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Exploring the Sheer Potential of Watch Dogs: Legion

The ‘Play as Anyone’ breakthrough hints at the extraordinary possibilities of open world design

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Picture yourself playing the next instalment in your favourite open-world franchise (The Witcher or Grand Theft Auto for instance). As you’re roaming around, one passerby catches your interest. There is no icon; he doesn’t look like a merchant, a quest giver or a law enforcer. Nothing. In any game, you’d keep going.

“It’s just an animated 3D model serving a decoration purpose.”

In this game, though, every person you meet is an individual going about their life in this world, commuting to work and engaging in their preferred hobbies.

Better yet, it’s not just a simulation for the sake of realism: you can have a believable dialogue with this random character, and it opens new gameplay opportunities tailored for you.

This innovation is the breakthrough of Watch Dogs: Legion, and I’m personally thrilled about the gaming possibilities it opens up. Before diving into an in-depth analysis of the system known as ‘play as anyone’, I must emphasise why I believe its premise is essential for gaming.

The essence of open-world game design (which I reflected on in a previous article) is to provide an interactive playground and give the player the freedom to toy with its elements to achieve ‘goals’ (self-given or requested by the system in the form of quests, progression systems, etc…).

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

To give the player a true to a sense of freedom and self-direction, you need to let them use their available capabilities in any way they want to overcome the obstacles within the sandbox. Such a design philosophy is at the centre of the recent The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game filled it with mechanics interacting logically with one another on so many levels that each player can find creative solutions to the problems they face.

All open-worlds feature more or fewer systems to make their playgrounds interactive (for instance, traffic, fire propagation or law enforcement). But to my knowledge, no game made all its characters interactive at the scale of Legion before, which makes it a game worth studying.

Just like I was blown away by the ability to climb anywhere in Breath of the Wild, I was excited by the possibility to recruit and play with any inhabitant of Watch Dogs: Legion’s futuristic London. While there is a lot to say about the implementation of the game, this piece is not a full analysis of everything it does well, but more a reflection on the possible improvements to make this concept reach its full potential.

Legion inspires me despite its flaws, especially when I remind myself of Assassin’s Creed. I couldn’t bring myself to finish the first one, and yet the franchise overall became one of my favourites. All the foundations were there: parkour, secret societies, stealth gameplay, and more. But the right chemistry only came in the second opus (and improved further in the sequels).

Innovation is hard; it takes time and iteration.

You can never nail everything directly during game development. Games are complex machines: you need to step back and analyse how pieces fit together and re-assemble the puzzle. All studios, even Rockstar and Nintendo, release imperfect games, learn from them and enhance their formula in the next iteration.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash.

Important note: Although I work for Ubisoft, I was not involved in any way in the development of Watch Dogs: Legion. This piece only reflects my opinion as a gamer and designer who has experienced the game at home when it released.

For the people who worked on this game: first, congratulations on shipping it, and second, feel free to reach out to start a discussion.

In case you’re never played it, Watch Dogs is a franchise where you play as hackers who infiltrate various locations thanks to their gadgets and technological super-powers. When things go wrong (or if you prefer a more brutal approach), you can also resort to melee fighting, shooting guns, and reckless driving around the city to lose your pursuers.

The game’s content is structured in the classic open-world fashion. There are main and side missions, some smaller-scale tasks to “liberate boroughs from the oppressive police” and tons of collectables to pick-ups, such as money and tech points to acquire new gadgets and hacking skills.

Profile any NPC in the crowd to learn about them.

This opus's most significant addition is the ability to recruit any passerby to play the game as them. The flow is quite intuitive. Like in the previous titles, you can use the ‘profiler’ hack to receive info on any NPC you come across to discover their name, occupation and gameplay perks, ranging from stats upgrades, unique gadgets, personal vehicles or disguises.

