This week doesn't mark just the launch of Ubisoft's latest new franchise with the release of Tom Clancy's The Division, the leadership at Ubisoft tell us. It's also the dividing line between the Ubisoft of old and what the future holds for the game publisher responsible for Far Cry, Assassin's Creed, The Crew and Watch Dogs.
"Internally, I've heard people saying that for Ubisoft there will be a 'before The Division' and an 'after The Division,'" Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot told Polygon in a recent interview. "That signifies how incredible we think the game is and how much we think it has to offer to players.
"The Division is a reference point for our future, and we certainly hope it is a game players will love."
The early signs of Ubisoft's latest transformation came in 2013 as the company's games began to increasingly share similar traits and connective tissue. Far Cry 3, Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, The Crew, Watch Dogs and The Division each found important hooks in the use of both an open virtual world and a persistent connection to the real one through the internet.
Guillemot said that the company recognized back then both the importance of open worlds in games and their potential.
"We were not the first to make an open world game, but we quickly realized that open worlds gave players much more freedom and choice, and were much more fun," he said. "We also saw that we were only at the beginning of unlocking the potential of what open world games could offer. [Ubisoft chief creative officer Serge Hascoet] had a vision of creating worlds as playgrounds, full of systems and toys that let the players have more personal experiences they would be eager to share with friends and the community."
Ubisoft also saw the potential to empower open worlds and sandbox play by adding to those experiences a persistent online connection between worlds and players.
"When players are connected, they can meet up with friends or meet new people who share the same interests," Guillemot said. "They can play together, challenge themselves and also help each other. People are spending more and more time in these bigger and bigger games, and often they want to share their experiences, play an active role or feel recognized. These are important motivations for many of our players, and they're some of the reasons people keep coming back and spending more time in these types of games."
Today, most of Ubisoft's big hits are defined by how much control they hand over to the player, but that wasn't always the case.
For Ubisoft, the path that led to the company's modern, evolving philosophical approach to gameplay started with the original Assassin's Creed.
Designer Patrice Desilets was originally tasked with creating a new Prince of Persia game, but his focus on Hassan-i Sabbah and the real-world Assassins eventually led the team to turn the game into a new idea: Assassin's Creed.
That original 2007 game was as much defined by its free-running parkour and assassination as it was by its amazing open world.
"Assassin's Creed has been one of the first [games] to define what an open world game actually is thanks to an amazing streaming technology, with the ability to freely roam in cities such as Jerusalem at the time of the Third Crusade or to be able to kill his target in open locations," said Benoit Lambert, game director of the Assassin's Creed brand.
The sequel, he said, pushed on game design using better technology. The third game added bigger worlds and vehicles used to get around in them. Black Flag and Unity both continued that push, adding more systemic gameplay in the first case and bringing all of that learning to the PS4 and Xbox One in the second.
"Today, if we take a bit of perspective over what has been accomplished; we have seen very talented and dedicated development teams who over the years have strongly participated in defining a genre that we call 'open world' games. For the future, our objective is to work even harder to make sure our worlds and fantasies continue to surprise our players. We want more seamless experiences and we want players to be intrinsically motivated by the content our open-world [environments] offer to them."
Since the inception of Assassin's Creed, the series’ open world approach has, Lambert said, allowed the developers to fully embrace the fantasy of being an assassin without having to worry about forcing players into linear strategies, navigation or plot.
"At the heart of this creative direction is our strong desire to give our players freedom and let them learn and discover our history and worlds the way they want."
While the franchise has been defined by its take on open worlds, the introduction of more online components to the games has also had a major impact.
"Assassin's Creed has always been ambitious in its production and we have been bold in pushing innovations in many aspects of our games and specifically on the online side with Assassin's Creed Brotherhood and the birth of the PvP mode, with Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag and its asynchronous mechanics or with Assassin's Creed Unity," Lambert said. "As developers we need to ask ourselves, 'What do we need to put in place to reach our main objective,' which for us, is to better immerse our players in our universes."
In many ways, the original Assassin's Creed is a perfect example of what sets Ubisoft apart from many other big publishers and developers. It is a company known as much for the games it makes as the chances it takes. Ubisoft has a long history of supporting unproven technology, platforms and ideas. Guillemot said that innovation and taking risks are part of the company's DNA.
