WATCH_DOGS

Ubisoft Montréal

Position: Level Designer

Duration: ~2 Years

Engine: Disrupt (Proprietary)

Information

Watch_Dogs was my first released work at Ubisoft Montreal, where I was involved in mission and level design from concept through to final quality content. I primarily worked on mid-game content, but also offered support for the penultimate act of the game. Besides level building and scripting mission content, I was additionally responsible for a number of support tasks during the closing of the game, such as the distribution of crafting items across the campaign and providing scripting assistance for other missions.

This was my third open world game, so I was already savvy with many of the design challenges and complications involved with open world level and mission design. I applied this background knowledge to quickly establish a vision for my content and was able to quickly prototype and iterate to successfully produce high-quality results.

Working in such a huge team was an interesting change from my prior experience in a smaller, agile prototyping team at Ruffian Games. Despite the team size, I still maintained a good number of cross-discipline relationships and collaborated regularly; especially within art and script-writing departments. Through these pooled resources I was able to ensure fine detail across narrative and visuals without a sacrifice to gameplay.

Watch_Dogs broke Ubisoft’s company record of first day sales and went on to become the fastest-selling new IP in video game history, selling 4 million copies in its first week. As of December 31, 2014, Watch_Dogs has shipped 10 million copies.

Responsibilities

  • Full mission and level design for multiple pivotal moments of the game’s narrative from concept to final
  • Responsible for design of two major areas of the game world; one of which featured prominently in multiplayer
  • Championed side content with design structure and initial implementation
  • Level audits and refactoring of junior designer content
  • Extensive use of Ubisoft’s proprietary engine, “Disrupt” and it’s associated visual scripting tools

Level: “Collateral”

Design Commentary

This was one of the opening missions of the game’s second act, where the action is brought up a notch or two. In the mission, the player, along with their ally, “Clara”, must escape a flaming motel under a hail of gunfire from surrounding enemies.

My mandate was to build what would become the “Owl Motel” as well as prototype and showcase a number of gameplay features:

  • Forced combat
  • World destructability
  • The “Blackout” feature
  • Protect VIP gameplay
  • An armed ally combatant

I built the “Owl Motel” as not only a mission location, but also as a world landmark. The motel acts as a fully functioning base of operations that the player relies upon throughout the first act of the game. To achieve this, I worked closely with artists, providing them with whitebox blockouts that not only delivered the desired gameplay requirements, but were also aesthetically and architecturally sound, thus maintaining a smooth workflow between art and design. I was also responsible for the gameplay of the mission, including scripting the beat by beat gameplay as well as Clara’s behaviours.

The mission is structured in three short combat beats.

Beat 1

The opening beat features a set of staged waves, each in fixed positions complimenting the weapon loadouts of the enemy archetypes; snipers on the rooftops, sub machine gunners at medium range, etc. Clara pushes from cover to cover progressing through the level as enemies are dispatched.

Beat 2

The second beat contains a number of reinforcements that enter the mission location via vehicle and as such are subject to road rules. This adds some variety to repeat play throughs. This wave is intentionally less structured as it coincides with the player reaching a branching point of the level, so it is entirely up to the player how they take on the opposing threat; they may choose to reach their destination by going up the stairs to the rooftop, or by tackling their enemies head on by dropping down to the ground level and manoeuvring through the carpark. At this point Clara also starts to follow and cover the player with small arms fire.

Beat 3

The final beat is where the player and Clara go their separate ways. This is punctuated by a small combat wave to bookend the scenario and occupy the player’s attention as Clara exits the scene.

Throughout development the mission was one of the most intense and stand out moments of combat in the game. In early production, it set the bar for level design, by helping define the process and communication channels between art and design. The mission also became a testbed for character and camera control within combat, as well as the benchmark for breakable and non-breakable cover metrics. The breakable elements were enjoyed by some a little too much.

The mission was well received and consistently scored highly in playtests. It was a personal achievement of mine, as I had managed to achieve a scripted, linear combat encounter with clear, defined beats, whilst maintaining a multiple path approach.

Level: “A Risky Bid”

Design Commentary

This was a large mission that generated a lot of positive feedback in reviews, as well as receiving some additional attention due to its sensitive narrative content. The goal of the mission was for the player to infiltrate an underground human auction in order to get close to their target, “Iraq”, and scan his RFID card.

The high level intention of the mission was to not only show Chicago’s dark side, but highlight the “in plain sight” aspect of the city’s criminal operations. The thematic focus was to have the player experience a twisted theme park ride of debauchery, setting the player on an ever-winding path, witnessing the depravity of their hosts’ twisted schemes.

The auction itself had a number of uses within gameplay; firstly to flesh out the narrative, allowing the player to further explore some of the backstory and details of Chicago’s worst. I hand placed every non playable character in the environment and worked with writers to weave a backstory for everyone attending – some of these linked back to side quests, others were easter eggs to previous Watch Dogs videos and demos while building upon in-game lore.

Secondly, the auction was to act as a a grandiose space for the face to face meeting between the protagonist and antagonist in an associated cutscene. I worked with the cinematics and scripted events team to provide a “cinematic bubble” that was secluded enough from the gameplay space while allowing for a perfect view of the scene. It was a high priority early in development in order for the motion capture to be shot without any repercussions to the layout.

Finally, I was able to provide a space where the player had to stealthily escape in close proximity to their searching pursuers. This was a fun challenge, and had me setting up routes behind interior fences and along low walls, in and around the auction, as well as a short basement section beneath the feet of the auction goers. It was interesting to have such a winding and interconnected space in a realistic environment.

