When the four-day public beta test for online game The Division closed down in late January, plenty of questions remained unanswered. Ubisoft first announced its latest Tom Clancy spin off at E3 in 2013, promising an ambitious combination of role-playing adventure and third-person shooter, set in a New York devastated by a manmade small pox epidemic. Players would get into groups of four and enter the city, clearing the streets of violence. It sounded like a gritty real-world take on Activision’s epic space opera, Destiny. And in many ways, that’s how it played.
But the beta experience drew a mixed reaction. Players enjoyed the near-seamless matchmaking, as well as the combination of a mission-based campaign mode, with a competitive multiplayer area – known as the Dark Zone – where co-op groups could fight each other for loot. But the non-player characters roaming the streets of Manhattan all looked very similar, the weapons felt underpowered and the loot seemed slightly mundane. Had Ubisoft stumbled on an unspoken fact of the role-playing genre – that the dynamics only work in a fantasy or science fiction environment where players can more easily suspend their disbelief and where the roster of enemies and weapons can be boosted by the inclusion of fantastical monsters, weird planets and improbable laser canons?
Could there be such a thing as a gritty real-world RPG?
Well, whatever the answer, it turns out that was always the aim with this title. “Not many people know this, but when Ubisoft purchased [Swedish studio] Massive Entertainment, their first mandate was, can you create an RPG from Tom Clancy?” says Julian Gerighty, associate creative director on The Division. “Mechanically, they wanted a role-playing game but thematically, it had to fit into the Tom Clancy universe. I know that [IP director] Martin Hultberg worked for a long time on the concept development and it was only when they put their finger on Dark Winter and the fragility of society that it really took root. But the actual RPG mechanics were fixed from very early on.”
So, it seems, was the game’s New York setting. Most of the action, as far as we currently know, takes place in a chunk of Manhattan from Central Park down to Union Square. When asked if we’ll see anything else – Ellis Island? The Bronx? – Gerighty demures: “This is what we wanted to focus on – there may be some surprises.”
As it stands, the game takes in all the iconic architecture – the Empire State building, the Chrysler Building, the Flatiron – as well as famed areas like the Meat Packing District. All are shown devastated and abandoned, with burnt out cars littering the streets and avenues, and apocalyptic graffiti covering the walls. “If you want to show a huge-scale catastrophe, then you look at New York,” says Gerighty. “It’s a city that’s moving all the time, it’s so dynamic. So when you show a screenshot or a photo with these iconic streets completely empty, that’s striking – you immediately know something’s wrong.”
But then, is that a key problem at the heart of The Division as a role-playing game? It’s just so authentic, it’s hard to project the strange conventions of the role-playing genre – multiple hits to take down characters, stats, buffs, etc – onto these familiar streets. “It’s part of the challenge,” concedes Gerighty. “But I’m sure some fantasy RPGs are looking at our New York and thinking ‘they’re so lucky to have something grounded in reality’. There are advantages and disadvantages. The realism serves us well, and doing something different from everyone else is important.
So how do you create realistic environment that provides enough drama and diversity to house an epic RPG? “We had to work on the art side of things very hard,” says Gerighty. “We had to make sure that the Meat Packing District feels very different from, say, Kips Bay. We had to push that as far as we could. Also, the interiors are very important – Madison Square Garden, Lexington Armoury – those are very different. It’s our responsibility to break up the atmosphere with the interiors”.
A related challenge, it seems, is to get players to understand the mechanics of combat in an RPG game. In a traditional shooter, you get a couple of bullets on target and the enemy goes down, but in a role-playing shooter (and Destiny is an example here), you need to get multiple hits, wearing down the target’s defence stats. Gerighty says: “Shooting enemies multiple times, it’s rarely been a problem for people playing the game, but when people are watchingit’s kind of jarring at first. But this is the game that we’ve made. The french word is atepres – it’s the approach that we’ve taken. We’ll try and minimise [multiple shot kills] of course, but it’s something people will get used to and will become part of the experience.”
While the main campaign mode of The Division is played co-operatively with a small group of players, there is also the Dark Zone. This is a specific area of the map where co-op groups can either collaborate to take on NPCs or compete against each other to grab rare and powerful loot. In the beta test, this quickly became an ugly free-for-all, where unscrupulous players staked out spawn points and slaughtered all newcomers. That’s surely not what Ubisoft had in mind?
