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Interview: Ubisoft's Shelley Johnson Deep-Dives on Watch Dogs Legion and Makes our Jaws Drop
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 05:28pm 21/06/19 | Comments
We had a chance to chat to Ubisoft's Shelley Johnson, of Aussie origin, about Watch Dogs Legion. Read on for what she had to reveal...

Watch Dogs Legion, which I’ve explored in-depth already, is a game-changer. It changes the way we can think about open-world gaming. It changes the way we should consider NPCs in games. And it does so as a brand-specific design branch for a franchise that was on the cusp of something special, but followed, perhaps, too closely to other open-world games before it.

Legion represents a bold concept where systemic ecosystems play directly to the player’s agency, but where each decision and success or failure will rock that ecosystem in ways that might not even be officially understood by the developers themselves. When systems get to play with each other in unique and often unknown ways, off the decisions of gamers out in the wild, amazing things can happen. Add to this an entirely new slice of technology driving such an ambitious plan, the rabbit hole before us presents as deep and ever-branching.

We got to speak to Ubisoft Toronto’s Shelly Johnson who just so happens to be an Aussie expat, living life at higher end of the game development world Aussies struggle, enmasse, to conquer due to our own flawed ecosystem, but that’s a discussion for another time. However, our in-depth interview with her was such a free-flowing affair with in-depth analysis and revelation, we decided rather than to longform this as an interview feature, we’d present you with the Q&A as it transpired, because it was such an engaging conversation.

Keep an eye out for our intermission though, because it poignantly helps paint a picture of just how flooring this new project in the franchise is.

AusGamers: All right, very quickly, because I've only got 10 minutes, I would love to know how you got over to Ubisoft from Melbourne.

Shelley Johnson: Oh wow, it's a bit of a circuitous route. Actually, I... so I started my games career in Singapore, making computer... like, kids games on CD-ROM, in 29 different languages. This is before the first PlayStation One.

AusGamers: I was about to say, back in the early 90s...

Shelley Johnson: Late 90s.

Yeah. So started in Singapore, then went back to Melbourne, went into TV for a little while, and went to London, England, and worked at Argonaut Games; PSOne, PS2 games for EA and some of our own IPs, and then moved to Montreal, went to Behaviour, and then joined Ubisoft about 10 years ago. So I've been at Ubi 10 years.

AusGamers: So you're in Montreal now?

Shelley Johnson: No, I'm in Toronto now.

AusGamers: Oh, okay, right. Canada's way better than Australia for game development anyway, but not quite as warm.

Shelley Johnson: For the industry, yes. I know we’re... we don't do enough for our industry.

AusGamers: We certainly don’t do near what we need to. But obviously I'm here to speak about your game. How did you land on London for Legion in the first place?

Shelley Johnson: London is one of the most incredible cities in the world. It's also one of the most surveilled. It is a city that's been at the forefront of society and technology for hundreds of years, and it also has a rich and diverse culture, so for our themes it was just an excellent fit.

AusGamers: One of the biggest CCTV...

Shelley Johnson: Yes.

AusGamers: So it's a Big Brother city, which sort of plays to the Watch Dogs...

Shelley Johnson: Absolutely.

AusGamers: ...concept. I was talking to the person that was running me through the demo, about how it feels that London, in this particular iteration of Watch Dogs, is more the hero than the people. Because the people feel like they're a systemic part of the broader concept of manipulating a city in general, which is also at the heart of Watch Dogs. Was that something that was a conscious thought, and did that create the idea of being able to jump between characters, and just have these vessels, if you will, that you can jump in and out of and utilise? Or have I just broadly thought too deep on it already?

Shelley Johnson: No, I... the people of London are seeing their city on the brink, right? The impact of technology on the city has led to skyrocketing unemployment, the economy and the government are collapsing, private military contractors are taking over. The people are scared, they're hurt, and they want to fight back, and they're going to use everything at their disposal to do that. The player needs to build that popular resistance; give form to the resistance itself -- to take the fight to them. But using the interconnectedness of the city's technological infrastructure absolutely has to be a part of the... one of the tools for the fight.

AusGamers: Yeah. So resistance is the hero.

Shelley Johnson: The [idea is] you're building a popular resistance. There are forces of oppression; you have extremists and authoritarians emerging to take advantage for their own gain. And we imagine... one of the things that we thought about when we were putting [Legion] together... when we were conceptualising the idea of the resistance, is thinking back to Paris [during WWII]. And how the people might feel at that time, like, what were they living through? It was a frightening time, and you resist; you could disappear, but people went about their lives; their jobs -- they met their friends, they had drinks, they tried to live as much of a normal life as possible. But it was a terrifying time for them, and not everybody is right and ready to resist. There are a lot of people that are on the side of the authoritarians. There are people who are just too scared and frightened to do anything about it, and there are others who just... they want to fight, they want to fight back.

They can't bear to see what's happening, and we're imagining... you look globally, we started the game four years ago. There were all sorts of things that were shifting -- politically -- within the world at that time, and we tried to imagine what it might feel like to live in one of the most highly surveilled cities in the world, one of the most incredible cities in the world, with a people who are natural fighters. They naturally... they laugh defiantly in the face of some of the harshest moments in their history. And [they] come together and. So this is a natural place of resistance, and for our times, if we take it to the nth degree, we see the rise of automation, we see the ongoing rise of authoritarianism. What might that look like; what might that feel like? And then allowing the idea of play as anyone was to put the player themselves into that moment.