Upon escaping of the auction, I scripted a huge explosive setpiece that prepared the player for a set of long stealth-optional combat sections with multiple heights and paths throughout. Again, this was a fun challenge as there weren’t many opportunities to design such multilevel and entwined environments in such a realistic setting. I built four combat arenas using final artwork through reuse of assets from the rest of the game (save a particle, decal and lighting pass from my assigned artists). The combat arenas were rich with interactive and explosive elements for players to hack their way through rather than simply relying on their gun or the shadows.

The mission broke down to roughly three beats of gameplay.

Beat 1

The mission opens with the player losing their tools and weapons, signposting a non-combat scenario. The player is set on a loose path, escorted by a scripted guide that leads the player through a series of rooms and corridors. Each environment offers exploration to allow a glimpse at a number of optional vignettes highlighting distasteful and criminal acts. The vignettes build up towards the reveal of the human auction; a stage with human “product” paraded before a crowd of onlooking potential buyers. Although the crowds contain armed guards, the player can walk freely amongst the buyers, giving affording the opportunity to delve further into the lore. Alternatively players can simply progress to the meeting where the player meets two of the game’s antagonists, Lucky Quinn, and Iraq, the holder of the card the player needs to scan.

Beat 2

After scanning the card it is clear that the player’s cover is blown and the guards begin searching in the crowds, patrolling in an effort to find the player. It is here that the player must move from cover to cover avoiding enemy line of sight to exit the auction house. After sneaking backstage the player is reunited with their weapons before being jumped and knocked through a drywall into the exterior backlot. The beat closes with an explosive moment, where the player hacks a junction box to blow up a number of flammable objects amongst a group of aggressors. There is a repeat of this scenario moments later that can be solved in the same way (hacking) or by shooting at the enemy threat.

Beat 3

The third gameplay beat features a number of stealth-optional combat arenas against a range of enemy types. Although each arena only has only one entry and exit point, there are multiple paths through and approaches to enemy positions ranging from aggressive, to stealth, to adaptive.

The first arena is a long exterior storage area with guards both on the ground and patrolling walkways above. If provoked the guards will call reinforcements which increases the threat and difficulty towards the exit of the arena by including a heavy enemy archetype.  The environment is littered with hackable objects and explosive elements which can be exploited by the player.

The second arena is a high cover heavy storage yard at the rear of a warehouse. The area is populated with a number of enemy types including heavy and sniping archetypes. There is a hackable crane that can drop it’s cargo to any unsuspecting enemies below as well as a number of electric transformer panels in the floor for distracting or dispatching patrolling guards.

The third arena is a two level warehouse featuring a horizontal crane that can be used to pass over the warehouse floor. This arena was linked to the previous, so enemies perhaps passed in stealth may become aggressive if stealth players are to go loud at this point. There are a number of hackable covers that can be lowered to remove options for enemies to hide behind.

The final arena features a small force lying in wait amongst a number of shipping containers. These enemies can be fought or ignored courtesy of some nearby vehicles.

There were many challenges building the level due to the sheer volume of artwork required, the sensitive nature of the narrative and the high frequency of setpieces and cutscenes. This meant a lot of cross departmental collaboration. I worked closely with my artist by providing the pace and metrics with a greybox blockout (along with some simple environment art to better help set the scene) and a trigger walkthrough highlighting the specific events and the repercussions they had on the environment (such as the blocking of routes or locked doors). This also fed into the underworld activities, which required a working with writers and animators to come up with the scenarios that would be included, with me providing placeholder animations from other areas of the game to achieve the desired pacing, which animators later filled in with final motion capture data.

Overall I was extremely happy with the mission. “Skipsun Boat Storage” serves as one of the most ambitious levels I have worked on in my career – the variety in activities, the reuse and repurposing of space, and the long runtime make it a cornerstone of my design portfolio.

Additional Design

Criminal Convoys

Besides creating campaign content, I was also the designer of the Criminal Convoy side content. The goal was to populate game world with a number of open ended missions that followed a set format; execute a target before they reach their destination. Players were provided with their target’s start point, destination, and the route between – how they chose to eliminate that target was entirely up to the player.

I was responsible for the design, balance and distribution of all convoys and provided the initial implementation of all routes.

During the closing of the project, in addition to my primary responsibilities for my own mission content, I remained on the team to audit other mission scripts and refactor where necessary, as well as implementing any changes as a response to play test data.

Thanks for the Tip

I provided difficulty balancing following data recorded at an offsite playtest I helped oversee while visiting Ubisoft Toronto.

Hold On, Kiddo

This mission was reworked from alpha as a response to playtest feedback. I was responsible for the high level design and first pass implementation for the rework.

One Foot in the Grave

I handled the investigation and narrative beats in the first part of the mission, as well as refactoring a great deal of the script during the debug phase of development.

My additional input was primarily regarding the Clara character, in order to flesh out her back story and give her more screen time, I added a short ‘walk and talk’ where she would guide the player to the next objective. On top of this, the living city, small environmental details and pickups were added and increased in the surrounding area to give character and an overall greater presence to the hobo town.

Stare into the Abyss

My input on this mission was to offer more options to the mission opening; allowing for a free approach that supported stealth gameplay as well as mixed approaches to combat using any of the tools at the player’s disposal.

I also debugged and significantly refactored the scripts during the closing phase of the project.

No Turning Back

I maintained this mission post beta and helped improve the combat encounters by using playtest feedback. I also refactored a number of the mission scripts and setup the closing cinematic beat.