Assassin’s Creed Valhalla interview with game director Benoit Richer

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is just around the corner. You might have read our most recent hands-on, where we dove into the combat and feel of the game as you explore England as a Viking raider.

We also got to speak with Benoit Richer, game director for co-
development and world on Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. We asked him to introduce himself.

So I am Benoit Richer, the game director for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. I work with all the different studios, because Valhalla is huge, right, and we have to work and coordinate the content with so many other studios. So, like, my teams are basically the teams abroad that are also making content for the game.

How has the pandemic affected working on this AC?

Well, I’ll start with my part. Me, I work with studios that are abroad, so I was already working through video conference with all of them. Like, all the time we’re syncing. So for us, it’s just a continuation. For sure, we needed to stop the travel, because often we did visit with them, etc. But we found ways to stream, like someone that was playing the game, streaming a session and reviewing the game with them. They were all inside let’s say a meeting room before, or from their home. Everyone is still connected. But actually, we were worried when it hit, like last March, when everyone was asked to be staying at home and that sort of stuff. But then the velocity kept going on, like even for some people they were more efficient at home, having a better family/work-life balance. And for directors for example, our work is to review the game, spend time playing the game, especially at this stage of the project.

In the beginning, it’s different, it’s about meeting people, giving guidelines and direction. Making sure all the different departments actually work all together in order to create a cohesive symphony from all of their work. But at the end, it’s mostly reduced so with a game of that scale, I think having more time to be able to spend connecting with the game and visit all the aspects of the game, I think it was actually more efficient from home. But we were allowed, with high-security protocol, to go to the office. Some people were necessary, or sometimes with all the tech setup, if we want to test on the next-gen kits and all, when you need physical stuff, for sure you have to go at work. But obviously, the work, the velocity kept going on. And we were actually pretty surprised because we worked during the worst end, we were really glad that it didn’t affect anything at all.

What would you say were some of the challenges to get right with Valhalla?

I think there was a couple of challenges. For sure, from my part, orchestrating all the different studios together in order to create one cohesive stuff at the same time. There’s a part that’s been developed, let’s say the legendary animals have been developed in Russia, but it’s gonna go in a Singapore portion of the world where assets have been made by the Philippines but some parts are quest designed and written in Montreal. It’s trying to orchestrate all of these people and having the vision to make sure that everyone’s aligned. And also, a game with that amount of writing, or stuff to do, we wanted to have a believable world. We wanted to express many different aspects of the Nords and the Viking life at that time period. So it’s also trying to develop all of these things with different teams, leveraging the expertise of all the different studios all together to create the best experience possible. We managed to give the proper ownership to people, how do we actually review the game, how do we start from the concept of these things up to their realisation. It’s actually quite large and we feel that nothing fell between the cracks. We had a strong and solid team and that team is amazing.

The fact that it is worldwide means it’s working around the clock. There’s always someone working on it, like 24 hours almost. Cause Singapore is inverse from us, then Montreal, there’s Europe, and it’s hard to disconnect because everyone is so passionate. You know that when you’re about to get to sleep, well actually, some people are waking up, and have questions. When you’re waking up, even if it’s really early, they’re up and running for a couple of hours. And there are tons of questions, so it’s kind of hard to disconnect. It’s really a big, intense marathon, but then again, it’s definitely managed to keep everything in order, and making sure that machine works at its best all the time.

Another challenge was the new pillars that we brought, like the raids and the settlement. Because with the settlement, and all the narrative structure, we’re not moving linearly on a predefined path, players have some agency. Which types of territories, so it’s the whole narrative structure we need to rework. It all combined back to the settlement and how your settlement is growing, offering you opportunities, and how these opportunities are going to offer new tasks. Players are going to look at the world differently, going to see actions have a long-term consequence. So it’s making sure that these have the necessary impact that we wanted. And then again that we’re glad that it definitely worked.

What have you taken from Origins and Odyssey as learning points for the RPG experience?

This time around we really wanted to ground all the villains. We didn’t want to be in a grindy game and feel that you’re hitting damage sponges and that people are levelling up with you. So even though you’re spending a lot of time to try level up, well guess what, the enemy also levelled up. So if someone was working hard to try to collect some gear and collect some materials in order to upgrade his gear, and upgrade his power, then let him have the satisfaction of facing low-level enemy people, let him take out these people really easily.

We also changed it so that each weapon is unique. The first weapon you have in the game, you can bring it up to the end. You can upgrade it, you can customise it. If you love that type of weapon, so instead of having loads of weapons all the time and then you just toss them away and sell them etc, we really wanted to make it meaningful. We took the time to make sure that everything you collect is meaningful. All the parts we’re taken to make sure that everything you collect is connected to something. How do you upgrade, and how does it link to your settlement, like upgrading at the blacksmith. And your personal customisation as well, from tattoos to haircuts, the narrative choice you’re going to make have a lasting impact on narrative arcs. There’s a new assault that depending on who you connected by narrative choice during story arcs, different people are going to show up. So it’s making sure that the player’s choice are taken into account and having a meaningful impact.

The social stealth and the base building elements. We haven’t seen these in an AC for a while. How does it feel bringing back almost ‘old’ features?

