An Au­di­ence With...

The new ad­ven­tures of the man be­hind The Sands Of Time and As­sas­sin’s Creed

EDGE - - GAMES SECTIONS - BY SI­MON PARKIN

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

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