February 13, 2018

14 Min Read

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Assassin's Creed Origins - Discovery Tour Q&A with Historian Maxime Durand

Discovery Tour by Assassin's Creed: Ancient Egypt will give players the chance to turn the Assassin's Creed Origin's massive Ancient Egyptian landscape into a living museum on February 20. Available free to owners of the game, or as a standalone download for $19.99 USD, Discovery Tour is a chance to dive into Ancient Egyptian customs, history, landmarks, and daily life, with 75 freely accessible tours curated by historians and Egyptologists.

Maxime Durand, resident historian for the Assassin's Creed franchise, sat down with us to dive into the history behind Discovery Tour itself, how the concept began and grew, and what exactly players can expect when they start exploring a nonviolent, information-rich version of the game's Ancient Egypt.

How did the concept of Discovery Tour evolve? Is this an expansion of the Animus Database from previous games?

Maxime Durand: It's been 11 years since we launched Assassin's Creed, and the new thing about the franchise when it began was that we were playing with history. Going from Prince of Persia, with legends, to Assassin's Creed was a big move back then, and from the get-go, we knew that we had something different, something unique to the industry. And I think ever since the start, it was in the team's mind that we were playing with history, but making a fictive universe at the same time, with fictive characters, and that's what made Assassin's Creed a fun game.

On the other side, we were thinking, "Can we do more than that? How can we achieve better information regarding history?" So that's how the Animus Database was created back in 2009, on Assassin's Creed II. The first concept was to make something like the Discovery Tour, like an enhanced historical experience to separate facts and truth (from) the creative vision. That was impossible back then, so that's why they created the encyclopedia – but still, the encyclopedia had this fictive layer with Shaun Hastings. We couldn't exactly pull you out of the game to say, "this is how we made the game," so it had to remain a narrative path with this fictive character, with this fictive story.

And people were already using the game as a teaching tool?

Ever since the first game, we also had a lot of testimonies from teachers, from professors, asking, "Would you consider making a version of AC without conflict, without narrative?" They'd been using Assassin's Creed, recording sessions with their own consoles, trying to bring it into classrooms – but the age rating, for instance, was an issue. A lot of teachers understood that the attractiveness of a video game was important, was interesting, and people engage with that. But they couldn't bring the game (as it was) to classrooms.

Our motto is "making history everyone's playground." It's in our roots. So after Assassin's Creed III and Unity, the interest in history just grew bigger, and fans were expecting more of us regarding history. And the technology allows us to create better buildings, accuracy, texture details, and things like that. We knew we had multiple challenges, but the idea was really to create a new version of the Animus Database, version 2.0. So it's a big leap forward, but in that meantime, we met with a lot of professors, teachers. We were invited to the White House with Assassin's Creed a couple years ago. We had the opportunity to talk with people from the educational world and ask them questions. We were very active listeners, trying to understand what they would expect if we were to make a separate game mode for teachers, for schools, for instance. That's where we took a lot of information, like the ideal length, the duration, how would they use that in a classroom. It should last less than 20 minutes, maybe on average more like five minutes, so that they have time to talk about the history subject, they have time to let students try the Discovery Tour, and then talk about it more or access more information.

How did the first incarnation of the Discovery Tour take shape?

The first idea was really just to remove conflict and narrative from the game. We knew it was a technical challenge already, but it proved to be much more complex than we anticipated. That was one of the first parts that we wanted to achieve, and then the second part was to create tours within these environments. So you have the full map of Egypt accessible, every landmark, you can travel everywhere, you can navigate everywhere without constraint. But then on top of that, after you've engaged with this world – that maybe you've seen while playing the game already – you have the enhanced experience. These tours are curated by historians and adapted by us, by our writer, to be very accessible. And then we made sure that these tours were compelling and short and very visually attractive.

When you want to learn about the library of Alexandria, for instance, which is a very famous landmark of antiquity, we want to make sure that people will be captivated by the monument, by the beauty inside, by looking at what's happening there, looking at the librarians copying papyrus sheets or studying. All of these tours that we put into this world are tours that talk about Egypt, about its history, about its geography, about the people that made history in Egypt, but also about commoners, relationships between husbands and wives, the relationships of families, their ties. It's very interesting to learn about that, because history is not just about famous people, about Cleopatra and Julius Caesar – who are still very interesting, and we have tours dedicated to them – but we also want to talk about all the different aspects of life in that era.

How does a tour unfold?

When you go into a tour, the way it works is that you go to a tour start, you enter into a tour like you would do with a mission in the regular game, and then you go into different steps. You physically follow a path on the ground, and then you go to stations. And all of these stations use a certain type of camera that will show you a building, or details in the environment, or a view of the mountains or deserts, for instance. And all of these stations have information, an audio guide that will talk to you. There is one narrator man and one narrator woman for different languages.

And then you have images of artifacts from museums or libraries around the world. Again, enhancing the experience, making the link between what you see in the digital environment and the kinds of sources we used to craft the game. We try to make people learn something new, but at the same time, we want to bridge back to formal education and institutions. We never made the Discovery Tour to replace teachers; we've made it as a tool to make history broadly accessible.

It creates an opportunity for anyone to actually bridge back to more formal media and create discussions, for example being a critic about the way we create history, the way we reconstitute that in the game. Because we're not accurate all the time, we make (creative) choices. So this is something that is important for us, that it creates a dialogue between, let's say, teachers and their students, to understand that not everything they see on screen is true. You can think about whatever you do in life, whatever you see, you can always criticize. And that's healthy.

