If you cast your mind back to Ubisoft's E3 conference, there was a lot to talk about, but just before the main event started and the pre-E3 show wrapped up, there was an announcement that really caught our eye. Assassin's Creed Odyssey product manager Ellie Rhodes introduced a new feature launching that day called Story Creator Mode, letting fans create and play their very own stories in the RPG, and that instantly had us curious.
It was something we hadn't thought about before, but seemed so obvious once it was revealed - letting the fans create their own quests. We've seen user-generated content before, from level builders like Super Mario Maker to level creators in Far Cry, but giving players the tools to make narrative-driven content in a triple-A setting is a relatively new kettle of fish.
"Very early on in development, it was something that we were asked to explore with regards to [User-Generated Content] and how we could potentially incorporate that within the Assassin's Creed games and, more specifically, Assassin's Creed Odyssey," Rhodes told us during a later interview. "It became apparent that with the aspects of choice we put forward within Odyssey, and the branching dialogue system, all that kind of stuff, that a quest and narrative editor could be really cool for the community to get their hands on, because it kind of embodies all those philosophies that we had for the main game really well."
"You know with Odyssey, we wanted to change the way we tell a story within an Assassin's Creed game, so that's why we introduced the dialogue and the branching narratives, the choices, the consequences. We were also looking for a new way to interact with the community, in the same way that a photo mode can be a way to interact with them and be creative. So, naturally for us the story could be this new way to interact with them, because for us it was going to be something we were going to change in Odyssey, and a cool way to let people praise themselves and let them create and tell their own story or dialogues etcetera and just surprise us."
By visiting the Story Creator Mode website you can access free tools to allow you to create these stories, which Ubisoft defines as a series of quests from start to end. Within one story there can be several quests, similar to what we've seen in the base game, and we're given the chance to create carefully woven and intricate narratives.
"The Story Creator is a toolset based on our own quest editor used by the development team to create Assassin's Creed Odyssey," Ubisoft writes on the site. "It includes for example elements of the interactive dialogue system used in the main game, allowing users to create their own interactive branching dialogues."
This all sounds very impressive on paper, but when we talked with production manager Anthony Straub about the feature, we asked for a little bit more clarification on exactly how this differs from the tool used by developers. There are key differences of course, like being unable to record dialogue and alter the main events of the story, but what else is there to consider?
"The Story Creator Mode is really inspired by our quest editor, for instance in the main game our quest designers drag and drop blocks, the same way players can in the Story Creator," he explained. "Actually, the main difference is that the Story Creator Mode is web-based, so you create your content from outside the engine, whereas our questing tool, the one we use, is in engine, so you need the game engine to be able to create a quest. That's really the main difference, otherwise you have the same - well almost the same - number of objectives."
"We really kept the main objectives that would make the most sense to tell stories and to be accessible because another big difference is, as you mentioned, that Story Creator Mode is and had to be more accessible than our own internal tools because we wanted all our players to be able to create stories and not just people who have knowledge of game design and the technicalities that goes into making games."
Rhodes was also in the same interview, and emphasised the importance of accessibility when it comes to this tool, adding that, "we noticed when we were researching other tools that were available on the market, that most of them require at least the basic, if not an intermediate, knowledge of programming. While that's all well and good for people to be able to create whatever they want in a game, there's this whole untapped group of people who want to create these stories and have this imagination and creativity that they aren't being able to put anywhere. So, we wanted this to be as accessible to them as a serious modding tool would be to the modding community - and that was a big part of simplifying the tools from what the development team used."
Essentially it works like a flowchart, in the sense that blocks are dragged into the stories to create quests, and within quests events are dropped in and link together. These range from killing enemies to talking to NPCs. You can make one event have various choices, like branching narratives or simple success/failure, and in doing this you get more complex stories. There are even more intricate blocks to fiddle around with, and if you're an expert you'll find yourself setting NPCs to attack the player at certain points, for example.
