DOG DAYS

EDGE - - WATCH DOGS -

When Watch Dogs was de­layed, a new con­sole gen­er­a­tion sud­denly felt put on hold. Five months later, Ubisoft ex­plains what went wrong

The eighth gen­er­a­tion de­serves a more dra­matic rea­son for its post­pone­ment than the one that Watch Dogs cre­ative di­rec­tor Jonathan Morin has to of­fer. “I can’t say any­thing like, ‘It was com­pletely bro­ken.’ It’s not even nec­es­sar­ily that some­thing tan­gi­bly wasn’t work­ing. It’s more that when [we crammed] all the fea­tures to­gether, we started re­act­ing to all the is­sues. And there were too many is­sues.” When Watch Dogs was de­layed just a month ahead of its in­tended Novem­ber 19 re­lease last year, it was a game deep into its fi­nal stretch, with ad­ver­tise­ments run­ning in both con­sumer and trade mag­a­zines, and pre­orders taken. It was ar­guably the flag­ship set to launch a gen­er­a­tion – a gen­er­a­tion, some In­ter­net pun­dits would ar­gue, that Ubisoft de­layed along with the game. But if you want a glam­orous or tidy rea­son for Watch Dogs’ de­lay, you’ll come up short. It was never a bad game in need of fresh de­sign or a cat­a­strophic mess in need of de­bug­ging. It was in­stead a web of com­plex sys­tems built to play well to­gether – and they didn’t.

“Some­times when you ar­rive at the end of de­vel­op­ment, there’s this mo­ment where you say, ‘OK, here’s this list of things we could pol­ish and this is the time we have,’” Morin ex­plains. “And some­times you fall into a sit­u­a­tion where you have to use your Plan B in­stead of your Plan A, be­cause you don’t have enough time to solve it prop­erly. I think what hap­pened is that at some time we started to use our Plan B too much, and it wasn’t re­ally con­vey­ing what Watch Dogs was ex­pected to be.”

Some­times, he says, there were so many hack­able points on­screen that iso­lat­ing a sin­gle one was tricky. At oth­ers, NPCs would be­have in ways the team didn’t un­der­stand. Some mis­sions were too hard, and oth­ers too easy. Some sys­tems were poorly ex­plained, while oth­ers

weren’t ex­plained at all. And some sim­ply wouldn’t work to­gether at the same time. “Mi­cro­scopic things,” Morin says. “It wasn’t a sin­gle full fea­ture or any­thing like that, but it was stuff that af­fected be­ing able to ex­press yourself how we’d want, mak­ing sure the re­ac­tions of the AI were work­ing… those sorts of things, so those as­pects would never let down the fan­tasy. There are a lot of emer­gent sit­u­a­tions go­ing on, so even if [a prob­lem] wasn’t hap­pen­ing a lot, it was hap­pen­ing.”

Ubisoft Mon­treal’s ex­pe­ri­ence with open­world sys­temic games goes back to the first As­sas­sin’s Creed, of course, but Watch Dogs is on an al­to­gether larger scale. There are sys­tems gov­ern­ing traf­fic flow, moral­ity, the way wit­nesses re­act, the way po­lice pur­sue, how NPCs treat sus­pi­cious events, and how those same char­ac­ters re­act to car crashes or a drawn gun. There are sys­tems gov­ern­ing the salary, ca­reer

“I THINK WHAT HAP­PENED IS THAT AT SOME TIME WE STARTED TO USE OUR PLAN B TOO MUCH”

and cloth­ing of ev­ery civil­ian in Watch Dogs’ Chicago, and ones gov­ern­ing the way those people be­have when pro­tag­o­nist Ai­den Pearce in­ter­rupts their daily rou­tines. Still more sys­tems ad­dress how Pearce’s be­hav­iour is rep­re­sented in the me­dia af­ter any dis­rup­tion, and en­sure that civil­ians re­act ap­pro­pri­ately based on your fear­some or friendly rep­u­ta­tion. There are sys­tems you can hack. There are sys­tems you can ex­ploit. There are sys­tems gov­ern­ing how the wind blows down spe­cific streets. It is, says Morin, “the most com­plex emer­gent city ever”. When the sys­tems work, Watch Dogs works. The prob­lem came when, with only weeks to go, things that worked so well alone just couldn’t get along to­gether.

