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Dominic Guay, a senior producer on Watch Dogs, has been working on Ubisoft’s high-profile game for four and a half years. His mandate was to “create a new brand,” and Watch Dogs is certainly original.
As Aiden Pearce, you’ll be a digital vigilante who hacks into a city’s computer network and controls any connected devices to fit your own needs and wage a one-person war against the enemies and authorities trying to track you down. Guay says that the game imagines a world where the city of Chicago in the near-future has moved from “smartphones to smart cities,” where virtually everything can be remote-controlled, observed via surveillance camera, or hacked.
During the time it has taken to build Watch Dogs, which comes out Nov. 19, reality is catching up with the fiction. IBM has a major initiative to build “smarter cities” using a complete overhaul of the technology for running metropolises through the IBM Intelligent Operations Center — just the sort of thing that Pearce loves to hack. He can then use the Central Operating System (CtOS) to discover intimate details about people he passes on the street and then use that knowledge against them. It all seems plausible, and this sort of realism will make players feel like they’re living inside a real city. That’s the illusion that Guay wants to create.
We caught up with Guay this week after we saw a half-hour hands-off preview of the game. Here’s an edited version of the interview. We’ve also included a video of the talk with Guay at the end of the article.
GamesBeat: In terms of your inspiration, was there any talk of city operating systems and smart cities at the time when you guys were starting this up five years ago?
Dominic Guay: That’s a good question. When we started looking at how connectivity and technology were being embedded in our daily lives, we started seeing glimpses of smart cities.
It’s a funny story. There’s a guy on our team whose father works for a big city in Canada. They’ve implemented a system so that water distribution in the city can be monitored from smartphones. They can close down valves and stuff like that. He told me that at some point they got worried because they realized that most of the employees were using simple passwords: “1111” or “2222.” Any 13-year-old could have accessed it and stopped the water supply to two million people.
That’s an example of how we’re seeing those sorts of things happening. When we started our research, we realized, “Wow, this is happening while we’re thinking about it. Reality is getting ahead of us.”
We made a few decisions early on in the project that we thought were a little bit ahead of reality. Within two years, we were already behind. That’s telling us that there’s a very strong trend right now to include these technologies all around. It makes our life easier, so it makes a lot of sense. But I think we’re at just the right time to kind of lift the veil over that a bit. I don’t think it’s going to change the fact that these are good things and they’re probably going to keep happening. But it might change a few things about how we see the vulnerabilities that this opens up in our lives.
GamesBeat: I’ve heard a lot of talk from IBM, and a lot of other big enterprise software companies, about its smart cities project.
Guay: It makes a lot of sense. If we’re able to make services in cities more efficient, that’s great.
GamesBeat: Do you think this will make people start thinking it through a bit more — thinking about what could go wrong?
Guay: We’re definitely looking at and listening to the reality around us, but I honestly don’t think it’s going to change how people approach it. Maybe it’ll have them thinking about it a bit, and if so, I’m happy, especially thinking about the vulnerabilities and the flaws, so we don’t have “1111” as a password to the whole thing.
I’m quite aware of hacking because I’m working on this project, and I still use my smartphone every day. I still use the internet. I’m still very open in how I deal with my personal information. It’s making our lives so much easier that we realize it, but we still go forward.
GamesBeat: You showed this half-hour of gameplay. I was struck by how similar it could be to something like Grand Theft Auto as an experience, yet you have so much more at your disposal as far as what you could use in, say, a car chase. You can bring up street barriers or another thing. Was there some intent to do an open world in a different way from what we’ve seen before?
Guay: Our mandate was to create a new brand. There aren’t that many new brands in triple-A games coming out. When you get a chance like that, you don’t waste it on re-doing what somebody else is doing. So we’re definitely set on creating something that’s going to be fresh and relevant.
We knew we wanted to make an open-world game because we think they’re great. We think that gives a lot of freedom to the player. But most of the other choices we made were based on our team’s core inspirations: hacking, connectivity, and vigilantism. We’re really creating our own beast.
When it comes to how it compares to other games, I’ll let you be the judge of that. By having very different objectives and very different creative pillars, you naturally create something that’s completely different.
