Watch Dogs – Animating a Next-Gen City

When you play Watch Dogs, be sure to pay attention to Aiden Pearce’s thumbs. This was something that was actually refined during the game’s delay. No, really.

Watch Dogs

To be fair, when it came to the animation in Watch Dogs, the game was in already in excellent shape before the delay. (For more details about what the team focused on, check out: Why Was Watch Dogs Delayed?.) That meant Animation Director Colin Graham and his team could use the additional time to not only help out elsewhere as needed, but also focus on those little details that mean so much.

“We animated Aiden’s thumb movements so he’s better at hacking,” Graham chuckles. “For example, when he hacks a tower, you’ll see he clicks on the screen properly with his thumb. We didn’t have that quite right before.”

It’s those little details that matter – the small things that pay off for a gamer, that keeps us fully immersed in a believable world. But, as Graham explained to us, animation is so much more than simply, well, animating stuff. It’s about action and reaction. It’s about “big data.” But, most of all, it’s about behavior.

Action and Reaction

For Graham, the biggest shift with this new generation of consoles – at least when it comes to his role leading the game’s animation – is the overall approach. “You have to think about it like a big data problem,” he says. “We had to create certain rules about where to put people.”

As an example, Graham brings up a hypothetical NPC who’s kicking a soccer ball against a wall. “I can see everywhere in the map he’s placed and I can then say, OK these ones are too close. We can also set time of day and probability too.”

Watch Dogs

In other words, the civilians are a complete simulation, with numerous details studied and mapped out. “That’s the next-gen approach to creating a living city,” he says. “It’s all simulated.”

Graham quickly points out that this isn’t just about action but also reaction. Let’s say you hack a traffic light and cause a car crash. The animation team has to think about what exactly the citizenry is reacting to. Is it the traffic light? The car crash? The resulting fire and explosion? Graham then takes this consideration to another level: “If you pull out your gun, what level of reaction do they go to then? Some people will react to your gun and others will react to the people that are panicking. They haven’t seen you. They don’t know what’s causing it. But they do know something’s up.”

Integrated City

Which makes the process of animating games as much about behavior as it is about motion. Indeed, Graham suggest that with the new-gen of consoles, animators will take an even greater role in the design, architecture and behaviors found in games – and in some cases will be more hands-on than ever before. “Gameplay animators touch the data and make the hard choices about the lowest level of what the characters are going to do.”

Watch Dogs

It helps, of course, that the new-gen consoles have considerably more memory. “The animation is always a bottleneck on memory, so we can have a lot more diversity and variety now,” he explains. But even more important: In Watch Dogs the civilian simulation is fully integrated with the open-world gameplay. “You’re hacking people. You’re responding to crimes. You can rescue people if they’re trapped in their cars in gunfights. You can cause people to panic and they will see your face on TV and recognize you and call the cops. You can take their phone and smash it. All this is fully integrated into the system so they’re not just cardboard cutouts or mannequins. They interact with you.”

This gameplay integration meant Watch Dogs could allocate more resources than usual to the animation process, with the end result being a richly realized, densely populated living world that will be unique for every player. “You will never see the same thing twice, guaranteed,” Graham says. “Your experience is unique. You go around this corner and the ten people that are there will be ten completely different people. Ten different profiles, ten different backgrounds, different actions, different combinations of actions.”

Flipping Out

Sure, every gamer will have a unique experience, with different characters in different locations who have different profiles – all reacting differently to the unique situations that arise as players take control of Aiden Pearce. That said, there’ll still be some commonalities. And surely, Graham himself must have a few favorite civilian behaviors. Perhaps even something he’s particularly proud of…

Watch Dogs

“That’s a tough one because there are a lot of good ones,” he smiles, before zeroing in on a particularly American job that isn’t often seen where Graham’s located in Montreal. “In front of some shops we have those guys with signs, flipping them around. That one, I love. It’s just so American. There’s some dude who got paid to stand here and flip a sign that says $5 NACHOS or whatever.”

Graham is also partial to the “living statues” – street buskers who stand perfectly still for long periods time. “I love it because it just throws everyone off. They aren’t expecting that.”

Finally, Graham suggests we keep an eye out for the guy playing drums on buckets. To get this NPC behavior right, the team actually put a sound engineer who happened to be a drummer in full mo-cap and recorded him performing. “It’s Chicago,” Graham says. “You can’t have Chicago without the bucket drummers.”

