On the Level with Elliott Walton and Braden Bahen

We have a special holiday edition of On the Level where I had a chance to talk with not one but two former Game Design graduates, Elliott Walton of GD14 and Braden Bahen of GD09. Both of whom recently released Assassin’s Creed: Rogue working as Level Designers at Ubisoft Quebec.

Is it nerve-racking to be working on an existing franchise with such a large established fan base?

Elliott Walton: Absolutely! That being said I don’t personally tend to concentrate too much on those aspects during production and instead just focus on creating interesting gameplay and situations to put the player into. We usually have an overarching storyline to pay attention to that spans multiple titles, but one thing I love about working on the franchise is the excitement of presenting the next location and characters. For me it keeps things fresh and interesting. Of course we will always have to work with constraints but that can really be said about any title whether it is a new IP or a very established franchise such as Assassin’s Creed.  That being said, announcement dates and release dates are always exciting and nerve racking for me.

Braden Bahen: Yes and no. You certainly can feel the pressure online from the fans to provide them with the best Assassin’s Creed game possible. AC fans are an intelligent bunch who want to experience great stories and interesting historic periods inside a rewarding game. They are also vocal about what they love and what they hate in games. The pressure can sometimes get to you and you can get frustrated but its part of the job, frankly.

I frequently check out /r/assassinscreed and read through it to get a sense of what the really passionate fans have to say at the moment. There are often lots of good points I agree with and lots of good points I disagree with but you can’t please everyone.  At the end of the day we all want to make the best game possible and that’s what keeps us pushing on.

Both of you previously worked on a Pirates of the Caribbean open world RPG, which was unfortunately cancelled. Were there any things learned from that project that made it into Assassin’s Creed: Rogue?

EW: The truth is you carry pretty much everything you do on any individual title forward. I’d like to say that I revived old ideas to directly put into Rogue but that’s just not true. What you usually carry forward from other games is and cheesy as it sounds, work ethic. You learn how to communicate with other teams which is absolutely vital for this type of work. You learn how to maximize your ability to learn new tools and features. Above all you learn how your own brain strikes the creative chord.

I find more inspiration for actual ideas out of things that personally interest me and could fit within the context. I never find that sitting at my desk staring at a computer screen makes lightning strike for a new idea. My best ideas tend to hit past 12am – maybe it’s the witching hour for a reason.

BB: Two things: “Never underestimate what the player will do” and making sure to support your teammates.

I had a fantastic lead at Propaganda Games, Maria Hamilton, who was amazing at pointing out holes in our mission’s logic and finding ways to break them. She got us to all work on thinking about what testers were going to do to break things early on. Working to bug fix/problem solve while doing development helps any designer on any project. So while you wouldn’t see any of that in Rogue it did help a tremendous amount in avoiding bugs throughout development.

As for making sure to support you teammates, the quest designers at Propaganda were a really tight knit group who always were there to lend a hand to one another. We created a similar team dynamic on Rogue and it made developing the portions of Rogue we worked on a lot more manageable. Everyone ended up pitching in somewhere and also getting helped out. My mission in Rogue was quite a big beast and there were a few occasions where Elliot and others really helped me out in reaching a deadline.


There’s a lot of narrative in the AC series, was there a lot of cooperation between the writing and design team?

EW: Very much so. Writers are extremely vital teammate for the mission designers here. Constant communication is very important so we can bridge the gaps of cinematic and gameplay in interesting ways to keep the player engaged in both. As mission designers it’s actually important to be in constant communication with every team though. It can be very daunting for new members as they learn that they must be the champions of their own designs while still leaving room for other people to bring interesting new ideas to the table.

BB: The writing team was great to work with. They were always open to my ideas/mission flow and I’m really proud to have worked with them to create the mission that lead to answering one of AC3’s oldest questions.


What was the research process like for working on a series that takes so much from history?

EW: At times it can be pretty exhaustive but there are actual positions called Historians here at Ubisoft that do an amazing job at finding great reference for our ideas and help keep things feeling authentic. For me personally, I also spend a lot of time researching outside of just history. I watch movies and read books that I find interesting that I could use as some inspiration for mission ideas. I’m also pretty fascinated by history so I don’t find the research parts of my job anything but incredibly interesting and fun.

