The Sports Desk – How Ubisoft Plans To Improve Steep
Ubisoft's snow sports/exploration title Steep drops players in a European mountain range and tasks them with conquering the large map in a variety of ways. Whether you want to post all the best event times and scores or simply pair up with fellow travelers and see the sights, the world is yours to enjoy the way you see fit. I quite liked it, and feel it successfully straddles the line between offering freedom, but with a video game breadcrumb trail in the form of its unlock progression and drop zones that keeps me coming back for more. And the adrenaline rush of the wingsuits is always fun.
I recently talked to Steep creative director Igor Manceau at developer Ubisoft Annecy about the game, how players approach it, what could have been better, and what can be fixed for the future.
Did you consider allowing players to play the game offline instead of requiring an online connection?
We did consider that option at some point, for many reasons. The reason why we chose to go for the always-online was really because we wanted the game to really allow players to meet with others players in the mountains. So, it's part of the game DNA, and it's a very important element for us. We know that some players may have liked it to be playable offline, which is something that we may consider at some point – I'm not saying it's going to happen, [but] we may consider it. But so far, the plan is really to push on the online aspect, which works quite well.
Have there been any surprises in how people are playing the game?
Yes. It's quite exciting for us to see that kind of thing. There is a very specific element, and by the way, some players were disappointed for us not putting in grinding on rails. We've seen players actually working very hard to actually be able to grind in the game and creating awesome videos showing off their skills grinding chalets, or some industrial buildings, or even tracks, and so on. And they've been very impressive. We'll offer new content for them to enjoy, grinding and railings.... It wasn't designed so far to support it.
[Also], we kind of expected it, but just doing crazy s--- around crashing and so on. It's really a thing we've seen with YouTubers. Players just having fun with the physics and just playing all together trying to crash into each other and so on, is really bigger than we may have thought initially.
It's easy for your avatar to get caught up on buildings or on rocks. Is there anything that you can do to address this issue in an update, perhaps?
Yes, it's definitely a problem we had in some villages in the Aravis mostly, for instance where we do have – I will be quite blunt with this – bad level design on some chalets and so on. So we've been working on some solutions to ease that problem, both from a physics standpoint, but also from a behavior standpoint where you will be able to stop easier and then go back to the mountain and be higher, walking up. The biggest problem we have so far is indeed when you're stuck in a chalet and can't stop, and you don't have any more control on the behavior of the character. So yeah, we're working on that. It's going to be fixed in various updates because some of the topics are tougher to solve than others. It'll be more and more fluid. It's really a few villages. The thing that makes it feel worse than it is is that it's actually at the beginning of the game, really in the Aravis. It's less of a problem in other places within the game, but we're working on that.
As a game designer, can you quantify the gameplay difference between skiing versus snowboarding?
I'm personally a snowboarder, so I would say I'm more into snowboards even though I do ski also. I do prefer skiing in my game [laughs], which is kind of weird. That said, we do actually have more players snowboarding. There is a bias to that. When you get into the world, you start in snowboard, so it's also a reason why snowboard playtime is more important because the game puts you in the game as a snowboarder. Still, I would say considering the numbers we have, it's not only that design element, it's also the number of players.
That said, the reasons why I do like skiiing...two reasons for me, the first one is from a tricks perspective: the amplitude of tricks for me I think is more rewarding. It feels kind of more varied. It's also fresher from a video game perspective. We haven't seen [skiing tricks] so much in video games versus snowboard tricks that we have seen a little bit more. I would tend to say also that, and it's my own experience, because from a pure technical perspective there is no difference in that aspect [between the two], but it's easier to target in skiing. So when you do a race or when you do ride in a very dense zoom, skiing feels more precise because of the symmetry of the rider. So you know where the middle of the rider is. While in snowboard you of course end up being on the side. I think it's less easy as a player to feel where the center of the character is. So it may explain some players preferring skiing. From a pure behavior standpoint, we wanted the control to feel the same so that you can switch very easily. It's really the way we execute it and the animation that comes with it that gives it a different feel.
Did a lot of people use the paragliding and the wingsuit? Can you talk about the usage numbers for the other sports?
Not specifics, but the overall philosophy, sure. Snowboard comes first, ski is second, and then you've got wingsuits that are very big in terms of playtime. Paraglide is way behind, which we expected. The pace of it is really different. Most players come to this kind of game to look for adrenaline and speed and so on. So we knew that coming with Paraglide could be a shock for some players, so it ends up being something being that a lot of people don't like that much or don't play a lot, while we do have some players that actually love it. When you asked about surprising behaviors, we do have players pretty much flying around in the map and exploring the map and unlocking drop zones pretty exclusively flying, which is really cool.
Maybe the mistake we made from a exposition perspective was to present it as the same kind of category of content as the other sports, which maybe make some people expect something more intense or whatever. And I'm fine, by the way, as a creative director having some content that really pleases some players [but] not necessarily all of them. Really create something fresh from a mood perspective also.
I think that the beginning of the game we missed something. We didn't manage to explain or to let players understand quickly enough what you could or potentially should do within the game to enjoy it. It's not a big problem because it comes after time, but I think we could have done better exposition work to make it understandable, enjoyable on as many aspects sooner within the game experience – which is something we're working on.
So we will probably – I can actually guarantee it's actually in the program – very soon improve the beginning of the game, which may sound weird because most of the time we improve more with new content and fix the problems. ...We do recruit new players on the way much more than we used to previously, so even working on the beginning of the game – like the first hour of gameplay – is something that pays off for us.
