Watch Dogs is one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the year. It's a title that's not only caught the attention of gamers, but also captivated a wider audience with its content: hacking and conspiracy. It's a contemporary subject that's echoed in today's society then ever before. From politics - think NSA surveillance, Wikileaks, or plenty of other picks - through to popular culture such as Person of Interest, the popular CBS show.
Watch Dogs has its finger on the pulse, and we got the chance to catch up with the beating heart behind the project. Jonathan Morin, the title's creative director, sat down with us at the Eurogamer Expo in London to chat about the game's origins and inspirations, what to expect from the next generation of gaming, and where the future might take us.
Watch Dogs has gathered serious hype. What's special about this game that's captured the attention of so many?
I think people can relate. We've managed - with a bit of luck and timing - to get the subject at the right point in time. We're talking about people's lives. That's one product of it.
Where did the concept of the game come from? There seems to be a serious undertone of the world that we're now living in - was it key to tap into that? What's your inspiration?
Honestly it was real life. It still is the best inspiration.
In the beginning we [the team at Ubisoft] talked a lot. We talked a lot about anything and everything. And when you start a new project you want to make sure that the people are all passionate about what they do. So you listen to people while talking over a beer and you get to know what they're interested in. We were all over stuff like social media and conspiracy. Like "look at my new app" - there was always something like that going on. It emerged from that.
Watch Dogs arrives at a time when hacking and conspiracy are a large part of popular culture. The CBS show Person of Interest being one example.
Funnily enough when Person of Interest came out we were already two and a half years in [to making the game]. That's something that happens when you tap into something that's contemporary. We thought it was funny, but we thought it was cool that it was happening. To me it was a bit like the NSA thing too. All those [real life] elements are starting to emerge.
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Watch Dogs is an open world title, hot on the heels of GTA V. What tricks does Watch Dogs have up its sleeve to show off?
The hacking aspect. It changes the game, it defines everything about the game.
When you make a game, and whether it's open world or not, your first motivation should always be tied to your fantasy. So I think the defining difference is that. In GTA, for example, it's based a lot on scale; the sheer size of the thing. They [Rockstar North] are very good at it. Us [Ubisoft Montreal]: we have a very big city, but what we really wanted to build was a dense city. I can stand still for 20-minutes and I'm still playing the game - I can listen to conversations, I can get sucked into a situation, there's something in every corner. And it's always tied to way you interact with the hacking and all of that stuff.
The other part of it is the tone. It's the look and the feel and the story. Everything about it is different because it's something that resembles who we are.
The game is set in a Chicago-esque city. Why there? And how dense a city are we talking about - what are the limits?
We wanted something that was beautiful but oppressive at the same time: small narrow streets, red brick buildings, an imposing feel. Not the west coast because it's too large and there's too much space - it wasn't the dramatic thing that we wanted.
The second part to it was we needed a political environment, somewhere to believe a story like this. Chicago is extremely innovative and they're not scared to try new stuff. They've been like that for hundreds of years. They're monitoring cellphones, they've got lots of cameras, and stuff like that. It's not surprising when you listen to their story - every problem that they have they're not scared of trying something to fix it.
After we picked it, too, it ironically became the most surveilled city in Northern America. It's kind of the London of the United States.
So it's very much Chicago, but it's not mapped out in the same way as the actual city?
No it's not. We took some little pieces of it, there's plenty of deja vu in there where you'll be, "Oh my god, it's exactly the same," but we took liberties to make sure the gameplay would be right. We had to compress it to have the best parts - we didn't want any redundancies. I think it's important to take into account when making a game. We didn't want to end up saying, "Yeah, I know this is repetitive, and this place is too big - but that's because Chicago is like that." That's not a good answer. We wanted to really crafted the right world for the game.
It's very hard to replicate directly and the payoff is questionable. The one thing you want to do though is capture the soul of it. You need some spots to be the same; you need to understand what the city is. I think that really pays off.
We went there for pictures, light modelling, but also with surround recording systems to capture the sound ambience of the city. Every single citizen [in the game] was recorded with Chicago natives with the right accent too.
Crafting a dense game must be a challenge, particularly one that straddles multiple genres. Were the teams split throughout Ubisoft worldwide to get the best from developers experienced in different sectors - driving, combat and so forth? How has that worked out?
Everything that was gameplay related was done in Montreal. So, for example, the driving was done in Montreal. A lot of people seem to have made up shortcuts in their heads though, "Oh Newcastle [Ubisoft] did the driving," but that's not really how it worked. We did use a strain of other studios to help out.