“When I went in for the first time players were incredibly polite and hesitant,” says Gerighty. “They saw another person, they approached, they shared a couple of emotes – there was this cool uncertainty. It was very generous, it was a continuation of the good sherif profile of the Division agent outside of the zone. I think that will continue [in the finished game]. In the alpha and beta, the area of the Dark Zone was very small, it was a little bit more dense in terms of encounters than I expect the final version to be. We won’t have all the spawn camping issues that we had in the beta because it’s a much wider space.”
He is also keen to point out that there’s going to be more to the Dark Zone than an anarchic and formless battle for loot. As in Destiny’s Crucible, it is going to be a place with a calendar of events and activities. “This isn’t the company line, so I don’t know if this is going to be frowned on,” says Gerighty. “But for me, the Dark Zone is the jewel in our game, this is almost a social experiment. We’re definitely going to keep supporting it with events and special, very precise calendar moments and things like that. It’s going to be part of a continued push, post-launch.”
On enemies and end games
Enemy diversity was another of the big issues with the beta. People got tired of shooting hoodie-wearing looters, and they also questioned the morality of it. Are these guys just trying to survive? What is this game saying about the rights of the military and law enforcement during times of urban unrest? Having played the longer demo, it does seem as though Ubisoft is making a huge distinction between civilian survivors and armed gangs looking to takeover the city – it’s the latter you’re dealing with.
“This is one of the big challenges,” says Gerighty. “How can you create fun gameplay with different character and movement archetypes in a real-world setting? So we have several factions and within those are several archetypes from the sniper to the grenade guy to the shield rusher. We’ve tried to create gameplay diversity within each faction. We’ve done a great job so far but we can push it even further.”
How much further? “Would I be happy with flying dragons? Absolutely,” says Gerighty – and it seems fairly obvious he’s joking. However, the real-world military alternative to some sort of powerful flying beast could be a helicopter attack maybe? “We’ve done a lot of things we haven’t shown yet that are cool with different types of exotic enemies, bosses, things like that,” is all he’ll say.
So how about loot? Finding interesting near weapons and gear is going to be super important for the longevity of the game – as we’ve seen on Destiny. In the beta, people were picking up knee pads, jackets and basic weapons. There has to be more to this. There has to be rare, even unique stuff out there? “That’s a big part of the end game logic,” says Gerighty. “The Dark Zone is all about that special stuff that you can’t get outside. But there are unique elements located outside of the Dark Zone: they’re not necessarily more powerful – they’re just unique.”
Now the end game has crept into the conversation there’s the obvious subject of multi-party raids. Players are easily able to get into small co-op groups of four people – you can matchmake in safe houses in the Dark Zone as well as call in friends when starting missions. But how about larger quests which will require several groups working together – the likes of Destiny’s Vault of Glass or King’s Fall. “I’d love that to happen,” is all Gerighty will say.
Given the huge amount of stuff still to be revealed, and the mixed reception to the beta, what did the four-day test actually show? “It was genuinely back-end testing of the stability of the servers, that was the number one goal,” says Gerighty. “Obviously there are different goals from the publisher side, from marketing, but for [the development team], we managed three times the amount of concurrency than we were aiming for. It looked good, it was stable, there was very little queuing. There were issues we picked up on; another purpose of a beta is, okay, what are people going to find and exploit? All of those things were part of the experience. It’s been really useful for us. You never know how something experimental like the Dark Zone is going to work.”
Throughout the interview Gerighty keeps pressing home the point that there’s so much yet to find out – both for players and for the development team. Although the beta taught us a lot, this is only the beginning of the process. “The game director has been balancing the game for the past four months,” he says. “We’re making sure at the highest level – level 30 – a team of four players, if they do the events, if they’re specced out like this, how’s it going to play, how will it feel? I think the building blocks are fundamentally sound, but I don’t think we’ll stop balancing it – even post-launch. It’s something we’re going to have to keep an eye on and make sure that it makes sense and it’s fun at every single level and scaling point.”
Surely this is something the team must have learned from looking across at Destiny? “I’ve played a fair amount of Destiny – I like it very much,” says Gerighty. “The thing I thought was brave was not being attached to how the game launched, and being able to evolve. It’s not a lesson we’ve necessarily taken on, but it’s very modern, it’s the way the industry is going. The last game I worked on, the Crew, that’s changed massively since its launch.
“I’m so excited by this brave new world – but daunted as well. You used to launch a game then go on holiday for a few weeks, now it never stops.”