When Dominic Guay started working on Watch Dogs more than eight years ago, his mandate was to create a new brand for Ubisoft. The first game which debuted in 2013 was a big success, selling more than 10 million copies.
But it was a somber tale of a hacker’s revenge. With Watch Dogs 2, Guay and his team wanted to liven things up. So they shifted the setting to San Francisco and quickly focused on a theme around hacktivism, which promised laughs via “lulz” operations and rallying around a serious cause at the same time. In this case, hacktivist Marcus Holloway of the hacker group DedSec finds himself in conflict with Blume Corp., which controls the smart city of San Francisco.
I interviewed Guay about Watch Dogs 2 at a Ubisoft press event under the Old Mint building in San Francisco. He said that the plot is complicated and so is the city itself. So Ubisoft saw its role as tossing out the unnecessary parts and focusing on what was really important about the story and the environment. After all, who needs two big parks — The Presidio and Golden Gate Park — when one will do just fine? Just kidding. The net result is a pretty amazing likeness, both in the depiction of the hacker culture and the re-creation of the city’s magnificent vistas.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation. The game comes out on November 15 on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC.
GamesBeat: You were producer on Watch Dogs as well. Did you stay continuously involved in both games?
Dominic Guay: Yeah, I’ve been in this role for almost eight years.
GamesBeat: I’m curious about choices you made around the story and the focus on hacktivism. How close to the real world did you want to make it?
Guay: The first decision we took was to go to the bay area and San Francisco. The fact that Silicon Valley is nearby was interesting. That’s where a lot of the themes we’re looking at are being pushed in the real world — big data, the internet of things, everything that leads to smart cities.
We wanted our main character to be a real hacker, meaning we wanted him to have a hacker’s motivations. First and foremost, he’s smart. We wanted him to be younger. We quickly latched on to hacktivism as a core motivation, the defense of ideals. If you look at hacker groups, there’s a mystery around them that’s an interesting hook for a game.
Big data became a theme we wanted to explore, the idea of all this data that’s captured from the real world around us and used to do predictions. Targeted marketing is the main thing we see in real life, but it can be used for a lot of other things. In Marcus’s case, it was used to frame him for a crime. That sets him off on his quest to expose this corrupted system.
GamesBeat: It must have been interesting to research compared to Assassin’s Creed. Instead of dusting off old books you’re looking at the new in real time.
Guay: Exactly! It’s crazy. Some people have asked us if there’s a recipe for this, what we do to make a story that ends up leading the news. When the first game was announced, it happened to be very close to the Snowden leaks about the NSA and all those things. Surveillance was our core theme in the first game. When we decided to do big data this time, we knew that it was a more complex subject, but we also knew that things would happen. Every week we’d see more stories, because we have full-time researchers. Companies promoting software to predict crimes and other events, or offering surveillance services to all sorts of people. Some that we’d probably rather didn’t have advantage of those services.
Recently we’re seeing a lot of the storylines in the game pop up in the real world. Both parties have been accusing each other of unfairly using social media to try and influence the American presidential election. In the game we actually have a quest line where a politician is working hand in hand with a social media company — not just to find out who will vote for who, but to steer and manipulate voting through what people see. Maybe that’s not happening yet in the real world, but it could be. That’s what we’re looking at.
GamesBeat: Facebook’s been accused of things like that.
Guay: Right, but I don’t know if any evidence has come out about doing this in particular. As I say, we’re interested just because it could happen. We want to make sure the things we’re talking about could happen. Is the tech there? We have consultants who’ve validated every hack we’re doing, every technical aspect in the game, even our gameplay mechanics. In the game, when we show code or anything technical, we make sure it all reflects something real.
GamesBeat: You also had to throw in a lot of fun things, things that are a little more imaginary. Is there anything that you’d say probably won’t ever exist?
Guay: The big thing we do — a hack that might take a month in real life, something you’d only pull off once, you can do it with the push of a button here and repeat it over and over. That’s clearly a stretch we make. We want players to experiment and have fun and be creative with hacking without having to do all the boring stuff, the months of coding work.
We justify that with ctOS (the city operating system). We say this whole system is all linked together and you have an exploit for it, so once you’re in, you’re in. But that’s more of a game conceit. We like to say we don’t want to represent the challenge of hacking so much as the creativity of what you can do with it.
GamesBeat: How much of a point of view did you come across in the process of all this research? Would a hacktivist like this be more of a hero or an anti-hero?
Guay: Hackers can have various forms of motivation, bad and good ones. Hacktivists fall in a gray area. It depends on what they’re trying to do, who they’re funding, what they’re exposing. Exposure is often the key to what hacktivists do. They reveal something with purpose, like Marcus does with DedSec. In our case he’s dealing with a super-corrupt establishment, especially as the game story advances and the stakes get higher. You’re dealing with people trying to rig elections and manipulate society on a massive scale. In that context, Marcus is on a path that’s easy to identify with. I don’t think you can judge a hacktivist as good or bad without knowing what he’s trying to achieve.
GamesBeat: And the same goes for corporations. They can do good or evil.
Guay: I work for a big corporation, so… [laughs] The best way to sum it up — I work for a big multinational corporation. We like tech. Video games are technology. For this game alone we have something like 60 programmers working on it. We try to be super transparent. We use data from players playing our game to make their experience better, right? We’re not being hypocrites about this.
We don’t judge technology as good or bad. Obviously in the context of Watch Dogs, to create that confrontation — we say there’s technology and there are people exploiting it for nefarious purposes. That doesn’t mean this technology can only be used for nefarious purposes. Some corporations in our game are acting badly, but others aren’t acting badly at all. We try to keep a balance. Otherwise we lose the believability of the world.
