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Hack the Block: The Success of 'Watch Dogs'

Ubisoft's hit 'hacktion-adventure' video game about a tech-savvy vigilante keys into a cultural moment of data paranoia

'Watch Dogs'
Courtesy of Ubisoft
June 16, 2014 10:45 AM ET

Huddled in the city's shadows, you spot a group of guards outside a building you need to enter. You have guns, yes, but you also have a remarkable facility for negotiating security systems, surrounded by hackable devices that you can remotely trigger to mitigate risk. The choices are many: disable a guard's phone to prevent him from calling backup, or turn his earpiece into a sonic weapon to temporarily disable him; set off a car alarm to distract the group; hack into any number of camera feeds to plot the perfect heist. Welcome to computer science, without all the confusing syntax. You are now a master of the 21st century's darkest, most empowering art: the hack attack.

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Ubisoft's open-world "hacktion-adventure" game Watch Dogs is set in a fictional version of Chicago, where most of the city's infrastructure is controlled by an operating system called ctOS. As a former criminal-turned-fugitive cybervigilante named Aiden Pearce who's tracking down kidnappers and the murderer of his niece, players can hack into ctOS and effectively grab the city by its municipal horns — raising bridges, breaking into secure facilities, and changing traffic lights (to name a few of the available transgressions). It effectively turns the player into a superhero, but instead of donning spandex and a cape, your superhuman aptitude comes in a pocket-friendly form we're all rather familiar with: a smartphone that empowers you to log into a whole lot more than just Yelp. Unlike much of today's blockbuster Xbox/PS4 fare, Watch Dogs is a video game that feels relevant — and at times, eerily prescient of our data-obsessed contemporary moment. 

"Our mandate was to do something new," says the game's senior producer Dominic Guay. "People were starting to change their habits, connecting to information and one another in new ways. We started thinking about connectivity in our society. It was beyond just the Internet now; it's in the places we're in, it's with us, it's in the things that surround us. So we thought, 'Let's give the player control over all that, and see what they do with it.'" 

Development on Watch Dogs started in back in 2009, just a few months after the release of the original iPhone. The project took a full five years to finish, courtesy of a team whose headcount topped 700 across studios in Montreal, Paris, Bucharest, Newcastle and Quebec City. In many ways, the creators had to temper their imaginations for fear that their ideas might come off as too far-fetched. They worried that hacking into vehicles in order to disable or drive them at high speeds, for instance, might seem too fantastical to players; just a few short years later, however, computerized (and hackable) cars became a reality. The long-gestation period has served the game — and the game's ability to surf the zeitgeist — rather well: Now that the Age of the Internet of Things has unmistakably arrived, we're only as safe as our cyber-security.

To better align itself with the real world, Ubisoft had an entire team dedicated to researching the computerization and hackability of our municipal systems. "We started seeing computerized systems being hooked up to manage traffic and ensure security, camera systems being implemented in our cities," says Guay. "The more we started digging, the more and more we realized that this was already the reality we were living in. In a way, we were unveiling a layer that people are much more aware of now; at the time, that wasn't the case."

When you whip out your super smartphone in Watch Dogs, you get personal information about everyone around you. It's often a breadcrumb of data that can be used to blackmail the individual, ranging from the health of their bank account to that of their libido. And as an armed citizen, you often make assumptions about potential perps based on private information you get from phone records or the ctOS. The game's free companion app, ctOS Mobile, available for Android and iOS devices, allows users to hack the city to marshal law enforcement against a live player.

You quickly come see your fellow citizens as potential criminals, and your impetus is often to act on limited data in order to proactively stop crimes — usually by hurting or killing the suspected party before they do more damage. In this era of an overreaching NSA, the drama of Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, and the government's authorization to indefinitely detain any US citizen suspected of terrorist affiliation, it's a juicy analogue. While there's nothing at stake when you're playing the game (aside from a reputation meter that shifts based on your behavior, affecting how both law enforcement and the general population respond to your presence), it's fascinating to feel the compulsion to get ahead of even virtual crime before it happens, and an interesting experiment in the ethics of privacy. 

Despite a somewhat underwhelming critical reception, Watch Dogs sold through more than four million copies in its first week, which makes it the single best-selling new property across the entire games industry, as well as Ubisoft's best selling game in the first week. At the end of its first 24 hours on sale, the title had sold more copies than any other game in Ubisoft's history — a feat that speaks as much to its cultural synchronicity as its source code. "We tried to predict how things could evolve, and over the five years [of development], reality finally caught up with us," says Guay. 

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Watch Dogs makes hacking both preposterous and exciting — and is currently reaping the rewards. All video games are power fantasies, but Aiden Pearce's adventures provides players with a narrative that empowers us in ways that the over-the-top crime sprees of Grand Theft Auto and first-person military shooters like Call of Duty cannot. Players are offered any number of ways to hijack the infrastructure of an entire city, dynamically affecting more moving parts than even the fittest, most well-armed avatar piloting the world's finest combat-ready helicopter ever could. You've been given a chance to  finally a chance to embody a 21st-century ideal of a hero, fused with the most achingly familiar: the extremely fit, armed-to-the-teeth data jacker. No helicopter required.

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