Patrice Désilets Interview: Ancestors Difficulty “On You,” 1666 Amsterdam Very Likely Next
Even if you don’t know the name Patrice Désilets, there’s a very good chance you’ve played and loved games either directly developed by him or influenced by his work. Désilets was the mastermind behind Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Assassin’s Creed, and recently his new independent studio Panache Digital Games released the ambitious evolutionary adventure, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey.
Patrice is one of the most enthusiastic and outspoken voices in the industry, traits that were on full display at the recent Reboot Develop Red conference in Banff, Alberta. Patrice delivered a full oral history of the creation of Ancestors at the show, during which he made some headline-grabbing statements about the game’s reviews and other topics. With his Reboot talk still fresh in my mind, I sat down with Patrice to discuss the making of Ancestors, those controversial reviews, 1666 Amsterdam, and his idea for a fur trading game? Read on for all that, and more…
It was really surprising to hear how hard it was to find funding for Ancestors at first. As you mentioned, one of the roadblocks was that people were hoping for another Assassin’s Creed. So…why didn’t you make another Assassin’s Creed?
Well, for starters, I cannot make another Assassin's Creed, because the rights don't belong to me. We could have a conversation about that, but it would be a long one.
Well, not literally Assassin’s Creed, but a game more like it.
I needed to start a game, but before that, I needed to start a studio. That was the real thing I was asking for money for. It was important to have a game that was able to create a studio and not the other way around. I needed a character that's fun to play with and a 3D environment and technology that will let me do multiple games, because I don't want to start a studio for just one game.
I pitch a thing and people tell me, "No, you have a brand! You're the historical dude! You're the Assassin's Creed dude! Find something else!" So, it's the flash of prehistoric times. It's clear that you can do a game in a 3D environment with the historical element with that. And I like the subject matter. We don't talk often about the very beginning of it all. Of our journey, our odyssey. I thought it was more interesting than the typical cliché of the caveman, with the leopard skin and club and dragging the women by the hair. The real beginning of it all. So, that's why I didn't do Assassin's Creed [laughs].
Of course, there actually are some similarities between Ancestors and Assassin’s Creed…
Yeah! The core mechanics, there are similarities [to Assassin's Creed]. It's not the same, because it's not, but at the same time...it's how do you climb, how do you run, how do you jump? It's all about traversal, very quick action if you think about it. Lots of repetitive loops, because that's how evolution works.
Evolution is a tricky subject to tackle in a game. I’m thinking back to Spore, and…
E.V.O. back in the day...
Exactly. It’s something a lot of developers have struggled to tackle. To make fun. What do you think makes the subject a difficult one?
We tried to put the fun in by giving total freedom. The game doesn't ask you to play in a certain way. And some people said, "Yeah, but what's the game?" But the game doesn't care. You decide, you create. You don't even have to evolve. It's not really important. Personally, I felt that was more interesting. A video game is something so precise in somebody's mind, but a game can be so much more somehow.
But the reason the subject matter of evolution is tough, is because it happens through time with numbers that are hard for our ape brain to comprehend. Of a million years. If you look at science fiction, usually we do...50 years in the future. 1000 years sometimes. We never do, like, a million years in the future. Evolution is on that time scale, so it's tough to make a game about it. Even in Ancestors, the evolution loop and mechanics came at the end [of development] mostly. It wasn't easy for us to decide, "Okay, what is evolution?" The [Neuronal Energy] system came in the last year. Also the idea that you can beat science -- that you can evolve faster than science tells us you can. You can learn how to craft way earlier than we probably did. All that came in the last year.
During your talk, you touched on the reviews for Ancestors, some of which were pretty harsh. You also said you know some reviewers didn’t even play the game. How do you know that?
Because you read the review and they invent some element. I've received some apologies since my talk, so I was not lying! [At least one outlet did indeed apologize on Twitter and amend their review following Patrice’s comments.]
Were you surprised at all by the critical reception?
The harsh reviews, we knew it was coming. To do something different, some people won't get it. I didn't want to do a game for everybody, everywhere. I felt like it was important to do the subject matter justice. But how do you do that with a smaller team? If you compare what we did with triple-A development, my entire team would be used in level design. Or just in combat.
Plus, it's important to know, that in this day and age, when we ship, it's not the end of everything. It's the beginning of everything, because we can still update the game. We had the date, so we decided to ship it, because that's important to me...it's been 10 years since I shipped a game. It was important to the studio so we can say we have something out there. So, the game shipped without popup tutorials that we didn't have time to put in. But in the console version that's shipping in December, we have time to work on the details and to put in new help for the player. Not to be easier, but to be clearer.
The game is surprisingly difficult. You look at it, and think maybe it will just be “Hakuna Matata” jungle fun, but it’s definitely not.
