of the game would have to be cut. In order to meet a November release date, they'd have to go. One thing removed was the ability to replay any mission in the game. The team didn't think they could test it successfully ("Eventually maybe we'll come out with some way to do it somehow," Desilets noted).
The other cut, the one many Assassin's Creed II players have figured out by now, was content for which development would be backburnered and later re-prioritized and issued as the game's forthcoming January and February downloadable content. These would be the game's marked but missing 12th and 13th chapters, more or less. "I felt that, 'Okay, there were too many things to do and to finish.' So we said, 'Ok, let's take a portion of the game that was planned and we'll give it in DLC.' We'll remove some stress to the team while giving more to fans and people who like Assassin's Creed." Desilets liked the idea of giving the game added life and content beyond its initial release, saying it's something that he regrets not offering for Assassin's Creed — "I feel like we left people alone afterwards." —and given how big the game was and how it had gotten bigger during development, he didn't think most players would feel shortchanged. "I think we gave them so much content that they cannot say that we owe them, that we didn't give them a lot for their 60 bucks."
By September, Desilets was giving a much less-rehearsed and fully-accented presentation of Assassin's Creed II at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle. The game was nearly done, with some crashes being debugged out of the process. By early October he recalls it being almost clean.
By October he had all his Christmas presents purchased. He'd been traveling the world this year, picking up souvenirs in Australia, France, Italy and Japan to give to relatives later this week. He wasn't going to give away Assassin's Creed II. By Christmas he would have already handed it out.
About that 2009 trip to Italy: It was the second for him during development. "We went at the beginning and then at the end just to acknowledge that we did a good job," he laughed. He went to the real life version of the game's villa and had a strange moment in Venice on the Ponte Vecchio, where virtual reality messed with his sense of the real. He'd played the part of the game on that bridge so many times before stepping on it this year for real. "That bridge seemed like it only existed in 3D," he said. "We went beyond that bridge [in real life] and it was like, 'Whoa the 3D is real.' It really could mess with your mind." He went to San Gimignano and tried to climb one of its towers (from the inside!). What would have taken another person 15 minutes took Desilets 45 because this man whose games feature men who scale and leap from tall buildings suffers from vertigo. "It was fun to go through some fears," he said.
The game came out in November, and Desilets, like any developer who discusses release week, describes checking and re-checking Metacritic to watch that average review score. He had a more unusual tradition in which he also indulged. As he had for previous games he worked on, he went, with some fellow ACII developers, to a local game shop and bought his own game. "I paid myself, which is kind of weird, but I did it," he said. I do it all the time. I receive copies, but I always buy at least one copy." Why? "It's like: Wasn't I a gamer first?"
Past November and on the verge of the birth of his second child, Desilets continued to be on the Assassin's Creed job. He worked on the DLC and he played the finished game at home, recognizes successes and faults. "I play the game on my box now," he said during a part of his interview that covered the game's many ways of making money, from pickpocketing to investing in Ezio's villa. " I see that there's maybe some tools that could be re-used at the end. But we either didn't have time or didn't think about it. At the end we could have asked the player to do some pickpocketing. Maybe that's a lesson learned that [character] progression is cool, but maybe we need to re-use some of the elements throughout the progression."
Desilets now has planned, for December, what may be his last Assassin's Creed II live demo, one that promises to have as tough an audience as a pack of reporters at E3.
He'll be showing the game to his mom and grandmother. "One thing I do at the Christmas of a year a game ships is I will play the game with my family, with my mother and her mother, because they don't play. But they know I do it, and they're proud of their son. So I have to do a gaming session, an hour or two." He predicts he will show them the Tuscany section and will avoid the game's more colorful dialogue about sex. He knows the demo will be tough. "It's going to be a party," he said. "And I'll be like, 'No no, come on it's time to show the game.' And that will last 10 minutes before everyone starts talking again and then they forget that there's a game."
Assassin's Creed II fans won't forget that there's a game. And they'd best not forget Deslets, because he is thinking of the future of Assassin's Creed.
This interview happened earlier this month, and near its conclusion, Desilets described the work he and his team are doing: " We're still thinking all the time about Assassin's Creed and where we want to go next," he said. "We're about to plan the rest. That's about it."