Making Games Classics: The Creation of Snowdrop Engine


For »Tom Clancy’s The Division«, Ubisoft Massive works with a bespoke engine that has been designed exclusively for next-gen consoles – even though the reason for its development wasn’t just better graphical performance but rather the desire for greater flexibility.

Disclaimer: This article was first published in issue 06/2014, which was released in October 2014.

Making Games What made you decide to create a new engine?

Rodrigo Cortes An important reason was to have the freedom to create the game exactly the way we would like it to be. Plus, now we can also develop the specific innovations that we need for the project. Our motto, not only for Massive but for Ubisoft in general, is to connect technology with innovations. These two are closely linked to each other since you usually need technical features that don’t exist in that form yet. The turning point during the development of Snowdrop Engine was our desire to create AAA games within our own capabilities. We wanted to be on par with the big players in the industry. This was the basic idea behind it.

Also, the way we create our games is very organic. We never commit to a plan that we work off step by step until the game is finished. We rather say: »That’s the idea. Let’s see where it’ll take us and what fun it’ll bring.« So we have an initial idea, but the actual game grows from that idea. Our technology, especially the engine, has to comply to that philosophy as well. We need to be able to adapt and modify it. It must be possible to quickly try something out.

»Our engine wasn’t the reason for Ubisoft’s acquisition.«

To our surprise, a lot of engines are designed in an extremely inflexible way. They’re great if you’re creating a game that you have a very specific idea of how it’s supposed to turn out. But if you want to try something out, all of a sudden they’re not that great any more. Snowdrop Engine is designed to make exactly that possible.

The second reason is that, e.g., with »The Division« we wanted to create a game where we had to focus a lot on graphical fidelity since it’s a corridor-like shooter in an open-world setting. Usually these are variables that need to be balanced: Do you prefer extremely high-quality graphics or would you rather focus on content? Normally, you have to make a compromise at some point. We, however, didn’t want to compromise. We wanted our game to be extremely detailed even though we were creating a larger game world. So, in this case the innovation was that there wasn’t one big innovation since we had to deal with different aspects at once: production, pipeline, rendering. Snowdrop Engine allows us to access everything at once, which is unique. In order to make use of these complex resources, you need an engine that is designed specifically for the new console generation. Only then will you be able to create an immersive world, and that’s what counts in the end.

»Tom Clancy’s The Division« is the first title making use of Ubisoft Massive’s Snowdrop Engine that is specifically designed for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Making Games When did you start working on the project, and how big was the team working on the engine?

Rodrigo CortesIt was only a handful of people. We started working on the engine approximately five years ago. By the time we were taken over by Ubisoft, we had already started working on creating an engine.

Making Games Was the engine also an asset Ubisoft acquired Massive for?

Rodrigo CortesNo. When Ubisoft acquired us, they were more after the studio and the general philosophy. Of course, the assets were part of it, too. And obviously Ubisoft knew that those were technically advanced, especially in regards to the online business. After making a lot of PC games such as »World in Conflict« we already had a lot of experience in that area, but we also presented our engine plans to again link innovation to technology and our work approach. However, that wasn’t the main reason for Ubisoft’s acquisition.

The main goal for developing the engine was to be able to easily implement modifications in the editor and immediately test them.

Making Games It’s a bigger risk for a publisher to let a smaller team develop a large next-gen engine, a new IP and a new project. How did you pitch your game and engine idea to Ubisoft?

Rodrigo Cortes It was never the question whether we would be entitled to do the projects. Ubisoft believes that the teams themselves are the experts and that we put our utmost passion into our projects. So when we pitch an idea that, e.g., is based on a new technology, it is mainly important for Ubisoft’s management to see how much dedication we’re prepared to put into this idea. With »The Division« we were never asked whether we could create the game with a different engine.

Making Games So the game came first and you then realized you would only be able to create it using a new engine?

»The complexity of the games has increased a lot.«

Rodrigo Cortes We wanted to focus a lot on the online sector at relatively early stage. At Ubisoft we have a lot of engines that are online-compatible; however, the technology that we needed for the game, was completely new. Let’s take the normal MMO development as an example: You have servers that you need to connect to. This structure is very old-fashioned. If I’m on a server and you’re on a different one, we can’t play together. I’m not talking about Massive Online, that’s a different story. We needed something that would make it possible for people to play with anybody in the world without barriers as long as they are on their friends list. So we needed a technology that would provide the necessary means in the background.

Making Games Is it a kind of mega server like with »EVE Online«?

Rodrigo Cortes No, we don’t have a mega server. It’s merely a new way to deal with existing server technology. However, our approach is based on ordinary server architecture. Anyway, it all works very well and smoothly.

Making Games So you have several servers that constantly communicate with each other?

Rodrigo Cortes Exactly. This allows for excellent matchmaking and a very stable friends system. Those were the basics of the project. The rest of it, the rendering etc., was only secondary. This was also because Ubisoft didn’t know what technology we actually had. All they knew was that we wanted to provide this seamless online experience.

One of the challenges when programming Snowdrop Engine was an online feature where players would be able to play together despite being on different servers.

Making Games Snowdrop Engine was built for the new console generation only. What features of the engine are only possible on the new hardware?

Rodrigo Cortes There are a few, but one of the most important aspects in my opinion is that the entire engine was written in 64-bit. So it’s not a conversion from 32 to 64 as it is the case with many other engines. Also, everything was built to be able to access individual threads.

Making Games But multi-threading was already available for the last generation.

Rodrigo Cortes For the last generation there was a different number of cores and support systems. Now the cores are standardized and we have the opportunity to run several operations at the same time. And even though the last generation already had several cores, most games used one core as the main core and outsourced features such as sound to a different core. The difference is that now we can have all sorts of parallel operations and during programming you don’t have to watch which thread goes where since the engine automatically adapts to the characteristics of the respective console.

»Most engines don’t use the full amount of memory on the next-gen consoles.«

Another example is the memory architecture and the memory usage. The size of the memory is now 16 times bigger, and for PlayStation it’s even 32 times more memory. It’s almost a problem to fill 16 GB or 8 GB of memory. We needed new and more efficient ways to access this memory capacity, so we built the engine to make the best use of the technical capabilities and the memory. I’m sure most engines don’t use the full amount of memory. With Snowdrop Engine we can access more of the memory.

Same with the GPU. The GPU of the new console generation can be programmed very easily and has a lot more features than previously. For the last generation the GPU didn’t do anything else but process graphics. Now that you can access the different parts of the GPU, you can do a lot more with it.

Making Games Do you think there’s a big difference between Xbox One and PlayStation 4? When the first games were published for the new console generation, there was some discussion about the resolution, for example.

Rodrigo Cortes This discussion was always about multi-platform games. Our engine is multi-platform compatible, too, but the reason we built it is to take full advantage of the potential of the new consoles. I have no doubt that both platforms are very powerful, looking at their exclusive titles. Let’s take »Forza 5«: Full HD, 60 fps – a beautiful game. Probably one of the most beautiful games ever made. Yet people still talk about the resolution. I don’t want to comment any more on that, but in my opinion it has already been proven what the new console generation is capable of if you give the developers enough time and if they know exactly which resources they can make use of. Just look at »Ryse« and »Forza« on Xbox One or »Infamous« and »Killzone« on PlayStation 4. The developers knew the hardware very well and this gave them an advantage, which you can see in those games.

Snowdrop Engine automatically generates impressive landscapes such as forests in procedural steps with few assets and particular parameters.

Making Games When watching the demo video for Snowdrop Engine I was mostly impressed with the forest. Every single tree seemed to be different. How did you do that? Were the trees designed individually or did you develop an automatic procedure to achieve that?

Rodrigo Cortes This goes back to the way we make games. They don’t necessarily have to become bigger, but smarter. But what is bigger than creating a forest? It needs to be very detailed with a lot of variations and fidelity. But it was done by a small team that was trying to push a lot of different things at once. The breakthrough we wanted to achieve here was the procedural creation of environments. What you see in the forest is actually one tree, one rock and one fern, that’s it. And it’s only through different parameters that the system then generates variations of the basic data. Every tree, every rock, every placement is unique. The distribution of the components is completely automated; everything is done through parameters. For example, if you want to have a lot of moss in one area but none in a different area, you apply corresponding parameters like there should be more moss in the shade than in other areas. The system then generates the environment according to your settings.

