Few games are as high on next-gen wishlists as Watch Dogs. Ever since Ubisoft's open-world hack 'em up made its debut at E3 2012, fans have been guzzling down every last pint of information that's been served by the publisher's Montreal studio.
Yet, even though it's clear the next-gen version of Watch Dogs is already looking very promising, a large question mark continues to hang over the current-gen and Wii U versions. Very little has been seen of them, and one video in particular has caused some to worry that Ubisoft may be focusing too heavily on the Xbox One, PS4 and PC versions to the ultimate detriment of the others.
To address this, CVG sat down with Ubisoft Montreal creative director Jonathan Morin and threw a series of ever-probing questions at him.
By the end of the PS2 generation there were numerous city-based open world games, from Scarface, to The Godfather, to Mercenaries, Just Cause, True Crime, Mafia, The Getaway and the GTA III trilogy. But that genre has thinned in the past generation, with only a handful of series like Saints Row and GTA still active. Why do you think that is, and why release another?
That's interesting. It's funny, because some others feel there are more and more open world games. I think one of the reasons is the sheer difficulty of making one. I think the bar is very high for it, I think Rockstar does a great job, I think Assassin's Creed is another big one. It's like anything, if you want to put another open-world game out there it needs to meet expectations. It's one of the reasons why Ubi has been fortunate to be putting a lot of energy into that style of game for a while now.
That means we have that in our arsenal, that means I can say "Hey, I want to make an open-world game and it should be contemporary, let's do it," and Ubisoft won't say "you're crazy, that's going to cost too much", they say "okay, is it different enough, is it cool, does it make sense".
Is it intimidating to work on a genre that Rockstar holds such a critical and commercial stranglehold over? After all, they're very much the Apple of the open-world genre, in that while every new smartphone is compared to the iPhone, every new open-world game is compared to GTA. Is that frustrating?
I don't think it's frustrating. I think it's true for many types of game. I think certain games strike the imagination of people and afterwards it becomes their point of reference. What's funny, actually, is... players particularly do this a lot, they constantly describe games - and you guys, the journalists, do the same - by using other games. To me that's just a helpful process of communication.
I've read things about Watch Dogs where people have said: "It's like Deus Ex meets Assassin's Creed meets Splinter Cell meets GTA". At this point you're like: "Okay, they're all good games, that's pretty awkward as a comparison but why not, if it helps people understand a bit how it feels?"
So no, it doesn't matter to me at all. As long as we work hard at it. We made Watch Dogs because we want to make Watch Dogs and at the end of the day that's all that matters. We didn't make Watch Dogs because we thought GTA was cool and we wanted to make a GTA. I think that's pretty much the idea behind it so it doesn't piss me off at all.
"We didn't make Watch Dogs because we thought GTA was cool and we wanted to make a GTA"
There's room for both?
Exactly, and they're doing a great job. I actually haven't had to chance to play GTA V because I've been on a plane constantly, I can't wait to have a break to play it.
The next-gen version of Watch Dogs looks great but it's also coming to PS3, 360 and Wii U too. How much of this was a challenge in terms of maintaining focus on the game design? After all, surely you were limited to thinking of ideas that would also work on current gen?
It was definitely a challenge. Not on my side of things, but for the guys who had to code the game and all that stuff it was definitely a challenge.
The reason it was less of a challenge for me was that pretty much everyone agreed that first and foremost we were making a game. You don't force in a concept because a new machine shows up. Our first job was we wanted to make something new and different and because of the timing of when we started five years ago, we considered not next-gen but the future of gaming.
And when the new machines arrived they fit in really well with our plan because of that but it didn't change the game for us, it was just a case of "we can do better graphics, we can do better density", but you've got to keep the energy in making one game, because if you split them up then for sure the players are going to pay at the end.
When EA released Need For Speed: Most Wanted on Wii U many praised the port because it used PC assets and as such looked much better than the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. How does the Wii U version of Watch Dogs compare to the current-gen versions?
I would say the Wii U version is pretty much in between what the current gen is and what the next gen is from a version standpoint. It's hard to position it. I would tend to say it's maybe a bit closer to current gen than next gen for certain things but it's a beautiful game on Wii U and it's cool to play it just on the GamePad.
It's a bit weird for me to try Watch Dogs on so many different things, I mean, I tried it on Remote Play on PS4 as well and it's fun to see it on all different platforms. It's fun to try out.
