Unless you’ve been locked away in the castle of Masyaf, you’ve probably heard of the Assassin’s Creed series, Ubisoft’s flagship blockbuster franchise about a guild of Assassins that must fight the Templars through different eras in our history. Already, the series has taken us back to the American Revolution, the Renaissance, the days of pirates, and the Third Crusade. Since 2007, Assassin’s Creed has become our video game window to history.
It’s amazing how far Assassin’s Creed has come since gamers were first introduced to Desmond Miles. Ubisoft has created a franchise that is as recognizable today as any in gaming. It doesn’t take long while on the floor at a gaming convention like PAX to run into at least a few players cosplaying as their favorite assassin.
The passionate fan base the series has created is all the more remarkable considering that the series has only been around for seven years. Whereas the likes of Mario, Lara, and Master Chief have had at least a decade or much longer to cultivate their massive following, Ubisoft has turned AC into a mega-blockbuster by putting the series on an accelerated schedule, releasing at least one if not two games every single year. The publisher will continue that tradition ten years later in 2017 with the release of AC Origins, the franchise’s first game in two years.
So how did Assassin’s Creed become such a marquee franchise in such a relatively short amount of time? To trace the history of a game that has made its name largely by giving gamers its own unique twist on well-known historical events, there’s really only one place to start: The amazing Nintendo 64, PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast title, Donald Duck: Goin’ Quackers.
Just kidding! Well, sort of.
I’m sure Ubisoft has nothing against Disney characters, but after delivering the B-list platformer in 2000, there were some at Ubisoft who were getting antsy to move up to the big time. In particular, one Patrice Desilets, who had served as lead designer on Quackers.
Another team at Ubisoft Montreal had just developed the wildly successful Splinter Cell franchise, and now the studio was looking to replicate the same magic with another franchise. Enter a video game character who is much more commonly cited as an early influence on AC‘s Assassin than Donald Duck will ever be: The Prince of Persia.
Desilets had the idea to reboot the Prince of Persia franchise and had some interesting concepts to boot. Prince creator Jordan Mechner was flown into Montreal in order to get his blessing. Desilets showed him a short clip of the Prince running parkour stunts along the walls of a city, leaping to his next objective with flair. It worked. Mechner wrote a new Prince of Persia story and Desilets was installed by Ubisoft as lead designer on the new title. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was a huge hit. Ubisoft immediately commissioned sequels for the franchise and most of the team, including producer (and eventual CEO) Yannis Mallat, got right back to work. But the company had other plans for its newfound star Desilets. He was given free reign to start work on the next-gen successor to Prince, a title that would eventually release on the Xbox 360 and PS3.
Desilets was a fan of history and started researching the Middle East to try and find something he could use on the next-gen Prince of Persia. That’s when he found the Hashshashin, an order of assassins from the 12th century that would publicly execute their targets in over-the-top fashion in order to get their enemies to fall in line. Desilets essentially took the best of Prince of Persia and mixed in some of the stealth aspects from Splinter Cell to envision a new kind of game where the player would complete amazing acrobatic feats in an open-world environment while jumping in and out of the shadows.
It took some discussion, but Ubisoft trusted Desilets enough to green-light an entirely new franchise. They also teamed him up with Jade Raymond, a new hire who had experience with creating vast open worlds.
With the new team officially in place, Desilets and Raymond got to work. Going back to what Desilets had picked up in the history books, they tried to keep the story and setting as true as possible to the story of those 12th century killers. They recreated Masyaf, which was the home of the Hashshashin as well as the cities of Damascus and Jerusalem. The first Assassin, Altair, was tasked with killing nine prominent individuals based on real historical figures.
That might have been enough to get the franchise going, but Ubisoft wasn’t done. In a development that was likely designed to further remove the game from its Prince of Persia roots, a more modern twist was added. The game’s main plot would be set in modern day. Players would meet regular guy bartender Desmond Miles, who is a descendant of Altair. Desmond is kidnapped by the Knights Templar (now known as Abstergo Industries), long-time rival of the Assassins guild and is forced to relive his ancestor’s actions in the late 12th century through a machine called the Animus.
Ubisoft pulled out all the stops on production and gave its new franchise a prime holiday slot in November 2007. They were so confident the game would be a hit they even let it drop in the same window as that year’s most hyped title, Halo 3.
The game was both a huge success and a disappointment. Assassin’s Creed connected with gamers and sold more than 9 million copies. But game critics were less than thrilled with certain elements of the game.
