Tom Clancy’s The Division: how Ubisoft Massive is making next-gen’s hottest prospect

The Division

Don’t let the name deceive you: Ubisoft Massive isn’t an enormous studio. The Swedish developer of E3 2013’s biggest surprise numbers just 300 people. Naturally, as a modern Ubisoft project The Division will ultimately be made in co-development with the publisher’s global network of studios. For the moment, though, fewer than 300 people (15 of the team are working on a secret project) are making one of the next generation’s most exciting prospects. That is, by modern standards, a tiny team. Studio MD David Polfeldt knows that this is a bold ambition – and maybe a crazy one.

“I guess that’s me putting my head in the guillotine a bit, because it’s contradictory to what everyone else thinks,” he tells us. “I want to put it forward as a theory, and maybe as a challenge to ourselves and other studios: are we sure we need 800 people? What if we say we can make it with 300? How much more efficient would we have to be? It’s entirely possible. That’s what I’m saying.”

That drive for efficiency has not dulled the scale or ambition of this online RPG shooter, nor its production values. Its E3 video reveal was, like so many other trailers at this year’s show, a tech demo of next-gen graphical effects – of volumetric and HDR lighting, of water, lit smoke, particle effects and reflections. There was a sense of pace and drama too: the demo was three minutes in before the first bullet was fired. “Almost everybody [else] started with big explosions,” Polfeldt notes. “We thought before E3 that this was going to be necessary with this generation: people are going to expect sensitive drama, and build up. I think a big part of our success was that we expected people to be smart, to have the patience to wait for the first bullet. That made us stand out at E3 much more than we expected.”

Stand out they did, to the extent that Hideo Kojima was at Ubisoft’s booth within minutes of the E3 doors opening, asking to see The Division, telling the team afterwards it was “so good it makes me want to quit my job”. That, Polfeldt believes, isn’t a comment on the way Metal Gear Solid V is being made, but on how it’s been presented. “I think what he means is we paid attention to the narrative: ‘Ah, that is my strength. I’m good at that, good at allowing people time.’ The way his game was announced was like nobody trusted that. ‘Skip all those parts, go to action, action, action, and that’s a good announcement.’ For me that was a really important moment where I thought, yeah, we made the right choice.”

That focus on the narrative was especially important because Massive wasn’t just going up against the raft of other next-gen games with guns at E3 2013, but also internally, against the other Tom Clancy games from which it has to differentiate itself. The solution came from the real world – first from Presidential Directive 51, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency’s plan for the restoration of society after a disaster; then came Operation Dark Winter, a 2001 simulation of a bioterrorist attack on the US, and Massive had the differentiator it needed. “Clancy units traditionally stop the threat from happening,” Martin Hultberg, head of communications, says. “We thought, well, why don’t we take it a little bit further and enter a mid-crisis situation where something did happen and nobody managed to stop it? Then, as events unfold, someone has to take care of it. That would be The Division.”

The game begins three weeks after the outbreak of a disease: it’s a smart setup that positions the game somewhere between traditional Clancy fare and post-apocalyptic works like The Last Of Us or Fallout. New York is in chaos, but there’s still a semblance of order and hope. It’s up to the player to turn things around, hence the game’s tagline: what will it take to save what remains?

With the change of focus comes a new challenge in open-world game design. In a post-apocalyptic setting, the damage has already been done; the world is fixed. Here, the virus is spreading, and with it disorder. The Division’s New York, then, will change as the game progresses, with unattended parts of the map slipping further into chaos. Hultberg refers to the first gameplay video, in which The Division dispatches an opposing force that has taken over a police station before freeing cops trapped in their own cells. “When you reach the police station, it might be in a different state than it is when I get there,” Hultberg explains. “There might be an assault ongoing, and you help police fight off the attackers and get different information. That’s one way of using dynamic events to tell slightly different story beats.” It’s a vague example, admittedly, but Massive is keeping things as close to its chest as possible.

In fact, game director Ryan Barnard prizes secrecy to such an extent that he’s already worrying about upsetting Ubisoft’s marketing teams. He is, however, quick to dismiss the suggestion that The Division’s police stations will play the role of Assassin’s Creed’s viewpoints or Far Cry 3’s radio towers – central points that, when unlocked, afford a fuller view of the surrounding area, a recurring theme in Ubisoft’s open worlds. “That’s a proven formula for open-world games and it’s very fun, but we are doing something different,” he says. “We have a truly emergent layer – there will be an element of New York, as its own character, its own entity, breaking. For that to happen it has to be individual for you, individual for me, and it has to be real.”