"We have been doing that since the beginning because we want to continually surprise our players and offer them exciting experiences," he said. "That's why we've focused on adopting new platforms and technologies quickly, and using them to try new things. For instance, when Michel Ancel was creating Rayman in 1995 for the PlayStation, there wasn't enough processing power to render everything, so the team made Rayman without arms and legs. That was a risk, but we ended up with an iconic character that players loved. Rayman became distinct to Ubisoft and helped shape the future of the company.
"There are many examples like that over the years: Splinter Cell's light-and-dark-based gameplay on the first Xbox, Just Dance's use of the Wii motion controls to get people dancing, or Assassin's Creed's combination of free-running, stealth and historical setting on the PS3 and Xbox 360. Now we are experimenting with AR and VR, which we think have enormous opportunity to change the way people play."
While 2007's Assassin's Creed may have been Ubisoft's first internally-developed open world game, it wasn't the first open world game the company published. That was the original Far Cry, developed by Crytek and published in 2004. By 2008, Ubisoft had taken over the franchise and created its own take on it with the release of Far Cry 2. Last month, the latest iteration of the series, Far Cry Primal, hit to mostly positive reviews.
Over the years, the team behind Far Cry has carefully crafted the franchise to become an "anecdote factory" powered by the organic collision of players, in-game characters and a rich collection of virtual wildlife.
"These collisions happen with or without the player's involvement, suggesting that our worlds are living and breathing spaces where anything could happen," Thomas Simon, the game's director, said. "The collision of systems is where we put our energy to carve our own turf in the open world genre."
The team's work on open world connected gaming has, like with many of the other Ubisoft franchises, also pushed other teams to make their games even better and, of course, helped teach lessons to those groups.
With Far Cry Primal, the team worked to better blur the line between linear, narrative-driven gameplay, and roaming around in a game having fun.
"In Primal we wanted to explore a way to blend the two more, give the keys to the world as soon as possible and then let players do whatever, however, whenever," said narrative director Jean-Sebastien Decant. "It meant putting less emphasis on linear storytelling and [favoring multi-thread] mini stories. The result was that we put narrative at the service of the world rather than the opposite. That's why we picked the pretty broad and straightforward need to 'rebuild' the tribe: saving people, helping the main characters, claiming back lost locations, fending away the other tribes ... It was a nice way to avoid any dissonance and tie together everything players could do in the world."
As developers it can be almost unnatural at first
The most important lesson to take away from developing Far Cry and open-world games in general, the two told Polygon, is to just let go as a developer.
"As developers it can be almost unnatural at first, as we have to get used to not deciding everything even for core gameplay mechanics," Thomas said. "We have to think about features as part of a bigger game ecosystem [where] chains of reactions between NPCs, animals and locations will create unexpected moments and [where] the player has the freedom to play in a way we cannot predict."
Decant added: "On the narrative and mission side we are not in control of the [second-to-second] experience anymore. We can set up the ingredients and orient the experience with environmental hooks and objectives, but in the end the player and the world itself might generate events and outcomes that we had not planned. So the big challenge is how to slip in a narrative that will blend in with gameplay without forcing the hand of the player. It means working even more tightly with systems and world builders to infuse the general experience with narrative."
Where Assassin's Creed and Far Cry have both slowly evolved into forward-looking franchises powered by streaming open worlds and hidden threads of connectivity, The Crew, Watch Dogs and The Division marked a far deeper approach to those ideas. Each of the games pushed the concept of open worlds and persistent connections to strange, interesting new places. Sometimes those ideas worked, and sometimes they didn't.
The summer of 2012 — specifically, the E3 of 2012 — belonged to Watch Dogs. Unveiled during Ubisoft's annual E3 press conference, Watch Dogs captured the attention of the world's gamers with its near-future take on open worlds and its exploration of privacy and hacking. It quickly became the golden child of the show.Watch Dogs screenshot
Watch Dogs was originally conceived as a game meant to push the limits of what an open world title could be.
Its vision of a near-future Chicago controlled by computers and rich with hacking opportunities found a passionate audience, but also received some polarized reactions.
