A month before it launches, I am utterly conflicted about Watch Dogs.
I've been eagerly reading about this game since it was announced, including Christian Nutt's interview with its creative director, Jonathan Morin. There are some things that sound great to me... and at the same time, there are some things that make me want to back away with great speed. I am very, very confused by what feels to me like a mismatch between the kind of gameplay emphasized by the game's dynamics and the gameplay focus of the mechanics described so far.
There are so many things about Watch Dogs that I want to like. The open-world format is very appealing. The dynamic simulation elements are like catnip to me -- I am drawn to places that have weather. And the depth that NPCs will have is something I want in all simulations of places. The hacking feature sounds great, with reports of over 100 things that can be hacked. The apparently reactivity of the world -- and the willingness of the team and Ubisoft to delay the game's previously scheduled launch date in order to make sure that world really is reactive -- are exactly the kinds of things that I want to hear.
I absolutely love hearing that the folks making a game want to build worlds with multiply-interacting dynamic systems, and that they actually support emergent gameplay effects. A desire to design a game in a way that encourages and supports player curiosity -- yes. Trying hard to "not force a certain kind of way to play the game" -- yes! (That's the Looking Glass way.) An understanding that computer games, unlike books and movies, are best when "players pull what they need from games, rather than having it pushed upon them" -- yes, many times over.
And I also think it would be very nice to see more non-rollercoaster games made. It would be good for there to be more games in which the developer's hand is not constantly jammed into the backs of players, unrelentingly shoving them through their pre-constructed dioramas. I hope that Watch Dogs is critically and commercially successful so that Jonathan Morin can make more of the kinds of systemic games he describes enjoying.
All of those things make me want very much to play Watch Dogs, and to be able to enthusiastically promote it to other people who enjoy exploring richly-detailed gameworlds.
Beyond the good stuff at the design-concept level, I keep reading about game-mechanical and business choices for this game that I believe actively undermine the design goal for systemic-fun play. It's hard for me to understand the reasons for what I see as painful mismatches between the dynamics and mechanics of Watch Dogs.
A fair amount of these gripes come down to my being a PC gamer. I watch the videos and read the comments, and there are times when it's hard not to believe that Ubisoft doesn't understand, doesn't value, or just plain doesn't like PC gamers.
As a PC gamer, my primary tool for interacting with a complex, dynamic world is a keyboard. My keyboard has many keys on it. All of them can be mapped to the many kinds of actions that a deep and interesting world could offer. Instead, hacking -- normally understood as a process requiring significant technological competence or else anyone could do it -- is reduced to mashing a single button out of the limited inputs of a console controller. And then that's promoted as though it's a Good Thing.
In fact, I would argue that it can be a good thing when your intention is to make a game whose primary intended player experience is intense sensations from non-stop explodey action. You know... rollercoaster games. In a game like that, you don't want your players having to think about which buttons to push, in which order, in different circumstances, because that works against the "intense sensations" experience.
But why is that intense simplification necessary if you say you want to make games that are more thoughtful than a locked-down rollercoaster ride? Look at the wonderful comments in the interview with Jonathan Morin about the team wanting to make a dynamic, breathing, highly-systemic world. That is exactly the kind of play environment that many players will want to explore deeply, carefully, thoroughly, thoughtfully, and at their own pace. But the hacking interface, for all of the multiple mechanics we're told will be available, is being trivialized to a single "it was really fast" button-press in order to cater solely to the exciting "Baysplosions" playstyle?
For right now, since I haven't played the game (and actually can't play it), this concern is only tentative. It may be that the single button is just used to start a hack, and there's then a detailed mechanic for actually performing different hacking actions for different kinds of objects. If that's the case, then I will withdraw this objection.
Even so, the "simplify what can be done so that excitement-seeking players don't have to think" attitude seems to be genuine. Is it also behind the decision to shove players through a forced-march mode at the start of the game? What happened to not "pushing" players through the developer's intended actions and story?
There's more. I asked a couple of questions on the Watch Dogs forums a few months ago. One question was about whether the asynchronous multiplayer mode would be forced on everyone. The answer (from a forum moderator) was the equivalent of "no, after activation you can play the game offline, but we think you'll have more fun when other people can play in your world." That's half-great: yes, thank you for allowing me to explore this new world without other people screwing with it (and me). But how much care has gone into the single-player experience if the developers are all convinced that multiplayer is so awesome that everyone will want it on by default?
My other question was whether the PC version of Watch Dogs would let me save and load my current state of play when I want, or whether it would limit me to console-based checkpoint saves. (Or, almost worse, to the inexcusably stupid "not-quite-a-save" model that only saves some game-y progress elements and resets everything else, as in Red Faction: Guerilla and Just Cause 2.) No answer. This does not give me a good feeling that quicksave, which tells players that they can safely explore the places and dynamics of a world without fear of losing their progress, will be supported in the PC version.
Then there was the announcement that, even if you buy Watch Dogs through Steam, you will still be forced to go through Uplay. At first this sounded like Uplay would be required every time you play, but this was later clarified to mean only a one-time activation after purchase. That's not super-onerous, but it certainly doesn't feel player-friendly.
And then there was the announcement about the minimum specs for the PC version of Watch Dogs. The CPU and graphics requirements are pretty reasonable. And I've found that games demanding 6GB of RAM can actually make do with 4GB as I have. But I won't be able to play it because Ubisoft has decreed that a 64-bit OS is required, and I'm running 32-bit Win7, which can't be upgraded to 64-bit without removing and tediously reinstalling my 500GB+ of software. Why do this? I assume "because technical blah-blah," but that is hardly satisfying when, despite all of my concerns above, I might actually be willing to plunk down cash to play Watch Dogs.
And finally, there is Ubisoft's long-running pattern (as documented repeatedly at Rock Paper Shotgun) of delaying the release of the PC version of a game a few days before it launches on other platforms. So far the PC version, like the versions for other platforms (excluding Wii U), is still set for May 27, 2104. Will it stay there? Or will Ubisoft once again, with no real explanation, delay the PC version?
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE
In summary, I don't know what to make of Watch Dogs as described so far.
I don't know how to understand the seemingly schizophrenic disconnect between the highly systemic design that encourages thoughtful exploratory play and the simplified mechanics that are optimized for sensational action play. I want to enthusiastically embrace Watch Dogs for the former goal of a dynamic, living gameworld. But that hug feels dangerous while the game is trying to kick me in the yarbles with reports of its aggressively streamlined action mechanics and PC-unfriendly interface and platform delivery choices.
To try to save this from being any more unpleasantly ranty than it is, I'll reiterate: this is written a month before the game actually launches, before players can see what's actually in it. As a pre-analysis, some of this may prove to be wrong. If so, I'll freely acknowledge that... but it feel like a shame that I'm even having to wonder about these things.
Why couldn't this game, with its wonderfully deep, systemic world, have all of its parts built to appeal to the people like me who would delight in playing that kind of game?