Feature Article

Lessons From the Wild: What Watch Dogs Learned From Far Cry 2

You may not think of music when you think of Watch Dogs, but the game's creative director certainly does.

by

'

Jonathan Morin rises from the abyss in a cloud of smoke and flashing lights. This is not a metaphor. The creative director of Watch Dogs is about to demo his upcoming open-world action game at the PlayStation booth of Tokyo Game Show 2013, and in order to reach the stage, he must first ascend from ground level using Sony's ridiculous elevated platform. It's the type of scene that would not look out of place at a Jay-Z concert.

An hour and a half later, I sit down with Morin in a decidedly less flashy hotel conference room just outside the convention center. While he may have risen from nowhere onstage, I know that Morin is hardly a new face in the games industry. Prior to taking creative lead on Watch Dogs, Morin was, among other things, the lead level designer on Far Cry 2.

Far Cry 2 featured a beautiful and reactive world, but to many it was a daunting and obtuse one.

I'll get this out of the way right now: I loved Far Cry 2. But I also realize just how polarizing that game was. For everyone like me who couldn't wait to spend hours exploring its imposing African savanna, there was another person who found it tedious and obtuse.

For better or worse, Far Cry 2 took great pains to immerse you in its world. Rickety old AK-47s would break down and jam. The map screen was a crumpled piece of paper your character held in his hands. Instead of fully regenerating health, you would pry bullets from your flesh with a pair of pliers.

And then there was the malaria.

Far Cry 2 took all these game mechanics and embedded them into its world, tying everything in to its fiction. In the process, the game introduced complex gameplay systems not through a tutorial pop-up on the screen, but by making you explore its world and learn things on your own. It could be a very daunting system.

When you make a game, it's like building a musical instrument and giving it to the player. Yet five years after its release, one thing no one can criticize Far Cry 2 for is its ability to spark an interesting conversation. Naturally, that's exactly where Morin and I start off.

"When you make a game, it's like building a musical instrument and giving it to the player," says Morin. "They should be able to surprise you by creating something you wouldn't expect to be possible. That's how I see interactivity."

"In Far Cry 2, we made the instrument," he continues. "But there was no instruction."

"There's only a few players out there who play Far Cry 2 the way I play it, or [FC2 creative director] Clint Hocking plays it. That's one of the big lessons that we learned. You can do whatever you want, but if you don't teach the language to the player, you're not helping him express himself."

Morin keeps those lessons fresh in his mind because despite the obvious differences in settings, Watch Dogs and Far Cry 2 share a similar open-world framework. Both are sandboxes that players are free to explore at their own pace, requiring a delicate balance between freedom and direction.

Aiden's smartphone plays a key role in delivering direction to the player.

With Watch Dogs, Morin is hoping to sneak in a little bit more guidance for those who need it, while striving to ensure that this newfound sense of direction doesn't get in the way of players who want to throw themselves into the world as much as possible. His method? Something we all carry in our pockets.

"If you teach these things better, you're not necessarily getting in the way of those who already understand them," says Morin. "What's scary is that Watch Dogs is even more complicated than Far Cry 2 in terms of gameplay systems. So for us, the challenge was, can we do something that's a lot more intuitive? And one of the big outcomes of that is the way hacking works. It's a single button. You look at something and you just do it."

You can do whatever you want, but if you don't teach the language to the player you're not helping him express himself. That focus on technology is something that's given Morin and his team the sort of design advantage that was never present in the rugged wilderness of Far Cry 2. As Aiden Pearce, you're able to hack into the central operating system that powers Watch Dogs' fictional version of Chicago. Whether you're controlling traffic lights or pulling up bios of pedestrians from the citywide surveillance network, this central OS is tied to a complex multitude of gameplay systems. But accessing them is done via the power and ease of modern-day smartphones. Goodbye, crumpled map.

