Hacking Into République and Watch_Dogs with Ryan Payton

The Game marketplace is certainly expanding. We’re seeing more developers down in South America and Eastern Europe, but it would be nice for us to reach the same ubiquity as film.

It’s my prediction that if we get there, it’s not gonna be this California-centric hegemony when it comes to content. Like you said, because there’s so many great developers around the world – like the fact that The Witcher is made in Warsaw is incredible. They’re an elite developer. You can point to the highest-grossing films, and where are they all coming out of? Where are all the studios based? It’s all Southern California. I think we’re going down a better path.

Well they do a lot up here in Vancouver too, but that’s where all the money is.

Yeah, the decision-making, the marketing. What’s happening in film, what’s filling theatres, is the exporting of American culture. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but I think the world could use a little more diversity when it comes to storytelling and values.

Back to the subject of République, would you say the whole NSA scandal that broke out since you guys announced your game was fortuitous for you?

You can say that. It’s something we didn’t entirely predict, obviously, but back in 2011, when we were thinking about all this initial concepts for the game, you didn’t have to look hard to find some Scandals. For example, the AT&T room in San Francisco – room 641A – kind of came to light, but it didn’t blow up like the Snowden scandal and PRISM and stuff like that. I think we kind of knew what was going on, but it was fortuitous for us that our game launched within a month of all the mainstream press talking about the snowden scandal. Especially around the Holiday time frame. We were kind of the only game in town because, at retail, publishers don’t really ship games after thanksgiving – there might be one or two exceptions – so in a way we had mid-December to ourselves in terms of buzz. So we were lucky for a variety of reasons.

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Would you say Watch_Dogs being delayed for six months was a lucky break too?

Absolutely. I was so nervous about us coming out after Watch_Dogs, because I didn’t want to see articles all over the internet about how we had “copied” it. I’m so happy that we announced first, showed off first, and came out first, at least for Episode 1. Ubisoft’s got a marketing budget a hundred thousand times as big as we will ever have, so even today, as the free app of the week, we see guys giving us 5-Star reviews saying “Watch_Dogs clone,” and I just had to laugh. I kind of get upset about it, but the best thing is just to shake it off. At the end of the day, we announced first and released first, and that’s good enough for me.

Speaking candidly, Watch_Dogs let me down a little. The sandbox stuff distracts from the cool hacking stuff that I wish I was doing all the time, and the driving feels like you’re on ice. What strikes me is that you both have had this air of mystery about your games leading up to release, but Watch_Dogs just has this boring, generic revenge story inside the “mystery box,” and your game only seems more interesting as I see more of it.

I’m of two minds with this, because on the one hand I’m really proud of our narrative, and I know what our payoffs are, and I’m so excited, like I said before, about Episode 5 and being able to reveal so much stuff.

It’s gonna be Christmas.

It’s gonna be so amazing man, I can’t wait for that! I wish it was coming out before Christmas but looking at our production schedule, it’ll be after Christmas.

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But anyway, on the other hand, I understand what Ubisoft did from a marketing and commercial perspective. They’re obviously gunning for GTA, and trying to get that marketplace, and damn man, hats off to them. I’m less focused on what they did that’s similar to us, and more on… these games are just incredible, the amount of craft that goes into them, the amount of people, the systems that they create, it’s unbelievable. It doesn’t all go together into a cohesive whole, unfortunately, but I’m so impressed with the level of ambition. In that regard I really tip my hat to those guys.

And I think the revenge story, and you shooting guys, and having some thug on the front cover with a big handgun has probably – unfortunately – resulted in a lot more sales than if he was just a nerdy hacker. It shows what people are interested in. I also lament the fact that GTA V is such a best-seller, because I’m not sure what that says about our society. I also respect their games in terms of the craft, but I’m also kind of sad that a game that’s so anti-social is such a huge, massive success.

I can see that. GTA V is one of my favourite games, personally. Aside from all the impressive tech –fire, water, sand – that they cram into a huge sandbox, I’m wowed by the scope of it… and I’m a sucker for the stock market mechanics. We don’t see those enough

That was cool, and I’ll take so much of that. GTA is like “give it to me, give it to me, give it to me,” but at the end of the day, what does it all come down to? It’s fourteen year old kids renting it off of redbox, running people over and laughing, and shooting up places in this weird, violent, American fantasy land. You’re never going to see me insinuate that it leads to more real-life violence or crime, but I’m not sure that’s entirely healthy for society.

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Or it reflects something unhealthy in our society?

I think so, man. I guarantee you that there are a lot of kids that played GTA IV, where there was that one mission that was just literally “kill the gay guy.” I guarantee you there are tons of kids around the world laughing and going “yeah, yeah, yeah! Kill the gay guy!” I don’t think they got that it’s a big satire. I think that’s unfortunate, and I wish we could be better about it.

A few questions from my coworkers before I let you go. What are your views on science fiction? Do you think it’s more or less fantastic now than back in the day?

I try not to get too stuck on definitions. I would say that I spend most of my time thinking or reading about stuff that probably falls into the science fiction “camp,” but as time goes on I think I’m less interested in the Asimov style of science fiction and more into the William Gibson contemporary stuff. I think he puts it best when he says that, back when he was writing Neuromancer, there were all these fantastic things you could dream up about the internet, but now modern society is so weird that you could spend a lifetime writing about stuff that’s happening today and have it seem foreign and strange.

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Do you feel like a world of universal connectivity is a possibility, or even already happening? Would you say that’s a good or a bad thing?

I would say that it’s extremely likely, and that, as an eternal optimist, while we’re going to have a lot of trouble down the road, I like to think that – just like today, in 2014, where people kind of forget that the world is a much more peaceful place than it’s ever been in its history despite all our problems. I like to think that ten, fifteen, fifty years in the future I think that we’ll look at a lot of issues that connectivity can bring, but as a whole we’ll be a more peaceful modern, moral society. I think it’s good to keep all of it in context. Though on the other hand I think as time goes on we’ll have increased capacity to create even more horrible disasters. Thankfully we haven’t done that yet.

One last question so we can end on a light note. Do you think Glenn Beck is right when he says that games like République and Watch_Dogs are teaching our kids to become hackers and break into people’s homes through their iPads and watch them like perverts?

I have two thoughts on that. One is that I don’t think he’s incorrect in that, as time goes on, the mystique and the fantasy of being a vigilante hacker is something that is going to become an even bigger part of entertainment moving forward. It’s inevitable, I don’t think he’s wrong about that. And I will also say that I think gamers spend way too much time thinking about what Fox news says about video games, and what Ebert says about video games. We have won. Take your victory lap. Don’t worry about what old people who don’t play or know anything about video games are saying anymore. Those guys are gonna be retired in a few decades, and a whole generation of gamers are going to be running the world. Let’s just bask in that reality.