Suppose you’re interested in adding them to your roster. In that case, you can engage in dialogue to receive a unique mission, which, when completed, will ‘convince’ the citizen to join DedSec, your hacker group. Once recruited, you can swap to this character at any time unless they have been injured or arrested in an operation (forcing you to switch to another one during the recovery time).

Each recruitment loop has the same structure, sometimes with extra-steps, and the variety comes from the outstanding efforts put into procedural generation. Every mission is created on-the-spot by a system which manages to tie together the character, the objective, and mission’s location in a coherent narrative, with fully-voiced dialogue trees.

The experience of Watch Dogs: Legion is built on the following three pillars: recruitment, core loop, and progression. The first one brings a fresh twist in the game's early hours; I quickly became addicted to looking for recruits with cool abilities. However, my eagerness to add new hackers to my crew crumbled after a while because I believe the other two pillars of the experience fail to sufficiently reinforce the motivation.

How can this nearly infinite content-generation system fail to sustain (or better: expand) my initial interest? Like most players, I approached the game, planning to assemble a cast of diverse characters so that I could pick the most suitable option for each situation. After a few hours, though, I found myself playing 90% of the time with a construction worker who could summon a convenient cargo drone; perfect for infiltrating places from the air.

Colin the construction worker, my go-to character.

Of course, other hackers had attractive perks, but once I grew accustomed to this convenience, it was harder to swap, much like finding your favourite character(s) in a fighting game. More than the opportunity to build a team, the ‘play as anyone’ feature helped me to discover my preferred playstyle and let me stick to it.

Part of me hoped the game could challenge me out of my comfort zone, but except on rare occasions, missions don’t require players to have a specific character, and for a good reason: it feels horrible. When it happens, I experience the exact opposite of the sense of freedom. This design problem has no easy solution; it’s probably the reason why it rarely happens in Watch Dogs: Legion.

Having a mission you can only complete with a specific character is a form of ‘door & key’ challenge. If you announce in advance the need for one particular key, you take away the discovery. If you don’t, you let the player reach the door, see the limitation by himself, get frustrated and force him to try again with a different character. In both cases, you harm the sense of autonomy.

The best option to circumvent the problem is to design several keys to the same door, and ensure the player can always access at least one. I believe that’s the reason all missions rely on the hacking capacities available to every operative.

Since you also want the game to be varied, you need to give each character lots of default abilities, which further reduces their uniqueness and doesn’t motivate players to recruit new ones. Without hard gating, the choice of which specific persona to embody depends on the player’s preferred “flavour” (aggressive, discreet, etc...) more than the task at hand.

The vicious circle is hard to break, a tricky balancing act between diversity and frustration. GTA V also featured three characters to play, but they didn’t have strong differentiation in gameplay outside of their unique power. To characterise them, Rockstar gave them each specific missions with objectives which are thematically fitting with their specificities. All three have access to the same guns, but only Trevor is pictured as the maniac mass-murderer.

It could be a route to explore with the ‘play as anyone’ concept as well, thanks to procedural systems' strength. Could the game adapt the content of a mission to the current character?

Metal Gear Solid V featured such a system: enemies evolved to counter the player’s strategy (for example wearing helmets if they were often performing headshots). Imagine if, after a while, enemies set up volumetric alarms on roofs to prevent players like me from flying above them in cargo drone all the time. It’s the same mission for everyone, but I can see the world react to the specific character I decided to embody.

In the first part, I explained the complexity of relying on specific obstacles to motivate players to switch operatives. But Legion has something more to offer than usual games: you don’t pick any character from a menu, you need to select and recruit them from the streets.

Your relationship to a character goes beyond its pure gameplay purpose; the motivation to recruit and play with a character is partly intrinsic. In the second part, I explore two ways to reinforce this unique game loop with additional mechanics to increase its depth.

Due to the amount of passersby in crowded London, the game has to spread out the gameplay perks a lot. Each character only has a few; you can quickly figure out its style and whether you want him or not. Compare this to the procedural orcs in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor: each have ten to twenty traits, but you’d only discover one at a time. In Watch Dogs: Legion, this approach couldn’t work, or distinguishing interesting persons would be akin to finding a needle in a haystack.