"To be frank, I still have a very sensitive bond with Far Cry 2's level of immersion," says Morin. "With Watch Dogs, I still believe in that immersion--but I kind of cheated. I went from a different perspective in saying, how can we justify HUD? How can we do something that's natural to the player? The smartphone helped a lot, like the way I profile someone and get their information. With stuff like that you can give instructions to the player and it doesn't feel weird."

Put a different way, it's easier to communicate ideas to the player when your game is set in the age of digital information. Providing direction is no longer a jarring obtrusion, but a natural byproduct of the powerful devices we use to access any number of networks and databases. You know who the bad guy is because you just hit a button on your phone to pull up his surveillance file…and boy has he done some awful stuff.

"One way of achieving immersion is to embed everything, and I think it's a very novel way of doing it," says Morin. "But after all these years, I never saw someone break immersion because of a button. It's more about something awkward that broke the flow of his experience."

Far Cry 2 was never afraid to throw a few broken bones your way.

"It's certainly never a good thing to start popping magical things onscreen, but that's the difference in the way I see things now. It's not like the days of Far Cry 2 when we were all, 'Don't put a button there! That's evil!' It was a great experience to do what we did with Far Cry 2, but I also know now that one or two gentle, well-placed buttons would have helped certain players experience things more."

Far Cry 2 avoided those gamey elements at all costs, but even I'll admit that it didn't always succeed. For as much as I loved Far Cry 2, one flaw that I always come back to is the way that game did fast travel. Spread across the game's gargantuan map were a handful of run-down bus stops, which provided a realistic method of traversing between villages but didn't exactly amount to a robust transit network. You might hop on one of these buses to shave a bit of time off your journey to the next mission, but you'd still be in for a whole lot of driving, running, and swimming.

After all these years, I never saw someone break immersion because of a button. It's more about something awkward that broke the flow of his experience. So does this mean Watch Dogs is ditching that realistic method of fast travel in favor of an instantaneous, go-anywhere approach? Not necessarily. To Morin, the flaw with Far Cry 2's fast travel system isn't that it was too grounded in reality; it's that it was the only choice players had. With Watch Dogs, Morin wants to give you more options. After all, the audience of people who play open-world action games spans a wide range, from those who want to spend time exploring every last detail of the world to those who just want to rush from one objective to the next.

"Any open-world game I work on needs to support both spectrums," says Morin. "With fast travel, we have the L train. You need to go to stations to grab the train and go to another station. But we have a second layer on top of it where you can actually teleport to any hideouts you want by going to the map. That layer is definitely something that we're cheating a bit more on from the immersion standpoint. But for some weird reason, it still feels natural to the player."

It hasn't always been easy for Morin to convince his peers at Ubisoft that Watch Dogs needs to support both ends of the spectrum, and there may be no clearer example of that than the run up to the game's unveiling at E3 2012. When Watch Dogs was revealed at Ubisoft's press conference that year, it was with a demo that took its sweet time building up to anything resembling high-octane action. For the first few minutes, it looked as though this new game from Ubisoft might have been some coat physics simulator based on the way Aiden Pearce was slowly walking through the windswept streets of Chicago. But to Morin, it was critical to establish the feel of the setting before jumping into combat.

For Morin, creating an immersive sense of place in Watch Dogs' version of Chicago is critical.

"The amount of people who came to my desk saying, let's cut the f***ing thing at the beginning with a minute of walking. It's boring! It's terrible!" Morin recalls. "They were like, why are we doing this? Well, we want to immerse people. We want to show people how Aiden walks. Subtlety is important."

That idea of subtlety is a key concept for Morin and his team. The goal is to give players enough direction to learn how to use those gameplay systems, while keeping it subtle enough that players will use them to their own liking. That, to Morin, is where the real immersion comes from: players exploring a game within their own chosen style.

"Too many games lack the subtle aspect," says Morin. "That's why I like the idea of building an instrument. You're not building something that every player is going to use the same way."

