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How Watch Dogs: Legion's 'Play as Anyone' Simulation Works

In an exclusive interview with developers at Ubisoft Toronto, we discuss the challenges of making the Legion's 'Play as Anyone' simulation come to life.

Tommy Thompson, Blogger

December 9, 2020

39 Min Read

'AI and Games' is a crowdfunded YouTube series that explores research and applications of artificial intelligence in video games.  You can support this work by visiting my Patreon page.

Watch Dogs: Legion is an evolution of the open-world hacker playground we have come to expect of the franchise. As part of the resurging Dedsec rebellion, you cause chaos across an authoritarian London to bring down the cities ctOS surveillance system and expose the injustices brought by private military contractor Albion.

To help you in your mission, players must find new recruits for the Dedsec hacker group. And in a first for the series, the game introduces what Ubisoft refers to as ‘Play as Anyone’ – a gameplay system that allows the player to take control of any character seen walking through the streets of London once they’re allied to the cause. With each newly unlocked character, you have access to an increasing array of abilities, perks and gadgets. Be it silenced weaponry, cloaking devices, attack drones or new vehicles, ranging from motorcycles and vans all the way to ambulances and rocket-firing spy cars.

Each of these characters is unique and procedurally generated at runtime while you play the game. In order for this to work, not only does the game require a character generation system that prioritises diversity in the makeup and style of each citizen, but also a means to create unique backstories and missions for recruitment. This results in a system that manages their behaviours and daily schedules – even when they’re not visible to the player – and is one of the most complex character simulations of its kind for an open-world action game.

We recently sat down with several of the games development team from Ubisoft Toronto to find out more about how ‘Play as Anyone’ works, including.

  • How the ‘play as anyone’ concept emerged and the evolution of Watch Dogs character systems.

  • The complexities of procedurally generating character profiles and backstories such that they feel unique, diverse, engaging but also grounded in reality.

  • How recruitment missions are built to be unique storylines driven by their backstories.

  • What influence your behaviour has on the citizens of London and how their opinion of Dedsec is influenced by your actions.

  • And just how deep the in-world simulation system really is within Watch Dogs: Legion.

Play As Anyone

Legion‘s ‘Play As Anyone’ mechanic is exactly what it says on the tin. As you wander around London, any citizen you see walking down the street can be unlocked and used as a playable character once you have convinced them to join Dedsec. Much like previous games in the series, scanning a character with your mobile phone enables you to see information about them. Including their name, their profession and quirky and unique information about their personal lives. But what’s new to Legion is that you can now see what value they could bring to the Dedsec initiative, they might have a buff or nerf for in-game abilities such as combat and hacking, have access to specific weapons, gadgets or vehicles or have outfits that enable easy access to environments you typically would not. Hence while you might try and break into a police station in order to complete a mission, you could instead recruit a police officer to join Dedsec and then just walk through the front door without anyone batting an eye.

Once a citizen joins Deadsec, you can then quickly swap from one recruit to another. As your collection of characters grows, you can begin to tackle missions in different ways based on the skills they have available to them. And this is the core of the Watch Dogs: Legion experience as you build your own set of recruits and pick them based on their proficiencies, or just because they look cool. But each character you engage with maintains a much more complex set of logic and internal decision making than anything seen to date in the series. When you’re not playing as a given Dedsec member – or any other character that is a potential recruit – they persist in the game world and continue to go about their daily lives: going to work, meeting friends, visiting family, dealing with their own personal issues and going home at the end of the day to get some much-needed rest.

In the closing weeks of the game’s development, I had the pleasure of sitting down with three members of Legion’s development team to learn more about how ‘Play as Anyone’ works and the design considerations that help make it a reality. Joining me were Liz England, team lead game designer for ‘Play as Anyone’, Jurie Horneman team lead programmer for the ‘Play as Anyone’ mission systems, and Martin Walsh, who is not only the technology director for gameplay and AI for Watch Dogs: Legion but was also lead programmer on Watch Dogs 2 – which was the subject of a recent episode of the main AI and Games series.

