"We've all got one of these. Everything about me, and the ones I love, are on this," says Jonathan Morin clutching his smartphone, showing it off to the attentands at Sony's PlayStation 4 reveal event in New York. What is the next step, he asks. "Smart cities", is apparently the answer. Towns where everything from traffic jams to power managment can be controlled. Everything is connected, just as Ubisoft showed at E3 last year. But this time, we learn everyone is connected as well.
A guy who's won 595 bucks on online poker. Someone who's violated his parole. A creepy man in a flat cap, holding a girl that's been missing for a month. Everything is visible for Aiden Pearce, who's wielding the most powerful smartphone in existence. As Ubisoft starts the gameplay trailer of Watch Dogs (full clip below), we get to see this hack fest get into full swing.
The following day, I get to meet Jonathan Morin for a quick chat about the game Ubisoft Montreal have been working on for four years. The creative director describes himself as "a talker" when it comes to game development and creative processes, and that is fortunately also the case in interview situations. Before I get a chance to start the recording of our conversation, he's already enthusiastically talking about developing for the PlayStation 4, and how the actual console is similar to Watch Dogs in a way.
"The PS4 and Watch Dogs actually share the same philosophy. Our game is relevant for the gamers, and also for how the industry sees games evolving. The Watch Dogs stuff, like connectivity everywhere, multiple screens and so on, that will be facilitated on the PlayStation 4 for us."
In this game world, described by Morin as "super organic", there is a lot going on. In the demo, our character looks around at the various citizens and gets instant information about their social, economical and marital status. 32-year old Janet works as a housekeeper and has recently been evicted. Marcus is a begging war veteran, and earns exactly zero dollars (after tax). A pro-life lobbyist's bank account gets hacked, and Pearce can access the cash from a nearby ATM. The real challenge according to Morin - and this does indeed sound like a challenge - has been to create "the best simulation you've ever seen".
"To design a world where you can create chaos anywhere you want, a world that's going to respond accordingly and in an believable way - all of that is a huge challenge. And it's not about blowing things up all the time either. You can stand still in the city, and spend 30 minutes playing like that, without even moving. We're extremely excited about that."
If we go back four years to the start of the development, what is the biggest difference, and have you had any revelations during that time?
"One thing is that you shouldn't give too much information about the characters in the game. For instance: when I was a kid, I played the first Final Fantasy and really liked it. But as the technology became better, I felt disconnected with the series, and that badass knight I liked so much suddnely wasn't as masculine as I've previously imagined it. So give the players just enough, let them create their own stuff in their minds. That to me is the biggest revelation."
Have you had any time to listen to feedback from the community after the PlayStation 4 presentation?
"Yes, and people seem to like it a lot, even more than after E3 actually. The difference is, at E3 we showed a main mission in action. And a lot of people liked it, but since it was a demo and a main mission, some questioned the level of emergence. People were saying "you won't be able to tap into anyone's life in that way"; they questioned the open-world aspect of it."
"But this time the goal was to give everyone a demo that was totally open. No main mission, just the main character tapping into people's lives, and show stuff that dynamically happens around them. This time around, people really understood it's an open world game."
So in the demo you showed, a bunch of other stuff could have happened if you didn't focus on the robbed girl?
"Exactly. Something completely different would happen. But in this instance, we saw the knife guy fleeing, the character following him, and people decided to call the cops. The player has to deal with all these layers. The cops show up. You can choose to hack and use train, or choose to change the traffic lights, or something else."
How will you divide the gameplay between main missions and side objects?
"It's connected in an interesting way. If you want to just race through the game, it has to be tight. In this freedom they have to be able to express themselves. That ambiguity is interesting; should you intervene or not? And you never know what will happen if you mess around with people's lives."
All in all, Watch Dogs looks even more interesting now and if we are to believe Morin, there are tons of stuff we haven't even seen yet. To finally get confirmation that this will be a next-gen title is also nice, and when my chat with Morin ends, he summarises the whole thing by again praising the Playstation 4, and what it can do for a game like Watch Dogs.
"Watch Dogs is becoming more crazy than I originally thought. If you add Sony and the Playstation 4 to the mix, it can only become better..."