Interview with the ACI Comdevs

"A secret war rages on. The Initiates are watching. Join us."

We joined and this is how it began. Together with thousands of users coming from different countries, we followed the website memories and missions and we let the Initiates guide us through “the web of half-truths that Templars and Assassins have weaved.

It has been a long journey up until now and the community grew bigger and lively. Long time users and new fans participated together to the website content and they began to share on the Initiates forums their own theories, doubts and opinions.
In order to manage such an active community, a great deal of attention was obviously needed and here’s where our special guests came into play.

Let us introduce and welcome the Community Developers of Assassin's Creed Initiates, Stephen O’Neill (aka SickSteeny) and Andie Gbinigie (aka EscoBlades).

Hey guys! Welcome on Access The Animus! How are you doing?

Andie: Hey! We’re great, thanks for asking. Stoked to be finally doing this Q&A with you guys.

Stephen: Ditto. I know Andie and I have been long time followers of the work you do through Access the Animus. You guys consistently continue to BLOW OUR MINDS. So kudos for that.

Thank you, guys, that’s exactly what we always try to do!
So can you tell us how you guys got involved with the franchise and ultimately how you became Community Developers for Initiates?

Stephen: Well I think our relationship with the franchise and our eventual integration as developers is pretty unique, not just for Assassin’s Creed, but for the industry as a whole. Both of us have been fans of the series since its inception and became involved in sections of the wider community as it took off. Me personally, I worked as a community artist in my professional life before Ubi,
Stephen's starting point: the AC Wiki
and always had an inbuilt love for working and collaborating with others. Within the AC community I started out as a humble editor for the wiki, and after a period, became a member of the insanely talented moderation team there.
Then eventually, due to my love of community and yearn to connect with fellow fans outside the wiki, as well as developers, I became the site’s ComDev. This extraordinary opportunity allowed me to greatly expand the wiki’s reach, and facilitated my want to co-create and produce shows and videos, with veteran content creators within the community, Esco being one. Then through some insane dose of luck (and hopefully a little talent) I ended up here.

Andie: Similar to Stephen, I’ve been a fan of Assassin’s Creed since the very beginning. However, i tended to focus more on producing video content at the start.
Andie's starting point: the Youtube channel
And it was mainly video tutorials on how to understand and play the multiplayer (first introduced in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood). I was fortunate enough to also have my Youtube channel partnered with Machinima, and ended up producing Assassin’s Creed content for their network.
As the Youtube thing steadily grew, Stephen and I started collaborating on many more Assassin’s Creed video projects together and well. At around the same time, I also worked on a gaming website called XboxGameZone, as a Deputy Editor and newshound.
We would both go on to appear regularly on, and host a popular Assassin’s Creed podcast, which involved some of the main development teams at the time. I guess somewhat living and breathing Assassin’s Creed got someone’s attention right?

Stephen: Yeah, luckily for us, someone at Ubisoft had taken notice. And here we are, pinching ourselves, expecting it to all be just a dream.

Now that we know the route to your position, we would like to ask you: how does it feel to live the dream of many hardcore fans of the AC saga, which is starting as a fan and then getting to work for Ubisoft?

Stephen: Oh gosh, it’s insane. At times it feels like an outerbody experience. Since the fan in me is such an important part of who I am and the reason I’m here, I often find it hard to contain my excitement for even the simplest of series revelations and future planning. It really is a dream come true. The biggest treat being the people we get to work with on a daily basis, some of whom, we’ve idolized for years. Also, playing the games early. That’s nice too. (laughs)

Andie: Little known fact, when you join Ubisoft, you get issued your very own numbered Animus, which allows us to relive the day we were both approached to join the project over and over and over again. In all seriousness though, it is an amazing experience. Not just being a part of Ubisoft, but to also work on our favourite franchise.

Starting from a fan perspective, which are the most challenging elements but also the responsibilities that you face when you get a job in the game industry?

Andie: Well, the main thing you quickly realise is how things actually work “behind the curtain” so to speak. The reality of it is that developing games within the industry is a complicated process, involving lots of moving parts. Developers, publishers, licensing, retail, marketing and PR all have to come together during a campaign and row in the same direction. Couple that with a big company like Ubisoft, that operates in many different countries, and well….you get the idea.

Stephen: Yes, exactly. That and the fact that the industry is constantly evolving and improving. In order to keep up, you as a developer, have to do the same thing. Embrace new ideas, experiment, grow your skill set and don’t get left behind.

For those who don’t know Initiates yet (and we’re sorry for them :) ), can you explain us what it is?