So the first thing on my mind was I wanted to know about the journey between these Watch Dogs titles. And how the evolution of the systemic and emergent gameplay that has been in the franchise since the beginning led to the ‘Play as Anyone’ concept.

Martin Walsh [Technology Director (Gameplay & AI), Watch Dogs: Legion]: It actually started right at the very beginning. It was probably the second conversation I had with our Clint Hocking our creative director, we were talking about what his vision and what he said to me was ‘what if every NPC is an open world?’. And I had watched an interesting AIIDE talk by Ben Sunshine-Hill called the Alibi generation system. So we had talked about that a little bit and we came up with basically the concept of, y’know, instead of having tons of simulated characters, being able to generate a backstory essentially in run-time for characters and we got to build on the excellent work that was done on Watch Dogs 2.

And one of the other concepts was, internally we like to call the way our systems collide ‘the anecdote factory’. The idea is you have these systemic open-world games and the way the systems come together to create these interesting experiences, these are the anecdotes generated by the factory. And for us, we came up with this idea ‘from anecdotes to stories’ and so the idea is not only did we add this deep simulation in terms of the scheduling [of NPCs] and every character has connections and lives and you can actually play as them. Bring them all the way from a character in the world all the way into a playable character, but there is also a ton of persistence that goes into that. So these characters have schedules but those schedules can change based on what you do to them or do for them. They have relationships, they have permanent memories so they remember things you’ve done for them or against them, those memories propagate to their enemies and friends.

So the more you play the game basically, the more hardened and persistent the game becomes. So whereas initially, it does start out as just anecdotes, so y’know ‘I accidentally punched this guy in a bar and the bartender got mad and it started a big fight’, but later on that’s Joe the bartender who works at that bar. We have this concept of recasting where we can take any character you’ve encountered in the game or done something to and knows about you and cast them in a later mission or story and so that’s really the coming together of those two concepts. It creates a lot of the depth and a lot of the stuff that even we still find pretty amazing honestly when we play the game.

The London Simulation

When you jump into the Deep Profiler in Legion and take a look at a characters background information, we can see much more of their daily schedules. This can include all sorts of activity: visiting locations in the open world, going home after a long day at work, meeting up with a friend or family member as part of their daily routine. Naturally you begin to wonder how deep this simulation is and whether the action implied by the deep profiler are actually executed, or is it all just a fabrication designed to make the world sound richer than it actually is. If I start following a character who is meeting a pal for a drink down the pub, is he actually going to go there?

Martin Walsh: We really made a lot of those systems for people like you who wanted to role-play or explore the lives of the characters. So almost all of it, as much as we could possibly make real, is real. So yeah, they really live at that address, they will really physically go to that address and sleep there in the night and walk out the door in the morning. Maybe they’ll take the tube to work and hang out with their buddy at the pub. That was one of our high-level directions that we wanted everything you saw in the Watch Dogs 2 profile to actually be real in Legion.

And for the most part it is, Liz [England] and the writers put together a bunch of clever extra bio things that support the story, and go along with the backstory of the characters. So if in the bio it says that [a character] meets his mother for brunch, he’s gonna meet his mother for brunch, if it says he works at this place, he works there. That was part of the challenge as well, in that in this physical game world with obviously a different time also – it’s not a 24-hour day cycle – we had to make sure that we could, as much as possible, schedule them in ways that they could physically make it to the places they were scheduled to be.

The way this is achieved is that citizens go through a procedure often referred to as ‘uprezzing‘, where they are essentially promoted from being just another face in the crowd to a character that is part of your experience in Watch Dogs: Legion. By default, a character is procedurally generated to appear in the world – and we’ll discuss how characters are created in a minute – but by and large they’re background fodder for the player. If they pass you by and you ignore them, then they will simply be deleted once you’re far enough away, but any character you interact with or has engaged in any activity that catches the players attention will be promoted into the deeper simulation. But in addition, it will also promote their personal connections: their family members or friends who have some active involvement with them in the game world. All of this results in multiple tiers of characters being monitored and maintained by the simulation.

