Immortals Fenyx Rising Developer Talks Zelda Portal and Puzzle Design - Interview

Immortals Fenyx Rising Developer Talks Zelda, Portal and Puzzle Design - Interview

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Matt Lorrigan

Immortals Fenyx Rising is out now for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S, and we had a great time with the game when we reviewed it, calling in “an epic and frequently funny adventure worthy of the Greek myths that inspired it”.

It's also a brand new IP from Ubisoft in an era when it's rare to see to the big publishers take such a risk, and with the Assassin's Creed Odyssey team taking the lead, the game was always going to be in good hands. We recently sat down with Julien Galloudec, Associate Game Director on Immortals Fenyx Rising, to discuss all things development, from the inspirations behind the game to the possibility of a sequel in the future. Check out the full interview below!

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Immortals Fenyx Rising is a game that feels very big in scope. Was that what it was always originally planned to be, or did you start with a smaller scope in mind that expanded over time?

Actually, when we start, we rarely start with scope, but more we have an intention. And we definitely wanted something more concise and more focused than what we usually do with Assassin’s Creed, that can be a very, very big game.

So it's a big game, but it's still not as big as what we used to do. And it's more intense, though, in the moment-to-moment. So we trade some of the scope and the big world for something more intense in the experience.

So how many people do you have working on this game compared to something like an Assassin's Creed. Did you have a smaller team developing Immortals Fenyx Rising or is it a similar size?

Actually it's pretty much the same team as Odyssey that worked on that one.

It was the leading team at Quebec, and we also worked with some of [Ubisoft’s other] studios, like Singapore or Bucharest, that we’re used to working with already, so it's pretty much the same size of team. And I think it was a good point for us because you always learn a lot when you do a game and being able to learn to work together as a team on Odyssey was definitely a huge advantage for Immortals Fenyx Rising. Where we are now, we’re better at using everyone’s talents and perspective to build something in the game and everyone can bring the stone to the edifice at the end.

So you pretty much came straight off Odyssey and went into this, and you had all that Greek mythology research running around in your heads. Did Immortals Fenyx Rising come about because you felt like you had to do something more with all of that research?

Yeah, it was a main element. While working on Odyssey, we spent a lot of time in the ancient Greek setting and we touched a bit on mythology, and we used it a bit in the game, but it's still an Assassin’s Creed game. It was more historical than mythological, but we've seen all the potential of Greek mythology and we really wanted to do something that can embrace that mythology with the Gods, the heroes, the monsters, and creatures and all those crazy stories.

We really wanted to push on that and also to do something very different in terms of a game, a different art style, a different way to beat the world, a different gameplay mechanic and a different way to tell a story - that's really what the intention was at the start.

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There are a lot of references to classic Greek mythology and jokes about it in Immortals Fenyx Rising - it's a very comedy-centric game and there's a lot of small references between narrators Zeus and Prometheus. Are there any really deep cuts that you’re particularly pleased with in the game?

What we wanted to do is use the mythology as raw material and to really go deep in some of the references, but we are still inspired by the mythology. It's our own universe and our own take on those stories. And the goal, for us, was to give you some elements of some very nerdy stories about the Greek mythology, and invite you to go on Google and learn more about the real story, and to cover as much ground as possible within the Greek mythology with that approach.

Greek mythology has been covered quite extensively in games like God of War and films like Disney’s Hercules or Jason and the Argonauts. Are you ever looking at those other pieces of media that use Greek mythology and what they're doing, and compare it to yours, or did you want to do a completely fresh take?

We really started from all the research we did on Odyssey...if [Assassin’s Creed Odyssey] was more on the culture aspect of the Greek myth in the game, in the Greek’s world there’s still a lot of mythology that we learned about because it was very in the day-to-day for them.

That really was the raw material that we started with, combined with that angle of light humour that we wanted to have, on topics that can sometimes be serious and even dark in that mythology. And obviously it's a mythology that's been used in many other pieces of entertainment.

So, there is obviously some winks and comparisons and the fact that you have those two narrators, a God and a Titan, that can have that meta view of what’s happening and are kind of aware about a video game and the entertainment and break the fourth wall by doing references - we use that to play with jokes and references a lot.

Going back to the development side of things, this is one of the first cross-generation games that is hitting modern consoles, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, and Nintendo Switch at the same time. How difficult was the game to develop across all systems of such varying power to get a product that you were happy with? Did it impact development at all or was it something that was planned early on?

It was part of the plan and one of the things we wanted with that game is to challenge ourselves as developers on all the topics.

[We took] a different way to build the world, a different way to approach the gameplay, a different way to approach its artistic direction. And on the technological side, we really wanted to have a game that can ship on the Switch on the current-gen and on the next-gen, and have the same experience everywhere, but we've got optimisations tailored to each of the platforms.

And that was definitely a pretty big challenge for the engine and the tech team, even if you are used to doing multi-platform for a while, right? [There were] a lot of new things to learn on how to optimise different aspects of the game.

I think everyone is very proud in the team to have been able to release the game on all those platforms, and I think we managed to reach that same experience for everyone, but tailored to the platform you're playing on.

