Ten years ago Alex Hutchinson walked into Torus Games in Melbourne with little idea of what he was doing. Today he is the creative director of Ubisoft Montreal and Assassin’s Creed III. This is the story of how one man learned to make games in Melbourne, mastered it at Maxis, and is now steering a behemoth in Montreal.
It’s the middle of an American winter. A Native American assassin trudges his way through the blanket of snow covering the forests of New York -- his breathing is laboured, his blades bloodied. The assassin powers on, stumbling through a cold ocean of blinding whiteness that is determined to swallow him whole. With a graceful leap, he latches onto the trunk of a tree, with another leap he stands poised on a high branch. He scans the horizon: snow. Everywhere, miles and miles of snow…
A Start Down Under
Melbourne, Australia is about as far as you can get from a harsh New York winter. When the sun shines, it shines a bit too loud. A young Alex Hutchinson sits in his family home bashing away at the clacky buttons of his brand new ColecoVision gaming console. He knows little of America, the intensity of an East Coast winter, and of the historical Templars. In time, he will know all about these things, but right now, he is more interested in the clacky buttons in his hands.
“When I was younger, I probably wanted to make Super Mario Bros… it was the best game I’d ever seen!” says Alex Hutchinson, now the creative director of Ubisoft Montreal and Assassin’s Creed III.
“Games were always a part of my life and I knew I wanted to be involved. When you’re little, you don’t have a very clear picture in your head of what you want to do, you just want to be involved,” he says.
This eagerness to be involved would lead him on a winding mission all the way to Montreal, where he now works on one of the world’s largest game series for most of the year and spends the rest of his time shivering in mittens and thick socks.
“In my early teens I was writing articles for gaming magazines -- I wrote an article for the UK magazine Amiga Action when I was 16 -- I think it was the first thing I ever had published,” he says.
“They never paid me, though. They didn’t even send me a free copy!
“I found out when I went around to a mate’s place after school and he said ‘I read your article!’ and I was like, ‘What?’ I asked if I could have his copy. I got totally ripped off!”
Hutchinson would soon find that simply writing about games wasn’t involved enough for his liking. With the buttons of his ColecoVision worn away, it was time for him to make Super Mario Bros. Or any game, really. He entered the game industry in 2002 as a game designer for the Melbourne studio Torus Games. Finally, he was involved, but he didn’t really know what he was doing.
“No one really should have given me a job as a game designer,” Hutchinson admits.
“I had a writing background, I’d done a lot of writing, and the job of game designer had just started to become mainstream so companies decided they needed game designers, so they were giving people chances.
“It was pretty much figure the job out and learn as you go. You learned by failing, which is effective but very risky.”
The first game that Hutchinson ever worked on at Torus was the Minority Report game for the Game Boy. Arriving at Torus as a game development novice, Hutchinson would leave a well-rounded professional.
“I learned a million things at Torus,” he says.
“The cool thing was we did probably six or seven Game Boy games in 14 months, so I learned the entire cycle of production over and over and over again in a very tight space.
“I learned how to deal with engineers, how to structure documents, what is important in a game, what isn’t important in a game, the order of production… these are all things I still need to know working on Assassin’s Creed,” he says.
But Torus would not be able to keep Hutchinson for long. Maxis waved its fat Sim arms at Hutchinson, offering him the opportunity to move overseas to work on the Super Mario Bros. of simulation games.
Moving To The Big (Sim) City
“Moving to the US was super exciting, but also a huge risk,” Hutchinson says.
“I reasoned with myself this way: ‘If I go over there and I get fired after a year, what’s the worst that could happen? I go back, I’m in exactly the same spot before I left, it’s not that bad.”
Hutchinson got on the plane.
“I was hired to make Sim City on the PlayStation 2, and then they cancelled the project when I was on the plane,” he says.
“I didn’t even get to land and start on it!”
Instead of turning around and returning to Australia with his tail between his legs, he was moved over to Sims in the City as co-lead designer to help ship the game. The schedule was tight, the team only had a few months to complete it, and complete it they most certainly did. Impressed by Hutchinson’s work, they let him lead the development of The Sims 2. When The Sims 2 shipped, he became the lead designer on Spore.
While working on The Sims, Hutchinson received his first offer from Ubisoft Montreal to work on the original Assassin’s Creed. As intrigued as he was by the project, the timing wasn’t right. He turned it down. He would later go on to be the creative director of EA Montreal and work on an action shooter.
Near the end of Hutchinson’s time at EA, Assassin’s Creed was more than just an intriguing project -- it had become a full-blown blockbuster series that dominated the sales charts to become a cultural gaming icon. Hutchinson received another phone call from Ubisoft -- they wanted him to be the creative director on Assassin’s Creed III. He couldn’t turn them down twice. While this wasn’t exactly Super Mario Bros., it was about as good as it gets.
Joining The Assassins
If Torus Games taught him how to make games, Maxis taught him how to perfect them.
“Maxis games are usually systemic, so it was fun learning game design systems as opposed to content,” he says.
“Most traditional games are linear arrangements of content, so you make a tunnel, you put stuff in it, and you arrange the challenges that match the player’s ability.
“Maxis games are about action and reaction. You can do things that cause reactions or interactions with other objects, so it’s much more AI-driven. I think that’s the best training in game design because it takes away all your crutches of a big cut-scene or a linear level or something hand-constructed. You have to think abstractly about game design and about what you’re asking the player to do.
“Even now in Assassin’s Creed this stuff is still very important to me. It’s important how all the different mechanics fit together and how all the systems touch each other. That’s where the fun in the game is. That’s why it’s not a book.”
