Rainbow Six Siege is one of the most popular multiplayer shooters ever made, but its development was filled with risks and challenges. This is the story of how Ubisoft overcame them all to create a modern FPS phenomenon.
When it first launched in 2015, Siege suffered from a variety of technical and structural issues that could have doomed it to a heartbreaking defeat. But despite lukewarm critical and player reviews, the development team at Ubisoft Montreal refused to let Siege fade away into obscurity. Over the course of four years, Ubisoft turned a struggling start into a journey to something brilliant.
Rainbow Six Siege is now considered one of the best multiplayer shooters ever created, and this is how it achieved that.
Redesigning a legacy
Siege is the eighth core entry in Ubisoft’s long-running Rainbow Six series. Inspired by Tom Clancy’s best-selling novel, the games have historically centred on tactical single-player campaigns where players take on the role of a military specialist, and command a squad of AI soldiers. That legacy was due to continue in Rainbow 6 Patriots, which would have seen players taking on an anti-Wall Street terrorist cell operating in New York City, but development was plagued by technical issues. With the new PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles on the horizon, the decision was made to cancel Patriots and start afresh on a next-gen game.
Assessing its next move, Ubisoft realised that it was tired of scripted single-player missions. The developer wanted to create the same intensity of a cinematic campaign, but in a multiplayer setting where those moments would be created by players. And so a small team set to work on reinventing the series. Originally called Rainbow Six Unbreakable - a name chosen to reinvigorate the team after Patriots’ demise - the project would eventually become Rainbow Six Siege.
“Personally, I was super happy that we were focusing on the PvP,” says Jean-Baptiste Hallé, lead game designer for Rainbow Six Siege. “I was absolutely convinced this was the future of gaming in general, and of this brand in particular.”
While Rainbow Six games had featured multiplayer modes in the past, they were always accompaniments to the core campaign. But, for Siege, PvP would be centre stage, with just a few single-player training missions as a side-dish.
“We made a very clear choice,” says Hallé. “And I'm pretty convinced to this day that if we had tried to have a big campaign and a bit of multiplayer on the side, we wouldn't be where we are right now.”
The E3 debut
The world was introduced to Ubisoft’s new PvP ambitions at the company’s E3 conference in 2014. Siege’s first public demonstration featured dramatic footage of a what would become the Hostage game mode, in which a squad of attacking soldiers must rescue a civilian from a team of defending terrorists.
“If I remember correctly, the biggest priorities were really to show that this was a multiplayer game,” says Hallé of the demo. “It was very different from what had been done before with the brand.”
The match took place in the most unsuspecting of environments: a suburban family home, now better known as the House map. It featured moody atmospheric lighting, with light beams highlighting dust in the air, and astonishing destruction technology that saw drywalls perforate and splinter with every bullet fired. The footaged wowed many, but not everyone was convinced.
“I watched the trailer and I said ‘That looks shit’,” says Michael Stockley, better known as KiXStAr. He would go on to become one of the most recognisable faces in the world of Rainbow Six Siege esports - first as a player, and later as an official commentator - but in 2014 he was just an skeptical onlooker.
“I looked at it and I thought to myself that there's no way that could be optimized,” he says. “It didn't look at all like gameplay, so I ignored it for a long time.”
“It wasn't fake, the whole thing was made in-engine. It was real."
Like Stockley, many people online refused to believe that the demo was actual gameplay. Since the days of the pre-rendered Killzone 2 E3 demo a decade prior, people had learned to be cautious of overly-impressive footage. But the demo wasn’t faked; while the match had been choreographed in order to tell a gameplay ‘narrative’, it was all created in-engine.
“I remember us playing this build and preparing the video,” recalls Hallé. “It wasn't fake, because the whole thing was made in-engine. It was real, just not something that you could easily give to someone, because something would probably have been broken somewhere.”
Following the mixed reaction to the E3 demo, the team at Ubisoft Montreal set to work on refining their idea for a highly competitive Rainbow Six. As development went on, it became clear that the atmospheric lighting and destruction of the E3 demo was fantastic for a cinematic single-player experience, but detrimental to a multiplayer environment. As such, the lighting was adjusted to allow for clearer vision, and the destruction changed to create larger holes and better sightlines.
