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Hack-Man: An interview with Watch Dogs' creative director
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Hack-Man: An interview with Watch Dogs' creative director

April 23, 2014 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

In the baseball stadium part, it's essentially the tutorial, so you can control the way the player encounters things. But in the real game, they could be approaching the game from any angle. How do you make sure that works? 

JM: Well, I think the first thing that you build is the second one. [laughs

Right, sure. 

JM: The tutorial comes at the end. You build the complex, 360-degree environment. Especially for level design and also AI. And then afterwards you make sure that people find all of their stuff -- like you make sure that if people try something, and it didn't work the way you want, you can come back and make sure that the systems connect properly. 

That's, in fact, one of the main reasons why, of the delay. We had very deep connection of systems that some players found, and the outcome wasn't as we planned, so we said, "Fuck it, we need to push. We need to take the time to fix those." That all came based on testing those kinds of maps. 

Beginning of maps, tutorial maps... Let's say "the Uncharted way of designing those kinds of things." I think most people know, but players may not realize how much money that costs. Every time you make one of those things you need to script it entirely, you need to animate it, and those kinds of stuff. So we didn't want to go that route, on top of having all of those systems.

So you make your systems and then you define, "Okay, we feel the player really needs to master this thing early, or else they're never going to access this part of the game." And then the stadium became that bit. And frankly, we had iterations where we were teaching too much stuff. It felt overwhelming. So you always come back and say, "Do they really need to know that? In fact, they don't." So that you can just give them the bare minimum.

Developers want players too often -- especially in games like Watch Dogs -- and I fall in that trap. Everybody fell in that trap. You watch somebody play, like today, for example. You guys are playing the game. We're behind, we watch the screen. But we always have the snapshot of us, who've played for five years the game, and we wish everybody understood every single layer of the game, every fact. It hurts. "No, he doesn't know that thing!"

And it's completely the wrong way to look at this kind of game. You want to just let them play. You want to make them feel like what they try works naturally. If it means shooting, and hacking less, those kinds of things, you should be more interested in bringing situations where hacking feels more useful, instead of saying, "Oh, no let's remove that gun," or "let's make the gun [appear] later." Try as much as possible to not force a certain kind of way to play the game.

Instead, 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. It's harder to do emotionally, because some people work really hard on tuning those systems in a certain way, but it's the next level in looking at those guys playing and then saying, "Okay, you wanted to go there? I ended up tuning in a way so that this becomes completely frustrating. I need to back off and find a way to address that as well."

You talked a little bit, also, about not overwhelming people with information. I can see why that would be a challenge in this game. 

JM: One of the things that was important was to give to the player a way to toggle it on and off. That's why the profiler is there. A big chunk of the information, especially after the first or second mission, is when you press the profiler. If you tap X, on the Xbox, that's going to pop up the profiler. And that pretty much opens the analysis of information of people. If you don't want that, you put it off. You can use it in cameras -- it's automatically on, in cameras. So that way you remove a lot of the problem.

We also went for stuff like, in the map... In the end, and I think it's something I'll push differently forward in the future, on whatever I do next. One of the solutions I've found is the idea that the player can pull information out instead of you pushing to them.

I think games of tomorrow have a lot of systems that are going to happen, and I think people need to be more at peace with that. I think it's okay to make a game that has a lot more depth than what some players might discover. You need to be at peace with that. And I think in the end a lot of the information turns out to be for the more curious ones.

The one thing that happens sometimes is that people end up forgetting about the profiler, they don't close it, that kind of stuff. So you need to make tweaks in the sound, and stuff like that, to try and bring them to close it if they don't need it, to not have anything that distracts them on screen -- without closing it for them, or they'll just forget about it.

You talked about how, in the future, players are going to be pulling more info out. Can you talk a little bit more about your expectations? 

JM: I think so. I think it's kind of a full cycle. When we were kids and playing games, we were doing only pull -- too much! We were suffering to pass a game, most of the time. In the era of the arcade, and even the PC, it was about trying to beat the game designer. It was really hardcore.

But then we went on this almost educational type of spectrum, where Zelda was once upon a time a thing without fire and a torch, and you could go, like, "Wait a minute -- that works like this!" This same game today has a bird showing up and telling you everything.

So I think we went in a full circle, and now I feel like sometimes the games are dumbed down, because design-wise, it's a lot easier to do. And there's a lot of money involved in the execution these days.

I think in the future games like Minecraft, for example, are examples of how to pull out information. I can see my kid playing Minecraft for hours, and understand deeply the connection of all things. But the way they discovered it is, "I'm breaking a cube." Eventually, "Oh, it's dark. I don't see shit. Problem. I'm going to try and find a way to do that." And they go and navigate the menu themselves.

So I think if you want to make something deeply immersive, yet more open to expression, I think there's no other way. You can find new tutorial elements. You can create new helper systems that are dynamic. But I think that they all have to be driven by the player.

And I think the game should, I don't know, have something like 10 percent of the sophistication is necessary to finish it, and 90 percent of it is there for feeding curiosity and encouraging expression of players so they can find their own way of playing it.

And that's hard to do. But I think that's definitely at least me, design-wise, that's kinda where I want to go. Other people will push for more rollercoaster type of experiences, those kinds of things. I fear that that has almost an end in terms of the cost you put into making a map for that, versus the benefit the player has as a return.

So I guess in the future, as people are getting more and more exposed to games that let them express themselves, like Minecraft, you end up turning players into people who are more inclined to feel that kind of urge than the rollercoaster one. I might be wrong. That's pretty much where I would like to go. 

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Bart Stewart
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Everything I have read about Watch Dogs so far makes looking forward to it intensely frustrating for me... and this article doesn't help. (Not your fault, Christian. ;))

The dynamic-world stuff sounds great. I personally want to play it for that, and I want more games like that made to keep the industry healthy through diversity.

But then, after relishing comments about the complex, dynamic world of Watch Dogs, I read about mechanics like one-button hacking and a forced-march tutorial, and about minimum PC specs that require a 64-bit OS -- which means I can't play Watch Dogs without a tedious and painful upgrade -- and my enthusiasm drains away.

It's as though the deep, systemic dynamics of the world (favoring thoughtful exploration) and the action-focused simplicity of the mechanics (favoring high-intensity excitement) were built by two separate teams and then mashed together.

Maybe I'll understand when I read about the game after it launches. Right now, though, I am mightily confused.

So I wrote a blog post about it. I'm still confused, but at least now I'm slightly less confused about why I'm confused....

Christian Nutt
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Actually the forced-march tutorial is by far the least-worst of those I've played in recent memory. They knew what they were doing, and it's clear that it went through as many iterations as he suggests. But yeah, it is what it is.

Steve Peters
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I would think that a more in depth hacking system would be much better suited to a more intimate game. For example, a splinter cell style stealth game with a focus on computer use, in which you must use mechanics inspired by actual hacking and programing to enter systems, clean your tracks, find the required data, and manipulate code to change a large computer system's properties.

In the case of watch dogs, it is an open world game in which you will be hacking into various gadgets every minute. A more in depth system would be detrimental to the flow of the game.

Daniel Pang
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His line about the player is wonderful. So many these games seem like celebrations of the developer ego instead of the players.

So many developers want the player to play the way they want and punish them for straying from the boundaries. It's nice to see a lead on an AAA game admit to wanting to let players have that freedom, especially as the AAA game industry seems to want to have the entire player base play one way as it's less risk-prone and easier to design for.

Looking forward to Watch_pups even if the delay and the PR fiasco that surrounded the graphical quality on supposedly next-gen consoles has soured me somewhat.