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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 1 year 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 1 year ago
  3. GK

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

    #3 1 year 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 1 year ago

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    Fable Legends will be free-to-play when it launches on PC and Xbox One. According to Lionhead, the one versus four cross-platform title borrows from MOBA games such as Dota 2 and League of Legends as it will contain free, rotating heroes which will be added to a roster for a two week period. Once the […]

  • Win! 5 pairs of tickets to the Call of Duty European Championships

    We have five pairs of tickets to giveaway for the Call of Duty European Championships, taking place in London this weekend. The event takes place this Saturday February 28 and Sunday March 1 at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Winners can watch teams will go head to head for a $10,000 prize pot […]

  • Republique Remastered has released on Mac and PC

    Republique Remastered, which was announced earlier this month, is now available for Mac and PC. The game is 20% off through Steam, GOG and the Humble Store for $19.99 until March 4. Thereafter, it will run you $24.99. The Remastered edition contains all five episodes of the game, with 1-3 available now and the remaining […]

  • LA Cops coming to Xbox One in March

    Isometric shooter LA Cops is coming to Xbox One on March 13. Already on Steam Early Access, the game looks like it’s been heavily inspired by Hotline Miami. Walk into a room, open fire, leave bloody puddles in your wake. It’s being published by Team 17. Check out the video below for some 70s cop […]

  • We have $500 of Steam Wallet funds to giveaway!

    We’re giving away 10 Steam Wallet prizes worth $50 each to VG247 readers, courtesy of Bundle Stars. All you need to do to be in with a chance of winning $50 Steam credit is to enter your details below. Join the Bundle Stars Steam group for entry in the sweepstake, and gain extra entries for […]

  • Lapsed Final Fantasy 14 players tempted back with 10 day freebie

    Square is offering lapsed FF 14: A Realm Reborn players a chance to come back to the game for 10 days worth of free adventuring. Provided you’ve already bought and registered an account you’ll be able to play free of charge from Feb 27 to March 9. Square wants you to sample the new content […]

  • Advanced Warfare: Sledgehammer looking at “opportunities” to recreate classic Call of Duty maps

    Sledgehammer Games has told VG247 it’s looking at opportunities to recreate classic Call of Duty maps in Advanced Warfare. According to co-founder Michael Condrey, players of the latest Havoc DLC are asking how Exo abilities and verticality can be added to classic franchise maps. “We’re taking a look at some opportunities to really highlight the […]

  • GTA Online reader playlist week 7: and the winner is…

    Stuff was shot. But only one player emerged victorious. GTA Online player e031271 won last night’s VG247 reader playlist, beating myself, Matt and regulars solidorwot and Revolting. Congratulations, Mr e031271. A deserved victory. We play a GTA Online playlist in an open session every Wednesday on PS4, because it’s both funny and fun. Anyone’s welcome […]

  • Leaked screens reveal The Reef as Destiny’s new “social space”

    A handful of leaked Destiny screens seem to confirm that The Reef location will be the new social space in Destiny. The new addition is likely to be revealed as part of the upcoming House of Wolves expansion. Reddit user Megamanexe4 dropped the screens on the site earlier this morning, along with grabs that reveal […]

  • Darksiders creator teases Battle Chasers game

    Joe Madureira, creator of Darksiders, has released art that strongly suggests a Battle Chasers game is in the works. Battle Chasers was a comic book from the late 1990s that suffered notorious production problems between issues and was never finished. Madureira formed Airship Syndicate after the collapse of THQ, where he co-created Darksiders. His latest […]

  • Infamous video nasty Axe recreated in GTA 5

    The trailer for notorious horror movie Axe has been recreated in GTA 5. The shot for shot remake is the work of gigerbrick who has previously recreated exploitation flicks like Machete and Hostel using Lego. The original Axe movie was banned in 1984 in the UK but passed with cuts in the late 1990s. Movie […]

  • Payday 2 for PS4 and Xbox One includes “a year’s worth of paid DLC” for free

    Payday 2: Crimewave Edition will include a year’s worth of paid DLC from the PC version of the game for free. The new-gen version of the game will be available June 2015, and includes almost all of the paid and free DLC released so far for Overkill’s popular first-person shooter. That DLC includes The Big […]

