Assassin’s Creed Origins – Full interview with game director Ashraf Ismail

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Back in September, Critical Hit got to sit down with Assassin’s Creed Origins game director, Ashraf Ismail, who previously worked on series favourite Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. We’ve been using chunks of interview for assorted articles over the past few weeks (like this one), but as we’re now three days to the action-adventure’s release (this Friday, 27 October!), here’s the chat in full. It covers such topics as historical setting choice, playtime estimates, and the benefits of extra development time.

How did you decide on the game’s setting in Ancient Egypt, and, more specifically, why did you choose the year 49 BCE?

“We settled on Ancient Egypt very, very quickly; effectively right when we started the project. It took a bit more time to figure out when in Ancient Egypt, but we knew we wanted to do the setting and go so far back in time.

We wanted an Egypt that was quite filled with a lot of lore and mystery. We researched the building of the pyramids time. We went to different periods, asking ‘What kind of game could we have in this setting?.’ We landed on Cleopatra’s time because it felt epic. It’s the end of the Old Era, the New World is coming.

It’s a really epic time period and you get to have people like Cleopatra and Caesar being part of that experience. It felt quite powerful, but is still considered Ancient Egypt. The pharaoh-dom is still there, the pantheon of gods; mythology was still very important at this time. You have the Pharos in Alexandria, the Great Library; we have Memphis that’s already 3 000 years old. So the world was a wonderful place to explore and discover – even for our protagonist Bayek, a native of Siwa. There’s the idea that even this guy could be in awe of his own country, and that is why we settled on the time period we did.”

What’s the geographical scope of the game world?

“The map goes down to just south of the Faiyum Oasis, which is a giant lake in Egypt. That’s the scope of the map, from there up to the Mediterranean in the north. But that’s the thing. It also covers a huge timeline of Egypt, and we made sure we felt it in the game.

In Alexandria in the north, you feel more, say, contemporary Egypt of the time, with majorly Greek influence. But as you go south you feel Ancient Egypt really coming to life. Memphis is a very old city and you have these giant monuments. It feels more, I would almost say, organic and chaotic, where Alexandria feels more organised and engineered. We wanted to have that contrast in the world, and you feel it in the temples and the tombs and in all the various locations of the world. That’s another reason why we chose Cleopatra’s time; it’s to have a lot of diversity in the world.”

What can you tell us about tombs in Assassin’s Creed Origins? Are they in the base game, or more prevalent in the DLC?

“There’s a ton of tombs and temples and so on in the main game. We put in a lot of effort to bring those tombs to life, and to link them to what we know of Egypt; but as well to have some licence and add our own lore into it.

In terms of DLC, we have two major releases that are two whole open world regions not part of the map of the main game. So they’re in different parts of Egypt.”

Read more about the planned post-release content here.

How do you strike a balance between historical detail and gameplay during the development process?

“It’s a constant iterative process. The first two years of this game was a ton of research, with historians on the team; Egyptologists coming, feeding us en masse as we’re building prototypes, as we’re trying different gameplay ideas, as we’re trying to build the world and figuring out how to build it.

We have historians embedded in the team so they’re in meetings when we’re discussing gameplay, when we’re discussing narrative. Their job is to actually highlight potential ideas or say ‘No, no, that’s impossible,’ or ‘That never happened.’ It’s an everyday process. Of course, all of us in terms of art, design, narrative, writing, we spend that time also really learning about the time period, the culture, the people, and it helps naturally just to fuse us with ideas.

This said, we are creating fiction, this is not a simulation, it’s not a realistic representation; it’s a credible representation that has our own lore woven inside it. It’s a balance that we have to strike. We have this thing called the 30 second rule, which effectively is if someone can find a piece of info on something in 30 seconds or less we need to stay true to it. If it takes longer than that, then we have a bit of liberty to play with that detail. So we have these types of rules which help guide us; rule of thumb kind of thing. But it is an everyday process.”

Do you have a playtime estimate for Assassin’s Creed Origins?

“It’s a bit hard to gauge the time because now we have a progression system. So the main questline does at some point have, let’s say, soft gates of levels, so you do need to do some optional content, some side quests or locations in the world to level yourself up to progress. So it’s a bit harder to gauge in terms of how much time it takes to complete the main questline. I don’t want to give a number because I’m not sure I’ll be accurate.

