Side Missions, Engines, Joysticks

Meet the head writer of the video game Assassin’s Creed

A rooftop chase from the <i>Assassin’s  Creed III </i>video game
Corey May

While a feature film occupies its viewers for about two hours, a video game more likely offers a 10- to 40-hour ride—roughly comparable to a book. Furthermore, unlike other entertainment media, video games are interactive. “Interactivity changes everything,” says video-game developer Corey May ’99, head writer for the Assassin’s Creed games, one of the world’s best-selling franchises. “We are not designing a passive experience. Entertainment usually means spectatorship—those who create it may have the audience in mind, but not audience input in mind. It’s more immersive and personalized when you have that participating audience.”

Ordinarily, players work a video-game console that includes several buttons and joysticks. Other games use a computer keyboard and mouse. The player controls the movements and, above, all, the decisions of the main character or avatar, the player’s alter ego. For example, in the Assassin’s Creed series, which includes several related games sold by Ubisoft Entertainment (where May works), the main character, Desmond Miles, pursues an adventurous quest to find several artifacts (“Pieces of Eden”) that embody extraordinary powers and may even save humanity from eradication by a solar flare. The player determines how Desmond moves through the game’s landscapes—running, climbing trees or buildings, hiding in rooms, or leaping across roofs.

Assassin’s Creed is an historical action-adventure series. Using a device that allows him to experience “ancestral memories,” Desmond travels to the time of the Third Crusade (circa a.d. 1191) and, in later games, to the Italian Renaissance and the American Revolution. Thus players get to experience virtually the medieval Holy Land, Florence, Venice, Rome, and Tuscany in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the New England countryside of Revolutionary times. Such settings make research into historical milieux a major part of game development. One advantage of choosing Italy, says May, is that “80 percent of the architecture is still the same!”—allowing the creators to use modern photographs. The Revolution, he says, opened up “a fresh take on environments. You could build in tree-climbing or bow-and-arrow action.”

Production on a video game resembles that for a computer-graphics film. But interactivity demands far more content than a movie. Screenwriting provides an instructive comparison: screenplays average 120 pages and may take years to craft, but a videogame script can be 1,000 pages long, with the writing team cranking it out in three to six months. Assassin’s Creed III had seven credited writers. May wrote the game’s “main path,” which means, he says, “the things you [the player] have to do,” while colleagues knocked out “side missions,” onscreen text, and artificial intelligence (AI) lines, which enable reactions to the player’s choices.

“AI is what drives all the moving pieces inside the game,” May explains. “If you’re in combat with something, AI instructs your enemies on how to react to you, how to acknowledge your presence. It’s the brain inside the other stuff on the screen, and even inside the main character, so that when you push a button, the game knows what you want to do.”

Games are built with “engines,” collections of tools that include foundational code and systems to determine things like how to render graphics and manage AI. For example, an engine might enable building a “first-person shooter,” a game in which the player tries to shoot enemies while seeing the landscape through the eyes of the avatar. (Call of Duty, now the top-selling video game for several years, is a “military shooter.”) A different engine might support a sports game, like football. Some engines are versatile: Ubisoft has deployed the Assassin’s Creed engine to make other games as well.

Building a video game is a collaborative process done by teams that can include hundreds of artists, writers, computer programmers, and designers who are united “in pursuit of making cool stuff,” says May. (There are even translators: as the market is global, the text and dialogue appear in eight to 14 languages.) “There’s a tension in the industry. We are ostensibly creating entertainment. But there is an older mindset that’s more of, ‘We are creating software,’ as if we were building the next release of Microsoft Word. But we’re not making a word processor; we are building things that, if they are not telling stories, are creating experiences and evoking emotions.”

As a head writer, May supervises teams of writers for various games, and writes a lot himself. He has played video games since he was three or four years old and still does, for at least two hours a day. “I will be playing video games until the day I die,” he says. “I can’t imagine ever getting tired of it. I’m all right as a player. I don’t think there is any special advantage in being a game creator.”

In college, he worked part-time for a video-game company, telecommuting to write stories for an online multiplayer game, but concentrated in economics and took no computer-science courses (“I regret not trying”). Though he knows little about writing code, he now works closely with the “geeks” daily. He earned an M.F.A. in film producing at the University of Southern California, where he met his future business partner, Dooma Wendschuh; together they launched sekretagent Productions. Focusing on film production, they sold one movie to Disney that “was in development hell for 11 years until it died.”

About nine years ago, sekretagent found itself well positioned when videogame companies began scouring Los Angeles for Hollywood talent. “No one wanted to write scripts for games then,” May recalls. “It wasn’t movies or TV, it wasn’t sexy, and there wasn’t enough money.” But May loved games, had a body of work, and knew some things about creating drama and emotion on a screen. Before long he had connected with Ubisoft and moved to its largest studio, in Montreal. He works long hours and sometimes weekends, but only because he wants to. “You have a lot of freedom to dream and experiment here, to play with narrative structure and elements,” he explains. “It’s like a playground, a laboratory, or a workshop. And there are 2,000 other dreamers in this space with you creating these incredible, ambitious experiences.”


Read more articles by Craig Lambert

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