Martin Walsh: There are different tiers. There are the number we can actually spawn on screen and doing all of their animations. Then below that we have the sort of the ‘fully uprezzed’ simulation layer, so this is every character that you’ve added to your database in some way that we’ve cast in a mission. And then there’s a layer beyond that, that stores a bunch of other character that you’ve incidentally ran into or it’s the brother or somebody you have uprezzed.

And this active collection of hundreds of citizens will eventually cycle out older characters you’ve not interacted or engaged with such that it can continue to introduce new ones the longer you’re playing in London. But it’s not just a collection of active and moving characters, any uprezzed character has their full profile generated at runtime, including their backstory, their affinity towards Dedsec their relationships to other characters and their schedule of daily activities. The schedules repeat every day until something changes: so characters move through the world to specific locations given it’s in their schedule to be there. This means that once you have unlocked the deep profiler and uprez a character by looking at their schedule, you’ll be able to catch them in the open world as they go about their business.

Liz England [Team Lead Game Designer, Watch Dogs: Legion]: And so when we build out their schedules, we’re filling out a 24-hour day. And we’re portioning out a part for sleep and they have a location they’re gonna go to for sleep. So it’s like an hour before they go to sleep, they start their trek to go home, to go to sleep. And then wherever we schedule their like, martial arts training in the park, they’re going to try an hour beforehand and think ‘well, I was drinking at the pub’ – *laughs* this is not, this is not the order of events you should exercise in – but like ‘I was drinking at the pub and oh yeah in an hour I need to be doing martial arts in the park, so I’m going to head over there right now’. Meanwhile, if they’re doing martial arts with like their friend, it’s an activity with two people in it, their friend who has also been uprezzed, wherever they are in their schedule they’ll go ‘oh, time to go do martial arts’. So wherever they are in London they’re also walking there too. So when you get to the park, you’ll find them both together at the time when their activity is supposed to start, and they’ll do that for about an hour and then they’ll go off on their next activity.

Martin Walsh: We actually simulate the path they take from whatever point they’re at to to the next one. So if you knew he left here at 7pm and was gonna be at 8pm you can actually try and intercept him halfway through and he will be somewhere on that path – I mean they can also take the tube – but yeah so we fully simulate the path. I mean so at that point they’re not loaded so they’re not ‘walking’, but we know the rough speed that they would be walking and so we simulate them at a high enough rate that you could catch them on any point on their path basically.

And for anyone curious, each Metro station is essentially a fast-travel node that allows for characters to teleport from one area of the map to another. But it’s important to acknowledge that the schedule can also be interrupted. If you do something that impedes their ability to go about their daily routine. If you put them in the hospital their schedule will change to state that they’re stuck in there recovering. And this change to the schedules also impacts their social connections. Hence if you do something nasty to a citizen – and hopefully you don’t I’m assuming you’re all nice people – it will have a huge knock-on effect on how the schedules of their friends and family in the future.

Liz England: So when you’re looking at that deep profiler and we we’re talking about the schedules of characters changing over time, if someone goes out to eat with their husband every day and then you go and murder their husband – I’m not suggesting this – then instead of going out to eat, they’re gonna mourn their husband. And you should feel bad… *laughs*

And as mentioned already one of the big features of the simulation is the notion of recasting: once a character is uprezzed in the simulation, then you’re more likely to see them in the game world; becoming a critical element of specific missions later on in the game.

Liz England: The more people you have expressed interest in, the more people you’ve saved to your contacts and uprezzed in the simulation. We try to take those people and say ‘bring them back in front of the player’. And this is, I think, particularly obvious if you stay in one area and you add contacts all in that area. Because them and their friends, and their family, and their best friends, are mostly going to stick around that area. So you’ll see that more often there too.

