Ubisoft Montreal’s Animation Director Explains Watch Dogs

During Ubisoft’s press conference at E3 2012, the Assassin’s Creed developer/publisher unveiled a new open world game set in a virtual version of Chicago. The game was originally projected to come out on November 19th 2013, and the original twist was that the protagonist of this game, Aiden Pearce, could manipulate the city at will. Aiden can still manipulate Chicago due to his illegal access to the operating system that controls the city, but what changed was the release date.

Weeks before the PS4 and Xbox One came out, Ubisoft announced that Watch_Dogs would be delayed until May 27th 2014. Ubisoft told the world that this delay gave the development staff more time to polish Watch_Dogs. Now, after years of drooling over screen shots and short game-play videos, gamers can take solace in the fact that Watch_Dogs is almost on store shelves.

We still don’t know exactly what Watch_Dogs is though. A marketing campaign that is well funded will give you an idea, but it will never give you the full picture. That’s why we cornered Colin Graham, the Animation Director on Watch_Dogs, to fill in the gaps. He was nice enough to answer our questions at a Watch_Dogs launch event that recently happened in downtown Toronto.

Comics Gaming Magazine: Can you explain Watch_Dogs for the people who have not been following its development closely?
Colin Graham: Watch_Dogs is an open world game. It centers on a character named Aiden Pearce who is a modern day vigilante, and his edge is that he’s also a hacker. He’s not just a tough guy who can handle himself on street, but he can also access the ctOS which is the operating system for the city of Chicago. And he can actually use that to infiltrate the infrastructure. He can read people’s emails; he can look through security cameras, hack traffic light lights, and just cause chaos.

Aiden is on this sort of quest to figure out what has happened to his family. He stole the wrong information from the wrong people, and they came after him and killed his niece. Now he wants revenge. He starts to look through the ctOS to find for the answers he wants, but he also sees all the secrets that people have. All the things that are putting them in jeopardy, and when he see all of these people who need help, how can he look away? And so this leads him down the path to become this cyber vigilante in Chicago.


CGM: You said that Watch_Dogs happens in an open world environment. I would add that it is also an action adventure game. Is this a good description of the game, or do you feel that such a description is lacking something?

CG: No, absolutely that’s a good description. It’s an open world in the sense that pretty much from the beginning of the game you can go anywhere you want, and you’re not restricted in any way like this. You’re free to take on missions and contracts anywhere in the world, or you can try to plug through and follow Aiden’s journey. So it’s totally an open experience for the player.

CGM: You’ve mentioned hacking, and there is obviously driving and shooting in Watch_Dogs. Why is it important to have so many different mechanics to approach the content in this game?

CG: We wanted to offer the player a different way to play the game. Players have gotten used to playing games where you drive and shoot, and you play that kind of combat oriented game. We wanted to add an element that allowed the player to be a little more creative. So you can hack the objects in the city and it will create a different response from the game—when compared to combat. If you hack a traffic light it will cause a traffic accident, people will react to that. If you’re being chased by the police the same traffic accident is going to block them behind you and help you escape.

We also wanted to use it to create an intelligent approach for the player. A lot of the missions or challenges can be approached by hacking through a security camera, through distracting people, and by changing the patterns that they move. A player can be very creative in Watch_Dogs, expressing themselves with all these different tools.

And of course you can mix them together too. You can also use hacking in a stealth approach, a combat approach, or a hybrid approach. There is no right or wrong way to play it. I will say this though, for a player who is learning the hacking tools, and embracing them, and being creative; they’re going to have a much easier time dealing with the game as it progresses because hacking becomes an equalizer. You might have a really tough enemy but, if you can jam the ear piece in his ear and create this big sonic squeal in his ear, when he drops his guard he is exposed and it is very easy to take him down this way. So for a player who wants to play this game in a different way, hacking is adding another level to it.


CGM: Shooting, driving, and hacking seem to be the pillars of the game. Is there no way to give peace a chance?

CG: Maybe a way to think about this is to ask, why do people like this in the first place? We spend a lot of time in our lives reading about horrible things that happen to people and we’re really powerless to do anything about it. But people have always told stories about vigilantes, and they’ve always told stories about people seeking revenge. When we read that, or we participate in these stories, we have a cathartic experience. It’s like we feel like we’re taking back a bit of control of our life. And this is why characters who seek to right the injustices against them and society are so popular. That’s why they’re so popular, I think because we can dream of doing the things we can’t do in our real life.

CGM: Are you trying to say that that Watch_Dogs is the Bait Car of videogames, and I hope you get the Bait Car reference?

CG: It’s not quite that. I would say it is more like the Count of Monte Cristo. This is a story about a guy who is going to get under the skin of some very danger people, and he is going to take them apart. That’s his motivation. It’s a classic revenge story, and it has a lot of plotting and digging into the secrets that people have. I mean when you have access to a tool like Aiden does, where you can see people’s personal information. We think that the information on our phone is for our eyes only, but a guy like Aiden can read it. We’re not living in a world where our secrets are that secret anymore, and this is Aiden and he can see what we don’t want him to see.