With a world this big, how do you surface information in a way you think players are likely to discover?

We want the Discovery Tour to be accessible for anyone. That's in terms of content, but also in terms of accessibility in the game design. We kept the controls very simple, we made sure that the tours were very visible on the map, also. All the tour starting points are physically available in the 3D world, but you can also browse the tours on your 3D map, look at them with your eagle and fast-travel to tours, look at the content menu, and then you can go deep into all the different tours in the menu directly. If you're interested in, let's say, all the different tours about the pyramids, you can fast-travel to one of those tours from the menu. Lastly, you can fast-travel to tours from what we call the passport page. This is your achievement page, to see how you're doing with completing the 75 tours.

How does exploration without combat work? Is the world indifferent to you?

In previous games, you were the Assassin and the world revolved (mostly) around you. This time around, as an avatar, you're part of the world, but the world revolves around itself. People have their agendas, like they did in Assassin's Creed Origins. So unless they're forced to go to work during a tour, because we want them to show up – if we're showing pottery, we want to see that the person is going to be there – the environment is still ongoing with the same framework as in Assassin's Creed Origins, so they have 24-hour cycles for crowd life.

You'll see them acting like they should be acting in Ancient Egypt, while removing most of the conflict situations. Animals won't attack people. They won't attack you. Soldiers just wave now when they see you, they don't feel threatened. That was a big technical challenge; we still had to hack our own game to make things work. But because we did that, we also learned a lot in the way that we design our tours.

The team that worked on this project were so motivated; I don't think I've ever seen a team that motivated. It's the same people who did Assassin's Creed Origins. We took 20 to 30 people, and most of them were technical designers, technical directors, people that are very senior, and also were very motivated. They were all volunteers. And they all built up these systems that we use for Assassin's Creed Origins, and they transformed them for the Discovery Tour. They created lighting paths on the ground, new UI for the menus, and what's onscreen. They've transformed the mission systems to make Discovery Tour interesting. We had a lot of fun playing with the systems.


How many historians worked to create the tours?

Technically, all the historians who have worked with us to create Assassin's Creed Origins also helped indirectly on the Discovery Tour. But as for the people who wrote the content, it's about five or six historians and Egyptologists. They wrote the scientific content about twice as long as what we needed, and then we narrowed that down to... let's say they wrote 5,000 words per tour. We trimmed that down to 2,000 words, and then we split the original 20 tours that we had into 75 tours.

What was the community reaction to replacing Animus Database with Discovery Tour?

People have been asking for (Discovery Tour) for a long time, and we wanted to do it, so it wasn't like we were doing something very risky. We wanted to please our fans first; Discovery Tour is free for them, it's a title update. We didn't want to take them by the hand, or feel like we treat them like kids in terms of content or controls. So they were our first target. And then at the same time, we wanted to keep a level that would be usable for high schools and universities, which have very different needs.

We tried to come up with a design that respects all of these, respects the fans, respects students, and respects professors, because we know they will all have different experiences. Our goal is to be as generous as possible, to give as much information as possible, and also to explain the way we make these games. That was something we felt would enrich the experience a lot.

We also have capsules within the Discovery Tour called Behind the Scenes, which are moments where we explain, as game developers, the way that we make these games, the way we make Assassin's Creed Origins. We try to explain the historical discrepancies, and also to explain our inspirations. So if a monument has disappeared totally and we wanted to build it back into the universe, what were our sources? What was the intent behind it, or what were our technical and artistic constraints? So this is all information that we try to pass on as much as possible. In general, there's about one Behind the Scenes station for every tour.

Assassin's Creed Origins has a popup in one of its loading screens about Honor Frost, discoverer of the Pharos lighthouse, who was fascinating in her own right. Will you have more information about her and other archaeologists?

Our content talks about history, talks about the way these monuments were used in the time period. We also talk about the sources that have inspired us, and the history of Egyptology, in some ways. We talk about these discoveries, about the fact that the lighthouse has evolved a lot. It still existed until the 15th or 16th century, when it fell down, and then was transformed into a fort afterward, until the recent underwater discoveries in the 20th century. These are aspects that are very interesting for everyone, and again, it's not just about history, it's about the history of discoveries. I think for us it was a way, indirectly, to explain how we get inspired to make these games without always saying "this is behind the scenes." People will make the link, ultimately, in the understanding that everything that we say there is something that inspired us to create these games.

How many different avatars can you control?

We have 25 avatars you can play with from the start, so they are all free to use. Nothing is locked in the Discovery Tour; even all the tours are accessible from the start. You can choose from different versions of Bayek with outfits, you can play as Aya, you can play as Julius Caesar or Cleopatra – which is quite amusing, because we have some special features in Discovery Tour. When you're playing as a historical character, for instance, it gives you a very different perspective on what you're discovering. We're trying to keep some secrets until people have the controller in their hands, but you can play as an Egyptian, as a Greek, as a Roman, women, men, or kids for instance, within the Discovery Tour. And everything is accessible, so you can navigate everywhere. Again, it makes the experience very different, and takes you back to something that is not exactly Assassin's Creed Origins. It's really a new experience for everyone.

Are there any achievements attached to it?

There are! There are three achievements attached to Discovery Tour. So people will have to go deeper into the experience to find that out.

*Discovery Tour by Assassin's Creed: Ancient Egypt will be available February 20 on Xbox One, PS4, and PC as a free add-on for Assassin's Creed Origins, or as a standalone download. For more on how to use Assassin’s Creed Origins Discovery Tour, check out the Ubisoft support site.

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