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How Massive is making two blockbusters at the same time | Thomas Andren interview


Jun 14, 2023
How Massive is making two blockbusters at the same time | Thomas Andren interview


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Massive has made a name for itself as one of Ubisoft‘s most important game studios. The Malmo, Sweden-based studio has more than 800 people and it’s working on two major games that were unveiled at the Ubisoft Forward event on Monday.

The games are Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, debuting on multiple platforms on December 7; and Star Wars: Outlaws, which is coming in 2024. Both games have separate teams at Massive, and the studio is getting help from the rest of Ubisoft as it goes into final production for the games.

The guy in charge of making this happen is Thomas Andren, managing director at Massive. He said that both Disney and James Cameron chose to work with Massive because of its track record with the open world games of Tom Clancy’s The Division series. While making all those games, Ubisoft’s engineers at Massive were also responsible for the creation of the Snowdrop game engine. That’s a pretty heavy load, and it explains why Massive was quiet for a long time.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Thomas Andren is managing director of Massive.

GamesBeat: Were you able to show off the game here? What were you anticipating for today?

Thomas Andren: To come here with two games, starting with Avatar and ending with Star Wars, it’s something that we at Massive and with our partners internally, we were very proud of it.

GamesBeat: How big is Massive now?

Andren: At the studio in Malmo, we’re around 800 people now. We’re all in one location there.

GamesBeat: One thing I did wonder is how flexible has it been over time to have the Snowdrop engine? Does that enable certain things?

Andren: Snowdrop is an iteration of the games we’ve made. We always say that it’s there to empower our artists and creators to do the best games they can. It’s evolving all the time. Also, it’s gone from a local engine, when we were working on The Division, to a global engine. Today we have multiple studios working on the engine to develop it together with the games. It’s the big enabler for us, creating these worlds in the games you saw today.

There are big planets to explore in Star Wars: Outlaws.

GamesBeat: How has the capability of the engine grown? Are there things you can do in today’s games that you couldn’t do in The Division?

Andren: Of course. It progresses all the time. Our philosophy is that–the engine is there to enable our games. But we also separate our R&D development on the game engine and the projects. We have the Snowdrop team and then we have the project teams. They work extremely closely with each other.

GamesBeat: What makes it a necessity for Ubisoft to do this, as opposed to going over to Unity or Unreal? There are lots of choices they could make.

Andren: We’re very happy with the engine. It’s very flexible. It’s a big enabler for our teams. I think that’s the biggest reason why we’re staying with Snowdrop, and why Snowdrop is becoming a global game engine at Ubisoft. That’s the core of it.

A scene from The Division shows the realism of the Snowdrop engine, circa 2017.

GamesBeat: How do you keep Avatar from looking like Star Wars from looking like The Division, when they share one engine?

Andren: We share the engine, but the teams are separate. We’re very proud that we can have two strong teams at Massive working on two separate projects. But also, we have all our partners internally at Ubisoft that help create these games. We’re collaborating on tech. We can reuse between projects when we see fit, but we also need to ensure the autonomy of the projects.

GamesBeat: We saw from Starfield yesterday that some gamers still want to have 60 frames per second for everything. I don’t know if that’s a realistic demand to make of all games. Do you have an opinion?

Andren: I’m not the right person for technology questions about games. I’m happy to set you up with someone in the Snowdrop teams to talk about that. From my perspective, I stick with the Massive questions and the Ubisoft questions.

GamesBeat: More generally then, how do you keep gamers happy?

Andren: I’d say iteration. Both how we work live now on The Division–we’re listening to our fans a lot. We have a great fanbase on the Division games. But it’s also the iteration we do in the projects all the time. It’s the creative process we have in Massive and together with our partners.

GamesBeat: How would you describe some of the interaction with getting something like Avatar started? Interacting with James Cameron, making him happy, but also thinking about, well, it has to be a game. This isn’t a film.

Andren: That’s the amazing thing with these two projects. The collaboration and the partnership with Disney, LucasFilm, and Lightstorm is very close. The creative iterations, the decisions on how it should look, it’s a big collaboration. Then we as Massive come with a game experience, and of course Lightstorm for example comes with their experience around their IP and their movies. It’s a great collaboration. You can see that in what we showed today.

The bars are full of scoundrels in Star Wars: Outlaws.

GamesBeat: Do you have a feeling as to why the IP-based games or movie-based games are doing so much better now? And vice versa, with movies based on games doing well too.