Creating the Operators
The biggest evolution, though, came in the form of who players control in Siege. The original plan was to utilise a class-based character structure akin to games like Battlefield, but other inspirations soon crept in: “Our creative director, Xavier Marquis, was a very big fan of Dota.” reveals Hallé.
Dota is a 5v5 game in which players take on the role of fantastical warriors and creatures, each with unique skills that compliment and contrast with other heroes. This setup had Marquis thinking: rather than players taking on the role of a generic soldier as you did in previous Rainbow Six multiplayer modes, why not choose from a selection of unique characters that each offer a bespoke tool for the team to make use of?
This idea evolved into Siege’s most recognisable element: the Operators. This collection of soldiers would allow for varied gameplay approaches. Thermite, for instance, would be able to blow up walls to gain entry into new areas, while Fuze could fire grenades through a wall into the adjacent room. These characters would transform Siege into the latest FPS sub-genre: the hero shooter.
Unlike class-based games, the Operators wouldn’t just be blank faces. They’d be men and women from around the globe, with backstories and personalities. Thatcher hates bureaucracy and lives on a boat called the Iron Maggie, while IQ is an introvert with hobbies ranging from rock climbing to writing science-fiction.
“We would never ever want to have people build their own terrorists.”
“Even for the most gameplay driven person who's really into shooting and competition, I think we all need stories,” says Hallé. “If you really want to get into a universe like this one, I really feel like getting a sense of who these characters are, how they interact with each other, and what makes them human is super important.”
While designing the operators, Ubisoft quickly came to a realisation. Traditionally, Rainbow Six had focused on the battle between special forces and terrorist cells. Continuing that lineage would mean creating terrorist operators, and the team was uncomfortable with that.
“We would never, ever want to have people build their own terrorists,” says Hallé. “This whole thing felt super wrong right off the bat. I think we were still inheriting from a tradition coming from Counter-Strike and other tactical shooters that have the typical opposition between the counter-terrorists and terrorists. But the more time has passed, the more we're trying to move out of this and trying to just get rid of terrorists as much as we can.”
The terrorists from the original E3 demo were removed from the PvP modes, relegated to being the antagonists of Siege’s lesser-played PvE Terrorist Hunt mode. And with that, Siege became a game of Rainbow vs Rainbow. This setup later provided a point of mild confusion for some players; why would Rainbow be fighting its own soldiers? Ubisoft would eventually fold this idea into Siege’s fiction in 2020 with the Tournament of Champions; a training exercise pitting the world’s most elite soldiers against each other, focusing on attack and defence tactics.
A long-standing goal of the Siege team has been to hit 100 playable Operators, but designer Jean-Baptiste Hallé explains that the goal is more abstract than the number may suggest.“The number itself doesn't matter that much, right?” he says. “It's a symbol. We know that we want to bring a lot more Operators because we believe in the value of having lots of Operators in the game.”The 100 Operators idea, then, is more of an aim for continual growth, evolution, and increased options, rather than a concrete objective. The team also considers that goal to involve more than just new characters. “There are also other very important things we want to bring into game that are not included in the symbol, that will matter at least as much, if not more,” he says.
With the initial operators designed and the hero shooter template locked in, it was time for Ubisoft to see what real players thought of the game. The team felt good about what they had designed, but the first round of feedback didn’t paint quite the picture that they had hoped. Fans playing the alpha began to report issues to Ubisoft. And it wasn’t just one or two problems.
“There were so, so many,” recalls Hallé of the reported bugs. “We had tons of issues. The one that was drowning us at that time was definitely matchmaking. It was so bad that it would likely kill the game at release. So that was taking most of our bandwidth.”
Players were finding that it took a lengthy amount of time for matchmaking to connect them with other players and start a game, and sometimes the connection would drop all together. Those who were able to play often found that bullets that hit an Operator’s equipment, like bags and pouches, could cause damage, leading to unfair kills.
