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'Watch Dogs: Legion' Took "5 Minutes To Think Up, 5 Years To Build"

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'Watch Dogs: Legion' Took "5 Minutes To Think Up, 5 Years To Build"

The more I learn about Watch Dogs: Legion, the more unfathomably complex I find it. It starts like a lot of open-world games, with a richly detailed city to explore. It's run through with streets you can walk down, drive through, or fly over. Then you throw in a network of security systems that can be hacked into - CCTV cameras, drones, alarm systems, and traps. Then showered over that city are characters, every single one of them loaded with a unique biography and network of friends and family. And each of those people can join your gang and become your playable character.

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"It was enormously challenging," creative director Clint Hocking tells me. "It took five minutes to think up and five years to build it."

Credit: Ubisoft
Credit: Ubisoft

The way it works isn't that the whole world of London and all the people in it are generated when you load the game, but "people are created on demand in the world," Hocking explains.

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Throughout the city designers have placed thousands of nodes and each of those nodes has characteristics and rules attached to it that determine what can spawn there. This is to try and create a natural seeming world as you explore. So, for instance, at one point I was walking through a park beside the Thames in the middle of the afternoon and a woman was sparring with a friend. Hocking tells me that what's happening is that as I've approached, the node has been pinged and based on the time of day and other factors the game has decided to create a character and someone who will fit in that moment is a boxer.

If I then scan the boxer, the game will fill out more details about her. She now has a perk that is related to her boxing, she does increased melee damage. I go deeper into her biography the game links her to the character she is sparring with, that person is now a friend. Her daily schedule is filled out, and the block of time we're in at the moment is allotted to boxing in the park.

Credit: Ubisoft
Credit: Ubisoft
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In fractions of a second the game has back-populated this character's life and history. And it will do this with every single character you choose to scan. The character will also be given a voice, animation style, and character persona. This means, if you choose to recruit that person into your gang, DedSec, they will sound and speak differently in the game from your other characters. Each of these personas has different lines of dialogue for every mission in the game. It's frankly incredible to play with and explore.

"It was very quick to come up with that idea," Hocking says. "It fits really well with the core promise of Watch Dogs, but once we started walking the stack on how all of these pieces would get built, it was an enormous undertaking. There were lots of prototypes, lots of different pieces that got built and tossed over the side, lots of different pieces that evolved over the years.

"It's been huge and has involved everyone from animation, audio, sound, and programming... It's just huge."

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While Watch Dogs: Legion was close to completion last year, following the poor reception of Ghost Recon Breakpoint, Ubisoft reassessed all of its in-development games and gave the teams another year to refine them. This was a real blessing for the Watch Dogs team. "The game has so much innovation in it," Hocking says, "with play as anyone, progression systems, and so many different pieces of the game, we'd really just managed to get them to the state where we knew what they were. The extra year really allowed us to say 'Okay, now that we understand this, [with] an extra year to finish this game what would we fix and what would we improve?'".

The main focus of the refinement was "streamlining what the player needs to see in order to understand [the world]," Hocking tells me.

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All the biographical information that the game generates, that was the idea from the beginning, so too was the way it would inform characters' abilities and characterisation, but presenting that information to players could be overwhelming. "When you see two pages of information about a person, it's hard for you to see how those things make sense," Hocking explained. "They do. But it's hard to sort [through it]."

Over the past year those bio screens have been refined. Now when you scan someone you're presented with their name, profession, a line of flavour text, and their perks. For instance, 'Peter Rathod. Actor. Has over 2m subscribers online. Personal sports vehicle. Noticed in public.'

"When you compress that information into something that's more accessible," Hocking says, "you can immediately go 'Oh, famous guy. And oh, of course, he's got the cool car'. It becomes much, much easier to understand the package." All the other information - the character's schedule, family, friends, and enemies - is still accessible but it's relegated to another page so it doesn't clutter up the vital details.

Watch Dogs: Legion / Credit: Ubisoft
Watch Dogs: Legion / Credit: Ubisoft

Something else the team was able to work on with the extra year was Legion's tone, somewhere the game strikes a difficult balance. The campaign tells a story of a London taken over by an authoritarian government and private military contractors. You play missions in which you have to break into a stadium that's been converted into a slum-like holding pen for people being deported. Meanwhile, out in the world, you can find and recruit James Bond-like spies who have access to sports cars that can fire homing missiles.

"Landing the tone for Legion has been a years-long challenge and commitment," Hocking tells me. "In the very beginning, we started talking about dystopian themes and dark futures. But also, we were heavily informed by the tongue in cheek elements of Watch Dogs 2. And I think when we determined that the game would be set in this authoritarian version of London, where it's all become very sinister, we also wanted to keep at the core of the game this sense of British defiance. The Brits can bring this absurdity to their criticism and to authoritarians and fascists."

An example of this are the masks your characters wear. Whenever you enter a restricted area or commit a crime, your character will put on a mask - a plastic pig's head, for instance. "It's kind of an absurdist mocking of those in power, Hocking says. "Trying to weave those two things together was a big challenge for the writing team and the world teams building the content, trying to land that particular defiant tone, without it without being too dark, but without it feeling dissonant."

Credit: Ubisoft
Credit: Ubisoft

It was important to create a space where the serious and silly can happen one after the other because the Watch Dogs games allow so much choice in how you play. You can pull out shotguns and go into an enemy base all guns blazing; hack your way through its security cameras, completing missions without putting yourself in danger; or push at the edges of the simulation by hacking a drone, planting a bomb on the side of it and flying it up to the roof where your target is hiding out, destroying them with your jury-rigged smart bomb.

"The player always psychologically has one foot in the narrative and fiction and one foot in the playfulness of it," Hocking explains. "I think it's important that a game isn't just one or the other, that you have to have this ability for the player to take things very seriously when they're engaged with that side of their psyche, but also to be able to be playful and do silly things when that's the mood that strikes them."

The result is a game where you will sometimes be facing the stakes of a world falling into fascism, and other times trying to see if you can get a security guard trapped on top of a drone that you fly out over the Thames. It's a difficult balance to find but, from what I've played, Ubisoft seems to have found it.

Watch Dogs: Legion is a richly complex game, and all of the detail that's been poured into the world turns up in ways that feel natural. It's clearly taken a huge amount of work to build a London that feels so natural. Especially in a year where so much of it has been spent inside, there's something precious in the potential of exploring a real city and meeting scores of people who have the appearance of life.

Featured Image Credit: Ubisoft

Topics: Watch Dogs: Legion, Ubisoft

Julian Benson
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