One of Ubisoft’s big reveals at E3 this summer was the pirate naval warfare game Skull & Bones. We played it at E3 and came away generally impressed. And on a recent trip to developer Ubisoft Singapore’s studio we had the opportunity to speak with creative director Justin Farren, who worked on Gears of War and Madden before joining Ubisoft. He also produced Assassin’s Creed Unity, Black Flag, and Syndicate in Singapore.
Our conversation covers a number of topics, including why Skull & Bones is a new IP instead of an Assassin’s Creed game, the possibility of a Switch version, and how the game uses the power of the Xbox One X. Farren also told us there will be loot boxes, but the game will take steps to avoid a pay-to-win scenario. Additionally, we asked about the mysterious single-player mode, and Farren confirmed the game will offer … something for fans in this department, though it’s still unclear how this may work.
Our interview, condensed and edited for clarity, follows below. For lots more on Skull & Bones, be sure to check out all of our previous written and video content here.
Ubisoft paid for GameSpot’s travel to and accomodation in Singapore.
GameSpot: After we finished playing that first match, we were a little in over our heads. What are you anticipating in terms of a learning curve?
Justin Farren: Well, our play test methodology is pretty comprehensive and what we try to do is make sure we understand where that level of autonomy comes. Does it come at five minutes, five hours, and to make sure that we engage players in a way that pulls them into PVP when they have the right skills and tools. What we see now is there is a certain type of fan that knows Black Flag, and it feels very familiar to them, so the mechanics come pretty quickly, and the depth of the customization, the different ship classes, the ship types emerges the longer you play.
What we anticipate is players, by the time they come into the disputed waters, which is what our PVP is, that they have an understanding of how to be, at least be autonomous, use their weapons, use their brace, and most importantly understand the wind. When you’re using the wind, when you’re using it well, it sometimes doesn’t really jump out at you, but when you’re against it, it’s like, “Oh, crap. I’m in a bad position. How do I get out of it?” And then that will translate over time into being able to anticipate the wind. And one thing you see right now in the E3 build is it’s a very simplified wind. We have a much, much more aggressive approach into how we’re trying to bring the wind into becoming a fundamental pillar of our gameplay.
GameSpot: Are there gonna be even more extreme elements like typhoons or water spouts? Just like things that could completely destroy your ship?
“I want players to feel as if the ocean is a threat” — Farren
Farren: Specific ingredients are gonna come, we’re gonna share more about those, but the important thing to realize is that the ocean itself is something you’re gonna have to master, and as a player, that means being able to overcome those things. You’re only seeing right now one setting of our Beaufort, that’s the wave and the wind reaction, so those things become more intense. We’re able to throttle those and create different encounters for players. When I think about my vision for the ocean itself, I want players to feel as if the ocean is a threat.
So, when you watch movies, sailing movies or movies that are about the age of sailing or the golden age of piracy, they’re not fighting always in those type of settings. That becomes the threat, that becomes the enemy, and being able to master the ocean is something that we want to present players with some scenarios. And of course they’ll be able to fight in it, but mostly it’s about that challenge of being able to survive the ocean itself.
GameSpot: I felt like at those moments when you can board the other ship, those are some of the most thrilling and intense moments. Did you consider or prototype having the boarding sequences happen from a first-person perspective?
Farren: The biggest thing to think about when you think about boarding is we’re in multiplayer setting, so there’s nine other ships that you have to account for, and we want boarding to be something that’s very intense and visceral. If you think about other games where they have quick-time events, we didn’t want that. We wanted it to be skill-based. We wanted it to be about positioning, creating weakness. It’s still early to think about where we’re gonna take it, but it has to work in a multiplayer setting.
You have only a couple minutes within that mode, average Black Flag is about a minute and 30 on boarding, so that type of boarding definitely doesn’t work for our game, but over time we’ll evolve exactly what we want all of our activities and engagements with the player, where he feels as if he’s going directly head to head with the crew.
We want to make them feel real, believable, and be skill-based, and work within a multiplayer setting.
GameSpot: Right. I was just thinking of in a, potentially a one v. one situation where there won’t be all those other things to consider.
Farren: Who knows. In multiplayer, we need to make sure that works in multiplayer where it’s fair, resolves quickly, and gets the player back into the action.
GameSpot: Kind of going back to the beginning, when we saw Skull and Bones announced at E3, one of the first things, first connections people made was to World of Warships or another game similar like that. The interesting thing about that game is that it’s free to play. Did you consider other business models for Skull & Bones?
GameSpot: Not since I joined. We have a commitment at the studio to really develop triple-A content and quality. If you look at Assassin’s Creed as a franchise, I was producer on Unity, Black Flag, and Syndicate, and we had the highest-rated content on those games. So, our commitment is to deliver high-quality content for players, and we want to translate that and our expertise in creating naval gameplay into something that has high value.
