More and more new games every year are sequels, so I guess the next logical step is enormous collections of previously released games. Bethesda announced at QuakeCon that every Elder Scrolls game would be available, and now Ubisoft is following suit with the Assassin’s Creed Heritage Collection. Available on November 8, the Heritage Collection will include Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed 2, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, and Assassin’s Creed 3.
The official price has not been announced, but some listings are starting to pop up in the neighborhood of $70/£40, which isn’t outrageous for five games plus DLC. Still, at that price you’re paying a premium for the packaging and whatever extras they throw in there, and we have no idea what those extras might be.
Of course, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag lands on November 19. Technically speaking, I suppose gamers brand-new to the series could pound through the first five games in time for the launch of Black Flag, but only if they’re willing to give up showering and eating. Still, die-hard fans might appreciate having the games and their individual DLCs all in one tidy package.
As worthy a goal as liberation may be, most of us aren't going bother if it means dealing with those ugly "low" definitions. Not only that, but playing Assassin's Creed 3 spin-off Liberations would have meant buying a PS Vita, which, according to sales figures, is not something a lot of people have done. Perhaps because of this fact, Ubisoft have announced Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD; appending the near-meaningless suffix to an upgraded version of the game that's due for release on PC and the less portable consoles.
Liberation was set in 1765 New Orleans, starring a new protagonist, Aveline de Grandpré, and continuing the series' penchant for batshit fisticuffs between Assassins and Templars. For the HD version, new missions are planned, as well as an upgrade to the shiny graphics department.
Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD is, according to the trailer, "coming soon". Meanwhile, Ubisoft are also pretty hot for pirates, and will release Pirate's Creed 4: Hooray, It's Got Pirates! in November.
It’s a pretty good day to be a wallet at Ubisoft. Newly released financial statements reveal that the French publisher and developer pulled in $1.615 billion in revenue after selling more than twelve million copies of Assassin’s Creed 3 and six million copies of Far Cry 3. Not only was overall revenue up 18.3% from last year, but take-home profits rose a staggering 73.7% over 2012. “The expertise and talent of our teams enabled Ubisoft to manage the year’s difficult market conditions and the drop in the casual segment remarkably well,” Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot said. “In addition, the success of Far Cry 3 confirmed our strong comeback in the major segment of shooter games.”
Though it was admirably restrained and professional, that statement should be understood for what it truly is: investor-speak for “we are seriously rolling in it, and things are awesome.” Ubisoft is the fourth largest independent publisher in the United States and the third largest in Europe.
“Our franchises are underpinned by recognized creative know-how and premier development capacity,” Guillemot said. “With more than 7,000 developers, Ubisoft has the necessary caliber to offer its fans exceptionally rich and immersive gaming experiences on a regular basis.”
Ubisoft’s next big release, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, is out next week.
Ubisoft’s stock jumped about 10% on Thursday after financial statements were released. You can find statements for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2013, here. (PDF)
So just where has the illustrious Peter Molyneux's pet project, Godus, been lately? Well, there was a lot of talk about Mud Huts in their last update for backers, but for the most part, the usually hyper-talkative Molyneux has been uncharacteristically quiet about 22 Cans' next project. Secretly, though, it seems he's been putting some of that Kickstarter money towards securing some top-notch talent - a casual namedrop in the latest update video reveals that his newest employee is Jamie Stowe, a former level design director who's worked on the likes of Assassin's Creed 3.
Aside from the fact that Molyneux steals apples from the desks of his employees, the other big news imparted in the update is Stowe's arrival. Stowe takes up the position of 22 Cans' Technical Director now, which sounds decidedly less thrilling than determining the placement of hilariously hatted foes in AC3. Stowe's helping the team piece together new builds of Godus, working on balancing the game, data-mining, various analytic hoo-ha, and developing the homeworld that we'll be playing in the eventual alpha release.
The leap from level design lead to technical director is quite vast, so I'm interested to see how Stowe adapts his existing skillset in shaping the world of Godus. I'm also hoping that going from AC3's 600-person team to 22 Cans' 20-ish allows for more creative freedom, because I'm hoping this spiritual successor to Populous can remain relevant to today's gamers while still retaining that earth-shaping, population-controlling charm. In other words, those better be some damn fine mud huts that 22 Cans is building.
Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag sailing in from the salty mists so soon after Assassin's Creed 3 signifies Ubisoft's drive to annualize the series on a regular holiday release track. Some fans worry the saturation of Creeds will dull the appeal of sticking sharp metal objects into bad men as a hooded killer. For Ubisoft Montreal head Yannis Mallat (via Eurogamer), however, it's full sails for the yearly cycle unless players say otherwise.
