The Division Creative Director Talks Design Philosophy, Dark Zone

During our time with The Division last week, we had the opportunity to pick the brain of Magnus Jansén, Ubisoft Massive’s Creative Director on this project. After getting to sit down and dive into exactly what makes The Division tick, a few conceptual questions arose, and Magnus’ answers certainly did not disappoint.

Hardcore Gamer: So one of the things I noticed from playing, which wasn’t immediately evident from the gameplay demonstrations and marketing, was that there is an inherent silliness to some elements of The Division (specifically The Dark Zone when you’re interacting with and sizing up other players). How do you balance having such a serious setting with some of those sillier aspects that drive us to games in the first place?

Magnus Jansén: With any game that has an online component, the experience will change during that online play. So, it’s completely unavoidable whenever you have players trying to role-play. Players are going to goof around, and as developers, we’re not trying to force people into being super serious. That would just be silly. We’re trying to allow players to express themselves with emotes, like doing jumping jacks, because that’s why you’re there. You’re playing a game, you’re there to have fun, you know?

Also, with the proximity voice chat, you’re going to speak to players and you’re going to hear what they’re saying. It’s all about embracing reality. But, as you said, you’re going to be sizing them up. Do they have a bag? What do they have? Am I stronger than this person? Can I get the drop on him? There’s going to be attention, so that goofiness can very quickly turn into a very tense moment of adversarial play. So, it might be goofy at times, but that can quickly turn into seriousness. That ambiguity and that uncertainty, that is really the heart of the Dark Zone experience.

In terms of the RPG elements, how do you balance all that depth there with immediately hooking players? In other words, how do you prevent The Division from being one of those RPGs where it “gets good” after 20 hours?

Obviously, we have a very enticing world where the setting is very gripping. We give you the backstory and present the setup of this pandemic-stricken New York. Because of the virus, government systems have ceased to exist, and all of the other government branches have collapsed, so society is on the brink of collapse. When you get in there, as a Division agent, you immediately feel, “I’m ready. I’ve got the training, I’ve got the equipment.” Of course, not all of the equipment, as you say, since this is an RPG, but you get enough equipment. You get a gun, and it’s not just a sidearm, you get an automatic gun. You’re trained and you’re able to make a difference immediately, and you’re in this beautiful world (and it’s an enticing world). You feel like you can make a difference.

We’ve got great controls. You feel in control and you feel powerful immediately, so there’s no waiting for the awesomeness. The awesomeness presents itself immediately, in my humble opinion. Then it’s just about seeing more and discovering more things. Whatever pace you feel comfortable discovering new systems at, [the game] is all about how quickly you progress.

You can do things like upgrade the base of operations to get access to new tools and new things. I definitely believe this, but hey, I’m biased. The game is awesome and you feel powerful from the get go. But I mean, I would say that, right? [laughs]

It’d be scarier if you didn’t!

Right! [laughs]

What have you done narratively to make it so that those coming in looking to jump into this apocalyptic world? How do you make The Division appealing for those who want that lore right away and those who just want to explore and go slowly?

We do this quite similarly to other successful open-world games in that the whole core of the open-world is that you decide the pace, meaning that if you go just for the mainline, you’re getting a high density of story and narrative download. So you choose the degree of that narrative download by what you choose to do. If you just want to explore the open-world, if the game tells you to go over here and you go over there, and you’re just going around rummaging and searching every nook and cranny, then it could take hours before you even get to the first story mission. That’s the beauty of an open-world game. If you just do the main path and you’re not going to get distracted (which is super hard for me), then you get a very very high density of the narrative download.

You’re going to go through the story threads and find out the mystery. You’re going to find out who unleashed the virus and why. Can we find a vaccine? What are we going to do? You’ll find out all about the factions. Who are they? How did they rise to power? How do we stop them? You’re going to find all of that out. But if you want to do all of the side content, all of the side missions explore everything and find every collectible for the backstory, then you could go for hours without finding out a single thing. So, you decide the pace. That’s the beauty of an open-world game.

Back to the The Dark Zone. Was the idea of a multiplayer hub in the world where you seamlessly travel there, in-game, something you stumbled upon when you were designing this connected open-world, or was it a core idea from the beginning and you realized you had the technology to do it?

I don’t quite remember what came first. Yes, obviously the technology allows us to do that, but there was quite a lot of technology development that took place to get us to where we are today where the matchmaking all occurs under the hood.

Narratively, The Dark Zone is deeply connected to the story. I’m not going to go in and spoil it, but there is an analogy to The Dark Zone, and the way you might be tempted to go rogue by greed, in the main story. You as a player might be corrupted to where you think that you won’t have to follow any laws, and there’s an analogy to that in the story. The Dark Zone is at the heart of the game map, but it’s also at the heart of the story and the narrative theme of the the game. Even the name “The Division” in an analogy, since there is a division in this agency, and you find that out quite early in the story. You can see it even in what you played today if you were paying attention. All of that came quite early. I don’t remember back that far, but there was definitely a nice synergy when we found out these things would merge.

The Division is set to launch on March 8 on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Be sure to read our in-depth preview here.