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Watch Dogs: Ubi on creating Chicago and stepping back from GTA 5′s shadow

Wednesday, 9 October 2013 08:06 GMT By Dave Cook

Watch Dogs creative director Jonathan Morin tells VG247′s Dave Cook how his team researched the real Chicago and used its tools to make a new sandbox experience that steps away from GTA 5′s shadow.

It’s a rule of thumb that if you’re going to make a sandbox experience that the setting has to take on a life of its own. There’s no sense in crafting a vast play-space to then fill it with crap nobody wants to use. This is precisely why Ubisoft Montreal has created a depiction of Chicago governed by software, and why you play as hacker Aiden Pearce. You’re a master of that world, bending it to your whim and disrupting the natural order. It’s a power trip that players will likely warm to once they realise the potential at hand.

How did Ubisoft Montreal flesh out its environment? To what extent did the team try to capture the real-life Chicago? Why isn’t it letting you fly a harrier jet to the top of the tallest building and then base jump wearing a mankini while brandishing a dildo sword? Saints Row 4 and GTA 5 got away with it, but in Watch Dogs, creative director Jonathan Morin didn’t want to give you the same old selection box. He wanted to show you something new.

I spoke with Morin about how the team researched its world recently. It was a fascinating discussion, and it went a little something like this:

VG247: So first of all, I’d like to pick up on something that Ubisoft Montreal has been touting for some time now, and that’s the way the city and its civilians react to Aiden’s actions. How central to the game’s DNA is that philosophy?

Jonathan Morin: “I think it’s very important actually. One of the core pillars of the game is exactly that feature you’re describing there. If you really want to make your sandbox efficient you really want it to respond to what you do. That’s also why hacking everything around you became a big deal for us. By having this kind of control over everything, you can have players tap directly into systems, directly into the lives of citizens. That creates an extra layer of fun and sandbox exploration that I think is really interesting.”

VG247: So how closely did you research the real Chicago? I mean, I hear all the time, ‘We sent a team to this city and took a million photos,’ but what else does it involve? How far did you go?

Morin: “We did a lot of digging actually on many levels. We haven’t replicated the city exactly. There are spots that are definitely the same, and others we had to have freedom to make sure the gameplay was great and all of that. But we went there for buildings, structures, textures and all of that, but also we went there for the sound, the ambience of the city, and recording of the citizens to make sure we had the right accent,”

VG247: You just stopped people in the street?

Mornin: “Yeah definitely. We also went out with the cops in Chicago, out on rides with them. Our writer went there, he changed – literally changed – some of the parts that the cops say.”

VG247: Like the police chatter?

Morin: “Yeah, so there were a lot of little details like that which we thought was a nice way of bringing the place alive.”

VG247: I’m intrigued by the police ride-alongs. So they’d get a dispatch and you’d actually be there with them?

Morin: “It was partly that. It was also understanding the city through the eyes of the cops, as they have a very interesting eye of the place. Where is most dangerous, what’s going on with those guys, and we even asked them some weird questions like which TV show represents their job the best, because there’s so many cop shows out there. The Wire was one of the answers by the way, but it was just questions for us to see if our references were any good. There was tons of different things that we did.”

VG247: Did you also collect ‘human’ stories from the general public?

Morin: “Definitely some of the stories are inspired by Chicago. Two things we did were research the back-story of Chicago, and we have apps on our [in-game] phone that can get you some information on the city – similar to apps you can get in real-life today – so we can give you more information about the place, and you can learn more about the city at the same time.

“The music as well, like the kind of music that is playing out there; we did the extra mile to make sure there we had a lot of bands – sometimes more obscure and underground from Chicago.”

“You know, when you do a game you always want to make sure that what you put in is to the service of the game. I think GTA has a great fantasy and everything they put in it reinforces that fantasy. What you don’t do is start copying or start feeling the pressure of your neighbour like, ‘Oh my god we need a chopper.’”

VG247: Proper grassroots music?

Morin: “Exactly, so we could have the full package.”

VG247: So there’s a significant authenticity in there from an environmental perspective. What about the tech? How far in the future is Watch Dogs set?

Morin: “For us we went just on the line, but everything in Watch Dogs exists, like the hacking stuff you can do is possible – not at the press of a button – but they are possible. Smart cities exist, like Rio De Janeiro is using that for the Olympics, so we’re slowly getting into Watch Dogs, but in reality.

“What we wanted to do was stay on the line so that … it’s funny because some people are looking at the game and some are calling it a cyberpunk game. Some are calling it a contemporary comment on society. It’s more contemporary, but I find it cool because it’s almost like they’re saying, ‘I love cyberpunk and I see cyberpunk stuff in it’. But it’s like cyberpunk is kind of becoming reality.”

