Thomas Geffroyd spent about 20 years preparing to be the hacker advisor inside Ubisoft for the Watch Dogs 2 game. Well, not really. But that’s how long he has been close to the hacker community, which provides the central characters and backdrop for the sequel about hacking smart cities.
The original title was a revenge tale set in the cold and gloomy environment of Chicago. But the second game has more light-hearted “lulz,” or hacks done for the sake of humor. Ubisoft needed someone to stay in close touch with hacktivists to give the San Francisco community an authentic flavor. And that job fell to Geffroyd, who met with hacktivist author and journalist Violet Blue and spent a lot of time providing fictionalized information about hacking to the game designers.
In particular, the False Prophets mission in Watch Dogs 2 closely resembles Project Chanology, a protest movement against the Church of Scientology. That was the first major Anonymous operation. I caught up with Geffroyd at a Ubisoft press event under the Old Mint building in San Francisco.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation. Watch Dogs 2 comes out on November 15 on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC.
GamesBeat: What’s your actual title?
Thomas Geffroyd: I’m the content director for the brand. I mostly serve as the first line of hacking consultants for the team.
GamesBeat: It seems like you have to absorb all the real-world technology and then somehow find a way to make fun out of it.
Geffroyd: I spent a lot of time going to cons, the big conventions, and bringing back information for the team. Afterward comes the moment where we have to separate what’s authentic, how far we can go, what we can do with that. It’s always a dialogue between the designers and me and the creative director to make sure we stay on the line we want to follow, or at least test the elasticity of that line, between authenticity and having a game that plays well.
GamesBeat: How did you come across Violet Blue?
Geffroyd: I’ve been close to the hacking community for almost 20 years. I go to DefCon every year. We have common friends. When I was focusing on San Francisco, some friends of mine organized a party so I could meet as many local people as possible. I spent five days with this crowd. That’s when I met Violet. We’ve been talking ever since. We meet at every convention.
GamesBeat: How did you choose San Francisco? Was it already in the cards for some reason?
Geffroyd: We wanted to escape the gloominess of Chicago. We wanted something a little more lively. Also, we wanted to change the tone of the game. For many reasons, the first one was pretty dark. We wanted to do something different.
GamesBeat: It’s a story about revenge.
Geffroyd: Right. The other reason, we wanted to portray the hacking community’s diversity. There are many ways to talk about hacking, many ways to present the reality of hacking. To us it was a fun way to go through the hacktivist part of it, to have a group of different people. San Francisco came on the map pretty easily, because of the idea we have the city. There’s a long history of anti-conformity that’s core to San Francisco.
Also, Silicon Valley is nearby. It’s nice to talk about technology, but being here, you can drive right down to where that’s all happening. To us it was very important to be grounded not only in the city, but in the world of the technology we’re trying to describe.
GamesBeat: You always have to fictionalize corporation names. But how real do you think you’re getting as far as depicting corporations and how they behave?
Geffroyd: I think it’ll be pretty clear to everyone who we’re emulating. [Laughs] Some of the names will ring a bell.
GamesBeat: Well, there are lots of big companies out there. They tend to profess to be on the side of openness.
Geffroyd: Of course. “Do no evil,” as they say. Something we’re trying to do in the game—I don’t think we’re in a place like the cyberpunk stories of the ‘80s where corporations are evil, inherently evil. The world we live in and capitalism in general generates its own set of bad behaviors that aren’t inherently thought of as bad. It’s not a business plan to be a bad company. But given the power and the reach they have, it’s very easy for individuals within those companies to misbehave. That’s something we’re trying to illustrate through Dušan. He’s hacking his own company for his own purposes.
Technology is neutral, after all. It depends on what you do with it. There’s the famous conversation between Oppenheimer and Einstein when they were developing the atomic bomb. We’re not trying to tell you what you should or shouldn’t use. But there are things to be aware of. Through this game and the reach it has, we can simplify some problems and make sure people understand what they have in their pocket, the nature of what they do online, the ways it can be used for their own good or for bad things.
GamesBeat: There’s an easy message to deliver there, but you kind of already did that with the first Watch Dogs. Is there a more refined message in Watch Dogs 2?
Geffroyd: The hacktivism angle makes it easier for us. In the first game, Aiden is a vengeful character. He’s driven by his own personal passions. The hacktivist aspect of this game—you start like any other group, doing it for the lulz, doing it for fun. Then at some point you realize that some very fishy things are happening behind the curtain. The group becomes activists.
The message itself, I think, is just to be careful with technology. That’s what we’re narrowing down to. Having this group of different characters that can present different points of view, different approaches to problems, was really interesting to us.
I don’t think, as game developers, we should be giving lessons about the society we live in. But it’s a duty on our side to expose things that people don’t know. It’s a complex situation, and it’s down to us to simplify it to a point where people get interested and ask more questions about it for their own sake.
GamesBeat: Maybe there are people in these corporations who could as easily make the right choices.
Geffroyd: Absolutely. Again, I think corporations are made of people. People can be good or bad. Hopefully it goes for the best. But we’ve seen this development of information capitalism happening. There’s a lot of money to be made. It’s very shadowy – no laws, no regulation whatsoever. A lot of bad things are happening currently with brokers and everything, the processing of data and what they do with that. That’s something we wanted to expose. It’s not even the big companies. It’s a multitude of smaller companies that are grabbing data everywhere, compiling it, and reselling it, for what purpose we don’t know, through what process we don’t know. We don’t understand the algorithms or biases. That’s the reality we’re trying to expose.
GamesBeat: How much of the real world has gotten into the game in that way?
