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Who's Watching Who? Watch Dogs Interview with Ubisoft's Eric Baillargeon
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 11:46am 17/07/13 | Comments
We chat with Ubisoft Montreal's Eric Baillargeon who serves as Lead AI and Gameplay Programmer on Watch Dogs. Read on for what he had to say about their ambitious and gorgeous open-world undertaking...

AusGamers: So yesterday, I saw Watch Dogs (at E3) and was blown away. I missed out on it last year for some stupid reason -- I can’t remember why now. Can you talk about, initially where the idea stemmed from, and how development came about? Because it’s such a polished game as well, which is just... I mean, for an open-world game, it’s Triple-A -- there’s nothing I have seen that I don’t like in it.

Eric Baillargeon: When we started, we just wanted to deliver a new kind of gameplay experience for the player. We wanted to build this open-world, but at the same time, have really strong gameplay mechanics. In Watch Dogs, you have strong driving, you have strong navigation, we have 3D navigation -- you can go on rooftops; you can go in back alleys -- we have strong combat AI to fight, and we also have super-nice stealth as well.

But what makes the difference -- and what we wanted to push at the beginning, and it grew, and grew and grew since we started -- is the hyper connectivity that we put into our world. So everything is connected in Watch Dogs; you can control everything in the city. There’s CityOS, which is the system that controls everything in the city: it controls traffic lights, it controls bridges, it controls almost everything in the city. Think of it as a bit in the future, of what we already see coming in the big cities these days. For example, in Chicago, there [are] already over 10,000 security cameras. So think of it as soon enough, this could happen, and it’s coming in our modern world.

So for us, it was super important, and we tried to grasp this new technology, and make a reflection on “ok, what’s going on in the world at this moment?”, where we’re at, people use much more social media, smartphones and everything. So we thought it was super-interesting, and we wanted to push that forward, and that’s the reason why we came up with this idea. But at the same time, we want to make sure that we have these strong core gameplay mechanics, to support this added connectivity in the world.

AusGamers: What made you decide on Chicago?

Eric: Tonnes of reasons. First of all, Chicago has a great history of crime. Think of it... you all know the history of Chicago. Also, it’s one of the biggest and best cities in North America as well. The architecture is really strong -- it’s a nice city -- and it was a good setup for Watch Dogs since the beginning.

AusGamers: Can you talk about what the tech driving the game is? Are you running off Anvil [Assassin’s Creed engine], or is this your own engine?

Eric: It’s our own engine, it’s a brand new engine called Disrupt, that we’ve built. We’ve built this incredible open-world system, the road network, the city, the environment manager, the weather system, the water. Everything is new, and everything was built from scratch by the amazing programming team that we have [and the] engineering team as well. Everything was built from scratch, and we have this amazing tool that allows us to give this kind of unique and fresh gameplay experience to the player.

AusGamers: Obviously one of the major factors that you have is this multiplayer component where players can come into your game and help you, or hamper you, or steal stuff from you. Can you talk about the networking side of that, and how that works, and the hurdles that you might have faced going into that?

Eric: I’m not part of the multiplayer team, but I’ll try my best. We wanted to make sure the key point for us, with merging sessions from multiplayer, single-player, and everything was seamless. It’s very important that you feel that you’re always in multiplayer sessions, wherever you play. For sure, the player can decide at any point that they don’t want to do it, and pull a switch to make it turn off, but we wanted to make sure that it’s seamless and really transparent, and you can’t only just decide to attack, you can decide to help. There are a lot of different modes that we’re going to propose to the player. For us, the base is that you’re always connected; it’s always on; you can decide to do it... it’s going to be proposed to the player through different means, and for us... what you need to understand is that it’s always there, and always on.

AusGamers: What’s one of the main advantages of hacking into someone’s game, and to what extent can you really disrupt their play experience?

Eric: One of the main things is notoriety in the game. It’s like if you’re one of the best to hack and invade people, then you’re going to be known by other players, and people will want to hack you to raise their [notoriety] and bring you down, so they can pull it off.

So it’s all a reknown system, and based on notoriety. You lose nothing when you’re being hacked, because it would be a... when you’re in a single-player experience, and you’ve been hacked, you don’t lose anything. But the other player will gain notoriety on the network, and this is the base of it. It’s like a virus: everything you do will spread out, and you’ll grow bigger and bigger and bigger, and people will try to pull you down by attacking you.

