We talk to Ubisoft Massive's Martin Hultberg, head of IP on The Division, about the creation of this huge new RPG-shooter.
There’s plenty of reasons to be excited about Tom Clancy’s The Division, which launches on March 8 for PC, PS4 and Xbox One. It offers a brand new perspective on the hugely popular, near 20-year Clancy series of near-future, tactical shooters for starters. It successfully merges squad-based, cover-orientated third-person shooting with deep RPG mechanics, too. And it also revolutionises the concept of multiplayer, by offering a seamless transition between campaign and competitive modes in the same game state.
Full a full hands-on report and our thoughts on this blockbuster, read our preview.
At a recent event held in New York City – right in the heart of Midtown, which is accurately recreated in The Division as part of the game’s post-pandemic, quarantine-zoned play area – we got to talk to a number of people close to the game’s production. We highly recommend reading our insightful chats with creative director Magnus Jansen about splitscreen, the Dark Zone and The Division's future, and our fascinating exploration of the setting with social collapse expert Nafeez Ahmed.
Today, however, we talk to head of IP, Martin Hultberg, about some of the hurdles the team had to leap to make New York believable in the game, and to ensure it feels like a key part of the Clancy range.
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- IP Director at Massive Entertainment
Notable titles shipped:
- Assassin's Creed: Revelations
- Far Cry 3
- Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas
Where do you feel The Division fits into the broader Clancy canon? What gap does it fill?
One of the earliest things we had to do with The Division was find our own niche. Obviously there is already Rainbow Six, which has claimed counter-terrorism. We have Ghost Recon, which owns Special Forces. And Splinter Cell, which is our undercover agent franchise. We [at Ubisoft Massive] had to find something that was different and that we could own. So we asked, “what do all of those games have in common?” And mostly, they’re all about stopping a major threat before it happens. That's kind of the basic principle of those units.
So our idea was then; “what happens if that threat wasn't stopped and it was actually executed? What if society is on the brink of collapse? What could happen then?” Then we had this idea for a unit that's the last line of defence for the government and for the nation, called The Division. So I think we escalated the regular scenarios quite a deal and went beyond the area where the other Clancy games typically act.
[Games are] all about stopping a major threat before it happens... what happens if that threat wasn't stopped and was actually executed?
In regards to the technology powering the Clancy games, how do the teams operate? Is there much sharing of new game engine features between, say, a Splinter Cell and The Division?
Internally we try to share as much as possible between the studios. It's more efficient that way. In our case, we developed the Snowdrop Engine from the ground up because we needed middleware that could run on the new consoles, and could run on the PC. Something that could do all the things that we needed it to do with the open world, the weather, time of day and so forth. For us it was a matter of making this new engine and now that we've built it, we’ve made it available to other studios as well. Not just other Clancy teams, but any Ubisoft team can use the Snowdrop Engine now.
So it would be feasible to think then we might see a Dark Zone like scenario appear in an Assassins Creed?
I’ve never thought about that, actually. The Dark Zone experience in itself isn’t technology specific to the rest of the game, but the transitions that we do between the [campaign and Dark Zone] game modes – the fact that we do not use lobbies or menus – is the key part of the Snowdrop Engine. I think that feature could definitely be incorporated into other Ubisoft games like Assassin’s Creed. It’s a really immersive feature that I think fits with pretty much all Ubisoft’s IPs.
Looking more broadly at the Clancy range, we've got Splinter Cell, Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, EndWar and H.A.W.X. - what's the status of those last two at present?
My main area of responsibility is The Division, so to be quite honest, I don't have any idea what's up with H.A.W.X. or EndWar, or what's going to happen there. I don't know, sorry.
I ask because when H.A.W.X. first released in 2009, I interviewed a member of the team in which I detailed that the IP had the secret agents, the Ghost Recon foot soldiers, the planes in the air and the tanks on the streets – all these perspectives on war. I asked him if there was a future where all Clancy games would operate in a single persistent world and I was told that yes, that was the plan. Is there still any communication around that idea internally?
I think that's something a lot of people at Ubisoft would want to do. Currently, I don't know the status of this idea or even if there is such a project, but as a player I'd like to play that. So hopefully, someone's working on it somewhere!
How about a future where you see a scenario like a Rainbow Six game acting as a prequel to The Division, where you’re trying to stop a terrorist group from releasing the pandemic? Do those kind of cross-IP conversations happen?
