Watch Dogs 2 — Automata - a level design retrospective.

Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu
Feb 1 · 9 min read

I don’t know how many of you have actually played this DLC for Watch Dogs 2 but I figured I might as well go fort and share a bit of what this mission is about and how it came to be.

Marcus banging on doors of a red van in front of the WKZ tv station. San Francisco. The Watch Dogs 2 Universe.

Work on this DLC started in the autumn of 2016 right after WD2 was launched. The entire Human Condition pack includes 4 mission packs:

  • Bad Medicine
  • Caustic Progress
  • Off the Hook
  • Automata

Each of these packs include a series of missions/objectives that try to introduce new elements to the game-play experience.

The team I was part of worked on the Automata mission pack and the purpose from the very start was to try to develop a new type of narrative context that was not covered in the main game.

Out creative direction indicated that we should try to incorporate something in relation to the big “Smart Car” announcement keynotes that were rather big at the time.

Samsung announcing the BMW Smart Car Smart Home.

Thus the big narrative of Ded Sec SF trying to steal a smart car that was just about to be announced in the world of the game.

And this is how the mission pack starts, with Azzam Parad the vice-president of Nudle announcing the new smart car that would revolutionize all aspects of live and bring the world into the future.

I am not going to go into what happens next, because it’s quite a lot. If you want to learn more go play the game.

So I am going to jump forward to the the last mission, because that’s where I spend most of my time while working on this mission pack.

WKZ TV Station

The initial intention for all of it was to show case a new driving experience that we simply called “The car drives itself”.

We decided to approach this from a top down perspective and break the mission down into two distinct bits:

  • Marcus Steals the Car
  • The Car Steals Marcus

Marcus Steals the car

The mission starts with Marcus and Wrench meeting in front of the WKZ TV Station and putting fort some expositions about the narrative context of why we are supposed to steal the car and what other things we need to do inside the location.

Marcus and Wrench having a fun chat.

The layout of the location was designed to support 3 approach angles for the player:

WKZ Layout

The player would be able to approach the location trough:

The Lobby

WKZ TV Station — SF
Lobby

The lobby acts as reception zone being split in the middle by what we called the Red Zone.

In a nutshell the Red Zone is designated space to contain the Enemy AI. The enemy AI will try to remain in this zone and will try to discourage the player from coming into the zone or even approaching it.

In this particular scenario the trick was that the player could go trough the lasers and trigger an alarm but he could also:

  • Disable the lasers when the guard was patrolling away from them and then going into the red zone and silently taking the AI down.
  • Use the Camera attached to the walls to scout the location by traveling from camera angle to camera angle. At this point in the game this is an already well established way of scouting interior locations.
  • Use the drone to explore the hallway and incapacitate guards.

The corridor beyond also has a bunch of strategically placed junction boxes that can be hacked to incapacitate to incapacitate two guards at the same time.

The corridor connects to the security room where a computer with a key can be found. We can use the key to unlock an upstairs office where one of the objectives is located.

Security Room

The side entrance:

The side entrance uses the same trope as before where the player can walk in and observe what’s going on, however there are less options and more guards.

Side Entrance

At some point one of the guards will move away and you will be able to incapacitate the other one easily.

Another way to do it is to taunt the guard and lure him out of the building. Cheesy I know! But since the system interaction works this makes it a good option for getting in the building.

This path leads to either the TV Set where the car is or the stairs leading to level 1.

Side path

The Garage

The garage doors are locked however the player can use the vents nearby to navigate a drone inside the building.

The doors are locked using a red box on the other side.

The TV Set

Nothing particularly magical is happening here, besides the fact that we wanted the player to see the car really early, maybe even attempt to interact with it.

TV Set

There for the car is placed in the middle of the room facing the giant glass windows.

The Car

The Second floor

The upstairs office is tied to an upper corridor connected to stairs to the first floor. It can also be accessed using air vents.

The office upstairs.

The Objectives

What we wanted from these sets of objectives could be summarized into a handful of intentions:

  • We want the player to complete the objectives in any order
  • We want the player to complete both of them in order to unlock the car
  • We want the player see the car and even attempt to interact with it
  • We wanted the player to be discouraged by the heavy security presence in the room
  • We wanted the player to juggle between objectives and try to figure out what would work best.

