Ubisoft Montreal has many years of experience working on the Assassin’s Creed franchise, but the studio is not known for taking small steps. From reinventing exploration with Black Flag to formalizing the series’ RPG status with Origins, we’ve come to expect more than incremental improvements from this team. This trend continues with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, which cleverly brings together familiar pillars to surprise new and old fans. We spoke with producer Julien Laferrière about the big changes, post-launch priorities and decisions that took place behind the scenes in the development of this Viking saga.
What has surprised you the most about the reaction of people so far?
I’m going to start with the part I was hoping people would get. We put a lot of effort into the rules, which was a central part of the game. Even internally, when we developed it, that was the center of a lot. But to validate that it has the weight we expected, you kind of have to build the whole game and see it … So I was really looking forward to seeing the reception, and I was really happy to see that people were getting it and enjoying it.
But what surprised me the most was this: we brought world events into this game to compensate for the change in structure with the rules, and I was really hoping the players would get it, but I didn’t. didn’t expect players to dig that much. Because [the world events] play with the tone a lot – sometimes it’s almost a joke. It’s funny. Like, there is a character with an ax in his head. It’s silly when you think about it; we would never do a main quest on a guy with an ax stuck in his head! World Events was designed as a valve to let some steam out for quest designers with a bunch of great ideas – all those little storytelling moments that didn’t fit in with other places in the game.
How did the team come up with the idea of using the colony as a hub?
We knew we were going to change the structure of the game, which came after thinking about what we did with Assassin’s Creed Origins: “We made all of these characters, and some of them aren’t memorable. Why is that? They look cool, their script is cool, their performances are cool. Why don’t they believe in the players? We’ve found that due to the way Origins was built – and Odyssey was the same – you clear the map gradually and usually never go back to a part of the map you’ve explored. And the characters are linked to these specific areas of the map. So we were like, “What if we added a place that is kind of an anchor, where you could see the consequences of the decisions you made and the NPCs you met?” For me, it started out with trying to have more memorable characters. Obviously, they could always have more awesome clothes and incredible resolution on their faces, but that’s not really the point. The problem is, they need more screen time. They need a fence – a beginning and an end – and the rules were perfect for that.
How do you approach the intro sequence to make sure it hits the sweet spot between introducing the right concepts without dragging on for too long?
The start of the game is always something that we work on until the last minute. In school, they teach you that one way to structure a text is to write the main body, and you record your introduction and conclusion until the end. For me, making the start of the game comes down to that; the beginning should be a good introduction to the game as it is built. You iterate along the way, but it was a challenge to introduce players to the systems – and we have a lot of changes in Valhalla. That’s why the first thing you do when you get off the boat is pick up those berries, right? Because the health in this game does not regenerate. Then you hit a climax – it’s our way of guiding players without holding hands too much, but doing something fans might be familiar with. But then you leap, and you don’t have the leap of faith – to say that you are a Viking, not an Assassin. So there’s a lot going on and we have a lot of mechanics to cover. We rehearsed a lot at the beginning … from what I’m reading some people love it, and some people think it’s a bit long. But we think this is the introduction the game needed.
Valhalla doesn’t just allow players to choose a male or female Eivor – there is a third “let the Animus choose” option that changes Eivor’s gender at different times. Who did you think about when creating this option?
For me, this is the perfect option for players who are really into the lore and players who will connect with the question: “Who is Eivor, really?” But that being said, we made sure it didn’t feel random, so it’s not like, “Sometimes I’m a man, sometimes I’m a woman.” And it’s not just for tradition-obsessed players; anyone should be able to say, “I’m playing an Eivor woman in this case, but a man in this case – okay, that makes sense.” They might not understand the underlying reasons, but we were aiming for some consistency. It means a bit like a director’s cut – if you want the experience the way the creators envisioned it. But if your Eivor is a badass warrior all the time, that’s fine! If you choose the male [option] and are in the beard, that’s good!
Besides the announced post-launch updates, what is high on your priority list?
I think Odyssey has been very successful at listening to his player base. When reviewing Valhalla’s post-launch plans, it was important to me to have quality of life fixes and to be able to respond to new platforms as they continue to improve. We also have excellent reception on PS5, X Series and PC; people certainly appreciate the high-end capabilities of the game, so we want to continue to take advantage of it. It’s not supposed to sound like bulls – or a cliché, but for me it’s about hearing what the playerbase is saying and reacting to that, in addition to the extra content and features.
Was there a feature early on that you thought was cool to include but just didn’t make it into the end game?
We had our pillars pretty early and we stayed there. We changed the balance … but we stayed true to these pillars. But one thing I can say that has not been successful and which we believe could work very early on is naval combat. We actually found that the Vikings didn’t do a lot of naval combat; we thought they could shoot flaming arrows like in Odyssey. But they just didn’t. So we said, “There is no sea on our map, only rivers … we are going to treat the ship more like a vehicle.”
How did the team make the decision to cover most of the skill tree with fog?
It’s funny, because we wanted to have a sense of discovery in the skill tree. What if you start with all the non-buggy nodes? It’s pretty intimidating for gamers … we have an audience that isn’t necessarily hardcore RPG gamers, and we wanted to respond to them and make things a little easier. And it was also to trigger the feeling of, “I wonder what’s under this cloud? What do I get if I go in this direction? But we didn’t want to make it punitive either, that’s why you can respec at any time. And you can undo individual selections without respecting the entire tree. We put a lot of thought into this tree to make it fun to play, as we wanted a crazy skill tree to give you lots of options.
I was impressed with the variety of secondary content in Valhalla, especially compared to the last two installments in the series. Was this a specific priority for the team?
I’m glad you asked that question, because since our first presentation on the game to top management in Paris, one of the key things we wanted to work on in production was variety. We know that gamers engage in these games for many hours, and after 60 hours we still want to be able to surprise gamers. This drove the entire production from the number of activities to the types of minigames to the puzzles. At every point in the game, we tried to say, “Okay, what’s the surprise? Is it a reward, a miniboss, a puzzle? Something that turns into something else? Is this a woman who wants to collect viper eggs to create the biggest fart ever? Variety was a key pillar … in that first presentation we said, “We will bet on variety to get an even better game in the long run.” So, I’m glad it worked for you. Hope this works for other players as well!
(This interview was originally published in Game Informant number 332)