GamesBeat: The movies have sometimes used the trick of getting real-world newscasters and other window-dressing to convey a sense of realism. Were you guys tempted to do anything like that, to add more realistic contemporary details to the game?
Guay: Absolutely. We thought about a newscaster in particular. We do things like bring in real-world songs, real-world licenses. We did a deal with Amoeba Music in San Francisco, the famous record store. If you go to a lot of locations, you can see the real shops or other buildings there. You can see Ubisoft’s offices.
One of the challenges with something like a newscaster, though, we want to be very agile with our narrative. We want to be able to change things. We don’t want to bake it too early on because someone’s only available on Tuesday of whatever month. But it’s definitely something we looked at, and there are a few instances of details like that in the game.
GamesBeat: The tone of the game is a little lighter. San Francisco just seems like a happier city than Chicago. [laughter] It’s more of a celebration of hacktivism than a story about revenge.
Guay: I think the dev team needed that, at a point. We spent four years making a game about Chicago in the fall, raining all the time. We wanted to make a game in the summertime, going out to California. San Francisco, I think you got it right. We wanted to celebrate the area and the diversity in it.
We also realized we were going to be talking about some serious subject matter, and we didn’t want to get too pretentious about it. We wanted to balance it with a tone that was lighter. Part of the key there was the main character. He’s younger. He has a sense of humor. He’s charming. Most important, because we wanted to have a whole group of hacktivists, he likes to work with people. Throughout the game, you’ll have conversations and relationships with the rest of DedSec. They like having some fun while they do what they do. That’s part of hacker culture, the court-jester feeling.
GamesBeat: Doing it for the laughs. Do many of the missions have that funny, pranking quality?
Guay: The way the story’s set, it advances from lulz to activism. Initially, they know what they want to achieve, but they’re not totally focused on how they’re going to achieve it. They start with some operations that are a bit unfocused, to say the least. But as they do these things and learn more about how to apply their hacking, they starting finding things that are more important to expose, that are more relevant to their cause, that call for more focus.
Even though the themes of the story are going to become more serious, they’re going to keep that jester spirit. But early on in the game especially, you’ll encounter some much lighter themes in the storytelling.
We like to say that Watch Dogs is happening before anything turns dystopian. It’s at a point in time where we still have choices to make. We always want to avoid going fully dystopian. The hacker in this case, the hero, he can still make a difference. He can make people’s lives better.
GamesBeat: The social media followers you get, that seems like an interesting way of measuring how successful your hacks are, how good a job the player’s doing.
Guay: So many people in the real world see their own personal progress now through their follower count. It becomes a kind of game in a lot of people’s lives. It seemed like a natural way of thinking about it.
In the context of the game, from a narrative perspective, it’s a bit more than just people who follow the social media presence for DedSec. It’s people who actively back the movement, who are willing to lend their hardware. You can use their PCs as part of your botnet. They’ll give you secrets and information they have. It’s all an abstraction of your ability to hack the city growing. But we had a bit of fun with it.
GamesBeat: I always wonder how you decide what level of detail to have in an open world. You didn’t reproduce all nine counties of the bay area, but there’s a lot of it there. What choices did you make as far as what to include and what to leave out? Is it very time-consuming to try to include something to do on every block or whatever?
Guay: It can become a daunting task, that’s true. What we did initially, we worked on a rough layer — just gray blocks, a height map of the bay. We knew we had to scale it down, because otherwise it would take us forever to build it and take players forever to drive around.
What we wanted more than anything on the bricks-and-mortar side was to make sure we had the vistas, the overall big picture, the feel of the place. Especially with San Francisco. If you go to the top of Twin Peaks or Coit Tower or the bridges, you get those impressive views. We took about 50 key points in the world and got reference videos of the vistas there in the real world. We looked in our game engine and tried to make sure we had the overall feel right.
We had some tough choices to make. Initially, in the first iteration of that layout, we had Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, the two big parks in San Francisco. When we were trying to scale things down, though, we merged them together. We lost a bit of housing in between, but we got the overall feel of the city anyway. The Sunset is really sprawling, too. At some point you end up with hundreds of backyards to do, and that takes forever. We had to trim down a lot of residential areas like that.
But ultimately the most important thing is that when we build those neighborhoods, it’s not just textures and buildings. It’s the people and the culture. People talk among themselves about things that make sense. You have the right kind of people in each place. That’s a lot of effort.
GamesBeat: The people are the ambient life in it.
Guay: Exactly. Silicon Valley was the area we had to shrink the most. I like to say that our Oakland, Marina, Sausalito, and San Francisco feel really close as far as preserving the geography. Our Silicon Valley is shrunk down a lot. It’s more inspired by Silicon Valley. Stanford is there, San Mateo. We brought in some big tech campuses. We took some liberties and had some fun. We’re inspired by the kind of tech campuses that exist or are being planned in the Valley, but mostly we built our own.
GamesBeat: You’re building them how they should be. [laughter]
Guay: They’re built so differently from tech campuses in other parts of the world. There’s a fun kind of buoyancy to them. So we went a little crazy to let the player go there and have some fun.
GamesBeat: I’m looking forward to what you could do in Watch Dogs 3. Russian hackers, Chinese hackers, cyber warfare.
Guay: There’s a lot of subject matter to explore out there. You’re right. We’re not worried about running out of material. If we get a chance to make more, I’m sure we’ll have plenty of ideas.