"The players will tell us," Mallat assures. "Right now, there are more and more coming into the franchise, so I don't see that day."
The key, Mallat claims, is for each Creed release to carry the same attention to detail and quality as its predecessors. If that's achieved, players will come back wanting more.
"It's our breakthrough," he says. "When you have quality content, the frequency of coming out with the game is not an issue at all. On the contrary, people expect more and more of that content. So, it's natural to be able to provide that content. The gamers are happy, and it's our job to make them happy."
Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag makes port on October 29 in the US and November 1 in Europe, and you can bet Ubisoft will have another entry on offer 365 days later. In fact, it's already working on it.
In preparation for our not-too-distant subjugation by skull-faced machine-men, I thought I'd bone up on the latest advances in electro-brain design and stop by this year's GDC AI summit. Kicking off the summit was a trimuvirate of talks about the AI behind PCG-fave XCOM, stabby sequel Assassin's Creed 3 and the super-shiny “space ninjas with machine guns” shooter Warframe.
The talks showed a fascinating variety of uses for AI: XCOM's combat AI was the most immediately familiar, but supremely clever in insinuating the personality of enemy types - a far cry from the use of AI to determine Connor's foot placement in AC3. Warframe, meanwhile, deploys AI as a dungeonmaster, cobbling together levels from pre-built components to fit the needs of its players. It's smart stuff. Perhaps... too smart? Read on to unpick alien plans, parkour and player-centric dungeon design.
Alien nation - making XCOM's enemies distinctive
Firaxis had a problem in updating the classic X-COM (UFO: Enemy Unknown to Brits): how do you balance the game's appeal to modern and nostalgic audiences? Luckily, it seems it was a problem that they managed to solve, in part by way of a complex and hybrid approach to the AI, as described by AI/Gameplay Programmer Alex Chang (pictured right). The challenge was to revive X-COM's classic enemies, whilst keeping their behaviour distinctive and entertaining in the limited action system of the new game.
Chang's team did this by means of a utility-based system – a system that gave a measure of 'usefulness' to every possible action. This means that, at any time in the game, the AI rated each ability for each alien on the basis of its defensive, offensive and 'intangible' benefits. Each race also had its own inherent biases and special abilities which also affected different behaviour; so the Muton's 'Blood Call' ability, which buffs nearby allies, would be heavily weighted to be used, if there were other Mutons nearby and if they weren't already buffed.
Given the limited movement system of XCOM, one of the choices the AI made at a given time was to move or use an ability. Similarly, the units would generate a movement map of the area around them, to see what area gave the maximum utility. In this case, utility was generated by taking into account distance to the location, whether the location flanked an enemy or got the alien closer to flanking an enemy, the cover bonus the location gave, proximity to other aliens (to avoid grenading or rockets), the number of visible enemies (with just one being optimal) and an alien behaviour specific value. If the optimal location was where the alien was already... it stayed where it was and chose to do something else.
Of course, this only really applied to the normal units – the sectoids, thin men, mutons and so on. Fliers had an entire extra range of behaviour choices, and melee enemies were configured to charge pretty much directly at the nearest troops. Fascinatingly, this latter includes mind-controlled troops.
Meanwhile the elite units – the Sectopod and Ethereal – also didn't care about cover, but also didn't care about getting near to the enemy. The Ethereal was programmed to hang back and stay close to its bodyguards; the Sectopod was programmed to get as many enemies into range as possible, given its ability to attack multiple times in a single turn. With these special utility rules, the weighting towards choosing individual abilities, and the differentiated behaviours based on custom weights, the team ended up with about 17 different AI behaviour sets.
Happy feet: starting from scratch with Assassin's Creed's movement
This might not sound like an AI problem to us lay people, but the decisions on where Connor put his feet are hugely more complex than Ezio's lumpen feet – mainly, as far as we could tell, because Ubisoft Montreal is ramping up for the next generation consoles, which will no longer limit the complexity of their simulation. “The challenge was to change everything but change nothing,” said Aleissa Laidacker, Team Lead for AI and Gameplay, Ubisoft Montreal (pictured left). “The fans would have killed us.”
The four movements of the new Assassin's Creed engine were ground navigation, climbing, free-running and tree-running. While they were revamping these, they also revamped the animation system completely, making it totally procedural, as Laidacker demonstrated with sample videos showing Connor's reactions to varying conditions.
The basis for the movement style was the movie Apocalypto, with its wild forest-running. As much of Assassin's Creed 3 takes place in the heavily-wooded frontier, this was an important parallel, but it meant that Connor had to react correctly to the environment, whatever he was doing. This meant running, fighting and assassination animations all had to take place on uneven and even moving surfaces – considering the ships and sails, but also the rocky, bumpy surface of the frontier provinces.
