Start spreading the news. New York has been hit with a virus and the Big Apple needs you. We speak with IP director on Tom Clancy's The Division, Martin Hultberg.
It is of course tradition for Ubisoft to save a thunderbolt for the conclusion of its E3 media briefing in Los Angeles, and the five-minute gameplay demo for The Division back in 2013 became the game that everyone at the show was talking about.
A tentative launch date of 2014 was pinned to retail schedules, but as details of The Division’s depth and ambition surfaced, it soon transpired that Massive Ubisoft, the studio behind the game, had little hope of finishing it in time. 2014 became 2015, and deadlines were set and broken.
"With The Division, we had to do a lot of 'firsts'," IP Director at Swedish-based Massive Ubisoft, Martin Hultberg, tells STACK. “We needed a new next-gen game engine (Snowdrop), which we developed ourselves. Then we needed to create a new niche within the Tom Clancy franchise.
“On top of that we needed to marry several genres into one cohesive gameplay experience, and at the same time we had to do what all games always do; create stories, build a universe, design missions, etc. It was, simply put, a highly complex project that needed this amount of time to reach its full potential.”
Traditionally, Tom Clancy-endorsed games could be classified as the thinking person’s military shooters, where strategy is requisite, and espionage, Cold War and covert operations all recurrent themes. The RPG genre is, as Hultberg clearly identifies, totally new territory for the franchise, and coupled with this new direction, the studio also decided to make The Division online only.
“The original mandate was for us to create a Clancy online RPG,” says Hultberg. “The online part is key because we want a vibrant world that brings people together in different social experiences. With easy transitions between playing alone or with others, we hope to give everyone a chance to experience the full potential of our world.
“I think one of the main things you have to do [to attract campaign players] is create an inviting and interesting universe for people to play in. Once you have that, you need to look at ways of making sure the experience is smooth and immersive. That is why we developed seamless transition between single-player, co-op and player-versus-player, for example."
Hultberg describes The Division as "a proper loot and statistics-based RPG”.
“The loot mechanics are at the core of the game," he continues. "What that means is that the gear you use is a strong indicator of how effective you will be in the various tasks you engage with. Player skill is naturally still important, but understanding the different attributes and how they relate to skills, gear, and other mechanics is crucial."
New York City is faithfully recreated as a backdrop to game, where an outbreak of a deadly virus on Black Friday sends the world’s most iconic city spiraling into a tumultuous terrain of dog-eat-dog on the eve of Christmas. Playing as an agent of Strategic Homeland Security (The Division) thrown into the epicenter of chaos in the hope of restoring some sense of order, communication between team members is key, but not always essential.
“Of course, if players decide not to talk to each other, they don’t have to communicate at all. But a team of people communicating will always be more efficient than one that doesn’t,” says Hultberg.
But for most of us, playing and communicating with others will be intrinsic to The Division experience. Massive Ubisoft have plenty of experience in ensuring that the communication mechanic works well.
“We were in the fortunate position to have developed games facing this challenge before, like World in Conflict," explains Hultberg.
"We could fall back on the things we learned then. Given that, it became more of a technical effort than anything else; making sure grouping up works, team chat, proximity voice-over-IP, emotes, signs and feedback from the game systems all operated well.”
The studio pooled the writing talent across the entire Ubisoft network to build The Division's compelling narrative. This, Hultberg admits, was an exigent task – coordinating the story with not only an open world New York for players to contend with, but also the unpredictability of the online component of the game.
“Scripting The Division presented the same challenges as any cooperative open-world game," Hultberg notes. "We worked a lot with what is called 'environmental storytelling'; letting the world tell stories through how we design and prop it. We used something we call ECHOs, which are snapshots in time accessed from local recording devices by the agents’ technology.
“We have some cutscenes, of course. Characters that talk to you. Plenty of missions and items you can find in the world that convey our narrative in different ways. Basically as much of the narrative as possible has to be accessible in any order the player chooses – and that is the biggest challenge.”
Judging by the appetite for the closed and open betas, The Division is one of the most anticipated games of 2016. It has been built by the experienced core members of Red Storm Entertainment, the original studio that Tom Clancy himself set up to channel his unique brand of storytelling into video games back in 1987. Despite a series of lengthy delays, the enthusiasm for Tom Clancy’s The Division has remained undiminished.