“The quick so­lu­tion when two sys­tems don’t talk to each other is to just [break the con­nec­tion] so they’ll never have to,” Morin says. “But if you go down that road, that’s an im­me­di­ate de­cep­tion for cer­tain play­ers. They’re go­ing to want to push at the edges of the sys­tem, be­cause the game screams for them to go there and try that. It was stuff like that; stuff that would be dis­ap­point­ing. It’s mi­cro­scopic de­tails like that I think make the dif­fer­ence be­tween just ship­ping Watch Dogs and ship­ping it right.”

Early last year, Ubisoft de­layed Ray­man Leg­ends to make it a mul­ti­for­mat game, so Michel An­cel’s Mont­pel­lier team found time to make tan­gi­ble changes to the game, adding many boss fights and the Kung Foot minigame. Watch Dogs, though, has gained noth­ing worth print­ing on the back of the box in the months since the dead­line crunch was put on hold. “We ended up go­ing back to Chicago to record some more voices,” story de­signer Kevin Shortt says with some­thing of a ver­bal shrug when asked about new fea­tures in­tro­duced since the de­lay. “It gave us a chance to add more meat to the world, to write more profiles for the civil­ians. It’ll make the world feel a lot more alive.”

“To be hon­est, we just pol­ished the game,” co-art di­rec­tor Mathieu Le­duc says. “Nat­u­rally, with an open-world game, you pol­ish the main path and you kind of… not let go of the side stuff, but over­pol­ish the main path. So this ex­ten­sion al­lowed us to just go back and pol­ish a lit­tle more of the side stuff, the hid­den stuff that’s not on the main path.”

“We didn’t re­ally start shoe­horn­ing fea­tures in one af­ter the other,” Morin says. “It’s tempt­ing to start say­ing, ‘Oh, let’s add this and that, and we so wanted to add this,’ but the re­al­ity is we’d just end up re­peat­ing the same thing over and over again. Our new start­ing point was an al­most-shipped game, so the smart move was to not touch too much. Let’s just know ex­actly what we want to change and deal with it in a very pre­cise way. We al­ready had a huge game. Now the thing was to make sure ev­ery­thing

“UBISOFT HAD THE BALLS TO SAY, ‘LET’S GIVE THOSE GUYS MORE TIME SO THEY CAN POL­ISH EV­ERY­THING’”

con­nected with each other in a nice way. We didn’t re­ally add any­thing huge to the game. We just tweaked ev­ery­thing.”

And Watch Dogs had to work as in­tended, be­cause for many it rep­re­sents a new gen­er­a­tion. On its de­but at E3 2012, it im­me­di­ately be­came the talk of the show, beat­ing Star Wars 1313 by virtue of show­ing some­thing be­yond the usual shoot-cover-re­peat me­chan­ics games have been lean­ing on since 2006. Here was a world that felt ‘next gen’ not just for its looks, but for its me­chan­ics – the way ev­ery char­ac­ter has a name, a story, and a salary that can be stolen from them, no mat­ter how in­con­se­quen­tial they are; the way traf­fic flow is man­aged to en­sure any car crash a player en­gi­neers feels au­then­tic; the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of Pearce’s con­text-sen­si­tive in­ter­ac­tions; the short­age of gun­play and mur­der at an E3 that had been more about ex­plo­sions, head­shots and neck-stab­bing than ever be­fore.

Morin laughs about it to­day, but prior to the show he was asked a ques­tion by those who had seen early ver­sions of the stage demo: “Why so much walk­ing?” Pushed to make it more ex­cit­ing, he al­lowed just one ex­plo­sion at the demo’s end. His in­stincts on that proved right, even if he in no way felt ready for the re­veal.