Once the animation and AI team had made it so that Connor's feet could stand properly on uneven ground, Ubisoft Montreal's procedural animation guru, Simon Clavet was called in. His task was to ensure that the animation system could take advantage of this, by predicting where Connor's feet would end up as he was running and ensuring that his legs moved in the correct way. He did this by raycasting possible paths and making sure Connor's feet were ready to step over the highest point, and his pelvis was properly tilted. (This is scarily similar to the procedure the human body does automatically when we're walking.) Added to this, Front Strafing meant that Connor would step from side-to-side as ran; when players started turning, Connor would strafe first, meaning the animation wasn't disturbed if the player then turned him back.
The free-running model was also changed substantially for AC3. Every movement was given new animations, with short jumps chained together and long jumps separated off by 'settle' animations, so the animators could create new variations without having to think about how to integrate them.
Richard Dumas, the Technical lead (pictured right), explained that climbing was revamped by basing Connor's movement on that of professional speed climbers like Dan Osman, who can climb a 400m cliff in 4 minutes. “If he can, an assassin can too,” said Dumas. Connor doesn't settle after every move, like Ezio, but can flow from move to move, along the more organic surfaces of the frontier. Similarly, he doesn't just move up, down and sideways, but can move 360 degrees on the rockface, climbs vertical cracks in a totally different way, and has a dynamic system of how he positions his body, depending on how close to an edge his hands are or whether his feet are resting or dangling. Frankly, this was a crazy amount of work compared to its nearest climbing competitor... QWOP.
Finally, the newest form of movement was tree navigation. The trees came in three types. The unclimbable tree was smooth and branchless. The normal tree had anchors and horizontal branches, and could be climbed slowly. Finally, the V-shaped trees acted as fast elevators, and allowed players to hop up, from V to V, extremely quickly, so they could get back into position for assassinations.
To make it so that Connor (and the other characters and animals) had proper foot placement took the best part of three years work by AC3's AI department, and even now they're limited by the hardware power of the consoles. The movement behaviour was similarly involved. However, we're betting this totally dynamic system, which was under-used by AC3 because of console memory limitations, will make a more impressive reappearance in future editions of AC.
Warframe: AI-designed levels
Digital Extremes' new shooter Warframe may suffer from the GameFace / WarFace / FaceGame associations, but it's out today on Steam and worth checking out. In it, players battle in thirdperson co-opagainst a variety of AI factions, which level and scale in difficulty with the players. Daniel Brewer, the Lead AI Programmer (who we forgot to photograph, left), took us through the development of its procedural levels, which are AI designed from pre-built components each time a level is started, and auto-balanced to ensure that they're always challenging.
When the level is first generated, the game takes pre-built elements and connects a start block to various objective blocks and intermediate blocks, where the majority of the combat takes place, and eventually generates an end block, producing something that can be entirely linear or sprawling. Once the blocks are stitched together, the game works out a navigation mesh through them all and then a combat mesh. Yet, because the team don't know the orientation of the blocks to the player's route through the level and because they don't want players to have the same experience every time, they had to be very careful in the design of the AI that manages the levels and enemies.
The combat mesh – called the tactical area map – shows the areas of potential conflict. It also allows the AI to draw a distance map between the start point and the objectives, so it knows if the players are heading the right way, whether there are AI agents in the way and, if there are, where there are obstacles they can defend or chokepoints to fall back to. As the players move, the game spawns more enemies, with a higher density in in the direction of the objective and in the direction of player movement, acting as a subtle hint to players. Areas the players have left are deactivated gradually, reducing processing power and allowing agents in those areas to be temporarily removed from the unit cap (they reactivate if players head back their way).
Similarly the game paces these spawns by judging how the players are coping with the enemies they're fighting. The game will keep ramping up agent spawns until there's a lot of dead agent and players have taken damage. Once it recognises that the players have been properly tried, it'll slow the spawns down again, giving the players a chance to mop up and then heal up. An area that's peaked like this is exhausted and players can pass safely through it – until it's reset by the game rules (such as the players reaching an objective.)
The annual Game Developers Conference is underway in San Francisco. What can we expect? Candid retrospectives? Shock reveals? Will David Cage's Giant Floating Man Face do battle with Nvidia's Giant Floating Man Face above a flaming pit?
We'll be bringing you all the latest from the frontlines and keeping this page updated with all the stories so far.
Your guide to the IGF grand finalists. CryEngine 3 and Unreal Engine 4 footage eyeballed. Star Wars: The Old Republic Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion releasing April 14.