We definitely have taken more of a service-based approach so that when you pay for this game, you have a commitment from us to develop content, new gameplay, modes, new content for the player to earn, and then of course, new regions to explore, and those things will unfold as the game launches and provide service over time. But it’s not a, we don’t want to create pay to win, we don’t want to create something where players have to pay to compete. Our PVP is completely horizontal in a way that gives players a chance to develop their skills and compete against other players. So, yeah, those models, I mean, I play World of Tanks. I play Armored Warfare.
I play other free to play, and there is an appeal for me for that type of game, but I think the quality we can deliver, and we’ve delivered on Assassin’s Creed and Ghost Recon Phantoms, that’s what we want to deliver to fans so that they have that assurance that the game that they’re making is not a shoddy product, that it’s something that really has value that they can invest in for a long, long time.
GameSpot: I’m curious on your take on the balance between listening to what the community wants versus what you know is good game design.
Farren: So, data is interesting. If you think about the quantifiable data and the qualitative data, there’s lots. Some of it is anecdotal. Some of it is my opinion. Some of it I can look on, people will say, “I want to be able to do all these other things,” and “Why don’t you do exactly what this other game is doing?” And I look and I say, “Well, I have the data from what you did in Black Flag. I know what you did, and I know what you liked and what you didn’t because of how you rate it and score it, and I want to give you more of what you liked.”
So, fans, especially The Keepers [a group of fans that Ubisoft met with to get feedback on Skull & Bones before it was announced], who are very, very invested in the game community, their input is hugely important. We don’t dismiss it and like you saw in the video, it’s very true. We take it to heart. But the ideas themselves, we all have great ideas. So, what we want to do is translate their feedback into something that’s actionable and then iterate on it if it makes sense, and then present it back to the community internally and externally, and validate it, and be willing to throw away bad ideas. Be willing to throw away ideas that we think were great but just don’t work. And that process is ongoing.
There are things in our game that we’re working on now that are directly, that you’ll see over time, that are a direct result of our first workshop with The Keepers and I hope that they take pride in that when they think back to what we did in our workshop here in Singapore and go, “Wow, that feature is because of something I said, something I wrote on a white board.” And John and the broadcast room said that we engage the community. Every single day I’m on the forums, on YouTube, … on Reddit, and I directly answer questions and messages, and it’s a long time until we launch. We launch fall of 2018, but my commitment is that every week I’m gonna at least have five direct engagements until there’s the need for more.
So, people should engage. People should be passionate about it, but they should also understand that we’re carrying forward a vision that’s a collective vision for millions of people and millions of fans, and we want to give them, collectively, the best pirating experience that focuses on piracy.
GameSpot: Skull and Bones has its roots in Assassin’s Creed, but you decided not to make it an Assassin’s Creed game, but its own game, its own brand new universe. I’m wondering if you could just talk a little bit more about why it had less of the Assassin’s Creed DNA and more of its own.
Farren: Well, I think, I was closing producer on Black Flag, and when we were starting to close the project, the team who’s working on the game now, or at the time, was really experimental and trying new things and one of the first things they did is take the naval toy of Black Flag and put two people in there. And it was magic. There was something really cool about being able to sail and see your friend next to you, oh, and then there’s an enemy right over there. We said, “This could be something by itself.”
“Assassin’s Creed is a very specific fantasy about being an assassin, about being in a crowd, and that’s not the game we wanted to make” — Farren
So, that was really the catalyst for exploring that aspect of it. When it comes to the type of experience you have with Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed is a very specific fantasy about being an assassin, about being in a crowd, and that’s not the game we wanted to make. We wanted to make something that really leveraged the power of those huge, massive ships. You’ll notice that we have a lot of what we call “ship porn”, where we really focused on the details and intricacies of the ship and we bring the ship to life and make it a character of its own, and that’s something we wanted to do.
People loved the Jackdaw. We wanted people to have their own version of the Jackdaw and for people to really develop a relationship with that ship and invest in its customization and everything that comes with it.
GameSpot: Something else that we’ve been talking about this week, and some of the feedback that’s been around the game since you announced, was around single player or narrative Some people are gonna gravitate toward more single player. So, is that something you’re gonna be offering players?
Farren: Well, I mean, on a personal level, my favorite game of the last generation was Last of Us. I love story and narrative. As a gamer now, things that really resonate with me that we see the community responding to is the shared narrative, the narrative where people can broadcast or stream what they’re doing and it’s a unique experience to that player. So, we wanted to take that approach. Like, how do you create a systemic world where every single player’s experience is different and also tie it to a world narrative where you meet historical pirates, historically inspired characters, and that you have a narrative where you develop a bond with your crew and interesting characters along the way, taking out kingpins, all those things are part of our narrative, but we didn’t want it to be separate, that you just consumed and never looked back.