BB: I was responsible for a mission towards the end of the game that didn’t really feature any real world locations, so on my end I can’t comment on the research process.


What’s the day to day life like being a Level Designer at Ubisoft Quebec?

EW: I’m not sure there is anything really typical about our jobs here. It might depend on what stage development is in. Early days of pre-production involve A LOT of meetings and brainstorming which can be a whole lot of fun. Come Alpha time I can promise you it is always stressful and that is pretty much the same everywhere. Even if your work is at alpha stage it’s still this general feeling that it could be even better! It’s often said but still very true that you’re never really done with your work in this business. Even if you ship a 100 metacritic game there is this feeling when it’s all done that you could have tweaked this or that.

That being said I tend to arrive around 9 am and get right to work… after coffee, emails, scrums and checking r/assassinscreed

BB: Like Elliott mentioned it all depends on what stage of development we’re in but generally I’m in to work around 9:30. I’ll probably know what I’m working on before I arrive. Grab a coffee, review my emails, and then have a mission design team scrum. After that I’ll start working on documentation or in game content. If I need something reviewed I’ll make a meeting request with my leads.

AC’s process for creating missions has been well thought out so it’s rare that you don’t know what to do next. We handle all of our time tracking and bugs through Jira so it’s important to check in/update Jiras to keep production in the loop.


In terms of level and mission design, what were some of the major challenges in designing for an open world?

EW: Constraints. It’s the constant thought of, well what if the player goes this way. There are a lot of ways to break missions in open world games and it really helps to have an awesome QA group like we have here who can find the craziest ways to break your levels. Even if you see a bug and go, well NOBODY is going to do that – well somebody will. It goes along way with players to see that we really thought of every situation that could occur during missions. I’m finding that nowadays I really try to use the open world to its strengths inside missions and give the player the choice of freedom to complete tasks. I like to play games like that so it only makes sense to try and adopt it to your own work while still always keeping it in line with the creative vision.

BB: I’d say the biggest challenge we face in an open world game is to entice the players to go in the direction you want them to. Creating exciting narrative based missions that the player’s immerse themselves is such a fine balancing act. Too much hand holding and the player’s lose their immersion. Not enough and they get frustrated and check out mentally. Repeating the same gameplay burns the player out and we try to avoid that.

The key thing is to empower the player to feel like their choices are accounted for in the game design. Gating or forcing a player to perform a specific action should be a last resort but sometimes you need to accomplish a specific step. If you can entice the player to complete the step of their own volition you’ll come out with a much stronger sequence.


Do you have any advice for aspiring level designers that might be interested in open world games?

EW: First and foremost play a lot of open world games. It’s somewhat obvious but you have to play them with the constant mindset of a designer. How did they make this mission work within the constraints? What works and what do I like? While developing any game when pitching your ideas to someone else it really helps to use reference of things that have come before. It makes it easier for the person to picture in their head. Play a lot of open world games and analyze them as if you were going to repeat the process, what would you do differently? When reading feedback on your projects from gamers there is usually feedback that sounds like a great idea and probably is but it’s hard to see what’s fun at the start when there is nothing there. You find fun along the way and then have to ship the game. Learn to properly articulate your ideas so that people can picture the fun early. Oh yeah, and prototype quickly!

BB: Try to break missions in open world games, see if you can cause the game to force you to perform the action it wants you to. Start analyzing the games you’re playing and think about how you’d script them. What can you do to improve something you’re playing on?

Better yet, break open your favorite engine or use one specifically made for open world (i.e. Skyrim’s Creation Engine) and create a mission. Try to have two to three ways to complete it and see if you can break it. If you can create a working mission with choices and you document its creation/execution, it’ll go far on a portfolio.


What’s your favourite thing to do in Assassin’s Creed: Rogue?

EW: My favorite thing to do in any Assassin’s Creed game is to explore. I really enjoy searching through the map and finding awesome locations. My favorite area in Rogue is Sleepy Hollow. It’s a really cool place to visit.

BB: Use the frag grenade or ammo crate explosions to launch enemies off cliffs.


