After taking E3 2012 by storm and then disappearing off the grid, Watch_Dogs has taunted us for months with its promise of totally open-ended action gameplay on an open world scale. Hacking. Shooting. Sneaking. Driving. All of it, all at once, the way you want to play it.
Thankfully Ubisoft are starting to talk specifics. Having taken a long look at their latest production build, I was able to sit down with lead game designer Danny Belanger for a long discussion about Watch_Dogs' numerous gameplay systems, sophisticated AI, unique mechanics and next-generation potential. Look out for our second interview with Cinematic Lead Lars Bonde tomorrow.
Please note: Some of these questions have been submitted by our own community and members of watchdogforums.net. These questions have been clearly credited , and many thanks to everyone who got involved!
Jonathan Lester (Dealspwn): It's difficult to imagine a new IP getting a warmer reception. How exciting is it to be working on an entirely new property, and have such a strong following already?
Danny Belanger (Ubisoft): It's really exciting. When we revealed [Watch_Dogs] last year at E3, the team were super-excited by the reception. We honestly did not expect that much.
Dealspwn: You crushed E3 2012, basically.
Danny Belanger: For us, it was just...it's fun, we like the project, but you never know how it's going to be received. It's fantastic and the team is hyped!
Dealspwn: We've just seen your latest production build in action, but I'd like to hear it from you personally: what is Watch_Dogs bringing to the table that we haven't seen before?
Danny Belanger: In terms of what we're bringing to the table, we're working really hard on making the game feel relevant; not just socially, but mechanically. What I mean by that is the things you do in the game, it has to make sense. Connecting with the environment, with the systems, connecting with personal devices to get information, and then translating that connection into fun gameplay. That's really our core mandate.
It's an action game, so you're an action character, but there's a layer of connectivity and technology on top of everything.
Dealspwn: Let's get down to business. How big is your version of Chicago, and how much have you modelled?
Danny Belanger: Right now we're showing two districts: The Ward, which is a poor district, and The Loop which is a richer Downtown district. There's more than that, but right now, we want to show that there's variety, so we're going to reveal more of that later.
It's not a 1:1 modelling of Chicago. It's a version that we're doing to fit our game, so the ingredients are there to hack and support all gameplay styles. Right now that's what we're showing: the poorest and one of the richest.
Dealspwn: Okay, I'll be sure to ask your animation lead more specifics about the city if I get to talk to him later. [I do. Stay tuned for our interview with Lars Bonde tomorrow]. One of the most obvious things about Watch_Dogs is how systems-driven it is, which must require an awful lot of simulation. How deep does it go? How much are you constantly simulating, and in what detail?
Danny Belanger: The goal of the team is to simulate as much as we can. Every character in the world is generated as we go, their information. Families make sense in the district they're in, so we put categories on people to fit where they are.
All the city systems, the infrastructure, the weather, the traffic; all of that is simulated. The consequences of Aiden's hacking abilities are also simulated: if you create a car accident, you make all the traffic lights green, and there might be no cars – so there's no accident. It fits what's going on.
That's what we like. We like the chaos it brings. We like you reacting live in real time to everything that's going on, that's the part we really enjoy. For me, the strength is that it's a player story. What you do, the choices you make, the interactions with the world you do in the moment really changes the story from a gameplay perspective.
Dealspwn: Sounds promising. Lighting from watchdogsforum.net asks: How much freedom do we have to explore the city?
Danny Belanger: Erm... full freedom. You can go anywhere you want! We can discuss boats. We can discuss the vehicles. There's a motorcycle... that's what we can discuss right now!
Dealspwn: Okay then, let's talk vehicles. AndyNature asks: What's the handling model like? Is it more geared towards the authentic or arcade end of the spectrum?
Danny Belanger: We're trying not to make it too arcade, but on the other hand, not too hardcore a simulation. So there's different classes and each one of them should react differently and behave realistically. For example, we have all-wheel drive vehicles that are slightly easier to drive, or propulsion which are harder to drive. Essentially: depth in the driving model, so it's not a simplification. You play a lot of games where you just stick on the road [mimes pancake with open palms]. We like intertia, we like what that brings to the simulation and how it feels.