Jonathan Morin, creative director on the game, believes that mixed reaction was in part due to the expectations people had for the title.
"This project was ambitious from the get go so we were very excited to have this opportunity to feed our minds with so much player feedback," he said. "Add the press [feedback] and our own internal data and we now have everything we need to identify what worked and what could be improved. Watch Dogs is a great game. But it is also the beginning of something bigger.Watch Dogs screenshot
"It explores very complex design problems and it is a privilege to have so many players showing interest so we can continue to push ourselves. We are extremely proud of what we've created. Now the future is filled with exciting new learnings which, in the end, isn't it why we are making games, to shake things up a little bit?"
Watch Dogs didn't just deliver an open world; it also allowed players to sort of float in and out of each other's experiences, helping and hacking each other in bits of gameplay that weaved the online and offline together, making it hard to pull the two apart.
While for the most part that seemed to work, it also made it a challenge to balance the game's narrative, open world play with other players.
"There were some aspects we delivered spot on with our vision and a few that may not have come through in the end as we would have liked," Morin said. "And these learnings are always something we evaluate and think how we can make it even better on our next project."
About six months after Watch Dogs hit in 2014, Ubisoft released its biggest attempt at disruptive innovation to date, and it didn't go as well as expected, at least not initially.
Where Watch Dogs pushed hard on what it meant to be an open-world game and threaded in elements of persistent connectivity, The Crew attempted to reimagine how a constant internet connection could shape the way you play a racing game.
The Crew is essentially a massively multiplayer online racing title that stretches across a United States made a bit smaller for gaming purposes. Artificial intelligence, typically a gamer's main play pal in a title, still runs the walking populace of the game's many living cities and controls the traffic of everyday simulated life in that world. But the challenge of The Crew, the real meat of races, comes from other players, brought in and out of your gaming world through The Crew's persistent online connection.
The idea was to create a living backdrop upon which game developers could continue to paint in new elements and details. The Crew was meant to be a living game that would essentially always be its own sequel, Julian Gerighty, creative director of The Crew before its release, said back in 2013.
Though The Crew arrived well after Microsoft's missteps with the Xbox One launch, gamers were still wary of the idea of games that required an online connection to be played. That hampered The Crew's launch, illustrating that it was perhaps a bit too soon for such a game to thrive.The Crew world map
"Back then, we were nervous to talk about a game that needed a persistent online connection, especially on consoles," said Anne Blondel, who was the executive producer on The Crew during its launch. Now she's Ubisoft's vice president of live operations. "There were a lot of internal discussions about it because we understood it was going to be a concern for some players. But we believed that The Crew's innovative gameplay, especially the ability to encounter other real players while driving and instantly team up or compete against them, made it worth the risk.
"In many ways, we succeeded in what we wanted The Crew to be. Most players told us they enjoyed [the] game, especially the seamless transitions from single-player to multiplayer, and the really big, open world U.S. setting."
But The Crew also taught Ubisoft some important lessons about delivering a game not as a final package, but as an evolving service.
"Since launching The Crew, across Ubisoft we've worked to improve our online infrastructure, provide better community events, support and tools and also deliver more regular game improvements and updates post launch," Blondel said. "We're organizing our teams around the idea that instead of launching a game and moving on to the next one, we need to deliver 'live' games that provide long-lasting entertainment for players. That's what's expected now, and it's what we're delivering with games like Rainbow Six and The Division, and it's what we learned thanks in part to The Crew."
Despite receiving mixed reviews for The Crew at launch, the team working on the game has continued to support it. In November, Ubisoft released the Wild Run expansion for The Crew. Not only did it bring new vehicles to the title, like motorcycles and monster trucks, it also completely overhauled the game's graphics. The result was a 20 percent spike in players and proof that such support increases the life of a game, Blondel said.
"There will still eventually be new versions or sequels for these big, connected, multiplayer games," she said. "What's changed is that instead of releasing a game, having people play and move on after a few weeks, and then starting to think about a sequel, we now plan for regularly delivering post-launch content and services that keep players engaged and entertained in the game for months or even years after the initial release.
