A Chat With Skull and Bones Developers Gabriel Tay and Jessica Chung

Ahead of the launch of Ubisoft’s upcoming pirate blockbuster Skull and Bones, I was lucky enough to get a chance to sit down and chat with Associate Content Director Gabriel Tay and Project Manager Jessica Chung to talk about what it was like to work on such a huge title. 

Jess Zammit: So, kind of a long and winding journey to the release of Skull and Bones, which was originally announced as an extension of Black Flag, and has obviously come a long way. What has changed since the initial version of the game when it was first conceived? 


Gabriel Tay: I think, you know, when it was first announced it was definitely still meant to be a pirate game that built on the strengths of Black Flag. And you know we still definitely wanted to capture the strengths of Black Flag like the strong pirate fantasy, and we really wanted to focus on the aspect of naval combat and really deepen it. So for us, this was the thing we doubled down on and we wanted to be more ambitious and bring an entire open world into this. It was also taking it from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean, which is a setting that’s not really well explored in games. And this was something really exciting for us because it allowed us to capture the diversity of locales and cultures spanning from the coast of Africa all the way to the East Indies. For us that was a really exciting prospect to be able to do. 


Jessica Chung: Especially I think for a couple of years now we’ve been really engaging with the community. We have, you know, initiatives like the insider program and it really gave us a lot of insights into what players really like. So that helped us to really iterate on the game and to make sure that we actually create a game that gamers want, and to really focus on the aspects that they really enjoy – like multiplayer is something they really want, so they can play with friends. So we did a lot of work on those to make sure that all the activities are able to be played solo, and multiplayer – and it’s actually more fun if you play with your friends. 

Skull and Bones

Jess Zammit: Yeah! On feedback from the community playing such a big part in it – there have obviously been a few big open betas along the way. Have there been any big takeaways from any of those where you’ve walked away and thought hey – we really need to focus on this? Obviously multiplayer is one of them. 


Jess Chung: So one of the things as a team that we’re really close with is I think players really wanted to have fantastical elements in the game. I think we really started off with making sure things are you know, grounded, and of course making sure things feel realistic. And I think one of the bits of feedback was players want something a little fantastical. So we added really two big parts to the game – including a Ghost Ship. These are really the fantastical things that we thought that we wouldn’t have, but our players really wanted it. So we built them – and they’re a big challenge! We’re really looking forward to players playing those. 


Gabriel: Yeah, I think that’s what’s been really interesting for us is that what players were really asking for is still something that was grounded – this historically inspired aspect. You know, not the Pirates of the Caribbean style, very swashbuckling kind of piracy, but they wanted to see what it meant to be a pirate during the golden age of piracy. And I think for us that was really such a great opportunity to have that unique take on piracy and then for us to find that balance between still giving them the cool aspects of, you know, the sea monsters and the ghost ships while still having that grounded aspect. I think that’s really cool and players have been responding really well to that. 


Jess Zammit: Yeah! That was going to kinda be one of my questions is – how do you find that balance between the historical aspect and, you know, wanting to represent that area, and also including those fantastical elements? What sort of research did you do to make sure you were getting it right, and which bits was it important to get right? 


Gabriel: Yeah, I think for us we knew that setting it in the Indian Ocean was going to be such a rich opportunity to showcase all the different things that I mentioned, you know, locales and cultures, all these details that you may not necessarily have paid attention to. You know, because you had the mega corporations that were coming in, and you still had local factions, you know the Africans, the South East Asians, and all the different parts, and being able to experience all of that is really unique for us. So we had help from internal and external historians to kind of give us information about all these details – like really small details, even down to carvings and small emblems that you see on items in the game – so for us it was really important that we captured all of these to make it feel like it’s very much a part of the world that we live in. And balancing that by also asking ourselves what if – what if these different things could take place in a world that was still meaningful and didn’t feel like a completely different game. And I think we’ve really hit a sweet spot on that aspect where you can seamlessly transition between ‘I’m carrying my goods, gonna ship stuff over and fighting other pirates’, but at the same time whoa – a sea monster comes up and it doesn’t feel like it came from a different game. I think this is what makes it cool – it adds these moments of surprise in what feels like it could be a normal life of a pirate. 

Jess Chung: I think one of the things that we really also did a lot of research on was the building on the ships. We have a really amazing artist that did a lot of research on the actual construction of ships and took a trip to really look at a real ship and how everything works. So, we really hope that as players sail they really feel that immersion and that they’re really commandeering a ship and I think it’s really important for us to give that fantasy to players.

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Jess Zammit: That’s awesome! So – in trailers and previews, we’ve heard a little about the factions. I’m curious to get a bit more specific and know if there are any recurring characters that we’ll see throughout the world, and are there any favourites among the team? 

Gabriel: Oh yeah, so, we do have a range of characters throughout the game and the ones that are most featured prominently are the kingpins of each of the dens. So, we have John Skurlock – in a way he kinda represents our very typical idea of what a pirate is, but also he doesn’t look like a pirate that has the hat and the eyepatch [laughs]. But you know, what we wanted to do with Skurlock was to introduce players to him as representing what you would be at the height of your power. Like once you had a really powerful ship, the level of influence you would have – this kinda ties in with the narrative framing of our progression – infamy. As you build up your reputation you’re gonna be able to take on more contracts with other characters, you’re gonna be able to gain special services with other characters as well, and you know – we wanted all these different aspects to reflect – not just for these characters to be that mirror, but also for you on your journey towards being a kingpin yourself. 

Jess Chung: There are a lot of memorable characters, and I think John Skurlock is really one of the team’s favourites [both laugh]. 

Gabriel: He does have a lot of quotable quotes!

Jess Chung: There’s also on your ship you have a first mate, and I think this is also a big part of the player’s journey. So we allow players to really craft their own pirate identity, and really how they want to play is up to them to create their own stories – but we also have characters like John Skurlock and the first mate, where I think it will be very interesting to see how players react to them, and the connections that they feel to all these characters. 

Gabriel: Yeah, I think we’re really proud of the first mate, because it was such an opportunity to introduce a South East Asian character into the game. And to be able to have someone so close to us, and to be represented in a game of this scale was just something that the team was so excited about. And from the reception when we first showed it, it’s been great, and we’re really excited to show more about the characters. 

Jess Zammit: Yeah! That’s also a topic that’s dear to my heart – representation of characters and stuff that you don’t necessarily see that much in games. How does that feel to see yourself? 

Both: It’s so good! 

Gabriel: Yeah, you know, it makes me proud to show the world that there is so much diversity, and just the ability to show even a small slice of our culture in such a grand scope of a game like this. And I think we’ve just scratched the surface in that – because you know, once we’ve launched, and going into post launch, we’re really excited to be able to show even more characters to represent even more characters in the game, and even though we can’t reveal additional details about that, I think players will be really pleased with what we have in the pocket. 

Jess Zammit: Thank you so much! 

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