Watch Dogs Interview: Lead designer on connectivity, stealth in plain sight, and the relevancy of reality

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E3 2012 was notable for a few reasons, one of which was the non-appearance of next generation consoles from Sony or Microsoft, but despite the disappointment of not bearing witness to a new wave of game technology the world was introduced to a little game by the name of Watch Dogs, an all-new open-world action game from Ubisoft.

At the time of its reveal, it wasn’t exactly clear if Watch Dogs was a next-gen exclusive game but from the looks of its decidedly next-gen gameplay it didn’t really matter which platforms it would eventually show up on – the premise (and promise) of being able to ‘hack’ the city of Chicago to make your own life easier using nothing more than day-after-tomorrow smartphone technology was enough to capture the imagination of gamers the world over.

El33tonline recently chatted with Watch Dogs lead game designer, Danny Belanger, to dive a little deeper into this open world and discover how we, too, might be able to shut down Chicago while escaping the police… and much more.

WatchDogs InterviewDannyBelanger

– Danny Belanger, Watch Dogs Lead Game Designer

El33tonline: To begin… Watch Dogs is set in Chicago. Why Chicago and were there any other cities in contention, like New York City or a European location?

Danny Belanger: We looked at a few cities, for sure, but Chicago is very rich and it has a very interesting background with the rebirth and all the crime so it was a nice canvas for a strong narrative. Also the architecture is unique in the sense that it’s a mix of old and new, it was the birth of the new American architecture style, and it’s also a very connected city with a huge amount of security cameras all connected together.

The infrastructure is also very interesting – the trains and bridges – all of these things were potential gameplay elements that we could interact with, there’s water… so there was so much choice and so many elements that made sense for us to go there, plus there are not a lot of games set in Chicago so it feels fresh and new.

El33tonline: Apparently development on Watch Dogs was very, very secretive, is that true?

Belanger: Yeah, until E3 2012 we didn’t announce anything. I think Ubisoft wanted to make sure the game was ready before it was announced, so they don’t announce something and then a few years later it doesn’t exist, we’ve seen that in the past, so we kept it very secret.

El33tonline: Even within Ubisoft?

Belanger: No, I think in the studio of Montreal people know what projects there are so we’re not hiding it from them, but it didn’t [leak] which was great and I think that’s fun for players.

Watchdogs Screenshot 2

El33tonline: One thing that’s interesting about Watch Dogs is the element of stealth with a phone, allowing Aiden Pierce to hide in plain site in a crowd of people with their heads down looking at their mobile. Was that a conscious design choice or something that was iterated on over time?

Belanger: Everything about the character was thought through, and it was a challenge to create a character that is iconic but also blends in, you know? In a way we didn’t want anyone who stood out too much from the crowd. With his cap he can conceal himself, and it’s November so he has a scarf which he can use as well, and his long coat allows him to hide some things, too, and he could potentially just pass by and people won’t notice him. He can also see everything with his phone – and everyone has a phone – so he can blend in very well.

El33tonline: Leading on from that – the character is very iconic which is important for videogames, but can you talk about the work that went into the designs and interations of Aiden Pierce?

Belanger: Obviously there were a few iterations and slowly all of these elements came together, but the main concept was always the same – we wanted someone who was recognisable but at the same time can fit in the crowd, he feels like a normal guy. But I think there’s something special about that, because typically a game character is very over-the-top, but Aiden feels relevant which fits with our themes and our game, and it was important for the character to make sense in the universe.

Watch Dogs Screenshot 3

El33tonline: How does tool crafting work in Watch Dogs? Will you need different parts and recipes to make tools?

Belanger: Aiden basically is very skilled with electronics and hacking, but he doesn’t really hack he more uses apps to hack, but all the tools that he uses are made from components that he can find, and some of these are electronic parts, or chemicals, or what we call ‘system keys’ – if I hack you, I gain access to one of your passwords and that allows me to infiltrate the systems or that key can be used once to create some of the crafting tools.

Then there are a lot of things you can craft, like the blackout, lures, you can jam communications to shut down TVs and phones, so if someone is calling the cops you can shut that down, things like that.

