Watch Dogs: Legion Q&A with Joshua Cook
Filmed at Ubisoft Experience, National Exhibition Centre Birmingham
25th August 2019
Recorded live by HilbertGilbertson
I'm Josh Cook, Art Director of Watch Dogs: Legion. A little bit of context of who I am: I've been at Ubisoft for 14 years actually. Worked on the first Assassin’s Creed, Rainbow Six Vegas, Far Cry 2 and 4, Splinter Cell Conviction and Blacklist, Watch Dogs 2. I've been at Ubi a long time, worked on a lot of games.
One of the things that blew my mind is that - I'm a Londoner - and walking around London in that game is incredible. I literally went to my street, I saw my house. That's how incredibly replicated London is, so talk me through what it was like to replicate it to that detail.
It's a big honour and an opportunity and a challenge for our team. We have hundreds of artists and programmers and designers and people around the world all working together to make the most authentic, exciting version of London possible. It's a huge undertaking for our team. In order to get it as right as we could, a lot of them team went there and did a lot of research, looking at different places and landmarks and things we could include in the city.
We had advisers advising us on how to get things right. We have a lot of UK people on our team, and if we get things wrong they're always pointing it out, they're going to let us know right away; we'll be sure to hear about it. It was an awesome opportunity and we're really proud of what our team has done, and I think all our fans are really going to love our version of London.
So why London? It's quite a different setting than we've seen before.
It was a group decision. We looked at a lot of cities initially, thought about things. London is a very iconic city. It's one of the places we knew people would want to go and explore. It offers us a lot of diversity in terms of the types of location, diversity in terms of the types of people, a lot of famous landmarks, and it's also got a reputation for being a little bit on the authoritarian side; lots of CCTV cameras and exciting things going on. We just thought it was a really natural fit for the setting of a game like Watch Dogs: Legion.
So you mentioned landmarks. What are you including that you're most excited about?
We have so many. Dozens and dozens of recognisable landmarks. Famous places. The Gherkin and The Shard, BT Tower, the Kennington Oval, Buckingham Palace, I could go on and on and on. What's really exciting for me is taking some of those famous recognisable landmarks and putting twists on them. So you see something you recognise, you think you know what's going on and then we offer people the opportunity to go inside a lot of these places, right?
And inside of them, I can tell you it's never what you're expecting. We take a lot of liberties with what we do with some of these famous locations, put twists on them, we are in the future so we're evolving the technology side as well, and we're always offering a lot of surprises up to the player. I like the idea of taking something famous and then putting our own spin on it and subverting the expectations of the player.
Yeah, I have to say I went to Trafalgar Square in the game. That's very different. Turned into a bit of a Hell's Gate encampment there. I did not make it out alive, so thanks for that. Obviously you can't go everywhere in London, it's absolutely enormous, so you've focused on very defined areas: Camden, Brixton, areas that are replicated. So where can people go?
It was really tough. Real London - it's huge, it's enormous. We wanted to capture absolutely as much as possible for our players to experience as many of those recognisable locations [as possible]. We did some some condensing of the city; we took some liberties, took out some of the less interesting bits, and made sure we got all the places possible.
We have 8 distinct boroughs; they all have their own unique flavour and populations and exciting places. We have Westminster, Camden, Islington and Hackney, City of London, Lambeth, Southwark, Nine Elms, and Tower Hamlets. They're all very different from each other. They have all the famous landmarks you would come to expect in those locations, plus a lot of fictional places our teams developed as well. So we have not just real places, but places that are entirely made up for the game. It is the future, and it is an alternate take on reality. We're not just replicating reality; we're actually injecting some of our own ideas into that world as well.
The city is completely made up of unique populations within all those areas as well. The different people and the different areas is also what makes that real and exciting and it fits really well with the 'play as anyone' fantasy.
You mentioned that you would be able to go inside some buildings. I know this is something people have been really interested in. What can you go into in the city?
You can go into dozens of places that have fully fleshed out interiors. A lot of the places are fictional versions like I was talking about earlier, not just [replicates of] interiors you would expect. With shops we made a tactical decision to remove shop interiors for our game because we wanted to make every single clothing store in the world fully interactable. So you can go to literally every clothing shop within London (we have dozens and dozens of clothing shops scattered throughout the world), you can go to each one of them, interact with the smart glass panel and customise your character's clothing kits there.
Some of the other famous places you can go into, places like the BT Tower, the Kennington Oval, [hesitates] I'm going to hold the rest back. There's a lot of surprises there; we don't want to give everything away, we want to have a lot of surprises for our fans. There's some cool places.
Let's talk DedSec. What is DedSec?
DedSec is the resistance movement. DedSec is a resistance that's being built up from the people of London standing together. It's a team you've recruited. Every person in your version of DedSec is a person you've recruited off the street. You find them, you convince them to join your team. It's all about 'play as anyone' and the DedSec that you're playing as is your team that you've recruited and convinced to join your resistance movement to fight back against what's going on in the city; to fight back against the private military contractors and the criminal organisations that are trying to seize control.
