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Interview: Watch Dogs 2 Senior Producer Dominic Guay on Hacking the System
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 03:06pm 05/07/16 | Comments
AusGamers was given a chance to chat with Ubisoft's Dominic Guay who serves as senior producer on Watch Dogs 2. Read on for what he had to say...

AusGamers: Can we start with how you landed on Marcus as the main protagonist.

Dominic Guay: So it started with our research in the Bay Area and we were trying to get a character that reflected the setting we chose. So you look at Oakland and there’s a big African-American community there, it’s a big part of that city, and then you look at San Francisco and you have kind of that “free spirit” [vibe], and then you have Silicon Valley which is full of the smart and innovative people there, and so we thought we’d take those key things and put them into one character. And that’s Marcus.

And because we’re creating a game that’s also about fighting against a corrupt establishment we thought his perspective on it would be super-interesting. His background is that he was profiled, and because he’s got a tech background and he’s done some forms of hacking he was unjustly profiled by the ctOS as being responsible for a crime he didn’t commit. [But] it’s not just about being unjustly profiled, it’s because it was a machine that did this [and is] crushing [other] people with these sorts of false accusations, and so he’s rebelling against that system.

AusGamers: Do you guys feel a sense of responsibility from an internal perspective -- you know, the first Watch_Dogs was kind of the first major piece of media to fully delve into the hacker landscape and now you’ve got shows like Mr Robot and other movies and media are now going down that route -- to maintain that, or is there an even bigger effort to innovate in the same way you tried with the first game?

Dominic: It’s the core of what we’re trying to do with Watch_Dogs, and I think this time, by moving from the perspective of a vigilante from the first game, you know, using hacking as a tool but talking more indirectly about the topic [of hacking] this time we’re going more direct at being a hacker and part of one of the factions. We thought that [angle] was very refreshing but it also forced us to go even deeper into the [world of] hacking and how hackers think and trying to get into their minds a bit to see how they think and to see how they see the world.

AusGamers: Is there a fine line between moral ambiguity and intent, where the player-character is concerned in these types of games? You know there was a big dialogue around Uncharted 4 recently that, well, let’s be honest, Nathan Drake is a mass murderer, and it’s a horrible question in the scheme of videogame fun, but in the [E3 demo] it seemed like you had less of an emphasis on killing and more on making the game a chaos simulator -- how do you find that fine balance? In the first game you had intent because the main character was a vigilante, and there’s a background there as to why he was doing what he was doing, but Marcus just seems like a kid who was a hacker and got dealt a bad hand. How do you create a reason for the player to want to help Marcus create death?

Dominic: Yeah, it’s a balancing act between player-agency and narrative. Especially in open-world games you try to give as much freedom to the player as you can, and every time you make the editorial decision of removing freedom it can be a mistake. So what we try to do instead is to grow that sandbox, in a sense. In Watch_Dogs 1 if you didn’t want to play lethally it would become a problem at some point, but in Watch_Dogs 2 we tried to move away from that. If you still want to go full aggressive that’s your choice, but we also wanted to give players another viable option in non-lethal, so we added tasers, we added more hacking abilities and at some point we thought “wow, that’s too powerful”, but in a sense it’s not -- let’s create that problem where we’re giving very powerful hacking abilities to the player and then balance them out afterwards. But we’re also not shifting away from a more combat approach if that’s how you want to play.

The character Marcus, you’re right to say he’s not really a character who goes and shoots everybody, but the player can make the decision between how Marcus would play and how the player wants to play.

AusGamers: Will there be any narrative outcome or reward for players who play the game strictly non-lethal?

Dominic: So in Watch_Dogs 1 we had a kind of ‘morality’ system, but what we don’t want to do is judge the player. We don’t want a system where we’re telling the player not to have the fun they’re having, right? It’s counterproductive. Yes you want the city and the world to react to your achievements, so the quests you choose to do will have an impact on how people perceive the establishment, how they perceive Ded Sec, so you’re going to have echoes of that. But not to the extent that because you’ve played a certain way the whole game-world is against you -- we don’t want to go there. But you at least need to have a reflection in the world of how you want to play.

So there’s a limit we don’t want to cross, which would be a judgemental system where you might feel like you have to dig yourself out of that state. You know, when you play a game like this, you might sit down and play one night and say “okay, tonight I want to test the felony system”, where you want to see what the highest level of heat is, but when you do that you’re not really playing ‘Marcus’, you’re playing as yourself -- you want to have fun with the game. [So] the day after when you boot up the game and everyone in the [game-world] is running away from you because they see you as an evil person, when all you originally wanted to do was have fun [with the systems] -- we don’t want to go there.

AusGamers: So there’s no narrative moment where incidental death occurs regardless of how the player has played the game?

Dominic: It’s exactly what we’ve tried to do. We’ve taken away everything that would force a particular type of playstyle even within a cinematic, and it’s a tricky thing to do because sometimes you have a good idea where you say “we could do this!” but then we have to say no, or we have to think of another way out for it -- there needs to be another way.

AusGamers: Jumping to the co-op/multiplayer side of things, in Watch_Dogs 1 you had this wonderful asymmetrical competitive component with people hacking your game, so to speak, now you have this more friendly drop in, drop out system that you’ve just shown us, can you run us through how it all works?

Dominic: We have both, actually. So the first thing we said is anything that is not seamless, we cut it out. We want to be fresh in what we offer online and we always bring it back into the natural action-adventure experience. So we cut everything that was more of a ‘mode’, and we’ve [now] got only seamless experiences. We’re bringing back the hacking invasion system and it’s evolving naturally with a lot of new tools we added to the game, and we have other seamless PvP we’re going to be talking about later on. But for us -- seamless co-op, what’s cool about it is obviously it’s fun to play co-op in an open-world game and not just in ours, but in others too. It’s just fun to play in a sandbox game with friends. But what we’re doing is even if you’re not playing co-op; you’re going through the world and, you know, maybe you want to buy some clothes or something, you’re going to see other players in the world. And that actually has a lot of surprises and [creates] a lot of emergent play, you know, not coded or scripted events. The presence of another player in the world creates a surprise.

It’s not, like, 50 other players though because that would create chaos, so we’ve limited it to a single person at a time. And the fact that it’s friendly encounters -- in this case -- makes it more accessible for players who aren’t necessarily into competitive contact.

AusGamers: So San Francisco is a microclimate which creates really unique weather year-round, have you guys played to that at all? You know, one of the things missing from Watch_Dogs 1 was snow, which happens heavily in Chicago…

Dominic: So for the dynamic weather it’s going to be rain, obviously, as well as day, night, fog... but we’re going to keep it more in summer. You’re right to say that though, because one of the things that brought us to San Francisco, beyond just Silicon Valley, is the fact that there’s a lot of diversity in that area. From the natural preserve of Marin County which is just on the other side of the Golden Gate [bridge], and then you have San Francisco itself which, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, is just so different with really different vibes. Chicago has less of that. I mean firstly, it’s just flatter and it’s more homogenous whereas [San Francisco] has a lot more diversity and we’re really playing to that as a strength.

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