“They forced us to go at E3 2012,” Morin says. “We didn’t know what the hell those new con­soles would be, so Watch Dogs re­ally has worked on [sev­enth]-gen sys­tems since the start. But we al­ways pushed the ideas, the de­sign, the core of Watch Dogs in such a way that we felt it would fit well with what we thought would be the fu­ture of games. Yves [Guille­mot, Ubisoft CEO] was the one who wanted us to go at that E3, even though we felt it was a bit early, and in the end I think he was right.”

But it wasn’t Guille­mot alone who put Watch Dogs on hold in Oc­to­ber 2013. Pro­ducer Do­minic Guay, Morin, Ubisoft’s Parisian ed­i­to­rial team and “the ex­ecs” were also in­volved in a de­ci­sion that meant vast quan­ti­ties of mar­ket­ing money were wasted hyp­ing a missed launch. The team wanted a lit­tle more time and ex­pected a month or two at most. “What I thought was quite mind-blow­ing was that Yves didn’t just say, ‘Oh, let’s give a month to Watch Dogs to close their things,’” Morin says. “He had enough faith in the team and project to say, ‘Give them more time and we’ll see.’ That, to me, was un­ex­pected.

“The rea­son why it hap­pened so late is be­cause it was hard to mea­sure whether or not we would pull it off at the speed we were go­ing. I can’t just present to Yves like, ‘Hey, let’s push this game back!’ They have to open the door to that kind of thing, be­cause I’m way too busy try­ing to do my job and ship­ping the game. When we an­nounced it to the team, they were… Well, you know, the first day it’s not nec­es­sar­ily good news to ev­ery­body, be­cause they’ve done a lot of crunch and now they re­alise, ‘Je­sus! Why not a month ago? We did so many hours! It’s not like we did that for fun!’ But in the end, it paid off a lot for them as well.”

Watch Dogs’ fi­nal stages had pre­sented an in­sur­mount­able prob­lem, a prob­lem solv­able only by break­ing the very sys­temic prom­ises on which the game had been sold, or by tak­ing more time. “When you’re in a clos­ing phase like that, you don’t have the time to do cer­tain things the way you would want,” Morin says. “Sud­denly, we had ex­tra time on a game that you could play eas­ily with­out crash­ing all of the time. And that was the new start­ing point. We could rein­te­grate or fix cer­tain is­sues with­out the ca­coph­ony of hun­dreds or thou­sands of other bugs be­ing en­tered ev­ery day and break­ing some­thing else. Ev­ery­body started fix­ing fea­tures, but in a very sta­ble man­ner. The level of pro­duc­tiv­ity and ef­fi­ciency in the team was a hun­dred times greater be­cause of it.”

Even in its pre­vi­ous state, Watch Dogs would al­most cer­tainly have made mil­lions as a launch game for PS4 and Xbox One. “The game was good and it scored pretty well in terms of how we felt, but there was still this dis­ap­point­ment,” Morin says. “We had the lux­ury of hav­ing lots of people show in­ter­est in the game, and also the lux­ury of Black Flag com­ing out, and Ubisoft had the balls to say, ‘Let’s just give those guys more time so they can ac­tu­ally pol­ish ev­ery­thing, so we don’t dis­ap­point on any as­pect of it.’”

And so when Watch Dogs ships later this year, it will ship as the team in­tended it. Whether the mis­sions, of which Ubisoft has shown lit­tle, will match the qual­ity of the world in which

they’re set is an­other mat­ter, but the Mon­treal team has con­structed enough con­nected parts in­ter­act­ing in enough dif­fer­ent ways to give play­ers the breath­ing room to make their own fun and tell their own sto­ries in its new sand­box.

