• CGSociety :: Game Production Focus
    25 February 2010, by Peter Rizkalla

    Take a character from a video game whose design is now so recognizable that he is iconic within the game industry.

    Now, make a sequel to that game using a totally different main character, have him retain the same iconic design of the first protagonist but make him individual from the first. This is the complex and awkward challenge that Ubisoft Montreal had to face with the production of Assassin's Creed 2. Fortunately, this challenge also came with a slew of creative solutions.

    Remembering that the first Assassin's Creed was set during the Crusades, it still managed to define itself as a fantastic work of design both artistically and as pertains to game design. With Assassin's Creed 2 being set in the Renaissance, the design possibilities are limitless.

    Mohamed Gambouz, art director of Ubisoft Montreal tells us about how the design of Assassin's Creed 2 went from concept to creation.

    All images courtesy of Ubisoft.

    Taking the gameplay formula that worked in the first Assassin's Creed, the bulk of the work could now be focused on the design of the game. Establishing the perfect setting for this title was step one. "As it was the case in the first Assassin's Creed with the crusades, the idea of Assassin's Creed 2 was to explore another pivotal period of human history this time it was the Renaissance, we couldn't find a better era where arts were right at the center," Gambouz tells us. "Our main focus from the beginning was to make the game look and feel rich visually whether through architectural styles, textures, ornaments, and diverse and historically accurate," he says.

    All images courtesy of Ubisoft.

    Team Art
    A team of only a half a dozen designers were put together to create the first concepts of Assassin's Creed 2 not only to create the content but to also create the feel of the art.

    "We have six concept artists; for characters, environments, props, gameplay ingredients, storyboards, posters, mock-ups ...etc. In environment concept art, for instance, we started by doing a couple of quick illustrations we call vignettes just to have an idea about the mood, the color palette, the dominant shapes and volumes, etc.
    "Once we get one where we are satisfied, we take it and add more detail and polish to it. It then becomes the visual hook of the game, something that somehow summarizes the art direction. Based on accurate references and photos we start doing illustrated strips of our generic buildings to define each of the architectural styles, the colors and materials and also its accessories and props. After that we go deeper in details by doing some close-ups to illustrate style and color of textures and type of materials and enrich all of that with a lot of photo references."

    All images courtesy of Ubisoft.

    It goes without saying that the bulk of design had to be centered around the main character Ezio. He had to be similar to the first Assassin's Creed main character, Altair, but he still had to appear as a distinguishable character in his own right.

    "We knew since the beginning of the production of Assassin's Creed 2 that Altair is a very iconic character and it's not a good idea to change the aspects that made Altair so memorable so we decided then to keep all of his main features (white suit, hood, red belt, hidden-blade...etc) and add to them a different flavor so that the new appearance follows Ezio's characteristics and that his costume respects the era's fashion. We also decided to move personalities from where Altair was a cold blooded soldier to where Ezio is a charmer nobleman while still keeping the central ?Assassin' characteristics. Even Ezio's attire is different to Altair's sober and functional suite to a more refined and fashionable costume."

    Characters The character team was composed of about 11 people. There were six character modelers, the technical director, the skinner/rigger and the in-game character integrator. Nicolas Collings, Senior Character Modeler at Ubisoft, talks more about the crew.

    "This project was a blast to work on as we had hundreds of characters to bring to life in a Renaissance style. It was also challenging, because one of the strong aspects of Assassin's Creed, as opposed to any other games, is the heavily crowded street."

    All images courtesy of Ubisoft.

    All images courtesy of Ubisoft.
    "At some points there were more than a hundred characters on display at the one moment. This gives an illusion of real life scenery and inevitably immerges the player straight into the renaissance life. The consequence resulted in a very tight budget such as low poly count and low texture resolution by character so we obviously had to optimize as much as possible every asset.

    "Still to counter this aspect and to match the high quality graphic standard of the latest best games, we developed a few in-game techniques such as the possibility to overlay onto any desired area small swappable patterns or colors on top of the diffuse map. To maximize the workflow even more, we used a mix of 'old school' and 'next-gen' techniques to generate sharp details, normals and alphas."

