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AusGamers Watch Dogs Developer Interview with Lead Game Designer Danny Belanger
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 11:24am 24/04/14 | Comments
AusGamers' Naren Hooson hacked into the mindset of Watch_Dogs Lead Game Designer Danny Belanger. Read on for what he had to say...

AusGamers: Looking at the hacking, what I’m curious about is the progression, could you tell us about the nature of that and how it’s paced?

Danny Belanger: You start from the get-go with a few hacks, like the easy hacks, that we thought were really core to the experience. Like the camera, moving some of the elements like some scissor lift platforms and traffic lights, we felt were really core, like opening doors -- that’s the basic kit. When you start the game Aidan is already a hacker. And then there’s a few different categories of hacks. In the skill tree you have a whole section of hacking, which is all your city hacks, so anything that’s in the infrastructure: steam pipe, the L train, all of these, even like the police chopper, all of these hacks, you slowly gain access to them as you grow in strength.

We kind of combine all the skills in one area so as you gain experience you can start unlocking these elements of the game and actually become a stronger hacker and have access to more of these. The interesting thing about the Tech Tree is they’re mainly really easily exposed, so you’ll see an X appear on an object that wasn’t there before or perhaps it gives you a little more battery so you can hack longer, so it’s that type of hacking.

There are subtleties also, an example is a stronger Profiler. So in one of the hacking skill areas is Profiler optimisation that would automatically start highlighting citizens that are interesting, like this person has a rich bank account or he has an important crafting component -- so they’ll start highlighting. That’s for the hacking section then.

The other one is the crafting section. So for us crafting is hacking but it’s hacking that you create; that you bring to the areas you want. Like combat or stealth, so it’s basically a hacking opportunity you create for yourself. A good example is the Lure which works exactly like an attractor. Maybe in the environment you’re, like, “I really want these guards to move away but there’s no hack I can use”, so you throw a Lure [and] use that [to] make the guards move. So essentially you’re creating your own hacking patterns with that in there. You have very powerful hacks as well like Jamcoms which will disrupt all the civilians talking on the phone in a really wide area or the ctOS police scanning when they’re searching for you -- the yellow circle -- you can disrupt that using Jamcoms as well, so it kind of slows it down; it’s giving you an advantage. Blackout, it’s very powerful, you see that in the crafting section. There’s quite a few actually but the philosophy is [to] create your own hacking opportunities. I didn’t count, I know there’s roughly 50 skills in the whole Tech Tree, those two are at least half of the Tech Tree. Then you have combat and driving that takes the other half.



AusGamers: Going back to the citizens, you were talking about hacking them. Obviously there’s a lot of variety in the information you’ll get, how does that open up? You said as you gain more hacking skill you get more info.

Danny: The first thing you need to do is connect to the ctOS. So if you go in a certain district you don’t have access to the people’s information because you’re not connected to the central infrastructure. As soon as you gain connection to that then you can tap into the analysis system and the facial recognition system and start going through their personal information. You can find pretty much everything that’s side content there, even online actually. So you’re hacking people, you can find criminals, crime detection, gang hideouts, you can find underground fixer contracts, even online opportunities. You hack it and it will appear on the map and it will suggest, do you want to do it now?

AusGamers: In terms of another player in their world?

Danny: Actually what it does is proposes you to go and this finds a trace of another player. Then you can go and hack the player if you want but then it’s really a choice. Most of these are, do you want to do it now? Are you interested? You know, then you can accept.

AusGamers: Then is that more like building up the skill there to compliment the story?

Danny: Everything you do, all these missions will give you experience points, some will actually give you directly skill points so you can progress. So basically all of these are actually making you a better hacker. Being in a mission or in [the] open-world is making you progress.

Just one last thing on hacking civilians, all of the rewards are there, like you find bank accounts, their songs, their cars.

AusGamers In a way it’s a looting system?

Danny: Yeah, yeah. You can find all these things and you can make a decision if you want to do it. And then there’s a lot of narrative, so you can listen to all the phone calls you can see, there’s hundreds of phone calls you can listen to.

AusGamers: How much would that vary, and then people want to replay, for all that side content? Or do you take more time as you’re playing?

Danny: What we’re hoping is a 50/50 ratio between the narrative -- the main mission -- and the open-world, that’s really what we’re aiming for. So we’re trying to present it in a way that, oh it’s here, do you want to do it? And things are close and now you make that choice and it’s not, oh man, I have to do this. Do you want to do it, are you interested? Especially, is it in your taste? Do you want to do a side mission about driving? Do you want to do a side mission about stealth combat and hacking? Do you want to do a side mission about online side activity? We’re just saying, this exists, if you look at the map this is what you will do, are you into that right now, yes or no? If it’s no, fine you can do the main missions or city exploration or whatever you feel like.



