Creating new gaming IP is a risky businesses but, with just one game to beat, surely creating a sequel to a successful debut should be easy. It shouldn’t, says Watch Dogs’ creative director Jonathan Morin
What was the point of Ubisoft’s cyber-noir epic Watch Dogs? Why did creative director Jonathan Morin and his team spend five years slaving away on this open world action-adventure, capturing images of Chicago, working on eight-player co-op and creating accomplished hacker Aiden Pearce?
If it was to achieve stunning success as a game then its glowing reviews (including a 9/10 by this very magazine), 8 million sales and a role in helping the French publisher rake in a staggering £387 million in its first quarter results for 2014 has been vindication of all of the team’s hard work.
But if its main purpose was to establish a brand and a “promise” for the future – “The challenge when we made the first game was to create something that would make people dream about something else”, says Morin – then it has over-achieved. For there is no doubting the high expectation now on the development team to deliver a very special sequel, and that will require Morin and his team to be at the top of their game.
“When you start a new project [and new IP], it’s a blank page and everything you do is what you want to do,” he says. “With a sequel, there is more pressure to push a brand forward and we now have to appeal to fans in a new way.” In order to do this, Morin insists Watch Dogs will continue to take risks. “You have to carry on taking risks”, he asserts. “I will not do this job if there is no risk in it, that would just be boring. You shouldn’t prevent yourself from trying something just because it’s hard and the solution is not apparent.”
Morin already has some plans. Although he says it is too early to go into intricate detail about them, he wants players to continue creating their own stories using features like the Profiler. He also wants his team to refrain from filling in too many narrative gaps. “We want to allow them to play with a very different state of mind, not wrap up concepts for them.” He talks about expanding on the alternate realities, “players loved the idea of other players who create an alternate reality in their games and knowing that now opens up a lot of new possibilities of what online can do.” More than that, he wants to reassess everything about Watch Dogs, including the ideas that were originally dismissed, and reconsider them again. Everything is back on the table.
It is all part of a strategy to help Watch Dogs sit alongside Ubisoft’s other classics such as Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, while steering clear of the sequel becoming an industry calamity of Devil May Cry 2 and Duke Nukem Forever proportions. By moving his team away from a mindset of simply creating more of the same – a temptation when the original was so well received – Morin says the game will be hugely challenging not only for gamers but for his own development team.
“We have to give them something hard to do”, he says. “If we don’t, they could fade out, which means you don’t benefit from their knowledge or they will leave. Our team is really assimilated with the challenge we have and who knows where it will lead us next.”
This approach is by no means unusual but neither is it widespread in the industry. Successful sequel makers such as Naughty Dog understand that each follow-up has to be built upon and improved. They avoid looking at healthy sales as a barometer for a “business as usual” approach and they take feedback and criticism on board. For successful sequel creators, the process is not just about fixing flaws but seeing the debut game with a fresh pair of eyes.
“I don’t think Watch Dogs is perfect in any way and there’s a lot of room for improvement”, Morin readily admits. “But you don’t always see this when you ship a game. We deliver what we believe the brand should be at the time. But afterward, when you cool down after five and a half years [of development] and take your vacations and people play the game, certain elements become clear. They let you continue to bring what you envision to the next level with the fans included this time, which is where I think it really gets interesting.”
To identify how much work really needs to be done, Morin continues to visit forums and read reviews as well as talk to fans in person. “I have four kids at school and their friends tell us what they like and don’t like about the game”, he says. And he is relishing it. “The new pressure is almost like a privilege”, he says. “If you are making a game with pressure, then you’re making a game people care about. And people care about Watch Dogs.”
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