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Watch Dogs 2 illustrates why we should be talking about big data’s impact on our lives

Ubisoft’s original Watch Dogs – a near-future sandbox adventure that put players in control of a hacker exploring a Chicago covered in a web of sophisticated cyber surveillance – painted a scary picture of a world in which someone with a phone and a little know-how could wrest control of a city’s infrastructure and spy on any of its citizens.

The sequel, set to launch November 15th, moves the action west to San Francisco, the heart of the world’s technology industry. The city has installed the latest version of the urban central operating system deployed in Chicago – called ctOS 2.0 – setting the scene for a new group of hackers to both exploit and rebel against the system.

Post Arcade had a chance to chat with Watch Dogs 2’s director, Jonathan Morin, and learn a little more about what he and his team are trying to say with their new game. Morin talked at length about capturing an authentic Silicon Valley atmosphere, why it’s important to be able to play a game like this without ever aiming a weapon, and the potential perils associated with “big data” – the tech concept that lies at the heart of his sequel.


Post Arcade: The original Watch Dogs had a lot to say about future tech that might be lurking just around the corner. At times it almost felt like an interactive episode of Black Mirror. Have you noticed anything it predicted that has actually come to pass over the last couple of years?

Jonathan Morin: Yes. We’ve seen many different things that we had explored. I won’t say predicted, because we dug into what’s possible to do in the underground before it became popular.

For example, in the first game we were able to break into a prison, which real hackers had talked about at DEF CON, demonstrating how you could hack a system to make several doors open at the same time to breach security. Another example is from the beginning of the game, where we’re hacking a stadium in the middle of a ball game to create a blackout. A few weeks after we brainstormed this idea there was a blackout at a football game, if I’m correct.

A lot of small things like that happened while we were exploring what would take place in the first Watch Dogs. The more we dug into those subjects and the more popular they became, the more we ended up being able to do a lot of natural cross references. Even as we speak today, regarding Watch Dogs 2, we see it continuing to happen.


In terms of technology, what’s changed in the Watch Dogs universe between games? Has San Francisco or the world at large learned from the mistakes Chicago made with its hyper-connected central operating system, ctOS?

Definitely. And San Francisco is a different beast compared to Chicago.

In Watch Dogs 2 what we wanted to do was explore the second step of what technology is continuing to do in our society. In the first game, we explored what you might call indirect surveillance. It was very in line with what Chicago was doing at the time and is still doing today. They’re focusing on surveillance for crime. We narrowed the focus on that aspect.

Moving to the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, we wanted to focus on the concept of big data. It’s the next step. Once we know that our phones are being drained of data, that people around the world are able to know where we are, what we do, what we buy, then the next question is what can be done with that data? We live in an age where information has become a second economy. People are willing to pay a lot of money to access databases so they can do their own studies and find profitable opportunities.

These practices were born in Silicon Valley. So in the second game we’re exploring concepts like what would happen if social media used a database to influence voters, which has actually been discussed in the current U.S. election. We’re also exploring what the next step will be for artificial intelligence, and what can be designed based on data to change our day-to-day lives. For example, what would happen if insurance companies could work out who was going to be sick at a given time in their lives and then adjust their fees accordingly?

So there are a lot of interesting questions surrounding the subject of big data being sold to anybody willing to pay. We’re exploring things from that angle. People are in love with their phones, nobody questions that they’re great. But because we love them so much we tend to forget what’s going on behind the curtain, or under the hoods of these devices.


Ubisoft is famous for the research it conducts to make its games feel more authentic. What did your team look at in its attempt to create a realistic near-future San Francisco?

We wanted to reflect the Bay Area in the most accurate way possible. That meant spending a lot of time there recording. Making the audio authentic. When you hear the sound of the wind it should feel like you’re by the Twin Peaks. And this time around we went so far as to interview people who live there. We listened to and were inspired by their stories. We wanted to make sure the problems in our game were rooted in the Bay Area.

We also spent a lot of time studying the culture of hacking. We wanted to know what kind of visuals they like, where they come from. Being a Dedsec hacker in the second game was inspired by the journey of a group of hackers in real life. They start with little means, just for the lulz, they do things to laugh at important people. Progressively, they begin to realize they can find more meaningful subjects and expose more truth to people and start having a bigger impact on society. This entire journey in the game is a kind of replica – an accelerated replica – of how the role of hacking has been shifting in our society.