  • Yes, Mortal Kombat X will require Xbox Live Gold or PS Plus

    Mortal Kombat X won’t bypass Microsoft and Sony’s premium online play requirements. Reports that Mortal Kombat X wouldn’t require PS Plus or Xbox Live Gold started circling earlier this week thanks to a communications error. Answering fan questions on Twitter, producer Shaun Himmerick accidentally gave the impression that premium console subs would not be required […]

  • This is what Destiny players most want next

    Destiny patch 1.1.1 has resolved or at least addressed a number of complaints voiced by the community, but there are plenty more. des Destiny community manage David “Deej” Dague has put out a call for Guardians to share their concerns – or rather, what they think the community is most concerned about. “Set aside your […]

  • Google AI can play games now, so we’re probably all going to die

    Google has brought us one step closer to our inevitable slaughter or enslavement by machine overlords. Google has developed an AI that can learn to play video games and devise brand new strategies. Let me just rephrase that: Google has created an AI that can teach itself new skills, including how to play video games. […]

  • First footage of Renowned Explorers: International Society surfaces

    Renowned Explorers: International Society is a turn-based strategy game from the team behind Reus, and it looks great. Renowned Explorers was announced almost a full year ago, but has been pretty quiet since then. Developer Abbey games has now announced that the game has hit alpha, and will be open to select testers soon. You […]

  • Cities: Skylines developer commits to mod support

    Cities: Skylines will fully support the modding community. Hailing from famously mod-friendly publisher Paradox, Cities: Skylines is a no-brainer for mod support – especially as a lack of mod support is one of the things SimCity was so heavily criticised for when it firts launched. In the developer diary below, Paradox’s Jakob Munthe is joined […]

  • Nosgoth update adds Vanguard, many fixes

    Nosgoth, the free-to-play multiplayer brawler set in the Legacy of Kain universe, has been given a significant makeover. The major feature of the latest Nosogth game update is a new playable human character called the Vanguard. “Equipped with mighty throwing axes and a shield, the Vanguard can take more punishment than any human class that […]

  • Xbox Live Gold 12 month sub $40 on Microsoft store

    Microsoft is offering $20 off 12 month Xbox Live Gold subscriptions at the moment. An Xbox Live Gold 12 month subscription will normally set you back $60, but a Microsoft Store promotion has it on offer for $40. The offer is restricted to the US store. Although you can opt to grab your sub as […]

  • Tomb Raider movie script to be penned by TMNT writer

    Tomb Raider will be Evan Daugherty’s second reboot of an established universe. The Tomb Raider movie reboot has signed on a writer and a distributor. Deadline reports Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Divergent, Snow White And The Huntsman and G.I. Joe 3 writer Daugherty will write the film. Additionally, Warner Bros. has signed on to distribute, […]

  • Shelter 2 pre-orders open, launch trailer debuts early

    Shelter 2 is a game in which you are a mother lynx and must protect a den of kittens. Yes, it’s delightful. Shelter 2 is coming to Mac and PC on March 9. Pre-orders are now available on Steam at 10% off or on GOG.com with a free skin and soundtrack, or 20% off if […]

  • That Batman: Arkham Knight trailer is full of codes

    Batman: Arkham Knight’s trailer is like a Transformer – there’s more than meets the eye. The new Batman: Arkham Knight trailer contains a number of codes. Eagle-eyed users have spotted four so far, and work on cracking their meaning is progressing. According to an /r/games thread rounding up results so far, the codes pertain to […]

  • Assassin’s Creed haystacks won’t save you from a fall

    Assassin’s Creed fans, don’t try this at home. Assassin’s Creed characters can survive falls of almost any distance as long as they aim for the haystacks scattered handily throughout the environment. As you probably deduced from your familiarity with common sense, this isn’t a real thing: falling from heights kills you, the same way a […]

  • Why are people buying PS4 and not Xbox One?

