Chad Chatterton shows Aussies are out there leading the way on the world stage.
Chad Chatterton shows Aussies are out there leading the way on the world stage. Supplied

DIVISION 2: The Aussie making America great again

WHILE the idea of the United States becoming a post-apocalyptic hell hole might not be hard to imagine right now, one Aussie has made it a reality.

With the release of Ubisoft's new AAA title, The Division 2, artists and designers were called on to render a version of Washington DC that had been overrun by militarised thugs after the first game's disease outbreak.

Chad Chatterton, the Lead Environment Artist for Massive Studio in Malmö, Sweden, sat down to explain how his team managed to bring such realism to the game.

The Division 2's map grabs you from the moment you gain access to it.
The Division 2's map grabs you from the moment you gain access to it. Youtube

So how long did it take you to recreate the whole of Washington in the game?

I would say we spent around about two years, give or take, working on creating the city, building it from the ground up. We began with research trips to DC, talking to experts and first responders there. Trying to develop the research and build a believable base upon which to develop the narrative of the pandemic and critical situation in Washington DC.

We got a head start with the footprint of the city by accessing what's called LiDAR data, where we built into the Snowdrop engine the ability to draw upon the kind of 3D models I guess you would be familiar with in Google apps if you like, looking at 3D view of that. So we began with detailed information on all the buildings, right down to things like all the different trees that are placed, how old they are, what type they are. You know, street benches, trash cans, all that kind of stuff.

One of the challenges was to decide which elements to focus on, and which we really need to focus on, because you have to draw the line somewhere. So from there, we worked with a building team who started to create a visual library, build up the language, architectural language of the city. And then we focus on the really important gameplay areas; the missions, the side missions, you know, where we'll have control points and these newer things we're introducing into The Division 2.

And how many people are on your team, or have been involved in the project?

Massive Entertainment is the lead studio among of 8 studios across the world. I don't know the exact number of people working on the game, but it's a big project. This is one of the most ambitious projects currently in development at Ubisoft.

And how did an Australian come to be leading the team making Washington?

I joined Massive quite early in the development of The Division in the first game. Soon after, a lead position opened up, and I was asked to take that role. So I guess I was the first world lead, the first environment artist lead on The Division. 

I guess I've maintained this lead position for the last seven years or so now. I've worked in Oslo Norway before, and I've also taught at the university in Copenhagen. And it's a great place to make games this corner of the world.

The opening stages of the game hit you hard with the loving attention to detail.
The opening stages of the game hit you hard with the loving attention to detail. Youtube

You were a lecturer of environment art development at Melbourne RMIT. How did that role, how has that benefited the project?

That's a good question. So in teaching the workflows and processes and thinking behind being an environment artist in AAA development, each of the students had their own project that they were working on throughout our time together. And you know, my role is really helping direct that project, and encourage them and help them with very practical aspects of it. It's not so different from being a lead open environment art team here either - each of the artists have ownership over certain areas or certain parts of the project. My job is to really direct them and encourage them. Help them solve problems, and sometimes take my gloves off and get in there and help make things with them as well.

What inspiration or insights did you bring to the post-crisis look of Washington in The Division 2?

I think one thing is I really tried to focus on logic to arrive at a believable yet transformed world. So one of the things I did in developing the missions was to create what we called logic maps. So these are sort of knowledge maps like a database with you know, let's say you're working on the JFK Performing Arts Centre in Washington DC, a huge special building, one of the biggest performing arts centres in the world.

So we would say okay what happened here before November when the pandemic first struck? What's been happening in the months following? You know, we would map out where the joint task forces and the National Guard and whatnot, how they would use this site. Does this become a supply distribution hub within our world? Is there an evacuation route going nearby? What then happens to those things that they've set up? Does an enemy faction come in? How does the enemy faction use the location? So it's really trying to think through logically and with research-based as much as possible within Washington DC, to arrive at something that is fantastic yet believable. I think this is why The Division and The Division 2 feel so immersive because we do take this kind of care.

Can you tell us a bit more about your journey from artist to video games? Were you always a gamer?

I guess so. My father was a computer science teacher, so there was always a computer at home. You know, I had the memories of swapping cassettes and disks on the schoolyard way back in the day. But I did go away from it at some time, at some point.

I went to fine art school, and I did also a degree in art history. And but you know, when I was working at a studio in 200 Gertrude Street in Melbourne I was working on some shows there. That was around 2000. Myself and a few friends discovered Half-Life, you know, a very well-known game.

We locked ourselves in a lab at RMIT and played together all night, through the night, into the next day. And we were really transformed actually. We thought the potential of the medium was just so much more interesting than what we were seeing in galleries and exhibitions at the time. So I really come at it as an art form. And what's been interesting I suppose is that I've learned things about collaborating on the scale that we do on The Division brings all kinds of other interesting experiences to creating this experience for the players.

I was lucky enough to get some state funding for a project that related to Federation Square back around that time that I mentioned.  And so once I had that project under my belt, I was able to apply to a AAA games studio. That took me to Oslo Norway, where I spent five years working on the Age of Conan. And from there I taught in environment art development at IT University in Copenhagen. And very similar to what I did at RMIT in Melbourne.

It's really that one thing leading to another. But it's, of course, the challenge as a young person is trying to get that first break. Because companies, of course, are looking for people with experience. So especially if you're coming from another country. So it's a matter of trying very hard, getting to know a lot of people. Being a nice person, and crossing your fingers and hoping you get a break I think.