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In Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands, everything in the vast wilds of Bolivia will be playable. If you can see a mountain in the distance, you can go to the top of it and snipe at drug cartel members below.

Ubisoft’s open-world tactical shooter game will debut on March 7 on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC. As the 10th installment in the series, the game will move away from the futuristic setting of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter and focus on a four-soldier team whose job is to disrupt the drug cartels in Bolivia. And while your force is small, you have stealth on your side.

Ubisoft designed the game so that you could accomplish the goal of taking down the Santa Blanca drug cartel and its leader El Sueno any way you want, said Dominic Butler, the lead game designer for Wildlands, in an interview with GamesBeat at a Ubisoft preview event. There are 21 provinces and 26 bosses in the vast world, but you can take them down in the way that makes the most sense to you.

You can also just get lost in the open world. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

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Dominic Butler, Ubisoft's lead game designer on Ghost Recon Wildlands.

Above: Dominic Butler, Ubisoft’s lead game designer on Ghost Recon Wildlands.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: How long have you been working on Wildlands?

Dominic Butler: It’s been in production nearly five years now. It’s the team that made Future Soldier. Personally, I’ve been on the team about two and a half years.

GamesBeat: Did you come in at a particular milestone?

Butler: I came in because I’d moved for family reasons. I used to work with the team in Montreal on Assassin’s Creed.

GamesBeat: It’s a massive game.

Butler: Yeah, it’s a big one. The scale of the world is huge. It’s the largest one we’ve done in an action-adventure game. There are lots of systems going on in the world, too, which is where the complexity comes from.

GamesBeat: I saw Tommy Francois give that talk at DICE about world-building. It seems like you applied a lot of that here.

Butler: Tommy’s team was involved at an early stage, helping bring some of our dev team to Bolivia and meet with them and build a more complete view of the place than what you’d see in a tour guide or on the news or in a simple documentary. We wanted to meet the people on the ground, take hours of footage, take lots of photos, and get a sense of what it feels like. What’s the air quality like? How does life in general go on?

Every location in Ghost Recon Wildlands is playable.

Above: Every location in Ghost Recon Wildlands is playable.

Image Credit: Ubisoft

GamesBeat: How closely did you model this after any particular combat engagements there?

Butler: That’s where we get into the Tom Clancy what-if part of it. We were in Bolivia for the world itself and the people there, bringing that environment to life. When you get to the cartels, though, that’s when we deal with journalists, reporters, any kind of media we can get our hands on to try and understand—we’ve seen a lot more about this in the last couple of years, both on the news and in popular culture, in things like Breaking Bad or Sicario. People have some idea of what the cartels are. But we wanted to see more of the people behind the cartels. We didn’t just want bad guys wearing a particular uniform. What drives these people to do these things, to become a multi-billion-dollar industry? How does that get going? There’s more than raw savagery to it. It’s also intelligent business. It’s building a structured organization that can maintain this kind of operation.

GamesBeat: Are they as militarized as they seem in the game?

Butler: The real cartels? Yeah, absolutely. They hire ex-military people. They’ll fly people in to train their sicarios. It’s an unfortunate reality, but they have so much money and so much access to resources that really it’s protecting their investment. But yes, there are no expenses spared.

GamesBeat: Within that world, how do you come up with missions that are fun to play, that stay concentrated and focused?

Butler: When we’re building missions in a world like this, where it’s so big and so open, where freedom of choice is core to the player experience, we have to rethink the way we build mission structure traditionally. It’s not just about relating a narrative, telling a story, but also from a gameplay point of view. If we have a target to extract, previously we’d tell you, “Go get a vehicle, take out the guys at this front gate, blow up this generator, grab the guy, get him back to the vehicle.” We’d go step by step and give you lots of clear objectives.

Because of the nature of this game and the idea of letting you play how you want and where you want, approaching it in lots of different ways, we’ve instead built a story around—we have a strong narrative arc, but in as far as objectives for the player, we keep those very simple. The missions are very goal-oriented. Maybe you need to find information about a specific thing. Where it is, how you get access to the information, that’s all up to you. If you need to extract a target and get them to a rally point—do you load up on certain weapons? Do you bring certain tools? Do you upgrade your drone? Do you call in friends? All these decisions will be part of your personal narrative about how you extracted him. But the extraction itself is a clear goal that you paint your story around.

Ghost Recon Wildlands has lots of different kind of terrain.

Above: Ghost Recon Wildlands has lots of different kind of terrain.

Image Credit: Ubisoft

GamesBeat: In single-player and in some of the co-op, there were times when we just drove right into the compound with a jeep. It was about as brute-force as it gets. If you’re trying to be more stealthy, can you drop some of the soldiers around the compound and approach from different directions?

Butler: You can do things in a couple of different ways. When you’re playing solo, you’ll have three AI teammates. You can give very simple orders to those guys and they’ll react as a group. You can say, “Hold this position,” or “Regroup on me,” or “Attack this position.” You’re not micromanaging where they go. But you can give them simple objectives. We didn’t want you to have to stop all the time and reorganize them. They’ll follow your play style and match what you do, whether you’re playing aggressively or playing quietly and doing a lot of recon. They’ll support how you play.