So say if someone is getting pickpocketed on the street and you glance over there, there’s a chance it will be someone that you actually know who is being victimised. And so now you think ‘oh do I help them or do I not help them?’ And this happens in general as you uprez these people and express interest them. As you’re adding people to your contacts, then the world of London is still a world mostly of strangers, but you’re getting more and more of these characters that you’ve met in that world.

It fills in the simulation with those bits and pieces that make the world feel a little more alive. So you’re not always just walking down the street surrounded by strangers, you start running into people that you know.

Procedural Character Generation

While Legion’s simulation system helps maintain each character and their life schedules, there is the issue of how character generation itself works. Now procedural character generation is nothing new to the franchise, most recently in episode 56 of AI and Games, we looked at how characters in Watch Dogs 2 are generated based on their location in the Bay Area and how they’re configured to react to the world around them. While much of the response system remains the same, the big difference is the range of diversity you can see in the citizens of London.

In Watch Dogs: Legion, the focus was to ensure not just the visual elements of a character can vary quite drastically, but also the system that creates jobs, their backgrounds and personal histories should be sufficiently varied that it enables for a rich and diverse set of characters. This is an incredibly complicated system, given one of the biggest issues the team went about addressing was ensuring that the characters seem plausible but also ensuring that they don’t reinforce cultural or systemic bias.

Liz England: So that was one of the important parts right? On the one end if we just have a whole bunch of data and we throw it into the system without any kind of constraints, then we get ‘procedural soup’ and every character looks random. And then doesn’t matter how much diversity you have – and you could have a ton of diversity – if you read every character just as ‘oh definitely generated by a computer’. And on the other end, which is just as bad, is full-on stereotypes: every single lawyer would be the same, every doctor would be the same, every pickpocket would be the same. That’s not just not interesting but it doesn’t create an interesting experience for the player and it doesn’t feel like a game, a population, that feels real. Instead of it feeling like procedural soup, it just feels like ‘oh this is what the designers made’.

The character generation needs to have a starting point from which to create a lot of diverse combinations, all of which should seem plausible and realistic characters for this futuristic London, but also don’t have awkward or conflicting information in their profile. This is achieved in Legion courtesy of a background system known as Census which acts as a knowledge base that the character generation system can feed on.

Liz England: So in Watch Dogs 1 or 2, when you profiled someone, you got a little bit of information about them. Here’s their occupation, their income and a little salacious detail; a secret in their life. So what we did in our game was as part of play as anyone was can we make those details real? And so we have a whole system of census for doing that, for creating these characters that are consistent with each other and have all this information about them and are part of the simulation.

Martin Walsh: Census can basically fill in all of the blanks in a plausible way. So for example, if you see somebody who is a bartender, census knows roughly what a bartender makes and what kind of place this person could live and also if he works in this bar then he’s probably not living somewhere that’s a million miles away. So we have a bunch of systems that can essentially fill in all of the gaps: generate the backstory, their connections, their loved ones etc.

Liz England: Every character that spawns in our game comes with a set of tags: their gender, their fashion, their occupation, their income and then things like their personality, like how they would respond if you insulted them on the street. And then we take all this information – which is kind of static, once a person has this information that is part of their identity – and then we feed it into more systems. So we start with a base that is really solid and then we say ‘Okay, so their job is a lawyer, well they need a place to work in their schedule. They’re a lawyer, where can lawyers go to work?’ And we will pick a place for them to work. What is their income? Okay, well we need somewhere for them to sleep that matches their income. And then we start looking at their hobbies.

So you’re a lawyer, do you have any sort of law-related hobbies? Maybe there are hobbies that all lawyers do? Maybe there are hobby’s that all lawyers do? Like they always going drinking in the bar? Maybe they meet clients? Maybe they go networking? These are the sorts of like when we started looking at what kind of data to put into our schedules, we were also looking at who are we spawning in the world and what kind of activities might they have? And then still filling out our data on that end as well.

And so you have this lawyer now and they have hobbies, they have a place to sleep, they have a place that they work and then you also say ‘okay, what kind of relationships do they have?’. Some of this might be like they have a client because they’re a lawyer. They might also have a spouse or a sibling. They might have like a best friend and then we start saying ‘okay, what kind of activities would they do with these people?’.

