“Usually, if you have another E3 it’s because you fucked it up along the way,” Jonathan Morin tells us after Watch Dogs’ second consecutive airing at Ubisoft’s E3 showcase.
It was always part of the plan to show it off twice, he says – at 2012’s E3, Watch Dogs’ reveal was the highlight of a dire year, but this time, it stood its ground up against several other impressive, connected, open-world games.
Here, we quiz Ubisoft Montreal’s creative director on cross-studio collaboration, why multiplayer will evolve alongside new consoles and how his team is tackling feature creep in open-world game design.
There was a lot more competition for you this year – how are you feeling now you’ve seen what you’re up against?
Yeah, there’s some great games but I think we have great new game dynamics along with everything else. And I think it’s something most players enjoy: getting to a point where they can play out a situation in a different way, as they’re playing.
Watch Dogs has got everything in it – stealth, action, gun-play, driving, hacking – how do you ensure that you do everything well, rather than just making a game that does everything?
I think there are two parts to answer that question. The first one is time, right? It’s been four years. There’s no way, even if you have talented people, they cannot synchronize that many things super-fast. So stuff like driving, we’ve been at it for four years. With shooting, we brought it [from elsewhere] into our engine and that was our starting point, then we changed it based on our needs.
I guess part of the answer is that at Ubisoft Montreal we have a lot of stuff and know-how and it gives us the luxury of combining those elements and bringing new experiences to life – as long we’re adding it because we want to have it, and not because others have it.
If you have an open-world and add a vigilante aspect to it, people shoot at the player and they want to shoot back – but we wanted a universe where shooting back’s not the only way to play. And I guess the challenge is to bring players to understand those elements so that they become second nature to them, even though they have a gun in their hand. That’s not an easy thing to do.
Has the entire thing been developed in-house, or have other studios helped?
Other studios helped, in what we call free-roaming side content. Everything that’s core has been done in our studio for an obvious reason; the communication part. Since Watch Dogs is a new kind of beast, there’s really not much I can tell someone, like: ‘it’s like this game’… for example we tried adding in another studio in the beginning to help with the vigilante stuff and it’s very hard, because you need to explain: ‘no, it needs to be dynamic, no it’s not scripted, no I don’t want him to run around, I want him to decide to run around.’
At the same time it gives us the ability to let them go, let them have their own fun, bring something to the table instead of us just defining what they should do.
One of the things that have characterized the current generation are multiplayer modes for single player games that didn’t really have a reason to exist – do you think how you’re approaching hacking and this kind of optional, online multiplayer is a solution to that, and maybe the way the next-gen is going to work?
I definitely think there’s an education through trial and… let’s call it R&D. I think Demon’s Souls opened eyes to people. And we shouldn’t be afraid to say it, Demon’s Souls is a great game and it did it in such a hardcore way. What it opens up for a lot of people is, you know, we’ve been surfing in this old-school design taboo like ‘oh my God, someone gets into my game without my permission: he’s going to destroy my life’. You can say that, or you can say ok, can we design around that.
How do you avoid feature-creep in a game like this?
Avoiding feature-creep is not something you really want to do, you reach feature creep and then you react to it. It’s a very different way of looking at it. There is a stage an hour beyond that stage. You need to let people express themselves, especially in a systemic game. Where it’s dangerous is when you have everything scripted, adding elements is crazy. You add it too late, it feels tacked on. But when everything is systemic, you can just naturally have an idea that evolves and it means you change your own system along the way.
I think that until very, very late you need to listen to the hunches that people have when they play the game and when they go there. It’s part of the process of creating something new. Creating something new is hard, so I think it’s an insult to everybody in the team’s intelligence to just say ‘no, no I figured it out two years ago, shut the fuck up and just do it: no feature-creep’.
Feature-creep is the wrong word, I think it’s more like ‘we have the features we need but we’re still listening’. If someone understands the main beats and sees some opportunity between [them], and it’s safe and solves a problem then that’s not feature-creep, that’s designing and improving.