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: Ladies and gents, welcome back to AusGamers, once again coming to you from the Gamescom show floor. I’ve got a special guest with me today: I’ve got Dominic, who is the Senior Producer on Watch_Dogs -- probably one of the most talked about new IPs in a very, very long time.
Ubisoft is no stranger to new IPs and making them really successful -- obviously Assassin’s Creed won awards for being a brand new IP. Can you talk about, for us Dominic, what is involved for you guys, in terms of bringing something so brand new and revolutionary to the games space?
: Yeah, it was a long time in the making, and we knew from the get-go. As you said, it’s not the first new IP that’s come out of the Montreal studio. We started in 2009, and we knew it would take about four or five years to get the game out. There’s three core recipes to the new IPs we’ve worked on: one is time, two is new tech -- good tech -- and three is talent; a talented team. So we had the talented team, we had the time, we built the tech, and now Watch_Dogs is here. We’re about two months from being there now.
: Is it frustrating having such a long lead time for something, when technology changes so quickly every year? Was that problematic for you guys at all?
: Well, we had to kind of anticipate, in advance, where things would be landing, which is a risk element. There was no next-gen hardware back in 2009, even on anyone’s radar, except if you’ve been in this industry for awhile, you know every seven, eight, nine years, you get a new cycle. So we kind of guestimated what that would be, and we built the PC rig that we thought was close to what could be next-gen platforms. So when Sony and Microsoft announced, we were really happy that it was close to what we had aimed for.
So we built the new tech. We maintained good support for the PlayStation 3 and 360, but we pushed for that new platform years ago. So when we made the jump to PS4 and Xbox One, it was kind of an easy jump for us. We already had the data for it; we already had the tech for it. So that’s why we’re here at launch with an open-world game.
: The engine, which is a new engine as well: did you scale that specifically to be able to work on current-gen, and then jump to next-gen? Or did you build for next-gen and just work your way back?
: We took engine parts that were already working here on current-gen, and we kind of built the new engine for next-gen, but using those parts, we maintained the support as we went along. I guess the trickier question for us was less about the tech, than the content we were going to build. Were we going to build content that would target next-gen? And that’s how we wanted to think.
So basically, we told our designers “don’t deal with technical constraints, just go crazy; go nuts”, and we told our engineers “make sure it works” [laughs]. Which was a risk, but we managed that. So we built the city with ideas that were for next-gen, and we worked really hard to make sure that it was always going to work on PlayStation 3 and 360.
: Now you’re talking about 2009 being sort of the genesis year for the concept, but things like companion apps are sort of new ground for everybody -- maybe in, like, the last year and a half or so, in terms of even just the thought process. Did you guys always have it in mind that tablets and phones would be able to connect to this? Because ultimately, it’s what the game is about anyway, right?
: Exactly. The abstraction for us is pretty much one-to-one. So we were researching those concepts, because connectivity is at the core of our concept. Back in 2009, I think the iPhone 2 was maybe out, and no iPad, so just to give ourselves some perspective. But we knew that we wanted to bring that into the real world, from our concept into the real world.
So maybe that got us thinking about that a little earlier than some other teams, but still, it was a lot of tech R&D for us, because we didn’t want an experience on the mobiles that would be just about watching stats. I mean, that’s fine, but that’s not really what we wanted to do. We wanted to have actual gameplay to connect gamers with the consoles and the PC.
So there was a lot of tech involved in getting that working with every platform. Basically, if you’re on the train, you can be playing with a guy on a PlayStation 4 if you want. But there was most importantly, game design to be doing; iteration. How do you balance that? How do you keep fair competition between a guy who’s playing on an iPad and a guy who’s playing directly on his PlayStation 3? So there was a lot of iteration, and I’m happy that we now finally have something that actually works, that’s fun; that we can ship in a couple of months.