Stephen: Initiates, without sounding corny, aims to be the definitive destination for all fans of Assassin’s Creed. Through the ever growing Database section, we’ve got an offering of narrative based content. Some of it, nostalgic and informative legacy content, while other elements are exclusive drops of info or complete storylines created exclusively for ACi.
The last Lost Memories set: Chasing time
We also have a pretty complex Reward system as part of the service. Initiates recognizes and rewards you for your previous efforts within the series. The more games you have completed, the bigger synchronization rate you have achieved, and the higher level you have reached in Multiplayer all contribute to how much XP we award you. Coupled with this, we have other exciting ways of earning badges, XP and growing levels such as Lost Memories and Missions.
Lost Memories tasks you with locating pivotal moments lost throughout history and rewards you accordingly. Missions give you another chance you revisit your HD games, but with a different perspective. Through exclusive tasks and challenges, you can extend your gameplay experience and earn XP for doing so. In turn, that accumulation of XP will unlock more exclusive content, so there is always something to look forward to.
Of course we’ve also got a fully integrated forum space for users to jump in to. Through it, we leave site and series news, host Developer Q&As and allow for a consistent flow of feedback and community conversation.
Of course, we are still in Open Alpha and are constantly improving the service, so expect new features, content and improvements to appear on Initiates regularly.

Which are the difficulties in its management?

Andie: With a universe as vast as that of Assassin’s Creed, keeping every bit of lore coherent and in line with the overall narrative is always a fun, but an immense challenge. Thankfully the writers on Initiates are in constant contact with all the other scriptwriters on Assassin’s Creed. This means that all those narrative strands can be explored, and possibly furthered on Initiates.

How and when was Initiates conceived? Is there someone who could be considered a real father / mother of this project or is it the result of a collective effort?

Andie: Initiates has been in the works for quite a while now, long before Stephen or myself got involved. It is the brainchild of quite a few individuals at Ubisoft, people who deeply understand the brand, have been around since the beginning and have a vision for where Assassin’s Creed is going in the future.

The most interesting sections, from the plot point of view, are the "Memory Sequences ". Can you tell us about the developing process for a new memory? What are the differences between creating a memory that describes already known facts ( for example the ones related to Ezio ) and building a completely new piece of plot (one above all, Surveillance)?

Stephen: James Nadiger, one of our writers, states that for Surveillance, or anything that is new or exclusive to Initiates, the writing process is pretty easy. There’s obviously some pretty elaborate brainstorming sessions before each narrative creation/ arc comes to fruition. It gets approved by the brand team, and then our graphic designers create art assets for it. If the story ties into a game or a comic, there’s an extra step in there where the appropriate creative teams are contacted to make sure that our stories are aligned properly and that nothing is being spoiled or presented incorrectly.
An Exclusive Surveillance Memory
For the Memory Sequences that are biographical or encyclopedic, basically, a replay of the sequence or mission in question is done and then crosschecked against any transmedia that exists. For example, James will read the tie-in novel for points of narrative conflict or uncertainty, and try to reconcile any contradictions. The general rule of thumb is that Game trumps everything else, but what the novels are great at doing is adding in a few extra details, like giving a generic NPC a name, or something, and we think stuff like that is awesome.

Andie: As well, for the encyclopedic ones, the writers have to decide what can be contained in one memory and what needs to get split up into several memories. For example, there’s often a series of missions, or even a full sequence, that’s basically a tutorial. There’s a tiny bit of plot, but it’s basically, press R2 to Free Run. That stuff can be condensed into “Ezio did various errands for the Citizens of Monteriggioni”, so 4 missions can potentially get condensed into 1 memory. On the other hand, towards the end, some of the missions are very short, eg: “Connor kills the target” but then there are a few cutscenes that are big narrative moments, and each cutscene deserves its own memory. So one mission can turn into 3 memories.
But for both, the development process is very similar. The text is written, then passed to our artists, and they decide whether or not to use concept art, a screenshot, or create new art from scratch.

Recently you added a new set of memories containing original storyline, the "Letters to the Dead", featuring Eseosa, Adéwalé’s grandson. What are the conceptual reasons behind this set of memories?

Stephen: Jill Murray was actually the catalyst for Letters to the Dead. A few months before Freedom Cry’s release, she approached James and asked if Initiates could explain how Abstergo acquired Adéwalé’s genetic information to make the game. After some consultations and idea pitching with Jill, she agreed that Adé and Bastienne having a child together would be the perfect way to bring this arc to life.