El33tonline: So it’s not like you always have the ability to shut down the city, you have to craft specific tools…

Belanger: … no you have to find the key and then you can use it. There’s a balance there but obviously if you’ve found them you can have a few ready to use at the appropriate moment.

El33tonline: On-screen there’s always a battery symbol denoting a certain amount of battery life, how does that play into the game?

Belanger: The battery is also a way to ensure that everything is not limitless. Most of the actions are free – moving a forklift, or hacking a camera or phone won’t cost battery life – but something major that will cause a car accident will take more resources from your phone, and if you do too much at some point you’ll run out. But that will slowly come back, it will regenerate.

It’s also something that you can increase with your skills, so you’ll have a certain amount and by buying your skills and upgrading you’ll have more and more battery, so you become stronger the more you go.

Watch Dogs Screenshot 1

El33tonline: With those hacking abilities, as you’re running through you’ll see all of these things that you can hack at once – will you have to aim at the specific hack opportunity or is it designed so you can just press a single button and hack the item that’s closest to you?

Belanger: You’ll have to aim at the one you want, because if there are multiple things you can do at the same time we want to make sure that you select the right one, and not create a steam pipe explosion, for example, when you wanted to hack something else. You have to really aim and select it.

El33tonline: There is just so much in Watch Dogs, what do you think the game brings to open world games overall?

Belanger: There are many things that I think are interesting about the concept. The canvas of technology allows us to bring a layer of connectivity that we’ve never seen before in an open-world game, and we’re trying to break that street and wall effect, now I can interact with all of these things, and these things add gameplay.

We’re also doing what we call ‘privacy invasion,’ so you can hack the WiFi, go into the system networks, see inside peoples’ homes – and that’s a player’s choice – so we’re really trying to bring more layers and depth to the open world. For example, every civilian has their own personal information, you see their profile and faces, and that can generate gameplay.

I think connectivity also extends to online, so when you’re not in a mission other players can come and we can interact together, and it’s the same thing for you, you can go in their game. It’s difficult, but we’re trying to cancel or destroy the concept of singleplayer and multiplayer – why do I have to quit my game to play with others? So we’re taking some steps in that direction in Watch Dogs, saying ‘Well, I’m in singleplayer but I’m playing with others,’ and that’s a choice I have, I don’t have to quit my game and play this other game, even though it feels like two games.

So definitely connectivity with the world, connectivity with other players.

Watch Dogs Screenshot 2

El33tonline: The big story at E3 this year was second screen gaming, which Watch Dogs also features. What work has gone into this aspect of the game and when did this work begin?

Belanger: I couldn’t tell you the date, but it’s been quite a while for sure, and we have the same philosophy – it’s more content. When you’re in an open world, you choose what you want to do. Do I want to do a combat mission, or driving missions or do I want to hack and find collectibles… and now playing online in the same session, or playing with someone on the second screen.

Playing on the second screen isn’t meant to prepare you for your game, it’s meant to play together in a mission, and you’ll gain rewards for that and investing time will give you experience points, you unlock skills, so it just continues your normal progression flow, and then you have the choice: ‘Do I like that? Yes or no?’

El33tonline: So you can shut that off, you don’t have to let people into your game?

Belanger: Exactly, if someone dislikes it that’s fine, for us a general philosophy for the game is free choice for the player in the gameplay, but also in the activities that they want to partake in, and online is an activity you can choose or not to go into.

But we’re trying to make game dynamics that are fun and create interesting interactions for players, but obviously if you don’t like it, no problem. If it’s not your thing, that’s fine.

El33tonline: You spoke about player choice – can you get through Watch Dogs without firing a shot or killing anyone?

Belanger: I would say 95 percent of the game. There are some narrative moments… we strongly believe in good narrative and good acting and good dialogue, so sometimes we’ll create a context that’s interesting but it involves action. But most of the time it’s free approach, you can do the whole thing stealth, you can arrive anywhere you want, use hacking or use a combination of all of these things together, go from stealth to combat and back, so you can play a lot with the game dynamics.