"If it works well, it means players are getting more fun and value for their money and can stay engaged with a community that enjoys sharing these experiences. It also means we can take more time to decide on whether we should do a sequel, what it will add to the game's universe, and if players will see it as innovative and different enough that a large part of the community will embrace it. That's the new approach that Ubisoft is focusing on now."The Crew season pass concept art
Stephane "Fergus" Beley, The Crew's game director, said that approach is in perfect accordance with Ubisoft's vision of the game as a service.
"After The Crew was released, we brought free monthly updates to the game, including new content, to satisfy our players' expectations [in] the long run," he said. "As a result, we built a strong and active community around the game, and the next step for us was to bring in new [gameplay] and challenges."
As Ubisoft worked hard to slowly build up support for The Crew, the company was helped along in part by players becoming more accustomed to the idea of always-online games.
"Much of the initial fear, uncertainty and doubt about not having an offline mode has gone away," Blondel said. "Also, they've since played other games, like Destiny, that require a persistent connection and still [deliver] a good experience.
"Another part of changing people's minds is, as I said, we improved our online infrastructure and our community management, which means that the level of post-launch support we've provided to players has been improving over time."
The increased internal support for online infrastructure, the lessons learned from making and evolving online and persistent games for nearly a decade, and even the competition of other massive always-online games have seemed to come together to set the stage for what seems to be the perfect online climate for Ubisoft's biggest leap into the unknown yet.
Imagine a game that combines the open world chops of Far Cry and Assassin's Creed with the near-future aesthetics and clever online components of Watch Dogs with the best of The Crew's take on peopling a virtual world with players and non-players. Now give that concept to a team that has been quietly helping on some of those games, always striving — even before its days at Ubisoft — to make online play better. The result is Tom Clancy's The Division and, Ubisoft hopes, a glimmer of what the future of the company and games in general has in store for all of us.
"The Division has been in development from the ground up for several years," said Martin Hultberg, brand director at Ubisoft Massive. "The development of the Snowdrop engine allowed us to truly create an immersive and living, breathing world. This was the core, the backbone, for what we wanted to do in Tom Clancy's The Division and while we certainly respect and appreciate a lot of what other studios at Ubisoft have done in regard to open world games and online, Massive and all the studios involved really wanted to do something beyond what had previously been achieved. So, while there may be elements that are similar, the game was designed with specific goals and gameplay needs in mind."
Developer Ubisoft Massive's journey to become the lead studio on The Division may have started with Assassin's Creed: Revelations and Far Cry 3, but it wouldn't be a stretch to say that even its work prior to joining Ubisoft led to where it is now.
In 2007, Massive Entertainment released World in Conflict. The online game's intriguing take on real-time tactics helped to garner it a slew of best strategy game awards and, eventually, led to the sale of the company to Ubisoft.
Hultberg says that while it may not be initially obvious, World in Conflict — which had players controlling armies in quick skirmishes — shares some bonds with The Division, despite the latter being a third-person action shooter.
"First and foremost the realistic setting and being 'grounded in reality' meant we had to deal with gameplay implementations in a similar fashion," he said. "Then there is also the online focus and the complexity of systems — while World in Conflict wasn't anywhere near The Division in scope, it was still a highly complex game, system-wise."
Once purchased by Ubisoft, the team was tasked with helping out on Assassin's Creed: Revelations, and then on Far Cry 3.
"For Assassin's Creed: Revelations we worked on the part where you play Desmond, called Desmond's Journey," Hultberg said. "On Far Cry 3 we basically did everything multiplayer; so [co-op] and PvP. I think it is hard to point to [any one] specific major learning from either of these. They were our first console games, though, so we did learn a lot about developing games for console, for sure. In general it is more the case of increasingly mastering the trade for each product you release. You learn so many things in the different disciplines required to make AAA game."
Before there was The Division there was Snowdrop, a proprietary game engine designed over five years for Ubisoft's PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 games — and eventually, The Division.
Snowdrop is designed from the ground up to empower the sorts of worlds and experiences that Ubisoft has increasingly made its core design philosophy. That means it supports procedurally generated environments, streamlines connected core game systems together and allows developers to constantly check live versions of the game during the development process.