Andren: It’s a bit of where the market is going. We’ve become more interactive. We like being interactive. If we enjoy something that we see in a movie, we tend to like to see what it’s like to play in those worlds as well. And vice versa, of course.

GamesBeat: It also feels like there’s a lot of divergence, though. If you’re doing a game, you might need 30 or 50 or 100 hours of story. That’s what gamers expect. You only get two hours in a movie. How do you try to capture the essence of movies in games and stretch it out, you might say?

Andren: It’s really interesting that you can capture a story in two hours the way you do in film, and then you prolong that journey, that experience in a game. You can have a longer and more interesting experience when you play as well.

GamesBeat: Is there an identity to Massive games? Is there something you would say is shared across all of them, even though they all look so different?

Andren: I think what is Massive, what we focus on, what is really in the walls of the studio is quality. We’re trying to hit quality in what we’re doing, whether in the creative process or when we produce the games. That’s the core of it. And then we do a bit–we’re not doing the same things all the time, but if you want to pick one thing that stands out from the studio, I think it’s our ambition and our drive for quality all the time.

GamesBeat: Does an open world have to be part of it these days?

Andren: It can be. Let’s see what the future will bring. But for now it is.

Kay is sneaking around in Star Wars: Outlaws.

GamesBeat: How do you think you’ve been successful with that kind of game? Is there something that The Division taught you for these two new games?

Andren: Yes, of course. We were hand-picked by Lightstorm because of how we performed on The Division. That’s clear. And how the studio is focusing on quality in the creative aspect of it. That’s the core of it.

GamesBeat: Does The Division teach something to your teams?

Andren: If you look at the teams that are doing Star Wars Outlaws today, or Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, it’s a lot of people who are of course coming from The Division. Of course you bring that expertise with you on your journey to the new games.

Soaring with an Ikran mount in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.

GamesBeat: As far as how big the studio can be or should be, how do you feel about that?

Andren: We’re very happy where we are today. At this moment, as I said, we’re about 800 people. What we’re also very proud of is that we are end to end. We talked about Snowdrop. We start with the game engine. Then we have our projects that we’re very proud of. We also work with Ubisoft Connect, the distribution part of the value chain. You can see us as an end to end studio in that sense. That also contributes to what we talked about earlier, about focusing on the games and seeing how we can evolve the games when technology is always changing.

GamesBeat: Are you also structured in a way where you can make use of all the other Ubisoft companies? All the other studios who can pitch in to help finish a game?

Andren: Yes, we’re super proud of our collaboration with the whole of Ubisoft. As you were seeing at the show today, we talked about our partnerships within Ubisoft, the teams working with us to create these games. It’s a big global collaboration to get games like this out on the market.

GamesBeat: Is it similar in that respect to something like Assassin’s Creed? It’s something that Ubisoft has learned how to do as a company.

Andren: Yes, I would say so. Cross-studio collaboration is a hallmark.

GamesBeat: It seems like you’re fine being in production on two games at once. You don’t need to be in pre-production on one versus production on another.

Andren: No, I think we’re in a fantastic position right now. Also, we got feedback from the teams that were in the studio. Not everyone could join us in Los Angeles, of course. But the energy right now in Massive and in our partner studios has been fantastic. The feedback we received after the show is very positive.

Do you bribe the corrupt Imperial officer?

GamesBeat: Is The Division still something that’s all done within Massive, or has that been given to more studios to work on?

Andren: With The Division, it’s the Ubisoft model that we talked about earlier. It’s also a collaboration between studios today. We’re also, within Massive–we have a development team working on The Division.

GamesBeat: The post-launch live operations for something like The Division, is that going to be very different from post-launch for these two new games?

Andren: It’s two different genres, of course. That means it’s a different live experience.

GamesBeat: Do you think at all about handing off The Division to someone else altogether?

Andren: The Division is born and raised at Massive to start with. We have a very warm heart around that IP. But it’s still a collaboration between the studios. We’re working very close with other studios to deliver on the live part of The Division. For example, Red Storm has a team working on The Division.

GamesBeat: What else do you want the studio to achieve?

Andren: Right now we’re so focused on getting a game out in 2023, and another one out in 2024 as we announced today. That’s all our focus right now. We’re super proud to be here, as I said in the beginning, starting and ending the show with two fantastic projects. That’s our focus right now.

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