How Watch Dogs became a blockbuster even before it launched

We don’t even know if it’s any good.

That’s what’s quite remarkable about the already huge success of Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs. We’ve never played a game quite like it. It’s a new IP so there’s no previous game in which to draw any expectation from. Outside of the E3 demos, the (admittedly impressive) trailers and the hands-on reports from journalists, there’s no way to really know if Watch Dogs will live up to the hype.

Yet despite the fact the game is technically an unknown quantity, Watch Dogs is currently the second most pre-ordered game in Ubisoft history. There’s a PS4 hardware bundle and a plethora of merchandise – hats, coats, balaclavas, wristbands, figurines, iPhone cases and so on – that have been available for months.

Watch Dogs is already a franchise and the game isn’t even out yet.

It is a privilege to have so many people expecting your game,” says creative director Jonathan Morin (left) ahead of the game’s launch on Tuesday.

It is also a responsibility for sure but the team is experienced enough to understand when opportunity is offered to them. The effort was put at the right place to make sure we would deliver and that included the delay, which is a testament to how devoted Ubisoft was to make sure we would succeed.

In the end I feel that Watch Dogs just plays and feels different from other games I’ve experienced. Everything from the low level mechanics to its game structure offers something that is unique. Now it’s up to players to finally express themselves in this world and I am confident they will discover many new ways to look at open world games.”

"Developing a new triple-A IP is a huge risk for any company."

– Thomas Geffroyd, Ubisoft

Ubisoft’s brand expert Thomas Geffroyd – who has worked on titles such as Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell and Far Cry – says Ubisoft always has spin-off products in mind when developing a new blockbuster.

Developing a new triple-A IP is a huge risk for any company. Ultimately, the quality of the title and the gamer’s reception are the only real elements defining if a game will become a franchise or not. However, the winning side of the bet is to turn a game into a successful brand that will not only spawn other games but also books and movies. So yes, we always think and work with the goal of turning a triple-A game into a brand, even though most of our energies are focused on the current game.

Watch Dogs has been thought and developed as a very contemporary game, this is true for the technological part but also from a cultural perspective. The brand translates well in other formats – books and clothing – because it is inspired by today’s state of things as we have focused on creating a fantasy out of reality.”

"We started to feel we needed to cut corners
to ship it in time, so we decided to delay."

– Jonathan Morin, Ubisoft

Ubisoft had a lot riding on Watch Dogs heading into last Christmas. Expectations and pre-orders were sky high, the licensing and merchandise plan was already proving lucrative and it was by far the most anticipated launch game for PS4 and Xbox One.

And then Ubisoft delayed it.

The decision had a negative effect on the firm’s financial year. Consumers on forums and social media expressed their dismay and – reportedly – went as far as to cancel console pre-orders.
But it was absolutely the right decision. Ubisoft isn’t just launching a new product here, but a new franchise. It wants Watch Dogs to be its next Assassin’s Creed and the first real multi-platform blockbuster on the new consoles. This new game can’t be bad, it can’t even just be ok.

We did not delay the game to change it. We simply wanted to deliver the experience and the fantasy as intended,” says Morin.

We started to feel we needed to cut corners to ship it in time, so we decided to delay the experience instead so we could use our Plan A and not our Plan B to fix the issues.

One example would be the targeting system. We realised that sometimes emergent situations would gather several hack possibilities close to each other which our selection system wasn`t handling really well. Also we did notice that more experienced players could end up doing deep hack manipulations that would result in unsatisfying outcomes. These were not really new features but systems not well hooked to each other in certain deep interconnections. Considering we all wanted to make sure creative play was properly rewarded we had to push the game and evaluate the way to safely fix this without breaking other systems along the way, which explains why we did not define a new date immediately.

Now the game is where we want it to be and the team is in full debug. This is why we are now completely confident with the new date.”

"Not to say that it isn’t important to pay attention to
what people have to say on what they see, but it is
crucial to remain very true to what you want to
achieve or else you risk getting lost along the way."

– Jonathan Morin, Ubisoft

Watch Dogs was a game created under huge pressure and close scrutiny. Since its impressive reveal at E3 2012, the game’s creation has played out in the public eye. So did the development team ever have to change their plans based on the demands and reactions from gamers?

Morin says: When you make a game you are making it with a precise idea in mind. This idea or vision helps every department in their goal to execute everything in a cohesive way. The more perspectives you have to consider the harder it gets to stay true to your core vision.

That being said the public opinion is always a perspective you need to consider. Listening is a big part of a designer’s job since we only know too well that there’s as many brains as there are players. The way to approach it is to try not considering people’s points at the first degree because their comments shouldn’t change your core vision. You must use these comments to help you better understand how people perceive the experience you are trying to make. This way you can tweak things to make it feel more natural to everyone.

Most of these exercises are done through play tests. After all games are meant to be played and not just looked at. So I would say we did not really alter the game based on the reactions from people who simply looked at a demo or a trailer. We focused on making a game by listening to real gameplay comments. This is not to say that it isn’t important to pay attention to what people have to say on what they see, but it is crucial to remain very true to what you want to achieve or else you risk getting lost along the way.”

Two years since it first took E3 by storm and Watch Dogs is now finally here. The next few weeks will decide if the hacking open-world action game becomes a super-brand in the style of Assassin’s Creed, or a new-generation mega flop like 2008’s Haze.

Yet, in truth, Watch Dogs is never going to be a Haze-level catastrophe. The talent behind it, the willingness from Ubisoft to give them the time to make it, and the buzz from the critics, all suggests that the game will be a true blockbuster. But that doesn’t make it any less nerve-wracking for its creators.

There’s a mix of excitemen

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