Just like Aiden’s thumbs, it’s these little things that make all the difference when it comes to creating – and animating – an immersive world. And it’s all part of the rich urban landscape in Watch Dogs.

For more insights into Watch Dogs’ open world, check out these UbiBlog features:

Watch Dogs – Playing in the Open World

Why Was Watch Dogs Delayed?

Why Chicago Is the Ultimate City for Watch Dogs

Watch Dogs


Release date — May 27, 2014
Developer — Ubisoft Montreal
Players will assume the role of Aiden Pearce, a new type of vigilante who, with the help of his smartphone, will use his ability to hack into Chicago’s central operating system (ctOS) and control almost every element of the city. Aiden will be able to tap into the city’s omnipresent security cameras, download personal information to locate a target, control systems such as traffic lights or public transportation to stop a chase, and more. The city of Chicago is now the ultimate weapon.

ESRB Rating: MATURE with Blood, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs and Alcohol
The Author

Gary Steinman has won numerous editorial awards, but you probably don’t care about that. He also ran multiple industry leading publications and websites including PlayStation: The Official Magazine,, PC Gamer and Newtype USA – but that’s all in the past. The real truth about Gary? He loves cats, he takes too many selfies on Facebook (according to one co-worker, at least), and he occasionally crochets. And now he’s helping share stories about Ubisoft’s amazing games and their incredible creators in his role overseeing the UbiBlog and other select Ubisoft social channels. Follow him on Twitter: @GarySteinman

laz 5pts

I hope he can change his appearance Cause it would suck if your character looked the exact same the entire time. Just a thought ! Im sure the game will be great either way. The ajustments seem great !

Aiden Pearce
Aiden Pearce 5pts

I'm Glad the game is coming together so nicely, I'm really looking forward to Meeting this beautiful emursive open world title. I have a question though, sometimes even the most simplest of things can make a game even better, so i wondering if I could change the characters clothing in game.

HighFructoseCornSyrup 5pts

I look forward to getting this game. My only concern is what parts of Chicago the game will feature (I'm not necessarily concerned with how big the map will be). All of the publicly released gameplay footage of the game only shows off downtown and parts of the south side of Chicago. I'm interested to find out what the north side will be like, considering that I grew up on the north side right by the lake.

Paul Barlow
Paul Barlow 5pts

I done my pre-order last year when is was supposed to come out............DONT FAIL US.

Airwane 5pts

I wonder if you follow an NPC you can find out where they live and if you come back there the next day the won't be there or if you will see them?

Airwane 5pts

this would have been great with some gameplay.

I think Ubi raise the bar when it comes to NPCs

Airwane 5pts

This would have been so great with SOME gameplay lol!.

I think Ubi raise the standard in NPCs. this is absolutely great.

I can't wait to play this because I'm actually bored of all my current game. all I do is watch gameplay and planning what I'm gonna do.

DiscoMcDisco 5pts

This immersive gameplay is exactly why I'm excited about this. There's a bit in the article above where people will react without necessarily seeing you... Can NPC's experience anger as well as fear? Could I see protests and cause them to escalate into riots? Could i get NPC's to attack other people for me??

I'm only gona play the main story line when I have to for progression, I want to experience this world to the full.

Also, will you guys be doing any 'Name in the game' style competitions? I'd love for my details to come up as an NPC ;)

Additionally, with this much data, I really hope it's possible to create characters at some point. Not only my details informing an NPC but and NPC that looks and sounds like me! If you got the interface correct, then perhaps we could set up a Watch_Dogs profile that's integrated with the back-end directly... with some kind of 'review process' to monitor what people are adding ;)

Very excited for this game.

علي 5pts

بس احب اعرف كم سعره حزمت العبه

cyruz 5pts

I love it when devs put effort in the little details. I was right to pre-order this back in September '13 for my PC. Looking forward to next month!

LC 5pts

I hope the game will utilize hyperthreading to a great extend...

Jamie Barker
Jamie Barker 5pts

Colin G. The Animation king. Ubi, he's a keeper. The more I read into this, the more I realise Watchdogs is more technologically advanced as It may seem. What goes on behind thoses pretty graphics? A bunch of 1's and 0's I'd say :D

LC 5pts

OMG, that sounds almost too good to be true...

Well, I've already preordered the game so I will soon find out for myself. ;)

Gary Steinman | Communications Manager
Gary Steinman | Communications Manager 5pts

Great questions. We'll answer some of these in the coming weeks, and others you'll have to play to find out... we don't want to reveal everything! May 27 is coming up soon, so you won't have to wait much longer...