‘Without Far Cry 2, there would be no Watch Dogs’: Ubisoft on systems, player agency and that delay

Publisher: Ubisoft Developer: In-house Format: 360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One Release: May 27

The eighth generation deserves a more dramatic reason for its postponement than the one that Watch Dogs creative director Jonathan Morin has to offer. “I can’t say anything like, ‘It was completely broken.’ It’s not even necessarily that something tangibly wasn’t working. It’s more that when [we crammed] all the features together, we started reacting to all the issues. And there were too many issues.”

When Watch Dogs was delayed just a month ahead of its intended November 19 release last year, it was a game deep into its final stretch, with advertisements running in both consumer and trade magazines, and preorders taken. It was arguably the flagship set to launch a generation – a generation, some Internet pundits would argue, that Ubisoft delayed along with the game. But if you want a glamorous or tidy reason for Watch Dogs’ delay, you’ll come up short. It was never a bad game in need of fresh design or a catastrophic mess in need of debugging. It was instead a web of complex systems built to play well together – and they didn’t.

“Sometimes when you arrive at the end of development, there’s this moment where you say, ‘OK, here’s this list of things we could polish and this is the time we have,’” Morin explains. “And sometimes you fall into a situation where you have to use your Plan B instead of your Plan A, because you don’t have enough time to solve it properly. I think what happened is that at some time we started to use our Plan B too much, and it wasn’t really conveying what Watch Dogs was expected to be.”

Sometimes, he says, there were so many hackable points onscreen that isolating a single one was tricky. At others, NPCs would behave in ways the team didn’t understand. Some missions were too hard, and others too easy. Some systems were poorly explained, while others weren’t explained at all. And some simply wouldn’t work together at the same time. “Microscopic things,” Morin says. “It wasn’t a single full feature or anything like that, but it was stuff that affected being able to express yourself how we’d want, making sure the reactions of the AI were working… those sorts of things, so those aspects would never let down the fantasy. There are a lot of emergent situations going on, so even if [a problem] wasn’t happening a lot, it was happening.”

Activist group DEDSEC opposes Blume, the corporation behind Chicago’s Central Operating System (CtOS), believing it to be abusing its access to the population’s data.

Ubisoft Montreal’s experience with open-world systemic games goes back to the first Assassin’s Creed, of course, but Watch Dogs is on an altogether larger scale. There are systems governing traffic flow, morality, the way witnesses react, the way police pursue, how NPCs treat suspicious events, and how those same characters react to car crashes or a drawn gun. There are systems governing the salary, career and clothing of every civilian in Watch Dogs’ Chicago, and ones governing the way those people behave when protagonist Aiden Pearce interrupts their daily routines. Still more systems address how Pearce’s behaviour is represented in the media after any disruption, and ensure that civilians react appropriately based on your fearsome or friendly reputation. There are systems you can hack. There are systems you can exploit. There are systems governing how the wind blows down specific streets. It is, says Morin, “the most complex emergent city ever”. When the systems work, Watch Dogs works. The problem came when, with only weeks to go, things that worked so well alone just couldn’t get along together.

“The quick solution when two systems don’t talk to each other is to just [break the connection] so they’ll never have to,” Morin says. “But if you go down that road, that’s an immediate deception for certain players. They’re going to want to push at the edges of the system, because the game screams for them to go there and try that. It was stuff like that; stuff that would be disappointing. It’s microscopic details like that I think make the difference between just shipping Watch Dogs and shipping it right.”

Early last year, Ubisoft delayed Rayman Legends to make it a multiformat game, so Michel Ancel’s Montpellier team found time to make tangible changes to the game, adding many boss fights and the Kung Foot minigame. Watch Dogs, though, has gained nothing worth printing on the back of the box in the months since the deadline crunch was put on hold. “We ended up going back to Chicago to record some more voices,” story designer Kevin Shortt says with something of a verbal shrug when asked about new features introduced since the delay. “It gave us a chance to add more meat to the world, to write more profiles for the civilians. It’ll make the world feel a lot more alive.”

“It gave us a chance to add more meat to the world, to write more profiles for the civilians. It’ll make the world feel a lot more alive.”

“To be honest, we just polished the game,” co-art director Mathieu Leduc says. “Naturally, with an open-world game, you polish the main path and you kind of… not let go of the side stuff, but overpolish the main path. So this extension allowed us to just go back and polish a little more of the side stuff, the hidden stuff that’s not on the main path.”