Hutchinson sees Assassin’s Creed III as a new IP built on existing technology and a few key pillars of the Assassin’s Creed series. There’s a new character, a new story, a new setting, new mechanics, and everything is new except for the idea that the assassin is someone with a back-story. There’s a mythology to build into; he’s still fighting, climbing, and exploring history, but Hutchinson believes these are very loose constraints.
“I think we found a balance between change and newness,” he says.
“The real challenge for everyone was the weird split fear between changing nothing and changing everything. People say they want it to be completely different but exactly the same. We’ve taken risks, we’ve changed a lot, but at its core it’s still Assassin’s Creed.”
The Hutch Touch
Hutchinson is now working on the game with a large team that has had experience with previous Assassin’s Creed games. They have had the longest production cycle since Assassin’s Creed I with access to more advanced technology than previous games in the series. So what will Hutchinson in particular bring to the game that no previous creative director could?
“Well, there are lots of Australians in the game now,” he jokes.
“It’s all about saving Australians and founding a colony on a far away island. You arrest the Templars and you send them to Australia.”
Sunburnt Aussies aside, Hutchinson says that as a game designer, he hopes to bring something new to the feel of the game.
“This notion that the way we interact with the player, what we ask them to do, how we ask them to do it -- we can create emotions, we can ask the player questions and they answer with behaviour, by interacting with the game -- that’s what’s interesting to me,” he says.
“I come from a design background, so for me it’s a case of if the fight doesn’t feel quite right, how can we change it? If the climbing doesn’t feel right, what can we do?
“I think we can bring some of that systemic game design to the living world around the main storyline. These are the problems I felt that I could solve, whereas I’m not an art director. If the art direction is terrible (which is isn’t), I can’t help it. I’m not an art guy, I’m not an audio guy, I’m a design guy.”
Hutchinson sees his role as a kind of curator, drawing a box to determine what the game will be like and working with others to fill it in.
One of the changes he wants to make is to the world of Assassin’s Creed itself. In previous Assassin’s Creed games, non-playable characters (NPCs) would be painting houses or raking leaves while having conversations, but if the player stood next to them, those conversations could go on forever.
“One of the things we wanted to work on was this idea of stations. The stations attract NPCs from the crowd, so they can pull someone in who can paint the house, and at some point it’ll be enough so they leave.
“When you think about it, it’s very similar to how The Sims works. The objects in the world advertise the fulfilment of needs, the Sims have needs, they interact with those objects, they go away. It’s a little more systemic than it was before,” he says.
If all goes to plan, Assassins Creed III will also be more expressive than the games before it.
“I think a lot of previous creative directors were much more linear narrative driven than I am,” Hutchinson says.
“The story is obviously super important and it’s the backbone of the game, but I like the idea that outside that main story you can experiment with the world and have an experience that feels more expressive.
“You can express what kind of assassin you are and not just go through the story.”
America, Racism, And Pride
When asked to name what he is most proud of in Assassin’s Creed III, Hutchinson answers immediately without needing to think twice. The first is the way he believes the team behind the game have been able to take what is now an annual series and create something fresh. Assassin’s Creed III looks unlike any Assassin’s Creed game before it.
Set in 18th century America before, during, and after the American Revolution, it’s a game that ventures into the bustling cities of America and the natural environment that covered most of the country during that time. Players will spend as much time climbing trees as they do buildings. They will have to battle the elements, the wildlife, and the Templars.
“The thing we keep saying is the America of the 18th century is not modern America. There are some landmarks, but nothing else is still here,” he says.
“There’s never been another action or adventure game set in the America of the 18th century, the closest is a couple of real-time strategy games. I think this will feel fresh.
“I’m sure we’ll go back to Europe at some point, but the one that always makes me laugh is the Feudal Japan one where people want to be a ninja. We’re like, really? You haven’t played a game where you’re a ninja before? Are you sure? Are you sure that’s not literally 40% of the industry over the last 20 years?”
The second thing Hutchinson is most proud of is the Native American assassin who is true to his culture and heritage.
While the announcement of a Native American assassin received mixed responses, Hutchinson he doesn’t care what people think about it -- he is proud to have a progressive lead character.
“I was actually quite saddened by the response from the internet -- it definitely shows how racist some people can be!” he says.
“For the team, it’s incredibly exciting to have a Native American assassin. This is someone who, story-wise, can stand outside the war. He’s not British and he’s not a part of the patriots. He’s someone who is under-represented. Minorities are completely under-represented in video games so it’s a chance to be progressive and we take it very seriously.”
The team hired a Native American consultant to make sure they were being true to history. The character’s voice actor is Native American himself.
“There are scenes in the game where if there are Mohawks talking to Mohawks, we’re recording in Mohawk -- we’ll subtitle in all languages in all territories.
“It’s very important to us that we take this seriously and earnestly. I think when people play it they’ll realise that it’s fresh. If it comes across as tokenism, then we’ve completely failed.”
The assassin leaps from tree branch to tree branch like a stone skipping water. The weight of his body and weapons only becoming a reality with the thump of each landing. He looks out into the distance -- snow -- everywhere, miles and miles of snow. He knows his mission is out there, somewhere.
Alex Hutchinson looks at his game -- his Super Mario Bros. -- being demoed to an audience. As the assassin performs acrobatic moves through a playground of trees, it offers Hutchinson a moment to reflect on how far he has come. He is now leading one of the biggest teams to have ever worked on an Assassin’s Creed game, offering creative direction on everything from the design to the scripts and the features. The pressure on him is immense, but he is determined to not let it get to him; he is determined to deliver. He looks out at the audience watching his game. His mission is almost complete.