Feature Article

Watch Dogs and the Terrifying Power of Smartphones

Phoning it in.

At one point in the development of Watch Dogs, a problem surfaced during the game's performance capture process. It had nothing to do with the elaborate array of cameras Ubisoft had rigged up in its Montreal capture stage, nor did it involve the computers used to turn those acting performances into in-game character animations. No, this problem was of a slightly less technical nature.

There were no pockets on the actors' suits.

Normally, this wouldn't be an issue. But that day the Watch Dogs cinematics team was shooting a scene that required the game's main character, Aiden Pearce, to reach into his pocket and pull out a smartphone. Pearce is an urban vigilante with a mastery of electronics bordering on terrifying, so even an ordinary movement such as this had to be executed with careful gravitas.

And so the crew had to think of a solution. Could they sew in pockets? Nope. The spandex unitards actors wear on these shoots are adorned with hundreds of tiny sensors designed to register movements large and small, but only so long as the cameras can see them. Velcro? Too awkward. A belt holster? Maybe if Aiden were a middle-aged real estate agent.

Then it came to them: magnets.

Aiden Pearce totally not checking his Twitter mentions.

The team would fashion a small plate and attach it to the suit of lead actor Noam Jenkins. On the plate would be a magnet strong enough to keep the prop phone attached, but weak enough for it to be detached with a gentle upward slide. A bit like pulling a phone from one's pocket.

"It was the stupidest little thing," recalls cinematics lead Lars Bonde. "But those are the small details that make the game feel so much more real."

In most games, a detail like this would be considered trivial. But there's nothing trivial about the smartphone in Watch Dogs. As a hacker capable of wirelessly tapping into Chicago's city-wide surveillance system, your phone is your primary tool for interacting with the gameworld. Beyond that, it's also a thematic focal point in a story revolving around instant access to information and the ways that power can be abused. Smartphones and their place in modern society are concepts that sit squarely at the heart of Watch Dogs.

And yet, that wasn't always the case. In 2009, a team at Ubisoft Montreal was assembled to create a new open-world franchise. With Assassin's Creed covering the historical settings and Far Cry taking care of the rugged outdoors, this early team elected to focus on the modern urban landscape.

Smartphones and their place in modern society are concepts that sit squarely at the heart of Watch Dogs.

"The only mandate we had was to work on an open-city game," says creative director Jonathan Morin. "So one of the big things for us was reflecting on the urban life of today."

"We chatted a lot about ideas for the game, and the one subject that kept coming up was the impact of technology on our daily lives. Back then, smartphones were somewhere in between pop culture and geekness. My family didn't know what they were. They were just emerging, but it was obvious they would become something big."

Morin and his team didn't know how big smartphones would become, but they had a sneaking suspicion this was a technology whose impact would only grow stronger over time. That sounds like a safe assumption now, but remember that in 2009, BlackBerry still held the majority of the smartphone market share. Apple's stock price began the year at a whopping $450 less than where it sits today. A lot has changed since then.

In pondering the effects of smartphones, the Watch Dogs team became fascinated with the ways in which privacy would be affected by our increasingly connected world.

"It's very rare when you start a project and you have this canvas of possibilities," says Morin. "Facebook, social media, privacy--it was so easy to go into hour-long discussions about those subjects. That fascination early in the project became a weapon for me to [go to management] and say, 'Let's do something where fun can collide with thinking.'"

You're not always the one doing the hacking.

Given the focus on privacy, it was only natural that Morin and his team looked toward Chicago as the game's setting. With its vast network of surveillance cameras, Chicago is the most-watched city in North America. Last October, Polygon published an excellent report on the Windy City's surveillance network and pegged the number of cameras accessible by the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications at "as many as 24,000." This includes cameras installed by the Chicago Police Department as well as security cameras in private buildings where the owners have voluntarily granted surveilance access to the city.

This surveillance infrastructure became the inspiration for the central operating system that powers Watch Dogs' version of Chicago. Dubbed ctOS, this operating system extends far beyond cameras; it controls everything from traffic lights to steam vents. As Aiden Pearce, you're able to cruise through Chicago hacking objects on the fly, triggering massive pileups at intersections to flee from the police or tapping into the system's crime prediction mechanism to stop crimes before they even happen.

