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Visualizing The Future Of Open-World Games—And Our Surveillance State—With "Watch Dogs"

Danny Belanger and Jonathan Morin, two of the leads behind Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs, talk about creating an open-world game where players have freedom to build their own story in a not-that-unrealistic near future.

In the upcoming game Watch Dogs, players are able to hack a city’s traffic system to cause an accident involving a dozen cars or black out a chunk of a city with the simple press of a key on their phone. And that’s part of the draw for the much-anticipated Ubisoft title—it’s a game that feels eerily in tune with the zeitgeist in a post PRISM world. In the game, set in a future Chicago, players take on the role of hacker-turned-vigilante Aiden Pearce, who can, with his skills and smartphone, hack into the city’s all-seeing central operating system (ctOS)—for purposes benevolent or otherwise. The other draw is Watch Dogs's open-world, mobile-enhanced take on action adventure game play.

Here, the game’s creative director Jonathan Morin and designer Danny Belanger talk about creating an open-world game, and the chaos of unpredictability.

Comes A Hacker

As Aiden Pearce, the player has turned from the life of a hacker to that of a vigilante. “A hacker brings new ways to interact as well as new possibilities to solve any challenges and, for us, bringing new game play to the table is the most important goal a new IP should have,” says Jonathan Morin, the game’s creative director. “When we finally started to be able to take down two enemy cars on our back while opening a draw bridge, staging our escape at 200 mph, we knew we had something special.”

“It’s a personal journey," says lead designer Danny Belanger. "He has to solve a personal problem. He gets entangled in all this information. He has a lot of info on people. Now with this information, as a player, we let you decide what you are going to do. It’s a choice of a player to intervene or not.”

The character of Aiden is also a badass, which informed some elements of game play. “Shaped by violence and obsessed with surveillance, Aiden has solid street smart skills. He is the kind of man who can see unlikely opportunities around him and use them to get out of impossible situations," says Morin. “We wanted to convey his street smart qualities mechanically to players. For that, we created the ‘Focus’ feature which makes it possible for players to slow down time any situation so they can have the time to feel like a street smart person who can see many options at once.”

The Perils Of Choice

With such flexibility, what kind of vigilante you are is up to the player. Will your Aiden be lethal and destructive, or careful and moral? This freedom of character was one of the reasons Ubisoft made an open-world game. “You have to intercept this guy—what’s your story? How do you want to do it? With the car, or a weapon, or with hacking? Are you a stealth guy or an action guy? We try to [let] the player make his own story through game play,” says Belanger.

The sense of freedom also comes from the hacking game play allowed by the game’s setting of near-future Chicago. The team chose Chicago for the backdrop of Aiden’s tale of crime and vigilantism for a variety of reasons, both for narrative and for game play. “Chicago has a widespread network of private and city cameras. I think it’s 60,000, which is pretty huge," says Belanger. "It has canals, the water, the bridges. It gave us a lot of richness to support our game play. Obviously, the history of crime creates a nice backdrop."

All of these elements came together to create Watch Dogs, but the game was driven by the idea of hacking into and controlling a city’s central nervous system. Morin says, “The fantasy of controlling an entire city came first. Everything else followed logically. Vigilantism became the best context for us since controlling anything systemically means that you have to simulate every possible outcome in a credible way. We needed an ambiguous role full of shades of grey. For us, any black-and-white approach would have not matched our desire for dynamism.”

These details and complex city systems come together in the wondrous chaos of an open world game. “When you interact with something, it’s just systems talking with each other and sometimes it’s just unpredictable," says Belanger. "It’s easy to script something, it’s perfect and precise, but it’s limiting. We want to accept the chaos, that sometimes is imperfect, but as a player, what you do is really what you do. If you try to cause an accident and there’s only one car, then there’s no accident. You have to time it, you have to think about those things. Game play through chaos is super appealing.”

[Images Courtesy of Ubisoft]

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