[This feature was published in the March 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]
Building triple-A console games is tough. So it’s no wonder that development is increasingly being shared between two or more studios at a time.
For Swedish studio, Massive Entertainment, the process of making Far Cry 3, a first-person shooter set on a beautiful, yet threatening island paradise, turned out to be a huge learning curve.
Not only did the Malmö-based developer have to take up the reins as support studio on Far Cry 3, working with the main team at Ubisoft Montreal and others; it also had to master a genre it previously had no experience in.
“This was an experience that we wanted to have,” Massive’s managing director David Polfeldt tells Develop. “We love RTS games, but we were increasingly concerned about being typecast in a genre that has faced a lot of commercial challenges over the last couple of years.”
As Polfeldt says, Massive’s experience has primarily been in RTS games. It created World in Conflict and the reasonably well-regarded Ground Control series, before being acquired by Ubisoft in 2008.
“We got involved on Far Cry 3 very early on,” continues Polfeldt. “It was an important moment for us, since we had just been acquired by Ubisoft and we were mutually still finding out how to make the most of the new relationship.
“As a studio, we had long wanted to broaden our portfolio beyond real-time strategy games, and also we were hungry for a proper experience with the current generation of consoles. When we announced the project internally, people were very excited, especially because it was a shooter.”
Massive’s main contributions to Far Cry 3 were its multiplayer and co-op campaign. It also assisted with the engine itself, which was built on an evolution of the Dunia Engine, not forgetting additional collaborative areas that stem from the fact it has been sharing code and art for almost three years.
This process of exchange wasn’t as straightforward as walking across to another department or even another building. With its lead development studio based in Montreal, Far Cry 3 was being forged and shaped, built and rebuilt in completely different time zones. Polfeldt explains what this meant for the project to begin with.
“I think the first big decision to be made for anyone working on co-development is if you will share or split the code branch, because, once that key decision is made, it will have a huge impact on the development process,” he says.
“In Far Cry 3, we decided to keep everything in the same branch. So, on a good day, we’d show up at work and capitalise on the ‘free’ work that had been added in Montreal the previous night. It could be art fixes, new objects, weapons, animations or voice acting that suddenly were in place.”
While this had positive outcomes, it just as easily had negative ones.
Polfeldt continues: “On a bad day, we’d show up at work and discover that something had been changed or fixed that worked well for single-player, but also created new issues in multiplayer or co-op that would set us back a day or two. And vice versa, of course. We would deliver the same potent mix of gifts and bugs to our partners.”
One of the challenges Massive faced because of this collaboration was related to the AI that needed to act differently in single-player and co-op modes.
“In single-player, some AI behaviours were dressed up in animations or camera sequences. But, in co-op, we couldn’t afford to let any individual AI to ‘pause’ the game to play out an animation. Since there were always several players at once doing different things, we required the AI to react to several players’ simultaneous choices.”
Montreal was just one of the studios Massive was working with. Ubisoft Shanghai and Bucharest were also involved, and Polfeldt acknowledges that this made for a sensitive development process.
“As far as I see it, everything gets amplified when you collaborate across the oceans like this. Bad communication gets amplified to terrible communication, bad decisions ripple further than you’d like them to, and so on. But it also works the other way around. A strong vision gets stronger and sharper, good art gets condensed to amazing art and good code supports lots of developers at once.”
ACROSS OCEANS, THEY MEET
Even so, Ubisoft Montreal, Massive and the other Ubisoft studios (see ‘Many hands make light work’ for full list) were working in tandem to construct Far Cry 3, each of them having to handling the complications that came with such as complex project. That’s far easier now than it sounds, which makes it a marvel that the game feels as polished and cohesive as it does.
“In order to make it all feel cohesive, I think it boils down to the strength of the creative directors’ vision,” says Polfeldt.
For Far Cry 3, the creative director for single-player, based in Montreal, was Patrick Plourde, while Massive’s creative director Magnus Jansén oversaw multiplayer.
“Patrick is an absolutely amazing guy, maybe the best I have met in this business. He is also very funny and massively inspiring,” says Polfeldt.
“What he did well during Far Cry 3 was to spend a lot of time analysing the production realities, and by being so in tune with that, he was able to make some very bold and clever decisions for the game.
“It’s easy to be creative if you have no boundaries, but with games development there are a lot of boundaries to respect, because we are not creating art, we are creating an interactive tool. Pat is the master of that delicate balance.
“Luckily for the project, our creative director, Magnus, is the same. He starts with a deep understanding of the team’s strengths and weaknesses, so the two of them hit it off early and became friends in the process.”
Polfeldt believes the most important factor in making this relationship work was travel.
“Nothing beats meeting in real life, and we made sure that the creative directors could meet whenever they needed to. That way, we could anticipate and avoid potential problems.”
NOT SUCH A FAR CRY AFTER ALL
It took a team of 90-plus developers some three years to make Far Cry 3. The result speaks for itself, with high praise from the specialist press across the board and sales that surpassed 4.5 million in February.
Massive’s goal with the Far Cry 3 project was to move away from RTS games and release a major console title that achieved higher sales than any of its previous games. And in Polfeldt’s words, it nailed it.
“When we started this journey, we were a new member in the Ubisoft family, and it was really interesting to dive into projects that gave us an opportunity to learn the secret recipe behind games that we had previously only experienced as fans. As it turned out, there is a consistent method in Ubisoft that ensures continued success, and we are now able to move forward with that knowledge firmly a part of our own DNA.
“Far Cry 3 has allowed us to gain a lot of useful experience with regards to international collaboration. We have always been perceived as nice guys, but you really start dissecting how you work with others in these types of collaborations. So I think we are easier to work with now than we were a few years ago.”
Tips to co-develop in harmony
– Empower the co-dev studio – Passion comes from ownership, so the lead studio must cleverly define a scope that allows some autonomy and creative leeway.
– Manage the interdependencies carefully – Each interdependency will add risk and communication needs. The more you have, the harder it will be to succeed.
– Build the collaboration around vision and story – It is much easier to have everybody working in the same direction if the vision and story are well understood. Most developers are able to fill in the blanks if they get the high-level view. Detailed specs and ‘task lists’ require an enormous effort from the lead studio, and are not likely to do the trick anyway.
– Finally, never underestimate the value of real life meetings – Creative people must be allowed to meet in person in order to develop an understanding of each other that goes beyond just work. Be generous with flights and travel. David Polfeldt
Many hands make light work
Massive and Ubisoft Montreal weren’t the only studios working on Far Cry 3. Here’s a glimpse of how it became a truly global production.
– Ubisoft HQ, Paris, France: Editorial guidelines
– Ubisoft Montreal, Montreal, Canada: Single-player and engine
– Massive Entertainment, Malmö, Sweden: Multiplayer, co-op and engine
– Ubisoft Shanghai, Shanghai, China: Single-player missions and wildlife
– Ubisoft Bucharest, Bucharest, Romania: Quality assurance and testing
– Ubisoft Reflections, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Assisted with vehicle designs
– Ubisoft Red Storm, Morrisville, USA: Involved with the development of the PC version, contributing the UI and ensuring the timeliness of its release.