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Stepping beyond the shooter: Developing The Division Exclusive
Stepping beyond the shooter: Developing  The Division
July 3, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

It's almost not worth discussing the fact that at E3 this year, the triple-A space was dominated by the shooter. It's the status quo, heading into the next gen -- and so far, not much is changing. The observation that this is the case is trite.

However, it's also clear that people are starting to become tired of it -- at least the press, and maybe even developers. There's an understanding that games can do more. And as we reach a new technological beachhead, maybe we can also reach a new creative one.

Speaking to David Polfeldt, managing director of Ubisoft's Massive Entertainment studio, lead developers of Tom Clancy's The Division, it's clear that he has ambitions to do more with his game than present another twitch shooter -- and to do more with storytelling.

"You have to assume that people are smart," Polfeldt says. By now, they're questioning the dissonance between the save-the-world stories and mowing down thousands of faceless enemies -- between their interactive toy and the photorealism of its presentation.

Why do you think there are so many shooters? Why does the industry focus on them so much?

"You press a button or pull a trigger and something happens. It's a fundamental sensation of reward."

First of all, they're quite fun. It's fun to play games like that. I do think that we are probably at a point in the history of the industry where we will break away a little bit from that, slowly, because I think it's not enough to run around and shoot stuff. It's fun, but it's also a little bit shallow. I think there are some games that are beginning to explore, "So, okay, shooting is fun..."

I think it has to do with the interactive toy, to be honest. You press a button or pull a trigger and something happens. It's a fundamental sensation of reward. It's a nice feeling with any toy, actually -- press a button and interesting things happen. I think that's why shooters are easy to find fun.

But I do think we're seeing games, you look at Journey on one end... I would absolutely propose The Division is a game that is going a little bit beyond action and shooting, and is more about survival. And if you look at our trailer, the agent doesn't fire a single bullet, because his job is not to kill people. His job is to save people, actually.

So sure, there will be lots and lots of action in the game, and cool destruction, and everything you want from a shooter, but behind that there's a layer of "Shooting is not the answer, actually." If the agents could choose, they would not shoot anybody. That's really why they're there. I propose that we're beginning to add a couple of new dimensions to just shooting.

There's something that I've been thinking about, which is that when shooters became a thing, there was not this level of realism in games. Now that we've gotten this level of realism in games, shooters actually are actually getting weird, if that makes sense. Before it was more abstracted. You talked about the "interactive toy."

I think you're completely right. Photorealistic violence is troublesome, compared to low-pixel violence, which obviously is a toy. Absolutely, you're right. I hadn't thought about it before, but it does add a dimension of questioning that we didn't have before.

I think, also, that people are smart. You have to assume that people are smart, and we've been gaming now for decades, so maybe we want to know, "Why am I pulling the trigger? Why am I shooting this person, exactly? Do I really need to kill 1,000 people to achieve a goal? Is that morally completely fine?" I think you should assume gamers are that smart.

It's like the Nathan Drake question: He's the nicest guy in the world but then he kills thousands of people. In the cutscenes, he's the nicest guy in the world.

"It's like action movies. Action movies require action, and big explosions."

There are many games like that. You're the hero and you're doing the right thing... except to do that, you're killing thousands. It's a bit absurd. But you're right; it becomes more absurd if the graphic quality is photorealistic. Then it's even more strange. "What did I just do to save humanity? Isn't that a bit contradictory?"

But it's not going to change quickly, because I think, fundamentally, shooters are fun. It's like action movies. Action movies require action, and big explosions. It's part of the format. It's not going to change quickly. I think we'll see more layers and maybe more intelligence around that.

I think to an extent, the industry, or at least a segment of the industry, has been refining that interaction for so long. Over the last 20 years, it's become an extremely refined interaction. If you're going to break out into another form of interaction, you lose all of that institutional refinement.

Excellent point. One of the things that we're very, very meticulous about when it comes to The Division is immersion. So we always try to apply the question of, "How immersive is this?" So the UI, for instance. We're consciously trying to remove the 2D UI entirely, so everything that is related to feedback and UI is in the world -- so that you only have the gamer and the world. We try to remove that strange curtain that's been hanging.

Another one is destruction. Destruction makes the game more immersive, because you see something in the world and you shoot at it, and it behaves as it should. I'm actually there, on a philosophical level, in the world. Cool.

"It's become fully automated to them: I pick up a controller and I play a shooter. Done."

Another part of that is controls, to your question. Now, a lot of people have trained for years, and years, and years. It's become fully automated to them: I pick up a controller and I play a shooter. Done. Which means that it's adding to the immersion. I don't need to think about what my thumbs are doing to play a game. It's completely automated. So now I'm in the game, fully immersed.

So when you want to change the gameplay or change the rules of the toy, or the interactive setup, it suddenly becomes less immersive. "What do I need to learn to play this game? What does this button mean? Oh, you want me to hold it like that?" Suddenly we're pushing people out of the game into their own hands and what they're doing with their controller.

I definitely think that's another reason that shooters are successful, because you're automatically in the game. Within five minutes, you're in the world that they've created, not watching your controller and trying to figure out what they want you to do.

