Recently we got to sit down with two of the head honchos at Ubisoft who are working on Ghost Recon Wildlands, Nouredine Abboud, the Senior Producer, and Dominic Butler, the Lead Game Designer. Abboud was able to talk to us about the scope, the story, and what it took to make a game like Wildlands. Here’s what he had to say.
[Hardcore Gamer] This is a very different Ghost Recon game, with the co-op and open world — What was the inspiration to change the overall concept of Ghost Recon?
[Nouredine Abboud] One thing to have in mind first is that me and most of the guys from the team worked on the previous ones. So I worked on Advanced Warfighter, I worked on Future Soldier, so we basically had people that are passionate about the brand, they know it very well. And here there’s new things, one of them is that we wanted to do things that were not possible in the past just because the technology was not ready and there were all sorts of limitations, so for one this is quite a lot something new, but on the other hand I prefer to use the word of evolution. What I mean by that is Ghost Recon has always been about one being deep behind enemy lines and two, having lots of freedom in the way you can play it. And basically, if you think those two things, we believe that nowadays, a game that puts you deep behind enemy lines with lots of freedom is what we’re doing right now, because you need a big map. This is where the open world is interesting, and also you need to play with other people because more and more gamers like to play the games not just alone, so that’s why we think that — I wouldn’t consider it something fully different from the past, but something more in line, but just at a different scale.
Did the team have to kind of change how they thought a bit, just because of the similarities but also the differences?
I think, funnily enough, the way we had to think about the game didn’t change because each time we approach a game over the many years I’ve been working for Ghost Recon, for more than ten years, and some of the guys for longer, we’ve always basically, when we approach a game in terms of design but also art or sound, we have this thing of this game needs to deliver the fantasy of being behind enemy lines. So we always thought about that, and that’s always what made us excited even at the studio when we’ve tried to work on the situation, say you’re going to try to hide or try to show the situation to the other guy, trying to imagine how it would be like behind enemy lines. So in terms of thinking, we didn’t change the thinking, however in terms of the tools we had to express it, yes it had to change. So the game, for instance, thinking about how deep you can be behind enemy lines is something we always had, but now, for instance, we have this four-player co-op for the whole campaign, and that we can go back and forth made us think for instance of stories in a way that had to be fun and tell a story of you behind enemy lines, but you also have to make sure that if you play solo, it’s as fun as if you let’s say with other players. And this is a real challenge, and so yes, it changed the way we approached our design, story, and situations.
Speaking of which, where did the inspiration for Bolivia and the cartel and everything come from?
So first thing first the fact that Tom Clancy games have always been about what if situations. What if this country does that, or what if that situation would happen. So initially we were trying to look at the situation, and yes there was the idea of what if this Mexican drug cartel would move to Bolivia, there were lots of ideas, so here we considered that it was kind of something that made sense in a general Clancy approach, and then what we wanted to do is two things, one, we wanted to have something the ghosts are fighting against that is exciting for the gamers and also difficult, like a real enemy, and the cartel is a strong group of people who have means, they have weapons, etcetera, so it made sense as an opposition. And finally we had to find a setting that made sense for our open world, which very varied, but also nice and Bolivia is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, which is something we learned by getting there, having some documentation, reading things, going on the spot, etcetera, so — because kind of this mix of beautiful, fun in terms of gameplay sense, you know a general Tom Clancy story.
You were talking about doing your research on Bolivia and the cartel, what kind of research did you do to kind of familiarize yourself with the culture?
So it’s, you know when you approach any entertainment creation, what you need to do is you need to do your homework. We go from reading as much as possible, watching movies, listening to TV shows, etcetera, so there’s a lot of things we can do let’s say from the office, and we did all of those things, and also we sent some guys to Bolivia in order to have a look at the setting, be able to take nice pictures, to be able also to have sound that we could use for the game, and finally, once you have your research, you also need to work with experts, so then we worked with people who knew about the topic, and this has always been done for Ghost Recon where we try to be in contact with people who have a deep knowledge of the thing that we’re describing.
How did you go about creating the open world, and how much did co-op influence the design?
On the open-world, the big challenge for us was, from one point of view, we need something that is exciting in terms of gameplay, so in this game where there are 11 environments, which means that it’s not just the mountains, it’s not just the jungle, and so first it was important that you could move from one area to the other and it makes sense, so of course we didn’t copy/paste a map of Bolivia, because it might not be fun or maybe too big or something like that, however, we had to create our own version of it and make sure also that the missions inside made sense. On the co-op side, basically that’s kind of the funny part of the thing, is by going co-op, only how you’re creating so many different situations, that it would be very artificial to create some scripts. Because if you’re playing solo, you can say ok, if player gets here and this is going to happen because you kind of know when there’s only one person to monitor. As soon as you have four guys, who for instance decide to spread out the whole map, it’s not possible. So what did we do and what was actually the challenge of our early prototypes? We realized that instead of going for artificial rules, the more we try to make it natural, the better it was. So I’ll give you an example. If you’re attacking let’s say a camp with four guys, you can spend hours trying to find the best level design and rules that would make sense. Usually what happens is that people have, as human beings, are used to things like the height or the shape of a building, and the best way to have situations that the people can share is to try to have a game that looks like realistic situations. For instance let’s say we have players who say oh, I’m going on top of the watchtower, instead of saying, I’m going on top of point A or I’m going onto the green icon. So very quickly we tried to be as natural as possible in our approach and basically, it works, and that is the way of bringing in the co-op. The last thing is actually that’s why it’s really exciting because we noticed that with this big playground we always have new situations that come up in the way that people use it.
There are a lot of new features that have been added to Wildlands — what has been your favorite one?
For me, it’s not specifically one feature because when you work on a big game like that, basically you end up being proud of the whole thing. But the big thing that I’m very proud of is that we’re going to create this playground for so many people to play with. And even right now after years of development, one, we learn things from our own game, we have a screen at the studio where we show some of the situations that our testers or people that we’ve had play the game come up with. And even now, for instance, when meeting the media, it’s always exciting to have a look at the screens to see what people come with. So this is something that I’m very proud of, and the whole team is proud of, that we have this big playground, and that’s why we can’t wait for players to actually play in our playground and come up with crazy ideas in the way they use it. Especially in co-op, where it just gets even crazier.
One of the specific feature we wanted to talk about was the drop-in, drop-out co-op for when your friends aren’t online to play with you. How important is it to be able to talk to those people?
So I think on this it’s what you need to have in mind is that this game handles everything, so you can play solo, or you can have the matchmaking, which is you can have people who have decided to play with you, and we also have a public one, which is basically a way of meeting new people. When it comes to actually talking, yes, the best way to play a co-op game is by talking, but funnily enough, what happens is that very quickly you also end up with people setting into some patterns, so the same way the Ghosts or the soldiers end up being trained to avoid shouting in the middle of the battlefield what they have to do, you see situations where people are going to follow each other when they try to infiltrate a camp, and what’s going to happen is actually the first one in is going to act as a leader. So yes, talking is important, but I would say very fast, especially with people you don’t know, after fifteen, twenty minutes there’s kind of a chemistry that sets up and where basically you — everybody finds his role. The same works if someone is going to drive a vehicle, it’s very hard to say I’m driving, so you end up just jumping in and driving.
It’s worth noting that the game also has a command system that you can use via the D-pad, which allows you to talk to randoms using shorthand comments like “group up” and stuff like that. For more on Ghost Recon Wildlands, be sure to check out our preview of the game here and our interview with Lead Game Designer, Dominic Butler, here.