Making Games So you have to know what a real forest looks like and then set the corresponding parameters?

Rodrigo Cortes Exactly. Snowdrop Engine is based a lot on research and the technology in the background. But once your research is done and you know how everything works, the rest is really easy. You can also try out the parameters anytime, and if you don’t really like what you see, you simply keep changing the parameters until you’re happy with the result. This goes for trees but basically for everything else, too.

Making Games With every new generation the development seems to get more and more complex, which also requires the teams to grow accordingly. Compared to other AAA studios you have a relatively small team and you even built your own engine. Is it really a race in terms of budget and complexity or is it more about outsmarting each other?

Rodrigo Cortes I can’t comment on how other teams work. I can only tell you how we work at Massive. We can’t afford to go crazy. Sure, we have a really good studio; our team is growing and we can basically hire as many people as we need. But for us it’s more important to approach projects in a smarter way. In terms of game complexity, just look at the development during the last generation. If you compare the first games made for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 with the games that are still being published for these platforms, everything’s bigger and more detailed. Just compare the first »Assassin’s Creed« with »Black Flag« where you can control a ship, dive and do so much more. It’s a lot more complex than the first game, which was also really great. But the same thing goes for any big brand: The complexity of the games has increased a lot.

Snowdrop Engine’s editor is designed for simple handling in order to give artists and level designers more time to experiment with modifications to the virtual world.

Making Games So, what you’re saying is that you don’t necessarily need a bigger team or a larger budget, but simply better tools?

Rodrigo Cortes That was the key for us. We wanted to have a better tool in order to be able to develop on an equal level with other teams. A lot of people say you don’t need a big team to develop a game. But for complex projects you do need a lot of people, and I think »The Division« is one of those complex projects. However, at the same time we had to make sure to stick to our limits and to our way of making games. Other studios make great games with bigger teams – and that works just as well.

Making Games In your personal opinion: Why is it that two of the major engines from big publishers that were developed by Swedish studios both have winter names?

Rodrigo Cortes (laughs) I don’t really know. I can actually think of more engines that come from Scandinavia and have winter names. But the name »Snowdrop« isn’t based on snow; snowdrop is actually a flower which is the first flower to grow in Sweden after the winter, even when there’s still snow, to show that spring is around the corner. So when it’s still cold and rough outside, the snowdrop flower is a sign for better times ahead. But when you look at the names of the other engines, I guess it’s simply a cultural thing.

Making Games Would you say there’s some sort of engineering culture in Sweden that is a bit different from the rest of the world?

Rodrigo Cortes I’ve been making games for a very long time. There’s a big demo scene in Sweden; it all started with Amiga and Commodore. A lot of people who were doing those demos back then, later joined the games industry. I think there’s a particularly large affinity to technology in Sweden. They also had infrastructure at a very early stage. Sweden was one of the first countries to have a stable and fast broadband connection, and people got computers early on. The technology level is high and the interest in technology is a typical Swedish thing. A lot of technology companies are based here. Technology is very important for us, not just because we created something new but because we want to create something that isn’t out there yet. A lot of things from Sweden, be it iOS or Minecraft, are based on their own technology. For example, Mojang had to build something that would fit the game. For us it wasn’t that different, but we had other circumstances and a different philosophy that we had to stick to.

Interview: Heiko Klinge


About Rodrigo Cortes

Rodrigo Cortes
is Brand Art Director at Ubisoft Massive.

Rodrigo who is fluent in Swedish, English and Spanish first started doing graphics on the Commodore 64. It was his love for this field that motivated him to join the games industry in 1998. In the following years he gained experience in various positions, working as Lead Artist, Animator, Level Designer and R&D Expert. Rodrigo has been with Ubisoft Massive for eleven years and has had significant impact on the philosophy and the basic systems of Snow Engine. At the moment, Rodrigo is Brand Art Director for Tom Clancy’s The Division.


Sebastian Weber
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Sebastian Weber

Managing Editor at Webedia Gaming GmbH
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