'

Discussion

263 comments
lilj2626
lilj2626

OK I AINT PLAY FC2 YET BUT WHO CARES??I WANNA KNO Y MY GAME WATCH DOG GOT DELAYED TIL FREAKN NXT YR DATS DA Q HE SHUDA ASK

Carton_of_milk
Carton_of_milk

I loved Far Cry, was terribly excited to learn Far Cry 2 would be open world.........then played like 2 hours and deleted it. the problem was too smart enemies that would see you when you barely could see them. I found the whole fighting part boring and frustrating. Far Cry 3 was a vast improvement but i only really loved it for the first like 15 hours. After that i realised the game was too repetitive and barely gave you anything interesting to do aside from killing people (hunting is kinda lame). This is the same mistake open world games have been making for 13 years. They don't get that the reason San Andreas or GTA V are so popular is that they use the open world. Ubisoft is a real offender at this. That's the reason why i don't love AC as much as i could. Because it doesn't do enough with its open world. And i hope with Watch Dogs they learned a lesson. 

moc5
moc5

Watch dogs looks great.  I really like the idea.  I really liked the idea of Spore by EA too.  Then EA made the mistake of releasing their vision.  I'm watching with great hope Ubisoft. :)

Hector_01
Hector_01

I liked Farcry 2 for the awesome game engine and gun mechanics.  At its core it was a damn good shooter.  Problem was after 20 hrs of doing the same shit over and over, killing the same guard posts over and over and following a rather generic story, it was simply too much for me to keep on going.  I remember getting past the first map thinking, finally i'm pretty much done, then given the second map and going"oh fuck more of this shit" was when i stopped playing.  Oh and Malaria was probably the stupidest gaming mechanic to ever be put into a game ever.  Farcry 3 was a better game but it too got real boring.  

Norseking
Norseking

Far Cry 2 was good, but one thing I HATED was that the trucks did not have 4x4 or a winch to get you out of a tight spot; it caused you to abandon your vehicle and walk kilometers on foot. For a driving rich game, the vehicles sucked really, really bad.

Watch Dogs looks awesome, can't wait.

adjsaint
adjsaint

I had a lot of fun with Far Cry 2, I know it's a poorly made game but it was fun.  My biggest problem with Far Cry 2 was the left handed weapons.

Lykanthropie
Lykanthropie

farcry2 was the worst of all farcry games ...guess some may have fun with watch dogs, i think it looks like typical casual game with boring gameplay.

Bawniey
Bawniey

I loved FC2, but I understand why alot of people didn't like it.   I will say the respawning guard posts were annoying as hell, but the immersion was undeniable.  I appreciated the work and "subtlety" that went into crafting that world. The rpg elements, choosing your loadout, attacking the world how you saw fit, and everything else that makes an open world sandbox game great.

jagcivtec
jagcivtec

Interesting.  I will be watching this game, but game developers have little credibility to me, specially after the GTA5 fiasco.  When this releases I will wait until the smoke clears to see through the marketing, watch some user created walkthrough's and comments before going in blindly to get this day one, and no pre-order ofcourse.  I have become very skeptical, I know.

s_h_a_d_o
s_h_a_d_o

FFS! It's Watch_Dogs!!!

This, and every other [gaming, or otherwise] site that reiterates the error, absolutely fails to respect both title, *and* it's coding associations whenever the underscore is excluded.

If there's one thing I cannot stand, it's laziness.

lonewolf315
lonewolf315

I'd rather Watch Dogs learned from Far Cry 3. Far Cry 2 was awful. Pointless character selection. Boring and tedious quests.

The only thing Far Cry 2 immersed me in was a staggering body count as I murdered my way through the same guard post I just murdered my way through 10 minutes ago on some tedious mission and was now on my way back.

enoughofthis
enoughofthis

why did i only see racism in this comparison....because africa is predominately black and so is chicago lol

DigiRave
DigiRave

"Yet five years after its release, one thing no one can criticize Far Cry 2 for is its ability to spark an interesting conversation. Naturally, that's exactly where Morin and I start off." - Shaun McInnis

Wow, how fucking wrong you are there!

