Stu­dio Pro­file

De­spite be­ing 300-strong, this triple-A games stu­dio has a real sense of fam­ily about it, Ben Maxwell dis­cov­ers

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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.”

huge di­ver­sity

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.”

fam­ily feel

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.

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