AusGamers: Do you see that catering to someone’s game style but then does that vary a lot in terms of how you approach a mission? Obviously you have to hack and do things a certain way but can you go in action or can you go in stealth?

Danny: For sure, we kind of use the term bottom up, meaning we want to support players and player expression. Most of the missions... almost all of the missions are free approach. You can either go action, you can either go stealth or you can go hacking or any of the above in any order you want. So you can go combat, hide again, you do a blackout, go back in stealth, you know? You can play with these elements, we support the transition.

Some missions are possible only in hacking, the control centres are an example: [You need to] hack this thing. You don’t even have to go there, you go cam, cam, cam. There’s hidden patterns in a way, so we didn’t make it that easy. If you figure it out, you hack your way.

The only reasons why we force a gameplay [path] is [because] we want to teach you something. Like for stealth, we didn’t want to say understand stealth, ok now you get it. Now it’s your decision. We want to say, we’re not changing the rules of the game all the time, now it’s stealth, now it’s combat. We will make some exotic moments, so to say, oh that’s a cool hacking moment based around it or that last one. If sometime we do think that the narrative twist can support combat, put you right in combat because narratively it makes sense, you know, it creates an interesting moment, [so] we’ll do it. But our philosophy is mainly, let the player play like he wants -- it’s his game, it’s his experience.

AusGamers: I guess the thing I noticed playing, jumping from the first part of the demo to the second part is how you start to combine all those skills that you’ve been given, like even when you’re driving, you’re looking at different ways you can combine to get rid of the cops.

Danny: I strongly believe the hacking aspect is a huge pillar of this game because it’s a gameplay in which you can become good in. It’s very difficult to do from a design standpoint because we have shooting and driving, so if you’re a good shooter and you’ve played a lot of shooters, well you tend to solve your problems with a gun right? And it’s easy -- it’s, like, two buttons; one button. And we’re saying, hey, hacking is very useful in the same context. So the challenge is great because it has to be very easy to understand, very easy to see, very effective.

We’re saying in stealth you can scan tag the enemies which will apply later on or take down one or two guys before you go into battle or use one of your hacks that you have. I feel that you can become a good hacker through the game and I think that’s great, something that I have not played before. I think it’s a great experience.

AusGamers: Do you see any challenges with the hacking, are there any progressions that people get stopped from getting past with the hacking or that would be too much of a challenge at the moment?



Danny: We’ll never put a hardwall on the game. We try to encourage exploration. We try to keep it open for players so it’s not [that] you’re blocked with it. But definitely there’s hacking moments and the hacking is really based on observation, so we’ll try to give you enough info so you can make those good choices.

AusGamers: Can you talk about the companion app at all? How does that slot into it?

Danny: Essentially first the philosophy is the same as everything else, it’s just another option. You know, it’s more game, it’s more choice for the player. So someone can prompt, like if you want to play against a friend perhaps you can challenge. You can be on the couch, you can be at home, so you can challenge and you can accept. Or you can either ask, like you can go on the grid, like, online and say I’d like to play against a companion player and then it’ll start searching in the network and find someone to match with you.

Then basically it’s, he (the tablet player) is the ctOS, he’s a ctOS agent. He’s using all the city infrastructure and he’s trying to stop you. He has his own progression so he can be a certain level of strength and you have your own progression. It could be a beginner game where you have a bot or a middle game. So that definitely changes. And then he’s using all the tools, he can move the helicopter, he’s actually controlling the city in real-time from the tablet. I think it’s pretty exciting as it’s synchronous, so he’s sending the chopper after you, he’s sending cops, he’s using the steam pipes, traffic lights, the blockers to try to stop you, you’re basically on a time trial.

AusGamers: And so the multiplayer is more than two players then?

Danny: Yeah, it’s four vs four in team PvP, then you have a few objectives like you need to capture data and you’re fighting for data. It’s pretty cool, for me it’s very impressive to see people playing online, like a narrative game, then at some point they’re in online competition. For balancing reasons we did lock some of the weapons but the hacking stays, whatever you had in your game but we just made sure the weapons are kind of balanced out.

AusGamers: Can I bring up the delay in releasing the game? You reached a point with it and then stated that you had some polishing to get it to the point where you wanted it to be?

Danny: The game wasn’t finished. We thought we could, we were working really hard and pushing and doing a lot of hours, then at some point we had to make bad decisions. If you wanted to ship this thing we had to kind of cut corners, not finish something properly. And I mean there’s a lot of expectation. We didn’t want to ship something that wasn’t finished.