DigiRave
DigiRave

They're taking notes from Far Cry  2? I fucking hated Far  Cry 2!! And I'm not talking about the story, I'm talking about the game mechanics - although the story was shit too. I only played it for a bit before never returning to it. Far Cry 2 was SHIT, even Far Cry 1 was better than it. They should have used Far Cry 3 as an example of how an engaging open world game is made.

wgerardi
wgerardi

I quit playing Far Cry 2 after having to clear the same areas over and over and over. Enemies would re-spawn if I left an area for 10 seconds. If that had been fixed I think the game would have been really fun and not, you know... unplayable.

ginyuman
ginyuman

I loved Farcry 2 ! It was a novel experience

DukeRay
DukeRay

I loved the lack of hand-holding in Far Cry 2 -- the problem for me was the respawning enemies at roadside checkpoints.  That killed the immersion and sense that I had any real impact on the world, so I walked away. That, and the lack of story progression.

snake3rules
snake3rules

Hate to be a nag... but its not the "L train" its the "El Train" ... as in "elevated".

The-Lord
The-Lord

Sounds like not recommended for 12yo kids like myself ;(

Atleast i got COD!

Queuingreturns
Queuingreturns

Far Cry 2 was one of the first games I bought on PS3. Good game. Just didn't have a story that engrossed me. I guess that's the case with majority of open world games.

evil_m3nace
evil_m3nace

Far Cry 2 was amazingly immersive for me. Loved the game, still love it. I love any game that relates to Africa. Will pay many monies and play many hours on a similar game. Maybe one in the Boar War or during World war one in Eygpt as a double crossing spy like in The Green Mantle or one of Wilbur Smiths books.

wearelegion5000
wearelegion5000

Will there be malaria in Watch Dogs? I'm worried Morin didn't say there wouldn't be ...
Oh well, maybe there will be dogs with rabies instead.

Zatto-1
Zatto-1

FC2 was a bad game to learn from. Actually its bad for anyone to learn from it and it should be an example how not to make a game. Should have used FC 1/3 insted of FC2.

nh3com
nh3com

far cry 2 was the biggest steaming pile of shite I've ever had the misfortunate to waste 10 minutes on!

far cry 2 what did it have to do with far cry zero! the repetitive nature of it was just so so tedious! drive though check point kill badies. drive back kill them again. drive back again kill them again!!!! it's just pissing me off just thinking about it!

moc5
moc5

@Hector_01 I was with you on all counts except the last.  FC3 was just too dumbed down for my taste.  It was worse than just boring.

robertoenrique
robertoenrique

@Lykanthropie I disagree. Far Cry 2 was about commitment. Finishing Far Cry 2 felt like an achievement, it took me like 3 tries in a span of 4 years to get into the game, but once I did I enjoyed it immensly.   

elessarGObonzo
elessarGObonzo

@s_h_a_d_o i imagine most people don't even know about the underscore because the only place i've ever seen it in the title is on Ubisoft's official page. you'd think the actual game sites would have realized it by now...

Ceaseless001
Ceaseless001

@lonewolf315 agreed 100%

"The only thing Far Cry 2 immersed me in was a staggering body count as I murdered my way through the same guard post I just murdered my way through 10 minutes ago on some tedious mission and was now on my way back."

lol that's all me and my friends think of whenever Far Cry 2 is mentioned anywhere. 30 second respawns and enemies always knew where you were

elessarGObonzo
elessarGObonzo

@DigiRave i don't think any rpg-type game should have missions that are only accessible on a linear path. Far Cry 3 may have been mostly open to explore but the storyline missions and areas of the map would only open and progress 1-by-1. i always enjoy it much more when all areas are accessible just impossible to finish without leveling up or gaining certain items or completing certain dialogs.

Far Cry was not an rpg and hopefully Watch Dogs will be one, and does it right.

evil_m3nace
evil_m3nace

@DukeRay I just thought of it as a real army checkpoint, if say, a terrorist comes along and wipes out a checkpoint, the army is going to restaff it almost right away. anyway I spent most of my time traveling on the river and walking then driving.