A lawyer and their client might meet and go out to dinner and you start filling out who is this character, this lawyer, but we’re also filling in the holes of who they are based off of information about them, their income, their occupation and then we look at more things. And then we look at more things, like their subculture and things like that. And when we start feeding in what kind of data we present to the player, what kind of activities [the NPC] they will do, what kind of problems they might have in the world – because you want to recruit these people, so they have some sort of problem that’s uniquely purposed to Dedsec to help them with – we try to match this with the profile of the person that we’ve created.

So if I go into one of my test levels and I generate over 100 lawyers, they’re going to have certain properties and that, if any player looks at any individual one of them – and this is one our internal tests for like whether we’re doing our generation right, are we creating interesting characters – if you look at any given one of them, you’re gonna think ‘oh yeah, that’s totally a lawyer, makes sense.’ But if you look at all of them, they’re all going to look different from each other right? Some of them will have different activities than others and they’re going to be reflected in their relationships and the things they do in the world and they’re going to come up with slightly different stories, but they’re all going to read as a lawyer.

Now, this all sounds really cool, but this approach could present a very real problem: in that, if you are creating a character based largely on their occupation and then generating forward, there’s a risk of implicit biases that can emerge as a result. So as mentioned, a lawyer may have a particular standing in life, but there’s a risk that you then reinforce existing cultural and societal stereotypes of who and what a lawyer is. And even worse, there’s a risk that it can reinforce racial or gender stereotypes as well of the types of careers and their aspirations being intrinsically linked. But fortunately, one of the great things about Legion’s character generation system, is that it doesn’t always generate forward using the career as a lynchpin of the knowledge base, but instead it can also generate the characters from different axioms of information. Hence you might have a character whose life was built around the fact they’re a lawyer, but you might also meet a character who has all these other interesting properties but just so happens to be a lawyer.

Liz England: So we had to kind of meet them half-way. And a lot of that comes from when we’re trying to generate a person from within constraints, some of those constraints are biases: a lawyer is more likely to be maybe upper-class income. But not always, because not all lawyers would be right? Or a lawyer in a business formal suit might be higher income than a lawyer in business casual, that sort of thing. So we have what is sort of like a spider-web: we start with one fact about a person and then you can start adding more facts and adding more details about that person until at the very end of the uprez process, what you now have is a completely unique character with all these traits and properties things like that.

The other thing about it too is that when we’re talking about uprezzing people, the most important thing about a person, about a character, when you’re walking down the street in our game and you see a character you’re interested in, is what are they doing? What do they look like? What is the context within which the player is interested in them? So if it is a person in the middle of a bar brawl, then that’s the information that we care about the most, not their occupation. We care about what they’re doing, what their actions are, what their personality is, what kind of things they’re shouting and it’s like okay, so we’re gonna lock down their personality, we’re gonna lock down their fashion, and then we’ll figure out an occupation later because that’s not the most important thing.

As opposed to a bartender behind a bar, you know their occupation is bartender and that’s the most important thing and the rest we can fill in the blanks. So we try to be very smart about trying to figure out who these characters are by saying what’s the most important thing about this person right now? And then we fill in the rest of the blanks when we do that full uprez procedure.

And then that’s how you get the kick-ass landlord or the kick-ass construction work but you also get the kick-ass accountant and you think ‘oh yeah I love her’. And you just get a wide variety and the important thing is to never really present a character that seems completely unbelievable, but is just believable enough. And when you start looking at all the different pieces of data that we feed into this character, enough of them are believable enough that you can throw in some unbelievable stuff. So if they’re in that barfight and then you profile them and their an accountant and it’s like ‘wow, they’re an accountant in a barfight’ and then see their schedule and they practice martial arts with their trainer in the park and then it’s ‘oh this makes total sense’.