We haven't had any conversations like that. There's nothing excluding it from happening, but that's not any discussion that I've been made aware of anyways.
When you decided on New York as a setting, how much did you look to other open world games inspired by the city – such as GTA IV – before working on your interpretation?
Whenever we do a project, we always look at many other games. We play games all the time, we get inspired and we see how they solve different problems. We decided quite early on that we actually wanted to try to make a real New York, not our take on New York, which is often the case otherwise. Usually you are influenced by a city and you make something that is clearly mimicking it, but it's not the actual thing. We wanted to stay very close to the real New York.
That provides quite a problem in itself and I don’t think other games had really addressed it in a way that could help us figure out how to solve it. I mean, there are many issues you have to consider with branding and marks on walls like posters, not to mention legal issues with buildings and all that stuff. So we had to pretty much find our own way from the get go.
So there was a fair bit of negotiation involved between Ubisoft and the buildings and the brands that are displayed in the game?
All the brands in the game are brands we created. Actually I won't say all, but definitely most. Otherwise it's a licensing deal and you have to talk to people, so it's easier to create your own brands so you have total freedom. If you don’t, you will almost certainly get restrictions as some brand team will say, “oh, but you can’t blow up our car,” or “you can’t shoot our logo,” etc. You need freedom with that so we made our own brands, but they are inspired by real brands so they still feel like they fit.
When it comes to buildings, certain buildings are trademarked and licensed. So you can't reproduce them exactly like they look in reality. You have to change certain things. And some buildings you can’t even have at all unless you get licensing rights to them. Even the New York Police Department is licensed.
Can you talk me through an example of a building that you put in the game where there was a process you had to go through to allow it to happen?
The Empire State Building is protected, for example, with many rules around how you can use it. Sadly it's one of the most iconic buildings in the entire city, so you can't just not have it. We had to deal with its licensing teams, respect their guidelines, talk to them about how we could do it and submit through legal processes.
They often start by telling you, “ok, these are our rules that you have to follow when you feature our building in your product.” We look at those rules and say, “ok, you need us to do X, Y and Z, and maybe change the profile of the building slightly. Or we can't use certain colours, or whatever.” We then do a version we think follows these guidelines and we submit that for approval - first internally to our legal team, and then the legal team takes it up with other legal teams outside of Ubisoft if they have to.
If it's approved, likely there will still be some back and forth and changes. It’s only once everybody's happy with what we have that we're good to go.
Do you have a rough idea of how many buildings like that you've encountered in doing Midtown?
There aren't that many that are actually, process-wise, that difficult. Maybe between five and ten are a pain to try and recreate. The rest are fairly easy to do. So I would say there are somewhere between five to ten buildings that were a struggle to recreate.
In regards to the book that was done to compliment the game: what's your take on the definition of good transmedia?
Good transmedia for me is transmedia that ties you to one universe and doesn't split you between the experiences. And to state that a little bit clearer, traditionally transmedia has been about parallel stories. Like, you do something in the game and you do something in the movie and you do something in the book and it happens in parallel. Good transmedia, for me at least, is interwoven between these.
You can find other stuff out there like what we did with The Division: where content is in the book and in the game, and vice versa. If there was a Division movie, again, the paths would cross. And if you had played the game and read the book, then you would recognise something in the movie.
Good transmedia has to be like a weave. It has to keep joining together. And if it can engage me to the extent where when I get home I want to play the game, and when I'm on the bus I want to read the book, and when I'm semi-tired after partying all night I want to watch the movie… if that works in the sense that it is relevant for me to do each of these things, then that's the ultimate I think.
So people who enjoy the book will find clues or elements that can directly open up something in the game or otherwise enhance the gameplay?
Yes. For example, some of the puzzles in the book will lead you to places in the game that you probably wouldn't find otherwise.
But the character on which the book is focused is not in the game, correct?
No. There are traces of her in the game, but you won't meet her. At least not yet.
Finally, in a year from now, what does The Division game world look like?
That's the big question, isn't it? We are doing a lot of firsts and that makes it a bit difficult to predict how we're going to go forward. The biggest thing we're waiting for right now - and we have started to tap into it through the betas – is to see how people interact with and treat the product. How the community engages with what we've done. Then we will try to analyse that and go forward. So to me, I hope we will see a Division universe that grows as we produce DLC and updates based on feedback and actions from the people who play the game. That's my dream scenario anyway.