An Audience With...
The new adventures of the man behind The Sands Of Time and Assassin’s Creed
The new adventures of Patrice Désilets, creator of The Sands Of Time and Assassin’s Creed
Achild tennis star, film-school dropout and lover of improv theatre, Patrice Désilets followed a winding and unorthodox route into game development. When he received a tipoff that the French game publisher Ubisoft was planning to set up a studio in his hometown of Montreal, Désilets perceived an opportunity to combine his passions in a career that he otherwise knew little about. After two unremarkable games, the young designer was given the chance to reinvent Prince Of Persia. The resulting game, The Sands
Of Time, and specifically his concept to do away with videogame ‘lives’ and instead allow players to rewind their mistakes, showed a design ingenuity that gave Désilets autonomy to begin work on a new kind of action blockbuster. Nevertheless, it took two years to convince his bosses that Assassin’s Creed should launch as a new IP rather than a Prince Of Persia spinoff. Again, his judgement proved correct, launching one of the bestselling contemporary blockbusters. It was success, however, that would go on to break the designer.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
To the Big Bang? Seven billion years ago?
Not that far, perhaps.
Well, that’s where we’re going with our new game.
Let’s work our way forwards to that point. You grew up in Quebec in the 1970s, right?
Yes, that’s right, on the south shore of Montreal. I’m 42 this week. I spent two years in Rwanda, Africa, when I was a baby, but other than that it was a fairly normal life in a French Canadian family, with a standard education. I liked to read and I had glasses, so I looked like the intellectual in the class. But at the same time I was good at sports. I wasn’t picked last for the team. I was a mixed breed of physical and intellectual, I’d say.
Your father was a celebrated mathematician. Was there pressure to follow his example?
Yes. Maths was not difficult for me, per se, but I was fortunate to have someone at home to explain things. He had a masters degree in maths in binary logic, the core of what we do in game development. I remember the book – his master’s thesis. It was a bunch of numbers. He was more of a teacher when I was growing up. He wasn’t theoretical; he finished his career as a college principal. My father was also in charge of programming at this school, so we were one of the first families to have a computer at home. There was a bunch of friends around my father who also owned computers. I’d go to their homes for dinner and there would be computers all around me. This was in about 1985, so it would have been the Apple II.
Did you play games on those machines?
Lode Runner – that was the first. Then Choplifter. Those are the two that I remember.
Were you interested in making games at that time?
Not really. I loved creating worlds but I guess this is something that’s common to most children. I would create stories in the playground with other kids. I don’t feel like I was special or unique in that regard, but I did manage to keep that part of me, which is something that not everybody manages to do. Actually – wow, you are taking me back here – I do remember creating new levels for Lode Runner. The version we owned had a level editor. It was a bit like Minecraft or Mario Maker, I suppose. You could use blocks to create a level quite quickly. I feel like I grew up really fast but without losing touch with the kid inside me. I feel like that five-year-old boy is still inside me, present somehow.
What do you mean that you grew up fast?
I was a responsible kid. I played a lot of tennis when I was a teenager. I wanted to become a professional tennis player. I was playing between 15 and 20 hours a week, practising after school each day. I had to be disciplined. Then my parents divorced. My brother was just two at the time and I had to become the responsible big brother. Being in the middle of it all… I feel younger now in some ways than I did when I was 15. I’ve had to learn to get rid of the idea that everything is my responsibility. In my early 20s, when I was at the beginning with Ubisoft, I was not as creative as I am now. I was trying to fit in the box and be responsible.
Did you think you were really going to make it as a professional tennis player?
Ah, yes. When I was 15, certainly. I wanted to be best tennis player in the world and compete against the greats. Then I hit 16 and discovered sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, as it were. I also stopped growing. I was five foot nine. To be good at tennis when you’re not the
tallest player around demands incredible drive, like the kind that Michael Chang had. And I didn’t have that. I discovered theatre at that age. I started getting into improvisation. It changed my life, this discipline where your mind and body mix on a stage, and you’re in teams competing for the audience’s vote. Tennis is a solitary sport. You feel all alone in the world. Discovering creativity in a team changed everything. I realised that what I wanted was related to performance and the creative arts. Sixteen was an important age for me. Then, when I was preparing to go to university to study film, I spent a year in Italy. I went on an exchange for a year. So when we came to pick a historical period for Assassin’s
Creed II, I was eager to revisit Italy. I knew the architecture and the history. I can speak the language.
