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Stepping beyond the shooter: Developing The Division

Speaking to David Polfeldt, developer 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.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

July 3, 2014

10 Min Read

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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