If the dozens of Call of Duty clones out there have taught us anything, it’s that many game developers believe it’s possible to shortcut the long and arduous path to success by simply copying what already popular games have done. Whether or not this is actually an effective tactic is up for debate, but it’s certainly a depressing way of approaching the creative process, which is why it’s a relief when developers actively resist conformity.
Ubisoft’s open-world vigilante hacking game Watch Dogs would probably suffer more than most if it tried to pull a copycat act, since the majority of the marketing and promotion for the game has emphasized the innovation that it will bring to the table. Tying neatly into topical issues of privacy within electronic communication, Watch Dogs posits information as the most powerful weapon available to protagonist Aiden Pearce, and allows the player to manipulate the world around them with the simple push of a few buttons.
Watch Dogs isn’t just a hack-’em-up, though; it’s also a sandbox game set in a sprawling city where it’s possible to hijack cars, and sometimes necessary to use vehicles to escape from the police. As such, comparisons to the Grand Theft Auto series – and particularly to the recently-released GTA 5, which made $1 billion within 3 days of release – are inevitable. In an interview with VG24/7, however, creative director Jonathan Morin says that he doesn’t feel any pressure to stick in game elements just because GTA 5 has them:
“When you do a game you always want to make sure that what you put in is to the service of the game. I think GTA has a great fantasy and everything they put in it reinforces that fantasy. What you don’t to do is start copying or start feeling the pressure of your neighbour like, ‘Oh my god we need a chopper.'”
The fact that Watch Dogs features car stealing and driving around a huge city is probably what prompted the comparisons to GTA 5 in the first place, but in a city setting it makes sense to include cars as a more expedient means of travel, just as many sandbox fantasy games feature horses as a means of traversing distances without fast travel.
The difference between the two games, and the explanation as to why GTA 5 has a greater choice of vehicles, lies in the focus. In GTA, stealing vehicles is literally the name of the game, whereas in Watch Dogs the focus is on Aiden’s hacking abilities and game elements like shooting and driving are secondary to that. Morin continues:
“You do need those obvious things, but afterwards it was all about hacking, and it’s constantly got to be about that. It doesn’t mean we couldn’t have put in a chopper or something else in, but it would have always have been — if we had done it — because it fits or there’s one cool thing about hacking we could do with it.
“It’s always about reinforcing our fantasy so that the player not disappointed. Players are good at asking. I get bombarded on Twitter like, ‘Oh, can you buy real estate? Can you do it?’ and they ask all those questions. It’s funny because on one side it’s cool that they want to know what’s going on in the game, but on the other I’m curious. I ask, ‘Why are you asking me if you can do stuff you already did? Why are you not asking me about the stuff you’ve never done?'”
Apologies to the people who asked about it on Twitter, but it’s a huge relief to hear that Watch Dogs won’t have a real estate purchase minigame in it. Somehow it’s always more difficult to feel like a hunted vigilante, a wanted criminal, or a deadly assassin when it’s possible to cheerily buy up houses and businesses all over the place. Building up material wealth fits well for a game like Grand Theft Auto 5 where the characters are ultimately trying to acquire vast amounts of cash, but based on the trailers it seems like Aiden has more things on his mind than the color of his drapes or the shape of his swimming pool.
While refusing to bow to the temptation of stealing ideas from successful games is admirable, we’ll have to wait and see what the “stuff you’ve never done” offered by Watch Dogs is – and how well it works – before starting any rounds of applause.
Watch Dogs releases November 19th, 2013 for the PC, Xbox 360, and PS3; November 15th for the PS4; and November 22nd for the XBox One.