So it’s trying to reinforce things that are outside of the players expectations, especially outside of the stereotypes that feel like they make these characters feel more well-rounded and they make them more fleshed out and not like they’re stamped out of a template because they’re not. There’s no real templates that we’re working off of.

But all of this still requires data, the design team had to sit down and come up with all of the different job types, all of the snippets of personal information, the income brackets, the hobbies, the possible backstories, and all of the rules that reinforce how these datasets interact with another. It’s a huge amount of invisible labour just to make these characters feel plausible, but in the end, it can result in some really nuanced and interesting characters in the world.

Mission Generation

And with all of these generated characters in place, the next step is for them to become a larger part of the game. This actually arises in several ways, but the most obvious way that uprezzed characters influence your experience is in their recruitment missions.

Unlike the main story missions which are tightly scripted and are designed such that you can tackle them with any of your rosters, recruitment missions exploit the character’s backstory in some way to make it feel unique to them. Hence there is a system that builds custom missions for recruits at runtime where the objectives align with the character’s story. Essentially this generation system focusses on the what, when and where for a given mission, and then feeds on information from the recruit and their backstory to provide the who and the why.

Jurie Horneman [Team Lead Programmer – Mission Systems, Watch Dogs: Legion]: So the missions are not generated in the way I think most people would talk about mission generation right? So we did some experiments with that but it’s hard to get that to the level of narrative quality and realisation that we were aiming for. But the thing that we can do is, obviously one of the things that’s not predefined for every mission is the characters that participate in that mission. Because those are all people that we generate using census, which means that the mission designers can’t just go ‘oh yeah, here’s a character called Sean and he has brown hair’ or something, they have to define the characters at a sort of more abstract level and then our systems ensure an actor is there for them.

The other thing that we can do and that we do for certain mission types like the recruitment missions is we define a mission in terms of gameplay beats, which is like go do this thing here, then go do this thing there but the actual locations where that action takes place are selected at runtime. So we can like ‘yeah, y’know, go hack a server in a pub’ and again it’s sort of defined at a higher level – I mean hack a server in a pub is a bad example, but let’s say – so we find the nearest pub with a server and that’s the location and that’s where we’re going to take the player. And then after that we need a hostage situation on a construction site and we’re trying to find the nearest construction site that the player hasn’t already seen five times and take the player there. And so that’s how all the missions, specifically the recruitment missions, feel different.

Now one of the hidden problems that most players won’t think about, is that these procedural missions mean that none of the cutscenes can be pre-rendered, given you don’t know who is going to be in the cutscene until it happens. And this even extends to the main story missions, hence this requires a lot of work in the outside of the gameplay and AI teams – by animators, voice artists and even dialogue and localisation teams. Each conversation is written to cater to different types of character and recorded by numerous voice actors.

Jurie Horneman: Every line of dialogue has to be written and recorded 20 times, and so some lines and – again we do this more in recruitment missions – some of the lines have multiple variants.

Liz England: If you have a mission and you have a cutscene in a mission and your operative needs to be in this mission and they say a line of dialogue, it’s not just a line of dialogue that’s recorded by different voice actors, it’s actually different scripts for that line. Because the way your Irish hitman to a request from grandma asking for something is going to be very different than one of our other personalities.

Not just the way they talk but the words that they use to describe a thing. It’s why a lot of our missions feel a lot more personable because when your playing as an operative, the operative and their voice and the way that they talk but also the words that they use, the dialogue that they have with other characters, is their own. So if you put two operatives in a scene together, it’s a giant matrix of all the different things one person can say to all of the different things another person can say. And trying to like write scripts for those personalities because again writers don’t have a character that’s like ‘Sean who has brown hair, who is an accountant’, this is not a character that exists in our game. We have these much more abstract concepts of a personality and a voice actor wrapped together.

Martin Walsh: And even on top of that we have a tech known as formant modulation, that can take an existing line, a recorded line and transform it with a filter essentially to sound like it was delivered by a different actor. So we’re even able to multiply the numbers of lines that we have even more with that technology.

