Watch Dogs was unexpectedly revealed as Ubisoft's next-generation IP at E3 2012, and it essentially stole the show. Even with all the attention focused on Watch Dogs, not much was revealed about the game until we arrived at the PlayStation 4 reveal event in February of 2013.
There, we were given yet another gameplay slice of Watch Dogs, and received an ending that teased the game's multiplayer experience. Heading into E3 2013, Watch Dogs was undoubtedly one of the most anticipated, must-see games of the show and it was during the PlayStation press conference that we received yet another glimpse of Watch Dogs in action.
E3 passed, and we quickly sprinted toward the release of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, with all of the certainty in the world that Watch Dogs would be a must-have for the launch of both consoles. It was then on Oct. 15, 2013 that we heard Watch Dogs would be delayed and miss the launches of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Months passed after the news of the delay and it wasn't until nearly five months after the announcement of the delay that we had an official update on Watch Dogs. March 6, 2014 was when we finally received confirmation that Watch Dogs would launch on May 27.
Back to present day with only a few days sitting between us and the official launch of Watch Dogs, we have one last exclusive interview to share with you all before the game releases this Tuesday.
The birth of 'Watch Dogs'
So let's start back when Ubisoft was still working on the concepts and prototypes that would eventually become Watch Dogs. Creative Director Jonathan Morin told us about the first time they implemented the street light hack prototype and how their tester reacted to it.
"When we started to prototype, the first thing we wanted to go for was giving the exploitive technology directly to players to directly avoid the 1984 drama of the evil corporation, and instead say we are, as individuals, the ones that interact with technology in questionable ways sometimes.
"Eventually, hacking everything around you became this. The first prototype we did was traffic lights, the one we showed at E3 2012, which was a glorified version of the prototype we originally had. We built it really fast and then we immediately gave the controller to people to see if they would like it," Morin said.
Allowing a player to test out an idea is pretty much always a telltale sign as to whether or not it's going to work. Hacking in this case, ended up connecting very, very well with the player, no pun-intended.
"I think the moment where we realized it was something was when you could see the faces of people as they approached an intersection. They didn’t really know what was going to happen, they pressed the button and they turned around and said, ‘can I do it to the other [stoplight] that’s right there too?’ We said, ‘yeah.’ Their reaction was like, ‘that’s cool!’
"To start realizing that people want to control their environment in different ways, I think this was really when Watch Dogs was born," Morin said.
The value of chemistry and Chicago's size
Anyone who has worked with people in a company, team or group and knew everyone they were working with had the same vision, knows just how much more effective that group can be. In the case of the early development team on Watch Dogs, the core group of developers were paramount to the early progress of the game.
"I think chemistry in a team is critical in order to move fast. When you want to prototype something or create an idea that hasn’t been done before, you need people to trust each other.
"[Once a game progresses] I also start losing a lot of time on the floor and everything, so even before Watch Dogs, the core team was in place with mostly ex-Far Cry 2 people.
"When we started Watch Dogs we were 15 people, and maybe 10 people out of the 15 were [folks] who had worked four and a half years together already, so that was a pretty good start up. We could actually be a bit more result-oriented, instead of spending the first few months trying to gauge and understand each other," Morin said.
Having a similar vision was absolutely crucial when it came down to creating Chicago itself. Watch Dogs has never been a game that's wanted to wow you with the biggest world you've ever seen, but rather the deepest world you've ever seen.
"It’s definitely an original statement. It’s always been what we thought defined a well-executed simulation of a city in real-life, it’s density. If you cut a corner to make it easier to build, suddenly you look at it and think, ‘it’s not quite right, it feels wrong.’
"In terms of gameplay, we wanted to avoid the tendency that open-world games have, of having an unjustified battle for scale. I think scale is something you put into your game and the size of the city has to have a purpose to support an idea. It costs money to do that, the more you build, the more you make it big, the more it costs.
"But if the result of that is going from A to B and having space in between, and that’s it, then it doesn’t really serve a purpose. What we wanted was to make sure the density information was valid. You could open-up your profiler, find some stuff around you, you’d always have something to do around every corner. There’s a lot of real things everywhere in the city.
"We wanted to fuel that density properly, and at the same time it gave us a very different direction for the game. The city is quite massive and big, but it hasn’t been built with this idea that it has become the biggest one. It’s been built with this idea to be maybe the deepest one, and the one that has more [detail] every square block, and at the same time feels like there is more dynamism to it," Morin said.
Tired of Chicago, where do you go?
Chicago is the main setting of Watch Dogs, obviously, so if you do become a little tired of the metropolitan scene, where do you go? Morin told us about the smaller, rural town known as Pawnee that players can visit from time to time.
"There is a place called Pawnee. It was a fictional version of a small town USA in a remote [area of] Illinois, close to Chicago. That’s pretty much it.
"Then you have all of the districts of Chicago and some of the nature around it. There’s this place that plays a pivotal role in the story. When you arrive there, things start to change certain people that are important to the story at that point in the game. It’s about halfway through the game [when that happens]," Morin said.
