'The stars were aligned': Reflections on developing Tom Clancy's The Division

'The stars were aligned': Reflections on developing Tom Clancy's The Division
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

February 7th 2014 at 1:00PM

Pauline Jacquey, MD of Reflections, explains how her studio began working on the next-gen Tom Clancy IP

This morning, we exclusively revealed that Tom Clancy's The Division is being co-developed by both its creator Massive Entertainment and UK studio Reflections.

We spoke to Reflections' managing director Pauline Jacquey (pictured) to find out more about how developers from Newcastle and Malmö, Sweden came to work together, as well as what Reflections' role will be in developing the promising next-gen online shooter. 

How did the co-development deal come about? Has Reflections been working on The Division from the beginning?

We have been working on the game for a while, but not from the start. The root of the IP, the initial creative initiative is absolutely and fully Massive’s. It is a studio I really admire, they are very strong in creativity.

We’ve been working together for a few months already, so that means the whole scope of the game is not fully locked, and we’re participating in creating and enriching the IP.

Ubisoft’s model of collaboration is very interesting because it allows studios that could be a good match to work together. If studios don’t get along or are very far away with no direct flights, the whole team would be reluctant to work together. But when there is a natural fit in terms of culture, then suddenly things are fine.

I think in this case the stars were aligned. I get on really well with the MD of Massive. We spoke together at an event about a year ago, where I said the cultural match-up would be good because the two teams have complementary skillsets. We started discussing a partnership, and it all came together very quickly and easily.

What role is Reflections playing in the development of The Division?

Ubisoft has different models for collaborations. Sometimes a studio would be solely responsible for one component of the game that is well defined, and we’ve been working like this on things like Just Dance and Watch Dogs.

But sometimes we unify the teams, even if there’s an ocean between them, and that’s how we’re working on The Division. That means we’re working on all systems of the game: main characters, enemies, RPG pillars, building Manhattan, our Core technology, online components, and so on. It gives us a very broad and wide input on the game, but it’s not as limited as doing the naval battles on Assassin’s Creed III.

We also come a lot of experience that Massive doesn’t have: namely 30 years of legacy in shipping console games. Not a lot of studios can say that, but we’re really proud of this.

You said you're on good terms with the Massive MD, but how well has the rest of the team been working with the other studio?

They would hate me if I said everything was fine and it wasn’t, but honestly they love working with Massive.

Massive has got a culture based around a lot of creative freedom with very open discussions, lots of debate – there are no politics, and it suits us really well. We feel it’s a really helping expand our experience.

We also come a lot of experience that Massive doesn’t have: namely 30 years of legacy in shipping console games. Not a lot of studios can say that, but we’re really proud of this. We’ve gone through everything, so we know how to ship a very good game – I think we’ve had something like 37 SKUs shipped in the past 20 years.

Massive is perhaps stronger in creativity and quality than us so I think it’s a really interesting match-up.

How does this differ from any previous collaboration Reflections has done?

Part of the fun – and part of what makes our lives miserable – is that it’s very different every time. We’ve worked on Watch Dogs recently; in fact, some of our team have worked on Watch Dogs, Just Dance and The Division all at the same time. That’s part of the fun of working at Reflections: you can contribute to a lot of massive games.

Some of the reasons the collaboration with Massive is so easy are the logistics. There’s a direct flight between Newcastle and Malmö, which makes it very easy to fly there. We’re constantly at their studio, they’re constantly over here. It makes it really easy. It’s harder when you work with Montreal or Shanghai.

A shared European culture makes it easier as well and, if I were to compare this to the other collaborations we’ve done, I would say this is the best in terms of how well the skillsets match.

It was actually very interesting to work on Watch Dogs with Ubisoft Montreal. The logistics were a lot harder: we didn’t speak the same language, there was a six-hour time difference and no direct flights. It made it very hard for the studios to get to know each other. It was like a long-distance romantic relationship: you have to work twice as hard to make it work. But then any collaboration is like a romantic relationship: you have to work to make it work, it’s not a given.

That said, working on Watch Dogs was a great opportunity. It is a super IP and a pleasure to help try to ship it.

Direct flights between Newcastle and Malmö means Reflections and
Massive Entertainment are in constant contact with each other

What else can Reflections bring to The Division?

Our different teams have different strengths. Today, we have five teams and only one is working on The Division. I’ll explain things globally, and then I’ll come onto The Division.

We have a very strong creative technology called Core. It’s being worked on by a mix of programmers, artists, designers and gameplay programmers, and they have a very interesting balance between their focus on hardcore geek technology and their passion for the final product and the quality of the experience. This enables us to prototype stuff in an interesting way, and to think of the end user.

The perfect example for this is how good the handling of the cars has been in every single Reflections game – it’s part of our legacy and 30 years of experience. We have an expert term that’s offering consultancy and support for any other Ubisoft team that want to have the best vehicle handling in their games – and that’s any kind of vehicle, even helicopters and planes. That’s a typical example.

