Ubisoft Massive's MD discusses The Division's development, engine and next-gen

Interview: Tom Clancy’s The Division

During its E3 press conference, Ubisoft unveiled a brand new IP in the form of Tom Clancy’s The Division.

The multiplayer-focused online game features a persistent world in which players can team up and explore the giant city of New York together as they take on missions to help restore order to society, which has been thrown into chaos after a national pandemic.

Developed by Massive Entertainment, the studio has been working on the idea of the title since it was acquired by Ubisoft in 2008, but the idea to bring it to next-gen consoles didn’t come till mid-way through development.

The idea behind the game came when the developer began exploring the Tom Clancy IP, and started considering what would happen if the usual Clancy heroes, the Ghosts or Rainbow, failed to save the world.

"We started to explore that theme, and as it turned out there’s a lot of reality behind it which makes it really interesting," said Ubisoft Massive MD David Polfeldt.

"A couple of years ago the American government conducted an exercise called Dark Winter. And Dark Winter was an exercise where they simulated a pandemic in a city, and they asked the fire department, the law enforcement, and the hospitals etcetera to play out the simulation and to see what would happen.

"To everybody’s horror what happened was that they realised they have no chance to stop everything spiralling completely out of control. So within four or five days they would lose control over the normal infrastructure of society. And there would be no water in the taps, no electricity, no food in the stores, and then eventually people get desperate, everyone with a gun is a problem, and so on."

Following these tests, then president George Bush created Directive 51, designed to save the US from internal collapse and stop things spiralling out of control. The Division centres on this concept, and imagines what the US would do to protect itself.

Players take on the role of special sleeper agents, who are tasked with stopping society breaking down and helping to restore order should there be a national crisis, such as a pandemic.

The title will also have a companion app, in which a player can use their mobile to take control of a drone, assisting with surveillance in the console game, helping to identify enemy positions, drop ammo and gear and even open fire on enemies in the same game world.

At a special pre-E3 briefing Develop and other games press sat down with the MD of Massive Entertainment, David Polfeldt to discuss development of the game, and what the studio’s plans are for the new IP.

Is it multiplatform?
This is next-gen only, so Xbox One and PS4 only One of the challenges we were interested in was creating a companion game.

To me, many of the companion games are mostly gimmicks, they prove that I can connect my device to your device, and after five minutes you’re like, but is it meaningful, apart from the fact that it’s connected?

One of my fears with this E3 is that we’ll see a lot of gimmicky companion games and gimmicky announcements that are like ‘wow, everything is connected’. And then your [reaction is] ‘so what?’

So we decided to create a companion game and we set this challenge for ourselves that it needs to be really meaningful and fun for the person on the pad, and really meaningful and helpful for the people on the HD experience.

One thing that we were lucky with with this generation is that we have a very hardcore PC background. When World in Conflict was released it was seen as one of the most beautiful games on PC at that time. And when we saw the specs for this generation of consoles we were like, that’s a machine that we understand, that makes complete sense.

So for this one we’ve developed our own engine. It’s a very specific engine just for this game and this generation of consoles. It’s incredibly efficient; it allows people to do things very quickly. So instead of working in kind of a roundabout way, which is current gen, if you say ‘I would like this to happen in the game’, you can make it happen very quickly. It’s a much more fluid way to develop games.

One of the reasons I’m excited about this E3 is I think other developers will have discovered the same thing, that you can be much quicker, and the distance between your idea and what’s happening in the game is much shorter with this generation. But theoretically, the games should be much better and also could be much more content heavy because it’s easier to produce for them.

We’re really happy about the tech, our aim is to make one of the most beautiful games on next-gen.

Have you been working on this game since you were acquired?
We have been working on the idea of the game. But next-gen came kind of half way. And also if you remember in 2009, the idea of what an online MMO game should be was quite different. But I think very early we started thinking that World of Warcraft is a probably anomaly, and is probably something that will not be repeated by many other games.

So we never fell into the trap of trying to make another World of Warcraft like ‘hey there will be ten World of Warcraft’s’. And you saw what happened with the people that tried to do that, it was a horrible trap to fall into. I think we steered away form that pretty quickly.

We just had a small concept team working on prototypes for a long time, and then somewhere half way through we got the specs for next-gen, and we were like wow, okay this is the perfect match for what we want to do.

Is this an MMO game? What genre is it?
Almost all of the features you expect from an MMO we have in the game. So there’s hub cities, crafting, trading, gear, guilds.

Is it a persistent world?
Yes, and I think more persistent than some of the MMOs, because you can actually change New York as you progress through the game.

Does this game require an always-on connection to work?
Technically I would say it doesn’t really, because you can play the whole game solo. But I can’t imagine the game making a lot of sense if you’re not connected.

To me it’s like saying ‘can I play World of Warcraft offline?’, and I guess we could fill it with AI and it would be the same game, but it’s never the same game. But technically I guess you could play it solo.

So you’re saying the decision hasn’t been taken yet?
I’m saying to me it has to be online. I can’t think of any other meaningful way to play the game. But it’s interesting that technically it wouldn’t have to be. To me, all the interesting things happen because you’re in a place with other players as well.

I mean I loved Skyrim; it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played. But I missed being able to play it with other people. That’s the only thing I missed with the game.

I thought it was great, but my son was playing it on another floor on another PlayStation, and I was downstairs playing it, so we were both playing it at the same time and we could never do anything together. It just annoyed me, it’s just so stupid that it’s such a great game and you can never meet anybody else in that world.

I think in my head that it’s the connection that makes the game really interesting.

How important are the mechanics from pen and paper role-playing games, where all this stuff comes from, to computer games today?
I would say that without Dungeons and Dragons we would not have a lot of big computer games. I’m beginning to think that it’s less and less relevant. I think video games are finding their own DNA as an art form.

Personally I think we’re going into a small golden age of video games now, because with this generation of consoles, the things that we can make are so much more interesting and the way we can work is so much more direct.

With the current gen it’s like you’re looking at a canvas and someone says, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this?’. And it’s like, let’s figure out a way to touch the canvas, and then you start thinking of ways to get there, and a couple of days later you see it active, and it’s almost what we thought.

With this generation, it’s just like picking up the brush, and it’s in the game right away. It’s going to unleash a lot of creativity in many developers and things that have been stuck in technology in the current gen. With the new gen there’s much fewer limitations.

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