VG247: So everything is based in reality. What did you learn from speaking with security firms?

Morin: “Oh yeah, I don’t remember their name but we had a consultant, a group of security guys, like expert security analysts. We sent them a bunch of stuff to make sure that what we were doing was possible. Sometimes it was about the language, words that we used, and sometimes we had to back up a bit about certain words because players were confused.”

VG247: It was too technical?

Morin: “Yeah, too hard to get in the first try, but yeah it was a nice process.”

VG247: And presumably you spoke with hackers as well?

Morin: “Oh they have a fascinating culture. It’s a very misunderstood culture and we express this quite a bit in Watch Dogs.”

VG247: Hackers have been known to bring down sites or to break things to make a statement. Do you see Watch Dogs as a statement about the technical world we live in, the NSA, PRISM or anything like that?

Morin: “Now that it’s happening, it’s not surprising, but I mean there’s no way we could have tied all of that together. The only thing we did was digging through the internet. Our main reference source was reality and what’s going on during today, and it turns out that a lot of stuff we did dig in to, a lot of that stuff emerged from the surface a couple of years afterwards.

“I guess the fact that it took five years for us to get that stuff into the game gave the time to reality to catch up and bring some of that stuff to the surface. It was quite exciting for us to see happening.”

VG247: It’s almost like you’ve sort-of predicted the future [laughs].

Morin: “Yeah I know, it’s kind of weird. Many times we saw stuff in the news that we had done in the game or raised in the game like two weeks before it happened. It happened too often so we were like, ‘let’s stop brain-storming.’ It felt weird.”

VG247: So right back at the start of the project five years ago, were you ever wary that whatever you were going to predict or represent as the near-future may have been proven wrong or discounted in any way?

Morning: “We didn’t know it would be five years necessarily, but we knew we were in for something new and to push some things forward. When you start something like that there’s no real timeline, so you go with results.”

As in working iteratively on ideas that work?

Morin: “Exactly. The best way to not lose track of what the hell’s going on is to constantly have results. We prototyped a lot, we wanted to always have something tangible, so that way you can show what you’ve got and you get more in return.

“That’s a loop that happens where you get can progressively see what’s wrong, or what the team liked a lot, and then they respond to the possibilities. That’s how we ended up at E3 2012. At some point we made a decision; ‘Okay, let’s make this happen,’ and then afterwards it was all about secrecy and making sure we knew what to do about it.”

VG247: Yeah that E3 2012 reveal was great because nobody knew it was coming. It was different in that it seemed to be rooted in a very ‘real’ setting. Did you always wanted to stay rooted in the realm of possibility? On the other hand GTA 5′s world lets you do all sorts of crazy things.

Morin: “You know, when you do a game you always want to make sure that what you put in is to the service of the game. I think GTA has a great fantasy and everything they put in it reinforces that fantasy. What you don’t do is start copying or start feeling the pressure of your neighbour like, ‘Oh my god we need a chopper.’

“It’s always been very important for us to say … for us some stuff is inevitable, like we need cars. If you don’t drive it’s going to take a long time. So you do need those obvious things, but afterwards it was all about hacking, or what you want to do, and it’s constantly got to be about that. It doesn’t mean we couldn’t have put in a chopper or something else in, but it would have always have been – if we had done it – because it fits or there’s one cool thing about hacking we could do with it.

“It’s always about reinforcing our fantasy so that the player is not disappointed. Players are good at asking. I get bombarded on Twitter like, ‘Oh, can you buy real estate? Can you do it?’ and they ask all those questions. It’s funny because on one side it’s cool that they want to know what’s going on in the game, but on the other I’m curious. I ask, ‘Why are you asking me if you can do stuff you already did? Why are you not asking me about the stuff you’ve never done?’

“It’s funny. People talk about what they know, so instead of saying, ‘What else is in Watch Dogs, that is not possible in other games?’ they go [points at water bottle], ‘Oh I tasted that water, it was great. Do you have water in your game? [laughs]. It’s funny. I just find it funny.”

