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At Ubisoft's E3 conference this year, the company announced its latest entry in the Watch Dogs series would be a significant leap forward for the series---instead of creating a game centered around one central hero, Watch Dogs: Legion will let players recruit any NPC in the game to the hacking revolutionary group DeadSec.
Legion's announcement also came with the revelation that this has been Far Cry 2 creative director, Clint Hocking's latest project since he rejoined Ubisoft in 2015. Hocking's penchant for game systems that respond to one another and interact with artificial intelligence is on clear display in Legion, where NPCs are given a backstory and set of behaviors that respond to player choices and decisions.
In one jaw-dropping instance, a low-level NPC goon began hitting on another NPC on the street as the player character passed. After an Ubisoft attendant advised us to check their backstories, we both shouted in surprise when the second NPC yanked the first over her shoulder and kicked him right in the throat, ending his life.
According to the demo attendant (a member of the game design team), though she knew that particular interaction was built into the game, she hadn't seen it in action yet. Were this particular demo to continue, that character's surprise death would mean he wouldn't be present at another setpiece, and anyone he had any relationship with would respond in kind.
After the demo, we were lucky enough to sit with Clint Hocking for a quick chat about what it's been like designing a near-infinite NPC ecosystem that turns the NPCs' various micro-backstories into an emergent, responsive system.
Could you really quickly start off explaining how you got started working on Watch Dogs?
About four years ago Alex Parizeau the managing director of the studio reached out to me. They wanted to work with Montreal, who made Watch Dogs 1 and 2, to move the lead team to Toronto for this game, give the Toronto team a chance to lead it.
Most of the guys who made Watch Dogs 1 and 2 were part of my team when we made Far Cry 2 back in the day in Montreal. So it was a good way for me to come back to Ubisoft from Montreal, to be able to give up ownership of their baby to one of their partners and for us to be able to sort of have good relationships and learn from each other while we did that.
What was the first sort of structure that you approach when building a game full of playable NPCs?
Right, so when we first had the idea that you’d be able to play as anyone in the game, we had to of course bring in a bunch of major stakeholders, you know the lead animators, the lead programmers, the lead sort of engine architects...the lead audio guys, sound guys, and the lead writers and start talking about you know, breaking the problem down.
Like how are we gonna cover all the pieces that we need to cover and make them all work together. I think the most important think that we started working on pretty early was something we call “census”, which is a massive relational database that lives at the heart of the simulation.
The most important thing about census is that it allows us to spawn NPCs in the world just like you do in many other games, but then when you profile those NPCs the relational database is able to fill in the blanks on who they are and sort of generate them in real time and then make them persistent and keep them in the world.
So if you see a groundskeeper trimming hedges in a park, and he has a certain ethnicity, when you lock on to that person and profile them, he’s going to have a name that reflects the ethnicity that you saw and he’s going to have an animation set based on how he was animating, he’s gonna have a job that says groundskeeper and it’s going to be at a certain time.
And then because he’s a groundskeeper, he’s going to make a certain amount of money which means he’s gonna be allowed to live in certain neighborhoods, and because of his ethnicity will navigate to a different part of those neighborhoods depending on where the different communities live within London. Then he’s going to have certain friends and activities maybe he’s an outdoorsy guy. He has an outdoor job so he may be more fit and have a gameplay trait that reflects higher health or higher agility or something like that.
All of these things are internally in sync and coherent so that every NPC feels real and credible. Then when you recruit them, they get their own narrative persona, their own voice, their own animations, their own fighting style if they do melee…all of those things are again, coherent with that guy that you first saw trimming a hedge in the park when you were walking by and caught your eye for whatever reason.
What is a way to work in a procedural design space without finding yourself deep in the weeds trimming each individual procedural experience? What lets you work at the core of it and intentionally design things for the player to see?
So…that’s a great question and difficult. It's a couple of things. Because it took a long time to develop this innovation, there were a lot of iterations and a lot of experiments and a lot of ways of making things work and so we kind of…I guess probably accidentally created interesting things that tend to be emerging from the simulations in previous iterations.
As we took major decisions or made different pivots in order to move forward we were persistent in trying to keep those interesting pieces alive. And so it got more robust through the natural process of iteration. I think that was an important part of it. And now, especially now that it’s in the hands of real players we’re starting to see, fortunately, that we made a lot of good choices it looks like.
And also it’s also inspiring us now that we’re getting feedback on the game of like “OK, what are the things we need to focus on and really polish and really bring up to that highest level for everyone.”
One interesting overarching thing that designers can do when making these layered systems that makes them like— layered procedural systems can either feel great or sort of feel like nothing is happening.
Hocking: Sure, yeah.
There’s a bunch of data being spewed out and you’re like “OK, I did something I really don’t understand what happened there.” What do you think is something interesting that another designer might benefit from?
An actual, practical tip? Here’s a good practical tip for other designers. I was working on this game for 4 years and about a year and a half ago— so I’m the creative director, but about a year and a half ago we brought in Kent Hudson, Kent’s the game design director. Obviously, when you bring one big creative powerhouse into another thing where there’s another creative guy who’s been owning a thing with this team for a long time it’s a bit rocky.
But the good thing was you know, Kent’s super smart. Great designer. He was able to take ownership of a lot of the design from me so that I could focus on other things. My practical advice here is…know when you need to hand the thing off for someone else to tell you what’s good and not good, and polish it and close it because you can very easily get blinded by all of the systems.
Kent actually talks about making design nerd games. We don’t want to make a design nerd game, we want to make a game for players, and he was really helpful in helping me cut the branches off that were just too design nerd-y and weren’t meaningful. Cause he could see the game with fresh eyes and understand it as a working designer what we needed to do better and help us make the right calls to focus the thing.
So, get help. That’s the two-word answer. Get help.
Procedural systems can be a great way to let players get super expressive about who they are, what kind of philosophy they want to see in the world.
Is there anything you particularly think you’ve enjoyed about making Watch Dogs an expression-filled game?
Absolutely, I think one of the most powerful things that I experience when I play the game, I’m not talking about something theoretical…when I play the game myself, I see emergent things happening at a different level than they happen in most games, so I worked on Far Cry and Far Cry 2 and uh…the kinds of emergent behaviors and actions that you see tend to be in the moment to moment.
We have that as well, but now we’re seeing emergent behaviors happening across the timeline of like a story of a character arc of someone’s life. You’ll see— just a really great example you know, one of my favorite operatives in the build that I’m currently playing the last 30-40 hours, is named Lionel Galant.
I made him an infiltrator, he’s really cool, but I recruited him by rescuing his dad where he was being held by Albion in a cage somewhere and they were gonna disappear. I rescued his dad, and then you know Lionel leveled up and he’s one of my favorite guys and have done a bunch of great missions with him and I love him.
And then 12 hours later I was playing a different character walking down the street and I see two people in the street that are lit up and I know them and I go “that’s Lionel, who’s that that he’s with? Oh that’s Andrew Galant, Lionel’s father. Shopping with his son, Lionel. That’s Lionel shopping with his dad, Andrew Galant.”
And I was like “Awh, shit.” And then they stopped their conversation and they walked into a store, like a clothing store. And I was like “That’s that guy. That guy just came to life because the reason he joined DedSec is because we saved his dad, and there’s his relationship proof that it’s real. And that’s why he cares about us.”
And you just get these— you get feels that you don’t get in other games, right? It’s amazing, and this is just one example. There are dozens of them. People come out of these demos all day every day and they tell us amazing stories about what happened to the person they were demoing to. It’s super, super, awesome.