Despite being 300-strong, this triple-A games studio has a real sense of family about it, Ben Maxwell discovers
Ubisoft Massive: the triple-A, 300-strong games studio with a real sense of family.
Ubisoft Massive lives up to its name. The Malmö-based studio employs around 300 people and is currently embroiled in the ambitious task of developing (take a breath) massively multiplayer open-world online cooperative sci-fi survival shooter Tom Clancy’s The Division. Supporting this mammoth effort is a concept art team just eight people strong (though Massive’s art department has 11 concepting artists in total), who between them are setting out the grandiose vision for The Division’s frozen post-apocalyptic New York. And thanks to Ubisoft’s powerful new proprietary engine, that vision is making it into the game with remarkable faithfulness.
“It’s a great feeling to know that the final in-game look will appear like the concept art,” says lead concept artist Tom Garden. “This isn’t only great for the artists who’ve worked with the concepts, but also a testament to our brilliant 3D art teams who bring it to life in the game world for real. We’re very lucky to have such a skilled group of artists to work with.”
The team’s responsibilities extend beyond concept work, too, and into furnishing the game environment with additional fidelity. Some of the in-game textures in the environment are down to Tom’s squad, along with the fictional film posters, graffiti and other 2D artwork that decorate the game’s stricken near-future setting. It’s an approach that requires discipline and creativity.
It’s a great feeling to know the final in-game look will appear like the concept art
“Working on a project like The Division, we put a lot of very clear limits and constraints in place regarding what we can do in terms of realism,” senior concept artist Miguel Iglesias explains. “After all, our game takes place in the real world, in current times, more or less. But at the same time, because it’s a game it needed some crazy stuff. And to find a perfect balance between realism and crazy and fun characters, gear and environments was a very hard challenge.”
Taking on this monumental task has galvanised the team, however. “It’s no small feat to make a game this size with so many people from around the globe,” Tom says. “I think that alone is a stunning achievement for us all. We’ve all grown a lot as artists working with this project.”
Prior to The Division, the team has worked on a broad range of projects. The colourful, upbeat visuals of mobile game Just Dance Now couldn’t be further from the human tragedy of The Division’s collapsed society, and the studio cut its teeth on real-time strategy titles World In Conflict, Ground Control and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. This huge diversity requires real versatility from the studio’s artists.
“We do look for people who enjoy working with realism in their concepts, and of course people who love to create environment concept art, because this is the main bulk of work for a production like The Division,” Tom explains. “We all bring something different to the table and it’s great when we can encourage each individual’s personal style into the work we do daily. Some of us specialise in characters or environments, others make fantastic 2D posters for the world. I think it’s vital to recognise who can do what in a team, and who enjoys some things more than others. That way, when you assign tasks to them you’ll both get a lot out of it.”
Tom also looks for strong team spirit in potential employees. “It’s a bit of a cookiecutter answer,” he admits, “but one of the strengths we have as a studio is that it often feels like family. The concept art team is a very close-knit group and that’s down to a friendly nature between us, and team spirit. It’s important to remember that half of the job is the artwork, and the other half is interacting with others.”
Miguel agrees. “On the one hand we aim for the very best quality in our deliveries,” he says. “And despite all the pressure we’re under and all the difficulties, we manage to provide great art assets to the rest of the team. But we’ve also managed to create an
Balancing environments and fun characters, realism and crazy was a challenge
awesome environment of mutual respect and comradeship, where we all support and care for each other. We’re a very tight group of friends who enjoy hanging out together during work, and outside of it, too.”
That sense of family extends far beyond the concept team, despite the studio’s triple-figured employee count. Tom says he’s proud of the way members of the concept team try to support each other while creating images. But they also work closely with the other teams that need to work from their images. As well as ensuring everything is clear, the concept team might also need to provide extra reference work, paintovers and more. According to Tom, this close collaboration helps raise the quality of his team’s work, as well as solidifying the art direction and even narrative for a game.
It’s hard work, but employees enjoy the benefits. Massive hosts life-drawing sessions and staff have access to a library of tutorial videos and books containing both in-house and external knowledge. There’s also the opportunity to go on reference trips, and last year some of the team attended creative collective event Industry Workshops in London.
But Tom is clear on what he sees as the key benefit of being part of Massive. “Working with really skilled artists and nice individuals is a great benefit. We have a very nice studio culture!”
The Division’s dilapidated, mid-crisis Manhattan is bleakly beautiful, the society brought to its knees by a viral outbreak is both poignant and jarring.
The Division’s beleaguered urban environment has allowed plenty of opportunity to combine rusty metal, chipped brickwork and dirty glass. A playable character brought to life. Characters are customisable, so plenty of clothing, accessories and weapons were created.
This imposing entrance to an unfinished tube line and station captures the blend of familiarity and threatening uncertainty that
characterises The Division.
Assassin’s Creed Revelations presented a very different challenge to The Division, the game spanning three time periods – including 12th and 13th century Masyaf and 16th century Constantinople – which all had to feel consistent. Ubisoft Massive has dispensed with the traditional gameplay archetypes of team-based, online games, which is reflected in the character designs.
The game can veer quickly between peaceful exploration and violent combat and Tom’s team had to communicate that in their concept work. Concept art from one of the studio’s earlier games, 2007’s World in Conflict, in which the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 led to war against Europe and the US. This imposing fellow belongs
to The Cleaners, one of The Division’s in-game factions. Their design is based on the garbage collectors in the real Manhattan.