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During Ubisoft's E3 press conference this week, the company announced an extensive roadmap for its definitely-not-politcal looter shooter The Division 2. Across three major updates, Ubisoft studio Massive Entertainment is promising to ship three new areas, one new eight-player raid, and a slew of other content set on the post-apocalyptic eastern seaboard.
As more and more developers enter the world of always-live game development, whether they're experienced hands like Blizzard or relative newcomers like BioWare, the challenges of developing live content become more apparently different from traditional game development. What content should you be focusing on? What kind of content are your players demanding?
After revealing The Division 2's new content on Monday, Massive Entertainment live content manager Yannick Banchereau was willing to share some production lessons from developing their new episodes to shed light on how Ubisoft is keeping The Division 2 players invested over a year after the game's launch.
Banchereau's career at Massive Entertainment began as a community developer during the launch of the first Division game. After making the jump to the live-ops team, he says a lot of planning for new content comes from community feedback.
At Massive, Banchereau says the process is to try and make a quantitative analysis of community discussion topics (what topics are the players talking about the most?), qualitative analysis (what are they talking about?) and in-game telemetry (what are they actually doing in-game?).
It's a process that will sound familiar to many developers, but Banchereau has a few interesting insights from Massive's work. First, he says the team is constantly aware that what the community is discussing may be several months behind what the team is currently working on. To help grapple with any surprise flare-ups that come from player concerns, he says the team builds a specific "unexpected time" in the production pipeline to deal with those concerns and other emergencies.
"Instead of trying to schedule everything in advance, and the unexpected happens and you don't have any time in your production pipeline, we have time allocated for it," Banchereau explains. "So we don't end up in situations where people need to work crazy hours, or need to push updates out several months."
Second, Banchereau says the company is trying to improve on how it gathers community feedback because it's begun to recognize that current community communication methods can leave players caught in arguments or felt unheard. According to Banchereau, this is a concept different teams at Ubisoft are working to improve in future games and updates.
As he puts it, "forums are great, but [they're] competitive. We want to make sure every player has a chance to give us their feedback directly to us without having to get into an argument with other players and feel like that feedback will be used and leveraged the proper way."
A big theme about Banchereau's description of Massive's live ops process is the concept of respecting players' time. It's a concept he admits the company hasn't always nailed. When the team recently shipped its "Incursions" feature (endgame missions that don't quite rise to the level of conventional MMO raids) Banchereau says Massive didn't quite nail the difficulty-to-reward ratio of these first missions, making players bounce off of them instead of sticking around and pulling through.
After shipping several different Incursions, Banchereau says the team's learned a lot of different lessons, including the notion that Incursion-sized updates aren't the only kind of update players are looking for. Banchereau argues that players stick around with The Division 2 because the game's updates not only give them new content to explore but small opportunities to experiment with different playstyles they've become attached to.
"Sometimes we tend to underestimate the importance of small updates on a regular basis that come between all the big drops," he says. "It's important to try to keep your game alive with new things to do. [That] doesn't mean you need a new game mode every week, it can be small additions like a new gun which are interesting to players."
Like many other Ubisoft games, The Division 2 uses a structure of having a head studio (Massive Entertainment) and supporting studios that contribute to the game's live development. Banchereau says each game update features missions developed by one of its supporting studios, with other update components coming from Massive itself and its supporting studios.
By cycling teams like this, Banchereau says the company can keep shipping content big and small without burning its employees out.
Not every team can directly replicate Ubisoft's production model, especially since most developers don't have dozens of studios around the world ready to pitch in at a moment's notice on their games.
But if you're a developer in live games hoping to learn from Ubisoft, you may enjoy knowing that Banchereau and his colleagues want to learn from you too. "We're looking at all the big live games of the moment, everyone's doing great eat things at their own level, [whether] they're updating at a fast pace, or creating interesting compelling content, or using small pieces of content and generating a lot of acquisition and retention."
"We take lessons from any game, even the ones that are not so successful or not that good, there's always something to learn."