Building a work environment that fosters creative and technical breakthroughs: the story of the Sprawl

What are the conditions that nurture innovation? It’s a pivotal question for any company that wants to stay competitive and, on an individual level, being part of a team that delivers a breakthrough is a thrilling experience. At Ubisoft, we’re always working towards integrating innovation to our culture. We have to be able to recognize a good idea and find ways to elevate it across functions to keep our players surprised and engaged.

Bruno Lalonde is Lead Technical Director on Rainbow Six Extraction and points to his team’s work on the Extraction’s “Sprawl” as a prime example of this. Extraction went through the journey of running into a surprising challenge, then turning it into the game’s defining feature.

In R6 Extraction, a cooperative game where a three-person team must face off against an alien threat, alien life appears on Earth as a giant entity known as the Sprawl, a semi-fluid substance that covers the environment. The Sprawl (affectionately called “the Goo” during development) covers the environment to turn familiar spaces into something more mysterious and threatening.

From the onset, everyone loved how this otherworldly goo created a unique mood and feel for the game. Ominous and omnipresent, it was the key visual element of the world they were building.

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Still, a dilemma emerged for the development team as the artistic vision for the Sprawl unfolded.

One of the Rainbow Six franchise’s fundamental pillars is destruction: the environment can be significantly transformed by the player, the map changed. Blasting a hole in a wall or the floor is a defining feature of the game. In a Rainbow Six game, problems get solved with explosives.

But here’s the thing: as the player would destroy the environment, the Sprawl wasn’t adapting. The Sprawl was a visual that could not be destroyed. The more Sprawl the team wanted to add, the less the player could interact with the world. The more they wanted the player to be able to affect the world, the less Sprawl they could add.

And, inherently, a Rainbow Six player wants to blow things up. But the Sprawl was becoming Extraction’s artistic signature.

The two core ideas just weren’t working together and neither one was expendable.

Swinging big on ideas

The Extraction team wasn’t satisfied with doing just OK. They had a drive to find something new, to give Extraction its own unique, defining elements.

“Our team members are here because they have a deep desire to go above and beyond,” Lalonde says. “They have to have a bit of the spirit of setting the schedule and design doc to the side to say ‘I have to try this idea out’. And you (as the lead) have to offer them the leeway to do so.”

The Rainbow Six team wrestled with the idea of the Sprawl until it hit upon the idea of taking this cool visual element and kicking it up a notch: what if the Sprawl was turned into part of the environment? Could they transform the Sprawl from a visual element into an object that could be destroyed by the player? This approach would simultaneously squash the debate on where the Sprawl needed to be manually inserted.

From a gameplay point of view, this was a new idea that the player hadn’t seen before,” Lalonde says.

The design team trusted the tech team to make it happen, and the art team to make it look good, and the narrative team to work it into the story. The Sprawl was quickly turned into an in-game object by the tech team which was now affected by environment destruction. Want to blow up that Goo covered wall? Now you can. Blast the wall and the Sprawl retreats. Success! High fives! From now on, the Sprawl would sprawl anywhere.

Following the thread… fast

The team found itself staring at a whole new possibility: the code that allowed the Sprawl to be destroyed during gameplay could be run backwards… to allow it to grow during gameplay. Make it dynamic.

The Sprawl in its new incarnation would expand, shrink, and adapt to the players’ actions. It was a thrilling change that opened up a whole universe of options.

It was a revelation for us,” Lalonde says. “The feature of a video game where it packs the biggest punch for the player is when it’s a 360 idea. And here we had an idea that was on a whole new level in terms of gameplay.”

A 360 idea is an idea that positively impacts the game in every way: narratively, artistically, in gameplay and beyond. The dynamic Sprawl was suddenly a 360 idea that emerged from trying to solve a problem. Everyone felt inspired to explore this new path, but they had to move fast to derisk the idea.

“When it comes to prototyping in video games, success is proportional to your capacity to iterate,” Lalonde says. “The faster you try things, you can say what works or doesn’t work. That’s how you take the risk out of a project. Sharing information and discoveries with everyone where we all have our cards on the table makes for a successful project.”

The Sprawl had evolved from a cosmetic element to the nervous system of the alien, detecting players and alerting invaders to danger. It was integrated into the tactical elements of the game, growing and retreating according to players’ actions and choices. The Sprawl was now at the very heart of Rainbow Six Extraction.

Allow room for exploring

Being afraid to take risks means playing it safe, the tried and true. But that’s not of interest to people looking to break new ground.

My team is allowed to make mistakes,” Lalonde says. We want our people to shine. We want to give them space to work without the Sword of Damocles hanging over their head.”

Not every idea is going to work and the bigger the proposition, the greater the chance that it might fail. Allowing room for those failures is what allows room for breakthroughs. Teams need to accept the idea of dead ends if they want to find new areas worth exploring.

Pushing the limits of the Sprawl meant balancing the technical design on a game that would have cross-platform play with different hardware resources on each platform, integrating the narrative elements and ensuring the visual design looked right. Each of the interlocking pieces of the puzzle had to fall into place to be successful.

These are tech experts, people who want to push things further,” Lalonde says. “They’re willing to go way off script but also willing to say ‘Oh, that didn’t work.’”

When all of the low-hanging fruit of your game engine has already appeared in games, it takes people who are hungry for something different to be on the lookout for opportunities to remix what’s already there into a new gameplay feature. And with this new Sprawl, the solution to this gameplay problem became one of the biggest ideas of all.