So now Watch Dogs’ sys­tems are work­ing, what hap­pens when you pull and aim a gun in the street? “The first thing that should hap­pen,” Morin says, “is people should no­tice you have a gun. If you walk slowly, you’ll con­ceal it at your hip. But if Ai­den aims or runs, people will no­tice. [One per­son] sees the gun and there’s a chance they have the balls to call the cops. But mul­ti­plied by the amount of people around you? There’s a re­ally, re­ally high chance some­one’s go­ing to call the cops. Other people re­act dif­fer­ently and start flee­ing. Ai­den can do all sorts of things. He can break their phone with a melee at­tack or just shoot [the caller] in the head, but if you do that, other people will see you shoot­ing and it’ll cre­ate a rip­ple ef­fect. Now there might be two people call­ing the cops. How do you deal with that? You can kill both, but that’s go­ing to es­ca­late. Or you can hack all their phones at once and shut them down. Just pulling a gun can cre­ate a rip­ple ef­fect in Watch Dogs.”

Morin goes on to ex­plain how the po­lice will ar­rive, how pop­ping the pa­trol car’s tyres might send it col­lid­ing into a tree or into a crowd of civil­ians, and how Pearce might choose to help the in­jured at his own risk or kill the cop and run away to dampen the rip­ple. Later, the me­dia will re­port on the masked man who as­sisted a

“THE ONE THING THAT WAS NON-NE­GO­TIABLE WAS THE EMER­GENT GAME­PLAY, THE SYS­TEMIC AP­PROACH”

wounded po­lice of­fi­cer, or on the cop who was killed by a vig­i­lante who deems him­self above the law. The people of Watch Dogs’ Chicago will learn of your rep­u­ta­tion – whether you’ve been res­o­lutely non-lethal, a ruth­less and clin­i­cal pu­n­isher of crim­i­nals, or an in­dis­crim­i­nate psy­chopath – and will re­act dif­fer­ently the next time you pull your gun in the street. But just pulling the trig­ger, even on your en­e­mies, might be harder than usual. Shortt tells a story about sneak­ing through a hos­tile space filled with en­e­mies who’d like to see Pearce dead. “I was ready to shoot this guy, but I had my Pro­filer on. Just as I got in range, his pro­file popped up and it said ‘New­ly­wed.’ And just in that mo­ment, it gave me a quick pause. Sud­denly, in that mo­ment, that guy looked com­pletely dif­fer­ent. I’m hop­ing it’ll have that ef­fect on play­ers through­out the game.”

This alone is a revo­lu­tion in an un­der­stated way. Watch Dogs might be the first game from a ma­jor stu­dio to cure the face­less­ness of NPCs. These aren’t GTA’s weirdos or As­sas­sin’s Creed’s walk­ing ob­sta­cles. Rather, they’re shop as­sis­tants, church-go­ers, pre­scrip­tion drug ad­dicts, used car sales­men, blog­gers… In one stroke, Watch Dogs is chang­ing the na­ture of in­ter­ac­tiv­ity with the dumb NPCs fill­ing dig­i­tal worlds, for good and for bad. If a player wants to be­come a CEOhunt­ing vig­i­lante, they have all the in­for­ma­tion they need to do so. Play­ers can write their own sto­ries, so you can en­gi­neer in­dus­trial ac­ci­dents and car crashes to dis­tance yourself from mur­der while on your anti-cor­po­rate cru­sade, or just hack your vic­tims’ ac­counts and swap places with the one per­cent. You can stalk a celebrity, punch a traf­fic war­den or even sim­ply make sure that a frail old lady gets home safely.

“I think re­plac­ing that face­less­ness of NPCs is some­thing play­ers are re­ally go­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate,” Shortt says. “Yeah, I think it changes how you play the game. I think that’s what’s go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing as we move for­ward this gen­er­a­tion. This is our first it­er­a­tion of this, and it’ll be in­ter­est­ing to see what more we can do as we go for­ward, and how much more we can pull from that ex­pe­ri­ence for the player.”

