Empty Systems: Why AC3 Felt Lacking

Posted March 6, 2013

Assassins Creed 3 was shaping up to be one of the greatest games of the console generation. It was a fresh face on a well loved franchise. It boasted established mechanics that sucked people in and a complex double narrative that promised an end game of modern day assassin adventures. Yet by many accounts, my own included, it was a fumble. I’d like to propose a component of why it failed to live up to expectations.

Meta Game

All games have two within them. The first encompasses the moment to moment actions of play, the base game, the core mechanics. In Assassin’s Creed this involves collection, traversal of historical cities, sneaking, killing dudes with a variety of weapons, and sneakily killing dudes with your wrist bound friend, Stab-astien Killwell.

The second is the over game, the game to play the game, lovingly called the metagame. In Assassin’s Creed this involves the upgrade systems, purchasing buildings, shopping, assassin management, the ever frustrating and awesome sync objectives, etc. They’re the overarching systems that tie the moment to moment mechanics together. If you’ve ever played a sports game, this is the GM/coach/manager type mode.

For fans of that genre the metagame, or infamous “RPG Mechanics”, can be so compelling that it’s the main reason to play. When a company screws it up in a release, massive damage can be done to sales. When executed well it can boost sales, even on otherwise dead platforms. Heck, there are entire products about managing sports teams. So why does this matter to AC3? Because this is why the game fell flat.

Empty Systems

Past Assassin’s Creeds had strong metagames. Everyone would talk about buying up all the property in Venice, leveling their assassin’s for sweet new abilities, or fixing up your uncle Mario’s villa. I was super excited to get new weapons and armor and check the shop after every chapter, eager to see what new surprises await in the fight against the templars. Those games were so rad!

Then they threw all that out in AC3 in place of empty systems. Connor buys and trades raw materials to make stuff you don’t need. Settlement upgrades result in inconsequential narrative. Collecting almanac pages unlocks hard to read database entries.

Then there were the assassins. This time they’re individualized with unique back stories. You think it’s gonna be great and then you never need to use them. Nothing happens when they hit max rank. What you thought would be a cool side plot turned out minor and empty.

How did this happen?

Sure they burnt out mechanics in revelations, but it was the same character and similar cities. Move that into a territorial, less populace American frontier, and buying property becomes new and interesting. It looks like they tried here too, yet it’s all ineffective. Why?

Health Bars. That’s right, health bars. AC3 switched the health system from a number that can be upgraded over time, to an ambiguous refilling bar, thus the need for armor is gone. Enemy health isn’t shown at all so the desire for new weapons is gone. With these two acts they invalidated the need for shops, and removed the cool factor of seeing your arsenal get better over time.

If I don’t need the gear, why bother with sidequests? The hunting provides materials that would be great for upgrades except those systems aren’t there any more. No need to do the homestead improvements unless you want to see the side stories. No need to collect anything. No need to play it.


Three key lessons from Assassin’s Creed 3:

  1. Metagame or RPG mechanic design can have large influence on unexpected genres.
  2. Keep ramifications in mind when changing proven mechanics.
  3. Civil War era ship combat is more engrossing than stabbing dudes, less then tomahawking dudes.