AusGamers: Yeah, sure.

Shelley Johnson: So the evolution of the team, from Watch Dogs 2, that had your activists, was we put the player now into an experience that forces them to evolve themselves into a resistance, to take the fight to the corporations.

AusGamers: How deep does that go? Like, in my very limited time with the game, the idea that... so an anecdote is, I was mid-mission, and I saw somebody mugging another person. And then I attacked the mugger. The other person was not a DedSec fan, and didn't remember that I'd saved her. But the mugger remembered that I'd beat him up. And my handler said that we could now go and try and recruit him because of that memory. I mean, without it sounding too crude, is it binary, or is it more dynamic than it appears on the surface?

Shelley Johnson: So it's... everybody has a life. Like, a real life. They go to work, they have hobbies, they have families, they have relationships. And like I was saying before, they have a different willingness to fight. And the player's mission is to win people over to him or her. And you need to hack into each person's life for you to profile them, research them, hack into their lives, help them with their problems, and it's... there is a great deal of depth to how far you go down that route. You can follow everybody's relationships. You can do something to a distant relation that may have a knock-on effect later. If you do something violently to somebody, you may find that you have someone coming and chasing a relation that's out to get you, that's hunting you down within the city. You may not even know about it for some time. Everything you do has an impact on the world, and how you're perceived.

AusGamers: Technically, how did you pull that off? Is it a procedural...

Shelley Johnson: It's fully systemic.

AusGamers: Fully systemic?!?

Shelley Johnson: Yes.

AusGamers: So each person that you could engage with has a line that draws them in the world...

Shelley Johnson: Yes.

AusGamers: ...with purpose?!?

It’s at this point we break the conversation in two because the intensity of this interview might not be translatable in the written word. But my jaw is figuratively on the ground. That this idea of a systemic world as mentioned in our intro is not procedural, at all, seems almost fanciful. Consider that London -- currently -- has some 8.8 million people in it. Now, surely Ubisoft’s new tech won’t account for that number, but that every person that isn’t part of the oppressive forces populating this videogame version of London isn’t only recruitable, but also has relationships that span the entirety of the world with real-time fallout based on your decisions -- good and bad -- is simply staggering.

It’s safe to say nothing like this has ever been entirely thought of in this way. But even more bold, as I touched on in my hands-on, is the decision to simply remove a ‘hero’ at all. So, while the systemic ecosystem of the game-world is impressive, and can be looked at as a cross between, say, Grand Theft Auto V’s trio of controllable characters in Trevor, Franklin and Michael and the Nemesis System found in the Middle-earth: Shadows of series, you’re not really hearing what Shelley is saying. In the former example those characters have their own stories that coalesce. It’s all very structured. In the latter, it’s procedural based on an algorithm of traits that mix and match as each new nemesis enters the fray.

This shit in Legion is fucking systemic, organic and entirely fleshed out. The hero here is the world itself; its population and your puppeteering of it.

Shelley Johnson: Yeah. It's been four years in the making. There are a bunch of GDC talks in there, to come in the future for sure. It was a big undertaking. We have over 100,000 lines of dialogue in the game. We wanted to create real people, and have real impacts, the player to have a genuine impact on these people, and conversely yourself.

AusGamers: So conversely, if I can't help somebody, or if I fail a mission or something along those lines, will that person then become even more against DedSec?

Shelley Johnson: Yes. And then they will seek revenge. So if you put someone into full opposition against DedSec, they will seek revenge against DedSec.

AusGamers: So you're building a counter-resistance while you're trying to build a resistance.

Shelley Johnson: Yes.

AusGamers: Right.

Shelley Johnson: So you need to be very careful about what you do, because if you push someone into a full opposer, DedSec opposer, you saw the meter at the top, it has consequences. So if you're violent, if you're aggressive in your play, you make choices that are against the people, they will fight back against you.

AusGamers: So at what point do you have to pare that back? Because it was mentioned in the presentation that there are five story arcs.

Shelley Johnson: Yes.

AusGamers: At what point does story... is it counterproductive to the systemic ecosystem that you've created?

Shelley Johnson: It isn't counterproductive. You have five main quest lines, one of which is the DedSec meta story, and each of the quest lines are focused on a different theme. There's a bunch of side and mini quests as well.

Shelley Johnson: Okay. And how you strategise ... so I don't know if you've noticed, or you were talked through, that you have single individuals that will have solo traits, you also have team traits. You can recruit somebody into your team that has team traits. So you can strategise at the single operative level, but also at the team level over time. So different traits will get unlocked over time. And you can begin to leverage your team to help you with your strategy. So you may make some poor choices as one recruit, and you may end up dying, or you may end up in prison, or whatever it might be. You may end up causing a particular family or individuals to take revenge upon that operative particularly, but if you leverage and build a strong enough team, you can continue to move forward in the game. It doesn't ever create a situation where you're unable to progress through the storylines.

AusGamers: Super quick, one more: so if you recruit somebody, but that person has a relation in the game-world that's another NPC, that you play as that operative and die, will that relation then have a negative view of DedSec because of that outcome?

Shelley Johnson: It's possible. It will depend on the nature of your death.

AusGamers: Okay.

Shelley Johnson: Yeah.

AusGamers: All right, that's a lot.

Shelley Johnson and Ubisoft: Mic. Drop. (Ed: Not really, but it definitely felt that way.)

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