Watch Dogs will hit PC, PS3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360 and Xbox One in November

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4 Comments

  1. Panthro

    Look like very different games anyway, people need to stop referring to any modern free roam game as a GTA clone

    #1 2 years ago
  2. YoungZer0

    I really like the look of this game. Definitely going to get it. Hopefully the PC Version will be properly optimized.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. GK

    already preorder.i hope so too,that game gonna be optimized.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. KaosGoneRogue

    ‘It’s funny because on one side it’s cool that they want to know what’s going on in the game, but on the other I’m curious. I ask, ‘Why are you asking me if you can do stuff you already did? Why are you not asking me about the stuff you’ve never done?’ Absolutely agree. It’s a joke on what the gaming industry look’s like now and the bunch of “loud” minority morons who express nothing but harmful fanboyism and support for repective yearly edition’s of games like ‘cough’ Call of Duty.

    However Ubisoft are not angel’s because of their yearly releases of AC, a franchise that is demising in creativity and popularity. But I’m glad their turning a new leaf with Watch_Dogs as their objective was to never to release a clone of GTA, but a refreshing IP that not many “AAA” developers achieve into something that truly redefines open world games. I had suspicions of this game but when I play it, I’m not going to don my GTA V cap, I’m just going to play the game with enjoy ability and hey if I don’t like it, then it was “ME” who bought the game, no need of loud backlash towards the developer, just live with the consequences and move onto another game.

    #4 2 years ago

Comments are now closed on this article.

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    Screenshots for Alienation, Housemarque’s four-player co-op PlayStation 4 exclusive, have been released and you can have a look at them in the gallery we’ve posted. Announced at gamescom 2014, the game features three main character classes, weapon customization, and various team set-ups. The game has players shooting at things with twin-stick gameplay with a top […]

  • Star Wars: Battlefront website notes November 17 release, teaser video and first image hit

    The first Star Wars: Battlefront image has been posted, and apparently it appeared on the official website at some point this morning. The game will also be released on November 17, according to the official website’s source code. The release date is noted in the code located in the image below. Props to Gematsu for […]

  • Mortal Kombat X is the fastest selling entry in the series to date

    Mortal Kombat X has sold faster than any other game in the series to date, making it the “biggest launch” in Mortal Kombat history, according to creator Ed Boon. Speaking in a series of tweets, Boon said both the mobile and console versions have “literally millions of players getting online” resulting in the servers being […]

  • Shadow of the Beast reboot resurfaces with some new screenshots

    The Shadow of the Beast reboot, which was announced in 2013, has show its face once more with early screenshots. Screenshots of the Amiga classic remake show off the Karamoon’s desert and the main character, Aarbron. According Matt Birch, CEO and founder of Heavy Spectrum, the team is currently hard at work on the “core […]

  • Halo: Spartan Strike arrives on Windows 8, iOS and Steam today

    Halo: Spartan Strike is now available on Windows 8, Steam, iOS devices and Windows 8 phones. The mobile top-down shooter will run you $5.99. Halo: Spartan Strike tells a new story in the Halo universe set during the events of Halo 2 on New Mombasa in 2552. Those playing on Windows 8 devices can compete […]

  • Final Fantasy 15 video shows highlights from the Episdoe Duscae demo

    Square Enix has released a Final Fantasy 15 video which shows highlights from the Episode Duscae demo included with launch editions of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD. FFT0 has shipped over one million copies worldwide, and a player feedback survey is available for the Duscae demo until May 19. Final Fantasy Type-0 HD is available on PlayStation […]

  • Bloodborne has sold over 155,000 digital units since release – SuperData

    PlayStation 4 exclusive Bloodborne has sold over 155,000 digital units since it was released on March 24, according to SuperData’s latest report. The figure produced by SuperData is worldwide and comes on the heels of the one million units sold announcement earlier this week. “After the release of the beautiful but terribly short game The […]

  • Nintendo US eShop update: Mega May returns, Super Smash Bros. update, Mii Fighter costumes

    Nintendo has updated the North American end of the eShop with a Super Smash Bros. update and the StreetPass Mii Plaza games Battleground Z and Ultimate Angler. The update is rather detailed, and a bit larger than normal, and you may wish to pay special attention to the activities listed. Here’s the full update: StreetPass […]

  • Here’s your first look at Sony boss Shuhei Yoshida in Super Time Force Ultra

    Sony Worldwide boss Shuhei Yoshida is a playable character in Super Time Force Ultra, and today, Capy Games has provided a couple images of the man himself in the game. Yoshida was announced as a playable character in the game during Sony’s PlayStation Experience event back in December 2014. The PS4 and Vita version will […]

  • The wait is almost over – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has gone gold

    CD Projekt RED has announced the news we’ve all been waiting to hear: The Witcher 3 has gone gold. This means Geralt’s latest, and possibly last, adventure has been sent to the factory to be pressed into lovely gaming discs. “We worked so damn hard over the past three years to bring you this game,” […]

  • Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a “couple weeks out from beta,” new trailer

    Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is just a “couple of weeks out from beta,” according to development studio The Chinese Room, and a release date will be announced “shortly.” To give you an idea of how development has been coming along since it was announced at gamescom 2013, the team has released a new trailer […]

  • GTA 5 on PC looks incredible, but I can’t recommend it to console players

    As much as Matt Martin loves GTA 5, he can’t recommend upgrading from console to PC just for a slick editing suite and even prettier graphics. “This is the third time in as many years that I’ve bought GTA 5.” I have a Grand Theft Auto 5 obsession, as I’m sure you know if you’ve […]

  • The Forest engine updated to Unity 5, major graphical and gameplay improvements made

    The Forest’s latest patch added substantial improvements to the game. The Forest version 0.16 is now live on Steam with plenty of new additions. The game has been ported over to Unity engine version 5. The plant and skin shaders have been replaced or rewritten. Many other visual tweaks have been made, such as model […]

  • Star Wars: Battlefront banner leaks from Star Wars Convention

    EA has been setting up the Battlefront booth at Star Wars Celebration, and one leaked picture shows what could be the game’s main art. Someone on Reddit posted a picture of the game banner at EA’s booth. Here it is: Lots of things happening here. There’s a Star Destroyer in the distance, TIE Fighters and […]

  • Get GTA 5 working with Oculus Rift using this tool

    There’s a way you can play GTA 5 in VR if you own an Oculus Rift Dev Kit and have a bit of cash to spare. VorpX, the go-to program for adding VR support to games has received an update recently to support GTA 5. This is far from perfect, as it only translates the […]

  • FIFA Ultimate Team: week of April 15 team revealed

    This week’s Team of the Week is now available for anyone to challenge in FIFA Ultimate Team. The team members get selected each week based on their performance during the weekend matches. You can fire up FIFA Ultimate Team on any platform and challenge this squad. You’ll also find some Team of the Week items […]

  • Deus Ex: Mankind Divided will let you stealth all encounters, including bosses

    Deus Ex: Mankind Divided will bring back one of the original game’s major features. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is considered by many to be a great game and worthy of bearing the franchise name. One of its grating issues though was its boss fights. You only had one way to fight them: be confrontational. The […]

  • Project Cars PC specs and supported wheels announced

    The release date of Project Cars is inching ever closer and more details have been revealed to answer all your burning questions. Project Cars developer Slightly Mad Studios has revealed the full list of supported steering wheels on all platforms, as well as the minimum and recommended PC specs. Minimum specs CPU – 2.66 GHz […]

  • GTA 5 gets custom FOV mod on PC

    Those not satisfied with GTA 5′s built-in field of view slider can use a new mod to push the number even further. The PC versions of GTA 5 – just like its PS4 and Xbox One counterparts – lets you switch between third and first-person view in shooting and driving. The game has an FOV […]

  • Win! GTA 5 on PC!

    Want to win a Steam key for Grand Theft Auto 5 on PC? Just enter here. GTA 5 released on PC this week and is going down a storm. We like it a lot, which is why we’re giving away a Steam code for Rockstar’s latest. All you need to do is enter your email […]

  • GTA 5 topples Skyrim’s record for highest concurrent players on Steam

    Not factoring in Valve games, GTA 5 is the new king of concurrent player numbers on Steam. GTA 5 is very popular on PC, even more popular than games like Skyrim in its heyday. The number of concurrent players for GTA 5 has peaked today at 301,246. This makes it the only non-Valve game to […]

  • Mortal Kombat X: what does a modern fighting game look like?

    Mortal Kombat continues to evolve as NetherRealm adds RPG systems and daily challenges to a solid fighting game, says Sherif Saed. “Mortal Kombat X takes many cues from games like Destiny, Call of Duty, and GTA Online with hourly, daily and weekly events.” For as many of its familiar facets, Mortal Kombat X has enough […]

  • J-Stars Victory VS+ coming west in June – new trailer

    J-Stars Victory VS+ will make the jump (see what I did there) to the west after all. J-Stars Victory VS+ is the western title for the fighting game which stars characters from a variety of Shonen Jump-published manga. Bandai Namco has announced the fighter will release in Europe on June 26 and in the Americas […]

  • Codemasters F1 license good through 2016

    Codemasters has at least one more F1 game in it. F1 2015 isn’t out yet, so Codemasters is naturally not talking about what it might get up to in the future. We do know what it can get up to, though; Codemasters’ Steven Embling told Videogamer has the option to continue the series. “We have […]

