Science and art collide when making videogames, and Watch_Dogs will need to lock both down in order to fulfil its ambitious remit. Creating a living, breathing, simulated city full of believable people is no mean feat, especially when it's home to versatile mechanics and sophisticated AI designed to react realistically to everyday situations. Not to mention a vengeful hacker who can cause massive devastation with a single tap of a touchscreen.
So after interviewing Lead Game Designer Danny Belanger, I naturally jumped at the chance to talk to cinematic animation lead Lars Bonde about the artistic challenges Watch_Dogs poses, motion capture, his influences and what the next generation promises beyond shinier graphics.
That said, we're not above talking about Drive, guns and car chases either...
Jonathan Lester (Dealspwn): Thanks for talking to us, Lars. Watch_Dogs must pose a massive challenge compared to other games. To my knowledge, no-one's ever had to animate someone getting splashed by a taxi before, discovering that their bank account has been hacked and his wife's leaving with the kids. That must be fun for you as cinematic animation lead!
Lars Bonde (Ubisoft): The challenge has been fun! Partially because, a lot of times in games, there are so many restrictions in terms of technology and how far you can go. But Ubisoft have been really great in saying, “you know what? Go as far as you can and then whatever you can do, we can always scale things down.” Everything has been built in layers. The AI programmer Eric [Baillargeon] has really provided a lot of those opportunities for us.
We've done a lot of motion capture, shot a lot of data, have a lot of actors and we work really closely with them on what we can do. When the car runs by [in the rain], someone has to be splashed. Yes, we're not putting water in the motion capture studio and spraying it up on them, but we have all kinds of other artefacts we can use like foam or whatever. We make sure that we have a little projector or a cannon that can blow it up on them and they can react to it. We can have something race by them so they can react to it as if it's a car.
But as an animator in general, that's what we do. I observe. I look at human beings every day – even at an event like this – I'm looking. I'm looking at how people's faces move. How do people act? You know, on a subway, you listen to little bits of conversation. That might sound creepy but it's how you learn about movement.
So it's actually been liberating us as animators on Watch_Dogs, because we have been able to go further than what we've ever done in the past.
Dealspwn: No kidding. Watch_Dogs looks like an incredibly ambitious undertaking...
Lars Bonde: It's super dense! Everything, even pulling a gun, if [an NPC] has a coffee cup then they can let go of it. But if it's a phone, they need to be able to call 911, so when you pull the gun on them they don't want to just drop that as well. That's two layers already, but there's more. Does it rain? [They] have an umbrella. Is it morning or is it night? How many people are around in the morning or at night? How many people drink coffee in the morning because they're on their way to work?
Dealspwn: Sounds like you'll need to do plenty of observation in Chicago then! Hurricane43 from watchdogsforum.net asks: How long did the team study the city of Chicago for, and how many visits? What exactly did you take away from the visit to the city that you didn't know going in?
Lars Bonde: [Exhales sharply]. Just recently, for sound, we had them staying in Chicago for literally a month. Just to record.
Dealspwn: Wait, just ambient city sounds to use in the game?
Lars Bonde: Absolutely! Not even just that, it's actors, it's everything from Chicago. It's diverse, and we want to make sure we have that Chicago flavour. It's everything from the sound of the wind to people's accents while talking.
Even on casting, we've cast actors for our cinematics from Chicago, but of course also from elsewhere because Chicago being a rich diverse city, it's not just people from Chicago. There are people from many other places as well. So we've made sure that we represent different cultures while staying true to what there is in Chicago and making sure that a good amount of our cast have some relationship to the city. Being from Chicago is important to us.
Dealspwn: What about the visuals? If a Chicago resident plays Watch_Dogs, will they keep saying, “oh, I know this street,” or “oh, I know that landmark”?
Lars Bonde: There are definitely landmarks. Of course, the city has to be shaped to whatever fits what we need to do. We're not a full, living city Chicago simulation – we have to do what is possible. If we just keep building and expanding that, you're going to get less density in the city and less of a fun experience.
So we want to make sure that you have enough to make it feel like a full open world, and a rich, diverse city, but also that the density of everything you have in the experience is close enough to you.
Dealspwn: That sounds pretty reasonable to be honest. So, beyond observing real life, what were your inspirations and influences behind Watch_Dogs?
Lars Bonde: For cinematics, a lot of movies for me. Anything you have that gives that flavour, everybody's like, “we look at Heat,” or “we look at Drive.” What was really cool is that we were creating the game when Drive came out. It was from a Danish director, which is cool because I'm Danish so... you know. That's nice. But we looked at that and said,”wow, that's like our chase mechanic.”
