Ask Ubisoft Montreal production manager Philippe Fournier what makes Far Cry unique and he won’t say anything about first-person combat, enemy strongholds, or fighting off wildlife. Instead, he argues that the series is defined by its locations. Much more than other titles, Far Cry sells itself on a kind of unrestricted, virtual tourism. It offers players an immersive, authentic world that provides a realistic “fish-out-of-water experience” that feels dangerous. Senior-level designer Vincent Ouellette agrees, summing up the ethos behind the series rather succinctly: “Beauty from afar, but dangerous and gritty from up close.”
This discussion happened at the “Far Cry 4: From the Developer’s Mind to the Gamer” panel at Sony’s PlayStation Experience on December 6 and 7. When host Geoff Keighley briefly touched on Far Cry 4′s other gameplay elements, including cooperative multiplayer and elephant-riding, Fournier and Ouellette were clear: the series starts and ends with its setting. Any gameplay systems that emerge during the game’s development must make the digital world feel more authentic. Otherwise they’ll get tossed.
According to the panelists, the biggest challenge in developing Far Cry 4 was keeping the setting “authentic” without compromising the fun. Navigating the game’s fictional locale, Kyrat, originally created some major problems. Ouellette says that the production team chose the Himalayan setting because “verticality was something we really wanted to push,” but in practice, the rocky, sloping terrain often made it difficult for players to find their way around. Ouellette explains, “It was a huge challenge to make the player still wander around, navigate, and go from point A to point B in the world, and not knock his face on a cliff.”
As a result, Ubisoft Montreal created a variety of new in-game gadgets, including a grappling hook and a gyrocopter, which were specifically designed to help players move vertically. While these tools fit so perfectly in the Far Cry arsenal that it’s hard to imagine future installments without them, they never would’ve happened if the newest installment were set on a flatter terrain. It’s just one example of how the development team starts with a location, and then builds the game around that – not the other way around.
Similarly, when Fournier and other senior members of the development team took a trip to Nepal, they noticed that the mountain roads were often windy and crooked. When they introduced that into the game, however, the switchbacks made it difficult for players to know exactly which roads to drive on. That’s why Far Cry 4 includes a GPS navigation system on all of its vehicles. Not only does this feature make the game more fun, but it’s also a plausible, real-world solution that helps Kyrat feel like a natural, lived-in community.
Fournier and Ouellette also worked with creative director Alex Hutchinson, art director Joshua Cook, and audio director Tony Gronick to craft Kyrat’s realistic environments. When discussing the struggle for authenticity, Fournier sounds particularly proud of a series of missions that take place on high Himalayan mountaintops. “Instead of just taking the same [gameplay]systems, we really… adapted them to something that’s a bit harsher in terms of weather,” he says. It shows. During these missions, which take place at extreme elevations, players have to manage tanks of oxygen. A blizzard reduces players’ visibility, and sound doesn’t travel as well in snow. This makes it easier to sneak up on enemies – or have enemies creep up on you. It’s not exactly like climbing a mountain, of course, but it’s about as close as a person can get from the safety of his or her own living room.
According to Fournier, this location-first approach takes a lot of effort, but it has paid off. Far Cry 4 won “Best Shooter” at Geoff Keighley’s The Game Awards, and the title received overwhelmingly positive reviews. It’s a grueling process, Ouellette says, but one that’s made easier by following a couple of simple rules, which he offers to game developers everywhere: “embrace freedom,” “stay creative,” “go to playtest very early,” and – most important – “fail fast.”