  • Project Cars has pretty deep graphics options on consoles

    Project Cars offers players a wide variety of ways to customise their graphic settings on PS4 and Xbox One. Project Cars is a graphics showcase and all early indications suggest it’s going to be one of the best-looking games out there. Slightly Mad’s commitment to graphics seems to go deeper than making things pretty, though: […]

  • Super Smash Bros. patch nerfs Diddy Kong – report

    Super Smash Bros. 3DS and Wii U is great but Diddy Kong is a beast and must be stopped. The latest Super Smash Bros. 3Ds and Wii U patch seems to have nerfed Diddy Kong, a character so over-powered that serious tournament players generate controversy by choosing to use him. Nintendo doesn’t publish patch notes, […]

  • Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel developer shuttered

    Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel developer 2K Australia has been closed down. Kotaku broke the news, and also had word from an anonymous source, who said that all staff have been let go. 2K responded to our request for comment with the following statement: We can confirm we have taken steps to begin the studio closure process […]

  • Samorost 3 trailer shows Amanita still in fine form

    Samorost 3 looks as delicately beautiful as its siblings. Samarost 3 developer Amanita Design has a reputation for gorgeous, slightly surreal world building. This new trailer for its latest adventure looks just as if not more lovely than the previous Samarost games and Botanicula. Samarost 3 is coming to Mac and PC later this year, […]

  • Amnesia dev’s new project SOMA now in beta

    SOMA is nearly here and I am torn between excitement and horrified dread. SOMA is the latest horror project from Frictional, the team behind Amnesia: The Dark Descent. We’re pretty excited to see what Frictional comes up with next, and we won’t have too long to wait, apparently; the developer has announced that SOMA is […]

  • Steam Guard mobile authenticator now in beta testing

    Steam is now testing its latest security measure. Steam helps you protect your account by offering two-factor authentication, a solution so beautifully elegant and effective that it’s astounding every gaming network doesn’t do the same (looking at you, Sony). Valve’s version is called Steam Guard, and it works via email. This isn’t always super convenient, […]

  • Godzilla battles Mothra in new trailer

    Godzilla lets you stomp around cities and battle classic kaiju. I’m in. Godzilla is coming to PlayStation 3 and PS4 in early July, but we haven’t seen a great deal of it since its December reveal. The new trailer below gives you an idea of just what Natsume has done with one of the biggest […]

  • Tales of Zestiria to launch this year – new trailer

    Tales of Zestiria continues Bandai Namco’s delightful new habit of bringing the popular JRPG series to the west before the shine wears off. Tales of Zestiria is coming west in northern autumn, the publisher has announced. That’s not a bad turnaround, given it first hit Japan in January, and localisation of text-heavy titles is expensive […]

  • Project Cars release date locked down, new trailer released

    Project Cars finally has a release date. Project Cars will release on May 8, Bandai Namco UK has announced. We haven’t yet had an update from Namco Bandai’s other regional offices, but its probably safe to bet the racer will release around the same time in the Americas, Europe and ANZ region. We can now […]

  • Attack on Titan: Humanity in Chains trailer shows combat, online multiplayer

    Attack on Titan: Humanity in Chains has plenty to offer fans of the anime. Previously known as Attack on Titan: The Last Wings of Mankind, the Spike Chunsoft action game is coming west thanks to Atlus. Gematsu reports it’s due in both Europe and North America in May, via the 3DS eShop. The trailer below […]

  • Bloodborne stamina recovery rate affected by equip weight

    Bloodborne players have unearthed an important gameplay detail not mentioned in the game’s menus or manual. In Bloodborne, players need to manage their stamina carefully for best results. A far more aggressively-tuned affair than past Souls games, Bloodborne does away with equip weight limits, and items have no listed weight details. As far as players […]

  • Street Fighter’s Ryu, Fire Emblem’s Roy spotted in Super Smash Bros. patch – rumour

    Street Fighter’s Ryu is rumoured for future Super Smash bros DLC following datamining of the latest patch. Super Smash Bros. 3DS and Wii U were updated recently, and hacker shinyquagsire23 claims to have found some interesting files while poking around in the 3DS patch data. As detailed on Reddit, the audio files included a new […]

  • Suikoden 3 PEGI rating suggests PS2 Classic re-release

    Suikoden. Suikoden 2. And now: Suikoden 3. Suikoden 3 has been rated by PEGI for PlayStation 3, presumably ahead of an upcoming re-release. Gematsu turned up the rating, and although we have no further information at this time, it’s not much a leap to assume the RPG will turn up as a PS2 Classic on […]