Your group will discover or become aware of events that require your attention at several spots in the world, and New York will change and shift based on the choices you make. Barnard speaks not of quests, but of threads, that different players will discover in different orders and with the city around them in different states of collapse.

They won’t do so alone. This has been designed from the ground up as a multiplayer game, and it says much that Barnard’s career has been spent mostly in the MMOG space, with stints on EverQuest, Dark Age Of Camelot and Warhammer Online. It’s telling, too, that prior to its unveiling The Division’s internal codename was ‘Rogue’, after the World Of Warcraft class. The MMOG influence has been dialled back as development has progressed, but its legacy remains in crafting, trading, skills – switchable on the fly from a menu in your agent’s wristwatch, the only real piece of Clancy tech to be shown off so far – and its offering of both PvE and PvP. Barnard says that the latter might just be Massive’s “silver bullet”; the former will use a matchmaking system powered by the studio’s obsessive focus on metrics.

“We’re tracking tonnes of stuff for the player,” Barnard says. “Are you someone who likes to PvP? Are you someone who doesn’t PvP at all? Do you craft, do you do group activities? That will all be known, so when you go to join a group it’ll not only fit you by who’s available around your level but also by preferences. We’re putting players together that have similar interests.”

Metrics are used in the design process too, finessing cover placements and lines of sight, plus weapon balance and feel. That requires iteration, which takes time. New features have to be designed, coded, added to the next build and then tested. “Even if it takes me three hours to code it up, we’re looking at a week or so of latency just from ID to first testable prototype,” says associate lead tech programmer Carl Johan Lejdfors. “And by that time I’ve forgotten what I did, and my boss has forgotten what he asked for.”

Not any more. Thanks to Snowdrop, Massive’s new engine, The Division has been up and running since a few days into production. When we’re shown the engine in action, a single click brings up a loading screen and a cascade of command line windows. Within seconds we’re in the game, picking up a 360 controller and moving the agent from the E3 demo around New York, ready to test the feature that’s just been added. Now that three-hour project can be implemented in the morning, tested in a multiplayer session with colleagues over lunch, and finessed in the afternoon.

The entire engine is node-based, meaning that the work done by all departments looks the same – a tangled spaghetti of connecting blocks of data that can, in theory at least, be read by anyone on the project. The coding has already been done, so where once a jump mechanic would require a coder, designer, artist and animator, now it’s the work of a single content creator, who need only ask for access to the relevant nodes. Having a live engine reduces time; the nodes reduce the number of people required. Suddenly Polfeldt’s goal of making a next-gen game with 300 people seems a little less fanciful.

The Snowdrop engine isn’t just designed to increase efficiency, of course, and a closer look at the engine doing its work in realtime is perhaps the most engaging showcase for new console graphics hardware that we’ve seen so far. The undisputed highlight for us is a demonstration of The Division’s destructibility, which sees an agent dropped into a car park full of obstructions made of different materials, ready to be shot. Tiny splinters erupt from a wooden door; a slatted fence breaks up in chunks. Half a clip is unleashed on a sheet of corrugated metal, and when we examine its other side, we see a dent from every single bullet. Next to go is a wall of tiles, the gradual breakdown of which will thrill anyone who’s ever taken a hammer and chisel to a bathroom wall.

The undisputed highlight, however, is the destruction of a police car. Siren lights pop and shatter one by one. Every bullet leaves a hole. Shoot out a tyre and there’s a visible puff of air, the car’s balance shifting appropriately. After a decade of shooting static objects until they catch fire and blow up, it’s this – perhaps more than the engine and certainly more than the E3 competition’s explosions and particle showers – that is most obviously next-generation content.

Massive has spent its time under Ubisoft playing the support role, working first on Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, then on Far Cry 3’s multiplayer component. Now it is the lead studio, and not just on this project. It is showing the entire industry that next-gen development doesn’t need to be more expensive, that more can be done with less if you have the right tools for the job. “The fact that The Division got noticed is a healthy sign, and I think the message is not hard for other developers to understand,” Polfeldt says.

“You can do that. You can slow it down, trust the gamer to be smart, build it up and work with emotions.” Engines like Snowdrop may solve some of the industry’s problems with scale, but in a broader sense it seems that the key to next-gen success lies in treating the player with respect. And, as we stand on the brink of a new generation, that’s an encouraging sign indeed.