One of the things I love about [Watch Dogs: Legion] is that your actions really affect the game. If you recruit somebody, their schedule changes, which was something I really loved. How will DedSec's actions affect the game? What will change because of how you control your crew?
The progression of the game is really about finding people, convincing them to join your team, and the long term progression is about building your DedSec up, right? So you start out with a few people, you're able to recruit more and more, you build that DedSec team up. You level your individual characters up, you customise them and equip different skills on each of them, and you build your team over time. DedSec itself has a progression level, so you're building up the strength of your DedSec movement and your team. So even if some of your characters die, you always have a constant progression moving you through the game.
When I was building my DedSec group, I found out the hard way that there's permadeath. Please explain why you did this.
Permadeath is a bit of a controversial inclusion in the game. But it's something that I personally love; I think a lot of people actually really love the way that amplifies the stakes of the game. I think it's very important to note that permadeath is a result of a tactical choice. You have the decision to make, you have the opportunity to surrender, and your operatives will enter a cooldown period where they'll be placed in a hospital or a prison or in different circumstances depending how they go down.
But it's a tactical choice. If you choose not to surrender, then you're putting your operative at risk, and they are at risk of dying, and they will be done and they will be dead and they won't be coming back. It really raises the stakes; it makes the game very exciting. It's a risk/reward situation - losing them for a brief time, or continuing on and finishing up that last bit of progress - that makes for some really exciting moments in the game and I'm glad we have it. I personally love it; I think it's a great idea.
One of the reasons I felt so attached to my character is that you can customise them. What kind of customisation options do you have?
Customisation is something really important. When you have a game that's all about playing as anyone, you don't want to just pick somebody for their t-shirt, right? You want to recruit those people for their actual personalities and their different attributes, and then you can equip different clothing and outfits for those people, so you can customise them to be even further within your style of play. So customising not just the way they play by choosing their classes, assigning them different perks and levelling them up in the RPG style systems we have for the game, but also customising their clothing completely: their hats, their shoes, their outfits, everything.
Everything is all about playing as everyone, playing as anyone, and building your team. The team you want is the team you'll have. If you want a team of grannies in floral shirts, or punk rockers, whatever you like you pick your characters and then you customise them and you build truly your own version of DedSec. Everybody's DedSec will be unique.
[My team] will definitely be grannies; you know I love them. So are different characters different? So if I’m playing as a shotgun-wielding grandma, let’s hypothetically say, is she going to need to rest more? Is she going to be slower?
We don’t have a stamina system in the game, there’s no rest period. The rest idea comes into play when you surrender and you’re in the hospital---so if someone’s being injured? Yeah, you’re gonna go to the hospital, they’re gonna have to recover, it’s going to take a while. The grannies and grandpas and other people with low mobility, they do play differently; they’re a little bit slower but they’re absolutely fully capable. They can do everything everybody else can do, they’re just gonna go about it a little bit slower, a little bit different paced… but everyone in our world is fully capable, they all have hacking abilities, they’re all able to shoot no matter which class you’re playing as, no matter which character you’re playing as, you can absolutely finish the game just as well with anybody as anybody else, just gonna be a little different.
I took my granny on a rampage and I can confirm she’s as good as anybody, she was awesome. So if you recruit someone from Albion, which is --if you’re not aware-- kind of the oppressive force in the game, and the very frightening thug-style guys chasing you down. So you can actually recruit them, so are they going to shed their uniform, is it going to be very obvious that they’re ex-albion when they’re in your group?
Tricky question, first of all for people who don’t know Albion well, we made a choice to not go against the Metropolitan Police in our world; they’ve been actually displaced by private military contractors. So we have these private military contractors, they’re a very sinister authoritarian presence in our world. And they’re enemies, they’re not the only enemies (we have criminal factions as well) but they’re one of the enemies in the game. You wouldn’t think you could recruit them, but absolutely when we say play as anyone in the game…. anyone, even enemies can be recruited to your team. When you do recruit people from the world, DedSec, it’s kind of a full-time gig, so people are, when you recruit an enemy soldier they’re dropping their job, quitting their job, so it’s not like they’re still an inside member of Albion or anything. They fully embrace the DedSec lifestyle. You’ve convinced them and won them over, and they will become part of DedSec.
So I also want to talk about how you recruit in general. So there are different classes, so when you put them together, why don’t you tell us a little about the classes you can choose from and whether there’s kind of an ideal composition.
So every person in the world, they have innate traits. We have what we call traits, which are special skills that they possess based on their history. Maybe they’re athletics instructors so they have better melee skills, or maybe they were an ex-army person and they have better weapon skills. So that’s their base traits and they’re predefined. But when you recruit someone to your team, you have more options to assign a specific class to them.
We have 3 different classes in the game, the assault class which we call the enforcer, which is more of your run-and-gun heavy weapons specialist, whose special ability is a sticky mine that can be deployed in the world and remotely triggered. We have our hacker class--even though everybody has hacking abilities, the hacking class has some extra special capabilities. They can hack into some drones that other people can’t access. They're more of our remote technician. If you wanna play very tactfully you can even infiltrate locations from outside using different drones, and you have a little spider bot companion you can deploy as your special ability. You deploy that little spiderbot to get in and out. It can even be upgraded to have stuff like turrets on it, or you can do some offensive capabilities with that as well.
