An Interview with Skull and Bones Creative Director Elisabeth Pellen

After originally being announced in 2017, the much anticipated pirating title Skull and Bones went quiet. Some speculated that the game had been scrapped after several reworkings and missing its original release window of 2018. However, Ubisoft put those concerns to rest in a gameplay overview showcase on July 7th while simultaneously announcing a November 8th release date.

Now that the excitement of the re-reveal has subsided a bit, and the team at Ubisoft Singapore have been able to catch their breath, Creative Director Elisabeth Pellen sat down to answer some questions for Seasoned Gaming.

Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions and congratulations on the recent gameplay reveal showcase! What was that moment like for you and the team?

EP: It was really exciting for everyone who contributed to the project to finally reveal our game. It was a huge feat for the Singapore studio to create one of the biggest open worlds at Ubisoft so they are really proud of that achievement. It’s surreal to see it out in the world.

It feels as though we’ve known about Skull and Bones for quite some time. Certainly there are always setbacks and direction changes in the natural course of development. Add to that the pandemic and work from home…how much change has the game gone through since its inception?

EP: Any new IP is a challenge and will take many years to fully develop. Skull and Bones took time to find the right recipe to deliver our pirate fantasy. After E3 2018, instead of capitalizing on 5v5 arena, we saw an opportunity to give more space to the player for more interesting combat maneuvers with these gigantic ships, so we pivoted towards creating a multiplayer naval combat game in an immersive open world.

An open world also allowed us to incorporate more elements of the pirate fantasy such as exploring beautiful and exotic regions. It enabled us to develop a progression system based on the player journey where you evolve from an outcast stranded on an island, to a middleman doing some jobs to make money to upgrade your ship, to becoming an entrepreneur where you can craft your own contraband for the most influential brokers in the world.

Is it true that the well received naval combat of Assassin’s Creed Black Flag laid the foundation for gameplay in Skull and Bones?

EP: As the Singapore studio received the mandate to create a new IP, the first creative team decided to leverage on the expertise of the team who brought the naval combat in Assassin’s Creed Black Flag to life. Since then, we’ve been focused on elevating the naval combat experience to the next level.

I’ll admit I was a bit surprised when I saw that the game takes place in the Indian Ocean. What took you all in that direction as opposed to the Atlantic, Pacific, or a fictional sea?

EP: To find the recipe for our own pirate fantasy, we did some historical research. We found that the Indian Ocean during the 2nd Golden Age of Piracy was consider the most dangerous sea. It was like an Eldorado for young pirates to become billionaires in one day with the right knowledge and attitude. Instead of spending their spoils, some invested their gold into outposts and smuggling routes to build their own secret trading networks.

The pirates of the Indian Ocean were also more diverse –  some became experts in scavenging wrecks, while others became hunters and buccaneers selling illegal goods, or even logwood cutters when they were not out at sea.

They were some of the deadliest of the pirate history, because they would organize gangs to raid fortresses and some convoys with ship to transform to increase the efficiency their cannon and outsmart their enemies.

For the world of Skull and Bones and what we wanted to achieve in post-launch as well, the Indian Ocean was an endless source of inspiration.

How historically accurate are ship designs? I’m sure changes were made in some cases to accommodate gameplay and fun. 

During our historical research we discovered some pirate shipwrecks at the bottom of the ocean in the region of Madagascar. The wreckage did show signs of transformation in order to outsmart their enemies. For instance, some pirates modified their weapons to increase the recoil of their cannons. This gave rise to the idea of allowing our players to craft and customize the ships and weapons.

In terms of the ships themselves, we started off taking a look at what was real during the time period, so we have warships and sail ships such as the Sloop and the Brigantine. Then we adapted these ships to suit a more gameplay purpose, to showcase different playstyles and personalities through a large variety of weapons and vanity such as figureheads and hull ornaments.