But beyond the technical issues, players were finding problems with the fundamentals of Siege; the Operators and the pace of the game. “When we started playing Rainbow ourselves, we had this whole idea of something that was relatively slow, where you would plan a lot of things in advance,” says Hallé. “But we realised pretty quickly [into alpha testing] that we were not a slow shooter at all. We were actually faster than Counter-Strike. We had to adapt to that.”
“We had tons of issues. Matchmaking was so bad that it would likely kill the game at release."
One of the issues caused by the newfound speed was that certain Operators had to be utilized entirely differently to how they had been envisaged. “Doc was designed to be a healer, but we would end up discovering that healing in a game like Rainbow is very different from a game that has a lower lethality,” explains Hallé. “It's not Overwatch, it's not Team Fortress. The whole notion of supporting and healing in Rainbow is difficult and different, so he wasn't used at all like a healer and probably still isn’t.”
Before the beta, the designer of Tachanka - an Operator with a deployable machine gun turret - was convinced he would be overpowered and in desperate need of a nerf. Anyone who’s played Siege though will know that Tachanka is considered the worst character in the game. These issues, notes Hallé, are due to the original 21 Operators being designed and produced in barely half a year. These days, a team will spend an entire year on just two Operators to ensure they’re as near to perfect as they can be.
The alpha and subsequent beta continued to surface technical and balance problems, and the team battled to fix these in the run up to Siege’s December 2015 launch. But when release day came, the game still suffered from dozens of issues. Matchmaking was still a mess, hit detection remained inaccurate, and the slow servers powering the entire thing made the experience feel unresponsive. The risk that Ubisoft had taken - to turn Rainbow Six into a competitive online hero shooter - was setting up to be a disaster.
Rainbow Six Siege - Operation Shifting Tides screenshots
Yet despite all these problems, it seemed that all hope was not lost. “When I looked at the [player] retention during the first Christmas holidays, I was very, very happy with the curves that I was looking at,” recounts Hallé. “Those were not Ubisoft games kind of curves.”
“But at the same time, the sentiments that were being expressed on Reddit were very contrasted,” he adds. “We saw that the core of the game was very strong, but we had so many so many parallel issues that were hindering the core experience. For a while, it felt like maybe we would just not be able to fix things in time.”
Hallé knew that convincing the higher-ups at Ubisoft to continue to finance the game would require player numbers to stay steady. Thankfully - and against all odds - players were still logging on as 2016 progressed. “At the end of year one, we were starting to feel much better because the data was starting to look good,” explains Hallé. “We'd plateaued, and we were even seeing [player numbers] increase again.”
“I don't know exactly how much money we were making at that time,” he continues. “But at least we had won some breathing time. We knew that we would have more time to try and fix the game.”
That extra time had to be used wisely. Player goodwill would only get Siege so far, and it was obvious that the issues plaguing the game had to be fixed quickly. So in 2017, the team decided to take a bold but necessary step: they put all DLC plans on hold, and dedicated all their resources to fixing the long-standing problems. They called this Operation Health.
This major mission to fix Siege would take three months to complete, from May to July 2017. By replacing an entire season, it created a DLC drought between the release of Operation Velvet Shell in February, and the launch of Ying, Lesion, and Ela in August. There were no new operators and no new maps for nearly six months. Despite the plan’s honorable intentions, this was a big risk.
“Doing Operation Health requires confidence because you're asking HQ to have a full season during which revenues are probably going to be lower,” says Hallé. “You're asking players to trust you, because you're telling them ‘Hey, this content that I was promising you, it's better for the game, and even for you, if I don't give it to you right now.’ That is a very hard message to send.”
But the sacrifices made were worth it. Operation Health brought major and vital improvements. Matchmaking was streamlined, allowing players to join games without issue. Operator hit boxes were redrawn to help ensure shots landed when they should do. Faster servers resulted in better tick rates, making for a more responsive experience. A new contingency system was implemented that meant if there were big problems, the game could be quickly rolled back to a stable version. Yet despite these huge, game changing improvements, some Siege players were upset with Ubisoft’s actions.
