For almost six years, Jonathan Morin has been working on Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs. As the game nears its May 27 launch date, he can finally mollify those who want to play it by saying that the wait is almost over. This has become one of the most-anticipated titles of the next-generation, and Ubisoft’s confidence showed at a recent preview event in San Francisco, where Morin showed off its gameplay.
Ubisoft wants the tale about hacking a major American city — and its main character, Aiden Pearce — to become a multigame franchise as well as a cautionary tale about the perils of modern technology. But it’s only going to fulfill that promise if Watch Dogs is polished and immersive at its launch. So Morin has no regrets about a recent delay and how long it took to create the innovative gameplay that we’ve only gotten a taste of so far.
So what took so long? Check out our interview with Morin below.
GamesBeat: So, you’re at the point where it’s almost wrapped up now.
Jonathan Morin: Yeah, we’re almost done. There’s been a delay, so we can tweak certain things, and now we’re pretty happy with where it is. It’s been a month of full debug, so it’s at a state where the programmers are finished. They can detect a bug and repair it without changing the nature of the game. Aside from some very minor fine-tuning, you’ve tasted what the game is going to be.
GamesBeat: From the time you’d expected it to come out to now, do you consider that polishing time?
Morin: “Polish” is too big of a word. It’s several things. When you make a game that’s so open, it starts out pretty linear at the beginning, while it’s teaching you stuff, but it opens up really fast. We’re trying to make the hacking very accessible, to encourage players to dig into the system and start messing around with people, start being more creative.
Six months ago, what happened was, I think we were successful doing that, but for some players – the best players, the ones who really got it, got deep into expression – sometimes the systems didn’t communicate really well with each other. You could have little moments that were awkward, that felt like the game was not supporting your creativity anymore. It was like a scientist in a lab who tries vaccine and finds out that it doesn’t work in every case he thought it would. You can’t just say, “No problem, in a couple of weeks I’ll fix it and it’ll be done.”
We delayed the game to fix that problem, and that was why there was no date attached to it. The date came after. What we said instead that we would delay, and then make a plan together to fix whatever we found. We gave ourselves two five-week sprints to deal with the most core elements of that plan, and then playtested to see how it felt. We adjusted and added the rest of the plan. After we did all that, we sat down again and talked about what was there.
In the end, it felt like there were no more of those disappointments in the way the systems connected with each other. It felt like the Watch Dogs we wanted to ship.
GamesBeat: Do you think it’s a different game this year compared to what it would have been in 2013?
Morin: It’s not a different game. I think it’s a more accurate game. Let’s say it that way. It’s not easy to make a game that gives a lot of power over what the game will be to the player. The player is a big part of his own experience and how it feels.
GamesBeat: So you don’t want players to be able to break it.
Morin: Exactly. The way I see it, if the player breaks it, it’s the game’s fault. You need to fix that, and let the player just enjoy it. If he steps back and says, “I didn’t like this and this. The game brought me somewhere I didn’t want to go,” that’s a flaw in the game.
GamesBeat: I imagine that if you started with an idea and never changed that idea and finished the game, maybe you could do this in two or three years. Did you zig-zag a lot over the course of this game?
Morin: The very first slide on a PowerPoint – no game, nothing running – was a red button with a hand, like this, and written underneath it said, “Control an entire city with a single button.” That was five-and-a-half years ago. So yes, there’s that, and forging an entire universe and everything. But I don’t know. When you build something new, it’s always quite long.
What justified the time for me were two different things. One, we had very new gameplay in certain aspects of the game. What is a profiler? How do we build that? How does the player understand that? How is it not oppressive in terms of the HUD? We did a lot of R&D on that. How do you build an AI like that? There’s a lot of challenges on the how-to side for all aspects of the game in Watch Dogs.
The second part is, what is Watch Dogs? It’s a new IP, a new game. Nothing was defined about it. Those challenges together, it’s all about getting precise as far as what that game is and why we need each element. That’s a lot of work. Sometimes it’s not the game directly. Sometimes it’s more like, what is the universe? How do things look in it? You can spend a lot of time on just things like, “What should that one guy there look like?”
