Watching me, watching you.
[Disclosure: This interview took place last September at Eurogamer Expo, right before the game’s initial delay from November to May. One or two quotes were first published in Issue 107 of Official Xbox Magazine UK in December 2013, but those are partially mentioned sparingly in this for context sake to go along with the rest of the interview, otherwise unpublished elsewhere. I believe most of what Morin said in chatting to me, even eight months removed since talking to him, can still apply to today’s release.]
When development on Watch Dogs began in earnest back in early 2009, it’d be a few years before Edward Snowden would make his coup de grace to the world by leaking classified NSA intelligence that changed the perception of a person’s privacy and surveillance. Even in entertainment terms, US TV show Person of Interest, which has similar themes to Watch Dogs, was two years away.
But even then, creative director Jonathan Morin knew the game’s core theme was always going to centre around technology.
“I think the biggest inspiration for us was reality,” Morin said to me. “In the end, the game is about the impact of technology on our society, so the best way to look is the news and the internet and what’s possible to do, what’s going on right now.
“I think part of the reason why it feels so real is that we really wanted to push this aspect to its limits and never bend the rules too much so that we can have something very credible.”
Ubisoft Montreal and Watch Dogs creative director, Jonathan Morin
With Facebook and Twitter being essential communication tools in our lives now and in the wake of Snowden’s NSA leaks, Watch Dogs is about showing the vulnerabilities in the kinds of technology we use today, communications or otherwise, with Morin mentioning the development team at Ubisoft Montreal wasn’t looking to judge technology or have “a very strong position on it.”
In fact, if anything, Morin wants people to think that maybe, just maybe, there’s a method to the madness of today’s technology.
“I think it’s a fun mirror to put in front of people’s minds so that they can go ‘okay’ and like ‘yeah, maybe there’s something to consider there.’
“And I think if you look at the news and what’s happening in the US [referring to Snowden’s leaks], I think it’s a testament of that fact that people are slowly realising the risks and that creates a nice and very fundamental debate about it.”
Of course, it’s Watch Dogs’ social aspect that thrives one of the game’s main aspects of connectivity, with players able to drift into another friend’s game to hack their world – Morin notes Dark Souls as “a good example” of how it works – with one player as lead character Aiden Pierce and the other as an entirely different looking character (and likewise vice versa).
“When we showed Watch Dogs to Sony, the first time they were showing us the PlayStation 4, there was a clear bond in the philosophy of Watch Dogs versus the philosophy of the next-gen consoles, which is no incident,” said Morin, referring to the game’s other key pillar of next-generation gaming.
“When we started to build Watch Dogs, we were thinking about what would be the future of games and we ended up hitting the same mark as the next-gen platforms. So definitely because of the feature of the feature we have to invade other players game, hack them, seamlessly tell them, those kind of things.
“What I like about the next-gen machines is it’s almost like someone who buys that machine is acknowledging it’s coming by default so they’re almost even more prepared to start experimenting with those kind of gameplay, which is a bit new and different.”
It goes without saying that Ubisoft is placing a lot of eggs in Watch Dogs’ basket. According to a recent New York Times feature on the game, the total sum of the game’s development budget will total at $150 million.
Not to mention, it is the most-preordered new IP to have ever been created by Ubisoft (plus the second-highest pre-ordered game from the publisher – the highest being Assassin’s Creed III), as well as the most-preordered new IP to release this year according to GameStop data. Considering this year has seen the next big thing from a good portion of the team who created CoD4: MW and MW2, as well as the impending launch of Bungie’s first new IP in 13 years, that’s no mean feat.
But despite that, Morin has his feet firmly planted on the ground in terms of a potential future for the series.
“There’s definitely this feeling that Ubisoft believes a lot in the world of Watch Dogs, which is great, but for me, I often say there’s no brand if there’s no game,” he said. “So lets start by doing the game right and then afterwards see where the future leads us.”
Jonathan Morin is creative director at Ubisoft Montreal. Watch Dogs is out now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. It’ll launch on Wii U this autumn. Hit the link here to catch last night’s Cullen Plays LIVE Watch Dogs stream on PlayStation 4. More Watch Dogs will be streamed later tonight no later than 7pm BST.