Rainbow Six Siege is not the Rainbow game you remember. Your memories are all co-ordinated AI team-mates, softly softly infiltrations, and armies of terrorists taken out in the blink of an eye. Siege is Rainbow’s take on the modern day: a swift, explosive, tense multiplayer game with one thing in its sights: competition. From the very day it was born, Rainbow Six Siege has strived to be part of the world of professional eSports.
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Siege is currently one of the best shooters on the market, but its origin story isn’t one that assured success. Cast your mind back to 2011 and you’ll remember Ubisoft’s next big shooter was to be Rainbow 6: Patriots. With a dramatic single-player campaign at the centre of its trailer, we all knew what to expect. Not cancellation, that’s for sure, but that’s exactly what happened.
With Patriots in the bin Rainbow Six was put on ice until Ubisoft decided to bring the series out of hiding in 2012. “We had a mandate from HQ Ubisoft to reboot Rainbow Six,” reveals Rainbow Six Siege’s brand director Alexandre Remy. “It had been on hold for about seven years at the the time. We had a radical change of direction. The team went from 150 people developing the whole game to a team of 25.”
The tiny squad of designers went to work on creating something entirely different to Patriots: Rainbow Six Unbreakable. “That was the codename of the project for two reasons,” explains Remy. “One was because we knew that we wanted to do procedural destruction. The other was the fact that for the 25 people that joined the team at that moment, after years of Rainbow not being an easy development, you had to have a special mindset to go on that project.
“Montreal is a big, huge studio, and it has several big franchises. When someone who is talented has a choice between Far Cry and Assassin's Creed, but he picks Rainbow, that means something. You do need to have a mindset that is unbreakable. It means something for us in terms of recruiting people. We had survivors.”
By January 2013, the Unbreakable team had evolved their procedural destruction idea into a complete design document. It was headed up by a medieval piece of artwork that depicted the siege of a castle.
“The principle was very simple: an attack vs defence game, pretty much what you see on that picture,” says Remy. “We knew we wanted a game that was focussed on PvP, on multiplayer, and we had one key word in mind: competition.”
The team put together a video to pitch Unbreakable to the Ubisoft bosses. A mish-mash montage of eSports pros staring intensely at monitors and footage of paintballers in Rainbow-like situations, it was an effective sample of the kind of game the team really wanted to make. They presented to creative directors in April 2013, who agreed to put this competitive, campaign-less Rainbow Six into production.
Team Unbreakable started work on the core feature ideas that were necessary to create a competitive game. “For us competition means a discipline in technology, in design, in mechanics,” says Remy. “That means building a game that is solid in terms of design and tech, and that's a discipline constraint you have to put yourself through.”
A checklist was soon created: the game needed to be first-person, low latency, responsive, one-shot-one-kill, run at 60fps, and have dedicated servers. The game that would eventually be Siege was taking shape.
“For about five weeks the whole dev team were developing a set of features, and the end goal was an internal tournament,” says Remy. “That was our way and process. The idea is you learn and you fail fast, and you re iterate as fast as possible.”
Quickly the team created a map, characters, and weapons. Completely untextured and little more than filled-in wireframe models, they were the toys used to hold the first of several in-house tournaments to start the iteration and refinement process that led to Siege’s final design: “We did fifteen of those tournaments through the whole conception and pre production stages.”
As the game’s competitive potential began to shine, the team realised they needed a system that would grow and maintain a playerbase. “For our game that was made easy by the Rainbow Six fantasy, about those counter terrorist units that have been around for some time and in several different countries,” explains Remy. “The way that we saw it was a universe that carries a collectible cards type-thing. We’d ship with five: FBI, GIG, SWAT, SAS and GSG9. And then the idea was as we put more content out we’d add more CTUs, new encounters. Each one would have a special ability. We basically make the universe expand.”
Those ‘collectable cards’ (seen as baseball-style cards in the original designs) would eventually become Siege’s operatives: special characters equipped with unique weapons and combat gadgets.
Repeated tournaments confirmed to the team that what they were building was right for competitive play. And soon enough it was December 2015 and the launch of the new era of Tom Clancy. Rainbow Six Siege released to mass critical acclaim, but that was just the start. Popularity and sales was naturally a big aim for the team, but the road to eSport success only begins on launch day.
“It's only five months since we came out, so it's still only the beginning,” says Remy. “We're showing good signs. We had several hundred teams registering both in the US and Europe.”
Those teams, often made up of players coming from the likes of Counter-Strike and Battlefield, have been fighting it out in the Rainbow Six Pro League, the first professional competition for the game, held by eSports super-organisation ESL. With a prize pool of $50,000 and some talented teams, Siege has got off to a solid start towards its eSports aspirations.
And it’s not doing so bad in the homes of gamers, either. “Most games do have a trend where they peak [in player numbers] extremely high within the first weeks, and tend to drop very soon, within four to six weeks,” explains Remy. “Out of the five months we've been out we're showing strong signs of retention. Even though there are new games out, even with fatigue, the player base keeps coming. We’ve got very strong numbers of recurring players, so that's one of the signs that we're looking at for the long term.”
Rainbow Six Siege is one of the top 20 games on YouTube, and while its content count may be far below that of the likes of Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto, that’s still quite an achievement. It shows that there’s staying power, and that’s almost certainly in no small part due to the competitive nature of Siege. It’s a game where you can devise clever new tactics thanks to the operative’s gadgets, and sharing your new finds on YouTube makes a lot of sense.
Quite whether it’s destined to remain on the pro scene in the same was as Counter-Strike remains to be seen. But even if it doesn’t, Siege is something the unbreakable development team should be proud of. It’s no small thing to almost completely reinvent a beloved franchise and make something that is, arguably, better than it’s ever been. Ubisoft took a bold move and it certainly paid off. With any luck, it could be the spark to convince Ubisoft that taking a risk on even their most established IPs is no bad idea.