We got the opportunity to speak openly with Jonathan Cooper about his move to North America, his time at BioWare and Eidos and the demanding job of animating Ubisoft’s famous assassin.
Gamesauce: You have probably met hundreds, if not thousands of people who wanted to get into the videogame industry. How did you first begin your career in this field?
Alex Hutchinson: I began as a writer in Australia, contributing articles to websites, magazines, whoever would run them, trying to focus on games and game issues. I figured if I couldn’t make them, I could at least write about them and learn something in the process. Then I was lucky enough that ‘designer’ became a more common job, and I started applying anywhere and everywhere, and was lucky enough to be given a shot at a small company in Australia.
You earned two degrees from the University of Melbourne. Neither your BA nor MA are in subjects specifically associated with videogame development, such as computer programming or graphic design. How do you feel your education has helped you in your career? Would you recommend a college education for anyone who wants to get into the videogame industry?
Remember there was no such thing as a degree in videogame development when I went to university! That said, I think that traditional courses that focus on art theory and production are perfect for aspiring artists, and general computer science degrees are perfect for aspiring game programmers; you can learn the specific tools and skills later. Start with a strong, practical base in the discipline you want. Writing was a huge help for me, in terms of learning structure, format, and having to produce and finish work. And bizarrely the degree in classical studies finally became useful on Assassin’s Creed!
Before discussing Assassin’s Creed III, I want to ask you about some of your previous games. You were a Level Designer on The Invincible Iron Man. What are some comic book superheroes that you would love to design a game around?
I think the trick would be to find a character whose core fantasy and abilities mapped to game mechanics cleanly: there are so many good ones, but I’d like to get out of the more popular guys. Maybe a Lobo game. Or DC’s the Demon. Or Jonah Hex [in] a weird Western game.
It has been over four years since Spore was released. What are some of things you learned about both creating videogames and the business of videogames while working on Spore?
It was a huge project, and very ambitious, and I learned nobody will attempt something like it again. We set out to make this huge toy that played with creation and creativity, and I think in terms of the creation tools and the sharing, we made an amazing game. We didn’t get to where we wanted on the game part, but I’m immensely proud of the game. I learned that if there’s a gameplay clarity problem in an early concept, then this will translate most probably to a gameplay mechanics problem you can’t iterate your way out of, so fix it on paper first. And I learned that trying to be truly original is incredibly difficult!
Army of Two: The 40th Day was the first game you were the Creative Director on. Did that position change the way you approached game development or selecting who you worked with?
Yeah, that was my first shot at the job. It was a new challenge because you move from designing mechanics and working almost solely with mission designers, or story and systems designers, to working with whole other departments that aren’t necessarily your strong suit. So there were departments, like animation or engineering, where I felt comfortable talking to the leads and directors, as I’d been more closely associated with them before on gameplay teams or wherever, and then there were departments, like sound, where it really wasn’t my strong suit. I had to learn a lot more about how they worked and what was important to them, and how I could talk to them in a way that would help them improve the overall game experience.
In terms of approach, it also meant I had to give more room to leads even in areas where I’d been doing that job before. So the lead design position, which was my old job, I had to learn to leave it in their capable hands and not interfere!
You are now the Creative Director for Assassin’s Creed 3. What were some of the aspects of the previous installments that drew you to this franchise?
It’s an amazing franchise. I love the focus on history, I love the desire to create a consistent and cohesive universe, and I love the talented people who work on it. It was a joy to come onto the franchise, followed by several years of incredibly hard work, but I’m very satisfied with the game we made. But in a nutshell: people and the opportunity to try and make something amazing are the only things that attract me to projects these days!
Assassin’s Creed 3 is set in North America between 1753 and 1783. What were some of the archives, materials, and people consulted to bring such a high level of historical accuracy to this game? Was there one historical figure or moment from this time period you really wanted to include in the game?
We have historical advisors on call with different specialties, from revolutionary historians to cultural advisors. We gather huge amounts of references from paintings and drawings and maps from the period; we read all kinds of books and websites to gather facts; we watch movies and read historical novels to find exciting fantasies. All that takes about six months [and] while we’re simultaneously trying to draw the big picture of the game we’re trying to make, we essentially force the core team through a crash course in whatever historical setting we chose. And we included as much historical detail as possible, from Ben Franklin and George Washington to Valley Forge and the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Is anyone at Ubisoft hoping for a History professor or teacher to use Assassin’s Creed III in an American History course?
It would be very rewarding if a course used it as an example of the look and feel and everyday life of the period (minus the assassin, of course). We spent so much time and money trying to get it right, that I think it’s the closest interactive recreation of this period yet made.
GS: One aspect of the game that I am looking forward to is the naval portion of it. What were some of the challenges you encountered when creating a system to replicate 18th century naval combat?
The biggest one was just how slow it is in real life versus how slow we could make the ships turn before it stopped being fun in a game context. I think we nailed the overall feeling though, giving you the emotion of these epic vessels, without compromising on the reality too much. The water the guys created is also a technical marvel; we can literally scale up or down the Beaufort levels to simulate everything from calm seas to raging storms. It’s incredible.
There were some recent articles reporting that you were concerned about the future of AAA games. How would you like to see the gaming industry develop? Do you feel there is something missing that game developers should try to better include in their games?
No, I just think the industry is evolving, the same way it has for decades: popularity for certain experiences rise and fall, tastes change, the business model changes, the platforms change. I’ve been doing this long enough now to have seen several console transitions pass by, several predictions of the end of the industry fail to materialize, and several versions of ‘the future of the industry’ crash and burn. Quality is the only reliable indicator of the chance to succeed, and content is king as it always has been. AAA quality will be around forever, but the platforms will continue to change.