CGM: Aiden is clearly the protagonist of this game, but is he a hero?

CG: He’s a very flawed character; some people describe him as an anti-hero. There is also a component of “How do you want to define Aiden for yourself?” In the open world component for example, whether you save a lot of people or not, whether you run down a lot of people and don’t care about affecting the citizens of Chicago, will affect your reputation.

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Now reputation is not a good or evil meter in our game, it is actually public opinion. What do people say to you on twitter, or Facebook, what do they say about you on the radio. It’s a measure of public opinion, and your reputation with other members of the city. It will affect when people are reporting activities to the cops, or whether they see you and recognize you as the Vigilante and say, “No you’re a good guy, I am going to let you slide this time.”


CGM: This is Ubisoft’s first big next generation console game. Talk to us about what taking this game to the next generation allows you to do.

CG: We were able to build Watch_Dogs from the ground up; it’s a new concept and a new idea. So Ubisoft put a lot of attention at the beginning, just to give us the time and space to develop the concept of the game. I’ve actually been working on it for five and a half years with a small core of guys at the beginning.

The game has evolved a lot over time. It has grown in scope and scale, and it has also evolved with the world that we live in too. There are things that are happening in Watch_Dogs that are mirroring the real world that we’re in today. And we don’t have a magic crystal ball or anything, we can’t predict the future, but we do research. We pay attention to what people are talking about.

For Ubisoft, I think Watch_Dogs represents a new era of games, especially going into the next generation. We were in a good position to take our game and put it on the next generation of consoles, but you we’re also doing this game on the current generation too. So we’re kind of straddling the two generations, but because we built the game from the ground up we were able to build a new engine. And we were able to support the dynamic game components, and the number of characters we have in the world. We wanted a lot of characters in the world and we wanted them to be real characters with real AI brains that you could play with, so Watch_Dogs really has come at a good time when we’re in a console generation transition. And the new consoles have given use a lot more memory to work with too.

CGM: If your team has been working on this game for around 5 years, it must suck to hear of new technologies being invented—like a revolutionary new smart phone. I would imagine that each new invention comes with a conversation about how much of the game you want to rebuild to include this new thing in your game?

CG: Yeah, I missed one thing on the animation side. I really should have had electronic cigarettes in the game. They’ve really become popular in the last six months. Something to consider is that the iPad was not a commercial product; it wasn’t even being talked about when we started working on Watch_Dogs.

So things have really, really changed a lot. But the infiltration of cell phones into our lives, and how they’re totally embedded themselves into our lives, this was something we were just starting to see when development started. We’ve obviously evolved with the themes as they’ve been going on. But the deeper theme of privacy and our digital shadow; what’s our information, and how is it being used, and who can see it. Those are things we’ve been thinking about since the beginning because those are much older concepts then the technology we currently have.


CGM: There is a joke that when an ink stained reporter asks a videogame developer about multiplayer, that the reporter has run out of questions. That’s not the case with Watch_Dogs because multiplayer will be a major part of Watch_Dogs. Is it true that people can just jump into your game and mess with you?

CG: There are actually a lot of multiplayer modes in Watch_Dogs, but I’ll just tell you about the one you’re talking about right now. So in the game, if you’re playing Watch_Dogs and you go around and hack people, eventually you’re going to come across an agent of Blume. Blume is the organization that runs that ctOS. If you hack this person, this person is going to run a trace on your and they’re going to report you to Blume. Now Blume is going to put a contract out on your, you’re now wanted and they’re going to send a “fixer” out to take care of you. Well in someone else’s game they’re going to get a contract, and if they accept the contract they are going to invade you’re game.

So you’ll be driving around, running around, doing whatever you want to do, and all of a sudden you’ll get an alert that someone is hacking your cell phone. And it’s not another A., it’s actually another player. He’s seamlessly merged into your game, you have no idea’s he’s there. Now you have to find the hacker and you have to kill him.

This creates a totally different experience, now I could explain it to you in words, but until you play it you have no idea what it is like to be totally hacked. You can turn that mode off if you want to but there are rewards for catching a hacker in your game, so if you want to progress in your online experience it is a good idea to leave that mode on. And on the development team in Montreal we’re hacking each other all the time. We’re trying to play the game and debug the game, and everyone is hacking each other all the time because it is too much fun to pass up.

CGM: A lot of people consider Watch_Dogs to be the console selling title of this new generation. How much pressure did that put on you?

CG: Actually it was less pressure. When you get to the end of a console generation, you’ve basically gotten everything out of the console that you can get out of a console. But for us [the new consoles mean] we could also dream about doing stuff that we could not do in the past, so I don’t think we took it as a lot of pressure.

However, there has been an awful lot of exposure for the game. There are trailers everywhere and we’re partnered up with Sony. Sony is doing a really good job promoting it, so I think this is good. It is going to stimulate the next generation of consoles, and as soon as the game launches I am going to go out and get my PS4 because I haven’t gotten one yet. I’ve been busy trying to ship Watch_Dogs. Now that it is out, it is time for me to buy my console and play too.