The third part of our research was looking at headlines. A combination of headlines regarding technology as a whole, but also local headlines from the Bay Area – in the same way we explored Chicago to learn about what was happening with technology there. To be relevant it helps to explore specific subjects locally. For example, if we dig into robotics we look at what Boston Dynamics is doing in Silicon Valley and see if there’s some interesting story to be told or something we could extrapolate.

As we combined these three research elements the challenge wasn’t to find relevant ideas, it was more to select them. Considering how rich the Bay Area is regarding the impact of technology, there was way too much to put into a single game.


Action games set in our world tend to face the same problem: That their heroes engage in so much violence they risk coming off as murderous sociopaths. How, if it all, does Watch Dogs 2 keep this from happening? Do players have the option to make the hero a bit less violent?

The key is definitely in the options. In the first game we had a reputation system that was judging players’ actions. I think that was a mistake. It’s too complicated to start judging every action a player can take in a game like ours. You’re going to have a 99 per cent chance of making a mistake in that judgment.

For the second game what we’ve done instead is support more options. Players can play the entire game without aiming a gun, for example. They can just focus only on hacking, or similar elements. This way players can feel intrinsically motivated to play the way they want and craft the kind of character they want. If you start feeling like you’re creating a character that doesn’t fit within the spectrum you’d like, then you can adjust by playing differently.

And at the same time we’ve made sure media stories and conversations that occur in the game following your actions happen in the form of a debate. Every time you intervene in something it creates a debate about that subject. It helps create a greyer, better balanced world. To be quite frank, this is very difficult subject matter for sandbox design. But that’s how we’ve tackled it. We’re not judging the player, the game isn’t telling the player that what he’s doing is wrong at any given point in time.

I’m always interested in how these games parallel reality. I caught a clip of a mission on YouTube obviously inspired by someone I’ll just call the most hated man in America. I’m also thinking that, given the subject matter, Watch Dogs is a perfect fit for some sort of Edward Snowden reference. Does he figure into the second game, either as a muse or by name?

No, we don’t directly expose a guy like Snowden in the game. But we are certainly exploring certain subjects that are popular. Even the one you just referenced, that one explores two subjects at the same time. It explores certain headlines, but also the impact of social media. Knowing that an individual is doing something, and then other people deciding to take it into their hands to intervene. It creates a lot of sociological problems, having everyone aware of what everyone else is doing, without even judging the person directly.

But yes, there are many examples of these situations, and we don’t want to spoil them. I think part of the fun is to dig into them, and in the second game we worked really hard to make sure people with curiosity would find them. Instead of us broadcasting them the player has to work a bit to discover them.


The chief message I took from the original game was to be more cognizant of all forms of surveillance, government and otherwise. What do you want players to take away from Watch Dogs 2?

I like the idea that different people will find their own message. I’m a designer, and I see my job as trying to create something based on a need people have. I need to study people to figure out how my game can be interesting to them.

But big data, the concept that there is so much information collected about what you do, where you go, what you buy. The scary thing is that many companies create stuff that will define how we live tomorrow using the information they get from us to design these things. They’re missing an important part of the picture. Big data doesn’t have any information on why I buy the books I buy, or why I did a certain thing. It only embraces the what – and the collective what of our society.

My question would be, if people are willingly sharing everything about themselves without any context, aren’t they afraid that it is dehumanizing their society at least a little bit? It’s not a warning or anything, but any society should openly discuss these things.

And I think it’s slightly scary to consider that most people who are born today, my kid – who are several generations younger than me – they don’t have the same relationship with computers that we have. They don’t know what a file is. They just see pictures and press a button and it links to the next thing. They are not in full control of their future. They don’t understand how these devices work, so they don’t have a chance to understand what companies can do, or what’s going on beneath the hood.

I think hackers and people who understand computers have a rising responsibility to at least educate people. That’s why we have more experts talking to the media – even hackers talking openly – to make sure people have a better explanation of these things and have a better collective conversation about these things. Historically, when you have a collective conversation about these things we tend to make better choices than when they’re happening in secret.

The preceding interview was edited for length, style, and flow.

Original Article

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