It’s no secret that development can be buggy and we’re all aware of the legendary bug from Black Flag, Ascension of the Jackdaw. Were there any funny bugs you encountered during the development of AC: Rogue?

EW: No I have never seen or created a bug while making a game… Okay my favorite is always leap of faith bugs. When the player character hits something on his way to a leap of faith and ragdolls to his death below. Matches my humor well.

BB: I worked on a section of the game where you partnered up with Haytham for parts of it. It took a while to realize that the enemies weren’t actually detecting him….

What had happened was that anytime the player got into combat, we were scripting Haytham to join in and fight alongside you. This worked for the first fight he would engage in but after that he would just stand there watching the fight or get repeatedly attacked by an enemy and never respond. My scripting was masking the main problem of enemies not actually seeing him as an enemy in the engine. There also were bugs where he’d just constantly backup and eventually walk off a ledge.

After reconfiguring his faction status and ensuring he had all the proper behaviours/reactions, Haytham would engage enemies properly and continue fighting until the enemies in the area were dead. Anytime you have an AI partner, things are going to get weird.


What’s the studio atmosphere like at Ubisoft Quebec City? Everyone must be pretty excited to now be the flagship development team for all future Assassin’s Creed games.

EW: I’d like to say laidback but that sounds way too cliché. I really like the size of Ubisoft Quebec. We are big enough to take on some serious challenges in terms of scope but not so large that you feel like you are surrounded by people you don’t know. A cool thing happened recently where we all went to go watch a movie together at a theatre. It was such a strange feeling as the credits came up for the movie and people were cheering and making jokes to realize it’s probably the only time I have or will go into a movie theatre where I know everyone attending. That’s the type of studio it is.

BB: Lots of passionate people who want to make the best game possible. It’s a pretty social studio and we like to have a beer or two on occasion.

We are really excited to be manning up such an important franchise. I’m looking forward to eventually showing the world what we’ve been working on but you’ll have to wait and see. Wish I could say more!


Besides Rogue, what’s currently in your console/PC?

EW: I can’t seem to pry myself away from GTA 5. I am having even more fun this time around exploring Los Santos and discovering the painstaking details that went into that city. I also have been playing some Dragon Age: Inquisition to help scratch that RPG itch that’s been missing since dumping an insane amount of hours into Dark Souls 2 earlier this year. Hopefully it holds me over until Bloodborne comes out which is my most anticipated game… behind Fallout 4!

BB: Just beat Hotline Miami and started replaying Warcraft 3 and I’m currently addicted to Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. Really looking forward to Far-Cry 4 and GTA5 for PC.


Any last words for past, present and potentially future VFS students?

EW: Past: Who made Smart Shopper? That game was cool! Present: GET BACK TO WORK, what are you doing on the internet? Future: It’s important to really decide what you want to do in the games industry. People are more drawn to someone that is focused on what they want in the industry. If someone asks you what position you want you should have a solid answer right away. It sounds much worse when you say, well I like missions and also art so maybe something in those fields. It’s cool to have a lot of interests and people will really appreciate that in the future but at first its best to really decide on the position you could see yourself working on in the field and researching how to make it happen.

Another great piece of advice to talk about is learning how to communicate. Honestly, it sounds corny but it’s actually a really important skill for video game design. When you come up with a great idea you have already drawn it up visually in your head and you know it’s a good idea. You can picture how awesome it’s going to be. When you pitch it to animators or other designers, or the audio team, you need to learn how to adjust the pitch to appeal to what they know and love.  Learning how to pitch all ideas no matter how big or small is an absolute vital skill.

BB: Get on LinkedIn. Work hard and make the effort to connect with your teammates. If you want to ask someone a question send them a message on LinkedIn but be polite and concise. Occasionally play a game outside of your comfort zone. Have hobbies outside of video games. Try to always be positive about people and companies you’ve worked with, everything is a learning experience. Don’t burn any bridges. Keep your producers and leads informed.


Thanks to both of you for taking the time to talk to us today. We’re all looking forward to what comes next in the Assassin’s Creed universe from you and your team!

Scott Morin teaches Level Design at VFS, and is an alumni of the Game Design program