The game’s emer­gent side mis­sions sup­port that same level of player-driven nar­ra­tive, too. When your Pro­filer sug­gests a known mug­ger is stalk­ing a vic­tim, it’s up to you how to pre­vent the crime – maybe a non-lethal take­down, a bul­let to the knee, or a bul­let to the head – or whether you pre­vent it at all. What­ever you do, Watch Dogs’ me­dia chan­nels will no­tice, but while they’ll

judge, the game it­self is more im­par­tial. “Hey, if you want to be­come Dex­ter Mor­gan, we shouldn’t cre­ate a world in the game where you’re go­ing to re­ject that feel­ing,” Morin says. “We have a rep­u­ta­tion sys­tem, but we don’t score any­thing. You’ll see a plus, a mi­nus, but you’ll never see the game say ‘This is worth 100, this is 50, this is what­ever.’ We had that at the be­gin­ning and we cut it, be­cause how can we say how much worse it is to kneecap a cop rather than kill him? They’re both bad! So we ended up re­mov­ing the num­bers. We shouldn’t be the ones dic­tat­ing how the player feels about those dilem­mas. That’s up to them.”

Watch Dogs is amoral in a way As­sas­sin’s Creed isn’t. Ezio did not kill civil­ians, af­ter all, but Ai­den Pearce just might. Watch Dogs is more Far Cry 2 than As­sas­sin’s Creed, as should be ex­pected given how many Far Cry 2 vet­er­ans pop­u­late the team. Pro­duc­tion be­gan on Watch Dogs in Novem­ber 2008, in­her­it­ing dozens of mem­bers of the Far Cry team, not least Shortt, writer on that project, and Morin, its level de­sign di­rec­tor. “With­out Far Cry 2, there would be no Watch Dogs,” Morin says. “The one thing that was non-ne­go­tiable was the emer­gent game­play, the sys­temic ap­proach; that’s part of my soul, so that’s where we went.

“But we learned a lot [from Far Cry 2]. When the player can ex­press them­selves the way they want, it doesn’t mean they in­stinc­tively do it. I think that’s the big­gest weak­ness of Far Cry 2.

The way I play that game is the way only a few people play that game… Not ev­ery player will em­brace all the pos­si­bil­i­ties. That’s some­thing we can ad­dress in Watch Dogs with the ex­tra time.”

And what of the de­spised sys­tem gov­ern­ing Far Cry 2’ s end­lessly respawn­ing check­points? “That was ac­tu­ally the sort of thing we would’ve been able to fix in Far Cry 2 if we had the same ex­ten­sion,” Morin laughs.

“Sys­temic games are hard,” he says. “If you end up in the sit­u­a­tion where there’s an ex­ploit – one sin­gle ex­ploit – and the player finds it, then they won’t ex­press them­selves ever again. I know if there’s an ex­ploit, I’ll use it ev­ery time, and I’ll call all the mis­sions repet­i­tive and bor­ing. So I think that bal­ance is some­thing we took a lot of care with. We al­ways make sure the player can ex­press them­selves the way they want, but some­times events evolve in a cer­tain di­rec­tion where you need to adapt to things [to make it] more likely they will be­come in­ter­ested in com­bin­ing the sys­tems. I wouldn’t say, ‘Here, I want you to use this gun, be­cause

you haven’t and it’s re­ally cool.’ I don’t like that. But say you al­ways play stealth, we’ll find a mo­ment to desta­bilise you, to make you try to ex­plore hack­ing or shoot­ing in­stead of go­ing for your com­fort zone all the time. That’s a very im­por­tant nuance and it does pay off quite a lot. To have ev­ery player find the va­ri­ety for them­selves – that’s hard.”

It may be tough to make a game like this, but Morin is prag­matic about it. The story he tells of past five months is sim­i­larly short on drama. There was no last-minute man­date from above, no sud­den re­place­ment of the key staff, no panic, no changes in di­rec­tion, only a de­ci­sion to make Watch Dogs with­out com­pro­mise and to make ev­ery so­lu­tion to ev­ery prob­lem the stu­dio’s Plan A. In the end, the game’s new­est fea­ture is one play­ers will never con­sciously no­tice.

