The news first hit almost five months ago: On Oct. 15, 2013, we announced that Watch Dogs would be delayed. In a statement that came directly from the Ubisoft Montreal team, we let you know the game would now be coming sometime in Spring 2014, and it was being held back because the team “needed to take the extra time to polish and fine tune each detail so we can deliver a truly memorable and exceptional experience.”
Fast-forward to today, and we (finally!) have a new release date: May 27, 2014. Along with the news of the release date, we have our first-ever hands-on preview, and we’ll have plenty more stories to share in the coming days, weeks and months. But that still leaves the second-biggest question (after: When’s it actually coming out?) unanswered. Why was Watch Dogs really delayed? And what exactly does “polish” mean? We cornered Senior Producer Dominic Guay and hacked into his mind to extract the answers.
“Polish” is such a fuzzy word. Let’s look at it from two sides: What did that mean for you as a developer, and what will that mean for the gamer when the Watch Dogs is released?
Dominic Guay For us “polish” is that very hard-to-plan period where in theory you’re finished but you need to still adjust things a little bit. This is true for any form of content. It could be usability testing showing us that certain UI [user interface] elements aren’t seen correctly by gamers, or certain things aren’t perceived the way they should be, or certain inputs aren’t working exactly the way we want. It’s also experience testing, where we see that some of the features we built need a little tweaking so that it creates exactly the kind of experience that we want. And it’s also the content itself.
Give us a specific example of content polish…
We produced an insane amount of animations and behaviors for the citizens of our Chicago. But once you do a lot of playtests you realize there are certain parts of the city where players go more than others. So look at it and we say, OK, there’s all these things happening in the city that many players may never see, there’s those areas they’re going in, and maybe if we had more variety there it would be better. It’s impossible to plan that a year ahead. You need to do it, see it, make an adjustment, iterate on it. So we actually produced more content that would fit into the areas where the players went more, moved content around a little bit, looked at it again, played it again. Iterating on this huge of a game takes a while. It takes weeks for anyone to get through our game.
Looking in from the outside, a lot of people only saw that we announced this delay very close to the launch date. Can you share a little about the heavy discussions, the wringing of hands, everything that went into this tough decision?
I’ll move back a little. When we announced a date, it was because we thought we would be done by then, and not because someone said, That’s when you’re shipping because that’s when we need it financially, so cut the game and make it happen. It was never that. It was, This is the game you guys want to make; that’s the game we want you to make.
We looked at it together with Ubisoft HQ. We thought we’d be done for Christmas. Everyone agreed. And that’s when we announced the date. And for quite a while, it really looked like we’d make it. We had the game playable front-to-back in spring , which meant we had like five, six months ahead of us to iterate and debug, which is more time than a lot of games need. But because we are a new IP, a new game experience, that wasn’t the case. We needed that time and we needed more.
When we got close to the end, we still could have shipped. That’s why it’s hard. It was not like we were failing miserably, the game didn’t work, or it couldn’t be played! We’d been playing this game from front to back for so long it really looked like this would happen. But when you iterate on a game and you make a change, look at what it impacts, make another change, it takes time. It’s really hard to predict how much time that’s going to take.
The good news is when HQ and the studio management here looked at the game, they understood what we’re trying to do with Watch Dogs and they agreed. They said: We understand, we see the same thing as you, you guys need more time. They agreed to it. I don’t know if I’m going to get that luxury every time I ship a game, but in this case it really was beneficial. It was really what we needed to ship the game we wanted to ship.
But with that extra time, how do you stop yourself from saying: I’ve got five more big ideas I want toss in…
No, you’re right there. That’s a really good point. What we did add was not new, random ideas. It was often stuff we planned a long time ago. Sometimes we had ideas and put them aside. And then we played game and were like: You know that idea? We actually needed it. It created exactly the context we wanted for the game. And so we brought back some ideas we put on the side, because we saw that there was a need for them.
Again, can you share some specific examples?
Here’s a quick example. We’ve always had the ability for the player – for Aiden – to hack into an NPC’s communication device – basically, their headset, to block them from calling in reinforcements. We actually used a variation of that in the first demo we showed at E3, where Aiden hacked in the communications system and disrupts a bouncer from talking with someone on the phone. We had discussions about that, but we never implemented other ways of hacking into that system. But we also wanted the hacking of the headset to be useful in combat. Someone had an idea a while ago: What if we had high-pitch, high-volume sound push into those headset? How would someone react to that?
You can imagine how someone would react to that while he’s shooting a gun or is in cover or while he’s preparing to throw a grenade! So we added that in, it created a lot of new emergent moments, a lot of new ways for the player to be smart with hacking.
But there’s a difference between that – which is a variation on something we’d already done and had been discussing for a while – and starting to add all sorts of new, weird ideas. We didn’t go there. We didn’t think that was needed. The game has so many new features, it was really about making those features work well, work smartly and adapt to the kind of players who play the game.
Speaking of hacking, was this extra time an opportunity to make sure hacking is truly a centerpiece of the action so that it plays a role in all aspects of the gameplay, including heavy combat and driving?
Hacking has always been our core focus. We always made sure that most of our missions could be done through hacking and stealth. Obviously you can always take a violent approach if that’s the way you want to do it. There are a lot of gamers who want to play with a very aggressive approach, who want to rush in guns-blazing. And when they did that hacking, became less useful. Especially if you were on the ground. If you weren’t in cars, for example, or traveling through the city. We had a lot of ideas for that. Some were there and sometimes we just needed little hooks to connect certain systems together. We did that in a couple of weeks and all of a sudden we saw the best players were now the ones who could mix combat with hacking.
So hacking is always present…
Hacking is present if you’re in combat, if you’re driving, if you’re on foot, if you’re doing stealth, or even if you’re just hiding in a corner and doing everything remotely through cameras. Hacking is central to the way you can approach problems.
You gave us a few specific examples of what you mean by “polish.” Care to share one more? Something very specific that you’re particularly proud of and that you hope players enjoy when Watch Dogs is released this May?
Yes! There is one that that I’m really happy with. We’ve talked a lot about how you can go in other players’ games and interact with each other. How multiplayer is involved in your single-player adventure. And we saw in playtesting gamers who loved it and spent a lot of time doing that. We wanted to give rewards to those players – skills that could be unlocked and used as Aiden in your single-player game.
That’s something we had, but it was very obscure. It was hidden somewhere and we were seeing that players weren’t enticed by those skills. Sometimes they didn’t even realize when they unlocked new ones. They still liked going into other players’ games and playing with others, but the actual reward was not presented correctly to the gamer. The UI wasn’t clear, it was hidden in a stat page somewhere, it just didn’t work.
Now we made it very apparent. We brought it into the flow you follow in single-player to see your skills and buy new skills, so it’s always going to be there, you’re always going to be seeing how you can gain rewards. And when we show you a player you can hack, we already tease you with how much closer you can get to that next skill. It’s subtle incentives. It’s the same core gameplay, but now it’s more rewarding because you’ve got your clear objective and reward in your game.
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