GamesBeat: What sort of problems arise from an open world that you have to handle? I can see that you might lose track of your missions. You want to get revenge for your family, but it seems like you could get totally sidetracked from that goal.
Guay: You’re right. There’s a balance.
In this case, we had no core story mission activated. We were simply roaming around the city. What we’ll do is — for players who want to focus on the core storyline, we’ll give them indications of how to do it. But not to the point where they won’t benefit from having the freedom to define their own goals. What we find is that there’s a balance there. You give the information to the player, you put them in the driver’s seat, and you let them decide how they want to play the game.
What we see when we do playtests for the game is that most players don’t even really differentiate the main missions from random encounters — stuff happening around the city. That’s a good sign. That says they’re getting immersed in the open world and making their own decisions about what to do next. That’s the sweet spot for us.
GamesBeat: It seems like there are two sides to the CtOS. It can be a very powerful tool for the police to use when they’re tracking you down — it can almost make it easy for them to catch you — but once you hack into it, then it becomes easy for you to stop everyone else from catching you. Is that the nature of the gameplay here? At one point, you’re escaping, and then at another point, you’re hunting?
Guay: It’s always a little bit of both. When you perform acts within the city — when you commit crimes or violence — the city will respond to it.
It’s true that it’s a very powerful system. We’re basically giving control of that whole system to the player, but that’s not to say that they’re the only one who has control over it. You’re right in saying that if others can control it, there’s going to be a balance there, absolutely.
GamesBeat: What are some things that help you keep a balance between the player being too vulnerable and too powerful?
Guay: The player will have a lot of power, but they’re also lined up against some very powerful enemies. We don’t want to give all the details on the storyline, but the player isn’t fighting any simple group of criminals. They’re fighting a citywide corruption. They’re dealing with very powerful enemies, new types of enemies who are very much aware themselves of all the vulnerabilities within the system.
It’s not going to be a walk in the park. It’s going to be a big challenge for the player. They’re going to need all of their access to the system. They’re going to need all of their abilities for driving and shooting and dealing with people directly.
One thing that’s going to make the player unique and more powerful than their enemies is that they can mix that all up. They’re able to drive, hack, shoot, and work all of those things together. We’re helping the player do that.
GamesBeat: You had a stretch of slow motion there. Is that intended to deal with the challenge of using your smartphone in the middle of a car chase?
Guay: [Laughs] Yeah, we definitely want to give the player a good view of all their opportunities at any given time. In a moment of panic, you can hit the focus ability and take in all the available opportunities for hacking. In the city, there’s always an opportunity to hack something around you. You can use a weapon or drive or mix all those things together in that moment. It’s helping the player to explore and experiment with the various tools and make plans of their own.
GamesBeat: It looks like every person Aiden passes on the street has her own story. You can sneak into their apartments and see that they’re hanging out with mannequins or something. That sounds very complicated to put together.
Guay: I think we have twice as many writers as we normally have on a project like this one. We’re crafting a lot of those backgrounds. Some are created on the fly — actually, assembled out of databases. It’s a lot of content, but I think that’s core to what we want to do in Watch Dogs.
People are all a bit voyeuristic, right? They want to be able to hack into people’s apartments and see what they’re doing behind those closed doors. It’s definitely part of the fantasy here. We want to deliver on that. By adding a storyline and a real life to the characters in the street, we’re creating a lot of interesting nuances around the events in the city.
We showed someone trying to kill another guy with a baseball bat. Now, if we show you that the guy being attacked is a poor father of three and the guy hitting him is a gangster, well, then you say, “Hey, I want to stop that guy.” But what if I switch it around? What if the guy with the baseball bat is the father of three and the guy he’s hitting raped his wife? Now all of a sudden it’s a different story, and you might decide that you want to act differently. It’s enriching the way the player sees the game and what’s happening in it.
GamesBeat: It has elements of an open-world game, but it seems like a different kind of game in the sense that you have so much control over the environment.
Guay: It’s an open-world game, but we want you to be in the driver’s seat. We want to give a lot of control to the player. You’re basically able to control the city, which means that there’s a lot of different plans you’re able to put into play in order to take the enemies out.
Check out our video interview with Guay below.