When everything converges as well, like on a production, you get the real audio, you get the real data, some missing animations, then you play and then you kind of realise there are certain aspects that are not as strong as we want or they’re not delivering the fantasy of Watch_Dogs. Like hacking, we have a lot of invisible man type of hacking gameplay, you know, you’re not even there. And then you’re playing with AI but we didn’t feel that was strong enough. But now, ok, let’s put some more emotions, let’s put a bit more in the data, we can add things for sure, you know, and improve it.



AusGamers: Were there any external releases that gave you permission to do that or motivate you? Other releases that were happening at the time?

Danny: I mean, it’s not very long for us on the production side. You know, the submissions, then there’s the printing then distribution. So in the end, it was a few months. But if you look at the scale of the game we have now it’s just impossible in that amount of time to put it. I understand the link but it just, from a production point of view, it’s not feasibly, you cannot just magically say, “Lets do this in three months”. Right? I mean it doesn’t work like that. But obviously the great thing is we took what we had, we polished it, we finished it and then we had the time to really analyse it, in the end it’s not that long. Yeah it feels long, but for us, it felt like three months.

AusGamers: Did you ever toy with the idea or think of having other networks? You brought the website, that looks at a city’s network to compare it to what’s happening now, but realistically it’s a lot of smaller networks right? I guess you could say they’re linked somehow if you can get through all the firewalls.

Danny: I’m not exactly sure this is the question, but the ctOS for us was a way to kind of justify a lot of the infrastructure hacks. Not everything is connected to the network. We know the concept of the smart city, the ctOS, is coming, big companies are working on it. It makes sense from an optimisation stance, [so] we’re basically using that to justify some of the hacks that are really fun and enjoyable but maybe not connected to a network. The train, you know, we’re kind of using that. Some of these are already, you know, hacking a phone, it already exists and it’s actually not that hard. Hacking a car... it’s all realistic. We have consultants but the ctOS gave us that extra boost and we were afraid that maybe we were going too far, “Will it feel sci fi or not?” But I mean the reality, and the technology, is going so fast that it’s catching up to us. I think it makes the game feel relevant and it’s talking to people.

So that gave us, kind of, that platform to justify some of these hacks that we felt added a lot to the game. Like hacking the Chicago Bridge. You tie it to the ctOS, to the infrastructure, it makes a lot of sense. For us it was just very empowering.

AusGamers: Was it a massive challenge to map basically a real city and you’re own created network on there?

Danny: The city is not one for one, so we’re using, trying to recreate the landmarks but we’re really modifying it for gameplay. If a street needs to be wider because passing with a car would be super frustrating, we’ll make those choices. But we’re trying to reflect the nature and the iconic areas in the city with the gameplay freedom. So even like the train pattern, where it passes, we took some liberties for gameplay. For us, we didn’t give ourselves that constraint to just remap, it was just, “How can we make this serve the game?” So like the blocker system, we added some in streets, it adds a lot to the game but it’s not necessarily there in real life.

AusGamers: Okay cool, thanks Danny.




Make sure to check out our most recent hands-on with the latest build of the game right here.

Read more about Watch Dogs on the game page - we've got the latest news, screenshots, videos, and more!



Latest Comments
fpot
Posted 04:31pm 24/4/14
Did you play the game at all? Is there some sort of gameplay mechanic that compels you to walk everywhere, or are the preview videos I've seen just been like that because it looks cool?
Mosfx
Posted 05:00pm 24/4/14
I'm keen for this game definitely on my Xbone to buy list, but I'll wait for reviews before I rush out I've been burnt many atimes by publishers egging on their game and it fails to meet what they promised.

I never have time to walk and checkout every little detail, I play the story and side missions if they are rewarding enough, if they are stupid like finding pigeons just to get an achievement and don't add any actual benefit I normally just complete story.
ph33x
Posted 06:09pm 24/4/14
Did you play the game at all? Is there some sort of gameplay mechanic that compels you to walk everywhere, or are the preview videos I've seen just been like that because it looks cool?

This.
Naren
Posted 07:15am 25/4/14
I played the game. It's a mixture of main missions, side missions (hacking the NPCs, which will be in all different areas, for info and items) and Ubi's map reveal system, which is similar to other games of theirs in that you have to hack a tower, that will encourage a player to explore.
Rominion
Posted 09:04am 25/4/14
I hate forced exploration, i should want to explore due to interesting things not make it part of the damn game :(
koopz
Posted 06:42pm 28/4/14
god - I feel like I just walked into Harvey Norman...
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