All the questions you want to ask about new open-world shooter The Division.
On the surface The Division is pretty simple to understand. It’s an online third-person shooter set in a quarantined New York City, with players running through a campaign fighting against violent nihilistic factions, exchanging gunfire in emergent side missions, collecting loot and building up formidable load-outs. It can be played solo or with up to four others in co-op, with a portion of the map – the Dark Zone – an area geared towards PvP as players fight among themselves to find and extract rewards for leveling up.
But there’s a lot more to it than that, and after around four hours of playing the game, we sat down with Ubisoft Massive’s creative director Magnus Jansen to go deeper with the more immediate questions about looting, crafting, DLC and microtransactions, level cap, playing solo versus in groups and specialisation without classes.
“We definitely want people to play roles. But not class in the sense that it’s something you pick for your character that’s fixed and you can’t change it.”
You’re calling The Division a “classless game”, which differentiates it from a lot of MMOs. Can you explain your aversion to the ideas of class and how you approached character specialisation?
It’s important to understand that we definitely want people to play roles. In creating our skills and our systems with the stats that you have we definitely envision very clear roles – healer, damage dealer, support – as well as adopting the shooter, tactical reality that we’re in so becoming a sniper, or an upfront close-quarters fighter.
We want roles, but not class in the sense that it’s something you pick for your character that’s fixed and you can’t change it. Roles are very important when you get into a group. The better a group can specialise the more effective it will be. If you’re playing by yourself or random people and not communicating, we go to great lengths so that you can see what skills other players have when you team up. It’s easier for you to see so you can still adapt. And of course we do have VOIP. So theres very strong roles and synergies for use, but just not those pre-defined classes.
I found myself being in the tank role outdoors but then swapping that loadout completely for indoors locations. Flipping from a heavy machine gun to shotgun and short burst SMG. It’s a shooter as well as an MMO, and gunplay feels central as much as your RPG-style stats.
That’s also why we have two weapon slots as well as a sidearm. Because the play space of real life is not like a game. Meaning that it can very quickly change from the super long streets of New York to very close quarters. Normally in a video game you have a dungeon which is the close quarters mission, or you have the long-range mission. Since The Division is set in a real-world space, that world doesn’t respect game design fantasy. We had to adapt the system to fit New York. You can reconfigure at any moment, even in combat, because the gun is such a big part of your expression. So to be able to have two main weapons means that you don’t even have to go into a menu. You can just do a quick switch of your loadout.
You’re also said The Division can very much be played as a single-player game although it’s designed as a multiplayer game. I found it very tough when part of my team was out of the firefights. Is it a harder experience in single-player?
What you experienced was the game still thinking you were in a group of players. That’s the content scaling to three players. Obviously we scale stats, the numbers and to some degree the behaviour of the enemies depending on whether you playing as one, two, three or four players. We are not deliberately punishing solo players or incentivising them by making it harder. Absolutely not. The size of your group decides what we throw at the player at any given time.
“We are not deliberately punishing solo players or incentivising them by making it harder. It’s a great single-player game, period. We don’t use a stick, but rather a carrot, to get people on board with multiplayer.”
To me it’s a matter of intent. It’s a great single-player game, period. We don’t use a stick, but rather a carrot, to get people on board with multiplayer, be it co-op or PvP in Dark Zones or the social spaces in the Safe Houses. You only need to right click on a controller to create a group. And then you can run with someone without even joining a group. I can revive you in the Dark Zone even if you’re not a group.
To get a handle on the campaign, how big is the story mode? Obviously one of your first missions as a player is to secure a Safe House which then unlocks three missions, each related to the three wings or specialism – Medical, Technical and security. But from that, how big is the entire campaign?
There’s a generous handful of each missions tied to each wing for the main campaign. There’s more than 10 main missions which are these combat focused, rollercoaster rides, more linear experiences, to balance out the complete freedom of the open world, which is a big part of the formula.
With our open world you can go anywhere. But you can also commit to a focused mission, where you can try out all those skills and stats you’ve been building and crafting. Put it to the test in one of these experiences we’ve build as the campaign missions and of course the side missions.
And every mission can be replayed in Hard Mode as well?
They can. Hard Mode is for you to come back and try it later for a different type of reward and much more difficult challenge. It’s there for you from the beginning if you’re just a born badass. You can do it from the get-go, but it’s not balanced for a normal player to play through normally on hard. It’s for coming back to later.
The Dark Zone is one big area on the map, it’s not split into multiple zones?
