Interview: what Ubisoft learnt from Watch Dogs to improve its sequel

When Watch Dogs arrived in May 2014, it was the biggest IP launch of all time.

From the moment it was unveiled at E3 2012, it had an almost unobtainable level of hype and expectation surrounding it. Ubisoft ended up releasing an excellent action game, but it wasn’t quite enough for some. Sales figures and its Metacritic score paints the picture of a successful game, but it wasn’t quite the unsurpassable masterpiece that gamers had been hoping for.

At the time, there were a lot of different reactions from different people,” remembers Dominic Guay, senior producer on Watch Dogs 2.

You could see that a lot of people enjoyed the game, but others had certain expectations for Watch Dogs, and it had become something in their minds that it was never even trying to do. That’s often the case with a new IP, because people don’t have a clear reference to what the game is. So some people had to adjust to what the game was. Ultimately, what’s interesting is that still to this day – particularly after we announced Watch Dogs 2 – we have seen a lot people going back to the first Watch Dogs.”

He continues: On the one hand it was exciting to get a new IP out, but at the same time we had to balance out that excitement, and the fact that a lot of people loved the game, with the fact that some had a lot to say, they had a lot of feedback. We wanted to listen to that feedback in order to make a better sequel.”

Ubisoft has taken on-board the feedback to Watch Dogs, and not just in terms of gameplay. One criticism the game faced was because the project that was unveiled at E3 2012 was a little different to the one that emerged two years later. This time, the publisher decided not to show the game until it was already approaching its final few months of development.

One of the big benefits we had with Watch Dogs 2, is that we had a shorter communication period,” Guay says. When we announced it, we pretty much had a full alpha of the game in place. We were able to show a lot of the missions, we could show gameplay right from the start, and we could say: ‘This is the game that you will be playing, in its final state, in six months time in your home’.”

Changing the release strategy for Watch Dogs was clearly a sensible move – Ubisoft doesn’t want to mislead its fans with early concept ideas that end up on the cutting room floor, or visuals that will inevitably need toning down.

Also, with an almost finished product, the studio was able to show exactly what it has done to improve the Watch Dogs gameplay.

"We wanted to listen to people’s feedback to
the first Watch Dogs in order to make a better sequel."

Dominic Guay, Ubisoft

One thing that became clear is that, and it seems small but was actually really important, is that the driving in the first Watch Dogs was not suited for a lot of people to the kind of game that we made,” continues Guay. People enjoyed the driving, but some said it was keeping them from enjoying the game – which to us was unacceptable for a title of this scope. So we completely re-worked the driving with our colleagues at Reflections (studio in Newcastle), who have huge experience with driving. It was difficult to take, to scrap what we did and rebuild, but we were quite happy that we did.

There were also bigger things. Some players enjoyed the freedom of the first game, but they wanted to play in their playstyle every mission. So if they wanted to play stealthily, non-lethal, every mission, they should be able to do that. We shouldn’t force a mission where a player has to gun down loads of people if that’s not how they want to play. That was something we definitely kept in mind during the whole time we built the missions in Watch Dogs 2. We made sure you could be aggressive, or a trickster, or stealthy, or completely non-lethal – right from the beginning to the end of the game.”

He continues: Another thing I would point out, is that we built this big open world and we want it to be exciting and fun to explore. A lot of things that players said was: ‘Ok, you have a structure that is very similar to past Ubisoft games.’ On the one hand, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, but on the other hand, gamers were asking: ‘Give us more surprises in the way you exploit the open world and how we discover content’. We realised why people were saying that. So we revisited how people find content in the world, and what the relationship is between that open world and the narrative with Watch Dogs 2.”

The first game was a dark, broody, noir-like adventure, with a lead character that was a little non-descript. With Watch Dogs 2, Ubisoft decided to take a very different approach.

This was not just based on feedback, it was us wanting to take a different angle on the universe we had created,” Guay explains. We wanted to explore that universe from the perspective of DedSec, the hacker group from the first game, because we thought it would allow us to focus more on the core themes that were always very important to us – technology and how it can be abused in different ways for control, and the consequences of that and how technology surrounding us can impact our lives. The first game we were telling a more personal story.

We also decided to move to San Francisco Bay, which is obviously a sunny place and a beautiful area, compared with our version of Chicago in the first game – where we were going for a more noir approach. It means we created a lighter tone, and an environment that is a bit more fun, dare I say. That was something that we as developers wanted to do after creating the first Watch Dogs, we wanted that contrast and felt that creating a world that had a lighter tone would be fun to do. When you spend a very long time in a world, you need to have balance, you want something a bit lighter to balance out the darker moments.”

"Unlike the first title, when we announced Watch Dogs 2,
we pretty much had a full alpha of the game in place."

Dominic Guay, Ubisoft

This really just scratches the surface on the differences within Watch Dogs 2. The multiplayer, too, has been changed. The competitive elements have been toned down in favour of more co-op experiences. Now gamers can run into fellow players in the world and either ignore them, or team up on missions.

The changes are going down well internally, Guay says, and the team is certainly feeling more relaxed over what it has created this time. The studio isn’t working with new platforms anymore, or a new brand, and that means the developer feels more in control of the product it has been building.

In reality, it was perhaps inevitable that the first Watch Dogs wasn’t going to live up to all the hype. After all, it was a new IP trying different things, Ubisoft wasn’t going to get everything right.

In fact, you don’t have to look too far to find another major series that started with a game that was full of promise that didn’t quite deliver on everything – Ubisoft’s biggest IP, Assassin’s Creed. The first game was good, but it was the second title that improved on ever facet and turned the series into a major, entertainment behemoth.

Ubisoft will be hoping that Watch Dogs 2 follows the same pattern.

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