The original idea for this was a lot more abstract. One of Morin's earliest presentations to Ubisoft management conveyed this structure through a single image: a finger hovering above a red object accompanied by the phrase "Control an entire city through the press of a button."

Morin knew what type of scope he wanted to build for the game, but was less certain about what exactly the game's main character would do with that level of access. So the team spent time working on who this character was, what his ambitions were, and how far he was willing to sidestep ethical boundaries to get there.

Drag the slider above to compare two early concepts for the smartphone interface.

"When we started to talk about the game, we asked, 'What should he do while he's at his safe house?'" says Morin. And it's here that he takes on a wry smile: "Well, he should be monitoring everyone. He should know about everybody."

"The fantasy has always been, what if you can access everything? What if you were the invisible man in the room?"

This focus on surveillance soon came together with that initial fascination around smartphones to form the game's profiling system. This mechanic allows you to tap into the city's repository of personal records and surveillance data to form a quick impression of every single pedestrian in the city. Details like profession, salary, and Web browsing habits flash across the screen as you pass strangers on the sidewalk. Find someone especially interesting, and the game will often let you learn more about that person by listening in on phone calls and remotely hacking his or her text message logs. And it's all done thanks to Aiden's smartphone.

"We wanted to give that sense you get when you sit on a bus and overhear people talking about whatever," says lead story designer Kevin Shortt. "Snippets of conversations. You just hear enough to go, wow that's a fucked up relationship. And off you go."

The fantasy has always been, what if you can access everything? What if you were the invisible man in the room?

Creative director Jonathan Morin

"Sometimes you get rewards, or you get opportunities for a mission. But a lot of times you're just getting a snapshot of that person and filling in the blanks."

Profiling is a gameplay system aimed at breathing life into the city of Chicago, tapping into the idea that we're all carrying devices with a wealth of personal information, and anyone with enough technical know-how can come along and read our life's story if they're so inclined.

Unsurprisingly, building a city's worth of cell phone owners was no easy task. It began, as so many projects do, with good old-fashioned research.

"We have a cafeteria in the building that overlooks an intersection," says Bonde as he describes Ubisoft's Montreal office. "This is the artistic area of Montreal, so you have a lot of foot traffic going to cafes and all that. So we just looked at people. How do they come to a stop at a red light? Do they bring out their phone while waiting? Do they cross while talking? It's observe and learn."

Other members of the team would watch people riding the Montreal subway on their commute into work. How did they carry on phone conversations while in public? How many of them were playing games? What were the chances one of those games wasn't Angry Birds?

"You start looking at people and their phones all the time when you work on Watch Dogs," jokes Morin. "You start becoming as weird as Aiden."

Who needs an umbrella when you've got technology?

Another challenge lay on the writing side. Watch Dogs' profiling system dynamically provides character stubs for non-player characters, but somebody's got to write those stubs.

"We had to create a lot of content," recalls Shortt. "A lot. If the fantasy is I can hack into your phone and read your text message, we've got to pay that off. If you see that text message once, you can't see it twice."

But for as challenging as writing that content was, Shortt believes the payoff has been worth it. Even if it shows up in surprising ways.

"I was in combat one time and I had my profiler on," says Shortt. "These guys were trying to kill me, and I was trying to kill them. Then this one guy comes around the corner, and his profile tells me he's a newlywed. And I'm like, awww... Blam! [Laughs] And that's what our goal always was. Let's take these NPCs and make them characters."

Even with these systems in place, Watch Dogs is still very much an action game. There are guns to fire, cars to drive, and a city's worth of criminals and heavily armed security guards to deal with. And throughout all this, hacking remains a constant theme.

Everywhere you go, you'll find a context-sensitive white outline drawing your attention to objects you can hack. If you're in a police chase, you might hack a drawbridge just as you pass over it in order to lose the cops on your tail. If you're sneaking into a ctOS facility, you might hack a window washer to elevate you up to a second-floor window before accessing the security camera network to get a feel for the guards' patrol routes.

Hello? Yes, this is Watch Dogs.

