‘Watch Dogs’ creates a hackable world

New York TimesJune 1, 2014 

— Imagine living an all-consuming existence as a supremely intelligent yet vengeful, tormented computer hacker who is armed with the technology to control nearly anything and anyone.

In a bustling former textile mill here, where the French video game studio Ubisoft has its North American headquarters, designers staring into large computer monitors have been trying to bring that vision to life through the new video game “Watch Dogs.” The stakes are as high as they come in this industry: The game, released last week, represents more than five years of development by hundreds of workers at an estimated cost of at least $150 million.

Ubisoft, which also publishes the popular “Assassin’s Creed” series, seeks to create a tent pole akin to summer blockbuster movies that spawn lucrative sequels. It was supposed to release “Watch Dogs” last November, when the Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One consoles were introduced, but the game was delayed for work on the software and storytelling.

The game’s creative director, Jonathan Morin, was among those who reported the news to Yves Guillemot, Ubisoft’s chief executive in Paris. “He played the game and understood,” Morin said recently. “But he also had to tell investors that we needed more time.”

The company’s stock price tumbled more than 26 percent.

John Taylor, a longtime video game analyst for the Arcadia Investment Corp. who provided the budget estimate for “Watch Dogs,” suggested that the postponed release should not hurt sales. That’s because hungry game console owners, he said, are “starved for new content.” (The stock price has since recovered.)

Ubisoft announced Wednesday that the game had sold more copies in the first 24 hours after its release than any other title in the company’s history.

“Watch Dogs” features a troubled anti-hero named Aiden Pearce, a Belfast immigrant bent on avenging the murder of his young niece when he coincidentally uncovers the Big Brother-like Blume Corp. As a castigator of violence in the name of justice, Pearce takes the player on 50 missions through Chicago’s autumn streets, back alleys and a decrepit housing project.

A life-size poster of this conflicted protagonist looms on a conference room wall at Ubisoft. Pearce is clad in a trench coat, a baseball cap and a scarf that cover all but his menacing eyes. While his obscured visage is meant to frighten, it also makes him seem somehow paranoid.

There is reason for that: “Watch Dogs” allows the player to hack into cellphones, ATMs, drawbridges, even helicopters. Through cameras in laptops and televisions, players can peer into someone’s fictional files and bedroom, to wholly envelop the lives of others. The game’s primary goals are to track down the killers of Pearce’s niece and halt the potential evil of the all-seeing corporation. That much is apparent after several recent interviews with Ubisoft staff members and an exclusive two-hour peek at the game.

Morin said the lost time and money caused by the delayed release would be worth it. “If you do everything in the game,” he said, “you'll have spent over 100 hours in our world.”

Players will be asked to understand the motivation of those involved in technology, from a tattoo artist hacker to the sketchy Blume Corp., which places security cameras on the street and collects everyone’s information. Every individual on the street is hackable, and each has been created to have a distinctive personality that reacts to your presence. A multiplayer mode lets another player drop into your game at any time, sneak up on you and steal what you’ve worked so hard to hack.

Chicago was considered a compelling setting because of its big, drivable roads – essential to a modern day open-world game – and its history. Players will hear music by Chicagoans, including the Smashing Pumpkins, the nasally punk rockers the Vindictives and blues legend Elmore James. They will also discover landmarks like the gruesome locations of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the laboratory of the serial killer H.H. Holmes.

While what is on screen in “Watch Dogs” is full of strategizing, storytelling and blood-drenched action, Morin likened playing to being enthralled by a painting.

“I sometimes feel more interactivity in a static painting, interpreting it the way I want based on my own life,” he said. “When you finish the game, you’re a bit like that guy in the gallery. Your life experience merges with your experience in the game.”

Morin said he would like those players “to have one of those after-cinema beer discussions.” But he does not want them to talk about technology’s supremacy over society as much as the effect “Watch Dogs” had on their ethical and moral codes.

“A great game should remind people that they are human beings,” he said, “not just players.”

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