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IVG interview: Watch Dogs

As Ubisoft gear up to release their latest open world action game, Watch Dogs, we catch up with nearly the entire team to get a better understanding of the game, its inspirations, its multiplayer component and lots more.

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How was Watch Dogs born? What made you go in for an open world game based on the concept of hacking?

Jonathan Morin, Creative Director: Our primary source of inspiration comes from the real-life intersection of technology and security where our citizens, our government and the infrastructure of our cities are increasingly networked. Now imagine that someone can hack those networks and manipulate both the layers of data buried inside and the real world systems dependent on that data. This is the world of Watch Dogs.

We also had to imagine the kind of morally ambiguous figure that would do such things. Who would use this technology for their own gain, even if it means hurting their fellow citizens? We live in a time where people are more open to anti-hero protagonists. Recent TV shows have brought more shades of grey into our popular culture and we believe it is important to be as relevant in video games. There’s no such thing as a black and white society. Everything is grey around us and we are glad that entertainment in general recognizes this more and more.

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Watch Dogs is more grounded and plausible than science fiction or fantasy. The team draws their inspiration from who they are as individuals and what their society represents. I believe this is why it is so hard to clearly depict what Watch Dogs is exactly.  I feel this large amount of inspiration and the teams’ strong desire to make something relevant is what makes this game so special. We are working really hard to ensure we provide a believable world that supports a very visceral experience.

How will hacking into people’s lives help the lead character? Is it just for fun or will there be gameplay rewards?

Danny Belanger, Lead Game Designer: The player has the ability to hack into the CTOS surveillance system. This is used in the game by the Chicago police to monitor the city’s movement and predict criminal activity. Through the CTOS surveillance system, every security camera is watching for known criminal offenders by using facial and pattern recognition: watching for suspicious bags dropped (much like airport security), intercepting key words in emails, SMS and phone conversations to draw statistical crime patterns. By using this system, the player can find potential criminals that he can choose to pursue, or not.

Does everyone NPC in the game have a different life, name and profile?

Jonathan Morin, Creative Director: The system dynamically creates visual NPC combinations as well as a profiling set of information. These populate the world normally but I literally have no idea of the amount of possibilities because we designed this system to generate dynamism; we never really saw it as a finite amount of possibilities.

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So we can dynamically connect NPC together to create crime scenarios. We have quite a few scenarios but the endless nature of the NPC profiles creates lots of elements that remain open to the player’s interpretation. The way you intervene will affect what will happen after. Foot chases, car chases and gunfights are just a few. These can even get combined in sequence emergently depending on AI choices. Then if you add the NPC’s reactions, the cops and the possible disruption your hacking can cause, the possibilities blow-up in proportion. In the end, there are a huge amount of micro systems that are in constant reaction to your actions and to each other.

How will players be penalised if they go on random killing sprees?

Jonathan Morin, Creative Director: In Watch Dogs, every open world moment needs to be treated seriously. Every action the player takes will have a direct consequence. When you cause chaos, people will be endangered. The media will talk about it. They will influence how the population perceives your actions and it will alter your relationship with the world.

In the game, there will be a Reputation System that will focus on the player’s attitude towards collateral damages. Is he causing a lot of havoc that injures or kills citizens? Is he acting heroically or like a criminal? Each action will have Positive and Negative effects. The player will choose how he wants to play and the game will not judge him. Our Reputation System will focus more on how people in our society tend to forge their opinion and this is yet another fascinating subject in relation with our main theme: “the influence of technology within our society.”

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Since you can hack into anyone’s account, will the protagonist always have access to a ton of money? Can that money be used to upgrade Aiden’s abilities or buy better gear/newer clothes etc?

Dominic Guay, Senior Producer: Players can acquire various rewards from hacking into citizens. We’ve already shown how they might find a lead into an interesting event occurring within the city, or car registration information they can trade for car on demand services or even bank account information they can exploit for profit if they choose to. In game money can be used towards purchasing outfits, weapons, crafting components and apps for Aiden’s phone.

How big a role does combat play in a game like Watch Dogs? Can players use their hacking abilities to get a drop on unsuspecting enemies?