    PS4 is outselling Xbox One – but why? A new report may have the answer. Last month, the PS4 outsold the Xbox One in the US again, returning it to the top of the charts after just two months away. Why? What has caused this reversal in fortunes in Microsoft’s home territory? According to a […]

  • Toejam and Earl are back with a new Kickstarter

    The early 90′s are alive and well in a new bid to bring back Toejam and Earl. Toejam and Earl released for Mega Drive (Genesis, Americans) in 1991, and the eponymous characters went on to count among Sega’s best-known characters. They appeared in a platformer, a light gun shooter and finally a 2002 Xbox game […]

  • New Wander trailer shows off Azertash form

    Wander is a collaborative, non-combat MMO in which you can take on a number of unique forms. Wander players begin as an ambulant tree called an Oren and can progress through several different bodies as they explore the environment, learning its secrets. One of these, which we’d not seen before this trailer, is the amphibious […]

  • SOMA approaching beta phase on PC and PS4

    SOMA, the new horror game from the Amnesia: The Dark Descent crew, is getting close to playable. Frictional Games has apologised for its recent silence over the project, but said it’s focused on reaching beta. Sorry all for the silence! We're closing in on Beta and everyone's working hard to get there. Once that's done, […]

  • Square Enix does not condone Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest HD Remaster

    Square Enix has said it’s not involved with a fan remake of Final Fantasy spin-off Mystic Quest. 1992 SNES game Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest is being remade by Dark Design as Mystic Quest HD Remaster. The developer is even taking pre-orders for the project. Unfortunately, it looks like it is in no position to be […]

  • New Hunger teaser released by LittleBigPlanet Vita co-developers

    LittleBigPlanet Vita co-developers Tarsier Studios have released a teaser trailer for Hunger, which was announced in May 2014 at the Nordic Game Conference. The game has been rumored to be the firm’s unannounced Sony project since 2010. Platforms are still to be announced, but the studio became a first-party SCE developer a few years back, […]

  • Here’s two Mario Party 10 overview videos, one featuring amiibo

    Overview videos for Mario Party 10 and the amiibo which work with the title have been released by Nintendo Japan. Obviously each one is in Japanese, but you get the gist all the same. Mario Party 10 releases on Wii U March 20 in North America and Europe. Thanks, AGB.

  • Clan Raids announced for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Companion App

    Activision has announced a new Clan Raids mode will be made available through the Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Companion App. According to the CoD community blog, raids are time-based challenges where success earns you a spot on the Clan Raids leaderboards and new Clan Raid-exclusive in-game gear like the Equilibrium set. Clan members will […]

  • Play Battlefield Hardline starting March 12 through EA Access

    Xbox One users with an EA Access subscription will be able to play 10 hours worth of Battlefield Hardline starting March 12. EA Access members will are being granted access to the game five days before the street date, with full multiplayer and all saves transferring over into the main game. It was announced yesterday […]

  • This video summarizes the contents of Destiny patch 1.1.1

    With Destiny patch 1.1.1 now available, here’s a video summary of what to expect. In the video above, Arekkz Gaming gives you a rundown of the important bits in the update. Subscribe to Arekkz Gaming for more Destiny tips and trick through the link.

  • Destiny 1.1.1 patch notes out, update is live

    Destiny’s 1.1.1 patch arrives today, so if you have been kicked from activities, it means you will need to download the patch now that it’s live. We will be pushing the 1.1.1 patch for Destiny shortly. Players will be kicked from activities and required to download the patch. — Bungie Help (@BungieHelp) February 25, 2015 […]

  • Payday 2 packs based on Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number coming

    Starbreeze has announced another collaboration with Dennaton Games which will see masks based on Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number appear in Payday 2. The collaboration consists of two free updates when you acquire Hotline Miami 2 or its deluxe version on Steam from February 25. The two updates, called Hotline Miami Mask Pack and Jacket […]

  • Velocity 2X making its way onto Linux, Mac, PC and Xbox One

    Velocity 2X will be released on Linux, Mac, PC and Xbox One Futurlab has announced. The developer is in charge of the port, which will be published by Sierra. According to Futurlab, the deal with Sierra came about when self-publishing proved to be difficult due to spending “more time doing PR and marketing on Velocity […]

  • Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number finally has a release date

    A release date for Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number has been announced, finally. The game will arrive on Linux, Mac, PC, PlayStation 3, PS4 and Vita March 10. It is now available for pre-order on GOG, Humble and Steam for 10% off for $13.49/£10.99. There’s also a Digital Special Edition available which includes tracks from […]