It's up to the player to choose his style. Going super-high speed is very difficult in general, but taking all-wheel drive, it grips to the road really well.
Dealspwn: For sure. We're also looking forward to hacking into them and stealing them off the street... which is a nice and contrived way of getting onto the hacking itself. We've seen any number of games that promise exciting mechanics but then only let us use them in strict and linear ways. How do you plan to change all that?
Danny Belanger: I've got a challenge to your question. Imagine you have to do tools, and you have a lot of gameplay in which these tools apply. On top of creating a situation, the situation is provoked by the player.
What I mean by that is, these [hacking] tools can happen while I'm driving. When I'm in stealth, or in combat or in navigation. We really want to layer everything on top, all these – I'll call them hacking ingredients - in all these contexts that are useful.
For example, you saw the [hackable] scissor lift. In stealth, it makes some sounds, so the enemy will say “what the hell is going on” and investigate. So I can use that. In combat, same thing, I can use it to elevate myself to get up to a vantage point and get a tactical advantage on the enemy. They're opportunities, so the goal is to put them in the world and let players use them in the context they want and that fits their play style. So being a systemic game, I think that helps us a lot. Rather than saying something like, I know what you mean, “oh I can kill enemies through walls.” Because you have to have destructible walls everywhere and usually that's just not feasible. It works really well to do simulation, and then put tools on top of that simulation.
That applies to AI as well, I'm not just talking about the city. The AI is also very systemic. It reacts to the environment. It reacts to what you do. It reacts to the tools you use to influence them.
Dealspwn: So just to be clear, I can hack any traffic light in the city?
Danny Belanger: Any.
Dealspwn: Profile every citizen?
Danny Belanger: Every one. Although, there is one subtlety. You need to put a rootkit in ctOS. If you're not connected to ctOS in an area, you're not able to hack the system, so the player has to actively build that connection.
Dealspwn: Oh yes, we saw one of those control centre takeovers in the demo. I personally loved the way you can leapfrog from camera to camera to access areas you'd never be able to reach physically. But, yes, once you've hacked into an area's control centre, does it then basically become your playground?
Danny Belanger: Yes, but you'll still need to progress in your hacking ingredients. You don't start with everything. You start with a minimal amount and as you grow and explore the city, do activities, it will expand on your ability to hack the city.
Dealspwn: Sure, so how does character progression work then? Is there a standard experience system?
Danny Belanger: There are three axes. Economy. Perks, which is through experience, your physical abilities become better. And through technology I get more access to more and more of the ingredients of the world and the infrastrcture.
I don't start with the ability to hack a traffic light. I need to play a bit, and slowly, I gain more and more access into the ctOS.
Dealspwn: I love the sound of the hacking mechanics, but it's sometimes easy to forget that Watch_Dogs is very much an action game. There certainly seem to be lots of guns and people to shoot at any rate. What I'd like to know is how much of the game can be completed without firing a single bullet... or killing anyone at all?
Danny Belanger: There's a clear narrative. We create a problem. Most of the problems we create are what we call 'Free Approach,' meaning that you don't have to fight. There will be some narrative moments that put you in a situation where you need to fight, but usually you can mix stealth and hacking to complete it. Sometimes you don't even need to physically be there to solve a problem and just use hacking. You can play it the way you want.
The reason we're doing that is because we don't want to force the player into any play style. If you're an action player, fantastic. If you're a stealth player, that's great as well. Exceptionally in the story there's a problem, you're in the middle of it and we create a [violent] context, but generally speaking that's rare.
Dealspwn: So for the most part, we can use and actually combine any playstyle we want on the fly?
Danny Belanger: Exactly. I could have just gone into that [ctOS Control Centre] and attacked everyone, or hacked my way in without being seen, and doing all sorts of things. We strongly believe that your play style should be respected. If you're the type of player who likes to use soft stealth, using the hacking skills, that's fine with us. If you're action and just want to go in and have fun, that's fine as well.
