As Creative Director on Far Cry 4, Alex Hutchinson is certainly in a prominent position to influence the direction of Ubisoft’s upcoming big budget release. And even though he has never explicitly worked on the franchise previously, his background in open-world games makes him an ideal choice to spearhead Far Cry 3‘s sequel. During the interview, I get to ask him about his role on the game, and why Far Cry 4‘s villain will live up to expectations.
What is your background in terms of creative directing?
I was previously the creative director on Assassin’s Creed 3. Before that I was creative director on Army of Two: The 40th Day. Before that I was lead designer on Spore, and lead designer on The Sims 2.
So in terms of Far Cry, this is your first game?
Yes, first Far Cry.
What sort of pressure do you feel in terms of having to live up the expectations of Far Cry 3 and its legacy?
Yeah, I think it’s cool. I think the franchise really started to find it’s feet with Far Cry 3, so that’s obviously a plus. A lot of the guys on Far Cry 4 worked on Far Cry 3 so there’s a lot of muscle memory and knowledge of why they did what they did. I think there is also a healthy dose of knowing what they could have done better in areas they wanted to improve or things that they cut and want to get back in. So, I think it’s a healthy mix of those two things. There’s definitely pressure, but any big game these days there’s monumental amounts of pressure. It’s no different on Far Cry 4 than Assassin’s Creed 3 or most of the other games I’ve worked on.
Considering that a lot of the people who are working on Far Cry 4 [previously] worked on Far Cry 3, do you sometimes feel as if you’re the odd one out, or the outsider looking in? Somebody who maybe has to fight even harder to basically get himself established?
I think any new team, especially if you come in as a senior person, has to prove to the team what you can bring to the table. I think there’s always a bit of that. But no, I think it’s a healthy combo of old and new in this one. Because the other option is if you stay exactly the same old team, you can start to fall into a rut. You stop questioning certain things, you lose perspective. I think the Far Cry 4 team is a healthy mix of new and old.
What lessons have you been able to take from your previous games and bring to Far Cry 4?
I think you’re always learning, especially in the open world sub-genre. So, something we learned from Assassin’s Creed 3 was [that] we’re trying very hard with this one is to get into the meat of the game fast. We’re trying to accelerate into the fun bit as quickly as possible. You learn about how to position narrative in an open world, you know we’re trying to put more agency in the narrative and less cut scene mission structure. You’re always learning whatever game you work on so there’s millions of other small things.
The time-lag between Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 2 was pretty significant, but the time-lag between Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4 isn’t that much. How long has Far Cry 4 been in development for, and at what point did Ubisoft turn around and give you the OK for Far Cry 4?
I think they pretty much knew as soon as Far Cry 3 started to be successful that they wanted another one, and so the teams been working on it since then. In the end it’ll be a two-year production for Far Cry 4, which is a good amount of time to make a game. If you have technology, two years is a good balance between having a lot of time to try things and do new stuff, while at the same time never getting too bored of your idea.
Far Cry 4 will be coming out on consoles that have effectively been able to establish themselves for a year. Far Cry 3, some would argue used cross-gen technology, where it was in that halfway limbo world between catering to PC enthusiasts who were power hungry, versus people who still had their outdated XBox 360s and PS3s. Is Far Cry 4 going to suffer from the same problem where it’ll have one foot in the past, and one foot in the future?
Well I think these days, apart from graphical fidelity, I haven’t yet seen a game that needed to be on next gen. I don’t think that’s a reality anymore for the business at large, I think with all the games we’re going to ship on a bunch of different platforms i.e. 360, PS3, PS4, XBox One and PC of course, our goal is to keep the game-play the same or identical on all platforms and make sure it’s always fun while taking advantage of the new hardware. So, yes, graphically in terms of fidelity, and for shaders and all the advanced graphics techniques the next gen consoles and PC will be better. But the experience of how you’re playing the game, the art direction of how you feel in the world will be very similar.
Does that somehow mean that maybe what next gen offers is somewhat anti-climactic because people have already seen it before? And maybe as a consequence of that, what might happen is that people will probably stick to their PS3s and XBox 360s as opposed to upgrading, do you maybe feel that that’s a danger?
