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"You need to be at peace with uncertainty"

Ubisoft's Jonathan Morin on why games should be instruments, not pieces of music

"It was part of the mandate, to create something that would be a brand. But from the point of the team's attitude, we always wanted to be careful - you can't have a brand until you have a game, let's start by making one. I wouldn't be so pretentious as to say that Watch_Dogs was always going to be the project that fulfilled that role, though." Ubisoft's Jonathan Morin, when asked about pressure and expectation, is relaxed and contemplative. It's already hard to imagine him being too pretentious.

"We started with several different projects. I think that's the way to go if you want to try risk, to do different things. As success moves forward and you can show concrete results, then the company can make decisions and move forward on things. I guess we won the lottery, but through our efforts. That came with pressure, but constructive pressure.

"There are a lot of things that intertwine between what creates a great brand and what creates a great game, so we focused on those. The thematics, the kind of universe we wanted. So there was the pressure of expectations, but that didn't happen overnight, more progressively as we got results. We had a really senior team who wanted to push forward but a lot of credit goes to Ubisoft for pushing us forward and saying yes a lot. So Watch_Dogs became bigger and bigger as we went on."

"So there was the pressure of expectations, but that didn't happen overnight, more progressively as we got result"

As a creative director of one of the world's largest studios, Ubisoft Montreal, Morin wields considerable influence. Given the reins to a brand new, multi-million dollar IP in the shape of Watch_Dogs, Morin was given the opportunity to create a vast new brand entirely in his image, to craft something with total control. But he didn't. Instead, as he explained to me at DICE Europe a few weeks ago, he wanted to relinquish the control of pure authorial intent, to embrace the same philosophy which sits behind many of Ubisoft's open-world titles, and perhaps some of their politics, the idea of a spectrum of creativity and interpretation, a melange of ideas and perspectives which combines to become greater than the sum of its parts.

"There are as many creative processes as there are different people," he tells me, precisely. "It's not like you can say, 'this is the recipe'. From my angle I've always felt that it's my job to define a spectrum within which each member of my team can draw a point. The worst thing I could do is just draw my point and ask everyone to work to that.

"From my angle I've always felt that it's my job to define a spectrum within which each member of my team can draw a point"

"The reason for that is that I'm a big systemic freak, I love games that are more open. There's a touch of control in there, but I also want players to be able to express themselves through it. I want them to benefit from the different dots that the team puts in there, because not everyone has the same perspective, so it becomes more open to interpretation.

"But there are some creators who are quite military about it, who define things very closely. That can create fascinating games as well. But for me, I think the scale of a game like Watch_Dogs - its systems and the way they grow over time - you need to be at peace with that uncertainty. You need to embrace that. That's the way I'd want to be treated. You need good people, but also the creative spectrum to allow them to bring new ideas. You need to provide a certain amount of creative freedom. That's my philosophy and that of the project.

"I added my point to that spectrum, but I don't need players to go and look at the whole of Watch_Dogs and come back having seen exactly what I wanted to express. That's not what I'm seeking from making games. It wasn't a process of me coming in every morning and sitting down and saying, 'right, hyper-connectivity, let's nail that.' It was us sat in a bar or a coffee shop, with FarCry 2 not even done yet, and we had some free time from debugging, and we we're just talking about it, about the rise of smartphones.

"When you're working as a creative team, you can never step back afterwards and say 'this one was my idea.' That shouldn't happen"

"So it was the act of listening to the people there at the beginning. If you know you're going to be working for years with those guys you want to find something to work on that fascinates all of them. I'm just there to guide them. When you're working as a creative team, you can never step back afterwards and say 'this one was my idea.' That shouldn't happen.

"My main guidance was that everyone has the right to call bullshit on anything, everyone has the right to say 'that is terrible' and feel fine about it. It can create tense moments at times, when you have 30 people pointing their fingers at something and saying it's terrible - that can be brutal! But when they go through the process a few times you prove to people that they can put their all into something, their full emotion, and they're not going to get backstabbed at the end."

During his presentation in the afternoon's sessions, Morin has spoken extensively about this very idea, this permeating ideology that there are no absolute answers, no binaries or right and wrong interpretations. The analogy that sticks with me is his idea that a game should be an instrument, and not a piece of music. By providing players with the means to create their own story, you empower them to come to their own conclusions without proscribing them.

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Watch_Dog's main character, Aiden Pearce, came under some criticism for being blank. Perhaps that's a necessity when trying to avoid being limiting?

Nonetheless, Watch_Dogs is a politically charged game with a pretty strong message. After we chat for a moment about the place of politics in games I ask him about the stance behind his project, how he reconciles a message with this idea of a spectrum of interpretation and whether he feels his team got it right.

"I think in the first game we were a bit inbetween, which I'm not sure was a good thing. What I wanted to do was push for not being too judgemental, we wanted to use the game as a mirror for the player, so the player asks themselves questions, finds ways to answer and reflect. The game didn't have to finish with a finger pointing at the player saying 'this is what I think'.

"We have some data that shows that some players did change their opinion on technology after playing the game, which I think is a great achievement, but I wouldn't pretend that we've mastered our approach to it. I guess as Watch_Dogs evolves, the brand will get better at helping people to have those reflections. I don't want the game to become judgemental, but I don't think we mastered our spectrum. Some players are less inclined to reflect and I think their experience is less rich."

"As we're getting better at realisation we can get closer to mastering the execution of story in games. There's lots still to do to be really good at that"

Morin's philosophy seems to be so perfectly in tune with Ubisoft's open world approach that it's clear that he sees his future in creating exactly the sort of game his company excels at, but does he see that as the industry's future as well as his own? Will all games become open world, systematic?

"From a selfish point of view, I guess I wish they would," he laughs. "But I also really really like playing games like the Last of Us, games that are narrowly created, that precisely narrate a story. I think there's space for all sorts of games. As we're getting better at realisation we can get closer to mastering the execution of story in games. There's lots still to do to be really good at that. But there's a bigger question mark over the systemic generation of an instrument with which players can play games.

"When you look at the game of the year for the last few years there's been a good mix. There's been a Last of Us, there's been an Uncharted, but there's been a Skyrim, a Fallout. They're very different, they all have their place, they can all have success."

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