How The Division stole E3 on PS4 – Massive explain how it’s redefining co-op shooters

Tom Clancy's The Division PS4 E3 screens

You’re unveiling a new game – and a new IP, at that – at E3 2013. You’re announcing The Division on PS4, an online-focused shooter at a show that’s going to be full of them – think Battlefield, COD, and Destiny – made by better-known studios and backed by bigger publisher marketing budgets. What do you have to do to stand out? Massive’s Martin Hultberg explains.

The Division on PS4

A seemingly insurmountable challenge. Yet Ubisoft more than stood out with The Division arguably stealing the show. Its reveal was different from your typical E3 rush of dubstep-soundtracked bloodlust. It ticked every next-gen graphical checkbox, but did so in a restrained, more dramatic way. It took three minutes for the first bullet to be fired.

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As Martin Hultberg, director of communications at Massive, explains: The Division didn’t just need to stand apart from the other next-gen shooters at E3, it had competition inside Ubisoft itself. “Finding this new direction within Tom Clancy was the tricky part,” he tells us. “We’re going up internally against existing major brands like Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon, and we couldn’t be any of them. We had to find something new that was not a part of what they already were. That was the biggest challenge: finding our niche within the franchise.”

“We’re going up internally against existing major brands like Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon, and we couldn’t be any of them.”

The solution came from the real world – from Directive 51 (a US government plan for keeping society from slipping into chaos in the event of a disaster) and Operation Dark Winter, a 2001 simulation of a chemical attack on the US that showed just how quickly things would fall apart. Massive had its USP.

Tom Clancy's The Division PS4 E3 screens“Clancy units traditionally stop the threat from happening,” says Hultberg. “We thought, ‘Why don’t we take it further and enter a mid-crisis situation where something did happen and nobody managed to stop it?’ Then, as events unfold, someone has to take care of it. That would be The Division.”

Players – up to four of them, with a fifth able to control a support drone on a smartphone or tablet – will be dropped into New York three weeks after the outbreak of a virus. Society may be going to hell, but it is yet to fully collapse: there is still hope. “Our world is very much alive,” Hultberg says. “I wouldn’t say the city was dying, but it’s very sick.”

New York is ripe with story potential, but when you’re setting a game in a real-world location there’s always the temptation to constantly remind the player of where they are by showing them famous landmarks. Hultberg says Massive is trying to be as faithful to New York’s geography as possible, but admits, “It’s difficult. It’s a very big city! Like all games, you have to sacrifice some things for the benefit of gameplay, or storytelling, or just for pure production. But we’re trying to push as close as we can.”

the_division_virtual_map_930Massive wants to be different in the way the story will be told, too. It’s up to The Division to restore New York to its former glory: areas you don’t visit will slip further into chaos, so your first encounter of a certain part of the map will be different to another player’s. That requires a different approach to narrative: open-world games tend to have linear stories, and that can’t happen in a game that’s changing all the time.

“The game is about exploration in a more traditional sense – adventuring,” Hultberg explains. “You have to allow players to go wherever and do whatever, in whatever order they like, which requires a different type of storytelling. It’s about freedom: everything is about the player, and the narrative has to fit around those constraints. We want everybody to experience different things, and have their own The Division story.”

“You have to allow players to go wherever and do whatever, in whatever order they like, which requires a different type of storytelling. It’s about freedom: everything is about the player, and the narrative has to fit around those constraints.”

So this isn’t your typical Tom Clancy game. While The Division’s intentions are such that they’re definitely the good guys, this won’t be the standard Us vs Them fare we’ve come to associate with Clancy. Hultberg says that the unit’s moral tone “will be grey, even for The Division themselves. One of the first things that happens in a real crisis is that you lose the big picture. You lose communications, you lose the idea of what’s going on. Look at what’s been happening in Syria. News of chemical weapons: where’s the proof? Who’s seen what? Nobody knows, but people are going to act, right? You have to make up your own mind and choose what you believe.”

The Division is full of noble intent. A story that’s different for every player, set in a world that’s neither in order nor chaos and is changing all the time. It’s ideas like this – not bigger explosions or flashier particle effects – that PS4 was made for. Roll on winter.

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