Geffroyd: To the point that I can talk about it, yes, we have some characters who might be recognizable.
GamesBeat: Is it okay to take a real-world inspiration and just fictionalize the name? Grand Theft Auto V got into some trouble with Lindsay Lohan.
Geffroyd: We do have that in the game. I can’t tell you exactly what it is. The legal issues—we’ll see what happens with one or two stories. The False Prophets would be an example. It’s inspired by Project Chanology, which was the first major Anonymous operation. It was a way to give them a little wink. But I promise you we have some pretty funky stuff in there.
GamesBeat: Did you find that real life was occasionally as good as anything you could invent?
Geffroyd: That’s definitely part of working on Watch Dogs. I’ve worked on a lot of games based on pure fiction, and that’s interesting. Now we try to be as rooted in reality as possible. The world moves so fast. Just looking at the things we did in the first game, everything is progressing at such a speed that we have everything we need. Reality has become entertainment, if you take the right angle. The next step after consuming data, consuming technology is thinking about what it means, and that’s become super exciting.
GamesBeat: What’s your own assessment of how safe smart cities will be? We know they’re going to happen, right?
Geffroyd: I come from a school where anything is hackable. I don’t believe in bulletproof security. Most of my hacker friends have been showing me that it couldn’t be perfectly secure. So I’d say I’m quite worried. Especially because of the lack of regulation.
The more devices we plug into everything everywhere, the internet of things—all of those devices just become more points of entry. Everything is linked together. As soon as you find a point of entry you have access to the rest. Some friends of mine managed to hack a server using a smart lightbulb. Vendors can sell you processing power if you know how. It’s cheap and it works. There are many ways to get into a system.
The problem with a smart city is it’s suddenly physical. It’s not just about numbers in your bank account or your personal information. You’re talking about physical impact. That’s something we try to explore in the game.
GamesBeat: What about the political angle that’s come in as well? We hear a lot about Russian hacking, Chinese hacking, the potential for hacking as warfare.
Geffroyd: We decided not to touch on that too much for now.
GamesBeat: Watch Dogs 3?
Geffroyd: [Laughs] Maybe. We tried to let the player experience the city, to have the city as a character. Especially because you can hack it. We wanted it to be very rooted. Going toward cyber-war and all those other elements – which are fascinating, and we’d love to work with them – the scale is different. Being in the city poses different problems. We were having so much fun just dealing with the city and making gameplay happen there and making the player feel like they were in this place—it’s going to take some more thinking about how we can integrate a global-scale phenomenon into a more localized setting.
We’ve been talking about it already. There are ways to do it. But that wasn’t the focus of this game. In Silicon Valley there were enough targets and topics of discussion already. In another product – books, movies that we’re producing – we’ll see what happens.
GamesBeat: Have you heard from anybody important about this? The CEO of Google, the mayor of San Francisco?
Geffroyd: [Laughs] Not yet. We have other stories, though. I worked on Rainbow Six before. We had some real shenanigans with the mayor of Las Vegas, if you remember. He wasn’t very happy about what we did to his city. But for now, San Francisco has been good to us.
GamesBeat: We’ll see what happens. Maybe they’ll re-zone Ubisoft headquarters.
Geffroyd: You can visit that in the game, you know. Do you remember the picture that was released from our office, where everyone was dressed exactly the same? Everybody wearing blue? It wound up on Reddit. We had this discussion about having everybody in the Ubisoft building dressed exactly the same. But it turned out they didn’t want that.
GamesBeat: Your fiction is very close to the truth here.
Geffroyd: That’s part of the brand. The DNA of Watch Dogs is taking reality and expanding on reality. That’s why we’ve put so much effort into creating the city and working with the hacking community, making sure that everything we put in is right. That’s the service we want to deliver, I would say.
We live in this world and we have this technology all around us and we don’t really think about it. We can push a little further than reality, show a little more of what we miss every day, show where things are going, and create a discussion. It’s important for us to stay close to reality, because if we don’t do that, if we go too sci-fi, we can’t convey that same message. We can’t comment on your life and the reality of technology. So that’s why we put so much effort in.
At a basic level, too, it’s interesting to us. These are questions we raise among ourselves. By spending a lot of time with the hacking community, going to cons and everything, we try to stay a step ahead of the discussion. That’s been very interesting. With Watch Dogs, I think the Snowden revelations broke two days before E3. We were right on time. With Watch Dogs 2, dealing with big data and information brokers and those social concerns, the past two or three weeks have seen stories break about data-driven policing and police agencies buying information from shady vendors to target hacktivists and unions.
By staying so close to reality and so close to the infosec community, we learn all these things that drive us to tell new stories. “This is amazing. We have to tell people about it.”
GamesBeat: I thought it was interesting that Mafia III called its city New Bordeaux, even though it’s obviously New Orleans. Grand Theft Auto calls it Los Santos instead of Los Angeles. You guys decided to do the real San Francisco.
Geffroyd: We want to be in reality. The city is real enough that it makes you think about these issues as real, as part of our real world. These other games have fictional cities and so they feel more like fiction. It gets to this idea of being rooted. Whatever we show to players becomes the beginning of questions they ask themselves.
With the first game, we did some post-launch studies and quantitative analysis of gamers. We had some number of players, around 60 percent, saying that their point of view about technology, and their own behaviors around using technology, was altered by their experience playing Watch Dogs. To us that was a huge victory. Everything else aside, that’s what I want to do. That’s what I work with the team to achieve – to provide a service, to do something good for people. And also because the themes are just fascinating.