Ubisoft is working hard to make cars crash like cars should, and uses a number of tricks to ensure a hacked traffic light at an intersection leads to chaos. Those tricks will differ depending on the format; the traffic is denser on PS4 and Xbox One.

“We didn’t really start shoehorning features in one after the other,” Morin says. “It’s tempting to start saying, ‘Oh, let’s add this and that, and we so wanted to add this,’ but the reality is we’d just end up repeating the same thing over and over again. Our new starting point was an almost-shipped game, so the smart move was to not touch too much. Let’s just know exactly what we want to change and deal with it in a very precise way. We already had a huge game. Now the thing was to make sure everything connected with each other in a nice way. We didn’t really add anything huge to the game. We just tweaked everything.”

And Watch Dogs had to work as intended, because for many it represents a new generation. On its debut at E3 2012, it immediately became the talk of the show, beating Star Wars 1313 by virtue of showing something beyond the usual shoot-cover-repeat mechanics games have been leaning on since 2006. Here was a world that felt ‘next gen’ not just for its looks, but for its mechanics – the way every character has a name, a story, and a salary that can be stolen from them, no matter how inconsequential they are; the way traffic flow is managed to ensure any car crash a player engineers feels authentic; the sophistication of Pearce’s context-sensitive interactions; the shortage of gunplay and murder at an E3 that had been more about explosions, headshots and neck-stabbing than ever before.

Morin laughs about it today, but prior to the show he was asked a question by those who had seen early versions of the stage demo: “Why so much walking?” Pushed to make it more exciting, he allowed just one explosion at the demo’s end. His instincts on that proved right, even if he in no way felt ready for the reveal.

“They forced us to go at E3 2012,” Morin says. “We didn’t know what the hell those new consoles would be, so Watch Dogs really has worked on [seventh]-gen systems since the start. But we always pushed the ideas, the design, the core of Watch Dogs in such a way that we felt it would fit well with what we thought would be the future of games. Yves [Guillemot, Ubisoft CEO] was the one who wanted us to go at that E3, even though we felt it was a bit early, and in the end I think he was right.”

The exaggerated reality of Chris Nolan’s Batman movies is an influence on Watch Dogs’ art direction.

But it wasn’t Guillemot alone who put Watch Dogs on hold in October 2013. Producer Dominic Guay, Morin, Ubisoft’s Parisian editorial team and “the execs” were also involved in a decision that meant vast quantities of marketing money were wasted hyping a missed launch. The team wanted a little more time and expected a month or two at most. “What I thought was quite mind-blowing was that Yves didn’t just say, ‘Oh, let’s give a month to Watch Dogs to close their things,’” Morin says. “He had enough faith in the team and project to say, ‘Give them more time and we’ll see.’ That, to me, was unexpected.

“The reason why it happened so late is because it was hard to measure whether or not we would pull it off at the speed we were going. I can’t just present to Yves like, ‘Hey, let’s push this game back!’ They have to open the door to that kind of thing, because I’m way too busy trying to do my job and shipping the game. When we announced it to the team, they were… Well, you know, the first day it’s not necessarily good news to everybody, because they’ve done a lot of crunch and now they realise, ‘Jesus! Why not a month ago? We did so many hours! It’s not like we did that for fun!’ But in the end, it paid off a lot for them as well.”

Watch Dogs’ final stages had presented an insurmountable problem, a problem solvable only by breaking the very systemic promises on which the game had been sold, or by taking more time. “When you’re in a closing phase like that, you don’t have the time to do certain things the way you would want,” Morin says. “Suddenly, we had extra time on a game that you could play easily without crashing all of the time. And that was the new starting point. We could reintegrate or fix certain issues without the cacophony of hundreds or thousands of other bugs being entered every day and breaking something else. Everybody started fixing features, but in a very stable manner. The level of productivity and efficiency in the team was a hundred times greater because of it.”

“Suddenly, we had extra time on a game that you could play easily without crashing all of the time. And that was the new starting point.”

Even in its previous state, Watch Dogs would almost certainly have made millions as a launch game for PS4 and Xbox One. “The game was good and it scored pretty well in terms of how we felt, but there was still this disappointment,” Morin says. “We had the luxury of having lots of people show interest in the game, and also the luxury of Black Flag coming out, and Ubisoft had the balls to say, ‘Let’s just give those guys more time so they can actually polish everything, so we don’t disappoint on any aspect of it.’”

With all the talk of Watch Dogs kickstarting the eighth generation, it’s easy to forget there is a 360, PS3 and modestly delayed Wii U backport due for release this year.

And so when Watch Dogs ships later this year, it will ship as the team intended it. Whether the missions, of which Ubisoft has shown little, will match the quality of the world in which they’re set is another matter, but the Montreal team has constructed enough connected parts interacting in enough different ways to give players the breathing room to make their own fun and tell their own stories in its new sandbox.

So now Watch Dogs’ systems are working, what happens when you pull and aim a gun in the street? “The first thing that should happen,” Morin says, “is people should notice you have a gun. If you walk slowly, you’ll conceal it at your hip. But if Aiden aims or runs, people will notice. [One person] sees the gun and there’s a chance they have the balls to call the cops. But multiplied by the amount of people around you? There’s a really, really high chance someone’s going to call the cops. Other people react differently and start fleeing. Aiden can do all sorts of things. He can break their phone with a melee attack or just shoot [the caller] in the head, but if you do that, other people will see you shooting and it’ll create a ripple effect. Now there might be two people calling the cops. How do you deal with that? You can kill both, but that’s going to escalate. Or you can hack all their phones at once and shut them down. Just pulling a gun can create a ripple effect in Watch Dogs.”

Morin goes on to explain how the police will arrive, how popping the patrol car’s tyres might send it colliding into a tree or into a crowd of civilians, and how Pearce might choose to help the injured at his own risk or kill the cop and run away to dampen the ripple. Later, the media will report on the masked man who assisted a wounded police officer, or on the cop who was killed by a vigilante who deems himself above the law. The people of Watch Dogs’ Chicago will learn of your reputation – whether you’ve been resolutely non-lethal, a ruthless and clinical punisher of criminals, or an indiscriminate psychopath – and will react differently the next time you pull your gun in the street.

But just pulling the trigger, even on your enemies, might be harder than usual. Shortt tells a story about sneaking through a hostile space filled with enemies who’d like to see Pearce dead. “I was ready to shoot this guy, but I had my Profiler on. Just as I got in range, his profile popped up and it said ‘Newlywed.’ And just in that moment, it gave me a quick pause. Suddenly, in that moment, that guy looked completely different. I’m hoping it’ll have that effect on players throughout the game.”

When Pearce accesses commercial systems, he’ll use a polished, commercial OS. But when “it becomes a little more underground,” says art director Mathieu Leduc, “we switch to the more ASCII, homebrewed UI, and it’s pretty raw and cool.”

This alone is a revolution in an understated way. Watch Dogs might be the first game from a major studio to cure the facelessness of NPCs. These aren’t GTA’s weirdos or Assassin’s Creed’s walking obstacles. Rather, they’re shop assistants, church-goers, prescription drug addicts, used car salesmen, bloggers… In one stroke, Watch Dogs is changing the nature of interactivity with the dumb NPCs filling digital worlds, for good and for bad. If a player wants to become a CEO-hunting vigilante, they have all the information they need to do so. Players can write their own stories, so you can engineer industrial accidents and car crashes to distance yourself from murder while on your anti-corporate crusade, or just hack your victims’ accounts and swap places with the one percent. You can stalk a celebrity, punch a traffic warden or even simply make sure that a frail old lady gets home safely.

“I think replacing that facelessness of NPCs is something players are really going to appreciate,” Shortt says. “Yeah, I think it changes how you play the game. I think that’s what’s going to be interesting as we move forward this generation. This is our first iteration of this, and it’ll be interesting to see what more we can do as we go forward, and how much more we can pull from that experience for the player.”

The game’s emergent side missions support that same level of player-driven narrative, too. When your Profiler suggests a known mugger is stalking a victim, it’s up to you how to prevent the crime – maybe a non-lethal takedown, a bullet to the knee, or a bullet to the head – or whether you prevent it at all. Whatever you do, Watch Dogs’ media channels will notice, but while they’ll judge, the game itself is more impartial. “Hey, if you want to become Dexter Morgan, we shouldn’t create a world in the game where you’re going to reject that feeling,” Morin says. “We have a reputation system, but we don’t score anything. You’ll see a plus, a minus, but you’ll never see the game say ‘This is worth 100, this is 50, this is whatever.’ We had that at the beginning and we cut it, because how can we say how much worse it is to kneecap a cop rather than kill him? They’re both bad! So we ended up removing the numbers. We shouldn’t be the ones dictating how the player feels about those dilemmas. That’s up to them.”