Still, looking for new attractive perks can be a tedious experience. To make things easier, the game frequently draws your attention to characters with unique bonuses and marks them on the map. It’s undoubtedly helpful but has the negative side-effect of removing the sense of self-discovery.

With all the rules already in place in the game to make the passerby coherent, there is a potential to create an engaging investigation mechanic where you could follow a trail of clues in an attempt to discover new characters. Could one of my teammates talk about their relatives and hint at their capacities? What if I heard about specific persons in the in-game media or while over-hearing enemies’ conversations?

Arena concept art from Cristiana Voinea.

I thought one system was smartly introducing the player to new thematic characters: the ‘bare-knuckles’ arenas. This melee combat mini-game pits you against fighters, and once you beat them, the game lets you add them to your recruitment list. Of course, they have perks related to combat, making them the ideal candidates to tackle the next arena, a brilliant positive reinforcement loop.

Strengthening the gameplay of identifying new characters is an opportunity to differentiate them and ignite an intrinsic motivation to hire them. They’re not just anyone in the crowd that you can randomly talk to, they’re encounters made in a specific context.

The realisation indeed does an excellent job at making characters feel credible in the world, once you start to recruit them, they can feel like equipment waiting to be picked up. What if you weren’t able to fully control them and that’s what made them even more interesting?

In this oppressive police state, hesitation to join the rebellion could be the norm.

For instance, after a recruitment sequence, some people might need time to decide if they want to become part of DedSec. Joining an underground revolutionary club sounds quite dangerous, that wouldn’t be unfair to give them a bit of reflection time. Some could eventually deny the proposition, which would lead to further missions: would he reconsider if his wife joined DedSec?

Again, I believe there is an inspiration to be drawn from Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. First, the use of emotions as gameplay traits (hate, fear, etc...) and second, how they could interact (provoke in a duel, betray, etc…). It had an impact on the gameplay of course, but these mechanics also helped to humanise them.

Shadow of Mordor’s duels happens independently of players.

Imagine if your characters weren’t always available, or disliked one another’s methods. Revolution is stressful; it’s not inconceivable to imagine tension within the group.

I know we’re navigating on a thin line here, taking away control from the players without frustrating them is a difficult balance in game design. Watch Dogs: Legion is could probably find it though: after all, games usually can’t afford to let you fire your main character and pick a new one because you don’t like how he behaves.

The first two parts cover the integration of the recruitment loop within Watch Dogs: Legion and how each unique operative comes into play to impact the player’s experience. In this last part, I’m diving in the influence of the ‘play as anyone’ on the longer term: how the progression pillar can reinforce core gameplay.

As mentioned previously, the game structure is similar to other Ubisoft open worlds, which works fine, but Legion has something unique. How could the recruitment loop take a more central role in the progression?

I don’t think we can or should eliminate the handcrafted narrative missions out of the equation, what they bring perfectly compliment the procedural ones. However, the campaign's unfolding could be tied to the recruitment system somehow, something Metal Gear Solid V and Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor both do.

Without spoiling the game, there are events in Legion’s campaign that make your operatives work as a team, but it’s only temporary. If you’ve played through the end of The Phantom Pain, there is one special mission where consequences are definitive and have a much longer-lasting impact.

Similarly, at some point in Shadow of Mordor, the game requires you to eliminate all the five captains currently at the top of the procedural Nemesis system. In both these examples, the player receives a goal related to the system, and he can achieve it how they want, which elegantly makes the procedural and the narrative content converge.

Metal Gear Solid V mother base system.

Watch Dogs: Legion’s bigger structural problem, in my opinion, is the emphasis on “borough missions”, which only come second in importance to the main missions. The gameplay of these activities is fun, and the theme is fitting. Still, the rewards (a top-tier operative, icons on the map and unlocking of advanced hacks) are too important to be ignored resulting in a missed opportunity to increase motivation for the recruitment system.