If you’re playing with your friends in co-op mode, from the outset we said that there can’t be any kind of leash, any artificial way of keeping everybody together. It was a big technical challenge, but we knew we wanted that from the start. We worked on it for a long time. In co-op, there’s no reason that you have to stay within so many meters of each other or anything like that. At any point, you can break off and do completely different things.

Now, that might not make a lot of sense a lot of the time. If you go down you’re going to need your buddies to revive you. But when it comes to gameplay and making decisions in the field, each of you can do things the way you want.

GamesBeat: At one point, I was seven kilometers away from the other players. Is that a big memory management problem? How do you maintain such a large space?

Your team looks out for you in Ghost Recon Wildlands.

Above: Your team looks out for you in Ghost Recon Wildlands.

Image Credit: Ubisoft

Butler: Like I say, it’s the largest open world we’ve done in an action-adventure game. But knowing from the start that we were going to have this huge world – lots of different environment types, lots of systems going on in that world – with so much freedom for co-op, it was something we built into our gameplay designs and technical designs. We have some very talented programmers. Those guys had it in mind from the beginning. It was a big challenge for them, but as you can see, we got the result.

We don’t necessarily need to load the entire space for everyone, but we’re aware of what everyone’s doing all the time when you’re in co-op. You’re always sharing that experience. Even though you were seven kilometers away, you were still technically playing with your friends, even if you weren’t localized with them. It might be that you break off because you’ve spotted a base, it’s nighttime, and you think you can snatch a chopper and use it to catch up with your guys later. Maybe you break off, they continue on, and then you come over the hill launching rockets later on.

This was a first for us. We hadn’t seen it done before. When we went to look, comparatively, at who’s done open worlds well and what we could learn from them, we struggled to find good examples. But we’re happy with how it turned out.

GamesBeat: I don’t think I ran into any loading screens.

Butler: When you load into the world, or if you need to fast travel, we have some loading. Otherwise, while you’re playing, there’s never any loading.

GamesBeat: Sometimes it can be a problem in open-world games when you lose track of your main story arc or mission. Do you have a way to easily find that focus again, to make that obvious to players? “If you want to get back on the story track, do this.”

Butler: We’re aware that’s something that can happen. What we’ve found in traditional open worlds that’s been done in the past, you have one narrative thread going through the whole game. You have to expose that and make that obvious. But the way we’ve broken down the story, there are multiple arcs. Initially we separate those out province by province. When you’re in a given province and you pop that tac map, we’ll show you, “Hey, this is what’s going on here. This is what you need to do in order to complete this province.”

Then we have what we call the cartel overview. You can pop out and see, on a more macro level, how you’re breaking down the organization from a business perspective. We have different operations like security and production and smuggling and influence. There are bosses and groups and organizations associated with those operations. As you start to take them down, you’ll see them get crossed off. “Okay, I’m closer to completing influence. I can go after the smuggling bosses.” We give you lots of ways to see how to do things. Everything is color-coded, so if you want to do narrative, you can follow those golden icons and that’ll take you right through the story.

Your missions take you into underground compounds in Ghost Recon Wildlands.

Above: Your missions take you into underground compounds in Ghost Recon Wildlands.

Image Credit: Ubisoft

We wanted to make something built around a concept of “no wrong answers.” You sounded a little guilty when you talked about going full assault and just driving a jeep into the compound. That’s great. That’s the way you wanted to do it. Other people will play it differently. Maybe next time you play in co-op you’ll be with a much quieter group. Maybe they haven’t tried the mission before, so you can tell them what you’ve seen, and they’ll suggest doing more recon to see if you can get in and out without killing anyone.

You can mainline the whole story. That doesn’t mean you’re always going full assault. That’s not always going to be possible, especially as the enemy reinforcements get stronger and more involved. But that’s always there for you to do. There’s nothing blocking you.

GamesBeat: I was a little surprised by that toward the end. We’d angered the police, and then wave after wave of them came in. They had three helicopters circling us.

Butler: Yeah, the Unidad are a pretty severe bunch of guys. They’re the military side of the corrupt government. They’ve made an alliance with the Santa Blanca, but it’s kind of a tenuous arrangement. If you get into a fight with Santa Blanca and the Unidad are around, the Unidad will attack Santa Blanca as well as you. You can spark inter-faction fights, and you have to be careful, because Unidad are super tough. The Santa Blanca is pretty serious, but the Unidad have the heavy armor, the heavy vehicles.

Sometimes it’ll be in your interest to set off those fights between factions. Say you have a heavy group of Santa Blanca and maybe a Unidad helicopter passing by. We give you a flare gun that you can use to attract the helicopter. While it’s nearby, if you fire a shot at the Santa Blanca while you’re still undetected, they’ll draw their weapons. Unidad will see that as an aggressive action and they’ll start shooting. Sometimes one group will wipe another out and you don’t have to do anything. It’s a lot of fun, playing with the factions and seeing what can come out of it.

