It would be easy to assume that Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour, a virtual museum set within the world of Assassin’s Creed Origins, would be a simple thing to put together. Wait for the finished game, scrape out the combat, nestle in a few blurbs of text about the life and times of ancient Egypt and voila. That may be true for a basic, proof of concept version of the experience, but Ubisoft Montreal’s plans were much grander and have resulted in something far more impressive and valuable.
The Discovery Tour is a passion project for the studio, created alongside Assassin’s Creed Origins during its three-to-four year development process. The idea was to enhance the series’ latent historical insight and to guide players through Egypt, pointing out and explaining interesting sights that they might have missed while running around stabbing people.
“It was a long dream for me,” says Ubisoft Montreal franchise historian, Maxime Durand. “Likewise Jean [Guesdon, Ubisoft Montreal creative director] and a lot of people within the company, as well as people from outside the company. But really it was Jean who convinced a producer who convinced our CEO, Yves Guillemot, to take the money from the game to do this.”
The plan was to take Origins’ huge map of Egypt and remove all the barriers, making the whole world explorable from the start. That includes cutting all combat and other forms of conflict. Though this was not as easy as they first anticipated.
“We developed both games simultaneously, the Discovery Tour and Assassin's Creed Origins,” Durand explains. “The value with that is that we could prepare to make switches to remove the awareness of the player within the environment, because even though this environment revolves around itself and not only around the player, there’s still a lot of interaction feedback that you get that are centred on the player. The way that you can see the world is also not the same. Assassin's Creed Origins is based on challenges. Whereas with the Discovery Tour we wanted to go deeper into that learning system, here you take your time to actually see everything that you've played before in the main game, and now you understand what it is that you've seen.
“While you were chasing Roman soldiers, for instance, you didn't necessarily realise that there were mosaics on the ground. So that's why it gives us an opportunity to enhance the experience for players.”
These teachable moments come in the form of 75 guided tours, much like you’d find in a museum or art gallery. These tend to last between five and 20 minutes each, depending on depth and complexity. Each node on the guided tour will explain a little bit more about what you’re seeing (aided by several new camera systems within the game, made specially for the Discovery Tour), all of which is fully voiced. While the focus here is definitely on historical fact, Ubisoft Montreal has taken the opportunity to explain anachronisms and even choices made during development. So not only can players come away with a working knowledge of ancient Egypt, but they might learn a thing or two about game design, too.
“When we make Assassin's Creed games we know that we make design choices that are discrepancies that are based on technical constraints, or even just because we want to change some aspects because of artistic values. We felt like there's value in explaining that in the Discovery Tour. So even when we’re talking about the culture and geography of ancient Egypt we also talk about the development process.
“For instance, you can do a tour of the Sphinx and in some of these nodes you learn that we tried different versions of the body of the Sphinx,” Durand says. “At first we tried more artistic versions of the Sphinx and we weren’t very pleased with the outcome. It felt too cartoonish. By the end, after trying six or seven different versions, we ended up with the most historically accurate version, because we used photogrammetry.
"We realised that there will never be a perfect Sphinx because our perception of the Sphinx as 21st century people is that it's monochrome. We always see it without the nose, without the cone around the head. So that perception will never be broken unless we go with the real version, the real historical version in that case.”
The team worked closely with teachers and historians and, as a result, there are numerous opportunities to ‘criticise history’. Talking points to get students discussing the factual accuracy of our current understand of history.
“Things like the Great Pyramid of Khufu for instance,” Durand says. “We made it on a one-to-one scale. We made the outer casing as faithfully as possible from records of historians and references from antiquity and what science tell us. At the same time we shortened some distances in the rooms, but otherwise pretty much everything that's inside is accurate with what we know. Then we realised 'oh, it's missing something'.
"And that's why we added some extra rooms based on the scientific theories. It's a whole tour about explaining why we made these extra rooms, what those theories are and whether they are grounded scientifically or not. A lot of teachers were asking for that and we felt that it was it was right to do this, too.
“On average there's always one instance of scientific discussion per tour. Some don't have them and some have more than one. But we tried to get a balance between giving science and in some way giving the science enough for people to criticise. And then there are the behind the scenes parts, which are very identified clearly as 'this is game development'.”
There’s no end goal in mind for the Discovery Tour, though throughout our conversation with Durand it became clear that, with a good enough reception, this could be just the beginning.
“For us, achieving it is already amazing,” he says. “Just the fact that we can release it, that is an achievement. And we're very eager to receive feedback from the fans who are going to play it and from teachers who would like to use it in the classroom with students. From anyone. We are eager to see what are the best practices and what we can improve if we were to make any changes. Hopefully they'll like it.”
The Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour will be available on February 20th as a free update for all Origins owners, and will also be available as a standalone download for $20.