Jurie Horneman: Y’know the thing that still blows my mind every time I think about it, is you can do cutscenes with stunts with your operatives: who are different sizes and different mobilities and we don’t mocap it 20 times. So that means we have a voice recording that has a certain length and an animation that has a different length and we do, in my opinion ‘magic’ – and I didn’t work on this I am just full of admiration for the people that did this – to make it all look seamless. And the people on that at some point in a team meeting, they had to create a video of the same cutscene playing four times with different voices, just to show that this is not a normal cutscene that we’ve done before. No no, this is like four completely different cutscenes, but it just looks like a normal cutscene. But then when you play it you don’t even realise it right? 

The other one is a much smaller thing but it is important in our game. A lot of our text, such as mission objectives have to reference names of characters that we don’t know ahead of time so we have to insert names dynamically.

Also, our game is I think being localised into, at least written into, something like 14 languages. And doing text insertion and gender agreement in gendered languages right, in 14 languages is really hard.

And we built a system that does that and it does it a data-driven way so the localisation team can just set up their data and at runtime, it will go like okay, they say at this line, we need to inject his name, or we don’t even inject the name of anyone, but we’re referencing someone and we know this person is in this context so we have the right gendered version and it’s all seamless. And it means that all the people – and obviously this is more a non-English problem – but all the people playing in non-English gendered language will just get correctly gendered, grammatically correct sentences and in 14 languages. So, that was harder than I expected and then if it works perfectly, no-one will notice.

World Balancing

As players explore more of London and their collection of Dedsec supporters grows and their social connections are also uprezzed in the simulation, these characters continue to be an important element of the game even outside of their recruitment narratives. This can emerge in open-world events, where you might see a character you’ve previously uprezzed getting interrogated by Albion soldiers or they’re being pickpocketed as they walk down the street. But also in actual story missions sometimes the game might require a character that fits a given role or position and – if it just to happens you’ve already met someone like that, the game will sometimes shoehorn them in there.

Liz England: Well what we also do is we try to say ‘do you know someone that would fill the profile of a character that needs to be in this scene’. Yes? Maybe we bring one in, maybe we don’t, we do a bit of a dice roll. And they’re not going to be scheduled to always be at that corner to be pickpocketed laughs – it’s not the thing they do, it’s not their hobby – but these sort of random moments will pop up. But the same thing will happen in a mission. So if I have a mission and let’s say that for a part of this mission the mission designer needs a lawyer for the player to talk to, or the lawyer is a hostage or is in prison and you need to get them out. We will also look at the players contacts and their friends and their family and their relations and say ‘hmmm, does the player know any lawyers?’ Because it would be nice if that somebody they already knew that was here.

And this presents an interesting gameplay opportunity that Legion’s systems exploits, in that while you may develop an affinity for specific characters, the game then observes how you react and behave in these contexts, and will change how characters feel about Dedsec based on your response. There is a memory system in the game that effectively records the actions players make – be it in a given mission or stuff you’re doing in the open world – and it then injects those actions back into the character generation system. This information then gives context for why a character has that opinion about Dedsec. Hence you might interrupt an Albion shakedown on the street, resulting in the victim liking DedSec more, while the officer dislikes you because you put them in the hospital. This can subsequently lead to the likes of revenge missions being generated as well as citizens who will never be convinced that Dedsec is a noble pursuit.

Liz England: They can change their opinion of Dedsec as an organisation. They can also have an opinion about an individual. So they can dislike Dedsec and they can also insult this operative on the street because they were the one that had punched them and they won’t even recognise a different operative because they didn’t do any kind of personal action on them. We don’t do stuff based on the area in terms of like if you go around and punch a bunch of people in one area, that area is not going to be like ‘we hate Dedsec, they’re a bunch of people punchers’.

There are things that we do to change geographical affinity towards Dedsec which are things like any of our borough liberation missions. Now when we talk about things like I went around and ran over a whole bunch of people; these are things that you did as a member of Dedsec so in general that should influence people to not like Dedsec, that is what you would expect. But what we actually do is more closely to what Martin mentioned with the alibi generator, we’ve actually spawned somebody who doesn’t like Dedsec, now let’s given them a reason why.