Do you think that, though, this takes us down a road where we're making games, as an industry, for the people we've already made games for and not other people?

"Maybe traditional, triple-A games are becoming a little bit niche, actually. But I don't have a problem with that."

[Surprised laughter] Not really, because if you look at how the industry's developing, more and more people are playing games, in general. There are more and more types of games, more and more types of platforms. A lot of people play a lot of games, but they never touch triple-A. A lot of people play tens of hours every week and they don't own a console. So I don't think it's becoming a niche industry.

Maybe traditional, triple-A games are becoming a little bit niche, actually. But I don't have a problem with that. I love those games, and I will play them forever. But maybe there can't be a hundred triple-A games a year -- maybe there can be 20. It's a little bit like the movie industry. And you know this is called "blockbusterization." I think we're seeing that with triple-A games, absolutely.

I do too. And I'm really curious to see if there will be 80 million PlayStation 4s and 80 million Xbox Ones sold this generation. Because I am not so sure.

And in a way, as a developer, it's not the most important question, actually. Because we are becoming more hardware-independent, and we're being capable of making interactivity on devices, regardless. So in a way, maybe it's not the most important question we have to face.

So what is the most important question you have to face?

"We need to find a Shakespeare in the games industry. We need to find a Tarantino."

If you ask me? Meaningful narrative, absolutely. We need to find a Shakespeare in the games industry. We need to find a Tarantino.

We need to find people who are able to tell absolutely amazing stories that completely transcend the immediate audience. You and I will probably play all of these games, anyway, because we're already gamers. I think the industry needs to get to another level of emotion and narrative.

Will they be doing that via linear narrative like cutscenes, or will it be done another way?

That's almost a philosophical question. I don't think linear, scripted games is the right way to go. I love games like that -- don't get me wrong. I love The Last of Us. I played everything. I think it's amazing. But I think what we do have as an advantage is real interactivity.

That implies less scripting. I shouldn't have to create a memorable moment and have a trigger in the game that creates that. It should be created by the interactive system and by you, to be honest. That's when I think it becomes enormously powerful.

Some of the best stories online are when things happen, and by gamers. And by their choice. That's where I think the key is, to the Shakespeare of the game industry. I am not sure how. Because if I knew how, I would have already done it, but... That's where I think we have our real challenge at the moment.

A lot of Ubisoft's games a really narrative-driven, in that written way. Are you approaching your project that way?

"It's a really, really high ambition, so I'm not sure we're going to make it."

The ambition -- it's a really, really high ambition, so I'm not sure we're going to make it. The ambition -- I told you about immersion. I told you about UI. What we're saying now is, "How can we tell this entire story in the game world without ever interrupting the gamer's experience?"

How can we do that? One of the solutions we're working on now is what we showed at the Microsoft demo, which is Echo. I don't know if you saw that. Echo is a projection in the world that is compiled of data from CCTV and photographs uploaded on the internet -- so it's a Clancy techno-thriller idea.

We take technology and we recreate, with a projection, a situation, in a room. But we can also make that interactive because theoretically, if you had that capacity, it could also be a database. So I can walk to the projection and I can interact with it and say, "Who's this guy?", interact with him, and pull up his file.

If we can tell the story through that, we would be extremely proud, because then it's entirely driven by your choices as a gamer, and how you choose. Which things you choose to figure out and which things you choose to explore. If we can do it like that, I'd be extremely proud. So that's what we're trying to do.

It's definitely difficult because it's so easy to fall back into, "Okay, cutscene," and then we just tell you the story. But we're trying to consciously avoid that. It's possible, absolutely. It's within reach, so that's for sure.

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Jennis Kartens
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I find it very akward to read all this in the perspective of a Tom Clancy Ubisoft game. Both names stand for the exact opposite of "Shakespear in games" and nothing of The Division I've seen so far underlines any kind of what has been said here. In fact, it doesn't look very promising at all and seems to continue what Ubisoft is doing for years with their AAA franchises.

Don't know exactly if the other two are supposed to be coop partners, but the "narration" (the constant babbeling is rather annoying to me) as well as the "tactical" approach in that scene is so infantile and ends up in the same shootout like everything we seen in other games already.

And this interface argument. Sorry but most "3D" huds are a lot more annoying and distracting, removing immersion. One can easily ignore classic 2D elements due to focus at the center of the screen, where youre attention usually lies.

Now 3D elements are in and are a heavy distraction as well as problematic when it comes to actually checking out informations in milliseconds. Like the above video shows, the HUD is tied to the character now (in classic 2D fashion... ) and constantly switching places. I've seen other games with similar mechanics, where aliasing kicked in and made it all even worse.

That is not "more immersion" in my opionion, it is a horrible eye-candy feature that actually removes the value of informations. The possibility as such is great for certain elements and if used right, absolutely welcome. Though getting each and every piece of classic HUD elements just onto a plane floating in the world space doesn't help and is counter productive.

I'd welcome HUD-less games a lot more as these kind of fancy looking, but useless information that covers up vital screenspace.

