Rainbow Six: Siege is here to stay. Given the game's continued growth, with casual and competitive communities nurtured in tandem, it's fair to say that its place in the esports world is pretty much assured. Since its relatively modest release at the tail end of 2015, a sensible approach to post-launch DLC has helped the game to flourish, keeping the community together while also adding to and improving the game over time.
Expansion comes at a cost, though, and this is also a game that has endured the odd hiccup along the way. And it's precisely this that has prompted Operation Health, a period of time where Ubisoft intends to give the game a thorough health check, in the process making sure that it's better placed to take advantage of its growing popularity in the years ahead.
In the run-up to the announcement of this change of direction, we were offered the chance to fire some questions in the direction of brand director Alexandre Remy, who had plenty to tell us about the state of the game, and the changes being made to ensure it remains fighting fit for the foreseeable future.
"For the next three months with Operation Health we're going to be putting the health of the game at the highest level of priority, even higher than content and gameplay itself," Remy told us. "The next three months, that will allow us to focus on improvements in matchmaking, servers, connectivity and hit registration, to a level that we couldn't have done if we had to deliver a season at the same time."
Why is it coming now, though? What marks this as the ideal moment to take stock and make refinements? Well, as Remy explained to us, the first weekend of Velvet Shell saw a huge influx of players, to the extent that it had a detrimental effect. "There's a point in the game when the population reaches a certain level it becomes, some of the systems on matchmaking and connectivity is making [...] the connection not as solid as you [would] wish."
Operation Health, then, will help the studio invest in those key areas that need to scale when increased numbers of players want to play.
Remy told us that they are going to focus on three key areas, the most important being online improvements. We're going to see the introduction of one-step matchmaking, they're upgrading to "faster, better servers", and they're going to remove all of the remaining peer-to-peer elements so that "100% of the game will be hosted server side".
The aim is to make "tremendous" improvements to the matchmaking side of the game, and Ubisoft is going to spend the next three months trying to make the player experience "smooth, comfortable, reliable."
Another key pillar is going to be a revision of how they drop new content into the game. The studio is introducing a three-step process, where content will land first on test servers, then PC, before finally making an appearance on console, "adding safety nets, if you will" to ensure that the game remains balanced even as new characters are introduced.
"We're upgrading our game servers, which tick rate goes from 50 to 60. So faster tick rate means much better hit registration. So every shot that you take is obviously more precise in the sense that it registers better, so for any competitive player there's a one-to-one improvement and added value."
Finally, the studio plans to address how they deal with those pesky bugs. Instead of trying to deal with a huge list of them all in one go, the plan now is to do smaller, more frequent updates - "shorter sprints" as Remy called them - where they try to fix five to ten bugs at a time. "Only when we've fixed them, and we know we've not introduced any regressions, then we switch to the second sprint of bug fixing."
Bugs are an unavoidable side-effect of having a game with regular content updates. Keeping things on an even keel is, pardon the pun, a balancing act, and we asked Remy how the team addresses this.
"When it comes to the balance of the operators and the maps, the key aspect we're looking at is data," Remy explained. Stats are the main focus, then, and the studio looks at how the different operators perform across different maps and modes. They also listen and monitor a lot of the feedback that they get, checking Reddit, the game forums, and talking to the pro players. They're looking for red flags, and when something is raised by the community they can then dig into the data and look to see if a certain operator needs to be nerfed or buffed, or whether the concerns raised are actually more a matter of perception, which Remy tells us can often be the case.
Naturally, they want to keep the game healthy, and balance is a big part of keeping the game well populated over an extended period of time. "Longevity is the key aspect for us," Remy said, adding that they want to support the game for five years ("maybe more"), as well as confirming that there's no sequel planned at the moment. Ubisoft are in this for the long-haul, then, especially because as they admit themselves, Siege's impressive tail, with increasing numbers of players signing up for duty, makes it a fairly atypical game within the shooter space.
"Rainbow Six's growth over year one, and what we're starting to see from year two, it's exceptional in that sense. The beginning of year two has seen the biggest number we've ever had, a huge influx of population on every [one] of the platforms. A lot of excitement following the Six Invitational; a lot of people tuning in and playing the game. And with this also came a couple of connectivity issues, and some of the systems that were not working properly, therefore triggering Operation Health that we're launching now."
Finally, we asked what effect Operation Health would have on the esports scene, to which Remy replied that he thinks the impact would be similar across both casual and competitive. "There's no doubt in our mind that health is the number one priority for every player, regardless of whether they are at the top of the competitive chain, or you're just a casual player that plays once a week or even once a month."
"Having a game and an experience within that game where connectivity, matchmaking, and all of this is healthy, solid, reliable, is the core of the experience. So I think pro players will absolutely welcome Operation Health."