For us, it’s so fundamental to not put you on a train track, ‘This is playing as designed’ – that’s not what we want. That being said, if there’s something we want to teach you we’ll obviously create a context in which the thing is useful so we’ll definitely create some moments and teach you something. Then the moment will arrive again, but then it will be a choice for you. Because there are a lot of new things we really wanted the player to understand the dynamics, and then allow them to choose to use them or not when they become available later.

Watch Dogs Screenshot 1

El33tonline: You mentioned stealth – stealth in open-world games isn’t something you would traditionally expect, because in most open-world games your movement is very imprecise. Were you aware of this problem when including stealth abilities in Watch Dogs?

Belanger: I think the games at Ubisoft and the same on Watch Dogs, we want strong controls. We want them to be responsive. We feel that being an open world is not a reason to have mechanics that are weaker than games that have dedicated mechanics, so we’re trying to make them all as good as possible but there is a huge challenge there because, if I give you a controller and you can drive, you can hack and then you can shoot, all of that together is a challenge just to make sure all of these work.

So for us that was fundamental just making sure the basic controls work great, and it’s the same thing for our AI and our combat. It is difficult because, you know, the cars are dynamically moving and if I create a car accident then the AI has to react to that, then they have to react to you, so there’s lots of technology that’s gone into that to make it work, but we feel that we’ve reached something very strong.

Same thing with driving, we started driving and navigation before shooting just to make sure these elements were really good, so we made sure character navigation felt tight, it felt good for the player.

I would say it’s one of Ubisoft’s strengths, the mechanics, they’re good at it, and the thing is that we can share knowledge. It’s harder to share technology because all the engines are quite different and you can’t just swap in a module, it’s not that easy. But at least talking to the people to find out what works in stealth and navigation, and what problems others have encountered. It just makes the flow a little easier in the long run, so sharing knowledge at Ubisoft Montreal is great.

Watch Dogs Screenshot 4

El33tonline: Are there a lot of studios working on Watch Dogs?

Belanger: Yeah. [laughs] Montreal is currently the biggest, but there’s Quebec, Newcastle, Marseille, we also work with China and Bucharest.

El33tonline: How has the team responded to the overwhelming reaction to Watch Dogs since it was revealed in 2012?

Belanger: To be honest, at E3 2012 we didn’t expect that big of a reception so we were really happy. It’s brought a lot of excitement and a lot of energy, but also a lot of pressure. I think the company as a whole deserves part of the credit, there’s a philosophy of quality at [Ubisoft] and then they give us enough resources to make a game that’s unique and different. It’s a huge challenge because if you’re playing a new intellectual property, basically, and you feel that you’re playing the same game that someone else made, I think for us that would be a failure, because being a new game is ‘What is this game really bringing to gamers?’

One thing I think that’s really resonating is the themes of the game, the relevance of being connected, of technology in our lives and how that influences us. If I can access your personal info, there’s a grey zone there and Aiden can do that, so we’re putting a spotlight on some of those elements. And I think people are connecting to that because it’s very real.

It’s funny how reality has caught up to the game. [We started development] more than four years ago and social media is becoming bigger, data tracking is becoming bigger, personal information security is a big concern for people. I don’t think we have all the answers yet, not in the game but in general, but I think the game is using those elements to create a strong theme and it’s really talking to people.

El33tonline: What is your personal favourite feature of Watch Dogs?

Belanger: I always come back to connectivity. It’s so difficult to build everything and make sure it fits in a systemic way, and what I mean by that is, I can hack all of these things but then there are so many systems working together to make it work. That was a huge technical and design challenge.

The example earlier where, I’m in the street and I create a traffic light, well there are people in the cars and there are people in the street, and if there were enemies or someone after me we add AI layering on top of that… so all of these elements working together, and then you as a player creating these gameplay moments? I think that’s really, really strong.

Watch_Dogs – 14 Minute Gameplay Demo

Watch Dogs was due for release in late November 2013, but has since been delayed into the first half of 2014 across all platforms.

Don’t miss El33tonline’s previous and continued coverage of Watch Dogs and look out for our extended impressions of this extremely promising open-world action game soon.

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