From a molecular stand point the objective flow goes like this:

Objective flow

We had some discussions about implementing checkpoints after each objective however the thing is this:

If you are going to have concurrent objectives that can be completed in any order, in an context where where the player always spawns outside the location, it makes predicting where the player would and would not be at any time very difficulty.

So we decided to not add any checkpoints for these objectives until the player gets into the actual car.

This lead to some very dynamic and varied play-sessions where the players would be pushed to make very varied tactical choices based on their approach angle, state of the world, resources so on and so fort.

The car. Systemic Level Design. The Future.

The car

If the previous beat turned out to be something that you already have seen during the entirety of the WD2 campaign, what happened next was supposed to (an to quite a large extent) be a huge twist.

My approach to this beat was to push systemic interaction as much as possible and to try to minimize scripting, unless absolutely needed.

One very important tool that I often find useful in level design when looking for new ideas is the Variety Matrix table.

Variety Matrix

The Variety Matrix model implies breaking down metric component for a particular scenario.

For example let’s take this scenarios:

Simple scenario evolution

The difficulty of the scenario is given by a few factors:

  • Zombie Orientation
  • Cover Density
  • Distance between the player and the exit

We can extract metric data from these scenarios in order to determine what the difficulty/variety curve might be like

Since we are using each metric differently combining them will produce different kinds of experiences

Difficulty/Variety Curves

We can arbitrarily assign numbers to these values

Back to the car:

We were dealing with completely different types of variables:

  • The Felony System
  • The Car Avoidance System
  • The Traffic System
  • The Hacking System
  • The Puzzle system

All systems were working independently from another but when intersection would induce a state of escalating tension that would end with the player retaking control of the car.

So this beat had to be structured in a way that would make it easy for the player to feel the tension.

Car running wild

The Car Steals Marcus

Part 1 — The Car has to drive itself

  • So Marcus gets into the car. We get some banter between him and wrench. The car jumps out the window.
Car Jumps out the iwindow
  • We placed the car on the right side of the street and slowly let it go by itself
  • We also spawned a bunch of cops so the players get the feeling that they need to accelerate out of it and just escape
  • However the car has a mind of it’s own, and you can’t escape it. Marcus is stuck in a runaway car, chased by the police
  • It takes a moment for the player to understand what is going on.
Initial Moments

Part 2 — The Cops are really aggressive. Focus on the hacking

  • Since you are not controlling the car, something interesting happens.
  • You get to turn the camera and look around. We had to write a bit of code to divorce the old camera system (auto-aligns to driving direction) from this scenario so you can actually be able to look behind and hack things freely.
  • This was a really good moment to showcase how dynamic the AI is during chases. In WD2 you don’t get to see that too much since the focus is navigation and controlling the car. In Automata however you get to turn the camera around freely and experience the shark like behavior of the police cars. You can hack them freely and notice things a bit differently.
Police car jumping of a bridge to catch you!
  • It was also a good moment to place extra exploding bits on the streets and use cool vertical jumps in the car progression.

Part 3– 3D Puzzle around the car

  • There was one piece of the puzzle that we had to throw in the mix however and that was the fact that we wanted a 3d puzzle that would wrap itself around the car while all the other systems (hacking, cops, automated driving) would keep interacting with each other.
  • But it also had to be easy to solve and not modify the 3C’s.
  • While driving the car you don’t really get to notice it much, but the camera orbits around the vehicle, and the hacking cursor follows it, so the best solution was to wrap the puzzle as close to the car as possible so each node could be target simply by aligning the cursor with it.
The Puzzle

Part 4 — Release

  • After all that is done releasing controls back to the player feels super good and people just floor it like crazy.

The Future

After this project was done I had a bit of a vision into the future of level design where we would script with systems and hunt for interesting system interactions in our missions, all the while maintaining the mantra of player choice.

It’s maybe a future that’s right around the corner.

But all of this could not have been possible with the accumulated work of all the Ubisoft teams across the world that made sure that these systems have been polished to perfection.

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