One of the most impressive reveals of E3 2019 was Watch Dogs: Legion, the strange and ambitious new entry in the open-world Ubisoft franchise. I had the opportunity to speak with Kent Hudson, the Game Design Director of Watch Dogs: Legion, and I asked him about their decision to choose London for Watch Dogs, Brexit, and their new “play-as-anyone” system.
Spiel Times: The tech powering Watch Dogs: Legion seems really insane. Everyone’s been buzzing on social media and wondering how it’s possible that you can recruit every single NPC and have them be unique characters. Can you tell us more about the technology behind Watch Dogs: Legion?
Kent Hudson: Yeah, so it all starts with a really complex– essentially a massive database of biographical information we’ve developed. It’s based on the population of London, which is one of the most diverse cities in the world. So, it’s a technology we called Census. Which basically is this huge database of things like place of birth, nationality, places you lived in the city, occupations, gender, race, and all the things that go into making a person a person.
So we basically create connections between those things and say “ok cool, if you live in this part of town, you probably work in this kind of job and have these kind of friends.” And so you essentially start to collate all this data together: we’ve got ties between different bits and pieces of the data to sort-of construct someone from the ground up. So that builds a backstory and a biography of who they are, you know, age and all those things.
And once we start to build that up, we start to get into the visual representation which is the character model, the animation set, tons of facial capture. We’ve got a lot of voice actors who don’t just do voice, it’s actually personalities and personas. It’s not like you’re just gonna hear two different voice actors reading the same lines in the cutscenes, they’ve actually got their own takes on it.
So you’ll hear, in the same cutscene one person might make jokes and use humor as a defence mechanism, where the other person would be really serious or gruff or nervous about the situation so that personality comes across as well. That also gets into the animation archetypes.
If you find someone on the street who’s a young person who works at a boxing gym then they’re gonna have the more athletic melee animations, you can really see them doing the spin kicks versus someone who’s a guy at a pub who’s a bouncer, he’s gonna have the more brutal attack style.
ST: Talking about the different gameplay styles that come with these different classes of characters, that’s really interesting. Could you talk a little bit more on all those different gameplay styles that we’ll get from all these different characters?
KH: Sure, so it starts with the gameplay traits. And so when people are out in the world in London, they don’t have a class, they don’t really have any predisposition in terms of gameplay except for one thing. They have a gameplay trait, and that gameplay trait is based on who they are as a person, that creation from the census system. So, let’s just use the easy example: if someone works at a boxing gym, they’re gonna have a melee focused trait. You’re not gonna find someone at a boxing gym who is a master hacker for drones.
So that leads into a gameplay trait, and these gameplay traits can be very simple or quite complicated, they can have trade-offs, like a good bonus here but a bad bonus there, and we have some quirky traits… and so, that’s the starting point for building the gameplay for that character. Once you recruit them onto your team, there’s an entire progression system, so there’s fifteen levels of progression, you get XP for completing missions and doing activities in the world.
It’s kind of a traditional XP progression system you’d recognize from other games, and at levels 5, 10, and 15, sort of the milestone levels, you have the ability to choose a perk. You can use those perks to customize your classes as well. Basically, when someone comes onto the team, you assign a class to them. It’s not like they’ve got it in the world, you actually say–
ST: Ah, okay, interesting.
KH: Yeah, and it’s really cool because you can make interesting combinations, because a lot–
ST: So you can kit out your team any way you want, with any combination of classes?
KH: Absolutely. Absolutely– we’ve got the three classes in the game, and our gameplay traits– they don’t always have to be something that’s specific to a class. If you have someone who does extra damage with nonlethal weapons, it’s like– there’s perks for infiltrators, there’s perks for enforcers, there’s perks for hackers that all make them make sense.
You can pick the class, then you can specialize like “this is gonna be my spider bot hacker,” “this is gonna be my drone hacker,” “this is gonna be my sneaky spider hacker.” So you kinda want to build out your team with a cast of characters who all have a specialization. We don’t technically have subclasses, so-to-speak, but since you can mix and match the perks however you want–
ST: You can create your own subclasses, almost.
KH: Yeah, exactly. So when they come onto the team, it’s almost like the beginning of their gameplay journey.
ST: You talked a bit about UK politics including Brexit in the E3 presentation and how the UK seems to be at a crossroads with the issues and turmoil around Brexit. Was that a big inspiration for you, talking about all the developments across Europe including Brexit in the UK?
KH: So that’s an interesting one, because London was picked as the setting of the game before the Brexit referendum happened. It was originally picked because in Watch Dogs there’s always been this theme of technology and surveillance and the way that affects our lives, and London being the most surveilled city in the world, it was a natural fit.
It was originally just inspired by that– then Brexit happened and it was like, woah. This kind of shifted out from under us, and we kind of cast it out into the near future. So it is a work of speculative fiction, this is near future, we’re not making a prediction that we think this is gonna be how it goes. We’re just saying this is one path it could be in our speculative fiction.
And obviously it’s a really divisive political time. So we’re kind of taking the stance that DedSec is about people putting their differences aside. It’s sort of– against that backdrop of political drama, there are opportunists.
The villains in our game are actually people who are trying to capitalize on that bad situation, they’re definitely the villains. We’re saying that when people are divided, people will try to take advantage of that situation– DedSec is actually just trying to bring people together and push back against people who are exploiting it.
ST: I wanted to just talk a bit on the story– the story of WDL seems like there were some interesting influences. I was getting a bit of Children of Men, with this sort of dystopian London–
KH: That was a huge touchpoint for us.
ST: And Half Life 2 almost with the Combine, a bit of that too. Could you tell me more about the inspirations for the story of WDL?
KH: So yeah, our story. You know, first off– I know “play as anyone” is kind of a crazy technological innovation with the simulation we’ve done, but story is still a huge part of the game, it’s a huge part of the franchise and this game is no different. We’ve got five different storylines in the game, so it’s five main– you could call them quest lines if you want. And each one of them is tied to one of our thematic pillars.
So, for example, we’re gonna be looking at today a storyline that’s about the surveillance state. It’s basically about the spies of the nation turning their technology inward and actually spying on the citizens of England and London. There’s one that’s about the surveillance state. There’s one that’s themed around the private military contractors who’ve supplanted the police in the city, and they’ve actually taken over.
ST: Is it still MI5 and MI6 or is it completely different?
KH: We’ve created, I believe we reference those in the game, but we’ve created our own fictional intelligence agency to let us do what we needed to do in the story. Each one of those five storylines is tied to the thematic pillars that are going into the game. So we’re keeping another couple under wraps for now, but each one is definitely inspired by the core thematic pillars of the game.
ST: Great, thanks so much! We’re excited to see more about Watch Dogs: Legion.
KH: We’re excited to give it to you!