Watch_Dogs’ Danny Belanger on open worlds and digital shadows

Watch_Dogs is shaping up to be an amazing game. Players take on the role of Aiden Pearce, a vigilante hacker living in a not-so-distant future in which everything is connected, and he is able to hack and take control of, steal information from or destroy just about any gadget he comes across using just his phone. It’s a third-person, open-world stealth adventure game from Ubisoft Montreal, and it’s been in development for the last four and a half years.

Danny Belanger, the game’s lead designer was at rAge 2013 and we got the chance to talk to him about the game, the inspiration behind it and the many amazing things players will be able to do. To what extent was the game inspired by the idea that people are under constant electronic surveillance, and that true power is in the hands of the people that control the information gathered by that surveillance?

DB: Watch_Dogs wasn’t specifically inspired by those things, but rather it builds on the very real idea that people’s actions leave a digital shadow, the interconnectedness of today’s technology and the incredible volumes of information that people have access to. The world around us is an inspiration for much of what happens in the game. Did the NSA revelations that surfaced recently boost interest in the game?

DB: That’s hard to say because we’ve had a lot of interest since E3, but it certainly made Watch_Dogs more relevant to what’s happening in today’s world. Games like Skyrim have helped to push the envelope in terms of open-world gameplay; what are the strengths of your open-world game?

DB: The strength of open-world games is that they combine a lot of different mechanics, and as such there are a lot of things for gamers to enjoy. Our challenge was to ensure that all of those things are done really well, and I believe we have succeeded. There’s driving, shooting, sneaking and much more for players to enjoy in Watch_Dogs, and on top of that there is the hacking system that really sets the game apart. What have you done to make driving special in Watch-Dogs? Apart from making the gorgeous visuals, of course.

DB: There are 50 specific driving missions in which players can do things like distracting cops, taking on contracts to chase down bad guys and even transporting vehicles for certain clients. There’s so much to do in the world, and this is just one component. I saw in a gameplay video how Aiden unlocked a car electronically before getting in. Is that something that happens automatically or is it player-activated?

DB: That’s actually part of the game’s RPG system which allows Aiden to upgrade his skills after accruing experience through the game’s various activities. This particular skill falls under the driving category, and must be unlocked by the player. Other skill categories that can be upgraded include hacking and combat. Does the game punish bad actions and reward good ones?

DB: We don’t judge what players do in the game, we simply give them tools to work with and what they do with those tools is entirely their choice. The game provides feedback, of course, in the way of in-game consequences that affect Aiden, but the degree to which players are impacted by those consequences is again, up to them. There is a reputation system that reflects how Aiden is doing, and a media broadcast system that will talk about his actions, so naturally actions seen as “good” will cast him in a positive light, and vice versa.

We’ve also implemented a crime prediction system that will predict when and where crimes are likely to take place, and that’s information Aiden has access to. It’s entirely up to him whether he will intervene or not, and the game will reflect his choice either way. What do you dislike about other open-world games that you’ve tried to avoid with Watch_Dogs?

DB: I dislike games that arbitrarily change the rules. If something worked in mission X, it should work in others in the same way. We’ve designed Watch_Dogs to be as open-ended as possible, and we’ve tried to make missions that have a more free approach, with no arbitrary rule changes that might frustrate players. My favourite missions are the ones where you’re given a lot of freedom. Care to give us a few specifics?

DB: (laughs) I can’t comment on what those are, exactly, sorry. You’ll just have to wait and see. I’ve seen a few multiplayer videos in which players invade other players’ worlds in order to hack their phones, but you guys have been fairly quiet on what the rewards for doing so actually are.

DB: With the multiplayer component, we really wanted to break the single-player/multiplayer wall seen in other games, and we tried to make it more about accruing prestige than anything else. The reward, then, for successfully hacking another player’s phone is just that – prestige, which helps to build your own “hacking network”. The idea is we want people to be interested in building that network and saying “Look at how many people I’ve hacked!” In fact, after playtesting half of our playtesters told us that multiplayer was their favourite thing, once they got the hang of it and understood what to do and what is at stake. What other cool things are you doing with multiplayer?

DB: We have a companion app that runs on smartphones and tablets that lets tablet users play as CtOS agents trying to catch Aiden. How long is the game?

DB: It’s difficult to say because there is so much to do. When we did playtesting, testers had two weeks to do as much as they could, and none of them managed to see everything. Thanks for your time, Danny!

Watch_Dogs is coming out at the end of November for all current-gen systems and will also be available on the PS4 and Xbox One when they launch. For a small taste of what the game has to offer, check out the video below.


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