Well, it’s definitely a good question because we want to make a homage to these things. And we want to revamp them, we want to put them with a fresh new take. Like the social stealth, the fact that there’s elements you could observe, like the place you need to get to and also within the narrative context I should have said first. The narrative context which Danes were not welcome in the different areas, like a Saxon living there. But if you want to access some areas where you need to connect with someone that’s drunk and try to leave with them, etc., and it’s bringing the fantasy that a lot of people love. Being hidden inside the crowd. It’s that feeling you have when you play with this approach, it’s something we wanted to bring back. The flying paper that we have is also a homage to what we did before. We have customisations. So people are also asking for that kind of stuff. And it’s nice, not only to look back at what has been done before, but how we can take a fresh take on it.

Looking at the game now in the review process what is your favourite part of Valhalla?

Oh wow. My favourite part… it’s really hard to point at something specific, because for me, what makes it different and makes this one unique is how all the elements actually come together. The immersive experience that you have, the setting, the world, the different activities you can do. I was reviewing the game and I was reviewing fishing, and you’re gonna see morning rise and you’re gonna be fishing with the wind, the waves of the ocean, and you’re just fishing and I was living in the moment. Living a real-life moment, a real-life experience. How this world is immersive is definitely one of the strong things but I have to say that it’s how all of these different notes actually come together to create an experience with the game.

The trailers so far, they haven’t shown much of the modern world aspect of the game. Is there a reason for that? Is that something you leave to the players to discover?

Definitely, it’s something that we don’t want to spoil too much. It’s like how does it connect, the modern-day storyline? Also all the threads with the Hidden Ones, it’s something that we want to let the players discover for themselves because as they’re going to experience it, it’s gonna be way more meaningful for them than spoiling it. Because as soon as there’s one image revealed, people are analysing it to the smaller details. ‘Oh, it looks like this symbol might be a Templar because that looks like a cross here’ People get in and really analyse. We really want the player to discover it for themselves because it’s going to be really awesome.

Can you discuss the decision to focus more on players discovering things?

We started the project thinking, what are Vikings? What are the Norse from that time period, the ninth century when they invaded England? Who are these people? So we wanted to make it as much of a believable, immersive learning experience as well. We wanted all the different aspects of Norse life to be transparent. The Vikings were explorers, some of the best explorers that the world had ever known, and we wanted to cover that aspect. So this was one of the aspects, it was all about beliefs and honour and pride and avoiding shame and these are all showing themes from the Norse, from that time period. And we wanted to make sure that they were expressed somehow in the game.

The point of exploration was something that we let the players explore new territory, find new places. That feeling of discovery, settling in in a new place. Some go for war and conquest, others, they just want to settle. They just want to be farmers. They’re settlers, and they just want the land, because another aspect was to start the game in Norway, like the Norse did, obviously, but that the world is beautiful and harsh lands. It’s really tough to cultivate lands over there. So the transition when they move from Norway to England, to this world full of opportunity. This is one of the aspects that we wanted to bring in. Even at the beginning of the project where a lot of directors were in Norway and did the trip to England to see the transition, to make sure that we could represent it as much as possible. That feeling that you start to think it’s a magic land, you’re tribe has found land, lush and full of opportunities. So definitely the explorer aspect means players will be able to explore different areas. We cannot say much at this point, but up to the point of discovering America, these guys were having visions, they were able to explore some of the world. So the explorer side, their beliefs, all the different aspects of Norse, Viking life, we covered them as much as possible with our experience.

For the eagle-eyed players, will they be able to translate the runes in the game for hidden messages or hints from the developers?

As far as I know, most of them yes. But with a project of that scale, at some time an artist just took a couple of runes to make something, but usually, there’s a strong attention to these type of details. Even though toward the beginning when we first announced the game, for sure, all the symbols and runes, the language were authentic, the accents also, the different types of accents that we are gonna hear from the Norse people, from the Saxons and the Picts, we want to be as true as possible.

What would you say is a big thing for people to look forward to exploring or climbing? We’ve had the Great Pyramids, we’ve had large temples in cities in Origins and Odyssey. Is there a place that you’ve enjoyed climbing or exploring?

There’s quite a lot, especially the mountains of Norway with that view… it’s quite something. I’m back to the point of it being so immersive. All the different areas in England, each have their own unique stuff and vibe to it. From working through the season, from up north it’s more like the snowy part. It’s more fall when you’re in Mercio, and then in Wessex, it’s summer. So there’s a really nice transition there. Also, players are going to be able to visit real landmarks, like Stonehenge for example, or the three major cities. Definitely, you feel like you’re visiting the place like what it was in history. If there’s one thing I would have to go with the mountains in Norway.

When you’re not working on AC, what are you playing?

I’m playing a lot with my daughter, family games on the Switch. Games like Overcooked that we play together, social games like Mario. My daughter’s eight years old so, Zelda. More personally lately I’ve been playing Ghost of Tsushima It’s an amazing game, so well done. I have to congratulate the guys over there, the type of experience that they made, it’s really refined. So that’s mostly it. Right now as we’re near the end, I cannot get wait to get back to gaming a bit more, we’re at the very last mile of the long marathon, so i’m ready to get back to gaming.

If it has the letters RPG in it, I am there. Still battling with balancing trying to play every single game that grabs my interest, getting 100% in a JRPG, and devoting time to my second home in Azeroth.

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