The Watch Dogs team worked hard to maintain believability within the ctOS fiction, consulting with Russian security firm Kaspersky Lab to ensure that none of the various hacks were too extravagant. But the one area where the team will admit it took creative liberties is the speed with which these hacks are done. Nearly everything in the game can be hacked with a single, instantaneous press of a button.

But therein lay the challenge: how do you provide the player with quick hacking opportunities while giving substance to the gameplay? To lead designer Danny Belanger, it's all about building a complex web of interlocking gameplay systems so that no one hack is an immediate victory over the AI. Instead, as Belanger sees them, these hacks are the initial flick of a finger in a line of dominoes.

"The core for us is having a simple way to connect and interact with the world," says Belanger. "But by doing that, it has to be useful and not feel like a win button. It's a window of opportunity. It's a win against one guy, but the other AI might become aggressive and start searching, and that puts you in even more danger. And then you chain the other hacks to distract them. So it's all about risk-reward and giving people windows."

You start looking at people and their phones all the time when you work on Watch Dogs. You start becoming as weird as Aiden.

Cinematics lead Lars Bonde

This puts a lot of pressure on the AI. The guards and criminals Aiden deals with need to know what's a coincidence and what's just plain fishy. A steam vent malfunctioning and scalding a guard is one thing. A steam vent malfunction followed by a car alarm and then a citywide blackout is something completely different.

"If the player doesn't respect our AI, he won't take the time to use stealth or hacking," says Belanger. "Maybe he's played a lot of shooters and says, 'I'll just shoot everything.' And if he succeeds all the time, why would he change? Why would he try hacking? We want him to have a certain fear of the AI."

That means designing an AI system that's both aggressive and a little bit unpredictable. These are not common events that Aiden is using his phone to trigger, and Belanger doesn't want common reactions from the guards.

"When you do a hack and you interact with the world, you want to feel like these are humans. It's a bit unpredictable. Having some chaos and noise keeps things interesting. It creates gameplay stories."

Ultimately, the Watch Dogs team knows that giving you the opportunity to create stories is the central appeal of an open-world game. And by rooting its fictionalized world in the sort of technology that influences our everyday lives, it's hoping to make those stories even more relevant.

"I have a 7-year-old daughter," says Shortt. "She knows I'm making a video game, but she doesn't know what it is. One day I brought home a little statuette of Aiden, one of those little character figurines. She asked [while pointing at his phone], 'What is that?' And I said, 'That's his weapon!' She was fascinated by that. And that's what I love about the phone."

"The phone is his primary weapon, his primary tool. It's pretty powerful. And I think that reflects the world we've entered. These things are powerful."

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Discussion

196 comments
cctv100
cctv100

Is he holding an iPhone?Seems like an iOS layout

sadscooterpipe
sadscooterpipe

Well....you know you are getting too old when you read something like this and immediately think "yeah, right, like someone can use a cell phone to instantaneously cripple a city and I can't send a simple MMS text and answer a call without having to perform a million different gestures and navigate screens WITHOUT a gun in my hand".


Going to have to let this fact go for my own sake I think.....lol

SlaviksG
SlaviksG

I've heard that it has a bad story. And I realy hope that you can go throu without killing, cuz I dont want to kill bunch of cops n shit.

matty_6666
matty_6666

and they say there's nothing new under the sun

YouEnjoyMyFluff
YouEnjoyMyFluff

honestly... don't see what the hype is about.  I don't want a game that revolves around phones and hacking

itchyflop
itchyflop

seriously....im looking forward to this, pre order in place, and theres nothing else other than ghosts or bf4 worth buying on the ps4....yet

itchyflop
itchyflop

So i can still play candy crush !!!! 

aeon44
aeon44

i don't care about the graphics of the PS4 version, i'm gonna buy Watch Dogs for its hacking gameplay.

in fact, i'll pre-order the CE of WD, the one where there's a wireless keyboard for PS4.

namitokiwa
namitokiwa

Can you guys answer me this? I know what I am asking is somekind of stupid but I really need some answer. I am intending to pre-order Watch Dogs on steam. Is the exclusive content on the Watch Dogs deluxe edition will disappear after pre-order's time? Or it still there after the game release? 
I have known some example that the exclusive content just disappear when you pre-order: Batman Arkham Origins. I have seen some posts that Deathstroke is exclusive for any users whom bought it in pre-order. And you can't find its content on the Steam.
Hope you guys can answer me. I am intend to wait it drop the price but If the exclusive content is still there.

simon1812
simon1812

the concept seems original, and the industry is in dire need of originality I would say, but the whole "watch out!!! he has an smart phone!!!" just doesnt appeal to me

BrunoBRS
BrunoBRS

"Then this one guy comes around the corner, and his profile tells me he's a newlywed."


sincerely hoping there are ways to go through this game without destroying innocent lives. pretty sure the police officer is just doing his job >.>

PsychoChick966
PsychoChick966

I just can't get into this idea at all.  I can't imagine what your motivation would be to hack.  I just don't understand why I'm supposed to want to be this guy.  It sounds like they really, really thought about the game though, and put a lot of work into it.. I hope they find their audience and the game's a success.  That being said, until I hear something about it that floats my boat, I guess this one's a pass for me.

MerricMaker
MerricMaker

What device is this that "everyone" has? Some of us choose to have nothing in there but keys and a wallet. I'll never own a cell phone.

cboye18
cboye18

Well i guess it can't be any worse than AC. 

gamefreak215jd
gamefreak215jd

Great game probably but I'm still confused regarding the ridiculous system requirements

SIDEFX1
SIDEFX1

So big brother is watching always.. there is truth in that yeah.

grin89
grin89

i wonder if this means you cant keep a arsenal of weapons on you like in games like gta.

Pelezinho777
Pelezinho777

Watch Dogs and the terrifying comprehension of its system requirements for PC...still can't understand it....

quoluc
quoluc

 Something i am curious about Aiden is if he is a real hacker that helped to develop the software in his phone or if he is just some action guy that the hackers gave the phone for him to use.

Also i am curious to know if there is some special hardware in his phone or if thats a program that can be installed in most smartphones.

07wintert
07wintert

think people are jumping the gun a bit with watchdogs i haven't seen any special in the gameplay 

SIDEFX1
SIDEFX1

It had to be the end of May ay. May can't get here soon enough.

Ervaine
Ervaine

Ubisoft took a very intresting and amazing turn with this game .

Instead of having our protagonist relaying on big guns and hidden blades and etc...

he relay on technology ( specifically :the internet and smartphone) as his primary weapon cause if  we think of it this way it's not what we expect of the main character arsenal .

And people sometime forget the power it's carries and will carry for the coming years of this power.

THIS is way this game going to be ****ing awesome.

icebox98
icebox98

cant wait to get that smartphone

grove67
grove67

cant wait for it to hit smartphones

Leria
Leria

Sounds like a good game and a new premise. Wondering if they sorta ripped off Person of Interest, the TV show, however.

HipHopBeats
HipHopBeats

It's great to see a new IP hit the scene period. I'm more intrigued about Watch Dogs then more Assassin's Creed bullshit which has been milked to death.


We live in the age of information and it's good to see a game explore this in modern form as it exists present day. I prefer old school phones with simple talk, qwerty keyboard for texting and music player features with radio. That's all I need. Anything else, I can wait until I get to a PC to do. 

Facebook and Twitter are not that important where I need to be updated with that bullshit while I'm out and about. I was never a fan of all that extra app bullshit on Iphones. Smartphones definitely have their advantages as far as 3G and 4G purposes go.


I laughed when I saw the in new demo, Aiden hacked a WiFi box, which allowed him to hack some woman's webcam inside her apartment, which allowed him to hack her bank account from her cell which was sitting on her kitchen table. Pretty clever hacking and a nice moral choice for the player to make.


Me? I always keep my webcam lens covered with cardboard and duct tape when I'm not using is, so anyone hacking into my webcam wold see nothing but black.

chkmode
chkmode

Are they using an Anvil engine? Because there is a great deal of population and Anvil is great in comprehending with population mechanics. Also I wonder the open world in Chicago where a player can run, drive, shoot and does a lot of things  resembles to Rock-star's GTA. I really want to know if GTA was the inspiration for Watch Dog's creative team?

vadagar1
vadagar1

to every moron in Europe or any other industrial country, that DOES not like his government or thinks they are plotting to suck his grey matter.


I invite you to come live here for 6 months


after that time you will go back to your country and kiss the feet of every government employee u can find, cops, tax collectors...etc


you will spend the rest of your days content and happy.


masato_indou
masato_indou

Now I really want to test the AIs out, they're supposed to be feared huh? ahh  can't wait :D

PlatinumPaladin
PlatinumPaladin

That was a bit of a mammoth article, but well worth the read. I hadn't considered that Ubisoft of all publishers would go to the trouble of making all the NPCs so distinct from one another. Of course now the challenge is on to try and find two that are the same. If they're really looking to make the game's population realistic, then they're going to have to include text messages full of bad spelling and piss-poor punctuation and grammar.

RobDev
RobDev

@BrunoBRS  you realise this is a game, that no one actually gets killed right?

cooolio
cooolio

@PsychoChick966  Maybe you are thinking to hard.  Basically your out to get the people who killed a member of your family.  Aiden was already an amazing hacker, but he was also obsessive with it.  What happened has made him even more obsessive.    When you know that everything is a lie, when you are aware of the lies that exist, how far would you go to expose them?


Frankly, you have guns, you have stealth, and you have the ability to hack anything.  I would think that some one would at least try it out to see how it is, but it is cool if you need more to get you to play it.  I just think you over thinking things.

SIDEFX1
SIDEFX1

CONGRATS. U do not own a cell phone. 2014.

aeon44
aeon44

@cboye18 no, it won't.

AC gets boring if you played nearly all of its games.

didn't buy AC4 simply because i got tired of AC after playing AC3.

godfather830
godfather830

@Pelezinho777 Are they really THAT steep?

An FX-8350 is a $200 CPU, and the Radeon HD 7850 is a $160 graphics card. It's not that steep...


And that's for the recommended settings. Their minimum requirements are a Phenom II X4, which is a 6 year-old CPU and a Radeon HD 5770, which was a medium range card three years ago.

XNEXUS666X
XNEXUS666X

@kitmeep your avatar sucks, unless you wanna give people the perfect example of a face they'd like to slap the shit out of.

clickpwn
clickpwn

@louispascalroch @YouEnjoyMyFluff just like how he can post comments on things hes interested in, he can post comments on things he doesn't like because its his freedom of his own opinion. just because you don't want to see others having negative opinion on thing that you like, doesn't mean they shouldnt

nl_skipper
nl_skipper

@louispascalroch  Seriously though, what is up with all the sad people that need to tell everyone what they AREN'T interested in?!   They must all be a real thrill to have a conversation with...

BrunoBRS
BrunoBRS

@RobDev @BrunoBRSi fail to see the relevance of that? of course it's a game, doesn't mean i'm comfortable when i'm given a face to the random NPC i'm murdering. especially when aiden is supposed to be a good guy. this is a game about a guy that wants to be cyber-batman, not GTA-hacks. or at least that's how i see it, and that's how i'd like to play it. police not on my side? ok, sure, i can deal with that, so long as i'm not forced to go around murdering them.

Pelezinho777
Pelezinho777

@godfather830  No, dude, you don't understand. I don't want to be taken for a fool because this game is written for a now 9 years old consoles (xbox 360, ps3) and like that it should be played with at least 4 GBs of Ram (which is also a lot considering 512 mb in Xbox360). So, developers,don't give me that 6 GBs bullshit as a minimum! It's not the point how much money something costs, it's that they want to treat players as an idiots!

heguain
heguain

@XNEXUS666X @kitmeep Lol that's exactly what I felt ;D

*Typhoon ammo*

nochoicerico
nochoicerico

@clickpwn @louispascalroch@YouEnjoyMyFluff-  its a free world but the guy's an idiot sorry just stating the facts.   His message stated: "I don't want a game that revolves around phones and hacking"  Every video since E3 has shown that 90% of this games mechanics revolve around this concept. So I agree with @YouEnjoyMyFluff .. I'm not understanding his  comments, he has every right to post but it just seems like a waste of his time...or maybe he is really interested and just trolling. 

nameaprice
nameaprice

@nl_skipper @louispascalrochjust use your smart phone and kill yourself ;) no but seriously I bet this dude was one of those people that was like "im not getting a cell phone like all the rest of you SHEEP!" and now hes posting this comment from, whait for it... A CELL PHONE!