While you were going through this shift in interest away from tennis into the arts, were you still playing games, or had they taken a back seat in your life?
They were always there, somehow. There was maybe a little gap at the end of high school. At that time it was really not cool to be at the peak of puberty and still playing games. It was really the little boys who played games. You were supposed to give them up as you grew up. But I was still playing as I had younger brothers. I took them up again in earnest in my early 20s at university. We had a Super Nintendo and I’d play NHL and other sports games. Then Ubisoft arrived.
How did you come to arrive at Ubisoft from a degree in film studies and an NHL habit?
I’m a lucky bastard. At the time my mum was the director of communications for the health minister at the government in Quebec City. She heard in the corridors of parliament that a French videogame company was coming to Quebec to set up a large studio, so I knew this before most people. I’d actually quit my university course after just two years – I realised that you cannot learn to make movies in school. I prepped my CV, wrote a letter saying that I was a scriptwriter, and sent it via email to Ubisoft. I think that it was the first email I sent in my life, and it was to Ubisoft.
They called me back. I didn’t have a cellphone back then. Somebody left me a message on my fax. When I called back there was no answer – [the guy who’d called me had] moved to another hotel. So I started calling around the various hotels to try to find where the guy who had called me was now staying. I left a message and wrote him a letter. Eventually we got in contact and he offered me an interview. He asked me whether I wanted to interview for the role of scriptwriter or game designer.
The night before the interview I went through all my copies of Next Generation magazine, just to get the vocabulary of the industry. I used the word ‘gameplay’ for the first time in my life in that interview. I was 23 years old and cocky. I told him: “Look, I could do scriptwriting for movies or TV, but game designers are what Ubisoft needs, so let’s do the interview on game design.” I had no clue what game design was. We talked for an hour about
Mario Kart, trying to understand how it was made, and the pleasure and balance. I then had a second interview with one of the Guillemot brothers [the family of Ubisoft co-founders], and finally a third one in which I was offered the job. That’s where they told me the game I was going to be working on was a medieval-themed Playmobil title. That was Hype: The Time Quest.
How long did you work on that game for?
We started in July 1997 and it shipped two years later.
Who were you learning from during this time?
Everything was about learning. It was a new studio. The day I started there were just ten of us. Today there are more than 2,000 employees at Ubisoft Montreal. So a lot of the learning was to do with how to build up a studio. Working in an office for me was uncomfortable. I’m still really bad at it. It’s the worst part of creating videogames. I come from theatre and film where you’re on stage or on set, where you don’t have to be at a desk in front of a computer from nine till five. I still struggle with that. So, with my current studio, Panache Digital, I try to mess with all of those rules as much as possible, to keep the environment more like an art studio, something more creative rather than office-like.
How did you come to direct Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time?
I was working on Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. At some point I was called into an office and told that Ubisoft wanted to make a Rayman game at the Montreal studio. They wanted to move me onto this project as I had experience working on platform games. While I was transferring all my knowledge to it, they decided to keep
Rayman in France after all. So I was left without a project. For two months, I didn’t do a lot. Then during this period Ubisoft bought a bunch of IPs: Chessmaster, Myst and
Prince Of Persia. I went to a presentation on what a small team had been conceptualising for Prince Of Persia and I immediately knew that this was my next game. I joined the team as the first designer. They already had the prince running on walls, but only in movies. These were ideas of how he would move in 3D. Quickly I realised that the problem with Prince Of
Persia is dying. You die a lot. It was fine back in the original – the game was so fresh and new that players would forget that they died a lot. But in 2001, it didn’t work any more. I was at home when I had a flash of inspiration: why not rewind instead of respawn? I pitched
“WORKING IN AN OFFICE FOR ME WAS UNCOMFORTABLE. I’M STILL REALLY BAD AT IT. IT’S THE WORST PART OF CREATING GAMES”
the idea and someone in the team said he would implement it. Without that guy, we wouldn’t be here talking. You can have the best idea in the world but if there isn’t someone willing to implement it, you’ve nothing. But I’m a good salesman. You need that in this job. Good social skills. People hate game designers because whenever they have an idea it means more work for everyone else. You have to have social skills to sell your ideas.
Anyway, the rewind move was the beginning of a lot of things for Ubisoft and myself. Suddenly I’d had a good flash of inspiration. My earlier games had been fine, but this was something else: something new and interesting and fresh. For me personally I realised this was the kind of design I wanted to do. It all came together.
Presumably the success of the game gave you power in terms of being able to pitch new ideas.
