UbiSG 10th: Skull & Bones hands-on and interview with creative director Justin Farren

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We recently got some hands-on time with the E3 2018 demo of Skull & Bones, developed and showcased right here in Singapore. This was part of Ubisoft Singapore’s 10th anniversary celebrations, so we were also given an opportunity to interview Justin Arden Farren, creative director on Skull & Bones.

Related Reading: Ubisoft Singapore celebrates 10th anniversary, appoints new managing director

The demo gave us a 30 minutes long Player vs. Player vs. Environment (PvPvE) scenario. Here, all players were given a series of objectives that culminated in the siege of a defensive port, whilst at the same time choosing to either fight AI-controlled ships or to hunt down other players for sport.

It begins with an important choice: The Black Horn, Jaeger, or the Royal Fortune. These are the three ships available in the demo and each had their own unique abilities and characteristics. The Black Horn and Jaeger are classified as brigantines while the Royal Fortune is classified as a frigate.

The Black Horn and Jaeger handled quite similarly on the high seas, but comparing those brigantines to the frigate had a much more noticeable difference. The Royal Fortune was slower, less maneuverable, and a larger target, though that’s made up by the fact that it was much beefier compared to its smaller cousins.

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What isn’t really shown in videos is the impressive way that wind and water affects ship handling. Choppy waters and strong winds can make keeping a straight course rather tricky. This makes dangerous waters even more so, as you have to combat both the elements as well as hostile ships and aggressive players.

Each ship had characteristics and abilities unique enough for players to form different playstyles. The Black Horn, for example, has an active speed boost and ram that is effective for both offense and defense. Proper use and timing allowed us to get in and out of trouble quickly. We also had a chance to execute a boarding action on another player, which can only be done against a weakened ship. It acts as a “melee” finisher, sinking the ship without wasting any more ammo.

The sound design on Skull & Bones also greatly improved the experience. Cannons had a satisfying punch when fired, and the creaks and crackle of breaking wood were worrying when you’re on the receiving end of a broadside. It’s downright devastating if those broadsides happened to be from a Royal Fortune, as it has the ability to anchor down and repeatedly fire for long, dreadful seconds.

Overall, Skull & Bones proved to be a visceral and exciting experience. The demo was just a glimpse at what the full game would include, as there are more ships, other modes, and different areas for players to explore. It makes us excited to see how the final game will look like when it comes out in 2019.

Below is our interview with Skull & Bones creative director Justin Arden Farren, edited for length and clarity.

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In the E3 demo we saw a slice of PvPvE. It’s a shared world but where does it begin? Is there a defined hub or it starts when you’re on the island already?

Justin Arden Farren: Your gaming experience starts with the introduction to the world. We want to make sure the players understand how to control the ship, how to control their environment, and then we want to make sure that, very quickly, they are put into an environment with other players. There won’t be an area where you learn the controls where you are not with other players.

You mentioned that customization is a huge feature of the game, and we’ve seen ways to tweak the look and feel of a ship. What about the player icons, will players get to customize that?

The most iconic element to the pirate fantasy is the pirate flag. Players will be able to customize and create their own look for their own pirate ship as well as their own logo and brand of pirate flag. When you see another player’s flag, you should know exactly what the gang is all about. The pirates’ flag of the day, they struck fear into their prey, so we want the same sort of thing. If I build a legacy for my pirates, it should be very clear when someone sees my flag, who I am and what I’m about.

Will you be officially supporting player groups?

We want to but it is still too early to talk about a guild system but we want to make sure that we have ways to bring people together so they can play together so they can have shared goals, shared objectives and shared achievements.

In terms of RPG aspects, how realistic will it be? Will there be ship repairs at the dock or is it just collecting loot, collecting treasures, and getting kills at the end of the day?

The idea is that players will compete season after season against one another for rewards. Those rewards will be commiserated with the amount of energy that you put into that season. There will be different tiers that players can compete against one another. Loot should be something that facilitates progression, it is not the objective. The objective is to become the pirate that no empire can take down.