Colin Graham, Art Animation Director: Watch Dogs is a fairly realistic game, and Aiden’s style is that of a street style fighter. Everything he does is to gain an advantage, to take enemies down fast and hard. The fights are brutal and violent, but Aiden is also intelligent and tactical, just the right combination to make him extremely dangerous. We want to have this balance between intelligence and violence, so the player can adapt the way Aiden moves to fit his style of play.

You can play Aiden as a smart tactical guy who uses a stealth approach to get an advantage on his enemies.  For example if Aiden is in a crowd, you can draw your pistol and conceal it behind your back so that people don’t get freaked out and alert your target. Or you can approach in a stealthy way sneaking from cover to cover to get in position on your enemies.

But Aiden is also pretty handy in a fire fight, and players who want to go for the frontal assault will be able to use a wide variety of weapons to gun down enemies as you move from cover to cover.

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Another weapon of choice for Aiden is the telescopic baton he carries in his pocket, which he can use for takedowns. You can sneak up and take down guards silently or surprise an enemy in his face and beat him viciously.

Then, through hacking, Aiden has the tools to manipulate and distract his opponents to gain the upper hand.  Sneaking up on your enemies and hacking things to distract them is a very effective way to get into a superior position. Players have a lot of systemic ingredients to be creative in their approach.

What kind of side quests are we looking at in Watch Dogs? Will they greatly differ from the story based ones?

Dominic Guay, Senior Producer: While the story and the missions unfold in a predefined sequence, the way players will play them and which side activities they will get into will change the way they perceive the experience. It is the player that will live this fascinating tragedy of being a modern vigilante within a realistic context. He will be free to choose how he wants to act in the various situations, the media will talk about it and the simulation will evolve accordingly. As his monitoring skills evolve, the player will get to choose on what he wants to progress. And the way he uses these will be completely up to him. All of it is systemically implemented within the game simulation.

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How does multiplayer work in Watch Dogs?

Jonathan Morin, Creative Director: When your console is connected online you are automatically in a “session”.  There could be millions of these occurring at once. What we are able to do is to dynamically merge and unmerge those sessions seamlessly. Players can free roam normally, going about their game and at some point they can either accept a contract or provoke a monitoring scan so that the next thing they know their objective seamlessly involves another player.

Once the situation is resolved, we are then able to unmerge both players, and they’re able to go about their game to pursue their objectives as they were. The beauty behind this is that we can control the pacing at which this occurs and we can give you tools to also control its flow. It is such a natural online extension of what Watch Dogs is all about in the end. If we say that everything is connected, we have to consider that everyone is connected to…

Since the PC/next gen versions have been shown so far, what will be different in the current-gen versions? Will we see fewer NPCs on streets; fewer objects in the environment, etc?

Dominic Guay, Senior Producer: It’s obviously a challenge to work on a game that spans multiple hardware generations but we are lucky to have a talented technical team, and our new engine, Disrupt, is very scalable. So our vision for Watch Dogs will be present on all platforms.

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Does the Watch Dogs universe have anything in common with the Assassin’s Creed one?

Jonathan Morin, Creative Director: We have heard this comparison from the fans a couple of times; I guess it is normal considering both games come from the same studio. But when you look at it closely, the only real mechanic we share is contextual navigation. And even that is quite different in execution and feel. In the end, we are not really approaching design with a “me too” kind of thinking.

When you make an open world game you always want to provide a pleasing navigation experience to players in every situation. In the case of Watch Dogs, we are in a modern city which offers a very dense and dynamic environment. In order for the player to enjoy his navigation on foot during stressful situations we need to let him climb and slide through the various obstacles and not always go around them. It removes a lot of frustrations and it adds a great layer of gameplay and exploration to the game. Of course having more people who have the experience with those kinds of things helps.

But in the end it is all about what you want to create as an experience. We wanted great foot chases and a better blend of navigation and gun play for Watch Dogs. We wanted to offer a more natural and complete avatar for the open world genre. So our choices were more directed from those needs and not really from Ubisoft’s past projects.

Watch Dogs releases in India November 22, 2013 for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.

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