It just wasn't fun. Not all of the time. Not for everyone.
Watch Dogs was just a month away from shipping last year when Ubisoft announced it was delaying the game. It was a surprising move for a game with so much anticipation built up around it, one that looked like it could have been one of the major launch titles for not one new gaming console, but two.
But as the time neared for the game's launch, the massive team working on Watch Dogs started to realize something: They weren't going to be able to ship the game they wanted to make, the one they promised to gamers; not if they were going to hit the November launch.
"We got everyone together and we looked at the game," senior producer Dominic Guay said. "There were discussions that were happening between people in the development team, senior core team, but also with HQ and the studio here. Everybody was talking, looking at the game. Everybody was playing the game and seeing the same things, and so those discussions were all coming down to the same conclusion."
And that conclusion was to delay the game, to give the team the time they needed to finish it, to make the game they wanted to make.
"Yes, it's a big chance," Guay said. "We thought it was for the best, though, because the expectations for Watch Dogs were high and we wanted to make sure we delivered exactly what we promised gamers."
What was it that made all of those developers, all of those executives decide that the game wasn't ready? Speaking to nearly half a dozen people on the team, the answer was typically "polish." The game needed a lot of fine-tuning; there were a lot of little things that needed work, lots of details that needed to be added. But ultimately, all of those little things added up to one big thing: The game could become repetitive over time.
It explains why the team took so long to realize they were going to need more time to work on the game. We didn't notice any issues with Watch Dogs when we played it at Gamescom last year.
It was, as we wrote, game that was shaping up to be "a culmination of lessons learned by Ubisoft in the open-world genre."
But Danny Belanger, lead game designer, pointed out it wasn't the sort of thing you would typically pick up on right away.
"It's when you put everything together," he said. "In a big production at the end of the project, everything merges. There are some things you don't know. You don't have final data for AI, all of the narrative."
For instance, he said, when hacking AI-controlled characters, there originally wasn't a lot of variety.
"So it started to feel repetitive," he said. "The fantasy doesn't make the AI feel alive. We knew some things needed to be upgraded, improved and polished; we weren't happy with that."
The team also started to notice that the game's math was off a bit. When a player is on a mission, the game determines whether any of the AI can be hacked, and it turned out that chance was set too low.
"Let's say there's a 30 percent chance that there's one. Well, you're an unlucky guy and you get four missions with no AI that can be hacked," Belanger said. "That's not cool. For you as the player, that experience is not what we want, so we changed the math. We said, 'OK, we want a guarantee.'
"Sometimes it was great, but then you could be the unlucky player who didn't get the right math. Or you play with the system too much and you started seeing some repetition. So we added variety. We added lifelike reactions. Watch Dogs is very complicated. You can hack AI and [see] how do they react. You can do that in every mission and repeat it and repeat it, and at some point we weren't happy with the variety. We wanted to make it better."
Time well spent
That extra time gave everyone a chance to add more to the game, and tweak what was already there.
The writing team, for instance, continued to fill out the database used to breathe life into the characters that live in the game's Chicago. Since players can literally hack the phone of anyone they see on the street and see who they are, the developers had to come up with a system that easily created identities on the fly. That was done by creating a database of information, lead writer Kevin Shortt said.
Whenever a player hacks a civilian's phone, the game randomly pulls together an identity by grabbing five pieces of information — first name, last name, age, occupation and curious fact — and compiling them. Each data set comes from a massive database, one so big that Shortt says that it's incredibly unlikely you'd ever see the same person twice.
The writers also created random text messages and short conversations to give random characters a bit more life, something that they continued to do with the extra time, Shortt said.
"We wanted to give players that sense of sitting on a bus and listening in on someone's conversation," he said.
Meanwhile, the cinematic animation team went back over the game's non-interactive moments to make sure the narrative remained consistent throughout the game and would keep the player in the world they were creating.
"The story was done, set, recorded," said Lars Bonde, cinematic animation lead. "With that little bit of time we could add and tweak things. It was nice to get that extension."
It sounds like the most noticeable change to the game was to the complexity of the AI and how it reacts to players.
"For us on animation, we looked at a little bit on the placement of civilians in the city, because it's a big city and you can always do more on that," said Colin Graham, animation director on Watch Dogs. "We wanted to make sure all of our reactions were fine-tuned. The bigger area we focused on was improving and adding a little more depth to the way AI react when you hack.