“Con­sis­tency,” Morin says. “Con­sis­tency is the right word. When ev­ery­thing started to con­nect to each other, we started to feel the lim­i­ta­tions of cer­tain re­ac­tions. When you have so many an­i­ma­tions, so many au­dio bars to do, so much text to write… the amount of con­tent is so out­stand­ing that when you start to play the game, some­times you hit some­thing you’ve never seen be­fore and it’s not right, so you need more time. A game like this doesn’t start by [us] say­ing, ‘Hey, let’s make the big­gest, most com­pli­cated emer­gent city ever.’ You’re go­ing to re­ceive a big ‘no’ as an an­swer. But if you have the right people, who are ag­ile enough and who know how to use their tech re­ally well… then you can start ex­e­cut­ing ideas. You build mo­men­tum and you get cool re­sults, and that’s how Watch Dogs slowly be­came Watch Dogs.

“I would love for Watch Dogs to open more play­ers’ eyes to the idea of test­ing a game and ex­press­ing them­selves within it, in­stead of fol­low­ing the ride. I don’t have any­thing against games that just ask you fol­low a pre­de­fined ride, but I would love for more play­ers to de­velop a taste [for sys­temic games]. I feel like games are dumbed down be­cause we want to make money, and some­times we un­der­es­ti­mate what play­ers can do. I hope Watch Dogs can show ev­ery­one that it’s pos­si­ble to do on­line games

“I KNOW IF THERE’S AN EX­PLOIT, I’LL USE IT EV­ERY TIME, AND I’LL CALL THE MIS­SIONS REPET­I­TIVE”

with­out be­ing in­tim­i­dated by a lobby, that it’s pos­si­ble to see an­other player with­out be­ing scared it’s go­ing to be a 12-year-old shout­ing a bunch of in­sults, and that it’s pos­si­ble to make a game where you can test the sys­tems and push at the edges with­out feel­ing like you’re work­ing. I hope it can do all that, and if it could be a game that helps play­ers have a big­ger con­ver­sa­tion about our re­la­tion­ship with tech­nol­ogy, that would be awe­some too.”

Ubisoft is work­ing hard to make cars crash like cars should, and uses a num­ber of tricks to en­sure a hacked traf­fic light at a busy in­ter­sec­tion leads to chaos. Those tricks will dif­fer depend­ing on con­sole; traf­fic den­sity is greater on PS4 and Xbox One than on older ma­chines, but the game will al­ways spawn enough traf­fic to pro­duce a con­vinc­ing ac­ci­dent

Non­player char­ac­ters will re­act to Pearce’s ap­pear­ance on the news if he’s sighted dur­ing or af­ter a broad­cast

Ac­tivist group DEDSEC op­poses Blume, the cor­po­ra­tion be­hind Chicago’s Cen­tral Op­er­at­ing Sys­tem (CtOS), be­liev­ing it to be abus­ing its ac­cess to the pop­u­la­tion’s data. While you’ll of­ten take the hack­ers’ side, Pearce can go where DEDSEC can’t

When Pearce ac­cesses commercial sys­tems, he’ll use a pol­ished, commercial OS. But when “it be­comes a lit­tle more un­der­ground,” says art di­rec­tor Mathieu Le­duc, “we switch to the more ASCII, home­brewed UI, and it’s pretty raw and cool. It’s present in the menus, it’s present in the me­dia broad­casts by DEDSEC and their art, and it’s present in the com­put­ers. It’s all through the game.”

Pearce’s mask em­blem (above) rep­re­sents a bro­ken pulse, sym­bol­is­ing his po­si­tion as an agent of change in a con­nected city. His sec­ond em­blem, an ab­stracted fox, ap­pears through­out the game, but its sig­nif­i­cance hasn’t yet been re­vealed

The ex­ag­ger­ated re­al­ity of Chris Nolan’s Bat­man movies is an in­flu­ence on Watch­Dogs’ art di­rec­tion

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