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    ssassin's Creed,' is a game where a Crusades-era hit man stalks and kills targets. The beautiful cinematic for the game was released in May and was downloaded more than 1.25 million times in six days. The game itself is staged as the Third Crusade engulfs the Holy lands. The player takes on the role of Altair, an assassin assigned to 'take out' targets on both sides of the conflict, with a mixture of guerilla tactics and acrobatics.

    With 'Halo 3' now released and hotly pursued, everyone will be watching for the impact of 'Assassin's Creed' in mid-November. The game will be available for the XBox 360, PS3 and PC.

    Raphael Lacoste has just completed a stint as the Art Director of the Assassin’s Creed game. Raphael has an impressive career as photographer and set designer in a theater company in Bordeaux, France. Qualified in CG, Fine Art and Media, he started as Environment Artist at Kalisto Entertainment in 1999.

    After three years of focusing on whole environments, including lighting and volumes, in a job that gave him great artistic freedoms, Lacoste had a call from Yannis Mallat, wanting to employ him on the ‘Prince of Persia’ adventure. “I jumped on a plane to Montreal with my girlfriend,” he explains. “We still live here with our three year old son and soon a new baby girl.”
    The core team from ‘Prince of Persia’ went on to begin work on the concept of ‘Assassin’s Creed’ and tried to create a new concept of a living, breathing world, one that was fully interactive. Lacoste joined the High Resolution Cinematics Studio at Ubisoft as Art Director with a brief for ‘Assassin’s Creed.’

    There was also an incredible team of concept artists during the preproduction stage. Masters like Nicolas ‘Sparth’ Bouvier, David ‘Vyle’ Levy, Thierry Doizon, Patrick Desgreniers and Khai Nguyen. “This great team developed a lot of very different orientations for the style,” exclaims Lacoste. “They did an amazing job, very useful when I was involved in this production. Nicolas Cantin was directing this team and not only did a lot of research on this period of the Third Crusade but also in the historic aspect of the cities and characters.”

    It took some time for them to not only define the setting and style of the game, but also the tools to make it! While the team definitely took some liberties when it came to scale, and bulked up much of the architecture when it needed to be menacing, all of the work was based on architectural blueprints, photos, historical descriptions, objects and decorations found in museums.

    “’Assassin’s Creed’ was probably one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever worked on, especially regarding the balance between fantasy and hyperrealism,” says David ‘Vyle’ Levy. “The difficult balance that the concept team was trying to reach was one of a very ‘edgy’ mix of an ancient culture, depicted with a very modern, graphic, visual language.”

    In the end, the setting became historical and not as much fantasy as ‘Prince of Persia.’ The developers and the concept team worked with historians, used tons of documentation, in order to be as close as possible to historic events and settings.

    Nicolas ‘Sparth’ Bouvier was brought onboard Ubisoft very early in 2003 to gather together the concept art team. “Ubisoft has always drawn a very close attention to ‘Assassin’s Creed’,” explains Sparth. “and as a result, the concept design section grew quickly, providing a lot of visuals not only to the 3D artists, but also to the creative direction for inspiration.

    I started on the project at the same time as Thierry Doizon, and then my other friends David Levy, Nicolas Ferrand, and Sebastien Larroude came along in the adventure, as well as many others.” This was a period of passionate experimentation, where the team provided a lot of materials revolving around game content, but also marketing art.

    Sparth’s main task was to take care of the game environments, the town/port of acres for example that appeared in the main trailer, but also many different locations found on the hero's path. “I also did a few templar character studies,” he says, “as well as objects, but I spent most of my time on scenes and atmospheres.”
    The story
    So the story goes, the Assassins really did exist in the Twelfth Century, (Alamut) and the action takes place during the Third Crusade. In the game play, you travel during your mission between real cities like Acre, Damascus and Jerusalem, supposed to look as they were in Palestine at the time.

    The Assassin’s Creed challenge that lay ahead for Raphael Lacoste was to reintegrate the team and to impose a vision for the style of the environments. “The team wanted to keep the historical aspect but I also wanted to stylize,” he explains. “As the environments are fully interactive, I had to challenge the level of design all the time and find compromise to reach this beautiful and also fun environment! We tried as much as possible to keep the interesting picture composition, a nice range of details, realistic lighting and a good sense of depth.”
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  • Masyaf
    In one of the locations in the game, the Eagle Nest of the Assassin’s, ‘Masyaf,’ the concept team worked the shape of the rocks, trees and houses to get a perfectly balanced image composition.“As much as possible, we got rid of the flat ground and created a dynamic landscape with sloping, high architecture suspended on rocks,” he says. “The Idea was also to create interesting contrasts in the immersions and feelings.” One of Raphael Lacoste’s key inspirations were David Roberts’ drawings of ‘the Holy Land.’

