Assassin’s Creed Origins developed by Ubisoft Montreal, released in 2017, is the tenth instalment in the main Assassin Creed series. Set in Egypt during the Ptolemaic period it explores the origins of the Brotherhood of Assassin’s and their conflict with the Templar Order by showcasing how the conflict between the two factions started. Built using the AnvilNext engine, one of Ubisoft’s powerful custom game engines, the title was developed to be an accurate representation of what Ancient Egypt looked like and with the power that the AnvilNext engine provided it empowered developers to build a lush, organic and detailed depiction of Ancient Egypt with large biomes, rich cities, dynamic open quests and extensive enemy compounds throughout giving the Ubisoft team the ability to create larger more immersive spatial environments occupied with different systems and ingredients empowering Level Designers.
Faction Strongholds are elements that are focused on utilising the core components of the typical Assassin Creed game, Navigation & Movement, Combat & Stealth and could be considered an individual contained “level” and as such each have been specifically designed with comparable arena map design concepts, particularly the larger strongholds. Whilst the main missions are often linear scenarios with set objectives, the strongholds are situated within the Open World of the game and as such the player can typically approach a stronghold from multiple different routes, utilising the 3D space as much as possible with multiple branching paths. The open setups give the player an opportunity to choose one of the main branching paths to best suite their playstyles or chosen skill trees.
Throughout the game there are three tiers of stronghold, each increasingly larger and complex than the last. The visual change in both appearance and size gives a clear indication on difficulty and clearly frames player progression. By creating smaller to larger strongholds, it visibly gives feedback to the player about their progression. The different strongholds consist of three different types, including:
Small encampments feature a small cluster of guards with light weapons and basic NPC archetypes, thieves and bandits. Giving the player an opportunity to gain easy and quick loot whilst allowing them to utilise available tools and skills without significant risk.
Due to the lower difficulty tier the encampments are designed with multiple easy approaches and easy to reach vantage points. Often the encampments fences surrounding the encounter have broken sections in it giving the player an easy and obvious route to enter a vantage point, in this case bushes or hay carts.
Barracks are the second tier of stronghold that features a larger number of guards, thicker walls and towers that prove to be a bigger challenge for the player. The barracks typically feature a larger compound, interior and exterior defences with a courtyard in the middle, where the player must reach to eliminate the NPC stealthily. In the barracks strongholds the challenge increases by designing the encounter space to be a multi-tiered arena with flanking routes, vantage points, an increased number of NPCs with increasingly difficult NPC synergies and archetypes.
Forts are the largest strongholds out of the three and are large imposing structures with high thick walls, multi layered with multiple defences. The grander scale in both challenge and difficulty provides a clear goal for the player to strive towards and is a noticeable landmark in the open world that the player can aim for and use to situate themselves within the overarching world.
Creating Interesting Vantage Points
A core design concept seen throughout each of the strongholds and the main game alike is vantage points created by patches of tall grass and bushes that hide the player when crouched. Often it can be seen that the patches of grass are specifically placed in long areas that give the player an advantage or a possible route to get deeper within the complex. Whilst this concept has been carried through the different tiers of strongholds there is a noticeable difference in the amount of vantage points available, reducing or increasing difficulty appropriately. The small encampments have multiple nearby vantage points which contrasts to the larger strongholds that feature less, increasing the use of skills and slowing down the pace of the player, if they opt for the stealthier approach.
Bushes Placed on the Perimeter of Encampment.
Remembering one of the core mechanics threaded through the Assassin Creed series, stealth, the vantage points give an opportunity to plan a potential approach to enter and exit the stronghold unseen. The vantage points are not particularly based on height, rather they are points of strength within the stronghold such as a ledge or a haystack regardless of location. Comparable to how traditional cover is placed the patches of grass can be seen to be seen to be placed in such a manner to create routes along the main paths into and around the strongholds, it could be considered that the patches of grass are the equivalent to the crates in similar action games.
Bushes Placed in an Obvious Route to a Potential Entrance.