Speaking of different platforms, am I right in saying Ubisoft Montreal is working on the Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, PS4, Xbox One and PC versions simultaneously?
The Wii U version is not done in Montreal, it's done in Bucharest, but the rest... you're correct, yeah. It's a lot.
Is that as big a logistical nightmare as it sounds?
It's been quite a challenge, but you know, there are no real ports any more. That's kind of gone. We've been around for a long time and there once was a time when porting to another console was like "oh my god, let's take six months extra and try to pull it off".
Now the engines are made flexible and it's still far from being easy but [the development team has] just got smarter on how they pull it off. To me it's beyond me how they can pull it off but they're really good and that's what they do. It seems to be going pretty well.
When that video of what was presumably current-gen Watch Dogs was released in July, the reaction online wasn't quite as popular as you may have hoped. Are you concerned that you may be overselling the current-gen versions' visuals?
I don't think so, no. You know, that video that came out was funny. I said on Twitter - which some people didn't like, but still - that it's not a version. I was looking at the reaction and people didn't understand what I meant. They don't make games and I guess that's why. I'll explain in a more simple way.
We're all working on PCs. Because of that, and because we're making games on next-gen and current gen it's a very scalable engine. You can check a bunch of different things. You can make it the ugliest game on the planet by unchecking options.
It's there so you can have better frame rate early on in the process so you can test driving, for example, but there's tons of features like that.
Sometimes the trailers are done outside of our building - we're not physically there - and then some people have initiative and they start recording something and they might not have the best eye on the planet. So they aren't realising that they're actually taking shots of the game with a combination of things that makes no fucking sense at all.
So that's why I was thinking "this is actually nothing, what you guys are looking at makes no sense" and I wasn't that happy. But it was an internal communications flaw and at the end of the day it's no big deal. But no, there's no risk on the look of the current-gen version, it's looking pretty awesome.
There's a conspiracy theory going around that Watch Dogs may be tied into Assassin's Creed somehow, particularly that Abstergo may be involved. Care to debunk this?
I think that's funny. I've heard everything about that. I have a lot of fun with Jean [Guesdon] who's working on Black Flag. We might have little surprises here and there, just as quick nods, but it's two different worlds and different universes.
I mean, there are similarities in terms of how they're played - when you make games in the same studio one of the benefits is getting to understand why another project did something to improve the game so you want to acknowledge that.
"Watch Dogs and Assassin's Creed are two different worlds and different universes"
For us, for example, we're selling the idea of hacking an entire city. For me it was fundamental that the free-roaming aspect of the game had to reinforce that. It had to feel like I'm physically going in a city and hacking and creating my own monitoring network. I think it's an important part of Watch Dogs.
So we looked at Assassin's Creed and we looked at our stuff and thought: "How can we learn from that and make something cool from that?" So similarities are there and I think it's a good thing so I'm not concerned about it. It's like I was saying with GTA earlier - people will tend to compare those elements together but when they get the controller I think they'll forget those things when they start playing.
How does the Wii U version use the GamePad? Will it be similar to SmartGlass functionality or will it be different?
On the Wii U you can play on the GamePad screen. There are no new features or anything like that - it's the same game but we're optimising the controls for the beast that is the Wii U GamePad.
How would you describe Watch Dogs in terms of its themes?
There's something very fascinating to me about how people look at Watch Dogs. We're touching on a subject that's very contemporary and everybody sees it differently.
Some people are seeing it as a Blade Runner style cyberpunk extravaganza, which I think is awesome. Then there's the other spectrum of people who look at it more as a contemporary comment on technology which is the other extreme. I've even had other people asking me about comparing Watch Dogs to old-school 1970s sci-fi films.
So you look at that chart and think "Jesus Christ, it's all over the place", and what I realised is we spend so much time reflecting and thinking about the impact of technology and innovation on society that pretty much all the stuff I've described comes from the same reflection. Whether it's sci-fi books or cyberpunk, it's more that sci-fi and cyberpunk are kind of catching up with reality a little bit. So it's going to be fun to see how people react to the whole package because it's a nice combination of all of those things but it's quite - and marketing will hate this - it's not quite clean.
We didn't build Watch Dogs to go into a specific drawer, like "it's a cyberpunk thing" or "it's a post-cyberpunk thing", so when people try to define it they're going to have a hard time. So I can't wait for it to be out so that then they can define it by what it is rather than trying to figure it out. To me it's fascinating.
Finally, any chance of fourth-wall breaking DLC where we get to hack the Uplay servers?