GamesBeat: I think what turned the Unidad against us, we were leaning out the windows with our guns as we were driving by in a car.

Butler: Oh yeah, they’ll see that. You have to be a bit more subtle.

GamesBeat: Have you figured how many hours someone could spend on the story?

Butler: It comes up. When we were setting out, we tried to get an idea – is this going to be a 20-hour game, a 60-hour game, a 100-hour game? But because we were so focused on building systems, like the factions and the NPC agendas and the weather and so on, and then the secondary activities, it became something—we do a lot of internal and external playtests. One of the questions that kept coming up from testers was about the average time to completion. But it differs so wildly that the number becomes irrelevant.

There’s a lot of content. You probably played for two or three hours today, and I don’t know if you completed even one province. Obviously you’ll play differently at home or with your friends. But we want to make sure that players can very clearly see what they want to do. If they want to mainline the story, they can. If they want to opt for the side content, they can. They’re not obligated to complete lots of side content before they go the main missions, but it’ll make sense to do that, because you’ll get stronger. You’ll get more support, more options in the field. But it’s up to you to dial in to that as much as you want.

GamesBeat: Does this bear some resemblance to the systems in games like Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed?

Butler: There will be similarities between our world and other games, both inside and outside Ubisoft. We’re building an open world with missions in a military shooter, so you’ll have seen elements in other games.

Vehicles abound in Ghost Recon Wildlands.

Above: Vehicles abound in Ghost Recon Wildlands.

Image Credit: Ubisoft

GamesBeat: Calling in the rebels reminded me of calling in the gangs in Watch Dogs 2.

Butler: Right. You’ll see similarities like that. One thing where it starts to feel different—like I said, we have a lot of side content. One aspect you can really dig into is supporting the rebel faction. These guys will exist in the world whether you help them or not. They’re an oppressed group. They don’t have much support or influence. But they want to fight back. If you invest time into them and help them out through a series of side missions, you’ll get direct support, like you’ve seen in some other games. If I do a mission where I defend their radio station, holding off waves of enemies that are coming in while they broadcast, the rebellion might offer me mortar support I can use in the field.

But because we’ve built a world that’s systemic, where we have all these systems ticking over all the time and interacting with each other in interesting ways, by supporting the guys in these optional missions you’ll boost their presence in the background – in traffic, in events, in towns and villages. You’ll start to see more of them showing up organically in those systems. They’re going to get a boost. As a result, you’ll see more inter-faction fighting. You’ll change the dynamics in the open world as you do some of these side quests. It’s not just a one-for-one exchange like you might have seen in the past – do this mission and get this thing. That’s where it starts to feel different.

GamesBeat: Did you introduce more gadgets that we haven’t seen yet? I used the drone a little bit for marking targets. That was in the past games, though, like Future Soldier. Are there more high-tech things you can acquire along the way?

Butler: Because the game is set in a modern time – it’s set about two years from now – we were conscious about involving too much futuristic tech. We wanted something that had a lot of systems interacting with each other that would let the player do what they wanted, but in order to do that, we needed a world that was coherent and kind of understandable to players from the outset. For example, if we had plasma guns or something like that, we’d have to explain what that is. When we have C4, mines, grenades, remote detonators, these are things players understand pretty easily.

So we don’t have as much in the way of advanced technology. We wanted to keep the game a little more grounded. But you mentioned the drone. Every Ghost will always have a drone. That’s part of your basic recon kit. That’ll start off with a limited range, limited visibility, limited applications – it’s really just for recon – but as you start to use it more, there’s a whole upgrade path dedicated to the drone. You can get night vision and thermal vision. You can add payloads to make it explode or set off an electromagnetic pulse to knock out vehicles or generators in camps. Approaching a camp at night, if you can sneak in and disable the generator, all the lights go out, but it’s even easier to fly in a drone with the EMP and knock it out. Then you turn on your night vision and attack the camp. It’ll support you in stealth, in assault, in recon.

That’s where we wanted to focus – modern-day tech, without going too advanced or abstract. We wanted things that players could anticipate, and then they could make up their own tactics — “Maybe I could use it this way” – because it’s something they inherently understand.

GamesBeat: You have a pretty strong villain in there at the very top. Do you have a lot of focus on that character, cinematics keeping you interested in the chase?

Butler: We have El Sueño, the boss of bosses, the head of the cartel. For sure, we introduce him right at the start. His organization is built around the different pillars with their different lieutenants along the way. As you’re taking these guys out and interacting with them—it’s run like a business. He’s dealing with his lieutenants quite regularly. You’ll be hearing interactions, sometimes talking directly to him. You’ll hear about the results of things you do. Maybe you manage to extract one of his lieutenants and get him in for questioning. You’ll see the effects of that in how Sueño’s going to deal with you, the threats he’s making, the offers he makes as he tries to deal with you. In short, yes, he’ll be present right from the beginning, all the way through the story.

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