The big part for me, as I've said before, is creating emotion and especially empathy. Anything that we can get across for me is an inspiration. It's hard to do in games.
Dealspwn: We've certainly seen some... morally dubious, questionable and downright dark things in that demo. How dark will Watch_Dogs actually get?
Lars Bonde: That's up to the player. Imagine driving along the bridge, chasing somebody and pushing him against the bridge [barrier]. And the car flips and falls into the water. You can kind of laugh at that because ,“that was a rapist and I took care of him and he flew off the bridge.” Hahaha.
But of course, there's the other side of it where you're like, “okay, we've got an HIV positive guy.” People start talking about those things, we just want to replicate things we feel in the real world, how players perceive that. The game's not going to see or hold it against you. Just like in the back alley, hacking [somebody's bank account]... even if it's a mother of three with no income... the game cannot judge you for that.
But can you pull a gun on her? And shoot her?
Dealspwn: Players will have to judge themselves, I suppose, and decide what kind of man Aiden is. Just out of interest, how much pressure are you under developing a brand new IP at the end of one generation and the start of the next?
Lars Bonde: [Laughs] We already put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We wouldn't have had the presence at E3 last year if we hadn't. It's a new IP, and new IPs are not easy to come by. You have to put a lot of thought and effort into it.
But how the community reacted is just proof that we touched on something contemporary, something real. That's why we've had people looking at what's real in terms of hacking, what's real in terms of systems accessibility, the whole connectivity thing. Like DEF CON last year, what did they hack into, what opportunities did they have to chain-link from camera to camera and so on. It's all based on systems that are there today. You can Google, you know, operating systems for cities and you will really find companies that are doing that.
Dealspwn: How rewarding is it to already have a passionate community and excitement surrounding a brand new IP? A universe that doesn't even exist yet?
Lars Bonde: It makes the difference. It gives that extra... you know, we're sitting there and saying “we've just got to make this work.” It's hard to make things, because it's a big complex city, but it gives us that little extra push: “you know what? Look at the attention we got. We have to deliver exactly what it is that we're promising.” And that's why we're nailing the systemic part of [Watch_Dogs].
What we're doing here today, so you guys can see that [the demonstrator] could have died here, or done that, or whatever. Even if he escaped the felony, maybe he would have played with it a little more because he wanted to. The systemic part is solid, and that's what we build the story and gameplay on top of.
Dealspwn: Earlier, you mentioned that the Disrupt Engine is highly scalable. So what will the main differences be between the current-gen and next-gen console versions, from both an artistic and gameplay standpoint? Beyond just raw graphics, that is.
Lars Bonde: I understand that. We developed the game not looking at what's available. Ubisoft said, “you know what? There's no limit, let's get as far as we can.” From that, you get the same story, same gameplay experience and same vision, but of course the tech is pushing certain things further.
We can talk about density. We can talk about the amount of animations it allows us to do. We can talk about making scenes look better because of the lighting we can do. But even then, we've developed systems that literally optimise current-gen as well. There's a bit of back and forth benefiting both [generations]. But changing the game in itself? At its core? It should be the same experience. It wouldn't be fair to everyone if not.
Dealspwn: But we have seen some major next-gen features, such as the wind effects and water?
Lars Bonde: Absolutely, there are certain things there that are optimised. Today, I don't know if you noticed, but we played on the PS4 controller where there is a touchpad, for example. We're looking at how to integrate that, how does that become part of Watch_Dogs? So there are those things, and the companion app too.
Dealspwn: Can you tell us more about the companion app?
Lars Bonde: I can't mention much about that.
Dealspwn: Okay, that's fair enough. So as an artist, then, what opportunities does the next generation of consoles pose for you?
Lars Bonde: It all depends on what we develop for it, and the tools we have. Which is one of the main reasons why we had to develop a new engine. You look at lighting, lighting is huge for me. It's everything in the face, it's how shadows will look, the reflectivity in your eyes. It's those little details.
We're talking about how many more bones can we allow, how many more polygons can we allow, it's all the boring techie stuff. But the players might not think about all of those little details, and ultimately, I might portray empathy and emotion to you, it's going to be a hell of a lot easier with 30,000 polygons versus 3,000 polygons, that's the expression you can get. The more we get that, the closer we can get to what movies do; they render something, we have to render our stuff live. The closer we can get to that, the closer we also get to something real. Those consoles, they start giving us more opportunities to do so.