Instead of getting a free powerful operator by performing some simple tasks, could its recruitment be the challenge instead of the reward? The same similar content rearranged differently would tell a different story: each individual you bring to the team is a step to claim back London.

Let’s cover the secondary content now. Side quests are unlocked past specific story points, with no regards to the roster you have. Money and tech points come in pick-ups scattered throughout the world which any operative can almost always get.

Again, on paper, it works. With the number of innovations the team had to figure out in other areas of development, it’s fair to keep the previous Watch Dogs' mechanics there. While playing, I wondered how these systems could be designed to reinforce the ‘play as anyone’ concept?

The first idea that comes to my mind is to gate these elements behind specific operatives. Recruit a doctor to unlock a new side mission set in the hospital. Play as a tech-savvy operative to be able to crack money safes. It’s the cursed ‘door & key’ design problem I presented earlier again, but I’d argue the limitations are much more acceptable for side content. The challenge is to frame it in a positive light: you’re not “blocked until you do something specific”, you “gain extra rewards if you do it”.

Watch Dogs Legion skill tree.

The last point I want to cover is the problem most titles face with a horizontal progression, and Watch Dogs: Legion is no exception. I call it “the diminishing yield of expanding options”. Since you can only play one character at a time, each new addition is less likely to be selected because it competes with all the other options.

When you have many options already, the motivation to get yet another is low unless this new option is genuinely desirable.

The first option has the most value, and all subsequent ones compete for the same slot, which reduces their interest.

Variety is, of course, a significant reason to continue engaging with the system, because, eventually, adding new operatives to your roster isn’t really “useful”. That’s already an area where the team invested a lot of efforts, with much more different perks than in the Shadow of Mordor games.

What else can be done without resorting to artificial vertical progression, such as putting levels on operatives to render them useless artificially? The solution I prefer is to find an alternative use for them.

In the past years, many mobile RPGs had success with game structures based on collecting heroes, upgrading them and assembling teams to defeat increasingly difficult enemies. I wrote a detailed analysis of Disney Heroes, and you might also have heard of Raid: Shadow Legends or Summoner Wars. These games ensure to provide several game modes and activities with varied rules so players can’t focus on maxing a single team, they must also unlock and level-up all the other heroes.

For instance, in Legion, I’d be glad to recruit characters to help me perform tasks without having to control them directly. I could send a photographer to scout a neighbourhood (marking collectables on the map) or hire a getaway driver whose job is to park a fast car near my next operation’s location. Similarly to R&D in Metal Gear Solid V, I’d have to locate and recruit engineers all around London to unlock new hacks.

Even a simple meta-game system can provide new uses for the operatives you don’t play at the moment and encourage to get more. That’s another strength of ‘play as anyone’: exotic gameplay can expand it beyond the core experience. It’s fascinating to see your characters on-screen directly and equally compelling to let the mechanics tell this unique team's story.

Watch Dogs: Legion is the perfect example of a sequel capitalising on its predecessors' foundations to build a major innovation on top of it. The implementation isn’t well-oiled yet, it might not be a memorable gaming experience, but it’s an inspiring one as a designer. I find nothing more boring than playing a game where I don’t have anything to analyse because I can’t bring myself to care about it.

I care about Legion. The potential for the ‘play as anyone’ breakthrough is just the tip of the iceberg; there are so many creative ideas to derive from this procedural system (imagine a detective game!). As a creator, it can be tempting to play the ‘best-in-class’ titles to draw inspiration on what to do. I believe there is as much richness in experiencing and reflecting on experiences which attempt something genuinely new, even if they don’t manage to hit the bar of excellence yet.

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Jean-Baptiste Oger

Jean-Baptiste Oger

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Game Director. I write mainly about the design of video & board games. Aspiring to better understand the world around & human psychology.