How Ubisoft is bringing Watch Dogs’ alt-Chicago to life

After an hour with a preview build of Watch Dogs and its surprising companion app, we sat down with the game’s senior producer Dominic Guay to find out how Ubisoft’s studios are collaborating on the project in order to bring their vision of an alternative Chicago to life.

What have been the most challenging aspects of building Watch Dogs’ open world?

Dominic Guay: It was a big challenge to create something coherent. We’re not creating a completely invented city, we’re getting inspired by Chicago, but that’s easier said than done so it was about going there but finding what’s really the essence of Chicago – the people, the accents, what’s special about the architecture.

We didn’t want to make a 1:1 model so we really had to take what we thought was good for the game and not try to replicate it square mile by square mile. I think the biggest challenge is not the concrete, it’s the life, it’s what’s dynamic, it’s the people and how they react to you as a player.

Having to giving all of those people little backstories and personalities because of the scanning mechanic must have been a huge task…

We have the largest writing team of any Ubisoft Montreal game, and we maybe underestimated how much work it would be to create all of that content that you’re able to hack into within the city. Part of it is built on the fly, so, for example, those profiles – we couldn’t write like 10,000 profiles so they’re created based on a database.

But if you’re hacking into someone else’s conversation on the phone, well, those can’t be built on the fly – they have to be written and recorded. So we had people writing, spending many days in Chicago working with actors doing those hundreds of conversations and things you can overhear as a hacker.

What are you doing to ensure there’s always something for the players to do in such a large space?

There are a couple of dynamic systems that can create gameplay in our city. Probably the most dynamic is the one that we call the crime prediction system, or the vigilante events. Basically we have hundreds or thousands of different events that can happen where you are going to get a warning based on a prediction system used by Chicago PD. As you hack into the systems you get that information too, so anywhere in the city you can learn that there’s a crime happening. So you’re gonna be able to go there and use your tools to investigate.

Sometimes it’ll just happen close to you and you’ll just stumble upon it, sometimes you’ll travel and go there with intel that a possible crime is happening. You’re going to need to use the security cameras, profiling and scanning people to try to figure out who’s the criminal, who’s the victim and what’s going to happen.

Obviously if you’re in an alley and there’s just one guy and he’s a known pyromaniac that has a fuel canister, it’s easy to figure out what’s going to happen and what you can do. But sometimes it’s a lot trickier. For example, you can know that someone’s a father of three, he’s a blue collar man, never done anything wrong, but you know, his wife just got killed – he’s the one attacking the killer of his wife. So now morally it’s a bit more grey, what are you going to do? Are you going to intervene and maybe shoot down this guy – a father of three who’s trying to get revenge? There’s a moral dilemma and it’s up to you to figure out what you’re going to do in that situation.

What do PS4 and Xbox One allow you to do with Watch Dogs that you can’t on current gen formats?

The easiest thing to imagine when you’re thinking of next gen is to push the graphics. We’re gong to push immersion and no-one is going to be surprised by that. But the most interesting aspect was to push dynamism – how many people are in the street, how intelligent are they, how much fidelity to their behaviours.

On PS3 and Xbox 360, we have wind, you know, you can find it in any game – on next gen we actually simulated how that wind effects every object and creates wind tunnels in every street. We’re doing the same thing with the water, for example, so we’re adding those layers that creates immersion but also creates more emergent gameplay and side effects that we can’t necessarily predict when we started building those systems.

Watch Dogs is part of a genre that the GTA games have traditionally owned, how much has Rockstar’s work influenced yours?

We were definitely inspired by every open world game out there, it’s obvious that we’re going to look at every form of open world and how they manage an open structure and how they manage missions. So we’ve been looking at competition and we’ve been looking at some of Ubisoft’s games, for example Assassin’s and Far Cry 3 and how they manage the open world structure and narrative.

We’ve been looking at all of those games and obviously we have our own needs so we’re finding our own way in this, but looking at people’s failures and people’s successes is important because open world games are still relatively new and I don’t think there’s one formula right now that’s perfect. So everybody’s trying to push and improve and looking at each other. This generation, there’s probably going to be still a lot of improvements in game structure for open world games.

I personally thought the companion app was really fun, but the concept doesn’t feel like it has properly taken off with players just yet – do you think this will change that?

To be fair I can understand that some gamers are skeptical about companion apps. A lot of the companion apps that have come out in the past were mostly to look at stats or very passive – they weren’t giving gameplay. So I can understand gamers are like well, I’m buying a game, I don’t want to be looking at stats on my phone. I believe we’re going to be the first – or one of the first – games to come out with direct gameplay, so this is different. You’re actually can sit in the living room and have an experience directly on your phone or on your tablet with someone who’s on the console.

We think that’s cool and it’s a lot of cool R&D for us, not only on the tech side but on the game design side. It’s going to be interesting to see if people pick it up and if they like it. If they do there’s a lot more we can do.

Bringing the same game to so many platforms sounds like a challenge…

With the brand, that was our credo so we couldn’t get away from it – everything is connected. Initially we weren’t thinking of mobiles and all of that, it was clearly linked to Aiden’s own abilities but then we bridged it into the real world and how we want to connect singleplayer adventures and connect with mobiles. So this is something that’s been inspiring a lot of new game dynamics and that’s good, that’s what you want when you build a new IP. Once we’re able to get that companion app working on all platforms through the internet this is something that eventually other games are going to be able to use, for sure.

This is being built across several studios, can you tell us what each one is doing?

So the studio is lead out of Montreal, working very closely with four other studios. Newcastle is doing a lot of the city activities, things you can do in the city that aren’t necessarily the main missions and also, for example, if you go in a bar, the interior, the art what you can do in it, if there’s a social activity you can get engaged in… they worked on all of those things, plus a lot of side missions that you can get engaged in.

There’s also the Paris studio that is working partly on the world and also on some missions within the city. And there’s also Quebec, working on the companion app and we’re also working with Bucharest which is doing a lot of tech – we have many different platforms that we’re supporting and there are some platforms that are partly being developed out of Bucharest and also Paris.