The Division’s ‘Year Two’ expansion plan dooms it to a slow death

TFW when you arrive at the party the cute guy invited you to but the vibe is already super weird.

Well, it looks like I picked precisely the wrong time to get into The Division. I’ve been close to obsessed with the game recently, having belatedly got into it off the back of the Wildlands beta, which left me in the mood for more open world, third-person, guns ‘n’ grind, ideally with some Tom Clancy trappings. (Which presumably now means I exist entirely at the intersection of a Ubisoft marketing department Venn diagram.) So, when it came to last week’s one-year anniversary livestream, I was pretty excited. But as Massive Entertainment laid out the plans for The Division’s second year, you could feel the oxygen leaving the room.

“All of the content updates that we’re going to provide are going to be free,” said creative director Julian Gerighty. “There is no season pass for year two.” That sounded like good news, given that Gerighty was promising two new expansions—but free content in the context of an incredibly expensive to develop looter-shooter immediately set off alarm bells. On the stream, Gerighty was at pains to emphasise what an act of generosity these expansions represent, but when you looked at the kind of thing that’s going to be included, the truth became clear. It’s stuff you couldn’t realistically expect players to pay for.

The first expansion, which is due this summer, will be focused on an event system that uses modifiers to play the existing content in different ways. Or, in other words, grinding the same missions for cosmetic rewards and achievements. It will also introduces a ‘loadout’ system, which will be hugely welcome given what a pain in the hole it is to swap builds in which all of your weapons and armour have multiple mods attached. But that’s a quality of life feature, and one that The Division should have shipped with. A loadout feature is not content in itself.

I'm goofing around with a Firecrest/MDR build. (Yes I know I need to spec for more Skill Power.)

What players categorically won’t be getting in the first expansion are more story missions, despite being what the community has been crying out for. And more surprisingly, they won’t be coming in the second expansion either. “We can’t really deliver story missions that will fit into the RPG aspects of the game in a simple way,” Gerighty told the Ubisoft blog. “So we’re not going to be doing the classic main mission type of thing, but narrative content is something that we are definitely looking at.”

Quite what that narrative content will involve is anyone’s guess, but players hoping that the map will be opened up to include new areas (references to Central Park had been datamined previously, and Brooklyn has long been discussed as a location) are also going to be disappointed. All of which has left the community, which frankly has been on an emotional rollercoaster with this game already, feeling angry and abandoned. How fair that reaction is will depend on your perspective.

From Massive’s point of view, the cost of continuing to service a game of this kind with new story content would be, well, massive. It’s pretty unusual for developers to create that kind of material outside of paid DLC drops. Which effectively tells us one of two things: Either the bulk of the studio is now working on the new Avatar project, despite Gerighty and Ubisoft’s insistence that Avatar will have no bearing on the Division. Or the rest of the team are busy making The Division 2, because they clearly aren’t all still working on the first game. As someone who could happily live to 1,000 without ever seeing anything Avatar-related ever again, I hope it’s the second option.

Hello Dark Zone, my old friend, I've come to have my stuff stolen again.

Speculating further, I wonder if Ubisoft ever really had any substantial plans for The Division beyond its first year. I suspect the publisher assumed the game would follow a model not unlike its other marquee series, in the sense that it would launch, sell well, the players would be satisfied with a couple of simple expansions, and then everyone would move on with their lives until the inevitable sequel arrived. That’s how the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry work, and if you imagine that the intentions were similar for The Division, then the current vacuum is much easier to make sense of.

What we can safely assume at this point is that The Division 1 is now being maintained by a skeleton crew akin to the ‘Live Team’ that creates event content for Bungie’s Destiny, the game which The Division owes so much of its inspiration to, and has also shared so many problems with. Both developments teams have had to firefight huge issues with core systems in a live environment. Partly because of a lack of foresight, but also because it must have been really hard to guess how players were going to react to these games, because there hasn’t really been anything quite like them before. Yes, comparisons can be be made with WoW, Diablo, Borderlands and Warframe, but The Division and Destiny still feel like largely fresh territory to me.

How to power level in 1.6

Despite my long term reservations about The Division, it's a great game to play right now. If you're considering dipping in, you'll want to gear up to World Tier 5 quick. Our recent guide explains how to get the most out of the 1.6 patch. 

The biggest failure of both studios was not anticipating how quickly the players would burn through content and then angrily demand more. In a weird sense, the games were too popular. As someone who’s played a disgusting amount of Destiny, coming to The Division community late, and feeling excited to talk about it, only to find a salt mountain furious about being “cheated” by a game that many of the most vocal players have spent 100s of hours in, feels very familiar. 

Destiny certainly went through its own marathon content droughts, during which the subreddit essentially looked like the Springfield tyre fire from The Simpsons.

Again, I have some sympathy with the developers here. Maintaining and improving these games, with their intricate, interlocking systems for loot and weapon balance, must be a Sisyphean task. Likewise, creating more story content is not a tap you simply turn on. These kind of games—frankly, any AAA games—have long development pipelines. So much of the friction between player and creator stems from the fact that people generally don’t understand just how slow the process of creating the assets needed to fill these beautiful, high-res worlds is.

The real question: will this snow ever actually thaw?

With all that said, I share a lot of the fans’ frustration. A huge reason The Division’s players seem to be in permanent tumult is that they recognise how much potential there is in this game. After all, that’s why they stuck around this long. Returning to it now, Massive’s virus stricken New York remains a thing of grim beauty. There are genuinely few more detailed open world playgrounds on PC. The combat, which was the thing I bounced off when I first tried the game because it felt so leaden and spongy, is now crisp and moreish.

It’s hard not to see the playerbase growing embittered and atrophying fatally. There’s only so much min-maxing even the most dedicated grinder can do.

Yes, on the higher difficulties, you still fight dudes in hoodies who can soak up hundreds rounds while literally laughing, but for the most part a well-built agent feels potent. And the loot system is great, raining high-end and gear set items on you as you complete daily activities. At times it actually feels like too much. I’ve already spent over 120 hours here, and had hoped to stay much longer. Which is why the Year Two plan feels like something close to a disaster.

Maybe the bulk of the team is working on a sequel, but that's not what The Division needs. The engine and its systems are in a good spot, so if Massive were able to drop an expansion of the same size as Destiny’s Taken King—substantially adding to the size of the existing world, and the stuff to do within it—the effect could be explosive. Especially if it doubles down on the procedural design of the Underground missions. 

But it needed that to happen this year. Instead, we’re getting what sound like two non-expansions, and it’s hard not to see the playerbase growing embittered and atrophying fatally. There’s only so much min-maxing even the most dedicated grinder can do, so it's no surprise to see one of the most popular content creators quitting.

My greatest concern is that maybe Massive isn’t working on a full sequel at all, and this could actually be it for The Division. At launch, it broke sales records for Ubisoft and then saw the audience do its own passable impression of the apocalypse. It’s hard to know how that will have have altered the perception of the project within senior management. A source at another publisher told me recently that they’d heard the Ubisoft was now focused entirely on Wildlands as its big RPG-shooter hybrid, which if true would be a real shame. 

I mean, it's unlikely given how much Ubisoft loves sequels, but what if The Division never gets a follow up? It would be stranded as a curio, a white elephant left to roam a lonely open world. An ambitious idea that was a roaring success and then a strange sort of disaster. An idea that got so close to being fixed, only to then be abandoned.