Our third and final class is the infiltrator class, which is our more stealth and melee specialist. They have advanced hand-to-hand combat maneuvers; they're better with silenced weapons. They have a special ability which is called the AR cloak, which allows them to essentially turn invisible. Every person in the world is equipped with an optik device, this is our augmented reality system that allows you to display different information within the world, and so since people have this optik device, the infiltrator takes advantage of that. He’ll actually hack into people’s optik device and allow him to digitally erase themselves from the world. And they can use that to erase themselves for a brief period of time, or they can actually take bodies that have been knocked out or killed and shroud them with a digital cloak allowing for more advanced stealth opportunities.
I think it’s fair to say that this Watchdogs title sounds like kinda the most involved yet; there’s just so much to it. So aside from the system where you can literally play as anyone in the game, which I’m sure was a doddle, what was the most challenging aspect of bringing back the watchdogs franchise?
With a project as big and ambitious as this, there [were] a lot of challenges. Obviously, I’m biased, on the art side of the world. Recreating London is a tremendous undertaking, a tremendous challenge. Getting that right, building it with the type of density and authenticity that people would expect from such a famous and recognisable and iconic city, it really took a lot of effort.
We have a lot of people from the UK on our team. The second we get stuff wrong, they’re instantly going to jump on top of us. They’re going to call that out, they’re going to let us know. We have special advisors, through our reviewing of content, and they’re informing us on how to get things right as well. Getting it right, getting it accurate. Something else within that city that maybe people really don’t know about know about is [that] the locations are recastable.
To make a complex system like play as anyone work, we have to have that opportunity to return to different places and do different things; so you might see the E3 demo, where you’re sent to Scotland Yard to perform an objective. If I was to do that mission again with a different person, it might be sending me somewhere else. It might be sending me to Camden police station, or down to the one in Nine Elms or over to MI6.
The locations and the world are very diverse and recastable, so we have a huge amount of potential for replayability within our version of London.
How was it getting the people right? When we played it, I went into a pub and was like ‘right, let me hear these accents, let me check out these people’ and they felt really authentic, they felt very British. How did you do it? You said you’ve got people from the UK on your team. How did you develop these really authentic British characters?
The best way to get authentic British people is to go to them. We were doing our voice capture and recording in London, with actual authentic characters. We’re trying to capture things right. We don’t want to come off as a bunch of Canadian guys or French people who think they know what London is. We’re actually going there and we have a lot of authenticity experts on our team, advising us. Of course, London is a very diverse and multicultural city, which is important for having a feature like Play as Anyone.
We don’t want to just play as one type of person, but we want to have as many people as possible, representing our game. We’ve gone out and recorded a lot of voices, a lot of different actors, making sure we have a good amount of diversity within our game, just as in real London. London is very diverse and multicultural city and Play As Anyone captures that as best as possible.
We had some community questions. Finite187 was interested to know if the way that you progress in this is by taking over areas; their reference was Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, in that you’re reclaiming a city.
I kinda touched on that a bit in one of my earlier answers. Long-term progression in the game isn’t so much about capturing the city. It’s about building your Resistance. It’s about building DedSec up from the ground up, assembling your team, recruiting more and more people. Leveling those characters up, customizing them, growing your resistance movement.
Long-term progression is more about the progression of DedSec as an entity. Obviously, there’s a full story campaign. You can absolutely play with that, it’s very diverse, we have 5 totally distinct plot lines with their own unique objectives, missions, villains, and very exotic scenarios to engage with. That’s a good amount of progression. But the long term player progression is all focused around building up your DedSec movement.
Our next question is from KEvevo and they’re interested in hacking. They want to know is it going to be similar to previous Watch Dogs titles?
Hacking is one of the essential pillars of the franchise, of the brand. Watch Dogs: Legion is the evolution of the foundations of the things we’ve built on in the past. The idea from the first game, of profiling people, seeing their information. Now you’re starting to hack into those people’s lives. Better social engineering, social manipulation. You’re reaching out to these people, they’re asking you for favours, you’re manipulating their circumstances within the world. That’s kind of the broader evolution of what hacking means more than just playing with computer bits. It’s actually manipulating people and systemic systems within the world. Of course, with all the cool hacking features. I can hack cars and drive them around. We got really cool drones, all kinds of drones within our game. Military drones with rockets on them, police drones with light machine gun weaponry. Spiderbots, hacking into CCTV camera networks. All kinds of things you can manipulate within the world, but the bigger, more exciting aspect of hacking is when you start engaging in the social engineering side, messing with people’s lives and manipulating them in those ways.
You make it sound so good. I’m so excited, I can barely wait for this game! Thank you so much for joining us here today. I’m hoping you guys are having such a time ‘cause this game is so good. You make it sound even better, so I absolutely can’t wait. Let’s have a huge round of applause for Josh Cook.
Thank you everyone. Thank you guys for coming out and listen to me talk. Hope to see you guys around.
[is dragged off stage by Albion cosplayers]
Well, that was Josh Cook’s last interview. I hope everybody enjoyed it! He’s gone now.