To be fair, there was a lot to like about AC. The innovative combination of stealth and action meshed well together. But there were some aspects that just felt extraneous to many reviewers. Players were sent off on a few too many sidequests during the main story and the sequences outside of the Animus with Desmond didn’t really compare. Combat was fun but lacked polish. Thankfully, those 9 million copies spoke much louder to the brass at Ubisoft than the middling reviews and a long-term franchise was born.
That said, the first game to follow was not AC2,but rather a spin off called Altair’s Chronicles for the Nintendo DS. It was largely uninspired and didn’t make much of an impact, other than to pad Ubisoft’s bottom line. It would however serve as a blueprint that Ubisoft has followed repeatedly in the years to follow. The company has never been shy about milking Assassin’s Creed for money and even some of the most hardcore fans would tell you that many of these games outside of the main numbered titles have been more miss than hit. I suppose it’s par for the course in an era where Square Enix can pump out Kingdom Hearts spinoffs and remakes for years without another direct console sequel and gamers continue to lap it up.
All that said, there is no doubt that Ubisoft got it right with Assassin’s Creed 2 in 2009. Most shocking for the player base was the fact that Altair was no longer the main assassin. The team used the bad reviews from the first game to do a complete pivot to a brand new assassin named Ezio. The new hero allowed the developers to start from scratch in a new world, based on the Italian Renaissance. The boring side quests were ditched, and even Desmond’s story was given an upgrade. He was broken out of his jail by modern day Assassins, setting up the long term Assassins versus Templars storyline that has served the series for years. What’s more is all that time in the Animus allowed Desmond to pick up some ass-kicking skills himself, meaning his part of the story was no longer a steep drop in pace.
Assassin’s Creed 2 won multiple game of the year titles, and Ubisoft again made plans for more games on an accelerated schedule.
They would move forward however without Raymond and Desilets. Raymond was promoted into the executive ranks while Desilets remained in an on-and-off relationship with the company. Leaving Ubisoft for THQ in 2010 after serving in an uncredited role for Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Desilets quickly returned to Ubisoft after THQ shutdown on January 2013. Not that his “new” job at Ubisoft lasted very long, either. By May 2013, Desilets was terminated from Ubisoft in a bitter affair.
Ubisoft stayed the course even without the franchise’s previous leaders, and committed to releasing at least one if not two AC games across multiple platforms every year.
Next on the agenda was Brotherhood in 2010. This was the beginning of the yearly installments. It had somewhat low expectations given that the franchise’s previous creative leaders had jumped ship, not to mention that it was the first console game that did not have a number attached. It made things a little confusing. Gamers were expecting more of a side story than anything, but Brotherhood proved to be just as good as AC2, continuing where the story left off and moving the plot forward. The tragic ending of the game is probably the best twist in the series. Brotherhood was also the first game in the series to include a competitive multiplayer, which pitted assassin’s against each other on maps filled with NPCs. Anyone could be your predator. The goal is to get to your prey first. Although the multiplayer hasn’t quite kicked off the ground years later, it is still a major component of the series. AC: Revelations followed suit in 2011 with the conclusion to Altair’s and Ezio’s stories. It brought the original cycle full-circle.
Ubisoft Montreal knew it couldn’t play it safe if they wanted to continue releasing yearly installments of the series. It was time to introduce a new character and plot.
With the move to a new assassin named Connor during the American Revolution in 2012, AC finally had its third official numbered title to go with its third assassin, followed by the “fourth” assassin Edward Kenway showed up in AC4: Black Flag in 2013. It seems like Ubisoft fell out of the rhythm of releasing unnumbered sequels to their main installments after AC3. Could it be because it wasn’t all that great?
Ubisoft did away with numbering for AC Rogue and AC Unity, which connect to the story from AC4, featuring several characters from the pirate-themed adventure. The franchise suffered several setbacks with Unity, the first game to arrive on current gen consoles. It was glitchy, the animations were subpar, and the story was unsatisfying. Unity had all of the symptoms of a title rushed to market, something that eventually hurt the much better AC Syndicate, which didn’t sell as well as past games in the series.
The developers went back to the drawing board for the next two years, breaking away from the yearly installments and taking their time to get the next Assassin’s Creed just right. AC Origins has a lot riding on it, perhaps even the future of the franchise. While initial footage showcases several tweaks and improvements to the gameplay, it remains to be seen if it can deliver an experience akin to the franchise’s greatest hits.
Whatever the case, rest assured that, through Desilets’ inital spark of genius and the continued hard work from Ubisoft Montreal, the Assassin’s Creed series will stick around for a very long time.