Fanible
Fanible

While it is indeed short for elevated train, and "El Trains" are used elsewhere, in this case you are incorrect.  It is talking about the L Train in Chicago, which is the correct way of referring to it.  Or as many people in Chicago refer to it as simply "the L".

surfepic
surfepic

@wearelegion5000 I would definitely like to know, if there will be any strip clubs in watchdogs. IF GTAV have them, why wouldnt watchdogs?

shreddyz
shreddyz

@wearelegion5000 I'm guessing no. but you can get std's from the working girls! 

lol

MrKrupet
MrKrupet

@Zatto-1  @Zatto-1 Actually, in my opinion, FC2 was a good game. It has a lack of some arcade mechanics, and that was great. I admit, travelling is pain in the ass and sometimes (not that much) your guns just, well, explode onto your face. Anyhow, the big map, the different ways to engage every single mission and a bunch of other things made FC2, at least, a good game.

Flonne_N_Etna
Flonne_N_Etna

@nh3com Yea sure, 10 minutes and you can tell it's repetitive.

I barely got past the tutorial in 10 minutes.

ZOD777
ZOD777

@Ceaseless001 They still know where you were in FC3, in fact, it is worse.  Try sniping someone (silencer) from 100m away, or the bow for that matter, and they all rush your position when the body is found or you miss.

Zatto-1
Zatto-1

@MrKrupet @Zatto-1No offense but i played vanilla FC2 (without any patching), and the ai is simply garbage. The ai has the same accuracy as sniper rifle yet shoots with ak. Ton ai problems and glitches and imho bad execution in some parts made the game too frustrating. If you liked it more power to you, but this is my experience with the game.

nh3com
nh3com

@twyz @nh3com I meant that it had nothing what's so ever to do with far cry.

have to say I did play far cry on a pc and it was the best looking game at the time, I guess that kind of cocked all future games up as the bar was set so high. plus I then switched to gaming in the living room  (xb360) and that was that. 

nh3com
nh3com

@Flonne_N_Etna @nh3com ok so I played it for a a couple of hours id just paid £18 for it so i'm going to give it a chance

shreddyz
shreddyz

@ZOD777 Ehh! Is that a body? lol I think if one went full stealth that paying attention to the guards routines and then picking them off in an order was what the dev wanted.

elessarGObonzo
elessarGObonzo

@Zatto-1 @wearelegion5000 why are these comments all out of place? gamespot can't handle traffic anymore? this whole reply-dialog is out of order from when they were actually posted..

lonewolf315
lonewolf315

@elessarGObonzo @wearelegion5000 @Zatto-1 There was a story? The only story I saw were brief moments ripped off of Apocolypse Now. You know. When I wasn't killing the same guard post full of guards that I had just killed 10 seconds ago.

elessarGObonzo
elessarGObonzo

@wearelegion5000 @Zatto-1 repetitiveness definitely can. the only thing that kept me from finishing FC2 was that it never progressed. just kept driving and blasting and burning back and forth like GTA4, i totally lost track of the story after about 10 hours and just went with destruction as i drove towards points on the map with both games.

wearelegion5000
wearelegion5000

@Zatto-1 @wearelegion5000 I never heard of an exploding gun (except for some crazy experiments in Myth Busters). I guess they sometimes jam but not nearly as often as in FC2.

Zatto-1
Zatto-1

@wearelegion5000 @Zatto-1Could be, but imho it was just bad implementation of certain mechanics. Like when was the last time your gun exploded in your face in rl?

MrKrupet
MrKrupet

@Zatto-1 @MrKrupet Ok, it's true that's the AI can hit you from great distances and, yet, miss a shitload of shots at point blank range. This is both challenging and annoying (more annoying, though). Anyhow, that didn't killed my gaming experience. I'm not saying that the game deserved a 10/10, but was quite underrated. And, even with some respawning and AI quirks, it wasn't a Big Rigs, if you know what I mean. (It has malaria, lel)