Dead Space comes to mind. Perfect symbiosys of 3D elements and no elements at all, since within the actual game there were no 2D elements except the ammo counter on the weapon when aiming. And the 3D elements where actually careful implemented into the characters suit technology, instead of just floating arround with magic.

Daniel Miller
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If the UX is bad then the HUD or menus--diegetic or not--will hurt immersion.
Dead Space defies logic to keep all of its HUD diegetic by putting things like the health meter on the player character's back which helps the user, but why does the player character need it?
Why would a company spend the cash to produce a health meter that no one wearing their product can use?

The Division, which is a game I absolutely cannot wait to play, is also suffering from similar UX problems with that map.
What if I'm in a tight corridor or room?
Does it scale to read it?

The only good 3D map I've ever seen is in Metroid Prime where it was absolutely necessary to guide the player to find all the out of reach places.
That game is also heavily exploratory.

I suppose I'll have to wait and see how the UX in this game turns out.

Tielman Cheaney
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I appreciate Mr. Polfeldt's willingness to raise the questions and visualize ways to answer them. In the context of this game, however, it seems like the improvements to immersion, narrative, and kill-em-all violence take a backseat to gameplay that Ubisoft already knows is successful.

Immersion is an attribute that games already do better than any other art form. We don't need Shakespeare 2014 to keep breaking ground in this area. Technology + artists are going to drive this forward with no out-of-the-box thinking required.
I think that all players are able to ignore the HUD and be immersed within five minutes of any game. Polfeldt might be barking up the wrong tree in his attempts to remove it. Dead Space has already shown that the HUD need not exist, but Dead Space is not particularly more immersive than its spiritual predecessors, Doom 3 and Resident Evil 4.

Narrative in games absolutely does need a creative breakthrough before it gets any better. But cut scenes aren't the enemy. If you're a game writer trying to make a point, the player is your enemy. He's not going to sit comfortably still and listen to your sharp dialogue unless you make him. Having your NPCs chatter while shooting bad guys is a solution we've seen before, but suffers the same problem: if the player is mentally focused on trying to aim at someone's head, the words go right by him. It's just extremely difficult to get the player to care enough about story to stop shooting/exploring/puzzle solving/crafting, and pay attention.

Kill-em-all violence is a weird problem. Polfelt says "[Players are] questioning the dissonance between the save-the-world stories and mowing down thousands of faceless enemies." But I'm personally so frustrated when a game tries to make me think about that issue without giving me the option to try another strategy. Bioshock Infinite makes me rip the heads off of policemen, with a skyhook, in front of my daughter, and their only crime that I know of is racism. Racism is bad, but doesn't usually deserve bloody decapitation. If The Division gives us the option to convert instead of kill, then more power to it, but from the trailer and Jennis Kartens' link, it looks like we'll be killing another thousand people in this game to save ten.

The Division looks like a recombining of elements we've already seen in games. Nothing wrong with that. It looks fun. But it's not the brilliant spark that's going to move games into the next level of the art form.

Christian Nutt
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Can't remember the source, but I do remember reading that having an easy-to-read HUD that players can quickly refer to actually helps immersion the most, and typically the best way to do that is with discreet but clear 2D elements. That's certainly intuitively true IMO.

However, Echo seems to go a bit beyond that idea, and actually try to create something within the game world to move the story forward, so I'm hoping it's interesting in and of itself rather than within the simple context of "UI - in world or not in world?"

Tielman Cheaney
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The gameplay video made it look like echo was filling the function of audio logs, so that's probably a step in the right direction. I bet it's going to be difficult to squeeze any character development out of it, though.

Chris Dobbs
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This is a great article, but did he really put Shakespeare and Tarantino in the same class? Really? I could see Kubrick or Spielberg, but Tarantino is heavy on style and light on substance. I think a lot of games already achieve high style, and as this article illustrates, it is striving toward the substance that video games must next conquer.

The recent wave of simulator games and the thankfully-increasing open-world / sandbox genre ensure that people can create their own stories and do interactive things that are not a part of a developer's script. Im glad HUD and UI elements are going away. There's nothing like numerical XP stats flashing across the screen to break your immersion.

Daniel Miller
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We don't need a fucking Tarantino in gaming.
The exact problem with gaming is it's full of Tarantinos.
There's so many games that are merely an "homage" of things that have already been done to death in vastly more interesting and original media.
Gaming needs a Carruth or a Noe or a Tarkovsky or a Kubrick or a Lynch or a Petri or a Kieslowski or a Jodorowsky or fill-in-the-blank-with-any-far-better-director.
It needs someone to start pushing things forward and being daring and mature and original and ultimately controversial.
Tarantino's the LEAST qualified name to drop on a list of things gaming needs to imitate to evolve.

Nick Ketter
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Christ, cut the guy some slack, he also mentions Shakespeare. Is Shakespeare not groundbreaking enough for you?

The point isn't the particular directors but the fact that the genre needs fresh voices. Tarantino, for all his faults, breathed life into cinema in the 90's, despite his being derivative. Gaming needs similar or better resuscitation.

Mike Higbee
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Do they have any comments on the recent visual degrade to make PC equal to these "next gen" consolses
aka bullshotting