Spending the time is justified, in the end. We didn’t want to ship a half-done product.
GamesBeat: What do you think, after all of this, the innovations are in the game, things that gamers haven’t seen before?
Morin: Innovation is a big word, depending on how you’re looking at it. For me, too many games have focused on executing stuff that we’ve already seen. I’m not saying that in a very negative way. I’m just saying, when I was younger and playing games, a big part of my brain was activated when I played the game just to fill the gaps between what the game conveyed to me and what I wanted it to convey to me. Like with 8-bit characters. Today, that guy is beyond precise. I can’t have a single interpretation of how Aiden looks. It’s clear. He looks exactly like that. That wasn’t the case before.
What I miss is the equivalent of the 8-bit character today. One of the innovations is there, to me. We created a game where we could say, “You can monitor every single person in this city. They all have a name, a background.” It sounds crazy. It sounds impossible. But then you do it, and it becomes the beginning of something.
What will a game be 20 years from now, if in Watch Dogs I can relate to every individual around me? I see players and journalists turn around and tell me, “Hey, can I give back the money I just took from this guy? It turns out he’s having some problems.” That’s what innovation is.
A good meter for innovation, maybe, is when I see player behavior I’ve never seen before. Their reactions to the profiler are pretty strong, in how they behave with their surroundings. Seamless online multiplayer is another one. It took us forever just to help players realize that there were other players. No matter how easily you’d think players could recognize other human players, when in their mind they’re playing a single-player game, and someone shows up seamlessly, it was very funny to see what people would do. I remember a tester turning to me and saying, “Wow, the AI was really good there.”
In the end, though, I don’t think it’s any of those. I think the biggest innovation is the way all of this synchronizes together. It delivers a hyper-connected world. As you play the game and as events occur, you’re getting in even deeper. After playing several hours, you can appreciate how deep we went with connectivity.
GamesBeat: Somebody at Ubisoft was quoted as saying that you could play this for hundreds of hours. What do you really mean there? In the single-player campaign, or through so many levels?
Morin: The way the game is structured, I’d say that based on our observations of players, when you combine the time they spend on the free roaming and on the story, the average is 35 to 40 hours to finish the game. But I don’t remember the percentages as far as the combination.
I attempted to get 100 percent on the game recently. I had about one-fourth of the game down as far as the main story, and I was trying to optimize as far as the free-roaming, and I’d reached only 30.8 percent after 50 hours. So there’s a lot of content, but it’s not structured to force people to go that deep. If you feel like constantly revisiting the content and finding new things, there’s a lot going on.
GamesBeat: How would you say it compares to the scope of something like Grand Theft Auto V?
Morin: It’s a different kind of scope, in all sorts of ways. It’s a matter of size versus density, I think. They have a lot of size there, a lot of space between the city and the outskirts. They have flying vehicles, which justify a lot of space. For us, we wanted players to spend a lot of time in one square block. We wanted to push density. It’s a different feel.
The city is still pretty big, but we wouldn’t have added a district for the sake of adding more scale. We don’t have jets. We have the profiler, where you can look at this thing for five minutes. Our scope is more on the depth of things. As far as the amount of time you can spend with it, though, I think it’s comparable to an extent.
GamesBeat: In one section, you have this ambush and a firefight, basically. It doesn’t necessarily play out like a shooter would, though, where you can shoot through everyone. Here you have to plan it out a little and set up certain elements as you go along. Why did you set that particular section up that way?
Morin: There are tricks we can play in missions to throw you a bit off-balance. At the same time, one of the responsibilities of the game is to help the player understand its language. That’s what a game is. We have a game that adds an entire new layer of gameplay. If we don’t teach that naturally, then we shouldn’t expect players to embrace it.
