Just when it seemed that Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs was too anticipated a game to be toppled, The Division managed to stun gamers everywhere with little more than a short gameplay demonstration. Appearing to be bigger, bolder, and more ambitious than any other game in the publisher’s stable, for many, it has since come to embody the promise of next-gen gaming (for now). But the studio’s director fears that shifts in the industry may soon make blockbusters like it a thing of the past.
As beautiful as The Division may be, the sheer size of the project – not just its in-game world, but the scale of development – is most astounding. Having created a brand new game engine from the ground up, the developers at Massive Entertainment have already earned extra development time with a delayed release into 2015 (and some sources saying 2016 is more realistic). The bottom line: The Division is big. As in very, very big.
Speaking with GI.biz, Massive’s managing director David Polfeldt explained that few publishers would have allowed for the time and resources required to build the Snowdrop Engine, even though he sees it being used for other franchises in the future. Emphasizing the publisher’s cross-studio development as just one sign of how Ubisoft does things differently, and has made a habit of it in the past few years:
“Ubisoft has always been very good at testing new innovations… It was the first publisher to embrace the Wii, when nobody knew what it was going to be like. Sometimes that pays off greatly. Sometimes it turns out you’re in a dead end. I think it would have not been easy in any other context for us to motivate Snowdrop because in the beginning it didn’t look good. You have fragments. Hey, this could be a great engine. That requires a lot of faith and I think a lot of boldness for a corporation to say, ‘Yes, let’s invest.’ It’s very hard to see what it looks like in the beginning.”
That investment looks to already be paying off, as The Division stole much of Watch Dogs‘ thunder once its undeniably next-gen visuals were revealed. But as enticing as an enormous, big-budget game like Massive’s next shooter may be, Polfeldt believes that an increased ability to investigate, track, and decipher player behaviors – seen across the industry – can be a blessing and a curse.
For the studio’s lead, the difference between art and craft in the video game space is an ever-changing distinction, especially as the lines between the creator and the audience become increasingly blurred. With The Division designed to be a game played for years to come, it goes without saying that the developers plan to adapt their story and structure based on player responses. But as triple-A studios learn to track their customers more and more, Polfeldt sees where the moral dilemma of addictive free-to-play games arises.
Although millions of consumers may now refer to themselves as “gamers,” thanks to the popularity of titles like Candy Crush Saga, Polfeldt feels that lumping those kinds of experiences and the type they and Ubisoft are after is a dangerous practice:
“That’s why I would say that they are different jobs and different industries, in a way. Now, currently they seem to be close together, but I actually think they’re not so close together. I think we will see a separation where it’s like nobody today thinks that a one-armed bandit is a games developer, like, ‘Why aren’t the one-armed bandits at E3?’ Of course, they’re not games. It’s something else.
“I think many of the free to play games we will start looking upon them more as one-armed bandits.”
Comparing free-to-play games to slot machines (‘one-armed bandits’) may sound dismissive, but the crux of Polfeldt’s argument rings true: video slot machines shouldn’t be lumped in with other video games, since they are designed to take money from users, not offer any artistically-motivated reward or experience. While Polfeldt stops short of criticizing games built with a similar purpose explicitly, he does outline the inherent risks: once a developer knows what makes a specific consumer tick, how do they decide whether to tailor their gameplay to satisfy that player, or manipulate it to draw the most money out of them instead?
The director’s comments may be taken a number of ways, but he reveals that rather than making a value statement about one type of game/developer over another, his concerns are motivated by fear, first and foremost. Fear that if small-scale, free-to-play game-makers master the art of profitability, vast experiences like The Division could be an endangered species:
“As a gamer I’m afraid to death of it, because I love blockbuster games. I love big, long, epic games that will occupy my attention for a long time. I love the games that other people are doing, so I’m really afraid that it’s all going to be different. It’s all going to be small games. It’s all going to be free. That to me is just something else. I can’t see how that would replace my need for an epic experience. I just don’t get it. They have to be different. That’s really my conclusion. They just cannot be seen as the same for very long.”
The distinction between the two markets is certainly one that will become a larger part of the conversation in the years to come, and isn’t going to be settled any time soon. Clearly major publishers have not decided to abandon the practice of large, boundary-pushing blockbusters, but already some middle-tier publishers are shifting their focus to the digital and mobile space to minimize costs.
What do you think of Polfeldt’s comments? Do you agree that lumping mobile or free-to-play games in with big-budget game development is a dangerous practice, or is it impossible to make any sweeping distinctions just yet? Share your thoughts in the comments.
The Division will release in 2015 for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.