"You can run in and shoot everyone if you want, but we really wanted to make sure you could actually hack and lure guys away, and that they'd have more stages of reaction so that they got progressively more frustrated. If you're hacking this forklift, they're eventually going to get mad at it and they're going to try and break the thing because they're frustrated with it, this stupid piece of machinery. And that leads to the search: If they realize they're being hacked and manipulated, they're going to start searching. We just wanted to make sure we have enough detail in that area."
And it seems that extra layer of complexity — the idea that this living world was filled with people who wouldn't just come after players, but would also express anger or frustration over a technology-controlled world — was what finally pulled the game together.
"The best way to know what you've got is to sit down and play it," Graham said. "I don't have a lot of particular tasks to do; I'm helping my team to fine-tune their tasks. So I spent the last six months just kind of playing the game. I knew pretty much right away that we had it. We were fixing things and then just adding the polish and then I was like, 'This is fun. I'm having a lot of fun playing this.'"
And shortly after that moment, Graham said, other people playing the game started stopping by his desk to tell him they had spent the whole day playing the game and really liked it.
"People would come by and say, 'I played it all day yesterday and it was really fun; you really have something here,'" he said.
Playing the game on a PlayStation 4 earlier this week, it took me about an hour to appreciate not just the fun — that was almost immediate — but the feeling that it all was coming together to be something compelling and different.
In Watch Dogs you take on the role of Aiden Pearce, a hacker living in a Chicago where all technology is interconnected through a computer network known as CtOS. The city is divided into sections, each with its own CtOS command center or terminal. Once the local CtOS terminal is hacked, Pearce has the ability to hack a variety of things in that part of the city, including civilians' phones, the many surveillance cameras, traffic lights, street barriers, garage doors and even pieces of machinery. The open-world game also layers on solid driving and shooting mechanics. The end result is a Chicago playground open to mayhem, exploration and emergent gameplay.
Attending press were dropped into a sizable chunk of the city, complete with a single level from the game's campaign, and given an hour and a half to do whatever they wanted. The game's multiplayer, which allows players to hack into one another's games, was not functioning during my time with the game.
Initially, I just ran around exploring the open world and digging into the tantalizing bits of information you can pull from anyone's phone. One particular passerby seemed to eye me nervously, so I checked out his phone and was able to listen to an obscure but slightly suspicious message. I decided to follow him and watched as he stood in front of a mailbox, tapping an envelope in his hand before looking around and dropping it in.
His actions were mostly likely a reaction to my stalking him.
I spent the next 15 minutes tailing him, thinking that perhaps he was up to something. The more I followed him, the more suspicious he acted until finally, abruptly, he started running away from me.
Later, when I talked to the developers about the incident, the told me he was likely just some hapless citizen, not tied to the plot or committing any crime. His actions, which I perceived as the indication of some possible crime, were mostly likely a reaction to my stalking him.
That early incident shaped my appreciation of the time I had with Watch Dogs. This was a game powered by omnipresent surveillance, a title that seemed to equally thrive on and manufacture paranoia. And it used that to punctuate its scripted narrative and help players create their own stories.
After my short time as a stalker, I tried my hand at a bit of driving, tearing through the streets in a stolen car. The vehicle handling was great, though I was surprised at how much damage my car could take and still run. I also was surprised to find that police never seemed to notice my city-destroying antics.
But that wasn't the case for the gunplay. The second I pulled a weapon on a crowded sidewalk, regular people started phoning the police, creating an atmosphere of constant caution.
To get access to all of that data flowing from phones, cameras and other bits of electronics, players have to hack the area's CtOS command center. These are heavily fortified compounds with a central computer as the target for your in-person hacking.
Each is created to be a sort of stealth-shooter action puzzle. There's no right or wrong way to go about getting in and hacking, but there are so many options and approaches that taking on a center tends to lead to a bit of tactical planning.
I tried my hand at one particular command center three or four times, trying different approaches each time. Each time I tried, and failed, was fun in its own way.
In my final run-through, I made use of some of Pearce's gadgets, first placing a little device that makes noise on the ground outside the center, then placing an IED on a van next to the device.
I hacked the front gates open, and then turned on the sound device. A guard walked over to figure out what it was, and I set off the explosion, blowing him off his feet and killing him.