Why don’t they like Dedsec? Oh they’ve heard they’re hacking smartphones. Why don’t they like Dedsec? Because they’ve been running people over with their car. We just take the players actions and we feed it back into the system. And we say so why don’t you like Dedsec? Or here is why.

Jurie Horneman: And the next step of that is there are some people who hate Dedsec so much that you can never recruit them again. And then we have another little system that goes like, y’know, is there someone around who really hates Dedsec? And then use a whole bunch of logic and then we trigger a revenge mission against the player. It’s basically the system that’s always sitting there and trying to match people who have already been uprezzed to your operatives to the roles in the missions that we have defined, like we define any other mission. And when it matches and all the counters and timers are right – so you don’t have this happen every 15 minutes – we launch this mission the way we do any other mission.

So with all this happening, there’s a real risk of just being overwhelmed, recruitment missions, revenge missions, attacks on your operatives, all in an open world that’s meant to feel organic. But in Watch Dogs Legion certain events need to take priority, while others have their chance to shine when things die down a little bit. To address this there is a system where these different priorities have to ask permission to catch the players attention. And one of those priorities is your playable character as they try to develop a stronger affinity with the player.

Jurie Horneman: So what happened with the missions is the because these missions start themselves, the very first implementation we had was like each mission goes like ‘oh well, I’m ready to go and we shouldn’t start a mission every 5 minutes, so I’m gonna wait until this time is zero and then I’m gonna barge in.’ And then we had problems where you would complete a main mission on a cliffhanger and it ends and the next mission that is ready and the first one to react to the timer running is like some side mission that has nothing to do with what you were just doing right? And it was like, ‘No, this is terrible’ and this was like over two years ago.

What we then built is called the ‘player attention system’ and it’s a bunch of systems by now that want the players attention that need to do something that when they start they need the full attention of the player. They need to sort of request it. So a mission will go ‘hey I’m ready to go, I am an important mission, here is my priority, and let me know when the player has been sort of chill 10 seconds, 15 seconds, so that I can start.’ And then they just sort of sit there and wait for that request go in.

But then we have other systems and like you’re running around and you see a killer drone and your operative has never seen a killer drone before. And we also do an attention request and we go like ‘well, it’s not super important but if I could get the players attention in the next five seconds, that would be great’ and if they get it then the operative will go “oh my god, killer done”, because they’re new to Dedsec. But if we cannot get the players attention in those give seconds, because maybe there’s some narrative playing or you’re being pursued by the police then we just go ‘Ah well, we didn’t get it. Maybe next time we see a killer done’, because that does happen!

So on top of this player attention system we have this thing called ‘Dedsec narrative’, which is there to make both the team and your operatives feel more alive and reactive. And yes there’s so a metric ton of additional cooldowns and flags and modes to make sure that it plays enough but not too much. Because we had a thing in the beginning where, you have a new operative so all their operatives of ‘have I remarked on this?’ are set to false. And so they go around like noobs right? Just like ‘oh killer drone!’ ‘Oh Albion is doing something bad!’ ‘Oh I’ve put on a mask for the first time!’ ‘Oh my god have you seen this AR cloak!?!?’ And it’s like ‘arrrrrgh’ and Clint [Hocking] was playing and he’s like ‘this is a bit too much’, so we added more cooldown mechanisms to space that out.


Watch Dogs Legion sets a new standard for the level of simulation of characters in AAA open-world games and the level of quality employed to cater to cutscenes, dialogue, storylines and more. But it also creates this massive open-world game that rewards a players sense of exploration and with time and energy players can build a Dedsec that reflects them and ensures their playthrough of the game will be unique. While the game promises the opportunity to Play As Anyone, arguably it’s most powerful aspect is playing as who you want. All you got to do is find them because odds are they’re out there somewhere on those busy London streets.

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