Much like traditional deathmatch level design the designer has evidently played with the layout of vantage points and cover to create strongpoints, flanking routes and to increase the player agency whilst retaining the core concept of using cover to provide protection, strategic options and establish flanks whilst ensuring that the cover looks correct for the environment. A prominent observation in most if not all of the strongholds is that when using a vantage point not all of the AI can be seen or killed rather the player must move in closer to gain access to inner vantage points by navigating deeper into the stronghold, breaking up the player’s view, increasing difficulty and helps to dog leg the rendering of assets and NPCs alike, improving performance.
Using the Architecture & Traversal Level Design for Navigation
Due to the nature of the game each stronghold heavily relies on using the architecture to encourage navigation and movement through the space. How the player traverses around and through the stronghold is a pivotal aspect of retaining positive flow and fluid navigation. The designer has used the architecture of buildings and structures as a primary component to create complex tiered spaces to navigate.
Each stronghold looks and feels like an accurate depiction of what could have been a barracks or a fort from the basic layout, to the lighting and composition each aspect of the stronghold feels correct and fits within the general theme of both the game and the overarching biome theme, for example if a biome is known to be Roman then the region will be filled with large Roman forts and encampments littered with defences, each intrinsically different in architecture and traversal whilst retaining a strong visual theme.
An Example of a Roman Fort.
The traversal mechanics required strict and complex metrics to ensure that animations are in sync and that the traversal parkour system functions as intended, by having a constraint it has helped to create accurate or thought of as accurate depictions of Egyptian and Roman architecture to use for the strongholds, inherently describing gameplay, navigation, flow and use of ingredients for the designer.
It can be seen in any Open World game, but Assassin Creed Origins utilises the 3D space extremely efficiently primarily due to the improvements of the parkour system and technological advancements since Assassin’s Creed's inception where spaces were much more linear and restrictive, in terms where the player could climb. As the player can climb virtually any surface on a piece of architecture it allows the designer to develop great traversal setups at specific locations in the stronghold to facilitate movement and utilises the spaces more which makes the overall design natural, encourages choices and promotes replayability. Each stronghold often features large open sections or courtyards, narrow sections that feature low and high cover routes and interior sections allowing flanking routes.
Two Potential Routes to Reach the Interior of a Barracks.
The instances of navigation found in a stronghold can often be looked at as a navigation puzzle, with the player asking how do I get to point B from point A? The designers of the strongholds in the game have ensured that the player never goes in the same direction too long, for example they never have to shimmy across a ledge for a period of time rather the player will find themselves going in different directions when climbing walls, climbing towers and generally moving from the low ground to the high ground. This helps to break up the terrain better and creates a more interesting encounter for the player. It is evident that the designers have positioned traversal tools when attempting to enter and move through a stronghold to reduce the possibility of the same traversal route or mechanic in each stronghold making each individual instance of a stronghold unique and a new puzzle, ultimately creating a more varied path.
Reinforcing Navigation & Utilising Height Variation
Creating paths utilising 3D spaces is seen throughout each stronghold refreshes gameplay paths to make navigation feel fresh and unique. The level designers of Assassin’s Creed Origins utilise the 3D space in an effective manner as the player can employ exterior and interior spaces to reach their objective. The designer has put the navigation of each stronghold at the forefront of the design as the game space is logical and considers how the player might move through it and interact with it. The environment itself also feels fluid to move through due to the tight collision and the fact that most if not all ledges can be climbed on.
Within each stronghold the use of terrain and layered architecture to create line of sight breakers and interesting geometry for the player. The varying vertical elements increases the amount of gameplay spaces the player has extending potential gameplay time.
An Example of How a Stronghold is Typically Split.
Using Layered Design & A High Level Typical Layout
As each stronghold becomes larger as the player progresses there is an evident “onion” design approach can be seen. The onion design approach simply means that the stronghold has evident layers to it, to give a sense of progression and difficulty. Within each stronghold there is an NPC boss that the player has to eliminate to clear the stronghold, often the NPC is an elite surrounded by guards adding to the overall challenge.
Typically, there are two layers for the smaller strongholds and three and potentially four layers for the larger strongholds.
Circles Define Zones of Varying Danger.
