Although we sadly didn’t get a chance to sit down and play Watch Dogs at EGX, we were able to sit down with Jonathan Morin, Creative Director of Ubisoft’s upcoming new IP Watch Dogs, and try and get some of the burning questions we have answered.
What drives Aiden to do what he is doing and how do others view his actions? How exactly is the multiplayer going to work? Read on for these answers and more.
TSA: So, let’s start from the beginning; where did that original idea at the heart of Watch Dogs come from?
Jonathan Morin: I think I could summarise it by saying that we wanted to explore the impact of technology on society from a contemporary standpoint. We didn’t want to go too far sci-fi or anything, I think there’s something going on here – our relationships with phones and everything is only the beginning. So when you start a new IP, and you know it’s going to be a long journey, you really want to make sure that everyone working on it is passionate about what you’re jumping into.
What happens is you talk about things, and we realised that there was always one moment where we talked about Facebook conspiracy and stuff like that, so we started to dig deeper and it became the central concept of the game; hacking arrived very rapidly once we decided that and it became the obvious gameplay aspect that we could explore.
TSA: Have you found it interesting to see certain elements of the real world almost imitating the game, with the NSA scandal and such?
Jonathan: Yeah, it’s actually helping a lot. What’s weird is that our main reference has always been real life because of the subject matter, so you wouldn’t believe the amount of times we saw something on the news that we brainstormed two weeks before it happened. It was a bit scary!
I think it’s right, and I’ve said to a bunch of people that I think it’s healthy that people talk about it, because that’s exactly how society works. If we start having debates about it then it’s going to balance itself out and be just fine.
TSA: How did you go about creating this new universe and setting for a new IP to coincide with the next generation of consoles? Did you draw from experience with Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry’s gameplay structure?
Jonathan: We started with the fantasy, exploring a lot of the possibilities and getting the ideas such as profiling people around you, actually doing invasion of privacy in the missions and those sort of things. Then once you know the kind of experience you want, you need to build the structure of the world in the service of that, which means that by definition you cannot start by emulating something else, as that would prevent you from pushing something new, or at least that’s how I think about it.
What happens though is when you start putting it together and it starts expressing itself, with you understanding what it’s going to become, then it’s useful to talk to the people who did Assassin’s or Far Cry, and then those guys can help you skip steps by understanding problems better and avoiding them, so that became helpful.
One example of that would be the way we had to map the progression of the character to the progression of the world. You’re a hacker – if you don’t physically connect your stuff together, then it wouldn’t really sell. So from there you can try to find the best way to do it for your game, so that it serves your purpose and doesn’t create the same problem that other games might have had in the past.
TSA: Aiden Pearce is still quite a mystery to many – what is it that drives his vigilante actions in the game?
Jonathan: Aiden isn’t 100 percent a vigilante – like people are used to seeing – at the beginning. The way I was pitching him at the beginning was Batman on one side and Dexter Morgan on the other side, and I was trying to articulate that while Batman is the old-school vigilante – the idealistic version – Dexter is more like the realistic version, and Aiden is in between. Maybe a bit more towards Dexter!
So he’s a pretty sick guy, let’s say it that way. You start the game at a very dramatic moment of his life – he’s basically monitoring his family 24/7 without them knowing, which isn’t really a cool thing when you think about it. But it’s to serve a purpose: he’s overprotective, they’re pushing him back and he doesn’t want to lose the relationships, so he satisfies his needs in a sick way.
When the shit hits the fan – let’s say it that way – the player will pretty much take that obsession and explode it into a district, and then into an entire city to solve his problems. So that’s pretty much the journey. It was important for us – with a new IP – to give a personal journey to the player character. It’s easier to go for something a lot more scattered around and about everything, but that would make it harder for the player to relate to the world of Watch Dogs at first, so as the first game, I think it was the right thing to do.
The rest of the story is really involved with Aiden, so that’s one of the reasons why we’re not saying a lot – we don’t want to spoil it – but we’ll say more about the story just before release, for sure. The other aspect of it is that it’s a drama, it’s a bit bold – some people might say, “there’s not enough happiness,” so we’ve balanced that with the open world, but we wanted to make sure that we could do something that would strike a different chord.
TSA: How have you populated the world with, not just things to do, but people and characters in order to make it feel alive?
Jonathan: That’s one of the big reasons the profiler has been created – it’s a very cool thing to be able to read about everybody, and consistently, and then we have dynamic events that happen which combines with that. So not only can you turn and corner and see a mugging happen, but there’s also dynamic personalities that are mapped to those characters. It creates layers upon layers of interpretations.