What I will say is that it’s the biggest game we’ve ever made in terms of content and the amount of stuff you can do. I can guarantee that. There’s an amazing amount of optional content. You know the side quests are all developed narratives. There’s a lot of lore and story in the world. It’s a huge game.

Even when people ask me ‘What’s the size of the map?’ these are not good metrics to give in terms of conveying the amount of content available. And I will add we do have something new that we’re announcing. We have difficulty modes in the game – easy, normal, hard – so this will also have an impact on play time, for sure. Hard will take longer because it is much more challenging, and easy is probably going to take less time because it, let’s say, feels less impact from the progression system. There is a little bit for everyone.”

Assassin’s Creed Origins is a very ambitious game in terms of the number of new features it brings to the franchise. What’s your personal favourite of the inclusions?

“We pushed quite hard on the combat system to bring something that is different and new, and something that creates a lot of gameplay challenge for our players; something that should hopefully feel rewarding and have a good learning curve, and sense of challenge. So I love the combat system.

Having said that, I would say my favourite thing is the world itself. I’ll say in some weird way it was an honour and pleasure to do Egypt. We wanted to bring it to life and we wanted to do justice to the culture, the people, the time period, and I think the world is one of the best open worlds we’ve ever built.

One of the key things, and which was very personal to me, was that in Black Flag we felt that we had a great sense of exploration, but we could improve the feeling of discovery. That became a keyword while working on Origins: Discovery. The feeling that you explore the world, and there’s a lot to explore, but that you’re rewarded for that exploration. You discover something, whether it’s lore or loot, gameplay, narrative or even a surprise quest. Whatever it is, by exploring the world you are rewarded for that.

So we put in a lot of effort to include really neat stuff in the world, and I tell you there is some optional stuff that I think is going to blow people away; that they didn’t expect. So for me the world is going to really surprise people; I sincerely hope we achieve that.”

Your development team moved straight from Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag to Origins. Did you feel the benefit of having extra time to work on the game when Ubisoft moved away from the norm of releasing a major Assassin’s Creed game every year?

“Absolutely. So we’ve had four years to make this game, and when we started we had the intention to reinvent the experience. And that means a lot of new ways to think about the content of the game, the gameplay, the narrative structure – and this stuff requires time to do right. So we needed these four years to bring this specific game to life. If we didn’t have that extra time, if we were shipping last year, this would not be the game we shipped.

Having said that, this was something we were very open with to the company, to the upper management, saying that we want to make a big game, and we want to push Assassin’s Creed into a new frontier experience-wise. And they believed in us and they gave us the time to do it, and they gave us the ownership to do it. So we definitely took the benefit of that one extra year and most definitely needed that time to make this game.”

In the game, do you only play as Bayek? What about his wife, Aya?

“What I would say is that this is primarily Bayek’s journey. There are other playable characters, but we’re not yet revealing who those characters are.”

Bayek is a bit different from other Assassin’s Creed protagonists. He’s an older man from a very traditional part of Egypt, and he’s already married. What has that different character dynamic done for the game? Was it intentional?

“It was very purposeful. We wanted to treat the tone of the game slightly differently. We wanted something a bit more mature; not necessarily to mean that it’s somehow more violent. It’s actually to say that we wanted a treatment that was more mature and adult in a sense; with relationships that are complicated and that you can connect with.

The husband and wife relationship is pretty unique; you don’t see it very often in video games. What we wanted to play with is the idea that these are two people who have love and passion for one another, who have a similar objective, but who have slightly different point of views. And so how do people who respect one another, love one another while looking at the world slightly differently, approach the same objective? That idea gave us a lot of drama and friction at the same time as compassion and love. And it creates a really wonderful, deep dynamic.

That was the whole goal, that it was adding to the tone and the signature of the narrative. We wanted the journey of two powerful characters leading to the birth of something powerful in the end: a husband and wife giving birth to something. We sort of romanticised that idea a little bit. That was why we started with a couple, and went from there.”

Last Updated: October 24, 2017

Read  The representational shake-up in Assassin’s Creed Origins

Noelle Adams

Sometime Tomb Raider. Full-time Pop Culture fanatic and Geekaissance Woman. Most often spotted outputting Pop Culture opinion pieces, writing fanfic and original genre fare, cosplaying and bringing the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu smackdown. Editor of the Comics and Toys section.

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