The last Memory of the 'Letters to the Dead'
Andie: Shortly after that, James and Jill agreed that seeing the Haitian Revolution through to its end would be a good idea, and the historical character of Toussaint Louverture was then brought up. There was a lot of Assassin lore in that area now, between Liberation and AC4, but while both Aveline and Adéwalé worked against slavery, we never really saw any conclusion to it. Thus began the research into Toussaint and the Haitian Revolution, and from that, came Letters to the Dead. James then had some fun with generational exploration, where the first few memories jump from Adé/Bastienne to Adé’s son, then to Eseosa. Then there is 1 memory on Surveillance, which is both a prologue/epilogue memory, where Adé’s descendant unwittingly gives his blood to Abstergo and the idea is that we got Freedom Cry and Letters to the dead from that sample.

During the last Q&A, Darby McDevitt defined the Initiates platform as a structure also addressed to follow and update the present day of AC saga (“Add AC Initiates to the formula, and you have something that is greater than the sum of its parts: a persistent, ongoing present day that never sleeps...”). How difficult is to be the connection between the various saga releases while expanding them (and the present day) almost weekly? Which are the main challenges that you encountered in carrying out this kind of work?

Stephen: Making the connections isn’t too difficult, the AC narrative team talk to each other all the time. Whenever Initiates tells a story that is related to a game, James and the rest of the writing team work hard to be very transparent about what they are doing, always asking for creative permission and feedback. A good example was getting Shaun & Rebecca from the end of AC3 to the beginning of AC4. We had them serve our story, by updating the tech on Gavin’s boat, and then we began their journey to Abstergo Entertainment, where it became about supporting and enhancing Darby’s story. James wrote out a draft and showed it to Darby, and he in return, gave notes on what we could and could not reveal, that kind of thing. This is typical of the relationships our teams have here on AC, especially our narrative ones. Although each creative has their own ideas and directions for the series, they generally operate as smaller parts of a much larger brain and no decision is singular.

Andie: One of the strengths of Initiates is that we can give these characters moments that they can’t have in game. An example of this is the memory where Shaun & Rebecca are at the ruins of the Farm, and they get a quiet moment to reflect on their time with Desmond. It’s something that was missing from both AC3 and AC4, but something that we can provide on Initiates.
We think the connections and Easter Eggs are a big part of what makes AC so fun, you can see the effects of the characters rippling through time. Having said that, we think it’s important not to FORCE a connection. There is no reason why Adé should have a connection to Altair or Ezio, for example.

Shaun and Rebecca at the ruins of the Farm

Stephen: The important thing to remember is that Initiates is a core pillar of the Assassin’s Creed universe now, and although we have our own dedicated writers - they themselves are members of the overall AC narrative team; a group of veteran writers including Darby (McDevitt), Jill (Murray) and Richard (Farrese), among many others, who work as one cohesive unit, driving the series forward.

Very similar to the Memories, another important content of the platform is represented by the Missions, an interaction between Initiates and the AC videogames with which the player can unlock special content and plot by fulfilling particular in-game actions. What kind of effort does the development of a Mission require?

The new 'Mission Tree' design
Stephen: An extraordinary level of effort goes into creating Missions on Initiates. The creation and refinement process involves almost every subsection of our larger team.
Mission designers come up with the overall design and completion constraints, our writers, primarily Philippe-Antoine Ménard, then give the challenges context, our playtesters locate problematic aspects during development and our tech team review such issues and work to resolve them. Then finally, though our community, we as ComDevs, gauge reaction and feedback once Missions have gone live, and use that information to refine and improve this portion of the service.

Andie: Indeed, much love to the QA and playtest teams. Stephen and I have taken part in this process of Mission creation before, and let me tell you; it is serious business! Ultimately, it is a team effort from conception to deployment.

Focusing on the interaction between ACI and the games, we saw an example of it in AC4BF (exclusive content like shanties and the ships upgrades). In the future, will there be more and deeper interactions between ACI and the main games in terms of in-game content and gameplay but also in terms of narrative, maybe with the involvement of the Initiates?

Andie: That is the plan, hehe. But for obvious reasons, we can’t divulge much right now. You’ll just have to stay tuned to Initiates to see what is in store.

What are the most suggested features that the Initiates users advise you and which are the ones that you would like to support the most?

