Patrice Desilets, president and creative director at Panache Digital Games, is best known for conjuring up the history-exploring battle between the Assassins and the Knights Templar in Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed.” He served as creative director on the first three games in the bestselling franchise, which spawned a film starring Michael Fassbender in 2016. Desilets also served as the creative director for “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” which was later turned into a feature film by Walt Disney Pictures in 2010.
The Montreal-based developer left Ubisoft in June 2010 and founded Panache Digital Games in 2014. His team of 30 is currently developing a brand new IP, “Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey,” which is in pre-alpha. Early gameplay made its debut at the Reboot Develop conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia earlier this month. As seen in the trailer, even at this early stage, the Unreal Engine 4-developed game will put the player in control of an ape in a story that will begin 10 million years ago in the lush jungles of Africa.
Desilets spoke with Variety about why he’s chosen to align with Reboot Develop to reveal new information on his game and offers his own take on Hollywood’s adaptations of his video game work.
How have you seen the Reboot Develop conference grow since its inception?
I think there were 200 people the first year, and I did the very first keynote of that year where I announced “Ancestors” for the very first time. I remember people asking me why I chose to do that in Croatia? And while I was physically in Croatia, the web will make sure it gets out there. I proved to people that it worked, and now I’ve seen the conference really grow. Now there’s a lot more people from outside Croatia and Eastern European countries that are coming. And next year Reboot is expanding to Canada in the fall. But I really enjoy my week in Croatia every year now.
What are your thoughts – given the large number of indie games on display from the region – of the game development community in Croatia and Eastern Europe?
This is my problem when I come. I don’t have time to see the other people’s game. I go to the talks and I’ve been telling people, including my publisher, to come to this conference and check out the emergence of game developers in Eastern European countries. I feel like they’re like they’re where we were in Montreal back in the late ‘90s and the beginning of the 2000s, and now it’s a real scene; right? And I feel like they just want to make games. The passion is there. .
Speaking of passion, what’s it been like for you to create your own studio and then build something from scratch?
I’m still building, so maybe I can really answer it when the game ships and we have one out there, but it’s been awesome. Really, with tough days, tough months, but it’s always been the dream; right? Like you work for somebody else for a long time, you make great games with great people; but you don’t make all the decisions. At the end of the day I wanted to make all my own decisions – even if I may make some mistakes along the way, just making decisions all the time — even if it’s stressful — it’s really fun. It’s a bit like a game right now because there’s a decision tree and you need to make the right choice because you need to build a brand for your studio. And as you’re building a brand, you’re also creating a new IP. We’re 30 now. We were six the first year, coming to my place every Tuesday for the team meeting and going back home. And then six months down the road we had an office. Then it became real. And the six became 10, and so on. We’re having fun. I know I am, but my team too because in those three years only two people left. So it’s been good.
What was it like for you to see “Assassin’s Creed” realized as a Hollywood movie from Ubisoft Motion Pictures and 20th Century Fox — given the cinematic nature of the storytelling in the original games?
It was a risky endeavor in my mind because the games somehow already felt like you were playing a movie. Some parts weren’t spectacular, others were great — their Animus for example — I wish I thought of it.
We also saw “Prince of Persia” head to the big screen with Walt Disney Pictures. What’s your take on Hollywood adopting games for non-linear entertainment?
For a “little French Canadian guy” it seems unreal to have two games that were turned into big Hollywood productions. That being said, I strongly believe that video games are better at creating new IP these days because the nature of interactivity forces us to think differently, thus different subject matters. So, for Hollywood, it’s a no-brainer since there’s also already a fan base.
How do movies influence you creatively when you’re working on games?
I was a movie major at university, so I guess it’s normal for me to think about the cinematographic experience in gaming. It helps that my games are third-person, so the camera is something we need to work on.
What were your goals heading into “Ancestors”?
At the very beginning, I was not ready to do another game? Like it went really quick from making something to now you’re on the street and you’re not making it anymore. So I wrote my 15 best game ideas, and I knew that the first game would have to be about building tools and assets because you’re starting from scratch and you need that. You need a back catalog of stuff and tools in order to make those 15 games. So the first game I needed to make was more like a tech demo, and I pitched it to someone and they said, “We need the ‘Assassin’s Creed’ game.” So, I thought, “Okay, so I’m the historical dude. What historical period could I do with a small team?” And then I thought of prehistoric because there’s no cities, no crowds, no swords and whatnot. I could really limit the the third-person character and the 3D environment and all the interaction. It could be a little bit more contained if I do a prehistoric world, but I decided to go even like further back and tell that story. What’s great is that human evolution fits with an evolution of a game, where you start slow and you get bigger and more powerful and whatnot. So we’re doing a third-person person action game where evolution — just like in game — is the core of it all.
What does that open up for you from a gameplay perspective?
At first you think, there’s no architecture so it’s going to be easy because it’s all organic, right? But architecture is all about sharp angles and a computer is way better at doing sharp angles than organic stuff. So we had to figure out how to interact with nature. And I just got this feeling when I play with my ape of going up a tree and jumping and catching some foliage and whatnot. Through the “Assassin’s Creed” games, people visit Venice or Tuscany and they look at buildings and say, “Oh, I’ve climbed this or I could jump off that.” Right now, I’m going to parks and it’s the same thing. I see a tree and I think about how the gameplay works. It’s opened up nature for me as a game developer.
When it comes to controlling apes. on the Hollywood side we’ve seen a lot of advancements with performance capture with the “Planet of the Apes” movies, as well as the recent game. When you watch those films does that influence you at all?
I try not to be influenced too much by other people’s work. If they already took a subject matter and built a story on top of it, I try to avoid it because there’s already an interpretation of it. So I’m more into science than Hollywood on that side, but I know that that’s what people have in their mind. And right now we’re not there yet in production because it’s more about the gameplay aspect of it all. We’ll come back and maybe then we’ll look at how they move. For sure, my animators they watch “Planet of the Apes” multiple times, but me I don’t want to get influenced by somebody’s interpretation of reality right away.
What have you liked about the own research you’ve had to do historically about this period of time?
It made me realize some stuff that I had in my subconscious is that deep down we are still big apes. I realize that my stress comes from a fear of being eaten alive by a leopard, even though there’s no more leopards around us. Most of your fears are not real, so relax. I also realized that right now we’re mutants. Like we live in this world that is so fast and that is not made for us biologically. This game changed the way I see how we behave, and what the team should be. Like we’re hunting still, so it’s strategy and we need a tactic and, in the end, there will be this prize. It’d be awesome if everybody came back to the roots that we’re all those apes on that rock playing really, really fast in this big empty space. And if that happens, maybe we could be just one tribe and manage to live in a better place.
Ubisoft is known for having massive teams. What’s it been like working with just 30 developers?
For indie developers, 30 guys is a big team. But I’m used to 300, 400 people and sometimes 1000. When I made “Sands of Time” we were 40-something (I think there was a peak at 65 with all the QA), so I knew it was possible to make something of quality with a smaller team and I saw the change between the smaller team to a bigger one and I saw the problems that arise with bigger teams like communication, the layer of management that’s needed in the middle because you need to manage a team of 32 animators. Then it’s a matter of putting everybody in his right chair, having the best team made up of really good quality people and then you let them do their craft.