To help with the process Ubisoft has already provided the community with plenty of resources to get them on their way, like an introduction to the feature; a lengthy user manual consisting of over 100 pages; and even tutorial videos.
Rhodes says that the community are "doing fairly well with it. We found that in our early access period, that there were certain aspects that were more difficult to grasp. So, we tried to create assets, documents, videos, things like that they could refer to, so that they would have a little bit more guidance on those bits that were a little bit trickier. We also have it in our plans to potentially produce more tutorial videos depending on what the community are finding hard."
"We've been surprised by the certain users that very quickly became experts on the tools," Straub adds. "We have some great users who make tutorials videos on YouTube in either English or French from what I know. It was super interesting to see how quickly people grasped the tool [...] If you go to the forums of Assassin's Creed, where the creators are talking to each other, there is a lot of help between them. We are also keeping an eye on them as a way of improving the creator, but you already have users of the tool who are available to help others and it's great to see the community working this way."
Once you've created a story you can test it in-game, made possible by linking your accounts. It's as simple as booting up Odyssey and checking your quest to see if it works, and it's also in-game that you find the quests of others. Checking on the map for dark blue exclamation marks will guide you to random quests in the world, or alternatively you can curate a list by selecting several to add to a list from the site, which provides more filters to help you find what you want.
These range from star ratings to average time spent, date made, plays, author, and - most importantly - tags. These tags help you decipher what kind of quest you're heading into, from romance to comedy, and the filters really help you decide if you want to head into a quest or not. It's a minor inconvenience to have a loading screen to transport you to a quest rather than booting it up in the world, but at least with these filters you can see what you do and don't want to spend your time on, whether you're looking on the site or stumble across one in-game.
Of course with community content always comes the threat of toxicity and stuff that probably shouldn't be in there, as is the case with all games these days, but Rhodes explains that measures have been taken to ensure that this happens as infrequently as possible:
"To begin with, we took a banning system, a moderation system that was used on things like Trials and Far Cry for their content creation services, and we moderated that slightly and edited it to fit what we were aiming for. It essentially helps players to report content in-game if they find things offensive, but we hope most of the offensive content won't make it through because we have a filter that will stop people from publishing offensive content in the first place. When they try to publish, it will tell them they have content which has been flagged and they will have to change it before they are allowed to publish it."
"Obviously, some things still slip through, which is why the player report system is a thing because generally communities that want to create content are very good at policing what is available because they want it to be a safe environment for themselves. Then we also have the physical moderation team and they go through and deal with any appeals or reports, things like that, so all in all it seems to be quite balanced now but again like I said, it's still in open beta, so there's room to change things around if we find that things aren't working or that certain keywords are slipping through the net, things like that. So, we're in a really great position right now, as far as that is concerned."
We've encountered quite a lot of interesting stories, from ones about Shrek to a Castlevania tribute that recreated the iconic series in the world of Odyssey, and one quest that really stands out for both Straub and Rhodes is the Tale of Two Cities. This was published by Lewdnar last month, and as you can see from the quest page here it's already been played almost 6,500 times
"There is two chapters at the moment and it's a bit more narrative, but I really love the story the creator is telling, and you have different choices and different ways to go through the story. You interact with different characters, there's a good amount of drama, something I like, you know, a plot that is mysterious and really kept you going. That's another great example of what the community has been able to do and it's a long story because chapter one is at least 40 minutes to play and chapter two is a bit more than an hour. It's really like an epic story told throughout the creative mode," Straub told us.
"It really blows our mind that people have created so much content already," Rhodes added. "Like, the depth of Tale of Two Cities is insane and the fact that they are continually iterating on the content they have released to bring it in line with the latest updates is super cool, and they're considering adding more chapters over time, and as Anthony said, there's already a solid two hours gameplay within those chapters already. Aside from that, I would just say there's a bunch of content that kind of taps into this idea we had, that people would be able to write fan-fiction within the tools and people are creating quests that aren't necessarily about Assassin's Creed Odyssey. They're telling stories from other franchises, other games, with Assassin's Creed, like you said Castlevania, there's all sorts. The imagination, the sheer amount of imagination that is floating around on that website right now is insane."
