The people making The Division 2 always expected that their fans would start grumbling about the game.
“When we had the very positive feedback at launch, we knew there would be a moment where the honeymoon would be over and people would start scratching beneath the surface,” the game’s live content manager, Yannick Banchereau, told Kotaku last week in Los Angeles during an interview about the enormous Ubisoft shooter set in post-disaster Washington, DC.
The Division 2 launched in March to high acclaim on the strength of its incredible open world, fun combat and creative missions. It has since been dogged by its most active and vocal players with complaints that its inventory systems are cumbersome, the combat and gear don’t support a wide range of character builds, the special gadget skills players can equip are too weak and the franchise’s first eight-player raid, added last month, was too punishing for players on console.
“We knew all along that no matter how well we designed and prepared our game, the way people play it might be different and they will exhaust it in a way we cannot simulate in testing,” Banchereau said. “So they will find things that need to be improved.”
Banchereau said that post-launch development for The Division 2 has been structured differently from the game’s 2016 predecessor, which was in a more severely calamitous state right after launch due to glitches, cheats, stingy reward loops and a paltry endgame.
He recalled that addressing the first Division’s problems and turning it around—which they eventually started doing with its 1.4 patch a half year after release—was initially a scramble. “With the first game, especially pre-1.4, we had a lot of pressure from the community and we were trying to answer all the fires that were out there,” Banchereau said. “Everything was an emergency, and everything had to be handled as soon as possible.”
For the sequel, Ubisoft structured more development resources to the long-term health of the game. He said more developers are assigned to keeping the sequel running well post-launch. “It’s in the work pipeline of the dev team,” he said. “There is more time allocated to it. It’s prioritized differently to make sure we can actually fix the game, and I believe it shows in the actual stability and quality of the game.”
Fixing bugs is one thing. Balancing the game, he said, is more tricky, as it involves tweaking numbers but also sometimes changing features. Issues like a lack of support for a diverse range of character builds can be complex, he noted, because there are the issues of what’s a powerful build but then also how hard it is to get the right gear for it. “It’s not necessarily about the pure mathematical balancing of it,” he said. “It’s also what is perceived as the most efficient.”
And what about when game’s raid launches and everyone seems to run the same build with the same skills activated? “We’re kind of working on different timelines when it comes to addressing the balancing and producing content like the raid,” he said. “Even if we know there’s sometimes an optimum way to actually beat, that doesn’t mean we should hold onto that content until the balancing is perfect.” (Banchereau also floated that while The Division 2’s first raid rewarded damage-based builds, “maybe the next raid is going to be focused on survivability or skill builds or these kinds of things.”)
On the topic of the game’s first raid, Banchereau said that the team is “pretty happy with where it went” but took “two main learnings from it.” One is that they aren’t thrilled with the gap between difficulty on PC and console. Players on the latter complained that the requirements for accurate aiming were too arduous for those using controllers rather than a mouse and keyboard. “We don’t want to end up in a world where we have to balance things differently between console and PC,” he said. “That’s not the route we’ve ever taken and we don’t want to take it.”
Rather than designing separate stats and encounters for the PC and console versions of the game’s second raid, which is slated for a fall release, the developers instead want to make requests of players on either device that are more fair. “For the next raid we’re more looking at, how do we change the encounters and the fight dynamic to try to not penalize console players because of the accuracy and aiming and all that,” he said. “So maybe rely less on that and more on actual team play. So that’s one way we are trying to take those learnings from the second one.”
The other big issue was the lack of matchmaking, an issue exacerbated by the Division’s raid requiring eight players rather than the six needed for the raids in the competing game Destiny. Some players have asked for the option to matchmake with strangers. The developers have said they fear that random groups will have too tough a time, but they’ve also said they’re working on some sort of looking-for-group solution. “We want to have a solution by the second raid,” Banchereau said, but declined to confirm that it would definitely be available by then.
Updates and changes keep rolling out for The Division 2. When I spoke to Banchereau last week, the game’s fourth major update was winding down on the game’s public test server. It has launched today, improving how clans work, tweaking the controversial skill mod system, and adding a new end-game character class, the Gunner.
This is all happening a month before the game’s first big, free expansion, which won’t expand the game’s open world but will add two major missions that advance the game’s story and also launch a mysterious feature called Expeditions.
Those Expeditions will consist of three playable areas, one unlocked in the game per week—give or take—and will expand on the kind of puzzle-solving that excited players at launch when they spotted coded messages in the game that led to the appearance of elite enemies called Hunters. The Expeditions, which are framed around the story of trying to figure out what happened to a lost convoy, are “really more focused on exploration, logic, this kind of thing, so we kind of wanted to play with the ciphers and all these things we had at launch with the game when everyone had to decipher how to progress,” he said. “We are not holding your hand. We are just opening the area and saying, ‘Okay, investigate it and find out what happened.’” As players investigate, they’ll unlock new areas and acquire more treasure.
If it seems like there’s a trickle of releases and that they’re designed for a wide range of players, both are intentional. Bancheareau said that breaking up content releases into smaller pieces was a takeaway from the first game. Catering to different playstyles is simply an obligation of a team that has made a game that can be played solo or with other players cooperatively and competitively; that can be played as a grind for loot or a hunt for hidden lore and collectibles. When I mentioned my own desire to be able to take over the game’s many control point zones without fear that enemies would take them back, he pointed out that there is a system reason for allowing that to happen: Players can basically fight ever-tougher and more rewarding battles to retake them. It’s a way to generate infinitely replayable content. But, hey, there might be good news for me: “That being said we are looking at new ways and new dynamics we can put in the open world that might actually answer that itch,” he said.
Banchereau acknowledges that even The Division 2’s hundreds of developers (across multiple studios worldwide) can’t satisfy or even keep up with the appetites of all players. Some of that is the nature of player-vs-environment loot games, which are designed to encourage players’ hunger for ever more stuff.
“People consume content faster than we can produce it,” he said. “Then it’s all about replayability and trying to keep them entertained as much as possible.”
Maybe, he posited, it would be good for players to take a break and for his own peers to see that as a positive. “One thing that we’re trying to keep in mind is that it’s fine for people to stop playing,” he said. “We’re not telling them you should stay in the game forever. It’s fine for them to stop as long as they are satisfied when they stop and then want to come back when something big is coming.”
The Division 2 launched with in-game commendations for players who pretty much played the game non-stop but has since removed the most extreme of those in-game goals and rewards.
It’s also helpful for everyone to see past any player anger that may obscure constructive feedback. Banchereau acknowledged it’s not always easy and not exactly fun to see, for example, rage in the livechat of the game’s weekly development stream, in which he often appears. “Of course, it can sometimes be tough for people that are actually on camera like myself or other ones,” he said. “It’s something we learned to develop a wall against.” He tries, he said, to see past it and credits the tumult of pre-1.4 first Division with giving him the perspective to do so. “That’s something with that experience we can do much better now, which is wade through the aggressivity of the criticism to really try to understand what are the issues the players have.”
Ultimately, Banchereau said, things do feel like they’re going in the right direction and the concerns of The Division 2’s playerbase aren’t rattling the game’s developers. “We have a pretty good idea about what they want, and a lot of that aligns with where we want the game to go,” he said. “So then it’s just about putting in the work to adjusting things.”