Dealspwn: pvn from watchdogsforums.net asks: are the weapons customisable or upgradeable?
Danny Belanger: There are multiple weapons that you can buy, but for now, we're not revealing the details of that.
Dealspwn: Oh, go on. You know you want to.
Danny Belanger: [Laughs dismissively]
Dealspwn: Fair play! Okay, this might sound like a silly question, but many of us have wondered why Watch_Dogs actually needs guns given the scope of Aiden's hacking abilities. So why put them in, when setting the game in a city with strict gun control (like London) would have put the focus on your more innovative mechanics?
Danny Belanger: The real reason is because they exist in the world, you know, the world we live in today. In the US, it's a reality. They're weapons, they're just tools that players can use to solve problems. We thought about that, to be honest, [having] no guns. But when cops arrive and they drop a weapon when you take them down, some players will say “I want to pick up the gun.” It feels wrong for us to not allow something like that to happen; it's just a natural thing.
That being said, in action-adventure games, shooting is a fun part of it; a good part of it. So we didn't want to lose that aspect. It just made a lot more sense to have it.
Like I said, most of the time you don't absolutely have to.
Dealspwn: Which will require some fairly sophisticated AI, we presume, both for enemies and civilians. Could Watch_Dogs be the most ambitious open-world game out there when it comes to believable AI?
Danny Belanger: It's very ambitious, definitely. We have to dynamically react to a lot of things that are unpredictable. We haven't shown everything you can do in the city, but the traffic light [hack] is a good example. There's people hurt. How do they react to that? It creates a lot of different pathways. People in cars, how will they react to that? There's another layer of interaction.
Dealspwn: We especially like civilians calling 911 and making you choose how to deal with that, or getting angry if they're splashed by a taxi...
Danny Belanger: We use a specific term for that: “stims.” Events in the world create stims and the AI will react to what's going on. Should I be curious? Should I be afraid? Should I be anxious? So we create a bunch of emotional states that then translate into behaviours. That goes for the cops as well!
Dealspwn: How difficult was it to implement these versatile systems in a game of this scale?
Danny Belanger: [Laughs] It's really difficult! It's a huge challenge. Luckily we've had quite a bit of time and there's plenty of internal knowledge at Ubisoft. Sharing technologies, sharing the way people work, it was really good for us to discuss.
It's a big game, it is very challenging, and we really want to create unique mechanics.
Dealspwn: It seems we're running short on time, but one last question:what differences can we expect between the current-gen and next-gen versions of Watch_Dogs? In fact, stevenjameshyde asks: Are there any substantial differences between the current and next-gen console versions other than raw graphics?
Danny Belanger: In our case, I think the good part is that it's a very scalable game. It's very systemic, we can add a lot of depth. Meaning the simulation can be much better. I mean: the people, the traffic, all that.
For us, what we're really pushing is connectivity. Connecting inside the game, connecting with people outside of the game, so the fact that you can play across platforms and across devices will be much better. Especially in the next-gen, it's actually one of the core values on the next PlayStation. It's very good for us because we align on that subject, so social components will be really really interesting.
I'm not saying you're forced! If someone kicks out his network connection there's still a game there. But what we really want to do is, if you are social or involved socially, you have more variety. It's a bigger meal, it's a bigger buffet, you have more choice. If you want to play a guy on your tablet from your living room, you guys are playing synchronously. You're playing the game. That adds content and value for the players.
One last thing, the water! It's really next-gen because it's a simulation that the current generation doesn't have the processing power to do yet.
Dealspwn: So will we see a marked difference in gameplay opportunities between both versions?
Danny Belanger: We don't want that. We want it to be the same game, but obviously more power means deeper simulation.
Dealspwn: And bigger waves, I guess.
Danny Belanger: Yes, absolutely!
Stay tuned for our interview with Cinematic Animation Lead Lars Bonde: "The Art Of Watch_Dogs"