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You’re getting the game out to the widest audience possible, as it's coming to every major platform available at the moment. Are you looking at this as a future franchise? It must be quite difficult as a studio. This is your IP, but Ubisoft higher-ups will have the overall say based on sales and other factors. Is this something that you'd like to see going forward as a franchise?

Obviously, as a developer and because it is our first IP, we hope it will be more than just a game. But the focus for us was to really grasp that opportunity and to release the best game we can first and then to have a post-launch that then can start to explore what we can do with that brand.

And after that, it's only in the hands of the players and we hope that a lot of them will play and love the game, and that eventually it can become a brand in itself.

The game that you're shipping has a selection of gods from Greek mythology, but there are a few people missing people here and there. Have you already started to think about other gods and goddesses you could include in the future, even so close to the launch of this first game?

It was a pretty big discussion at the start, like, which gods should we explore and take, because we cannot take all of them. There are so many in the Greek mythology, and then we pick the ones we wanted because of their background and the different interactions they have between them. Because Greek mythology is like that big book and family with a lot of drama. And then when we started to think about post-launch, without spoiling anything, we will have some of the gods coming in some of the DLC.

And then again for the future, I don't know! I hope everyone will love the game and we'll have the opportunity to go further with that franchise.

In terms of gameplay, you've listed inspirations like Jak & Daxter and Banjo Kazooie, as well as other games like that. There are a lot of comparisons being made to Zelda: Breath of the Wild, too, and having played some Immortals Fenyx Rising now, it definitely feels like there's inspiration pulled from that game. And there’s also inspiration pulled from Assassin's Creed Odyssey. Do you think there’s merit to those comparisons?

We definitely have part of, obviously, what we did before [with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey] because you draw experience from what you did before. So from Odyssey, it’s there in both in what we are doing, but also in what we are not doing, because we wanted to do something different.

And we also look at Breath of the Wild and because the structure we wanted was kind of close to what they did and also because of the puzzle design, which was quite new for us. So we wanted to learn about that. and then we look at many other games to feed our inspiration like Jak & Daxter. Also, Portal for the puzzles, not necessarily the gameplay, but the way they use ingredients and level design to build something that makes sense but is still challenging for the player.

So, as usual, we took a lot of inspiration from many different games. And I think the goal for us was to create that unique recipe and unique mix at the end that is the Immortals Fenyx Rising mix and create that unique experience.

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You've done exploration and combat before with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, but the puzzles are pretty new. Would you say that was one of the major challenges of bringing this game to life, working out how those puzzles would work?

It was definitely one of the most challenging [aspects] for us, mostly because we have very, very few experiences in puzzle building and it's a very specific aspect, and almost an art within the design scope. So, we did a lot of homework, I went back to my studies on level design and game design. I looked at many different games to build the guideline. 

And after that, it was [a case of] doing a lot of prototypes and just getting better at it. And until we were comfortable with the level design, the gameplay ingredients, the ability of the player, [we] started to build cool puzzles, especially in the world of Tartaros, where we wanted each of the vaults to be unique and have a flavour for the player.

Fenyx as a character has so many abilities that they can use - the glide can take you miles, you have double jumps and can play with physics. Is it difficult to design a puzzle when you've given the player such freedom with their abilities?

Yes! (laughs) It was definitely a challenge. So it was a lot about how we structure as a team first, to make sure that the people that are working on the controls and the navigation were working with the people in charge of the gameplay ingredients, that were working with the people that are working on the level design.

So making sure we had good communication and everyone was aware of what each of the team needs and wants to do. And then it was all about, you know, hard level design, rules and guidelines and patterns. And also embracing the fact that players will find creative ways to break the puzzles and you have to embrace it.

As soon as you embrace it, it's much easier to play with it and to sleep at night knowing that, yeah, there is probably a puzzle that can be done in a million different ways based on what the player can do and their progression. I think the best way to deal with it is to embrace it and allow the player [to do so] because it's creative or because it's very good for them to find their own way to resolve a challenge.

That sort of ties in to the way the open world works because you can go off in any direction you want, and you can choose not to take on a challenge if you don't want to. What went into making sure there wasn't too much to overwhelm a player, but there's also enough that if you moved in any direction, you found something new?

Yeah. It's difficult because you have to lay out the world in a way that you want to go further and you have a long-term objective, but you still have opportunities around that don't feel like a distraction, but more like an opportunity.

It's a lot about the pacing, the composition of the landscape, and also the actual length of the challenges. So making sure that you have a very simple, small puzzle that then can lead to one that is a bit longer, a bit bigger. And we also did a lot of experimentation with how much we want the player to be blocked sometimes, because you don't have enough stamina and you have to come back later, and how clear is it for the player that don't try that now because you're going to just lose time.

It was a lot of experimentation and iteration, and also making sure that we can give the player the set of tools that they are going to learn and master, and then it's the challenge for us to create new things, new combinations, a new context. So we can use those things in a fresh way next time.

Will players be able to take their version of Fenyx forward if there's ever another game?. Is that something that you're thinking about?

We didn't think about that at first, because as I was saying, we're focusing on building the best game we can first and if it can become a franchise. We’re obviously hopeful, but that will be up to the player to decide. 

What I can say is that, for the DLCs and the expansions post-launch, we are working on a way that you can carry on the Fenyx you created, even if you are going to see them through the characters in other DLC in other contexts.

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