: Ok. Well let’s talk about the game proper. Obviously hacking is your weapon. It’s been said by a bunch of people that don’t necessarily believe this is going to be an amazing IP -- I know a few people that think all it is “press square to hack”. Can you talk about the actual depth of hacking, and I guess, how players can expect to engage that?
: Yeah, I’ve actually read on forums “Oh, it’s easy-mode. You just press a button and it hacks”. I think it’s interesting, I remember reading the same things when the first games were made, platforming was less about timing a jump, but more about defining your path in the environment. Now, we take that for granted, but at the time it was like: if there’s no jump timing, then what is left? It’s kind of the same logic.
We’ve had a lot of games where hacking is about a mini-game or stuff like that. In our game, hacking is direct. You see a button -- we’ve dedicated a button to it -- it’s aim and… so you need to aim, and you can hack; you just press a button. But then, how you use the hacking: that’s where the challenge lies.
We’ve shown you in the past, how you can hack a traffic light to cause an accident, and that’s automatic. If you go in the industrial district in the middle of the night, and you hack a traffic light, then there’s no traffic and nothing is going to happen. So you need to make smart plans. If you want to use that tool, do it in the middle of the day, in the middle of town. So it’s about being smart with those tools, and improvising on-the-fly, and mixing it up a lot. Granted, it’s an action game. So mixing it up with driving, and shooting and stealth, depending on how you want to play.
: How forgiving is your game, versus other games, where ultimately, in an open-world, you can jump in a car and essentially just run people over, go crazy, do whatever you want, and the game resets? For you guys, obviously, you’ve got the hacking tool, which is that: you’re relying on someone to think about the city, and how the city actually functions and works. For example, the traffic lights.
Do you reward the player for playing within the city rules? Like, if you’re driving properly, stopping at traffic lights? How do you feed that to the player?
: It’s a fine balance. Because it’s cool to be immersed in a world where the rules make sense, but at the same time, it’s a game, and you kind of want to transgress those rules and have fun. When cars drive at 200km/h you don’t want to just be stuck in traffic all day, so it’s a fine balance.
What we did is: we have a city that reacts relatively realistically to how you are behaving. So for example, if you get your gun out in the middle of the street, people will spot you and will call the cops. The same thing if you start driving on the sidewalks and injure people, they’ll call the cops on you. So that’s kind of the basic loop, where if you do criminal things, you’re going to get heat on yourself.
But then, we’re giving a lot of tools to the player to deal with that, and more than has probably been done in the past, because of the hacking that the player can do. So you can stop the guy from calling the cops -- that’s the first thing -- you can hack into his phone, and do various things to stop him; you can be physical if you want. Then if he does call the cops, the first thing the cops do is they try to locate you -- they try to confirm that there is a real threat within the city -- so they use the surveillance systems. That’s another thing you can hack into, or you can try to avoid very physically.
Then finally, if they do spot you, then they bring in the cops. Now it’s more of a traditional chase, where you can try to flee from those cops. You can use the city against them, but then that will just increase the heat on you, so that might not be the best idea. One thing we did want to do was to allow you to be stealthy or sneaky in the way you lose those cops. So if you lose their line of sight, then you can hide from them if you want, in the environment.
This is probably the best part of the game for me, because that’s where you improvise a lot as a player, and you don’t really know what’s going to happen eventually.
: Like hiding in a car, for example.
: Yeah exactly, or you end up in… because the city is very open, so you flee the cops, and end up in someone’s back yard, then you hide in their garage, and then there’s a lot of tension coming out of those moments, and it’s kind of like you’re playing cat and mouse. I like playing that way. Other guys want to try driving really, really fast and get away from the cops, and I think it’s really cool to support those kinds of differences.
: Now Ubisoft’s no stranger to open-world games. Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry 3 for example, are open-world games. But your open-world game is more in line with something like GTA. Can you talk about the sort of lessons learnt from the aforementioned Ubisoft games, and what you took to Watch_Dogs? Because there have been a bunch of other open-world games: I’ll happily call out the first InFamous, and I’ll happily call out Prototype, those sort of games, where the peds are kind of just walking there, then just turning and walking back -- there’s no real life to it. But you guys have kind of hit that sweet-spot that’s similar to Rockstar, in that everybody feels like they’ve actually got a function in the world.