Certain missions in the game are there to make sure you’ve mastered an element. We don’t want to have them all at the beginning, so it constantly feels like you’re learning something. If we had them all at the beginning, that would be a bit heavy. We teach the elements of the game through fun moments that bring you to expressing yourself differently, without feeling overly directed. The rest of it is tuning.
You need to have a game that’s balanced enough on the challenge side so that the player can fall back on their beloved old-school instincts, but without ever feeling like it’s too easy on that side. They can come back and see the benefits of taking their time, like you said, and doing things like using the cameras to tag enemies and manipulating the AI differently. It’s quite hard to throw a player off-balance naturally. You tend to go back to what you know will win. There’s a thin line there, to make sure that everything goes well.
GamesBeat: The first time I tried it, I think I was looking through a security camera while some guy was walking up behind me and shooting me. You can get a little too obsessed with your gadgets.
Morin: Yeah, you can. That’s part of the thematic of the game, the idea of obsession. Certain players, who are really into it, they can spend way too much time analyzing the possibilities. They enjoy that, and that’s fine. That’s part of what hacking is about. It’s a game that focuses a lot on our need to satisfy our curiosity. A lot more, actually, than focusing on technology.
GamesBeat: Did the real world change what you envisioned at some points? I know IBM has been talking a lot more about smart cities. About a year ago, you brought in the security firm Kaspersky to consult. Did some of these change the game along the way?
Morin: Not so much? Most of it was already there. When we started to make Watch Dogs and define the subject matter, we ended up digging a lot deeper than the average person, because we needed to understand what was doable in real life. We didn’t want to go sci-fi. I was scared of words like “cyberpunk” and all that. That was probably unnecessary, to an extent, but when you create a game for a lot of people, that’s a justified fear.
If you say that Watch Dogs is a cyberpunk game, you’re a prisoner of what cyberpunk means to everyone. If you toss that word aside, though, and instead you use the words that justify why you like cyberpunk, you can be more precise about what you need.
IBM doing smart cities, we knew about that a long time ago. We looked a lot at what Dubai was doing five and a half years ago. They have an entire department, almost a governmental movement, that’s sending choppers to deal with accidents and stuff like that. They have a whole set of interesting TV spots that talk about services and urbanism. I think it’s natural that reality has caught up.
Where I had no idea that it would go so deep is the timing of all that news, though. With Julian Assange, we already knew he was part of the picture. He was big news at the time. But now you have the timing of the NSA leaks, the Snowden affair. It was like there was some new big thing every week.
GamesBeat: Last week, too, we had the Heartbleed OpenSSL vulnerability news.
Morin: Exactly. I’m getting Twitter questions like, “Were you aware of Heartbleed before it happened?” No! It’s happened countless times. We’d be in a brainstorm for a certain thing we wanted to do in the story, and two weeks later, a month later, it’d show up in the news. “Oh, great. Everyone’s going to think that’s where we got the idea.”
GamesBeat: It’s good to be ahead of where reality’s at.
Morin: It’s privileged timing. It was a combination of what was fascinating to us, and also just pure luck. When we started Watch Dogs, we just had the first-generation iPhone. In a building crammed with geeks, everyone had an iPhone. But as soon as I stepped outside of Ubisoft, my friends and family didn’t know what it was. It was natural timing to say, “Why not embrace that?”
We could have gone full 1984 and made a game where an evil corporation controls the entire world. But we wanted to talk about modern urban life. Orwell was smart, but he wasn’t exactly right in the end. When we started building the game, it was more about Aldous Huxley. That’s how I see myself and this thing. I love it. I put stuff in there. I’m comfortable in my own environment with it. I never step back and look at the consequences. This is a game that takes technology and uses it to put a mirror up in front of the player, to make them think a little bit.
GamesBeat: Do you still think this is a franchise that could lead to multiple games?
Morin: To me, when you make a game and want to make it well, it’s driven by the same need as making a great franchise. But it’s the players who decide whether there’s a franchise here or not. They need to show that they like the universe they’re in and they want to dig further. If they say that, I’ll be more than happy to dig further with them.