Each layer decreases the safety of the player and increases the intensity of the encounter. The outer layer is a moderately safe zone that gives the player an opportunity to reach a vantage point survey the land on the perimeter of the stronghold, identify secondary objectives, possible routes and patrol routes, the second layer is deeper within the stronghold where NPCs are typically patrolling creating combat possibilities, often there is a risk/reward scenario when in this layer of the stronghold as moving at the wrong moment will result in the player being spotted. Finally, the centre layer is the typical point where a high-level NPC is located with possible loot and an increased NPC presence. By utilising the layered approach, it reinforces the stronghold aspect and suites the sandbox levels that they are, predominantly due to the player being able to use various routes to reach their principal goal. A careful balance of layered design can ensure that the player feels challenged and accomplished when completing it, increasing the player agency.
A High Level Example of the Different Layout, Categorised by Tier.
Using Level Design Ingredients to add Flavour
Within each stronghold the designer has placed different level design ingredients that can add additional complexity to the encounters and giving the player to create gameplay opportunities unique to their playthrough. The designer has played with the array of ingredients available to dictate the difficulty and possible emergent gameplay opportunities. It is obvious that the designer has specifically placed the ingredients in the best possible way to give the player a memorable experience.
Creating a Consistent Visual Language & Understanding Themes
Each stronghold has a distinct visual language, dressing and themes helping to convey clear faction recognition and illustrating which region the faction is home to, helping the player to situate themselves in the world, for example a Roman fort is distinctively different from an Egyptian military barracks. The varying size shows strength and presence in the biome and presents progression, going from small camps to large fortresses. In addition, due to the nature of the faction it dictates where the stronghold is located and whether or not it blends in the environment, something the designer has considered. For example, bandit camps which are often seen in rural areas or hidden within mountains blend within their environment whereas barracks and forts stand out because the faction narrative allows it, this can be seen as intentional in the design of each encampment or stronghold and is a constraint that the designer had to consider when designing the layout. Each stronghold has a dominant theme and a sub theme depending on the location, for example an encampment could primarily have the theme of bandit with a sub theme of a crocodile slaughter house.
When blurring an image of each type of stronghold, it is still evident that the location is a fort or barracks to some degree as the structure is often imposing and acts as a focal point for the player, giving visual identity and helping it stand out from the background, whereas doing the same to a bandit camp highlights the stronghold blending in to the surrounding environment slightly more. Depending on the size it helps to reflect the overarching strength and dominance inherently dictating the scale and the design of the layout. There are dominant military or construction themes throughout each of the strongholds which have helped the designer to better design the space and assist in worldbuilding.
Bandit Camp – Messy, unorganised, minimal defences, rural placement, hidden
Military Barracks – Disciplined, fortified structured, medium defences, within cities, obvious
Roman Fort – Military or Construction, imposing structure, heavily fortified, within countryside, obvious
The use of recurring elements and themes in the strongholds scattered throughout the world gives the player a feeling that all strongholds are part of a coherent world whilst adding contrasting elements in some of the strongholds to create a visual overtone of design in order to highlight their difference and/or to create visual interests or a focal point. An example of this can be seen throughout the Roman Forts with forts having construction elements to support the idea that the Romans are actively settling in the region. The designer’s ability to imbue spatial differentiation with cultural differentiation to tell a story, a careful use of symmetry and consistent colour helps to create a natural eloquent encounter in each stronghold.
Blurring Images of Strongholds Identifies Visual Shape of Encounter.
Encompassing Flow & Player Progression
In each stronghold the designer has placed components that support fluid movement and quick traversal to create looping paths for the player to take, done by specifically placing traversal props along the golden path to the objective to make the player feel powerful. For example, wooden ramps combined with wooden beams and ropes allow the player to complete a series of small and large parkour movements that fluidly transition into one another to reach a vantage point or to reach the target with minimal breakage of movement, empowering the player and creating positive flow.
Example of How Flow is Encouraged Naturally.