Launched this week, The Division seems to seamlessly, endlessly blend single-player and multiplayer together. It gives gamers the choice of playing in an environment where other players can't do them wrong, or entering the Dark Zone, where all bets are off and play quickly swivels between cooperative and competitive.
"In The Division, players are able to play through in single-player, however, the best experience is found when teaming up with three other players and taking on missions as a squad," Hultberg said. "This is done seamlessly in-game, [...] allowing players to stay in the universe and sync up with other players without having to exit out to a lobby, which we felt would be an unnecessary break from the game."
After hand-holding opening levels in Brooklyn, The Division quickly opens up the world to allow players to do whatever they want in a ravaged Manhattan. It's simple to gather friends or strangers by your side to go on missions or simply explore the world. And that balance between written narrative and player-created storytelling is an important one.
"The Division is a very open world and while there are narrative directives, players will have the choice to determine how and when they wish to explore the world and the stories within it," Hultberg said. "We think that variety and freedom are two compelling elements to The Division that make it special, and how it all ties in organically to [gameplay], story and narrative is key."
It helps that The Division's backstory intrinsically relies on the collapse of order and a sense of chaos. The game takes place following a smallpox pandemic during Black Friday caused by someone deliberately planting the virus on cash. Within five days, with basic services at a standstill, the government collapses and the country falls apart. Players take on the roles of agents in The Division, a secret group meant to help maintain or restore order if such a collapse were ever to happen. That backdrop of chaos, even with narrative missions, serves as a perfect landscape for meaningful player-driven stories and escapades, it turns out.
To push those organic moments a bit more and to make the game more welcoming to a broader audience, The Division wasn't designed to be a straight third-person shooter. Rather it's a blend of action, shooting and role-playing.
"There is a strong twitch and aiming element, but the key to real power is in managing the relationship between stats of the weapons and gear you use," Hultberg said. "By using the right weapon, with the best mods attached and supported with the appropriate gear items, you can significantly change how effective you are in combat. On top of this you have special skills, or abilities, that further increase your power. By equipping seeker mines, ballistic shields or turrets for example you can vastly change both how you play the game and your efficiency with different tasks. This gives you lots of tactical options, which are interesting not just for solo play, but also [let] you find your special niche within a team."
The Division adds an extra element with the inclusion of the Dark Zone, areas on the map where players can and will hunt and kill each other.
"The Dark Zone is basically a 'high risk, high reward' setup," Hultberg said. "In the zone you have a higher chance of finding powerful weapons and gear. That comes with the risk of encountering other players, at which time you cannot be sure of what their intentions are. The zone is a free-for-all multiplayer area where collaboration or hostility is simply a player decision — not something decided by a system in the game. That means you can trust no one and a person you believed to be a friend can turn out to be a backstabbing enemy at the worst time possible."
The idea for the Dark Zone — the ability to cooperate for big payouts and then, if you want, turn on your allies, kill them and steal their gear — came from a question the team asked of itself early on.
"Why, when and where would Division agents ever turn on each other?"
The answer eventually became the Dark Zone.The Division screenshot
"This question helped us develop the design of the Dark Zone and gave it better context and a reason," Hultberg said. "And with the new element of being able to enter the Dark Zone and give players a choice to be 'friendly' or 'foes' was where it really took off. We saw this in early playtests. It's in this moment of tension where the game really takes off and changes everything — the feedback from players in our betas was overwhelmingly positive and the videos we've seen on YouTube and Twitch reinforced for us that this approach worked."
Those moments are often outrageous to the player and almost certainly laced with emotion.
The key is that the Dark Zone and all of its great gear remains trapped there, unusable, until you call in a helicopter to have that gear extracted. Calling a helicopter is as subtle as one might expect, and the result is usually a gathering of agents waiting for a chance to extract very valuable gear. Ubisoft Massive then typically tosses in a mix of AI-controlled bad guys and the opportunity for any of your fellow agents to grab your gear and quickly extract it, simply by killing you.
contentious, sometimes amazing, sometimes unbearable firefights
The result are contentious, sometimes amazing, sometimes unbearable firefights over gear players worked hours to earn. It makes for great gaming and even better stories.