As mentioned by Rhodes, these tools also provide a rather unique vessel for fan-fiction as well, as the stories people would normally write online and in blogs can now be enacted in the game, from romantic stories to simply wild ideas from the community. We encountered one where Kassandra had to judge a beauty contest, for example, and there is no shortage of romantic quests to be found in Ancient Greece.
Perhaps an unintended consequence of granting XP for these quests is that a fair amount have popped up as quests that simply let you boost your character, without any pretence of story. These usually involve killing multiple people and completing many objectives in the process, and we'll let you decide if that's a legitimate way to level up your misthios in the game.
So, it's been a month since this feature has landed on our doorsteps, so what has the community thought? Well, lots of quests have been created by fans, and thousands have been played by the many assassins in the game, and that has been pleasing for Ubisoft to see.
"It's difficult to gauge after all, but it's been really positive so far, for the people that we designed the tool for, if that makes sense," Rhodes told us. "We definitely had a specific group of people in mind for the tools and they've loved it so far - they've created hundreds and hundreds of stories, they're playing the game on the daily basis. The benefit of it being in open beta as well is that we can take their feedback on and we can refine the tool further and make it a better experience for that community we are targeting. It's been a really nice give and take relationship with them because they can tell us if they don't like something and we're in the really fortunate position to be able to change it right now. It also means, with regards to the future of the tool and what we will be developing as time goes on, we can begin to plan things dependent on what's the most requested features. They love it, we've seen groups of people that we didn't necessarily anticipate being into the tool using it a lot as well."
"We've also been very surprised by the variety of the content created to be honest because we've seen these very long narratives that have heavy stories being created by the community. I'm talking about stories that take close to an hour to be completed," Straub adds. "We've also seen some very ingenious and creative stories that are a bit shorter or a bit more humorous at times and that really surprises us about how the community used the objectives that we gave them."
The whole reason this enticed us as a feature in the first place is because it invites a whole new crowd to interact with game design. Many resources to teach game development, as well as games, are focused around the technical side, like programming, but here Ubisoft has simplified the tools as a gateway for those who are looking to learn more about creating stories and strong narratives in games.
Of course one can't underestimate the importance of technical know-how when moving into the field of game development, but for those intimidated by that side of things, Ubisoft has opened a door for these individuals to learn. Who knows, they may be paving the way for the next creative director, narrative designer, or level designer of the future, and it's all made possible by a user-friendly tool that is designed to give the fans easy access to user-generated content, from making it to playing it.
And this is only going to expand, as Ubisoft told us that this beta phase will continue based on community feedback, meaning even more stories can be told as the developers layer on features and tools.
"So, it's something that we've been keeping close to our chest for now because we are still testing things out, as you've seen in the updates we've put out recently. Things don't go 100% to plan when we release them, so we've been a little bit tentative about releasing details about what's to come. We will be doing some things with generic NPCs, we've got some more tweaks with the objectives and things like that, and we're building the foundations for potentially adding bigger things in the future to the tools. Because right now we have to really refine what we have before we can add more layers on top of it. We'll be supporting it for the next few months and taking on as much community feedback as we can to build it up as much as we can in the time we have right now. Other than that, it's difficult to say what's coming because things could change at the drop of a hat - you know how things are in game development."
It's clearly a huge tool with a lot of potential that Ubisoft has built here for Assassin's Creed Odyssey, and it's the perfect game to trial this kind of endeavour. It's got its own branches and a huge world packed with interesting characters, so letting the community take the reins is an inspired idea that lets their stories be told. We can't wait to see where it goes from here, and whether any other games follow suit, because as Rhodes said, there's plenty of untapped opportunities out there for great narratives to be forged in tools like this one.