    “When we arrive on the edge of a cliff and discover a whole city, the impression is of an incredible open space. When we get lost in small crowded streets full of smoke, we are feeling oppressed. If we climb up on the roofs of the city, the feeling is far more liberating. We are mastering our moves, on the top of the living, breathing world. The contrast is also between the cities and the different quarters of the cities. We tried to make definite variations in the mood, even with edgy and almost monochromatic filters.”
    Color tricks
    “Color filters were also a big part of our palette of tricks,” adds David ‘Vyle’ Levy, Lead Concept Artist. “Using color themes was a great way to create a hierarchy between the various levels the player would visit, but also to decide on the visual balance between characters and environments.”

    The staple tools of choice for the concept team in at Ubisoft’s High Resolution Cinematic Studio was Photoshop, tons of books and reference material.

    The character team used 3ds Max and ZBrush for their workflow. They created the high-resolution models in very impressive quality, and then normal mapped mid- and low-rez characters for the game from them. The environment team worked on several models of houses and other pieces of architecture and props that were used to create whole cities! “It was like a huge Lego game and the challenge was to keep it organic even if we had tons of technical constraints,” quips Lacoste.
    Reference
    To have a specific style for this game, one of the ideas put forward was to focus on an historic aspect. The concept took inspiration from period-specific movies like ‘The Name of the Rose’ and ‘Kingdom of Heaven.’

    “The mood of those films is really cool and the mix between modern picture treatment and historical setting for Ridley Scott’s movie is one of the main aspects of the look we tried to reproduce in ‘Assassin’s Creed,’” explains Lacoste.

    “We recreated the major places that existed at this time in the cities. The Dome of the Roc, David’s Tower, and the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem were recreated with extreme detail.”

    “While recreating some landmark may not sound very independently creative, our extra tweak was also to exaggerate proportions to make them more impressive, create artistic setups to enhance the look and other little things that are historically inaccurate but interesting from the artistic standpoint.

    It was also a great challenge for the artists to make such impressive buildings with game play points, as all the buildings are fully climbable by the player’s Assassin character! You will even be able to climb to the highest point in the environment, to look out on a view on the whole city.”

    “This scale was accentuated in the high-rez Cinematic trailer that I art directed and the whole team worked on. That trailer was downloaded 1.25 million times; a big number!”

    Non-Linear
    ‘Assassin’s Creed,’ like many game productions, is not a linear game play by any means. In other words, an artist didn’t work on specific environments for specific paths.
    “The player can go anywhere and we had to deal with it!” states Lacoste. “We created tons of different assets that were used, rotated and translated to make the cityscapes. Also, as the cities of ‘Assassin’s Creed’ are quite huge, (around 500m x 500m each) we couldn’t work with specific data. All the landmarks were individually modeled but most of the houses were generic with different shapes and different looks, depending on the quarters, either for rich, middle or poor class characters.

    Workload
    Once the beta of the game turns to Master, and the code is delivered to the DVDs, the Ubisoft ‘Assassin’s Creed’ concept, modeling and programming team is set onto other projects and disbanded. There is a unanimous opinion that this was a huge project for all concerned. “I cannot emphasize enough,” David Levy explains, “how much work has been put in every texture. There were hours of lighting and rendering. Each of the scenes were like pieces of jewelry, when it comes to how precisely those levels and characters were built. Knowing what the production was going to be after we were done, put the concept team under even more pressure, to deliver the best and most detailed, quality work possible.”

    Concept and Environment artist’s favorite time in production is Pre-Production, because it is more creative. “I have more time to draw in preproduction!” says Lacoste. He understands the producer’s goal is to ship the game, not to spend time dreaming and recreating the world. “To be honest, with a mandate like redefining the Action Adventure genre, you don't really have the luxury to focus on anything but the task at hand,” adds Lacoste. “We are committed to delivering fresh gameplay wrapped in a rich and meaningful entertainment experience. Once we have done that we will think about other stuff, like going on holidays and sleeping.”

    Related Links:
    Ubisoft Assassin’s Creed
    Raphael Lacoste
    David Vyle Levy
    Thierry Doizon
    Sparth
    Sparth’s CGPortfolio
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