Watch Dogs is amoral in a way Assassin’s Creed isn’t. Ezio did not kill civilians, after all, but Aiden Pearce just might. Watch Dogs is more Far Cry 2 than Assassin’s Creed, as should be expected given how many Far Cry 2 veterans populate the team. Production began on Watch Dogs in November 2008, inheriting dozens of members of the Far Cry team, not least Shortt, writer on that project, and Morin, its level design director. “Without Far Cry 2, there would be no Watch Dogs,” Morin says. “The one thing that was non-negotiable was the emergent gameplay, the systemic approach; that’s part of my soul, so that’s where we went.

“Without Far Cry 2, there would be no Watch Dogs. The one thing that was non-negotiable was the emergent gameplay”

Nonplayer characters will react to Pearce’s appearance on the news if he’s sighted during or after a broadcast.

“But we learned a lot [from Far Cry 2]. When the player can express themselves the way they want, it doesn’t mean they instinctively do it. I think that’s the biggest weakness of Far Cry 2. The way I play that game is the way only a few people play that game… Not every player will embrace all the possibilities. That’s something we can address in Watch Dogs with the extra time.”

And what of the despised system governing Far Cry 2’s endlessly respawning checkpoints? “That was actually the sort of thing we would’ve been able to fix in Far Cry 2 if we had the same extension,” Morin laughs.

“Systemic games are hard,” he says. “If you end up in the situation where there’s an exploit – one single exploit – and the player finds it, then they won’t express themselves ever again. I know if there’s an exploit, I’ll use it every time, and I’ll call all the missions repetitive and boring. So I think that balance is something we took a lot of care with. We always make sure the player can express themselves the way they want, but sometimes events evolve in a certain direction where you need to adapt to things [to make it] more likely they will become interested in combining the systems. I wouldn’t say, ‘Here, I want you to use this gun, because you haven’t and it’s really cool.’ I don’t like that. But say you always play stealth, we’ll find a moment to destabilise you, to make you try to explore hacking or shooting instead of going for your comfort zone all the time. That’s a very important nuance and it does pay off quite a lot. To have every player find the variety for themselves – that’s hard.”

“Systemic games are hard. If you end up in the situation where there’s an exploit – one single exploit – and the player finds it, then they won’t express themselves ever again.”

It may be tough to make a game like this, but Morin is pragmatic about it. The story he tells of the past five months is similarly short on drama. There was no last-minute mandate from above, no sudden replacement of the key staff, no panic, no changes in direction, only a decision to make Watch Dogs without compromise and to make every solution to every problem the studio’s Plan A. In the end, the game’s newest feature is one players will never consciously notice.

“Consistency,” Morin says. “Consistency is the right word. When everything started to connect to each other, we started to feel the limitations of certain reactions. When you have so many animations, so many audio bars to do, so much text to write… the amount of content is so outstanding that when you start to play the game, sometimes you hit something you’ve never seen before and it’s not right, so you need more time. A game like this doesn’t start by [us] saying, ‘Hey, let’s make the biggest, most complicated emergent city ever.’ You’re going to receive a big ‘no’ as an answer. But if you have the right people, who are agile enough and who know how to use their tech really well… then you can start executing ideas. You build momentum and you get cool results, and that’s how Watch Dogs slowly became Watch Dogs.

“I would love for Watch Dogs to open more players’ eyes to the idea of testing a game and expressing themselves within it, instead of following the ride. I don’t have anything against games that just ask you follow a predefined ride, but I would love for more players to develop a taste [for systemic games]. I feel like games are dumbed down because we want to make money, and sometimes we underestimate what players can do. I hope Watch Dogs can show everyone that it’s possible to do online games without being intimidated by a lobby, that it’s possible to see another player without being scared it’s going to be a 12-year-old shouting a bunch of insults, and that it’s possible to make a game where you can test the systems and push at the edges without feeling like you’re working. I hope it can do all that, and if it could be a game that helps players have a bigger conversation about our relationship with technology, that would be awesome too.”