Stephen: In an ideal world, we would love to embrace and integrate most of the ideas our community puts forward, but of course that will never be possible. That being said, as we see it, Initiates is not only for the fans - but developed in partnership with the fans. Everything we create and implement is, or has been, greatly influenced by community feedback and suggestion.
And we’ve already seen some great changes to Initiates as a result of this very process. Navigation refinements, forums improvements, profile enhancements etc. We aim to continue that trend.

On our page, users have expressed conflicting opinions on the new direction that the franchise is now following: we are talking about the expanded universe of which Initiates is obviously an integral part if not the backbone that keeps everything consistent. What are the three reasons why this narrative system is more valuable and innovative if compared to traditional ones?

Gavin artwork by Initiates
Andie: Value, we think, is in the eye of the beholder. If you are new to Assassin’s Creed, we hope you find value in the Dossiers and Sequences to get some info about the lore in an interesting presentation. If you’re a veteran, we hope you find value in the new narratives found only on Initiates; exclusive characters like Gavin, pre-game content like Shaun & Rebecca going to Montreal, and sequel/epilogue material like Letters to the Dead.
Why is this innovative? We think it’s presented in a fun way. I personally like that as you scroll through the centuries on the map, you can see the Assassin/Templar conflict flare up in different parts of the world. I like that Initiates is the AC Present Day in real time.

Stephen: We recognize that there is still a pretty big demand for the modern day aspect of the franchise. As a response, the AC narrative team is working hard to make Initiates THE PLACE for Present Day stories. In fact, we have BIG PLANS for the Present Day here, but that’s all I will say for the moment. (laughs)

In your opinion, speaking of the expanded universe, on which new kind of transmedia would you like to see new content for the franchise? And which subject matter would you like to see on them?

Stephen: I love all types of transmedia related to the brand. EVERY. SINGLE. THING. Through each offering you get a chance to experience the series in a completely different and artistically unique way, be it through comic books, short films or interactive media. Personally, and if you put a gun to my head, I’d love to see more short films. Animated or live action. I feel that historically, they have had great resonance within the series and have certainly impacted me in very profound ways.

Andie: Imagine Assassin’s Creed as a Virtual Reality experience! Just imagine it. The industry is moving at quite a pace, with new technology being released constantly. I feel like this opens up many more avenues for compelling storytelling. A short Assassin’s Creed adventure on something like the Oculus Rift for instance, would be a bold move, and could possibly be amazing.
Combining Assassin’s Creed with Augmented Reality is something else i’d love to see happen. Again, there is tech out there that could be used to really enhance the user experience beyond just consumption of whatever content they have in front of them.

Virtual Reality experience?

Before becoming part of the Ubisoft team, you were fans of the saga as we are: every year you were waiting for the new chapter and, once released, the classic cycle of the material analysis began again until the following chapter. Today you are part of the development process and you surely know the path for the brand in advance. Apart from the working aspect itself, what do you appreciate about this new point of view? What do you miss of the life as a fan? And, just to make us green with envy, how much do you know about the future of Assassin's Creed?

Andie: We are fortunate enough to now be able to see firsthand how it all comes together. On this side of things, you get to talk to those that influence the franchise and games, better understand their thought processes, see the hard work they put into what they do, and just how much they enjoy being a part of Assassin’s Creed.

Stephen: Just because we have become developers, doesn’t mean that we have stopped being fans. In fact, I’m probably the biggest fanboy in the studio. I scream a little inside everytime Corey May walks by. (laughs)

Andie: (Laughs) Get in line sir! In reality, pretty much all of the Assassin’s Creed teams are fans of the franchise, first and foremost. This is, unfortunately, a common misconception by fans outside of the studios. The teams are always super passionate, and part of the development process involves coming at the games from a fan perspective.

Stephen: Exactly. That’s something I didn’t fully realize until joining Ubi. Our teams are insanely empathetic. This can probably be best evidenced by the amount of fan-service Darby included in the modern day aspect of Black Flag. That man is a genius.
Back on topic though - I also love, and miss, the excitement of annual speculation and conspiracy sharing. Not knowing what’s going to happen next in the series is by far one of the best aspects of being an AC fan. I regularly try to shield myself from information on the series’ future, but fail miserably. Andie has found me hiding out under my table far too many times now.

Finally, try to convince our fans, why should they follow Initiates?

Andie: We have plans. OH do we have plans. Consider that a friendly hint (giggles)

Stephen: We also have cake. And it’s not the lying type either.

Thanks for being our special guests, guys! It’s been an honor for us to have you here. We remain your humble spies :p

“We must not involve ourselves in the conflict between Assassins and Templars. Our time might come, but for now we study them. We can’t do it alone. We are the Initiates. Join us.”

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