“Operation Health, for many casual players, I would say was the worst operation Siege ever had,” states Stockley. “I think in the grand scheme, it was the very best operation that Siege ever had, but I think it was received negatively by many of the community because people thought it would fix everything. But I don't think that was the intention. The intention to me seemed to be that they were trying to set up the architecture to fix everything. And if you even look right after Operation Health, that's where things started to get much better.”
“If it weren't for Operation Health, I think we might not be where we are right now, and that is continuously growing,” he summarises.
Operation Health had saved Rainbow Six Siege, at least for the moment. But in the background, something that would prove to be one of the game’s most vital saving graces had been gearing up and slowing growing. Professional Siege esports was taking hold.
With its 5v5 foundations being similar to Counter-Strike, it seems like esports was always part of Siege’s destiny. The Pro League, an official Rainbow Six esports tournament, was announced just weeks after the game launched and began in 2016. But the road to professional play started years before the Pro League held its first match.
“I can remember a PowerPoint presentation [brand director Alexander Remy] made at the very beginning of 2013,” recalls Hallé. “It was there: you had the big stadiums, the crowd, the [esports] fantasy was there for sure.”
With Siege, the team wanted something more than what Rainbow Six had been in the past. Esports was the key to that. And Ubisoft succeeded in its ambitions; Siege did become more than just another Rainbow Six game. People were drawn into its esports scene and loved it, despite fierce competition from long-established titans like Counter-Strike.
Stockley believes that the game’s notable differences from other shooters have helped it along. “I think it's distinctly unique,” he says. “A lot of people say this or that game is going to be the Siege killer, whether it be in esports or just in general. But I think Rainbow Six has a very unique formula that's going to be really hard to shush up long term.”
“But what it adds to esports I'd say is a dedicated fan base,” he adds. “Like a truly, really dedicated fan base that can appreciate its little nuances.”
By 2018, Rainbow Six Siege was a phenomenon. It was one of the ten most-played games on Steam, and had huge followings on PlayStation and Xbox. The Pro League saw bigger crowds, filled ever-larger stadiums, and awarded even more prize money. That success continued into 2019, with new operators and maps released, and the game’s Ranked matchmaking mode improved. Further refinements were also made to the Pro League, making Siege a better sport for both players and spectators.
All of this success has only encouraged Ubisoft to make Siege even better. In 2020 - the game’s fifth year - the team has plans for a variety of improvements and changes. Thankfully, the hills to be climbed now are nowhere near as daunting as the mountains from those early days.
“I can go into the nuances of Siege balance and what I think needs to be changed, but it's all so small when you compare it to what needed to be changed,” says Stockley. “The sweeping improvements that we've had to Siege are just... you wouldn't have expected it to happen!”
But what are the little things that Ubisoft needs to change? Hallé is coy about what’s coming, but promises change. “We're working on many things,” he says. “I know lots of them will work, some of them might not. I can't really say what the game will look like in five years. But I'm quite confident that it will still be very big and healthy, probably even bigger than what it is right now.”
Today, things look better than ever for Siege. The game has been a monumental success, and the risk of changing the very fundamentals of Rainbow Six has paid off. Its popularity has even led to the development of Rainbow Six Quarantine, a co-operative spin-off featuring the now-iconic Operators. But as Siege continues to grow, evolve, and reach new players, does that place increased pressure on the people who made this FPS phenomenon a reality?
“It hasn't changed that much,” says Hallé with a smile. “I think the pressure what we put on ourselves, because we have so many people playing the game that when we do something wrong we're going to know about it pretty fast.”
Ubisoft risked a crushing defeat with Rainbow Six Siege. Abandoning the series’ traditional campaign foundations for the lure of PvP led to technical problems that proved near disastrous. But the passion of Rainbow Six’s newfound community provided the development team with the time and the drive required to turnaround the game’s fate. It was a hard fought victory, but saving Siege was a mission worth seeing through.