TUESDAY Freeindiegam.es' curators reveal their favourite free games of the last year. Oculus Rift dev kits will ship with VR-enabled version of Epic's Unreal Development Kit. Devs pick over the AI tricks behind XCOM, Assassin’s Creed 3 and Warframe. We've rounded up 18 indie games in 50 words a piece. The first Battlefield 4 shots emerge ahead of the trailer reveal. Here's that Battlefield 4 trailer.
WEDNESDAY Age of Wonders III pre-alpha footage shows a crusade in action. Magicka: Wizard Wars details emerge. Tripwire release a Red Orchestra 2: Rising Storm trailer. Nvidia show off some fancy real-time destruction tech. SOE trail all the dragons, in free-to-play MMO Dragon's Prophet. Space Hulk: we pop along to see the loyal boardgame remake and chat to the devs. Spec Ops' writer says violent games are creatively too easy. Frozen Endzone video interview. Dean 'Rocket' Hall talks up complexity on the Day Z panel.
Thursday Woah! EA big man Frank Gibeau says DRM is a "failed dead-end strategy". IGF and GDC award winners announced. The excellent Cart Life sweeps a lot of gongs. Activision join the arms race for old man face with their fancy rendering tech. Epic and Mozilla join forces to port the Unreal Engine 3 to your browser. Home creator Benjamin Rivers is considering a psychological dating sim for his next game. Creative Assembly go MOBA with Total War: Arena. BioWare thought it would take players three to five months to hit SW:TOR's level cap. It didn't. Arkane directors espouse player agency and minimal guidance. Telltale discussed removing Clementine from The Walking Dead. Noooooooooo! Diablo 3's former lead designer admits the Real-Money Auction House "really hurt the game".
Julian Gollop reveals that the original X-Com was nearly cancelled. Twice. YouTube announce an API to make it easier for developers to add streaming to their game.
It isn't often we see the words "Origin" and "sale" next to each other, but this week is the exception: EA is running a week-long Player Appreciation Sale which discounts some pretty hefty games in the publisher's lineup—titans such as Mass Effect 3, Crysis 3, and Battlefield 3.
Here's the full list of games on sale and their prices:
Battlefield 3 Premium—$25 Battlefield 3—$12 Battlefield 3 Premium Edition—$30 Crysis 3—$30 Crysis 3 Digital Deluxe Edition—$40 Crysis 3 Digital Deluxe Upgrade—$10 The Sims 3 Seasons—$20 The Sims 3 University Life—$28 The Sims 3 Supernatural—$15 Dead Space—$6 Dead Space 2—$6 Dead Space 3—$30 Resident Evil 5—$10 Mass Effect 3—$10 The Walking Dead—$10 Batman: Arkham City GOTY Edition—$12 FIFA Soccer 13—$20 Command & Conquer Ultimate Collection—$15 Hitman: Absolution—$15 Saints Row: The Third Full Package—$25 Assassin's Creed 3—$35 Assassin's Creed 3 Deluxe Edition—$56 Darksiders 2—$18 Dead Island GOTY Edition—$10 Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City—$25
Normal and special editions on sale? And they're big games? I don't want to spoil this rare opportunity to enjoy a good Origin sale with cynicism, but it's hard not to chortle lightly at the convenient devaluing of nearly half the games EA offered SimCity players for free earlier this week.
Ubisoft won't stop until there's a new Assassin's Creed game, DLC or trailer every minute, as evidenced by last week's simultaneous reveal of AC5, 6, and 7. While we wait for Assassin's Creed 12 sometime tomorrow, today we can play The Betrayal, the second part of The Tyranny of King Washington - the episodic alternate-history saga that imagines what would happen if George Washington went a bit power-mad. This is the episode where Connor 'I wish I was playing AC4 instead' Kenway gains the power to transform into an eagle, because space wizards.
The episode, which can be handily abbreviated as ACIII:TTOKWEP2TB, will set you back £7.99, and will presumably be available on Steam in a few short hours. Here's a trailer:
The upcoming second chapter of the Tyranny of King Washington DLC for Assassin's Creed 3, named Betrayal, continues Ratonhnhaké:ton's one-man assault against Washington's forces. It's about as far a departure from the series' adherence to history as you can get—oh, wait, we can also turn into a sparkly eagle. Now it's the farthest we can get.
The trailer shows how useful shapeshifting becomes for a speedy escape or a sudden takedown. Because, hey, if we're already taking liberties with American history, why not similarly chuck the laws of physics right out the window? I just hope I can dethrone the nefarious King by torpedoing right into his face as a bird of prey—"death by shiny animal" has a nice ring to it as a tombstone epithet.
The Tyranny of King Washington's Betrayal chapter flies in March 19.