It’s one big rift that runs down the center of the map. But just like the other parts of the world, it’s not created equal in terms of difficulty. We don’t scale difficulty in the open world. One of the things you have to decide when you do an open world game is do we allow the player to wander all the way across the map to the most difficult area with a super high-end cool faction – which we haven’t even talked about yet? We don’t really scale enemies. Generally the open world doesn’t scale and the same is true of the Dark Zone. It scales regionally in difficulty from south to north.
One of the cool things we do is that once you hit the max level – level 30 – suddenly the whole Dark Zone re-populates with all-new content and challenges suitable to that level. And now the entire Dark Zone, instead of being segmented where you explore further and further north, the whole Dark Zone is repopulated completely for you to tackle openly again.
“Hard Mode is for you to come back and try it later for a different type of reward and much more difficult challenge. It’s there for you from the beginning if you’re just a born badass.”
So the entire game gets a lot tougher once you hit the level cap?
It gets a lot tougher and obviously you can still find and craft much better gear and equipment. Your tools are things that will continue to improve as you find more loot. Your avenues for improvement are not dead just because you hit the max level.
There’s a lot of gear, weapons, mods, items – can you put a number on that?
No! In terms of combinations there are near infinite. But how many individual actual guns do we have? How many individual actual weapon modification pieces do we have? I don’t know that because they all have various attributes. Some of the muzzle breaks will increase accuracy, reduce recoil, etc.
And a lot are interchangeable, not tied to one particular weapon? I was able to switch grips from one assault rifle to a heavy machine gun…
It’s not perfectly interchangeable. For certain authenticity reasons you don’t put the same magazine on an assault rifle as you do on a sidearm. When you do find the mods you have to pay some attention as to whether it’s a light weapon or a sidearm. It’s not a global thing but it applies to general weapons classes. You can put a scope on most weapons.
The loot that drops in the game – are there some items that only happen as random drops and some only available from certain vendors within your safe house?
There’s a little bit of segmentation like that. Obviously we don’t want there to be only one way to play the game and one thing that’s “the best”. When you want to really, really get the very best, there are some things you’re going to want to craft by finding some really, really hard to get components. Some thing’s you’re going to want to find in the Dark Zone on the hardest fights. Some thing’s you’ll want to purchase from safe rooms in the Dark Zone, where you have other agents that you purchase from and you use the currency that you acquire in the Dark Zone. It’s a special kind of market that only happens in the Dark Zone. So there’s not one way, not one thing, of getting the best gear.
I didn’t get a chance to take a look at the crafting in the four hours I played the game and that’s not because I wasn’t looking. But the game seems packed with mods, skills, stats, and more, it was difficult to initially take all that in.
It’s true that it’s a huge game. It’s tremendously deep. And it poses a challenge if you are obsessed with everybody getting everything at the same time. As a developer you quickly abandon the idea that everyone after two hours should perfectly understand every single thing. You’d be playing a tutorial for hours.
“The short answer is no, we don’t have microtransactions, period.”
Instead, we want you to get in there. Is the combat fun? Can you use skills, crouch behind cover, and overcome the enemies? Okay, good. Then you can discover the rest at your own pace.
There’s icons and things that try to guide you. And we also have a system that detects that a player hasn’t used the crafting ever, so we show a loading tip. Loading tips are intelligent, so you don’t have to sit through a bunch that aren’t relevant to your style of play.
You’re going to be releasing free, regular updates – are there going to be daily and weekly challenges to encourage players to come back every day once the game is live?
I don’t know the specifics of the timing of those things. The reason why I’m wavering a little is that we purposefully don’t want to talk about the endgame content, and the contents of the DLC and the updates. There’s so much game in the initial release that we want to focus on that. The short answer is we’ll be doing many things to keep you revisiting once it’s out for a long time.
And is there any microtransactions in the game? We know there’s going to be paid DLC…
It’s one of the things that we looked at because if people like the game and want to purchase extra things I don’t mind that. But microtransactions, as it’s defined, we do not have them. You cannot spend a little bit of money and fast-track to get better gear or pay to win or vanity items. We do not have that. The short answer is no, we don’t have microtransactions, period.
We will have DLC. We don’t have it yet because we’re just barely finishing the game. I just don’t want anyone to say that when we announce the DLC, “you said [no microtransactions]”.
Matt went to Malmo in Sweden to play The Division and interview the development team. Accommodation and flight was paid for by Ubisoft.
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