Hackers just want to have fun.
That seems to be the motto for Marcus Holloway, the young hero from the upcoming open-world action game Watch Dogs 2 (coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on November 15). Unlike his revenge-seeking predecessor from the first game, Holloway looks like he’s having the time of his life. He’s a member of Dedsec, a group of hackers that use their clever computer skills to take down people who abuse technology for money and power.
Publisher Ubisoft sold over 10 million copies of the original Watch Dogs, which was one of the first triple-A (the industry term for blockbuster) games for the PS4 and Xbox One console generation. But instead of continuing the series in dreary Chicago, developer Ubisoft Montreal went with a different approach for Holloway’s story.
In Watch Dogs 2, the San Francisco Bay Area is the latest recipient of ctOS, a powerful operating system that links together every security camera, personal phone, and any other electronic device in the city. Manipulating ctOS is the main way Holloway and Dedsec fight back against their foes.
At the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show (one of gaming’s most important events of the year), I spoke with senior producer Dominic Guay about why they went with a lighter tone for the sequel.
“The character in Watch Dogs 1 was a bit more — he had a very dark past, a dark history, and that was reflected in the game,” said Guay, who also worked on the first game. “Now we’re looking at a younger character who’s positive when he meets people — he sees the positive side in people. He’s charming, he likes to be with people, so it kind of reflects in the game’s tone. And I’d say San Francisco is also sunny, open-minded, light-hearted. There’s something about the place that kind of inspires the game’s tone.”
I saw a snippet of Watch Dog 2’s San Francisco while playing a new demo at E3. Even in this early version , the city looked stunning. I spotted a couple of landmarks while experimenting with Holloway’s hacking abilities.
My brief adventure began at the base of Coit Tower. I distracted people by hacking into their phones (a good tactic for times where you need to sneak around them), remotely drove a car (and accidentally ran over a pedestrian), and deployed a RC drone to look for a hackable antenna near the top of the tower. As the drone flew higher and higher, the developer who was coaching me pointed out a few of the city’s sights.
In the distance was Sutro Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County, Alcatraz, Oakland (home of numerous gang wars in the game), and the rest of downtown San Francisco. Watch Dogs 2 also has its own version of Silicon Valley, populating it with an assortment of fictional tech companies — instead of Google, you’ll find the colorful buildings of Nudle. All of them are accessible from the beginning of the game.
“We tried to keep all the key landmarks, the key neighborhoods, and the differences between those different neighborhoods or districts,” said Guay. “… We kept a small part of Marin County because we like to have that natural sandbox type of feel where you can go [ride] ATVs if you want.
“And then we have a dramatically scaled down Silicon Valley, which is huge [in real life]. But we kept the spirit of it. We kept the culture, the startups, the big tech campuses.”
Ubisoft Montreal only came across a few places it wasn’t allowed to use (“for legal reasons,” Guay told me). In those cases, they’d “reinvent” the place so it could still fit into the game. But using actual locations was important for the developers. They wanted to encourage players to explore the world in a more realistic way than before.
“We changed the way we think of our map. When you look at an open world map and it’s just icons which leads to gameplay — that’s not how a map is made,” said Guay. “If you look at a [real] map, it’s [made up of] locations. From the beginning, you open the map and you can say, ‘I want to go to Coit Tower,’ to give you an example from the demo.
“And that’s what’s going to be written: Coit Tower. It’s not like ‘Mission 18.’… So we used the real world locations as much as we could to get the player to explore and go places and find things and discover [events as they] happen.”
After my mishap at Coit Tower (an ambulance appeared a few minutes after the car accident), I stole another car and drove over to an eerily accurate Pier 39 to check out a clothing shop. I bought a bright pink sweatshirt, stylish sweat pants, and a pair of knockoff Crocs that were almost as ugly as the actual shoes. Even with that fashionably loud outfit, I figured my Holloway still wouldn’t look out of place in San Francisco.
Pulling from the headlines
The Bay Area has been the most innovative tech hub in the U.S. for decades, which makes it the ideal backdrop for Watch Dogs’s conspiratorial stories. The premise of a group of hackers going after the wealthy elite offers a kind of power fantasy rarely seen in big-budget games. And with the real-world issues surrounding San Francisco — like the ongoing tension between long-time residents and tech companies — Ubisoft has a lot of material to pull from for Watch Dogs 2.
“There’s a fascinating movement around the Bay and for us it’s an infinite source of inspiration — how people who make a lot of money are moving out of San Francisco and into Oakland,” said Guay, citing the housing crisis as an example. “It’s not because they’re poor. It’s just they can’t afford to live in San Francisco anymore. The whole Bay is transforming, things are happening, and it’s a changing place. To us, it was super inspiring to build the game [around that].”
While I doubt that astronomical rental prices will be a major story beat, it’ll be interesting to see how the developers represent that clash (and the rest of San Francisco’s quirks) throughout the game. It helps that Ubisoft knows the city pretty well: It has both a studio and an office located near the AT&T Park baseball stadium. The Canada-based Watch Dogs 2 team took frequent research trips to California.
Sometimes, Watch Dogs 2 seems a little too real. Guay recently had a pleasant surprise while going through an early version of the game. He hadn’t visited the Alcatraz section in months. But when the senior producer checked on it a few weeks before E3, it was no longer just the “flat island” he remembered. Thanks to the hard work from the level designers, the whole prison was now there.
“I spent like 20 minutes going around all the cells and exploring the place,” said Guay, laughing. “It’s great because [while] we’re not a tourism game … you get the best parts of the Bay Area to visit.”