    Collings is proud to point out the character team was full of great talents such as Michel Thibault, Laurent Sauvage, Francois Levesque, Alexandre Troufanov, Ian Ladouceur, Yanick Cloutier, Vincent Gaigneux and many others.

    All images courtesy of Ubisoft.
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  • Evolution
    Designing the environments of Assassin's Creed 2 went much deeper than just modeling and texture mapping buildings and streets. It had to feel like Italy. It had to have the same presence and sophistication that surrounds Italy especially during a vibrant era such as the Renaissance. Specifically, an inescapable challenge was to absorb the feel of the cities that existed at that time. "The choice of the Renaissance as a setting had big impacts on art direction choices. We wanted to emphasize the richness and beauty that marked a part of this era as we know it, whether in terms of architecture or fashion. We wanted to maximize the visual variety so we divided the cities and regions into distinct themes such as carnival district in Venice and under-construction in Florence are a few examples. We also gave a different color scheme for each city (more obvious during day time) depending on its characteristics; cyan for Venice to communicate water presence, ocher for Florence for buildings under construction, Green for Toscana for vegetation presence... etc."

    All images courtesy of Ubisoft.

    Prop design was also a large part in the development and the overall design of Assassin's Creed 2. The implements that Ezio used had to match the overall design of the rest of the game. Costumes, architecture, weapons and armor all had to look like something that would be produced in that era.

    All images courtesy of Ubisoft.

    All images courtesy of Ubisoft.
    "Most of these designs were based on historic references whether from paintings, old sketches or movies.

    "We then exaggerate some parts depending on our needs (visual or gameplay), the flying machine for instance has a more "spiky/pointy" silhouette than the original one. We thought it would be interesting to add a Batman feel to it.

    "The constant use of ornaments was a central part of our designs especially with floral shapes weather on metal for armor and weapons or on stone for buildings or on fabric for costumes."

    Sandbox Style
    Lighting and particle effects presented a challenge in the development. Being that Assassin's Creed 2 is an open-world, sandbox style game and also considering that day changes to night means that there had to be measures taken that allowed the design of the game to be revealed enough to be appreciated while also keeping the environments understandable enough to roam for the player.

    "The lighting was a big challenge, especially with the time of day cycle. Also, our large environments are fully navigable and required clear lighting so the player doesn't get confused about where they are going, and this sometimes reduces the possibilities of having strong contrasts."

    All images courtesy of Ubisoft.

    "But after a lot of tweeks, and thanks to our color correction tools, we were able to find a good balance between readable paths and interesting contrasts," explains Gambouz.

    Also due to the large scale of the cities, local lighting like torches and lanterns was a big issue as classic omnis were too costly for the desired density, so they were replaced with a baked lighting on projected large texture on the whole city.

    "For the FX," says Gambouz, "one of the favorites is the construction-deconstruction effect on geometries which occurs during cities flyby or before-after a white room, it's pretty cool and it's all in real time."

    All images courtesy of Ubisoft.

    Towards the end of the project, as with any production, there are always ideas that don't go through. Some ideas, developers would hate to let go of and others that would have developers thanking God that they didn't make it.

    In this case, [SPOILER] the actual main character, Desmond, whose mind is reliving the events of his ancestor Ezio is equipped with what Gambouz tells us is, "a modern version of the hidden blade that Desmond will use to fight the templars in the present. For Ezio we went through different costume designs before deciding to keep the Altair design as our base."

    This would be great to see as bonus content in the game. Designs that also would have been great to see are "Ezio's appearance at different ages such as 6, 15, 20 and 30."

    All images courtesy of Ubisoft.

    Clear direction would probably be the theme in creating Assassin's Creed 2. Knowing the 'bare bones' process of exactly what needs to be done is essential in creating any form of animation. "For me, what makes a great game is a good cohesion, synergy and balance between the different parts of the game: story; gameplay; visuals; sound; AI... to achieve the perfect mix for a unique and memorable experience," says Gambouz.

    Assassin's Creed 2 is out now for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and will also be released later for the PC; hopefully with bonus content. Hint, hint Ubisoft.

    Assassin's Creed 2
    Nicholas Collings
    CGSociety article on Assassin's Creed

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