Ubisoft management has previously committed to supporting games longer after launch beyond just the announced DLC. Do you have a philosophy for Steep, whether that means yearly or non-yearly releases?
The first thing, very in-line with what you heard from top-line management, is really to improve and bring new content to the game that we just released. And that's a major focus for us, even though we may start working on a follow up at some point, the focus for us right now is really to keep working on Steep – the one you know. And it's almost an industry switch. We used to work very hard until the launch, ship the game, potentially fix a few things, come with the DLC, and then start working on what comes next or another project, and so on.
At Rainbow Six, for instance, or the Crew, you've got a huge amount of people actually working on the live program, tweaking stuff here and there, adding new content, and making the game overall much better. And it's definitely the way we want to tackle Steep, and most of the design choices we have made, are also made to support additions to the game, as the game improves – and I'm talking free additions.
Can you tell us about the new sports you'll be adding via DLC: Rocket Wings, Base Jumping, and Speed Gliding?
Rocket Wing definitely impacts wingsuits. The fact that you can get higher and not always fall from your initial position really changes the way you see the mountain, and it's just pure fun. This one is very important for us from just a fantasy, pure fun perspective.
The base jump actually is more of what we call the chain ability. What it brings is your ability as a player to start, for instance, skiiing, jump from a cliff – that's the basejump ability – and then trigger paraglide, land, and move on. That ability we like a lot because it actually allows you to revisit the whole mountain in a way that is really different. The zones where you couldn't pass because of a huge cliff, you suddenly can open them. The places where you had to go for various lines, to go from top to bottom, you can now chain it and create a challenge that actually chains all these moments.
How will the game accommodate the players who have the new sports and those who don't? Will you split the player base?
It will be kind of split, that's right. Some challenges you may access when you have these sports won't be open to those who don't get it. But, nonetheless, we'll let people enjoy some specific challenges, some activities if they want to try it. It's right that it kind of divides the community between those who have them and those who haven't, but we felt like that it was less of a problem than actually adding worlds and environments where the community was really split. Which doesn't mean that we'll never do that – it's something that you see in most multiplayer games. But we felt it was less of a problem than splitting the space. We can play together in the same zone, enjoy riding together even though you may at some points have abilities that I don't have.
You mentioned the chain ability of the base jumping. With the original sports, did you consider being able to seamlessly switch between them without having to stop first?
At some point we considered it, but we got a lot of things to explain to players already. The way you play challenges, the way you create challenges with a starting point, ending point, and so on. All these things for us, we needed to really explain and let players enjoy the simplest way possible first, and see how we'll mix those things all together. For instance, we have some Mountain Stories that do ask players to switch sports, we have seen in playtest, that was actually quite complex. We love it from a design standpoint, the freedom to choose what you can.... But we've seen in playtest that it's not that easy for all players to get these reflexes and switch sports to allow them to complete the mission they had to play.
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Nintendo recently unveiled more details about the Nintendo Switch console coming out on March 3 for $299, and from a sports game perspective, I'm still skeptical. I outlined some concerns in a previous installment of The Sports Desk, and even with the new info about the console, I've got some new ones.
Will The Switch's Hard Drive Affect Updates?
The Switch doesn't have a lot of internal storage – only 32GB. While games' footprints on the game cards themselves and game install sizes could be smaller for the Switch, I wonder if the small hard drive will influence updates for Switch sports games. Sports games update all the time post-release, including some larger free features like Madden 16 introducing Draft Champions Ranked for free. If sports developers can't count on how much external space Switch owners may or may not have, they may be constrained by the 32GB available and have to shrink games on the system accordingly.
Different Games For Different Systems
So far Steep, NBA 2K18, and FIFA have been announced for the system. While it's great to see Electronic Arts stepping up for it after having abandoned the Wii U, what kind of games are we getting on the Switch? Do they have all the features from the series we've come to expect?
NBA 2K18 includes many of the series' signature features – but some features are not listed at this time: the eSports-focused online teams of Pro-Am and the online home for your MyPlayer creation, MyPark.
EA says that FIFA will be custom tailored for the Switch – which I predict means that it won't be the same gameplay package or feature set as the other systems. This could mean different gameplay (such as incorporating motion controls for the Switch), but historically, sports titles tailor-made for Nintendo systems like EA's previous efforts aren't as good/full-fledged as the ones on the other platforms. In my experience, when a development team has to custom-make a version of their franchise for one system, that game suffers because the publisher has to split off team members, time, and resources that would otherwise more efficiently be devoted to making a single product with a single feature set that simply goes to multiple systems.
How Switch games and Nintendo are going to handle online is another question for the feature sets of games on the platform. Apart from the overall amenities of the Switch's online service (having an app for party chat/matchmaking, subscription service, etc.), specifically Steep on the PS4, PC, and Xbox requires an online connection. How will this work with the ability to take the Switch outside? Will the game somehow be playable offline when you're not hooked up to a wi-fi signal (something it currently doesn't do), or will the game be unplayable without a wi-fi connection? If it's the latter, then that limits the Switch's stated functionality of being able to play games at the bus stop, on the go, etc.
Similarly, NBA 2K's split between online and offline MyCareer players, which use completely different currencies to upgrade players, calls into question how the feature is going to be represented on the Switch if you may or may not always have an online connection.
A quick rundown of some of the sports news from the week.