Past, present and future of The Division with Magnus Jansen

the division

We talk to the creative director of Tom Clancy’s The Division about the origins, release and sequel plans of this exciting new Ubisoft IP.

The Tom Clancy franchise is one of the largest and most respected in the video games industry. With almost two decades of classic military-themed experiences in the Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon series behind them, Ubisoft is now branching the brand into exciting new territory with The Division.

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Usually, the franchise has you saving the world from impending terrorist activity in the near future, but in The Division, the attack has already happened and was successful. The result is the collapse of New York City as a pathogen wipes out all the infrastructure and a contested quarantine zone emerges through the whole of Midtown. A third-person, squad-based shooter with drop-in, drop-out co-op, The Division also breaks genre boundaries by providing a deep role-playing experience underneath its classic Clancy veneer.

We recently caught up with creative director Magnus Jansen of Ubisoft Massive, the game’s developer, to find out more about his plans for this new IP.

Magnus Jansén

  • Magnus Jansén is the current Creative Director and former Lead Designer at Massive Studios, a Ubisoft owned development team.
  • Jansén worked on Far Cry 3, which featured a splitscreen mode.
  • Jansén cites the "progression nature of the game" as being one of the main reasons splitscreen multiplayer was not included in The Division.

You have spoken previously about your depth of research into real-world government strategies to deal with pathogen outbreaks and collapses of society like we see in The Division. I am wondering what came first – the idea for the gameplay or for the setting?

It all started quite a long time ago, but the gameplay did come first. We started out with a desire to do a Clancy RPG. So we were looking into how we could merge authentic shooting with deep RPG mechanics that offered a lots of skill choice and the chance to play in your own style. When we started investigating that we realised we were going to need a new Clancy universe because none of the existing ones really worked as an RPG.

Most military units have a lot of gear and support helicopters and the latest and greatest of everything - that doesn't really work very well with an RPG where you start from nothing. Or where you start and then build up and improve as you go along. That's the core of an RPG: that you're always progressing.

So around the same time, the writing team began looking into the kind of universe we could do and they landed on this, not post-apocalyptic, but “society on the brink" setting. In it there are these embedded agents that have some training, yes, and they have a bit of equipment, but they also have to scavenge and use what they can find. That setting was the perfect fit for an RPG experience. So the two came very, very close together - the desire and gameplay for a Clancy RPG definitely came first, but then the universe, story and whole scenario came very closely after that.

What better place to show that fall of society than New York?

So, why choose New York? And in particular, why choose Midtown New York?

For its emotional impact. The scenario is about the fall of society and a lot of the symbolism around the question of, "what happens to humans when society goes away? When the social contract is removed and we all become animals?" So what better place to show that fall of society than New York? It's got the best art, the best buildings, the best food, the best culture – it really is like the pinnacle of society. Like in all the movies, it's where aliens go to attack because it's a symbol of the modern way. Also, when society falls, cars stop and people start shooting each other, it’s in New York you get the biggest contrast as it's the city that never sleeps.

In terms of Midtown, it's got so many landmarks from Times Square to Grand Central Station to the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building. It has all the big famous skyscrapers, all the parks, all the avenues, Hell's Kitchen and more. There is so much packed into a small area that it’s good for gameplay. Midtown is the perfect slice, basically.

The game sounds like a huge technical challenge, what has been the hardest aspect to implement?

There are so many. Obviously, the online aspect where you’re able to seamlessly go into the Dark Zone without any noticeable menus, or waiting, or matchmaking, or match searching... to have that all happen under the hood was huge. So when you go from your own private game - and whether you're playing solo or in a group you don't have other human enemies – into the Dark Zone, it’s like jumping over the fence and suddenly there are other players.Getting that to happen was a big challenge, especially due to some of the mission locations. For example, we have a mission that takes place in Times Square and that's really close to the Dark Zone. Then we have to quickly transition the game towards the multiplayer side, in just a few seconds, when you run and go over the wall into the Dark Zone.

Were you able to borrow or iterate on the seamless multiplayer aspect of Watch Dogs?

No, they're different engines, so we weren't able to capitalise on what that team had done.

So the single player quest layout, levelling and loot mechanics feel quite familiar to other recent RPG-shooter crossovers, but the Dark Zone is like another beast all together. I'm curious, how much of the legacy you feel this game will leave is about the Dark Zone?

I really want to express that you can play this game in full by yourself if you want to. It's got a lot of cool missions, a big story to enjoy and a huge narrative pay-off at the end. There’s a fulfilling campaign for you to play and you don't have to go into the Dark Zone: it is optional. It's not like The Division is half a game unless you go into the Dark Zone. Instead, the Dark Zone really is an addition. An extra-cool bonus on top of an already massive game.

But I think some players, just like in other games, only want multiplayer and ignore campaigns. I'm sure we'll have some people that just head straight for the Dark Zone and that's where they spend all of their time as they don't even care about the story. The same way that in open world games some people just want to play the main story and others do all the side missions or just walk around. So, it really is up to you. But if you don't want to have that adversarial experience – and in my opinion you're making a mistake - then you don't have to.

It’s interesting as I got the feeling while playing the two components of the game that the experience external to the Dark Zone was almost like a warm-up to entering PvP, which felt like the quintessential Division experience.

I think the Dark Zone is the coolest thing about the game, but mostly because it's so new. But in terms of our effort - in terms of the love our people poured into the campaign and all that story, and all those missions - they don't take place in the Dark Zone. There's so much awesome gameplay not in the Dark Zone.The game is not a warm-up to the Dark Zone because you don't even have to play PvP. In fact, if you don't have an Xbox Live Gold account or PlayStation Plus, you can't even play the Dark Zone, so it can't be the point of the game. The Division is an incredibly huge and ambitious game and there's more than enough of a satisfying experience just doing the single player.

How much of the rest of Manhattan did you design before deciding on the Midtown area?

We've been focused on Midtown almost all of the time. Obviously, we had to make a call at one point and you can see in the distance we have these other buildings, but really that's all prop. Like in a movie; it’s just side facing. We've only ever built the Midtown part of Manhattan because we go for so much detail. You're on foot and you're moving relatively slowly, so we are going for this insane level of detail on every piece of trash and every little building. Plus every little thing is destructible. So it really is about quality and density more than the sheer scope and quantity. The Midtown is an incredibly packed space so we've been focused on that during the entire development time, basically.

Chris Stead

Chris Stead is an award winning content creation and design specialist that dabbles in all subjects, but is best known for his work in technology, entertainment and gaming. When not writing, he can be found among the waves of the Northern Beaches.

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