When you build an open world like this, you could hand craft everything, which is very limiting in terms of the density you can create afterwards. So we went the other way around, mainly because I’m a big fan of how games can ignite your sense of wonder. That’s something that we’ve been losing a bit – we’re all so good at crafting characters, we’re so good at crafting graphics that we don’t have this little thing where you’re show an 8-bit character and you wonder, “why is this guy badass?” in your head anymore.
Now that we’re so good at that, I think we need to find something else – and that’s so difficult to do – so we want to only really scratch the surface, and let the player fill the gaps as they go, because that’s part of the experience too. The profilier is essentially that, so we can go further into what a living city can be, but then respect the player by not giving them all the answers, which while it’s a bit harder to do, it’s easier to do technically at the same time.
I think it creates something fun for the player to explore instead of always cooking everything 100 percent for them.
TSA: Regarding the gameplay balance – how much is action, how much is stealthy behind-the-scenes stuff? Can you always go on guns blazing if you really want to?
Jonathan: Oh yeah. It really depends on the player, but there are some missions where we’re encouraging variety, so you could end up in a car chase that will finish with something else, but there’s very rarely bits where we’re forcing a specific style of gameplay. It happens sometimes to break the beat, or because the narrative suggests so or else it would feel a bit stupid, but 98 percent of the time you can approach something the way you want using the tools you want – it’s up to you.
TSA: So are you rewarded depending on if you don’t kill, or if you do? Are there different paths you can take?
Jonathan: There is a reputation system in the game that’s solely based on media perception – we wanted to have a little fun with that. So instead of being good or bad, it’s more like, “you did this, they saw you, and now you’re on the news”. Are the news saying the truth or not? All of that is in there, so there’s an ambiguity in the reputation system that’s fun.
I think the best move we did is that at the beginning we had scores – you do something and you were rated bad or positive – and we just got rid of that system. We realised that every time you do that, you cannot win. What’s worse: killing a cop, or shooting him in the knee? I mean, we didn’t want the game saying, “killing is 50 and kneecap is 20” – the kneecapped guy is never going to walk again. Is that worse? Better?
Everyone can agree that this is a bad action, but then you can still do it and it’ll bring more gameplay and more challenges – it’s all going to be natural for the player to interact with.
TSA: Multiplayer is quite an interesting topic – it doesn’t feel as though you’ll be interacting directly with other players and it’s more insidious. Is it literally that you’re playing the game, and someone can come in and mess with you?
Jonathan: Yeah, that can happen. The way we’ve designed it is so that it doesn’t become a type of griefing system. The way it works is that you have a firewall which protects you from that, but if you invade someone’s game – momentarily – which you can at will, then your firewall goes off and now you’re available for invasion. The timer is an hour or two, but that’ll go up and down based on your play style.
So we’re trying really to auto-balance the system based on a player’s behaviour. That way, it’s not really possible to end up with griefing unless you’re really trying to do it, so it creates an interesting loop there. We respect the player and if they don’t like it, there’s always the option to turn it off in the menus.
TSA: Do you lose out by not taking part in the online component?
Jonathan: I definitely think so – we’re trying to be really clear when the game starts that it’s a lot better with it, that it’s part of it! There’s emergence in the system, and there’s also emergence in, “who’s watching who?” which has a really nice feel to it. But, you know, we do need to respect the guy who buys the game and wants to play. If they’re not good at it and don’t like it, it’s very important for us to make sure that they can switch it off.
TSA: Since there’s so many possibilities with what you can do in the game, how have you managed to balance that to prevent player confusion?
Jonathan: The first thing is that we’ve really had to make sure that the new aspects of the gameplay work – we also have gameplay that people understand, such as shooting and driving which is less of a problem, though we’re still focusing on making them very good, and we’ve made sure to have just one scheme with the controls, so you don’t change stuff all the time and it’s not confusing.
Aiming, shooting and driving are simple to understand, but the hacking is also a single button, and it’s contextually implemented. It’s a nightmare to do, but once it’s done then it becomes very natural. It’s like, “Oh I see, X! OK, so that does that,” and slowly but surely we’ve been able to layer that on top of everything.
I think we’ve done a pretty good job with managing that so that the player can slowly get into it, and the good news is that you can do simple hacking right until the end, or if you’re a more hardcore player, you can go very far with the combinations, which creates a very nice balance.
Thanks to Jonathan Morin for talking to us, and peeling back a small layer of Watch Dogs for us.