“We wanted to create a system that let us tell our narrative month after month, year after year, and then throw in the story elements to it” — Farren
We wanted to create a system that let us tell our narrative month after month, year after year, and then throw in the story elements to it. So, if you’re a PVP player, you should still feel like you beat the campaign. If you’re a PVE player, or like me, I plan on sailing with my daughter a lot, I want us to be able to go through the story and become kingpins together, and be able to tell the same world narrative through the game ones that we build.
It’s different. There’s not a lot of games that do this, but we really think that this is where people really want to experience narrative on a personal level, where they can effectively change the world. People always say, “It’s a living, breathing world.” Well, we really take that to heart. We want to create a world that actually reacts to the things that you do in it.
GameSpot: So, just to clarify, it’s not a completely separate mode, it’s woven together-
Farren: Yeah. It’s woven into it, so the story itself will be woven in to everything you do, from the time that you build your relationships with your crew until the time that you take down your first kingpin, building up your hideout, all of those things are woven into the modes that you play.
GameSpot: And if you don’t want PVP, that would be something …
Farren: I certainly hope that people will try to do our PVP, because we think it’s pretty compelling and it’s not a different, like Call of Duty when you play campaign and you go online, [and you get something very different]. I worked on Gears for a while and the players who play Gears multiplayer, they are different some times than the players who really invest in campaign. We want to bring those experiences closer together. For it to be a, you know, a one off campaign that’s consumed, would be a shame.
GameSpot: Now, another big trend coming out this year and by the time you guys are out next year is the Xbox One X, and I saw some dev kits in here, so pretty sure you guys have it. So, just curious to know what your thoughts are on that console and the power of that relative to what else is out there.
Farren: Well, you know, I’m … there’s not too much I can say about any specific console, but I will say that we’re targeting PC, Xbox One, Xbox X, PS4, PS4 Pro, and every bit of the technical team is focused on making sure that we maximize the strengths of the consoles that we’re targeting. So, when you read about whether there’s more memory, or rendering, those are the things we’re leveraging.
We’re also leveraging first-party integration on broadcasting streaming, so that we can bring that experience to lots of different content providers, content creators, too. So, the platforms themselves, our approach is fairly agnostic, and make sure if you own a particular platform that you feel like you’re getting the best Skull & Bones experience possible.
GameSpot: Nintendo Switch is a big, popular platform these days. Did you consider bringing the game to that platform? Have you done any experiments?
Farren: Well, I mean, our world is pretty rich in terms of the world that we’re bringing to life. We haven’t really talked too much about the Switch, but if that becomes a reality, then we would maximize the strengths of the Switch.
GameSpot: Everyone’s talking about loot boxes today. Are there gonna be loot boxes?
Farren: Loot boxes? You mean like in the general market?
GameSpot: Yeah, well, just thinking about how an Overwatch game has loot, is there gonna be a system like that?
Farren: So, our economy emulates the real economy of the Indian Ocean, so things that are important to the people who are shipping goods, the merchants, … the empires, those things are important to you. There’s nothing more pirate-y than the treasure chest.
GameSpot: Right. It fits very well.
Farren: So, what I don’t want to players to feel it is, that it’s some abstraction from the fantasy. It should feel like the things that you’re hunting, using your spyglass to see the things that are on board, should directly relate to the things that you need. But you know, there’s nothing more pirate-y than the treasure chest.
GameSpot: And you had talked before about how you didn’t want Skull and Bones to feel like a pay to win experience.
Farren: Yeah, no.
GameSpot: But presumably there will be, as many triple-A games from Ubisoft and others, micro-transactions in the form of, if you wanted to buy things.
Farren: It’s early for that. What we want to do is make sure if players want things, that we provide content for them if they want and that they don’t feel like it’s gated off because they didn’t pay for it. So, we want to have live events, we want to have seasonal events, seasons where you’re able to compete against other players to try to get to the top of the ladder and the top of the food chain. Those things will give you opportunity to get those customization elements, those cosmetics, vanity items that will allow you to personalize your experience.
So, if somebody sees your ship, they should know you’re a badass, or that you’re really invested in cosmetics. Or that you’ve got all the figureheads that represent you being in the right place at the right time to take down the right enemy. That’s super important to me. I play racing games, and when I see someone’s car that’s tricked out, I’m like, “How’d he get that?”
That’s what I want. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on Overwatch, and I can’t see it. I’m only doing it so that other people see what I spend or what I buy, and that’s crazy, but it’s, lots of people are like that, and I’m one of them.”
Skull & Bones launches in Fall 2018 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.