"I think the Dark Zone offers a quite unique, tense multiplayer experience," Hultberg said. "The highly immersive world is also something I think many gamers will fall in love with; the level of detail, dynamic weather, dynamic day and night cycle, high fidelity graphical features."
While Massive was the lead studio, it wasn't the only one working on this culmination of Ubisoft's evolving game design philosophy.
Ubisoft Red Storm, Ubisoft Reflections and Ubisoft Annecy all eventually came together to work on various aspects of the game, including weapon design as well as building the world and populating it.
While The Division marks an important moment in Ubisoft's history, it isn't the only game that will be a part of the developer's future.
Earlier this year, Ubisoft announced that there wouldn't be a new Assassin's Creed in 2016 so the company could take the time to reexamine the franchise and decide how best to evolve its mechanics.
"We want to take the time to develop a great game," Assassin's Creed game director Lambert said. "Since the first Assassin's Creed we have developed the knowledge on how to craft an open world game and we worked very hard to understand what it means and implies. This was challenging but thrilling.
"Today, our development teams are eagerly looking towards the future as we have the ambition and desire to fully challenge ourselves about what it will be to actually play an open-world game in the years to come. We want players to feel that their experience of playing Assassin's Creed feels unique and meaningful.
"We actively participated in defining what playing an open world game actually means, but we are working hard to continue to push our technologies and ideas further."
And online persistence in gaming is only going to get more important, Morin said.
A Watch Dogs sequel is also in the works, given life by the commercial success of the original game. Earlier this year, Ubisoft confirmed the sequel would be coming out no later than March 2017.
Watch Dogs creative director Morin declined to discuss how the new game differs, but said that the team is "excited and working hard to make it a great experience.
"I think we're just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of where open world games are heading and it's both exciting and challenging," he added. "Ubisoft has made a commitment to continuing to push the genre even further."
"I think there will be more online presence in [all] games but it will take many new forms," he said. "I think that developers have some ideas about what these new forms could be, but we can't just draw the line from point A to point B and expect to get there. It's going to take [the] community of players and fans to help guide what each step along that path looks like. Online and especially persistence is a form of social experiment so it could take a myriad of different forms depending on how each game community evolves.
"So the future of online is heavily tied to the cultural impact of connectivity in our society."
The Far Cry team said it dreams of a "living world that has no design shortcuts and operates just like reality."
"That's what we hope to build or play in this life."
The team behind The Division, now working through its launch week, already is planning on what it'll be bringing to the game in the future.
"For Ubisoft and The Division, games as a service is something we strongly believe in," Massive's Hultberg said. "It's really about a development team creating a world and experience and having a strong connection with the community to make sure it meets expectations. This includes everything from customer service, design elements, receiving input on features and listening to what could make the game better."
Looking back to 2013, when Ubisoft was in the thick of new releases from the Far Cry and Assassin's Creed teams and well into development on The Crew, Watch Dogs and The Division, Yves Guillemot says he thinks that persistent online gameplay and open worlds are even more important today than they were back then.
"Look at the biggest hits of the past few years," he said. "GTA, Fallout, Destiny, Watch Dogs; outside of Call of Duty and sports titles, the most successful and acclaimed games are open worlds. In 2008, open world games had less than 10 percent of the market. Now it's 33 percent. And almost all of the biggest and most popular titles have multiplayer or co-op options for players to enjoy if they want.
"We are in a good position to capitalize on these trends. We've got great franchises in place with Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, Watch Dogs and Rainbow Six. We're launching The Division, and we have Ghost Recon, For Honor and another new IP on the horizon. Now we have to deliver on all of these great franchises and make sure they have the level of quality and innovation that gets players excited and coming back for more."
Where does Ubisoft see gaming going in the future? Today it's all about open worlds, online connections, blending written stories with emerging ones and constructed play with organic experiences. The future, Guillemot believes, will be bigger, more engaging experiences driven by passionate players.
"Video games will continue to play an increasing role in influencing other forms of entertainment, like movies and TV," he said. "Eventually, we could even combine the great storytelling and character development of films with the interactivity and choice of video games into entirely new experiences. Finally, like always, there is enormous potential in new hardware, like AR and VR, and we will use that to make games even more immersive and fun. It is a great time to be a part of the video game community."