Specifically on The Division, we’ve brought a very good design and technological strength. About 40 per cent of the studio is working on The Division, so it’s a decent team. Massive’s is bigger, but our team is still significant and its competency in art, Core technology and design is really showing.

Our team loves working on different games. Working on Just Dance, Watch Dogs, The Crew and The Division allows them to increase their knowledge about other genres.

Reflections has a history of driving games, but how is the team adapting to working in a new genre?

It was something that we really questioned when we changed our strategy three years ago: it really raised questions and our guys were both happy and worried at the same time.

But what’s interesting is after two or three years of this new strategy, our team loves working on different games. Working on Just Dance, Watch Dogs, The Crew and The Division allows them to increase their knowledge about other genres.

And that doesn’t mean we’re losing our legacy of driving games. We offer support to other studios, so they can have the best experience with the vehicles in their games.

How is the team getting on with the new Snowdrop engine?

It’s a beauty, and not just from an end result; it’s also a beauty to use. I’ve seen lots of engines used during my time at Ubisoft and this one is really strong technology, very user-orientated.

Which studio will support The Division in the long-term – with post-launch content, for example?

That’s not been defined yet, but there’s a strong enough desire on both sides for the Massive/Reflections collaboration to go on. Regardless of the post-launch plan, the idea is that this will be a long-term partnership. It works better that way.

Reflections praised Massive Entertainment's proprietary Snowdrop Engine,
which has been created specifically for Tom Clancy's The Division

Does the fact you have been entrusted with the new Tom Clancy IP say anything about Ubisoft’s faith in the studio?

I’m not if it says that much about what Ubisoft as a group thinks of Reflections because it really came from two teams’ desire to work together. I think the results will show, but right now I’m not sure that this is a tipping point.

What’s true is that for Reflections, there’s so much love for this game. Our guys are absolutely crazy about it. So for some of them it’s a life achievement being able to participate in the development of this game.

And we’re hiring dramatically at the same time. Working on The Division means that we’re going to be able to hire the expertise and talent that we’re lacking: we want expert programmers, online programmers, gameplay programmers.

We’re really looking for seniority, expertise, passion and we think that The Division is the perfect game to attract that. If you work in the UK and want to help develop one of the biggest games of next year, you can do it at Reflections.

How can applicants find out more? What are you looking for in new recruits?

We have a website – reflections.ubisoft.com – as well as a Facebook page, and all of the jobs are listed there and updated on a weekly basis. We’re looking for experienced people and experts to create the quality that we need on games like The Division. We’re looking for those with 10 to 15 years of experience who want to develop a triple-A game.

Something that’s nice about Reflections is you can work on triple-A games, but it’s within a very closeknit studio – we only have 200 developers working with us. That means there’s a lot of room for initiative and entrepreneurship. We’re not a factory. Everyone knows everyone else, I know everybody. Any kind of initiative will be fostered and that means you can both work on the big shiny triple-A games the industry keeps rolling out and at the same time work in an environment that allows you to be almost like an entrepreneur or start-up. When you have 15 to 20 years of experience, you might want to move into a smaller structure, but you shouldn’t have to sacrifice the quality of the game you’re working on.

At Reflections, you can work on triple-A games but it’s within a very closeknit studio. There’s a lot of room for initiative and entrepreneurship. We’re not a factory. 

What is it about Ubisoft’s studio structure that enables its developers to collaborate in these different ways?

It’s a relatively decentralised company, especially compared to some of the biggest US publishers and developers. It also has an international and sharing edge.

What makes me happy to work with Ubisoft, even 20 years after I started, is that the idea of sharing knowledge, technologies and best practises is deep within Ubisoft’s DNA. There isn’t a lot of competition between studios because they share what they do.

For example, if you create a new piece of technology that is very different and innovative, you have a duty to share it with other studios. Of course, you have the first option to ship a game with your own technology, but after you ship you have to share it with others. It means ideas and technology spreads very naturally –there’s not the silo culture whether one country is against another and they’re trying to best each other. So it’s less competitive.

When we hire guys that have 15 years of experience from time an a US company, one of the things they appreciate about Ubisoft is the openness of the structure and that the knowledge is really spreading.

Reflections is collobarating with Massive on ever element of The Division, from animation and design to the online technology that powers its multiplayer aspects

Bringing another studio onto a project has often been associated with development troubles in the past. Is this the case with The Division?

It’s absolutely not the case. This is part of a global model that Ubisoft has been deploying in the past seven or eight years.

To be frank, I started in this industry in 1997, and in 1998 I was the producer of a game that was being developed across three different sites. My last game as a producer was developed across six different countries. And neither games were in trouble, they were both huge successes. So this is really part of the DNA of Ubisoft. The sharing of ideas and technology sounds cheesy but it’s really happening on a daily basis. It makes us better because we share faster, and it’s a great culture to work in.

It’s also classic team size management. You don’t want your team to be too big when you’re in the initial phase of conception, when you need a lot of agility. But when you’re in full production, and given that the game’s scope is gigantic, it needs a big team behind it.