Aiden Pearce is crouched behind cover in a dark alley. From the safety of his vantage point, he spots two guards directly in his path. He then hacks his way from one rooftop security camera to another, spotting several more. At this point, Aiden has a multitude of options. Perhaps he’ll hack into a fuse box, setting off an explosion that’ll kill one guard and draw several others away from their spots. Or maybe he’ll distract the first guard by setting off a car alarm, sneak past him, then distract the next by remotely opening a garage door. Maybe he’ll open fire with a machine gun, mowing down all his foes aggressively and with prejudice. Or, he could hack into one guard’s earpiece to trigger a head-staggering burst of sound, then hack another guard’s phone to stop him from calling for backup. All these options – and more – are available for players.
Welcome to Watch Dogs, a true next-gen gaming experience in which every choice is up to you.
In development for six years, Watch Dogs was started long before the next-gen arrived, and years before the team at Ubisoft Montreal had any clear insight into the exact specs they’d find in the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and present-day PCs. Yet Watch Dogs was designed from the very start to be a next-gen experience, regardless of the technology.
How so? “We focused on what kind of experience players want to play next,” says Creative Director Jonathan Morin. “That’s more important for me than defining what technology can do.”
Fast-forward to today, and we’re a few weeks from the May 27 release of Watch Dogs. The game will be available on both console generations, yet Morin is confident it’ll deliver a unique experience that speaks to the notion of next-generation gaming – regardless of what platform you play it on. Here’s why…
Play In Your World
“The next generation of gameplay is any form of entertainment and interaction that will bring your brain to a place it’s never been,” Morin says. Indeed, that was one of the early goals in Watch Dogs’ development: to create an experience in which players can interact in completely new ways.
The key to success: dynamism. Players had to feel like they could truly influence the world around them. This goal came to life through Aiden’s hacking abilities, along with Watch Dogs’ contemporary urban setting of Chicago: an open-world city where everything is hyper-connected – but there are flaws in the system, allowing savvy operators to interact with their environment in new ways.
But simply offering the newly created game mechanic isn’t enough. “It’s one thing to invent something like hacking in an open city, and another to make sure it’s done in such a way that when you’re in a stealth situation or a combat situation or a car chase situation – even though you understand driving, shooting, reloading and all of those things – you start feeling like every traffic light around you is a valid solution,” Morin says. “Every fuse box you can use in combat will help you turn the tide. All those elements come together so that when the player puts the controller down he or she can say, I really like this. And when they pick up the controller to play another game, they try to hack the traffic lights, but that option’s not there anymore.”
And that’s what hacking is ultimately about: real choices with real consequences. As Morin says, hacking isn’t a switch that you turn on and off, like when other games go from pure stealth to all-out action. Hacking allows players to influence their world – to move from stealth to action to driving and back again, in any way they choose. The world around Aiden will react accordingly, and new choices will emerge. Every action causes an appropriate reaction, and the player can’t help but be further immersed in Watch Dogs’ Chicago because their choices matter.
“Players can express themselves,” Morin says. “The big challenge is to make sure the game responds to their plan.” In other words, if a plan makes sense, it should work. And if the player makes a “mistake” along the way, he can improvise and the game should respond accordingly.
For example, if you blow up a guy while hidden in a dark corner, no one will have any idea that you’re there. If you destroy a fuse box, it will look like an accident. If you hack into an explosive that an enemy is carrying and he starts freaking out trying to get the bomb off and it kills his friend, he won’t turn around and say, There’s the player! “That would feel wrong because you were playing well,” Morin says.
“The game shouldn’t do that.” Instead, enemies will behave appropriately: they’ll get stressed; they’ll group up and start searching for clues; they’ll get frustrated and angry at objects (instead of you) because they assume they’re broken.
‘Players can express themselves. The big challenge is to make sure the game responds to their plan.’
“That was tough to do because there’s really no reference for it,” says Morin. “But it creates a new layer of gameplay where you can mess around with AI. That’s one of the things that feels completely different about the game compared to what I’ve played before.”
And therein lies the heart of the next-gen experience in Watch Dogs. It’s about player agency. It’s about action and consequences. It’s about choice. It’s about a dynamic and ever-changing world that’s a full simulation, with NPCs who react appropriately in a city that demonstrates a full range of weather, time, density and naturally occurring situations. (For more on the citizens of Chicago, check out: Watch Dogs – Animating a Next-Gen City.) Then you layer in Watch Dogs’ innovative approach to seamless online gameplay that smoothly blends a range of multiplayer experiences without disrupting the single-player experience, and you have a next-gen game regardless of which system you play it on.
Yes, Watch Dogs is coming May 27, 2014, to both generations of consoles and, yes, the game is almost exactly the same. The single-player experience is largely untouched, aside from the density of Chicago – there’ll be fewer NPCs in some areas, but not in a way that affects the core gameplay. The seamless online is also intact, as that’s “part of the essence of the game,” Morin says. The only missing modes on PS3 and Xbox 360 are the Decryption competitive multiplayer mode and the ability to free roam with multiple players (which Morin describes as more of a “bonus” than a core gameplay experience). But all the other online modes are fully intact.
The game also looks great on both generations of consoles. On new-gen systems the game will run at 900p on PS4 and 792p on Xbox One, at 30 frames-per-second on both consoles. While some new-gen games now offer native 1080p, Morin says it’s much more important to deliver an amazing next-gen experience than it is to push a few more pixels onto a screen. “Resolution is a number, just like framerate is a number. All those numbers are valid aspects of making games,” he says. “But you make choices about the experience you want to deliver. In our case, dynamism is everything. Exploration and expression are everything. You want to have a steady framerate, but you want to have dynamism at the core of the experience. The same goes with resolution. People tend to look at corridor shooters, for example, where there’s a corridor and all the effects are on and it’s unbelievable, and they forget that if you apply those same global effects to an open city with people around and potential car crashes and guys in multiplayer showing up without warning, the same effect is applied to a lot of dynamic elements that are happening in every frame. So it becomes magnified in cost.”
Which, naturally raises the question: why not focus on increasing the resolution during the game’s recent delay? Because, Morin says, that was never the goal. Instead, that extra time was spent ensuring the team could fully realize their vision for Watch Dogs, polishing all aspects of the gameplay and making sure hacking is fully integrated into every system. (For more, see: Why Was Watch Dogs Delayed?) “The effort was split on continuing dynamism and making sure players can express themselves through hacking without ever being disappointed in how the game responds to them, whether it’s visually or through gameplay,” Morin says. “That’s important. Resolution has nothing to do with that. That’s why stuff like resolution can scale a bit down so that we never compromise the soul of Watch Dogs.”
And now, with Watch Dogs just a few weeks from release, Morin is confident the team at Ubisoft Montreal will deliver a true next-gen experience. “From a gameplay standpoint and an experience standpoint, the player is living something brand new,” he promises. “That’s how we proceeded with Watch Dogs. That’s why everything is connected. That’s why there’s seamless multiplayer. That’s why there are Digital Trips, which are like a way for the player to get a break from the serious tone. It’s an experience that surprises you at every level. Then, slowly but surely, through those surprises the players start changing the way they express themselves in a game.”
For more on the Watch Dogs next-gen experience, check out these UbiBlog features: