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.
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," 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.
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."
"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."
"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.
"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.
"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."'