AusGamers: And there’s also other options right? You can get into someone’s game via companion apps?

Eric: Yeah, the companion app is really, really super-interesting. We developed [it] in Montreal, and partly in Quebec, and basically it’s going to be a free app. Everybody’s going to be able to use it, either on Android or iOS, and it’s basically a system that enables you to connect with what’s in the real game.

It’s the same mechanics: you can hack, you can raise bridges; as you saw in the demo, you can hack a chopper to block it. There’s two modes for the companion players: you can play co-op and help a friend to escape the police like you saw in the demo that we presented this year, or you can play versus -- you can try to block another player reaching their objective.

So you can interact with the city using the same cool mechanics that we have inside the consoles and the PC game, but you will have access to all of this on the train, or everywhere in the city via 3G or Wi-Fi.

AusGamers: Now we’ll go back to the single-player, and I know you guys aren’t talking too much about story, but I deduced that with Aiden, something has gone wrong with his sister, which is what’s brought him into this vigilante mode. And he’s kind of an everyman, but he’s intelligent and skillful. In terms of how the world reacts around him: I know that there’s an element of notoriety, so the way a player plays the game will reflect in the media’s portrayal of him, and then how the citizens react to him. How systemic is that, and how dynamic is that? Is it a really kind of cut and dry system? Or is it a bit more grey?

Eric: It’s really systemic. Every action that the player does in the city, will have a repercussion on his reputation -- we [actually] call it reputation. If he decides to shoot cops in the knee, then he will be a better Aiden, so it won’t have that much of an impact on his reputation, and these will have repercussions on the entire city: you might go to a shop, and the guy decides “Oh yeah, you’re the bad guy, I’m not going to sell you anything, because I recognise you”, even if there’s nothing going on with the media.

So every action that the player does -- and each player will have the choice to do it or not. I don’t know if you saw, in one of our first demos, we had systemic elements proposed to the player, and the player can decide to intervene or not. If there’s a crime going in the back alley, the player can decide to stop it, or he can decide to just let it go.

So all of this mixed together will play with the reputation of the character, and the simulation of the city will react. The civilians and the people that Aiden needs to interact with to gain objectives will be influenced by the way he plays.

AusGamers: So obviously you do have a single, overarching story with a beginning, middle, and an end, but you’re in an open-world, and as you’d mentioned you can go and stop a crime over here, or you can use the city hacking. What other kinds of side missions are there, and how emergent is that?

Eric: There’s going to be lots of side missions in our game. We’ll have a strong storyline with main missions, and you can stop at any time, and just go free roam; decide to just be proposed events by the system. We have a really strong system that prepares events for the player. Either missions, or crime activity, or just fun things to do: mini-games that players will be able to play within the game.

So I expect that you’ll see a lot of things that will be proposed systemically to the player, and we have this super system that makes sure that there’s always something new; always something different; and depending on how you play, we’ll know “Ok, this guy likes to be proposed these things”, so it’s going to help us design what to propose.

But it’s really fully dynamic, and it’s really important for us, because one of the key aspects of the game is: ok, we want to give a break for the player. He wants to break his main mission flow, so let him have fun.

We have a super-huge city, but we really wanted to make it very dense, so there’s no region where there’s nothing to do. There’s always something going on, there’s always new content being proposed to the player. So everywhere you go -- when you want to take a break, or you want to gain experience, or you’re just after different rewards and upgrades, or one of the weapons and stuff like that -- you’ll be able to do that. So it’s really dynamic, and super interactive.

AusGamers: Now obviously Aiden has a really cool look about him. He’s a very human vigilante, and it kind of works, but with the notoriety factor, can you change his clothes and things like that, so he just blends into the city more?

Eric: For now, I’m not going to talk about this part.

AusGamers: All right, so the other thing is: obviously you’re releasing on multiple platforms. PC is a very big one, because there are very few open-world games on PC, and often players will have to wait a really long time for that to happen. Were you building on PC, and the console platforms at the same time?

Eric: Yeah, we aim to release in November 2013, on all current-gen and PC versions. For next-gen platforms, the dates are still going to be communicated, but yes it’s being built at the same time by the same team in Montreal, so expect it to have the same kind of delivery for every platform.

AusGamers: And with companion apps, will they work with PC?

Eric: Yes, the companion app will work with PC.

AusGamers: Ok, that’s pretty much all I need. The game looks really good, and I appreciate your time.

Eric: Thanks. We’re really happy to be showing it.
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