It would be silly not to acknowledge that there will be comparisons made between Skull and Bones and other pirate titles, Sea of Thieves being the one that comes to mind. How is the team at Ubisoft Singapore differentiating themselves from Sea of Thieves, Atlas, or any other comparative titles?

EP: With Skull and Bones, we wanted to take naval combat to the next level. In order to do so, we’ve focused on creating a navigation and aiming system that is intuitive and easy to understand but has enough depth that it is difficult to master. To support that, we’ve developed a large variety of ships, weapons and furniture to enhance the naval combat experience.

The gameplay trailer showed a lot of things I was not expecting from dangerous wildlife to armored ships that truly let you distinguish yourself on the seas. Can you speak a bit about some of the standout elements of Skull and Bones you think players should pay closer attention to?

EP: In Skull and Bones, you can build 3 different types of ships – each with their own advantages. For instance, Cargo ships are able to transport your loot, Navigation ships offer an advantage in maneuverability in combat, while Firepower ships have more cannon slots. It is up to the player to make the most of it. Each ship within these categories has their individual ship perks.

What types of ship customization do players have access to?

EP: We have 3 layers of gameplay customization. Each ship comes with a number of slots to equip weapons such as cannons, bombards and even mortars. Players will also be able to add some attachments to their ship – to increase and gain your cargo capacity or armour to protect your hull from the enemies that will attack you. The last layer of customization is the furniture. These will provide some passive abilities and give you more autonomy – some furniture can fish automatically for you, or give you more firepower and speed. By customizing their entire loadout, players can further specialize their ships to become a deadly weapon, or create hybrid ships that are more versatile.

[Editor’s Note: You can find gameplay and customization footage here.]

EP: We also have vanity customization – either winning them as a reward for attacking specific ships, or purchasing them from the atelier. Players are able to mix and match different ship and captain vanity in order to create their own unique look. We really wanted an immersive way to reflect a player journey in our world.

What led to the decision to abstain from having a campaign? Certainly discussions internally weighed the pros and cons of letting the player create their own legacy.

EP: Instead of writing a solo campaign, our great team of Narrative Designers and Writers created a lore where the players are the true heroes. This is where they can write their own story and consume the content and interact with the characters the way they want. Instead of following a linear story, you collect fragments of information through playing the game and exploring to enhance your understanding of the world. When you visit outposts, for instance, you might meet smugglers, local rebels, corrupted officials – looking for a way to make some deals. On top of that, you might get a different experience depending on when you visit and this encourages players to interact with one another and share information as well. This poses some unique challenges as we can’t really control the player experience but it was core to the fantasy we wanted to deliver. In Skull and Bones, we don’t have one story but multiple stories, that will evolve over time, even after launch.

Can you talk a bit about infamy and fleets? What is a Pirate Kingpin?

EP: Certainly. During the 2nd Golden Age of Piracy, the power of a pirate was really dependent on their notoriety. It inspired our Game Director, Ryan Barnard, to create a system of progression based on the ability to score the biggest heist and and gain more resources to build your reputation. We’ll have more to share in the months to come.

Lastly, a bit of silliness. In the showcase it was mentioned several times that during internal playtests the team would target certain members of the team…If I’m teaming up with my friends to take someone down, just how pirate-like can it get? 

In the world of Skull and Bones, players have the freedom to play as they like. Players can choose to approach the world solo or to group up, or even fight other players. We have two types of servers that players can easily switch between PvE-only or PvP enabled, with no loss in progression. On PvP-enabled servers, you can betray your friends if you’re not part of the same group at any point.

Luke Lohr often features developers on his weekly podcast the Xbox Expansion Pass. Recent print interviews with Seasoned Gaming include the Game Director for Godfall and Trek to Yomi creator Leonard Menchiari.

By Luke Lohr

Luke Lohr is the creator and host of the Xbox Expansion Pass. XEP is a weekly podcast that discusses the goings on of the gaming industry and features developers, journalists, actors, and equality advocates from all over the gamingverse. You can find Luke on Twitter @InsipidGhost.


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