Interview conducted on December 11, 2014
“It’s almost Christmas, it’s snowing, it’s cold, but the game is shipped, so it’s all good!” says Alex Hutchinson, creative director of Far Cry 4 at Ubisoft Montreal.
Alex is a veteran of the gaming industry, having begun his career through games journalism. In the early 2000’s, Hutchinson got a job at a small Australian studio, then moved to California to work for Maxis, from there to EA in Montreal and is currently at Ubisoft Montreal. With Ubisoft Montreal, he’s worked on two major games, Assassin’s Creed III and Far Cry 4.
Although Alex’s role is creative director, he had to work his way up the ranks. “I started out as a designer on a small team, moved up to a lead designer running small teams, and finally on to creative director,” Hutchinson explains, “The first game I worked on as creative director was Army of Two: The 40th day at EA. After that, I went on to Ubisoft, where I was the creative director of Assassin’s Creed III and now Far Cry 4.” He chuckles, “It’s been a long ride, but a fun ride!”
According to Hutchinson, the day-to-day life at Ubisoft differs according to what stage of development the project being worked on is in. “Early on, there’s a lot of brainstorming and planning. You’ve got to figure out what ideas you want to pursue as well as things like your budget and schedule.” That’s phase one. Phase two begins once development begins. “Once the game is in development, you’re making a lot of content and editing that and trying to do more of the things that are working and less of the things that aren’t,” Hutchinson continues, “Sometimes, that means changing your vision a little bit.” Phase three is all about external communication. “It’s a lot of talking to the press, magazines, newspapers, TV; people like yourself. The goal is to get the word out about the game, generate some buzz, and ultimately sell your product.”
Ubisoft Montreal is the world’s largest video game development studio with over 2800 employees. They’ve made the Assassin’s Creed games, the Far Cry games, Watch Dogs and even Child of Light. Hutchinson believes a key to their success is communication. “We’re always communicating, especially around big events like E3 and when alpha builds are first released. We’re always playtesting and giving each other feedback. Sometimes, we incorporate things we’ve learned from this to our own projects.”
Asked whether or not there was pressure following up Far Cry 3, Hutchinson responded, “There’s always pressure, no matter what game you’re working on. Assassin’s Creed III was probably worse in the sense that Assassin’s Creed is a much bigger franchise than Far Cry. You’re always under pressure to perform, especially when handling budgets in the tens of millions of dollars. But this pressure is nothing new. You’ve just got to ignore it and do your best.”
One common criticism of Far Cry 3 was that Jason Brody could be out skinning pigs to make a wallet while his friends were being tortured in basements. Hutchinson addresses this, saying the goal of Far Cry 4 was “… to feel much more plausible. The goal was to have the game feel grounded. Nothing was supposed to feel ridiculous and break the immersion.” From the critical reception the game has received, that goal seems to have been reached.
Part of the reasons Far Cry 4 feels more grounded than Far Cry 3 is the world it takes place in, Kyrat. A fictional Himalayan country, Kyrat is beautiful on the outside, and dangerous on the inside. “It’s really inspired by Katmandu, Nepal and the Himalayas,” Hutchinson says. “The overall tone we were going for was a very Bollywood feel, in terms of being a little bit over the top, very colorful, and even a bit more humorous than the Rook Islands of Far Cry 3.” Ubisoft sent a group of developers to Tibet and Nepal, and though Hutchinson was not a part of that group, he says what they brought back was invaluable. “The photographs and footage they brought back caused us to really change the aesthetic of the game, alter the colors, change up the cars. They also came back with a lot of stories, and those inspired some of the NPC’s within the game.”
Kyrat, moreso than any many other game worlds, feels alive and bustling. Hutchinson attributes this to the density and variety the game has to offer. “It’s a lot about density and variety and the connectedness between the world you’re in and what the NPC’s and animals and other features are doing in that world,” he explains. “We tried to make sure that wherever you were there was always something happening that made sense to the environment and pushed on the gameplay. We were going for a balance between things attacking you and things that asked you to come over and investigate, like a hidden area or a shrine.” Hutchinson cannot understate the importance of player agency within the game, stating, “Player agency and letting the player solve problems their own way is core to the franchise, and we tried to grow that. Even in the story, which is traditionally linear, we tried to offer choices and options for player expression.”
Hutchinson also said that environmental storytelling contributes to the immersion of Kyrat. He says, “It makes the world feel like a real place and that the people who populate it actually live there and the things the player does actually matter. It helps with immersion and creating a world you can sink yourself into for hours on end, like Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption.”
Far Cry 3 is perhaps best known for its villain, an evil drug trafficker named Vaas. Far Cry 4 has an equally evil antagonist, a dictator named Pagan Min, played by none other than Troy Baker. “It was a ton of fun bringing Pagan Min to life!” says Hutchinson. “You’ve got this great actor and this vision for a character you hope is fresh and unique and memorable, and you give that actor room to explore the role and bring their own creativity to it. We hope that years from now, people will list Pagan Min in the top video game villains, and Troy’s performance is instrumental in achieving that.” However, many fans of the franchise claimed Pagan did not appear enough throughout the game. “It’s great that people want to see him more!” Hutchinson comments, “It means we’ve created a great character! Technically speaking, he’s got twice the screen time of Vaas, so he’s there a lot actually. Since it’s an open world where players can do what they want, it’s really up to them how much they feel they see him. If they go off and hunt honey badgers for 6 hours, they’re not going to see Pagan during that time, and there’s nothing we can do about that. That’s one of the great challenges of a narrative within an open world context – it’s hard to balance those features.”
On Friday, December 5, 2014, Far Cry 4 won best shooter at the inaugural Video Game Awards hosted by Geoff Keighly. Hutchinson had the honor of representing the game and accepting the award for the team. “It was great, it was a real honor,” he says. “It’s always rewarding to get some sort of recognition from the industry like an award. Games are long projects that you spend years working on, and it’s always a pleasure that people are playing them and enjoying them enough to win an award like that!”
According to Hutchinson, Ubisoft Montreal is “… working on some rad new stuff, trying some crazy things that [they] hope to announce at some point in 2015!” Sounds an awful lot like a new IP to me!
I’d like to thank Mr. Hutchinson for his time, and wish him all the best in 2015!