'Watch Dogs' Creators Explain Why the Hacker Video Game Isn't Just Science Fiction

Ubisoft's new open-world game, Watch Dogs, creates a fresh new spin on the themes of privacy and hacking. The Wire spoke to the Ubisoft team to get some background.

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Ubisoft's new open-world game, Watch Dogs, creates a fresh new spin on the themes of privacy and hacking. In the game, players use computer hacking skills to navigate a city controlled by data and surveillance networks. In addition to old fashioned good guys vs. bad guys adventure, the game also addresses interesting questions about our own interconnected world. The company even promoted the game with a stand-alone site, called "Digital Shadows" which estimated how "hackable" a Facebook profile was, and what its worth was to the social media giant.

The Wire spoke to the Ubisoft team to get some background on the making of Watch Dogs. To begin, the setting is a slightly sci-fi version of Chicago, although one that might not be that far-fetched. "It takes place in modern day Chicago. There's a central operating system. It connects and collects every piece of computerized data about you. There are cities that have similar systems to this. Chicago isn't one of them yet, but it has more surveillance cameras than any other city in the country. So we chose Chicago as the location for the game." 

This central surveillance system is the key to the plot, and an unusual feature for a game of this type. Rather than just use weapons like guns, cars, knives and brute force, the city itself can turn into the weaponry. The hero in the game has access to pretty much anything that can be found on a computer server. "All data from social media, police reports, phone conversations, and bank accounts can be used. The system also controls infrastructure, things like traffic lights, subway systems, gas lines. Our hero, Aiden Pearce, is able to hack into this system and use this system as a weapon."


Watch Dogs also incorporates facial recognition software as a tool to help the main character. When a face is scanned, you learn about the person and make decisions accordingly: "If you have a DUI, or adopted a dog, the system knows and shows this. The main character, you, can pull up any person, both enemies and good guys. If he needs cash, he can access their bank accounts, and choose to use it or not based on their profile. If its a tech billionaire, you may decide to pull from their account, but if it's a mom or a person who is fighting cancer, you might choose to skip that bank account. There's a moral implication."

The central operating system is a video game invention, but seems like a real possibility in our world. Primitive versions of it even exist in some cities, but when the team began designing the game it seemed very futuristic. "We started creating the game four years ago. When we started, a lot of what was in the game seemed like science fiction. Now, a lot of the hacks Aiden does could happen in real life."

When designing the game, the team got into the mind of a hacker. "Here is what a hacker would do with that kind of information, here's how they would use it. We wanted to make hacking fun and accessible, not just something creepy you do in your grandma's basement."


While there is no true "hacking" (not the dangerous, illegal kind) in the game, Watch Dogs does have a series of "mini puzzles" through which you have to navigate. It recreates the hacker experience without players needing any technical expertise.

Because so much of the game is based on hacking and the availability of user data online, we wanted to know how Ubisoft felt about anonymous log-ins for games and gaming devices. "It's a big question, it has come up in the past in the industry. MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) especially. Anonymity online could warn you to protect your identity, but it also allows people to make comments and behave in a certain way. There is an idea of anonymity and assigning people a code online; an identifier that's difficult to link to them. We don't necessarily account for it in the Watch Dogs world, but for games that require an online connection, it is definitely something to think about." 

Watch Dogs has been advertising through Digital Shadows and their trailers, but since knowledge of the game became public, they got some unlikely PR from real world events. "In general, Watch Dogs has been the most anticipated game of 2014 from multiple outlets. One of the reasons is because we have this new weapon, which is hacking. Because that's so innovative and so topical right now, people are fascinated by it. We get extra PR from things like the NSA and Snowden. When Target's [customer] accounts got hacked — anytime something is hacked — it has an impact on our game."

You can get your hands on the game for Playstation and XBox on May 27th, and check out the extended trailer here:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.