A bug prevented the other guards from noticing the explosion outside, so I was able to slip in and hide behind a wall. Using the cameras in the compound, I scouted the area, tagging all of the bad guys. I skipped my view from the cameras mounted high above the courtyard to ones mounted on the vest of a guard, using his patrol to help locate the computer.
After taking out a few guards with silent takedowns, I slipped into the office with the computer and hacked it. Then I began raising and lowering the steel shutters of the office I was in.
At first the guards came over to see what was happening, allowing me to take two more down quietly. But as I continued to raise and lower the shutters, they began to grow frustrated, complaining about the system. Finally, after about five minutes of the constant hacking, one of them realized what was going on and alerted the rest of the guards.
The realization led to a quick gun battle.
It was a fun, time-consuming diversion, but in no way was it related to the game's campaign.
"That's what it's like," animation director Graham tells me later. "It's like, 'OK, I need to play three missions today,' and I got one done because I just messed around.
"It's a very distracting experience. It really makes you want to do all of that stuff."
"Our game is completely agnostic to player style."
Graham says that when he plays Watch Dogs, he tries to approach it like he thinks players would.
"I don't try to burn through the missions," he said. "If something comes up, I do it. If I see a crime to solve, I solve it. If I see some guys to take out, I take them out. If there are a convoy of guys to attack, I attack them because I think that's how the player wants to play.
"And it turns out it's actually a lot of fun. You're going to unlock all of the skills in your skill tree, which makes your main mission a lot easier to play. And with more tools to play with, it's a lot more fun to do."
The developers were careful not to make the game favor any one play style, Graham added.
"Our game is completely agnostic to player style," he said.
And there's a lot of nuance built into the game for players, no matter how they want to approach the game, to dig into it.
For instance, I found that I could hack a guard's grenade, making it go off. Before it exploded, though, the guard I hacked noticed it and was able to throw it away safely.
But that's not always the case.
"If you had looked at the guard's profile you might have gotten a sense of whether he will be able to chuck it or not," Graham said. "Some of them are idiots, and you can tell from their profile that they might not make it."
Hacking the system, finding the fun
While Watch Dogs is replete with game-changing hacks, lead game designer Belanger said the team was careful not to overdo it.
"There are no win button hacks," he said. "Every hack, even the most powerful ones, will still give you an advantage — they'll give you time, a window of opportunity, they'll distract the guards so you can pass. But we don't want any hacks that feel like a win button.
"Everything we do is to help you create a bit of noise in the system, and make things fairly predictable. There are always, with simulations and AI like this, things that happen; I think that's the fun part. It's predictable, you can use it, you can play with it. The AI, they have states, they start searching, they get angry, they get aggressive — all of these things are for you to play with, to experiment with and have fun with. Nothing is a win hack; everything is there to help you and to help you in stealth and combat and driving, so all of these core mechanics have these benefits. It was really important for us."
And it's when all of that comes together — when as a player you feel that you're hacking the system, creating chaos out of order — that the game's true intent finally shines through.
That was the point, the developers say, when they knew the game was ready.
"It's when you play the game, and you have fun, you being us, knowing exactly what we're trying to do with the game," said senior producer Guay. "I remember there was like a couple of weeks, Jonathan, our creative director, me, a bunch of people, the lead game designers, we're playing the game and we spent like two weeks playing the game. And we were playing at the same time as we were doing a play test with 40 gamers. And so sometimes we hacked into each other's games, and we finish the game, and we felt exactly what we wanted to feel. Like the satisfaction of, 'I did what I wanted. Yeah, there was bugs, obviously, but the experience I had was the experience I wanted.' And we looked at what the gamers were saying when we're asking them questions, and for most of them it was the exact same feeling that, 'Yes, this is what I got out of the game, this is what I wanted to get out of the game.'"
And now, with a May 27 release date, the team feels like Watch Dogs will deliver on that promise made at E3 two years ago, when the game was first unveiled to an enthusiastic audience.
"We never changed. It was always about connectivity, it was always about a simple way to interact with the world," Belanger said, "with the backdrop of a canvas of data collection, privacy invasion, technology. That is still the core of the experience. We came a long way — it's been a few years, we did a lot of things, we added a lot of hacks — but in the end we always stayed true to that vision."
Ed's note: You can also read about the differences between the various versions of the game, and why the Wii U version still doesn't have a firm date.