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How Ubisoft taught a strategy game studio to be a AAA shooter studio Exclusive
How Ubisoft taught a strategy game studio to be a AAA shooter studio
July 23, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

Ubisoft acquired Massive Entertainment from Vivendi in 2008; at the time, it was an acclaimed PC real-time strategy developer. The studio soon slipped under the radar.

It turns out that prior to announcing its upcoming game, Tom Clancy's The Division, it contributed to the development of Assassin's Creed Revelations and Far Cry 3.

Triple-A games require huge teams; Ubisoft's strategy has been to split development of its games -- in particular the Assassin's Creed series -- across studios. (Kotaku reports that 10 studios are working on Assassin's Creed Unity.)

Gamasutra spoke to Massive's managing director, David Polfeldt, about taking on a lead studio role in development on The Division, and how game development works in the world's largest triple-A hit machine.

Going to school

Polfeldt tells Gamasutra that Ubisoft acquired Massive with an eye to turning it loose on the Clancy franchise. The problem, so to speak, was that it was a hardcore PC RTS studio; Massive had the design skill, but not the production style. The solution? School the studio in doing triple-A development the Ubisoft way by having it collaborate with Ubisoft Montreal.

It played a smaller role in Assassin's Creed Revelations but for "Far Cry 3, we were involved in everything, really, but mostly on multiplayer and co-op," Polfeldt says. He describes it as an "intense collaboration."

Working on Assassin's Creed and Far Cry 3 "was really like a university for us."

"In a way, you could say, we're a result of that. ... It was really like a university for us," he says. "To me, it's clearly the best long-term strategy. Because you take some really good studios that happen to be in top form and you allow them to work with other studios and make them grow, share their technology, and then a couple of years down the line, the other studio is one of the top studios -- because they've learned the world of triple-A."

"Now we can apply that experience to our own game and, hopefully, share that with others," he hopes.

It also adds flexibility to production; there's a companion app for The Division that's being developed by Massive in-house, but the first prototype was developed with Ubisoft Quebec.

Ubisoft studios Red Storm (based in North Carolina) and Reflections (in Newcastle, England) are also collaborating with Massive -- "They own a couple of parts of the game, and we want them to own them and really feel autonomous with those things," Polfeldt says.

What does it mean to be a lead studio?

Massive is the lead studio on The Division. What does that mean? "You're expected to lead the other studios. But it's not outsourcing. It's very different," says Polfeldt.

Polfeldt says that he began by asking the other studios "What are you really passionate about? And, be blunt, where do you think you're better than us? Because that's what we want you to do on this project. What would you like to own?"

In the case of Red Storm, that was guns -- because of its Clancy expertise and its location, in North Carolina, which allows easier access to weapons unavailable to Sweden-based Massive. "So they build them, they do all of the audio with them. It's just an area where they feel super comfortable, and autonomous, and proud about what they do," says Polfeldt.

There is "a kind of tension" between the lead and support studios, however, Polfeldt admits, though he describes it as "healthy."

"Where I think it becomes more difficult is that there is, in every studio, there is an ambition to lead a project or own a project. ... We certainly had that with Montreal on Far Cry 3."

Massive's relationship with the other studios "does require a bit of attention so it doesn't spin out of control."

"It does require a bit of attention so it doesn't spin out of control," Polfeldt says. At the same time, the ambition to lead is what caused Massive to begin work on the Snowdrop engine -- which forms the core of The Division -- while it was working on Assassin's Creed and Far Cry 3.

Ubisoft management encouraged this experimentation -- within boundaries. "We were so convinced we needed to make that engine," Polfeldt says. "At another company, they could have said, 'You know, you don't have to develop a game engine. That's just a waste of time and money.'"

"Ubisoft, we come in and say, 'We really, really need to do this. Because we think we can excel on this generation of consoles.'" Management's response? "Okay. It seems important to you. You seem to have a very clear idea what to do. Okay, fine. Put a bit of time, put a bit of people on that, and let's see."

Ubisoft didn't let Massive run wild -- there was a reckoning when some work had been done. "At some point you need to prove, 'Look at what we can do because you allowed us to experiment,'" Polfeldt says.

"But the starting point is always met with a very positive approach. It seems to be live, or seems to have a fever, or something is going on there, there's good energy? Don't stop that at that moment. Let people explore that."

For more from Polfeldt, and his studio's desire to step beyond the confines of the shooter genre, you can read Gamasutra's earlier interview.

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Chris Book
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Thank goodness for Ubisoft setting Massive straight. Otherwise we might have gotten an interesting RTS game instead of *yet another* shooter. Glad we dodged that bullet. :P

Kris Graft
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I wouldn't count Massive out, as far as strategy games go! I'm not privy to specifics, but I know there is still some love for strategy games there.

(Also, this sounds like an addition to their previously-existing expertise, not a replacement.)

Jennis Kartens
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Well, since they're now fully owned by UbiSoft, we can definitively say goodbye to the greatness they've done with Ground Control and World in Conflict.

The latter especially is still one of the best strategy games ever made. Even though it too was published by UbiSoft, today I don't think they can ever go back to that point of time where you could make an outstanding product without the artificial marketing pressure of making a game for "everyone" which naturally leads to the horrors Ubisoft procudes nowadays.

Chris Book
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There definitely is a love of strategy games out there. Unfortunately I don't think Ubisoft is interested in titles that don't push a million pre-orders. :/

Christian Nutt
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I don't know. Who's to say Massive wouldn't be allowed to play around with a smaller game, post-Division, as has happened at other studios (Valiant Hearts, Child of Light, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon)?

Chris Book
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Anything is possible. I'd love to be wrong on this one.

Jennis Kartens
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Division: Blood Dragon.

Can't wait.

Terry Matthes
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If you look at Ubisoft as a company I don't think they have a problem with passion projects given games like Child of Light exist.

Abdullah Kadamani
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So you have a hardcore RealTimeStrategy developer that you bought with the sole intent of milling Tom Clancy games through. So instead of letting them make an RTS Tom Clancy you have them make the co-op and multiplayer for Farcry 3 (Why yes Farcry 3 does have multiplayer, don't worry I had to be reminded as well)

Ubisoft, your actions are simply illogical. The fact remains that you bought an RTS studio with seemingly no intention of letting them make RTS's. Was this a personal challenge? To see if you could take a company with zero "cinematic" FPS experience and contort them into something completely different? For seemingly no other reason than because you could?

Maybe The Division will be alright, though it would be nice to see how the game will actually play and not those painfully scripted segments you've shown. Seriously they were so scripted they may as well have been cutscenes. Either way, the idea of Ubisoft or any studio for that matter, buying studios with certain skill sets, than throwing out said skills because they don't fit the "Ubimold" that has enslaved the likes of Farcry 3, Asscreed and most recently Watchdogs, is somewhat terrifying. It feels like they only bought the studio because the building Massive was renting had a great view of the freeway and siad view just happened to come with a video game studio. That's enough rambling, point being, why would you buy a studio if you have no intent of using their skills in their genre of expertise?

Michael G
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I think 'Borg' is the appropriate term here.

Jeff Spock
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This is why the guys who founded Amplitude Studios (Endless Space, Endless Legend) had to leave Ubi - they wanted to make strategy games (worse yet, turn-based!) and those don't hit the numbers that Ubi wants to see. Ubi knows how to make great games, but strategy is just not their thing.