Yes and no. There’s a French culture inside Ubisoft: they like a flat structure where nobody has more power than anybody else apart from the very top guys. I was asked to start work on a next-generation Prince Of Persia. I wasn’t given a team of 25 people and told to come up with a great new idea. Rather, I was told a date and told the game I had to make. But, yes, it’s true that we had a mandate to make a game. My official mandate was to redefine the action adventure game on the next generation of platform, under the Prince Of Persia umbrella.
How did you convince them to let you step away from the umbrella?
It took two years. We were told that the new game needed to be historical, so I returned to my history books. I found a book about a secret society throughout history. The first chapter was about the assassins. The myth jumped out at me. I had to convince them that playing as an assassin was stronger than playing as a prince. It makes sense, though. A prince is a number two. He waits for number one to die. You know that: just look at Prince Charles – waiting and waiting. You see how boring that is? Nobody wants to play as Charles [laughs]. So you managed to convince them to allow you to use a new theme? My problem with Prince Of Persia is that everybody is as good as everybody else because the game is about solving puzzles. Everybody has to run on the same wall at the same time and make the same decisions. I was interested in games that allowed for creativity and improvisation. I wanted people to find their own paths, with a character that could go anywhere. So we had a historical situation, a city, crowds and a character that could go anywhere. That was the blueprint.
It took four years to build and only the final year of that was building a game because it took so long to develop the technology platform that we needed. That was four years of my life. And then we pretty much started Assassin’s Creed II right away. And when that came out we started work immediately again on Assassin’s
Creed: Brotherhood. It was midway through that project that I said: “No more.”
Did you just burn out?
I would say that I had a mental crisis. All of these years coming to the same building with the same people, day after day, had taken its toll. Keep in mind that I’m a guy who studied arts and literature. I wanted to be creative but suddenly I’m working in an office. All that joy of something that was fresh and new was gone.
My girlfriend confronted me. I had a family but I never saw them. Deep down I was just unhappy for multiple reasons. What I’ve learned from my parents’ divorce is that eventually you have to follow your gut, whether or not it hurts people around you. When my mother decided to leave my dad, it was hard for us brothers. But in the end my mother was a better person for making that decision, as was my father. Even though at first it hurt, down the road it was something that needed to happen.
Suddenly I was 36 and I was becoming unhappy. So I needed to make that kind of drastic decision, to see if I could change things. I had a non-compete clause, which gave me a year off, essentially. After that, I joined THQ.
However, even in the midst of the crisis I never asked: ‘Would I do something other than videogames?’ For me, no. I wouldn’t do a movie now. I would miss the interactivity aspect of the work. I love working in a medium in which all of the pioneers are still alive.
How do you feel nowadays, looking at how a good number of Ubisoft’s recent games seem so deeply influenced by Assassin’s Creed?
I’m not a good person to ask about how I feel about Ubisoft games. I haven’t played an Ubisoft game since 2012. I played the first two hours of Assassin’s Creed III, and that was it. With all due respect, I love Ubisoft very much, but I cannot see their logo on my TV screen. It feels too personal. This is my flaw. I’m too personal. But yes, I can see the influence, even outside of their games. For example, I’m playing Uncharted 4 at the moment, and the way that Nathan Drake moves through the crowd is something that we pioneered at Ubisoft in 2006. Even the climbing is in a bunch of games. These are things that we had to figure out in Sands Of Time in 2002. The truth is that there aren’t too many of these games because thirdperson action adventures require so many different skills to come together. It’s a multi-disciplinary genre, so a cross-pollination of ideas is inevitable. Everyone builds upon everybody else’s work.
You then went to THQ and started work on 1666. There’s excitement about the game, but then the publisher goes bankrupt. Did you feel like giving up at that point? Did it feel that your games were becoming too expensive and risky to make?
It was a tough year at THQ. I loved some of it. When I joined, it was particularly exciting. There was lots of talk about “dreaming big” and so on. Suddenly, the company was going bankrupt. It was very tough. There were a lot of changes in the top management, and stress. Then that filters down to the working floor. It’s a terrible environment to make a game.
I think people believed there was a button in the engine that reads ‘Make An Assassin’s Creed Game’. In truth, it takes time to find a character, to give them iconic moves, a good universe and story and so forth. I had to find all of those things. For example, one of the iconic moves in Assassin’s Creed is the leap of faith. That came to me after we had designed the towers and all of the design for people getting up them. At that point I could see that getting up the towers was great, but getting down them was fucking boring. So I had the characters jump from the summit into a bale of hay. This illustrates quite how far you have to go in a development before you hit the block you need to face in order to force an interesting or iconic piece of design.
