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Watch Dogs is poised to be a success on the next-generation consoles, but it's clear that Jonathan Morin, its creative director, sees it just as a step toward true "next-generation" game design, not its full flower.
As he closes a five-year chapter of his life, from prototype to completed game, Morin was reflective about not just what he made, but where games are going as a medium. In this interview, conducted at Ubisoft's San Francisco offices during a recent preview event for the hotly anticipated title, Morin speaks candidly about how he sees games and players.
He's a big believer in emergent gameplay and in a shift towards inquisitiveness on the part of players. He sees a future in which players pull what they need from games, rather than having it pushed upon them, and in which developers accept the fact that huge swathes of the player base will never see everything a game has to offer.
Players should not be guided: "It's almost like you're giving a music instrument to the player, and he's playing the music to you, and you should shut up and listen to the music," says Morin.
You told me that hacking the traffic lights was your first successful prototype, and that hacking is Watch Dogs' core mechanic. Before that, what assumptions did you start with when making the game?
Jonathan Morin: The team wanted to do an open city game. The team wanted to explore an open, urban environment -- that is what the team was all about. I'm a big systemic kind of designer. Emergent gameplay is just a style of design -- either you like it or you don't. It's hard for someone who loves it profoundly to do something else. So as a team, we were also very into that.
So we were searching, and at Ubisoft... one of the first things you need to deliver is a differentiator. You need to define something that is not just a gimmick, but can deliver new gameplay in the entire game... The core challenge is always, "Let's find something that will change the game." So hacking became that. The very first slide of Watch Dogs that I would qualify as the real pitch of Watch Dogs, was a hand with the red button, and underneath it was written something like, "Control an entire city at the press of a button." That was the idea.
The design idea was "hack everything around you -- but it has to be one button." It cannot become super complicated, because we knew already we would have to apply that to driving, to shooting, to mechanics.
Later on, we did explore, voluntarily, tossing aside shooting, which helped us discover other kinds of mechanics, knowing that in a city like that eventually we would have to have it back. And that was the first inkling of it -- that's why we had hacking quite early, in the end.
You alluded to reducing things to one button. Can you talk about the process of creating a complicated system that allows for emergent gameplay, but at the same time reducing the complexities of interaction?
JM: It's a nightmare to do. [laughs] The one thing we had to do, we started by making a worst-case scenario. That's what you want to do. AI is once of the worst things to develop, in the sense that it takes time to have something decent. So what we did is, we did a multiplayer [version] very quickly, where four players could play against each other. We were focusing on fast driving, and then it was all about, "Can I, at 200 miles per hour, against other talented players, use hacking against them?"
Back then there were traffic lights, bridges, and bollards that were already implemented. Those were the three, and we started this way. We fine-tuned a lot there. Back then, we had two buttons -- one for certain kids of categories, and then another. The goal was always, "How can we bring it to one?"
So we ended up processing. The hardest part is control inputs. You want to have one button, so that people don't have to swallow "how" on top of "when" and "why" to use those things. The hardest part is there are other mechanics -- there's other stuff that people expect.
We look at games like GTA and Saints Row -- all of those games. Because we know that they have complex controls, controls that can change conditionally based on where you are. We wanted to fix that. That's why it's the same when you sprint as when you accelerate. We wanted to bring those things so you can sprint and shoot. We had the aim to shoot afterwards, so we changed the purpose of the button a bit.
You [the player] never change the control scheme. You never have this screen where you go from, "Okay, this is avatar... This is avatar with a gun." Way too much stuff to remember. That's kind of how you start doing these things.
How we ended up with one button... It was really fast. We ended up making a statement, where we use the A button for hacking, which is the most important one on the [Xbox] controller. A lot of people were like, "Woah." We put that statement in, saying, "It needs to become relevant. People need to not question the fact that it's there on the controller, which means that it has to become useful in every single situation."
It's one thing at the beginning of the game, when you're playing through the baseball stadium escape. It's clearly a path that you've crafted.
JM: Yeah. For sure.
Later in the game, it's going to be free-roaming. You don't know what angle the player is going to come at it.
JM: Very fast. Yeah, very fast it becomes open. But you need to have that beginning to make sure people realize certain things: How to hack things, the camera, for example. Those are simple systems.
We went through a big deal in defining what we should teach and not teach. That's a big question for me. When you end up with so many mechanics, there's a big choice you can make. You can choose to go the teacher way, and you end up playing a game, and it works -- quite a few games do that. For example, I would put GTA in that category, where they would really spend a lot of time in the course of the game teaching you stuff.
Personally, I like, and I miss, in certain games this idea that players become curious. You want to ignite their sense of wonder and try to discover possibilities. That's why the single-button hacking ended up becoming also the icon of the button on screen. It's almost like, "Oh. What does that one do?"
So the only thing you have to teach is: When there is an X [on PlayStation] you hold it, and it hacks the thing. The rest is about experimentation. And also about the skill tree -- which is, you unlock it, but when you unlock it, you know a bit what you're choosing to unlock, which gives you, already, an insight on how it's going to work.
So it creates a natural flow where you search for your own ways of expressing yourself, instead of having yet another mission where -- pause! -- "This is the new thing, learn about that," and then it starts to convey to players that this mission is about using this thing, and then this thing.
So we wanted earlier on to make sure players would arrive in this environment where they hack a camera -- which they learned -- and now they're in a situation where, "I'm in a camera. I'm safe." And they start to see a new X -- sometimes on enemies, sometimes on stuff. That's why there's a word next to it saying "explode," "distract." So that way players can slowly but surely pay attention to those things and start exploring them, trying them.