Interview: Lathieeshe Thillainathan – Live Producer Of Watch Dogs Legion
Ubisoft Toronto is well in the development cycle for Watch Dogs Legion. A game best described as an ambitious leap for the series. Implementing the “play as anyone” system, Dedsec is opening its doors to anyone willing to join the resistance in the game’s dystopian London. Watch Dogs Legion‘s campaign finds you recruiting different members of the London community, tapping into their lives and recruiting them to fight the powers that be. Each NPC has a different back story and personal traits, laying the freedom of choice and agency in your hand.
During EGLX (Enthusiast Gaming Live Expo), Luke Williams and I sat down with Lathieeshe Thillainathan, Live Producer of the game to discuss the balancing that went into development. We also touched on the game’s themes and how real-world events began to catch up with their narrative vision.
Steve: We’re sitting around the halfway mark between the E3 reveal and Watch Dogs Legion’s release date. With the rush from E3 wearing off and development ramping up for the launch in March, how does everyone at the studio feel?
Lathieeshe: We took a big leap. To see how the community responded and the reception was a huge boost. We left E3 with more energy and now we want to get the game in people’s hands as quickly as possible. The team in Toronto and around the world are trying to make the best game possible. E3 was an amazing experience.
Luke: It’s probably an understatement, but Watch Dogs Legion looks to be a pretty ambitious project for the studio. Let’s talk about that.
Lathieeshe: It’s been amazing! *Laughs*
We wanted to make something that would be remembered. We wanted to make sure the series grew––it’s been a natural evolution for the series. Before you played as a lone hero, then as a team. We really wanted to build a world and a fiction that was grounded that you can really relate to. When you go down that path, playing as anyone was a natural fit. You want to build a team to tackle these complex problems, not as an individual. That’s where the idea came from. When we picked that idea, we didn’t know the journey we were going to take to make it happen. I was just really pumped and happy that it’s real and we are able to show it off. The company as a whole has been really supportive. It’s not just Toronto building it. We’re leading the development, but it’s also our friends in Montreal, and Newcastle, and Kiev. We all came together on this singular vision.
Steve: Ubisoft has been periodically handing the reins and storytelling agency to the player. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey lets players create their own missions. In Watch Dogs Legion, your line up of protagonists and level of attachment to characters will be a unique experience. Do you see this trend evolving and moving forward?
Lathieeshe: I can’t speak for the whole company. But for us, I think the thing we haven’t talked too much about is how the game still has a traditional story. We have five major stories we’re going to tell. More to come on that. But when you bring your team into that, you’re engaging in that story the way you want to. For us, that was the most important part. To have the story feel personal to you. When you bring people onto the team, the people that you have––and the fact we have permadeath in the game––the story has real consequences and your actions have real consequences. That was the most important piece of how we tell our story and how the players can have urgency with how the story is told.
Luke: This game takes place in a Britain that is very similar to ours. With issues evolving very rapidly this month and in the next few weeks, has there been a contingency plan or a worry that things may have an impact on the reception of the game?
Lathieeshe: When we were trying to build a game, the team looked at all of the world’s trends. So we wanted to build a game that told a compelling story and was rooted in some reality, but also speculative fiction. For us, the game is in a place where technology is being used to control people, technology is being used to take advantage of people. Certain individuals are taking advantage of that in the game. It was important to tell that story and it’s fascinating to be in a place where the story we wanted to tell now catching up to reality.
We want to maintain the story we want to tell. The game takes place so far into the future that it is really based on speculative fiction. Sometimes reality catches up and sometimes reality turns into fiction. That’s kind of the world we live in.
Luke: I really want to break that down because that’s really interesting. It seems speculative fiction is something the British and Europeans have done really well. But it seems that it’s something everybody can agree with. You’ve got Philip Dick who did everything in the U.S. So how is that going to evolve as a player?
Lathieeshe: When you start getting into the story, you’ll see this idea of futuristic technology being used to control people. You’ll see people in the world being kidnapped and mass murders happening. That is the chaotic world of London we are building and that’s the world you are entering to build a resistance to fight for the people of London.
Steve: Let’s talk about recruitment and the balancing that goes into that. You can play as anyone, recruit anyone and from the character showcases you’ve released, they seem to all have positive and negative traits. What can you tell us about this system?
Lathieeshe: We never actively tell you who to recruit. It’s really up to you to build the team you want to. When I play or watch other people play, they recruit people based on their own personal preferences. Somebody will recruit someone and say “Hey, that guy looks really cool.” Or, “She’s got a really cool hat!” They’ll recruit someone based on the customization aspect of it. Someone else may recruit somebody saying, “That person has a 200% lethal weapon advantage! I’ll take that person.” They’ll also recruit based on the backstory of the character to see the story.
In terms of balancing, we have a system that’s built to ensure that everybody has a positive influence and comes with a counterbalance. Alan, for example, has a 200% chance of taking someone out, but also may randomly die. We’re working very hard to make sure the balance is always there and there is a benefit. But we never tell you who the best person is for your team. That’s a really personal thing for everybody. They can attach themselves to their team in some way. Maybe a recruit reminds them of their grandmother or a roommate based on the name they may have or the job they might have, like octopus wrangler! There’s also that sense of humour to make sure that it’s a game you’re having fun with.
With anyone that you put on your team, you can also pick a class. There are three different classes. You can choose to make them an infiltrator, an assault class, or a hacker. Once you choose a class, they have their own individual progression that you can build and level up. That’s when you start customizing your team based on how you want to play.
Permadeath also comes into play when there are real consequences to what happens. That’s also been really interesting to build as we’re telling a story that’s compelling and grounded but has consequences. Watching people make calls on the fly of whether they want to risk an operative to go into permadeath or not has been interesting and I can’t wait to see what players think.
Steve: Since we’re talking about characters, I’ve been sitting on this question since the game’s reveal. I need to talk about Helen. She’s obviously become a fan-favourite online. Did the studio expect this kind of reception to her?
Lathieeshe: You always hope! A long time ago, I was saying during our community classes that Helen and her personality and movement was different. We built it and it was really cool, but it has no reason to exist in the game! *Laughs*
It was a lot of work because as you saw, the way she moves and animations when she takes people out were brand new. That was one type of animation, we have different types of animation in the game. So we were hoping that players would attach themselves to it and fall in love with it. It was more of a long, drawn-out hope that players would like it. That was one of the things at E3 that vindicated us. We went on this journey of building Helen as one type of grandmother character. She’s not the only grandmother, there are a lot of different grandmothers. It was exciting to see players really attach themselves to it. From a gameplay perspective, we really had no need to build it. But we wanted to make sure that diversity was there and it was really fun to see that happen.
Luke: Before we leave you, I want to talk about accessibility and diversity. This is a big one as I know Ubisoft is big on making games accessible to their players. With a world this big, how does diversity factor in?
Lathieeshe: That was very important to us. When we were building the population pool, we actually took census data from London and a lot of the team visited London. The creative team itself is very diverse. When you play the game, you’ll see that the team really pushed to make sure we made a game that was as diverse as possible. When you go from different burrows, you’ll see that diversity changes. It’s why we picked London. The city itself is super diverse in both culture and architecture. When you build your team, you’ll see that cultural diversity is so vast. From the accents and the way they speak and move, we tried to be as authentic as possible.
Watch Dogs Legion is set to release on March 6th, 2020 on PC, PlayStation 4, Stadia, and Xbox One.