It's been about two years since Patrice Desilets had an office, and almost six years since he last released a game.
Best known for his work on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and the early Assassin's Creed titles, Desilets was a critical darling through the 2000s, overseeing some of Ubisoft's best action games.
In recent years, though, his career has been tied up in a publisher that ran out of money, another publisher that bought the rights to his new project then fired him and a lawsuit trying to get back those rights.
Sitting down at E3 last week, he had a simple message: "I'm back."
He brought with him a teaser trailer for his new project. He has a new company, a new game design and funding to make it happen. And in about a week, that team will move into an office and start production.
Desilets' new company is Panache Digital Games — named both for its American definition of "flamboyant style" as well as its French Canadian definition meaning antlers. He wore a T-shirt with antlers displayed on it for this interview, and pointed to the metaphor of different ideas going in different directions but all being strongly connected at the base.
That idea is central to the team’s first game, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, a retelling of important moments in history. It's an episodic action-adventure game designed to compete with big budget games on a moment-to-moment level, but not at scale. Given that Panache will have approximately 20 people on staff, it can't compete with the hundreds that develop a modern 30-plus hour Assassin's Creed game. But Desilets thinks it can compete if it tells a story that's only an hour long.
"I'm somebody who dreams big," he said. "I wish I could think of smaller games — top down 2D games — but this is not how I design. ... Let's focus on making a small chunk of a AAA game, and that hour has to be the same quality as an hour of Assassin’s Creed.'"
Desilets also isn't sure if he will use the term "episodic" to describe the game as time goes on. He said the team may use a different term like "chapters" because it wants people to think of the game in a different way. That difference being, each chapter will in some ways feel like its own game, with its own characters and world. And each chapter will tell the story of a single day when something important happened in history, so the chapters will jump around on a large timeline.
"The marketing catchphrase [is] 'Let's play the Civilization tech tree with the field of view and the point of view of Assassin's Creed.'"
The first chapter stars an orrorin — "our very first common ancestor," said Desilets. "Not a chimp anymore; still not a human." The character will learn how to stand and climb, and Panache plans to present this somewhat like a documentary. There will be a narrator, though Desilets assured us it won't be him. He compares the presentation to the BBC series Planet Earth.
The second chapter, Desilets said, will likely focus less on the body and running around and interacting with the world, and more on the brain and how people can recognize patterns to avoid danger.
And the idea is that each chapter, once the player finishes its story, will open up and allow players to explore the world. Players will be able to grind and build up their character in this part of the game, and those abilities will carry over to future chapters — with the story conceit being that all the chapters feature characters from the same family tree.
"The marketing catchphrase [is] 'Let’s play the Civilization tech tree with the field of view and the point of view of Assassin’s Creed.'" he said.
Desliets said Panache has enough funding to get the game off the ground and produce multiple chapters on PC and consoles, though he hesitated to nail down an exact number. He also said that Panache is considering publishing deals for the game, but it doesn't need one. If those deals don't feel right, the team has enough funding through a private investor to self publish.
"We asked for, 'OK, we cannot just have enough to make one [chapter],'" he said. "It's useless. The entire business model's done if you [throw] it out there and cross your fingers. You need to bring people into this new cycle of every X amount of time that is not too long, not too short, there’s new stuff coming."
Desilets didn’t want to commit to an exact timeframe, but said that six months between chapters would be too long. He compared it to watching a TV show, saying that the consistency is important, and whatever the gap is between the first two chapters he wants to keep as the gap between future chapters. He mentioned multiple times needing to stay disciplined and not wanting to chew off too much each time out.
So while he has many ideas in mind past the first chapter — a chapter about the time man discovered fire, a feature that will let players breed offspring, possibly a chapter about how wolves became dogs — he wants to start with a manageable scope.
"Eventually I'll do cities with crowds and climbing and jumping all over the place and sword fighting and horses," he said. "But first, let's do [something small], and we'll make it one [chapter] at a time."