The Newcastle team did a lot of side content including a big chunk of side content to feed the driving experience. Everything that was core was done in Montreal, and stuff on the side was done elsewhere so we could actually add more content and make the world feel dense and have everything we needed to make it as rich as possible.
Did you manage to sneak in any personal flourishes into the game?
There's a lot of stuff. I'm a big geek. I love technology. I'm also a very curious person. And I think at the end Watch Dogs is trying to feed this need for curiosity that we all have. Or, at least, that a lot of people have.
I used to say that there's a little bit of perversion in every person. It's the degree that's different. So some people might get a look at, y'know, a Facebook account and they're going to want to look at pictures even though they're not friends with that person. Some others are going to want to go a lot deeper than that.
I'm a big fan of everything that surrounds invasion of privacy. I think in the end there's a little bit of that in the game. It's a very subtle thing, ironically. I find it fascinating how people look at peoples' lives and then change their behaviour. For example, some players refuse to hack the accounts of certain people [in Watch Dogs]. Some players feel bad afterwards. Some players end up invading a room and then they start watching what's going on inside and don't feel right about it. It's those emotional behaviours that players can have because they're getting the subtlety.
Some people will say "that's not gameplay, that's going to suck," right? But you end up thinking "no, people are really interested in that."
Watch Dogs is released on current-gen and next-gen consoles. What real-world difference can we expect to see in the next-gen versions that will set it apart?
Aside from graphics, density and certain behaviours it's pretty much the same package.
We didn't want - and I personally put constraint on it - to start cannibalising what we wanted to achieve just because there's a [different] machine. If you want to do a certain game then you want to do a certain game. Don't get lost.
And outside of Watch Dogs what can we expect in the future? How far can next-gen go?
I'm one of those guys that believes from now on machines or consoles will not be what defines next-gen. I think that more and more it is players' behaviour that will define what next-gen will become.
Games designers need to start being designers. Look at how players behave in their lives, look at how they behave with their phones: they have 6,000 apps open at the same time, they talk to a friend while they're in a meeting, they play a game while they're watching a movie on another television. They're very different from how they used to be and I think that games designers' jobs will become about trying to assimilate all those layers and give the players the chance to bounce back and say what's cool, what works, what doesn't work. It's not about tech any more. It's a lot more about behaviour.
We've played with the Watch Dogs companion app at this year's E3. Is that just the start of what gaming is going to become? Are consoles as good as dead?
We'll be playing on everything. Everything is exploding right now. I can pick up my phone and try a new game every five minutes. For free most of the time.
Definitely we're going to become an industry where you could be playing non-stop. Synchronously or asynchronously with the same game, that kind of stuff. The question is which device? And that I don't know. There's a lot of different tech out there right now, it's unbelievable.
The one thing that I'm sure of is that it's not about the machine any more. It's the player that drives everything. It's their behaviours, it's how they're connected together, it's how people live their lives today.
And so it's going to become harder to make games that are about what people are doing. And not just, "Here's a game, it works like that in a single screen." No. You're going to have to think about the other screen. Not for every game, but for the big games it's at least an extra spectrum to think about.
There's also the big question over Watch Dogs multiplayer. What can we expect?; will Aiden [Pearce, the lead character] be the only controllable character? Any exciting things you can tell us?
Oh there's the hacking and invasion stuff that you already know about.
For us it made no sense to suggest Aiden was the only one who could pull it off. So that's where we wanted to make sure we had hacking invasions [from others]. The system is kind of auto-balancing - if you invade people a lot you're going to get invaded more back. If you don't invade people then you have a firewall that protects you for a while. So there's an entire cycle there.
But the idea is that sometimes people come along and tell you something that you don't know about. There's an interesting loop where you tell someone something for the first time. Then afterwards you start being slowly aware of what's important. And the mechanics of who's watching who. There's more to it than that for multiplayer but, for now, I cannot say more. Wait a little bit, not that long now.
Lastly, what are you most looking forward to outside of Watch Dogs?
Interesting. Every time we finish a game I take a little break. I'll pick up a bunch of games that are still wrapped up on my desk and I'll go and I finish them. I think it's always fun to play other people's games, especially when you're done with yours. I have a clear head and can appreciate someone else's work.
I was looking forward to GTA V, which I'm going to start paying soon. Once I have, you know, like one day at home. That one I think is interesting.
The next-gen stuff I'm quite curious about the indie stuff. There's a lot of indie stuff that intrigues me. Transistor, the PS4 one with the character that is playing with the USB sword, I thought looked interesting.
Oh, and Titanfall.