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