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"Connection is power": Ubi Reflections talks Watch Dogs

VG247's Dave Cook speaks with Ubisoft Reflections managing director Pauline Jacquey about the studio's role in this next-gen collaboration.

As the cost of triple-a game development spins out of control, and team sizes balloon to anywhere between 200-500 employees at a time, there is a real danger that game companies will no longer exist as studios fuelled by free-thinking creative types.

They will become factories pumping out content in the same manner a production line manned by robots might produce a car.

The schematics never change, deviation from the formula is forbidden and open discussion is binned in favour of a never-ending crunch.

That's the fear of Pauline Jacquey, managing director at Ubisoft Reflections - one half of the Watch Dogs development team.

Released in 1999, Jacquey's first project under the Ubisoft banner was the Nintendo 64 port of Rayman 2, and since then she has spent time at various sites around the world to make sure they don't become hives full of mindless worker bees.

Chances are that Ubisoft is bigger than you think, with sites as far and wide as India, Abu Dhabi, Tokyo, Sweden and right here in the UK under the guise of Ubisoft Reflections.

Jacquey manages the Reflections team, and right now - in collaboration with Ubisoft Montreal - it's putting the finishing touches to the publisher's first next-gen release Watch Dogs.

"When two sides of a project such as Watch Dogs are learning how to collaborate, it's not easy," Jacquey advised. "You need to design the collaboration so the set of features that are being developed in another country, are fully 'atomic', so they don't have dependencies on the rest of the game.

“You should not have an influence on the design of the game, but it's harder for a game that's fully online with an open world, and one core systemic gameplay. It's much harder to do than, say, a party game with ten mini-games where it's easier to split the content with one team on something, then another on something else.

“That's two limits of the spectrum but it's the same logic – if your team scales you need to still be able to give ownership, responsibility and accountability – even if it's a team of ten to 15 guys. So that what they do, they have full responsibility similar to a small team say, ten years ago.”

In Jacquey's experience this concept of giving sub-teams within Reflections ownership and full responsibility over their designated tasks and specific areas of Watch Dogs development is the key to avoiding the pitfalls of factory development.

Seeing as the game is one of the first third-party PS4 games to market, it has to have innovation, excitement and most important of all, it has to have heart. The best way to nurture these virtues - Jacquey explained in an earlier conference discussion is to manage her team effectively and to treat them with respect.

But creating a game as vast and as technologically advanced as Watch Dogs across Ubisoft Reflections and the publisher's Montreal base poses its own unique challenges. "There's a lot of issues with build process, data management and it's very technical," Jacquey explained.

"You take the risk of completely breaking something the other team is doing, and if you break something locally, you can shout to the team and say, 'Hey this isn't working'. But if it's an international problem you have the time difference, where Ubisoft Montreal works during our night.

"We come in the next morning and our port is broken, but they might not start work for another three or four hours. It's hard, but the thing is that these are not new difficulties, as they're the same problems you have locally, except every single issue is amplified to the level of drama.

"Because if something breaks within a team of 20 it's acceptable because you know the guys, and you fix it. But when it's a team of 200 and it's blocked because the problem is something that Montreal did, it can be really bad".

Regardless Watch Dogs is almost with us, and it won't be long until we're tearing across the streets of Chicago, smartphone in hand as we raise hell with Aiden Pearce's expert hacking skills. Like any good sandbox game, the plot spans a wide cityscape littered with mini-games, side quests and scope for using tech to exploit civilians.

Pearce can raise automated bollards to wreck cars and - as you've no doubt seen already - fiddle with traffic lights to cause intersection pile-ups. He can extract personal data from a person's phone, use EMP-like blasts to disarm electronics and when things heat up - batter people silly with his trusty nightstick.

"You'll see most of our work at E3," Jacquey said when I asked what segments of Watch Dogs are handled by Reflections specifically. "When you enter a building within the game – we've created it – so like a shop, pharmacy or any building you can enter.

"When you have a driving mission, we created those. All the art of the cars is ours, and we have 60 licensed cars so that was very important. There's a lot of side missions and side-games that you can play on top of the main story.

"We did those, and they can evolve across online jobs or contracts, so we're not in charge of the core of the game but lots of what you can do on top of it. We also populated the world with life and activities."

Given the fact that Watch Dogs seems to take place in a fairly realistic depiction of the near-future, I then asked Jacquey if both studios felt duty-bound to avoid GTA-levels of parody and humour within the game's sandbox setting. Was realism a necessary ingredient in this ambitious melting pot of ideas?

"Believability is important, so our physics simulation has to be absolutely perfect. The quality of the capture and the performance of the actors cannot be exaggerated so we have much less room for exaggeration. You can't play around too much with what you do in making it too abstract, but we do come across many challenges.

"But for me the biggest innovation in the game is the interaction we have with the world, tied into the meaning of the game, which is 'connection is power' and 'everything is connected'. We're probably under some form of surveillance right now, so while you can take control of your situation you're being observed sometimes.

"This concept – from a story-telling perspective – is really interesting from a gameplay standpoint. It means you can control the world, so there's a lot of empowerment as a player, and it has been both a design and technical challenge for us."

Watch Dogs does look set to be an ambitious, innovative project full of new ideas within the sandbox archetype we're already familiar with. I closed our discussion by asking Jacquey how it felt to work on one of the first games to launch PS4, and to discuss Ubisoft's 'early adopter' approach to new consoles over the years.

"It's a clear strategic move from the top management at Ubisoft," Jacquey replied. We've gone early on consoles in the past since 15 years ago on the Jaguar, when Rayman was the top game on the format, which was a very big success.

"We take the right steps so that we've worked with current-gen tech a lot, which helps us when we need a team to work on next-gen. Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are very proactive in offering us support, but what happens is the first generation of games released on next-gen consoles are not as great at mastering all the hardware, compared to what will come in the second or third generation of games".

Jacquey added "It's a transition, and I think it was very different when we went from 2D to 3D. I was there at Ubisoft at that time", and concluded, "There's a lot of pressure, but it's exciting to be one of the first to work on a new format and to be working on such a brilliant game with a talented team".

Watch Dogs will launch November 19 across North America and November 22 across Europe on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, PC and Wii U. We'll have more on the game at E3 2013.

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