I think it’s interesting, because at the moment the speed of uptake for both PS4 and XBox One are way faster than the uptake for the previous generations. So, people have a little short-term memory loss in terms of what happened last console transition. I think it was equally difficult last generation to make the debate apart from just power, [as to] what was radically different? And I think in the end it’s the software libraries. Once there are plenty of great games on those bits of hardware, that’s why you’re upgrading, you know what I mean? I don’t think the console gamer is so much worried about the absolute latest processor as they are about the experiences they’re going to get.
I think it’s a funny question, because it’s a unique question to games. No one, when their reading a book says, “we need the next generation, I need the Kindle Fire to have a whole new type of book”, you know what I mean? A book is a book, and it’s the quality of the story and characters and the execution that matters. I think the same is becoming true with games. I don’t think it’s a problem, I think it’s an opportunity. I think no one in the industry is better, if Miyamoto is worried about the content in the industry, then there is no one in a better position than him at a major studio to do something about it. I’m excited to see the games that they’re going to put out on Wii U in the next couple years. For us, I think it’s also forgetting that to be innovative you don’t need to change everything, you know? So many games every year innovate on the low level, innovate on a feature level, and try out new mechanics and different ideas. Often new ideas are difficult, that’s why the ones that succeed and the ones that people see are often familiar, because that’s the one that the audience responds to. That doesn’t mean there aren’t hundreds and hundreds of games every year that try unusual things.
You mentioned about how Shigeru Miyamoto is in charge of a major studio. You yourself happen to be part of the big three. How many people worked on Far Cry 4?
Oh, it’s a funny thing. It’s always one of their questions where people want the biggest number, but what they forget is the Far Cry 4 team, just like the Assassin’s Creed 3 team, start out with 8 people. We spend a lot of time with 8, 10, 12 people in a room hashing out the big ideas, and then it grows over time, and so we end up with hundreds and hundreds of people.
At its peak, how many would you say?
I wouldn’t even know, but it’s several hundred people at its peak because right at the end we’re doing asset creation, or jamming in a bunch of different trees for example. Those huge numbers [of people] are for very short windows of production right at the end.
Far Cry 4 is a major AAA product by Ubisoft. One of the things that people have argued is that the main antagonist – the villain – doesn’t seem to be as memorable as Far Cry 3‘s villain. For a major, big budget project like Far Cry 4, where obviously it has to resonate with a lot of players in order to be able to get its money back (because ultimately it’s all about making money), were you ever concerned that maybe the main protagonist of Far Cry 4 wouldn’t appeal to as many people as Far Cry 3? Because Far Cry 3‘s main antagonist set a pretty high benchmark…
I think there’s a couple things, one is that’s what people said after playing the game, so I would say to be careful of comparing before people play the game, you know what I mean? They’ve seen half of one cut scene with the character. I’m very excited about what we’ve got with Pagan Min, I think people are going to really like him, or at least be really challenged by him when they finally play the game. I think it [the villain] was a memorable part of Far Cry 3, so we were aware that we wanted to create an antagonist who would challenge the player in different ways. But I think the thing that really sells Far Cry and the reason we hit a wide audience, is that it’s a giant playground where you can do what you want. So I think, yes it’s a bonus to have a cool villain, and we obviously hope Pagan Min succeeds. But I really believe that it’s the tools, opportunity, toys, weapons, animals, you know? Do what you want right now, and especially now that you can do it in co-op with your best friend. For me, that’s what we’re selling.
Obviously you’ve never had an experience with Far Cry before Far Cry 4, but you’ve had a lot of experience with open world games. What sort of research or prep-work did you have to do in order to live up to the expectations of what a creative director has to do or be able to do on a franchise, but also ensure that what you’re working on lives up in terms of aesthetic, in terms of what it’s about… that is lives up to basically what people expect?
Yeah, so I think that’s an ongoing process of figuring out…
Because they don’t want Halo, you know? They want Far Cry…
No, and that’s it. So you do the obvious stuff, like you play through all the previous games if you haven’t already. Usually just to refresh your memory of what actually happened. You spend a lot of time talking to the teams about what they think resonated and what didn’t. You read a bunch of reviews, and a bunch of commentary on the previous games. At the end of the day I think that’s part of being a creative director is then you have to figure out what you’re interested in, you know? Why would you want to spend x years of your life working on something, and adding another entry to something? You need to find the new stuff that you want to build, and it’s a combination of all that. What are the strengths of the franchise? Plus what do we want to fix? Plus what do you personally want to do?
Alex, thank you very much.