The original Watch Dogs is a revenge tale and a warning about the threats that hackers pose to smart cities. Watch Dogs 2 offers the same warning about cybersecurity threats to the future smart city of San Francisco, but it has a different emotional feeling with its celebration of hacktivism subculture in the tech capital of the world.
The sequel stars Marcus Holloway, a hacker who is wrongly accused of a crime as a result of a manipulation of data from the San Francisco’s smart operating system, ctOS 2.0. Holloway teams up with the hacktivist group DedSec to bring down the smart city and its maker, the Blume corporation. Holloway carries on his fight against the establishment using everything from drones to electronic booby traps.
Ubisoft’s Danny Bélanger has worked on the Watch Dogs series for years, first as lead game designer on the 2014 original and now as the director for Watch Dogs 2. We asked him about the parallels between Watch Dogs and the headlines on cyber-crimes in the real world. While Ubisoft considers this series to be a work of fiction, it is clearly incorporating all of the news about hacktivist groups like Anonymous and Lulzsec, whistleblower Edward Snowden, corporate hacks, Silicon Valley, and the ongoing praise of smart cities.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. The PC and console game debuts on November 15.
GamesBeat: What was your role on the first Watch Dogs?
Danny Bélanger: Lead game designer. I was doing roughly the same thing then as now, because there was no game director. But my title was lead designer.
GamesBeat: How do you think about the combination of realism and fiction in this setting? This version of San Francisco looks very real, but there are clearly lots of parts where you’ve fictionalized things.
Bélanger: We go on a lot of scouting trips, take a ton of footage, pictures, videos. Our goal is to make the place feel real. We want to capture the spirit of the location. Obviously it’s not 1-to-1. You have to make choices. We try to pick what we think is the most important. We have people from San Francisco on the team, people who know the city. We want to hit the right landmarks, get the landscape as close as we can.
In the end we had to change some things and take some things out, but we wanted to get in everything we felt was most important to make it feel real.
GamesBeat: The smart cities movement has only gotten bigger since the original Watch Dogs. Before it was just a few big companies talking about it, and now we have a whole lot of tech companies talking about smart cities and the internet of things. What do you think about the intersection of that reality with your fiction?
Bélanger: In Watch Dogs we talk a lot about technology. We talk about technology that’s here already or coming soon. We looked at that in the first Watch Dogs and knew there was a risk there, but it was also a tool for gameplay. We used that ability to hack everything. But definitely, everything is going to be connected in the future. Hopefully we make people think about security, make sure it’s robust, find ways to prevent any risks.
GamesBeat: Is there social commentary, a social message in your game?
Bélanger: The way I like to put it, we shine a light on different topics. Obviously this is a work of fiction. People in the story have opinions about things, but the player will form their own opinion. We like to look at technology and ask, “If someone misuses this, what would happen? What happens if a search engine is biased?” We create a story around that.
What’s interesting about Watch Dogs is sometimes we imagine something and then it happens in the real world. But it’s not that big a coincidence. We’re trying to tell a fun story around themes that are relevant, things that exist today.
GamesBeat: DedSec seems very similar to Anonymous in real life. I don’t know if there’s a more accurate analogy?
Bélanger: The thing about hacker groups is it’s not a structured situation, like a pyramid. There are all kinds of hacker groups. People in hacker groups have different motivations. But we want to expose a little bit of that culture and talk about it a bit.
GamesBeat: Is DedSec necessarily a good guy? Is it more complex than just black-and-white?
Bélanger: It’s more complex. In the end it’s up to the player. We offer the freedom to play the way you want. In our game, you’re never forced to kill anyone, for example. If you do, that’s what DedSec does in your take on the game. But if you never shoot, if you just use hacks and stealth, that’s what DedSec does in your game. We didn’t want to judge the player. We’re not creating a game that says, “Play this way and you’ll get good points, play that way and you’ll get bad points.” You make DedSec.
DedSec’s goal on a high level is to do good. They’re trying to expose crimes. But sometimes you can do in a hacktivist kind of way and sometimes you can do it in a more anarchic way.
GamesBeat: If there’s a running theme in the choices you make, is that one of them? Whether you decide to be a social hero, or whether you decide to just be a thief?
Bélanger: Well, as I say, the game won’t tell you what it thinks about that. It’s all in the way you play. The systems will react to you as a player. If you start shooting, the cops show up. If you’re stealthy, there’s less of that. It’s all in the reaction of the game to you as a player.
We tried to shy away from any kind of reputation system. We don’t want to tell you outright how to play. We want to give you the freedom to play the way you want in the context of the problems you have to solve.
GamesBeat: Looking back at the first game, have you been surprised by the outcome of any predictions you made?
Bélanger: Some things did happen as far as what we’re doing in the new game, but I can’t spoil the story there. It was very interesting. It’s often things we don’t expect.
GamesBeat: Did you ever get any real-world feedback to Watch Dogs, like from companies working on real smart city technology?
Bélanger: Not really? Not to my knowledge. But that would be interesting. Obviously the companies we feature in the game aren’t real. We create some things that might be familiar to people who are versed in the topic of our story. But it’s never an exact analog.
GamesBeat: What are some things you think you’ve fixed or done better this time?
Bélanger: The hacking is richer. In Watch Dogs the choices were a bit limited. Say you have a distract that was placed. We worked very hard on the AI so it will react believably to the way you use that. The driving, a lot of people had a hard time with that. We’ve made it more accessible. It’s still a physical model, but we’ve made it easier on a global scale.
Adding co-op has made multiplayer more seamless. We took out the player-versus-player gameplay. It never quite fit in our philosophy. Just having seamless co-op, co-op invasion, and the bounties as an event while you’re playing, that makes it a more uniform, coherent experience.
We have stronger themes in this game, I think. We were talking about technology in the first game a bit, but at heart it was really just a story about revenge. Now this one is really about technology. The themes are more compelling.
GamesBeat: The revenge story was a very emotional one. Would you say Watch Dogs 2’s story is equally so?
Bélanger: Maybe not? It definitely has a different tone. The themes are serious, but we’re having fun with them. It’s reflective of internet culture, hacker culture. There’s a certain style there. But the themes and the topics are still very serious.
GamesBeat: Is the style you can use in your hacks a way players can have fun?
Bélanger: Yes, but also the visual style involved. When they start operations, they do a video to promote their operations that they send out, the way hacker groups will often do. When they find something and release information to the public in the game, that’s how you gain followers. The more followers you have, the more powerful you become as a hacker group.
GamesBeat: That’s something new, the followers as a measure of your success.
Bélanger: We translate that into processing power. The way we do it, followers give you processing power, and that will allow you to go deeper into the story through your hacks. But really it’s just a way to make the story move forward in the game.