It's interesting, because the game is not asking you anything. Somehow, you're frustrated about yourself. If I asked you to do something really precise and didn't help you out, then that's my fault. But Ancestors doesn't ask you anything. You can stay and have fun with your character and clan for hours in the first oasis. The game never actually says, "Go in that jungle and do whatever." You did it. We didn't ask you to go around the lake to save your clan. We didn't do that.
Real story, my brother, he played and he wrote to me "I played without the HUD and it was really hard!" Well, yeah -- play with the HUD at the beginning! Play with the tutorial or it's gonna be hard. Again, it's on you. You thought you could do it without the HUD. Eh, probably not. But, you know, from harsh reviews and the failures we've identified, we can use them to get better. There's another game to make, it's not the end of the world.
During your talk you mentioned an earlier, more stripped-down version with a narrator. Do you wonder how that version would have been received?
No, not really, because it was also linked with an episodic business model. But I'm thinking that maybe down the road, why not do a mode where there is a narrator? If you just want to enjoy the science of Ancestors and not the gamey stuff.
It could be a cool educational resource. Ubisoft has been doing a similar thing with recent Assassin’s Creed games.
Yeah, because the science in [Ancestors] is as accurate as a 35-person team can do.
You also mentioned that streamers have really taken to Ancestors, which makes sense. Did you specifically design the game for streaming or was it sort of a happy accident?
Both. Happy accident, yes, because originally the game was a little more narratively driven. As soon as I let go of that, and made it your game, we knew streamers were going to love it. Their community will experience their odyssey. Each person you watch will be a difference experience. Plus, since the game doesn't help you out that much, the community can help the streamer. Single player game also, so you're not hearing people yelling at each other and every time the streamer would discover something, everybody was happy! So, we didn't design around it, but now that we know, in the coming months we can add stuff for streamers so they can experience Ancestors with new elements.
You’re adding new features specially for streaming?
Eventually, yes. But we're still on the drawing board. Right now I'm focusing on shipping on PS4 and Xbox One.
Yeah, so, the game is coming to PS4/Xbox One soon. Do you think Ancestors is better suited to consoles?
Yeah. Yeah. It's a third-person action adventure, which is more suited for console. We developed it on PC, but we said from the beginning, "Please use a controller." Mouse and keyboard works, but it's maybe not the best. There will be some tweaks and balancing from what people have been playing since August. Now we have a community of players, and those reviews, the good and the bad ones, and we can make it a better experience. Also, I feel for Christmas, if you just got a PS4 or whatever, Ancestors is the game to show your parents to show that this is also what video games are all about.
Something without any exploding headshots.
Exactly. Just maybe play together with your real-life clan and listen to each other, "Go there, do that." Just like the streamers and their community, I can see the family on the couch. It's science, it's believable, and you can help me out, because I have no idea what to do [laughs].
So, what kind of updates and improvements can we expect for Ancestors in the future?
We're still in the design and planning phase of that. We have a bunch of ideas, it's just about prioritization. Plus making sure what's out there works. For us I'd say 2020 is a transition year, because the first phase of Panache is done, which is going from scratch to shipping a game. That was four years in the making from finally getting a "yes" and some money. So, now we have a game out and a community, and now it's time to start something new while giving love to Ancestors. We're trying to figure out that phase and it's a nice challenge to have. But we're definitely giving love to Ancestors in 2020.
During your talk you briefly mentioned still wanting to make 1666 Amsterdam. To clarify, is that something you’re actively moving forward on now?
I dunno...I've been talking about [1666 Amsterdam] since I got the rights back to it. Yeah, I want to make that game. The chances that it's my next one are really, really high. In my head, I started it. I went back to what I designed in 2011 and 2012 and said, what do I want to do? Now it's the game after Ancestors and not Assassin's Creed II. I'm a different person and designer and have a new team, so it's going to change.
Ancestors is going to be how Panache does games in the future. That's our signature. So...1666 will not be an easy game. Eventually I'll announce it for real. The elevator pitch is really simple -- do you want to play the devil in 1666 Amsterdam by the guy who did Assassin's Creed and Ancestors?
I’m sold! You’ve said one of the goals of Panache Games is to create a lineup of made-in-Quebec IPs, so, aside from Ancestors and 1666, do you have any other ideas in your back pocket?
Oh yeah. I made a PowerPoint when I was pitching [before Ancestors was greenlit]. There are 15 other game ideas that I want to do. Will I make them all before I die? Probably not, but they're there. But I'm not saying what they are.
In the French-Canadian spirit, you should make a fur trading sim.
Yeah! Okay, so, I'll give you that one. I have an idea called Kanada, with a "K,” and I want to tell the story of the beginning of it all again. The French explorers and how they discovered the interior of the Americas through the rivers and what an adventure it must have been.
You sold me again!
If only it were always so easy!
Thanks so much for chatting.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is available now on PC via the Epic Games Store. The game launches on Xbox One and PS4 on December 6.