Reviewers should criticise what a game is, not how it's made - The Michael French column
- Assassin's Creed Revelations
- Assassin's Creed
At the opening of Assassin's Creed Revelations the name of the developer flashes up on screen.
Except it's not one developer, but six. The lead studios are Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft Annecy, Ubisoft Massive, Ubisoft Quebec, Ubisoft Singapore and Ubisoft Bucharest. These huge teams have all worked hard on this game, clearly, and deserve the top billing.
And yet, some critics and commentators have seized on this as a kink in the armour for a great games series that has become more and more powerful in the space of just four years. Review scores are currently averaging out (confusingly, in my opinion) lower than those for the first game in the series.
That's a shame - a shame for the critics themselves, and a shame for the developers, who are being tarnished for simply doing their job. By focusing on this single element of a game's production, critics threaten to set back games development's progress by a few years.
As this generation has demanded more and more complex triple-A games, it's demanded bigger developer workforces with more skills and deeper knowledge. That's not just me saying this as fact because I've been covering this trend for years as editor in chief of Develop magazine - we can all say it as fact, because as gamers we've sat through the credits, we've looked at the Wikipedia page, and we've seen the rising number of names and companies involved in each game we play.
This trend's logical conclusion amongst big companies like Assassin's Creed publisher Ubisoft has been to assign multiple teams to a single game. It puts invests a huge amount of time and money into producing a good game in good time.
Publishers and their development teams have played fast and loose with the idea of having more than one team on a single project. In some cases one works on single player, one works on multiplayer; in others one works on the design and missions, the other studio does all the artwork; or one builds the engine, another writes the dialogue, and another tests it all works.
Off the top of my head, BioShock 2, Modern Warfare 3, Medal of Honor, Driver: San Francisco, Mafia, Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire were all built under a 'distributed' model, with teams in different timezones or cities working on a game. Rumour has it GTA V is being made the same way. Effectively this creates a round-the-clock process or doubles, triples or even quadruples production capacity - a necessity in a games industry which demands content on a regular yearly (or indeed monthly, weekly, and now daily) basis.
In Assassin's Creed Revelations this is no different. Players of the game will notice six major moving parts: the main open world game that historical hero Ezio explores, the 'set piece' levels he encounters to find artefacts left behind by his ancestor Altair, the levels reliving memories from said artefacts, the over-arching plot with modern-day Desmond and its first-person puzzle elements, and the multiplayer bits set in the open world.
So six huge, very different chunks of gameplay… and, yep, six studios were involved. You can work out the rest.
Is it a case of too many cooks? Potentially, it is indeed. You can definitely see the join marks in Assassin's Creed Revelations where these bits were bolted together - and the quality varies a bit between those big elements I single out above. And, yes, the formula is getting as tired as ageing lead character Ezio is. But that's another matter here - and that's what the commentators should be focusing on.
Because criticising a game for the way it is made - assuming it's not done with slave labour or shoddy practices - is like criticising a car for having to go through a factory assembly line.
In a commercial, capitalist world, many other hugely creative works have to pass through many hands to go from idea to finished item. That's an unfortunate reality of the entertainment biz, the same world that pumps out the games, movies, books and music we love.
Mostly, the process works - the hundreds of people that organise, shoot and perform in a movie; the parade of artists, writers, record label execs and producers that contribute to an album; the author to editor to marketing to bookseller arc that bestselling novels demand in order to reach an audience.
Critics should definitely make it taboo to rely on that process to create something that's rubbish. But they shouldn't make it taboo that a developer has gone through that process in the first place.
I know from experience that Ubisoft for one fears the accusation of being a 'factory line'. It runs a few games development facilities that employ hundreds if not thousands of staff in a single city. And pundits are now saying that this production process shows Assassin's Creed needs to take a break. Four games in five years is too much, they claim.
But personally I'm looking forward to game number five, already confirmed as being in the works. The machinery producing it is so big you can effectively hear it churning away already - and the last thing we need is for people to throw rocks at it. The publishers will pull the plug, the factory will come crashing down. Jobs will be lost, developers will lose work. It'll do more harm than good.
Simply criticising the machinery itself is dangerous. It will make games publishers and developers self-conscious about how they make games. It will make them paranoid that they are doing it wrong when so far, on the whole, it has actually worked. It will stop them talking about the many studios they assign to a blockbuster.
Worse, it might simply just stop them flashing the names of the studios up on screen in the game's opening moments - and that would be the biggest shame of all.
Michael French is Editor-in-Chief of games industry websites Develop-online.net and MCVuk.com & magazines MCV and Develop. You can read his first column for made2game, on how the 'big three' publishers are being naive in their view of the iPhone/Android/browser-based gaming revolution, by clicking here.
Follow Michael on Twitter @Michael_French
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