The designer has created each stronghold to finely balance the use of architecture and traversal props to retain a good balance of realism and gameplay needs. The flow category is a mixture of looping paths combined with exploratory flow allowing the player to have looping paths around the space whilst allowing the player to explore if they desire to without any distinct boundaries or making the player making a 180-degree turn, breaking flow.
Each stronghold typically focuses on moving the player towards the centre of the space, where high level NPC characteristically can be found with ropes subconsciously leading the player through the environment to vantage points. This has also been supported by the placement of loot crates that are required to be retrieved before fully completing the stronghold. The loot crates are placed in spaces that require the player to navigate through patrolling NPCs and the interior spaces, encouraging the player to fully explore the space while still retaining risk.
Using NPC Synergies & Emerging Systemic Encounters
Each stronghold features an array of NPCs that patrol the area that sync nicely together due to the careful consideration of the archetypes to create a positive synergy encouraging interesting combat encounters. The NPCs can be seen to move back and forth through a specific route that the designer has scripted using the Domino scripting tool in the AnvilNext game engine to specifically tailor routes to maximise challenge and difficulty. The logic will tell the NPC to go to a specific point, complete an animation or scene and continue patrolling around the stronghold.
Each NPC will have an area they are scripted to patrol or be located in, depending on their archetype, for example an Archer will be told to patrol the boundaries and remain in the watch towers respectively helping to convey their archetype to the player creating a consistent element throughout each stronghold to increase player understanding, NPCs can also be found along main paths and points of strength such as hay carts, grass patches and other vantage points. However, to add difficulty to encounters the designer has placed NPCs in areas of inconvenience, stationary NPCs that are guarding a direct entrance, a particular vantage point or chokepoint encouraging the player to alter their initial plan fundamentally creating a more dynamic gameplay encounter.
An observation is that the NPCs, particularly in the lower tier, move or stop near a vantage point allowing the player to silently eliminate him. Each NPC has looping paths around the stronghold to some degree with 3 to 4 points of stopping allowing the player to engage or disengage. An example is a player is hiding in a bush and during the NPCs patrol path he decides to use the bush as a bathroom, this gives the player an opportunity to strike. It is obvious that the designer has specifically designed instances of NPCs to do this and follows a typical stealth encounter setup.
NPCs Come Close to Vantage Points, Making them Easy Prey.
In addition to the traditional logic NPC scripting there can be systemic encounters that occur in the varied encampments or strongholds at random. These come in the form of NPCs patrolling the world that happen to go through the stronghold whilst the player is there or wildlife creating often accidental chaos that create some interesting, albeit random gameplay. The systemic gameplay comes from the existing game elements, in this instance the globally defined scripted NPC paths, get slightly changed. Instead of the consistent characteristics and behaviours of NPCs the player comes to know they change to adapt to the situation, breaking away from their scripted pathing.
The systemic components create both emergent gameplay and efficiency. Firstly, emergent gameplay, the random possibility that a band of rebels, roaming wildlife or mounted patrols will intercept the NPCs will create gameplay that the player may have not considered. Consistent systems overlaid on to the traditional design work capable of emergence are more likely to provide the player with emergent strategies wherein the player must adapt and reconsider their approach, creating a less linear experience. Secondly, efficiency, the possibilities of emergent gameplay coming from other systems and not scripted set pieces that have been clearly set out for the player rather it allows the designer to focus on other elements of the mission or stronghold, freeing up time and resources fundamentally creating a more robust level. Additionally, when the game world switches to the night the cycle of NPCs change again creating a more dynamic experience.
The designer has ensured that the NPCs are not particularly frustrating for the player by ensuring the patrol placement, the amount of guard’s suites the size of the stronghold, the possible eliminations points and how long they pause at a location, by tweaking and balancing the different aspects of an encounter which has allowed the designer to create each stronghold feel unique with it’s NPCs whilst retaining the fundamental consistent archetypes seen throughout the world.
Safe Areas Created by Props Overlooking NPC Patrol Area.
A prominent observation is that with the strongholds in Assassin’s Creed Origins there is never an instance of a path that the player can use the avoid all of the NPCs in an area, unless the designer intended it, as each path is contested by an enemy at some point or is in the line of sight of an NPC.