The screenshot to your right shows a glimpse of Pawnee as Aiden is soaring through the air on a motorcycle. This part of the town won't be a major location that players spend time in, but it will play a role nonetheless.
'Watch Dogs' heat system vs. 'GTA's' wanted level
GTA employs a fairly practical wanted level for when players begin to engage in illegal activities. One star means the cops may come after you, but their pursuit lacks zeal. Turn it up to five stars, then watch everyone and their mothers come after you.
In Watch Dogs, the heat system works a bit differently.
"The difference between let’s say the star system in GTA and our heat system, is that the heat system is more of a memory system. Like what is the heat on you right now, which doesn’t mean you have cops on you. You might do bad things that climb the heat, but nobody had the guts to call the cops.
"If you run around with a gun, for example, someone might call the cops, but they might also be really scared and say, ‘okay I’m not going to piss off that person right now.’ It’s more like a meter of when the cops are called, that justifies the repercussions of what’s going to be thrown at you, as opposed to GTA it’s like inevitably you start at zero and then you carry out crimes [to raise your wanted level].
"Since our game is based on technology and you have this reputation, we wanted to map the idea of media and reputation as being the systems that define what happens to you and how people perceive you. That’s why we wanted to have that disconnect between cops being called versus the heat on you right now," Morin said.
So how exactly does the AI of Chicago react to what you're doing when you have the heat on you, so to speak?
"The biggest distinction I would say is if you’re really in the positive, you can tell that they literally recognize you and then decide not to call the cops because they believe in your story and things like that.
"If you’re in the negative zone, then the media broadcasts will go more along the lines of ‘this guy is bad.’ Suddenly, if that happens, then everybody who has a phone is aware of you. You end up in a different kind of threat situation where anybody becomes a detector because they can look at you [and call the cops]. But you cannot live that experience if you’re on the good side.
"We did a few things that were mostly the low level simulations that change itself just to surprise you, instead of just having it be more expected," Morin said.
Los Angeles was looked at for 'Watch Dogs'
The hosting site of E3 every year, Los Angeles, was once considered as a candidate to host the events that take place in Watch Dogs, and wouldn't that have been interesting to see the main setting of the game also be where the game was revealed?
"When you choose to make a setting, it’s starts with a huge list and then [the list of cities] shrinks down. We had to do research on more than one city definitely. Some of the criteria that forced certain cities to not make it, like LA, [caused the city to not be chosen]. We wanted to make a game about surveillance as well as big data and all of that.
"Coming from Montreal, we wanted a city that was a bit more pressing, like California has very large streets and cities that have a lot of space in them. I guess we were emotionally attached to smaller, dark alleys with red bricks that surround you. You can feel through the city, through the architecture, through the density, all of the oppression that those cameras can have. The rest of it was that we wanted to challenge ourselves in making a very dense city," Morin said.
With LA out of the equation, Chicago served as the best city for creating a tight-fitting, detailed setting.
"I think cities in games have been done really well by other companies. We wanted to find a city that nobody explored, Chicago was a unique pick for that and becoming a really popular area for tourists, but at the same time, that was pure luck. The fact that Chicago has an entire underground results in very appealing and challenging stuff to do there.
"As weird as it sounds, to attract talented people you want to have appealing challenges, so when you sell the idea of building Chicago, you can pick the worst possible spot and say, ‘you’re going to have to build that.’ Suddenly, people are really enticed to challenge and surpass themselves," Morin said.
Present day relevance half a decade later
Topics and themes in society change day by day, and Ubisoft has managed to choose a subject-matter that is extremely topical. In Watch Dogs case, they couldn't have chosen a better one to address, really.
"When we started it was not even obvious what the theme would be, we weren’t that pretentious to think so. I think in the end, what felt right, even though we had a long time to go, was we were basing a lot of our research on stuff that most people didn’t know [about] back then.
"You had to dig in the Internet to know. When we started, the main subjects happening in real-life was WikiLeaks and those kinds of things. It kind of switched to a more accessible ground now with Snowden having happened. It seemed like all of the research we did always proved to us that it would be a very long-standing phenomena.
"I just never predicted it would be as relevant as it is right now. That would’ve been impossible. It could’ve had a fade away interest, but it seems like it’s going to be around for another couple of years," Morin said.
Aiden Pearce is one of the best hackers in the world of Watch Dogs, and from the beginning of the game, he's not in a situation where he has a lot to lose. He has already lost it. His niece Lena Pearce was killed by those he now opposes and now he must use his skills to deliver justice to those who took Lena away from him.
Players are definitely familiar with who Aiden is, but what else do we not know about him?
"Aiden was born as a genius, he’s a guy that knows how to explore computers and all of that. There’s a certain trait about people who develop those skills, and it’s that they seem to get together a bit.
"So some friends are questionable and others are not. He ended up becoming friends with a guy named Damien, who appears briefly during the [beginning] of the game," Morin said.
Earlier in his life, Aiden had a strong desire to be the provider for his family and at a time when his father was away, he chose to take matters into his own hands.