When people are stressed about money, and they want a ‘leap of faith’ move, they just demand to know where it is. But it doesn’t work like that. I told them: “It’s coming, but it takes time. This is normal.” But the company was not going well, so there was this clash.
“I DIDN’T WANT TO LEAVE THE INDUSTRY. I FEEL LIKE I HAVE 20 GAMES IN ME. 1666 WAS GOING TO BE GAME NUMBER NINE”
Then THQ went bankrupt. I didn’t want to leave the videogame industry. I feel like I have 20 games in me.
1666 was going to be game number nine. Eventually I’ll make that game. Two weeks ago, I got the IP back. Eventually I’ll finish it.
Do you have just the name for 1666, or do you have assets as well?
We have everything. Everything we worked on with the team – two years’ worth of work, including all of the images, code, trademarks and websites. We’re in the process of getting it all back now.
Before you get there you have Ancestors, the game you’re working on now at Panache.
Yes. That is my full focus today. When everything went down the drain, I had to reassess again. I felt like I was done with the major studios. That was 15 years of my life. Now I wanted my own place. I could pick the people I wanted. I could decide on the HR policies. I could pick the business partners. Then I could create an Assassin’s Creed game that belongs to me. Also, I had a dream for a major game to belong to a Quebec company. It would be good for everyone. What if I can come up with a major success that’s also good for the community around me? I was unemployed, so this was my opportunity. We started Panache. I had a company, so now I needed a game. I had a dream to make a game based on the human evolution. A game is about evolving through time, so I figured we could do something along those lines, chunk by chunk through history. That’s what we’re now doing in Montreal with a team of 20 people.
Large thirdperson games in the style of Tomb Raider and Uncharted clearly require huge amounts of staff and investment. How do you deal with those issues with a relatively small team?
Our core team is made up of relatively senior people, with more than ten years’ experience each. We only have one junior, who knocked on the door when we happened to need someone. Yes, games like Uncharted have a lot of people because they create a lot of content. We’re trying something different. Don’t expect us to ship 35 hours of gameplay the first time around because it’s just not possible. But 20 people who know how to make a game can deliver an hour of a blockbuster. So we’re focusing on one hour at a time, and that will allow us to deliver a game of comparable quality to, say, Uncharted. We’re smaller, so we aren’t making an entire season of a television series. We’re making three episodes at a time. That’s our business model: focusing on smaller, more manageable chunks.
The first of Uncharted 4’ s 20 hours obviously doesn’t represent 1/20th of the labour, though. The work is frontloaded because you need to get so much of the engine and game design and animation up and working just to deliver that first hour.
You’re right, but that’s the beauty of our subject matter.
Ancestors is crucial for a small studio that’s trying to make blockbuster-size games. By setting it in pre-history, I don’t have to build a car or a gun. Right now, it’s one character in a jungle. We’re nailing all of the things that are relevant to this scenario. I don’t have to do a crowd, or a city, or fire. Unreal 4 is an amazing engine, so let’s use what we can out of the box in this relatively simple context. We’re highly focused, building tools, designs, team spirit and so on. Eventually, we’ll get there. It’s a modular approach, then. This hour set five million years ago is something that nobody ever played before.
Is your theme of evolution combined with an episodic structure a metaphor for the act of growing a new game studio, set by step?
Yes! Actually, it’s not even a metaphor. For example, the first thing we designed was a survival system. Once this was done, we now have a survival system for every game that we make further down the road. In the second chapter we then ask: what do we add next that will help us out down the road? We have enough material planned out for 25 chapters – not that this is decided yet. It could be 12 or 18 or more. I’m not sure yet, but we have a map, at least, and it’s entwined with our plans and tools as a studio. Panache is built around Ancestors, and Ancestors is built around Panache.
Through this process we’ll accrue all the tools we need to make 1666. This is my long-term goal. Right now, we have the backbone of it all. The format we’re proposing is ingenious, I think, moving from five million years ago, then four, then three, then two and so on with each new chapter. We move forward and with evolution, so the game evolves as well. It’s a new approach to making games.
The Montreal-based Panache team includes (from left) Philippe Debay, Nicolas Cantin, François Masse, JeanFrançois Boivin, Désilets, The Chinh Ngo and Jean-François Mailloux