Can you talk about how you approached the AI, and how you approach the systemic movement, and timing, and programming of those guys?
: Yeah, it’s a real challenge to build… we call it a living city, but people; what they’re doing in that city. It’s a real challenge. We looked at all the competitors, including the other games made at Ubisoft. So we look at Assassin’s and what they were doing with crowds, it’s their main strength, the density of the population. And we definitely looked at some of the Rockstar games, and the kind of character they were able to create, and we think that’s really cool too, so we try to push all those notes.
Now, what we tried to push specifically on, is their reactivity: how they will deal with you in the city; how they will interact with other systems, basically. Because it links up to hacking. If you’re able to hack the systems, and the civilians react to those systems, then we create richer scenarios, naturally out of hooking up those systems.
But I guess the thing we pushed most aggressively on -- if you’re thinking specifically of the living city -- is the amount of raw data that we captured. It’s just nuts. We spent weeks upon weeks in the mo-cap studio, capturing all the scenarios we could find. The guys were becoming a little crazy, they were scouting in Chicago, and snapping pictures of different stuff going on in the street, to recreate those scenarios.
And we realised that when you create a crowd, people walking is not what captures your eye, it’s the special things happening. It’s the guy washing his window; it’s the woman buying from the vending machine, and then opening up her can and getting splashed by the coke -- because you know, that always happens [laughs]. It’s those little stories that emerge from our city that you need to have, if you want to be a credible open-world game.
What’s tricky about a modern one, is that we all live in a modern world, so we know we have reference points; we compare it. So it’s a little trickier than Far Cry -- I don’t live in a jungle, so it’s hard to compare what it would be in a jungle. So I think the bar is pretty high. I don’t think we did everything perfectly -- there’s definitely room for improvement in the future -- but it was a really good first run, I think.
: Ok, I’ve got time for one more. This one bugged me from E3. Obviously, Aiden’s a vigilante, and he’s got this kind of look that you guys have given him, this slick coat, his hat, but surely he’s plastered everywhere. How do you actually get away with being Aiden, in the city that is the most CCTV’d city in the world? You’ve almost kind of created a conundrum for yourselves.
: You did touch on something there. There’s a couple of things that we do. First, you do get a reputation. People do, at some point, start knowing who Aiden Pearce is. Media do report on him, and you see it yourself on TV, and when you hack into people’s conversations and they talk about this crazy guy in the city.
One thing we didn’t want to do -- and we made a choice at some point -- is to have you with a disguise mechanic, always changing your look and having to be incognito, and the reason is what we talked a bit about before. I’m in an open-world, I want the freedom to conduct my own affairs. If I want to go out and do social things for a while, or do boat sailing, I want to be able to do it and not be snitched on every two seconds, otherwise it’s just not going to be fun. So we made that choice.
However, we do realise that there’s a form of abstraction that we’re doing there. That’s why we make it that everytime he gets his gun out, he puts his mask on. Obviously, it’s an iconic element -- it’s a symbol -- but it’s kind of a symbol to say “I know you’re watching”, “I know I’m being watched, and I’m going to fight against it”.
There’s people on the team that say “Yeah, but that’s because he always hacks the CCTVs everywhere he goes, and he removes his face”, you know. There’s rationales built around it within the team, but that’s kind of the element, I think it’s more of a symbol to say that he knows, and he manages it.
: I think in future, the quicker answer would be: “He’s Batman”.
: [laughs] I’ll let you say that.
: Thank you so much Aiden, I really appreciate it…. heh Aiden, I can’t believe that… Dominic, sorry. Anyway, Watch_Dogs! It’s coming out really soon! [laughs] Thank you.