"Scams became bigger and bigger until they got out of hand, which created problems between him and Damien. That’s something that’s going to be explored a lot [more] as we move forward. Maybe the one thing people don’t know is when you have a hacker doing something in the real-world, there’s almost always a combination of hacking and social engineering skills needed.
"Aiden has a lot of that too. He’s a good mix of knowing how computers work, he’s been taught by Damien, but at heart [Aiden is] a guy that’s very good on the field and very good with people, so he can read them really well. All of that creates a pretty dangerous combination," Morin said.
When we received our first glimpse of Watch Dogs in 2012, the target Aiden was going after was Joseph Demarco. He's obviously part of the group Pearce in conflict with, but in the world of Watch Dogs who is Joseph Demarco exactly?
"Joseph Demarco is an artist, but he’s more like a financier than an artist, I would say. He is a guy who is involved a lot with different contacts in government; he’s a really well-placed person in Chicago. He tends to organize underground events, so he uses a lot of his figure to finance people and artists who have less access to financial support, which means more indie stuff.
"That’s why at E3 2012 there was this whole Dot Connection thing, which we thought was a nice way to expose him. We have a lot of characters like that, that are not necessarily core to the main story. They are more playing a role of support. You want players to feel like they have Aiden’s path and then you want to feel like you’re crossing paths with other people.
"It feels more real than having this small bubble where everything revolves around Aiden Pearce. We wanted to have a broader spectrum in the end. [Demarco] is a little more on the side, he’s definitely not a kingpin or all of that. The big guy, we tend to have kept him under wraps a little bit, and I don’t think you’ve seen much of him so far," Morin said.
Aiden's friend or frienemy, let's just say person Aiden associates with, Jordi Chin is the guy you saw Pearce speaking with during the E3 2012 presentation. He's a bit of a wild card and has a very interesting way with words.
However, who is Jordi Chin?
"Jordi is a fixer, that’s not a secret, but with this guy, we had a lot of fun with first, the look and then we were all like, ‘he’s an Asian guy,’ and we tried the Asian voice and were like, ‘oh my God that’s terrible.’
"We went for the pure American. So that’s helped a lot to have that feeling to him, he’s a guy who was born in a questionable environment. I would say he’s an old-timer of fixers. Fixers in the universe of Watch Dogs are embracing technology more than other players, but I think Jordi is a mix between mercenary-hitman and a questionable shady dude who takes money from whoever he wants.
"We voluntarily don’t go too deep in detailing all the backgrounds of those guys because I think it makes them a little bit more interesting to explore for players," Morin said.
Making money in 'Watch Dogs'
Some games really force you to grind out the hours, trying to acquire enough funds to purchase a certain item so that you can try and complete a mission. From our own experiences and from what Jonathan Morin says, Watch Dogs force doesn't force arbitrary requirements on you.
"We wanted to make sure that there was this possibility of getting money in all sorts of different ways based on play style. It’s not a game where we necessarily want you to grind to earn money.
"That’s why if you run around, some players will profile for activities, some will run to a mission while profiling for a bank account. If you do a side mission, then you gain money as well. We didn’t want to make a game where you needed a lot of money to finish it, it’s more for the [perfectionist] to decide how they want to do it.
"The player will never feel like the game is steering them in one direction saying, ‘now you need to do that.’ I think that feels that great, knowing that a game like that has a lot to offer, doesn’t mean everybody wants to dig into each piece of it in the same depth," Morin said.
It's been documented how difficult of a choice it was for Ubisoft to delay Watch Dogs back in October of last year, and ultimately it's great to know quality wins over getting a game out as soon as possible with this company.
Morin expressed his thoughts when he found out the game would be delayed.
"I was extremely happy to see that yeah, they had the balls to do that. We gotta thank journalists and players for that because no matter how hard we want to try and believe it’s all for quality, you don’t throw extra money on something if you don’t believe there’s expectations behind it.
"In order to work toward filling the expectations of people, you need to have expectations [yourself] in the first place. I cannot thank players enough for having shown that level of interest. It feels great," Morin said.
Beyond the first iteration of 'Watch Dogs'
After spending over half a decade on this project, Morin and his team have got to have no more ideas left, right? To the contrary, he can see how things would continue to progress further, if they ever did.
"When you’re five and a half years on something, there are definitely things you can see evolving further [down the line]. For me first, we ship the game, second, we see how players react," Morin said.
He continued to elaborate on how this proves players can ingest a lot more information than what developers have thought they could.
"I think if it’s Watch Dogs or something else in the future even outside of Ubisoft, I think one thing that it shows well is how players are more willing to swallow a lot more elements in a game than what we thought they were.
"Just putting the name, the jobs, the salary of people in the face of players, not only do players read it, but they talk to us about it. You can tell there’s a big open door to give a lot more information and credibility to the nth degrees that there are in the game. [That] can open a lot of new things in the future I think," Morin said.
Watch Dogs launches this coming Tuesday, feels good, doesn't it?