You do that by mastering several different things. Your ability to manipulate the world, how you are able to take down and manipulate the trade routes, to control the forts, to have relationships with the world itself. There is the idea of networking, where you can influence the factions themselves, the Portuguese, the French and all of those factions you will interact. But it is more your lethality – how lethal you can be in combat and navigation, and making sure you are collecting all the things that will make you most effective when you are in combat on the seas.

There will always be players who want to band together, compete, and look for the best ship synergies. Will we see more than three ships in the final game?

Of course, right now you are just getting a taste of the type of depth and synergies. You saw different ships at E3 last year, so the idea is to show that we have different classes and different ship types within each class. Each one of those ship types reflects an RPG archetype. If you’ve played any RPG game you know what a tank is, you know what a support or a hybrid class is. You know what a mage is or what a rogue is.

Imagine the ships taking the roles in combat and the synergies that you see in traditional RPGs. We want to bring that to the naval combat experience and allow players to be creative through customization and tactics, and have new ways to take down their enemies and frustrate their prey by being able to apply interesting tactics. The meta on top of that are the crewmates. When you collect new crewmates they modify the abilities, they can give you new abilities, and they change how your ship performs in combat and navigation.

Within Ubisoft Singapore, how much has changed since we saw Skull & Bones last year?

Last year we wanted to show people that we are very serious about stepping into the space, that we were creating a brand new IP that leverages on what made Ubisoft Singapore famous – our naval tech. The naval combat we did in the Assassins Creed franchise, and Ghost Recon Phantoms for our ability to create an online community. It was really a statement about our intentions.

This year we wanted to show the depth, the ambition that we have as a live service, the scalability and how much skill is involved in our game; to show that we are a game about competition, and that it brings people together to tell their own stories. We definitely have ambitions of creating something that is lasting that players can rely on, giving them new content, fresh content, season after season, and that was the message this year.

Ubisoft Singapore is leading the development on Skull & Bones. Who else are you tapping on for support?

In Skull & Bones, we have several partners that not only worked on the demo you played but also for the game itself. In Asia we have Ubisoft Philippines and Ubisoft Chengdu. In Europe we have Sofia, we also have Dubai working on the game. It is about bringing all of these studios together to be able to leverage the strength and competency of those individual studios. It is a huge opportunity for us to lead a game of this size and show that Ubisoft made the right decision in having faith in Ubisoft Singapore.

Would you say this is the Singapore studio’s largest effort so far?

It is the largest we’ve ever done. The studio works on big franchises like Assassins Creed and Ghost Recon. We’ve even done work for For Honor and other titles but for us, this is a chance to build an IP. That is an amazing experience that some people never get in their whole career. So we take it very seriously, we respect the opportunity that we have and it will define the careers of many people who are here in the studio. It is a super exciting time for us to be able to show that game development is being done right in the heart of Southeast Asia in Singapore.

As a creative director, what are your personal pressures in delivering this product?

I think personally, what I want to have is a legacy that we bring gamers somewhere they’ve never been before, and that we gave them an experience that they could not get anywhere else. That, to me, is a huge moment of pride. To be able to look at the map that we are trying to build and say we are gonna give people experiences they’ve never seen before, or an opportunity to go the water cooler and tell a story that they’ve never been able to tell before.

In today’s landscape, content providers on Twitch, on YouTube, and other platforms are all about user-generated content. Every second of the game is influenced by players and that to me is where games are headed. To be right at the front of that and to be able to deliver an experience in a very accessible fantasy, like pirates and piracy, is a huge moment of pride for me and for the team as well.

Assassins Creed and Skull & Bones tap on history quite a lot, and we know you do plenty of research. Will there be a mode that tells us more about the Bugis pirates or the region, and maybe what happened?

Our game is not a historical simulation, but we do have a world that is grounded in history. We want to bring to life historical pirates as well as historically-inspired pirates. We have a region right here in Southeast Asia that is rich in piracy and rich in history.

Naturally, we want to bring to life the history that reflects and respects the regions that we are going to build. We are starting now in the Mozambique channel in the African coast, so you should expect that stuff there. As we grow our game we will unlock new regions that players will be able to explore, and naturally those regions will come with their own history and opportunities to bring to life the things that happened there.

Thank you for your time!

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Skull & Bones releases in 2019 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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Wei Song

Wei Song

A bullet fired is better than two in the chamber