Watch Dogs: Legion lets players recruit and play as any character they encounter in the open world. It's a dramatic shift in the franchise and an innovation with far-reaching effects on the open world, but it's an idea that creative director, Clint Hocking, has had since he first laid eyes on the original Watch Dogs.
Hocking began his career at Ubisoft, directing Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Far Cry 2 before leaving the company in 2010. Five years later, he returned to Ubisoft Toronto to head up production on Watch Dogs: Legion and direct a team of hundreds of developers.
For this entry of Empowering The Creators, we spoke to Hocking about being a creative director, how the role evolves, and what it feels like when your game leaks a week before E3.
What exactly does a creative director do?
Clint Hocking: Every creative director probably is pretty different and has a different way of doing things. There isn't just one role.
In my job, I tend to be very involved in the narrative and mission design because these are where my strengths lie. I work very closely with the game design director, the level design director, the narrative director, the script writers, all those folks.
For animation direction, audio direction, or other things where I'm not as strong, those directors have a lot more autonomy. I sit with them and review their stuff and provide just very high-level direction. The main part of any creative director's job is setting direction and vision and working with the team to build that direction and vision.
How do you then learn how to give direction, not only in the areas that you're strong in, but the areas that maybe you're not as familiar with?
CH: A big part of being critical is being able to critique things on the terms that they create for themselves. Is this music, for example, achieving what this music seems to be setting out to do? Which is much fuzzier and much harder to decide. This takedown animation, it looks like this character is trying to be brutal. Does it look brutal to me, or do I feel like it could be made more brutal? I don't necessarily know how to give detailed animation direction, but I can look at an animation and ask, is it achieving what it's setting out to do?
Conversely, with the game design director, there's a lot more back and forth and a lot more pressure between what I think the system design needs to accomplish versus what the director is trying to do. It's a lot more haggling and refinement to be able to be much more precise about goals.
In your role now, how hands on are you? How much of it is directing and trusting other people with the work?
CH: The goal is to do no one's work. But at the same time, the work has to meet a certain bar and it has to deliver. So sometimes, I have to get a little bit hands on and work very closely with someone in order to push something to a higher level. The goal of that certainly isn't to do someone's work for them. That's the worst thing you can do as a director.
The goal of that is to help them better understand their role so that you can stop doing it entirely; to help the game designer and system designer become much better designers than I am. The idea is to make those people so good at what they do that I'm learning from them instead of them learning from me.
Watch Dogs: Legion is a giant game that's being worked on by many people in studios all over the world and you're sort of in control of it all in a lot of ways. How do you manage resources, time, and direction over so many people in so many different studios?
CH: I like the mythology that I'm in control of something. That would be a nice fantasy [laughs]. The real answer is once it comes down to co-developing with another studio, the producers have a lot more control over a lot more things than I do.
In the end, it's similar to working with the director here [at Ubisoft Toronto]. It's about defining the scope of the work and the mandate. Once that's defined, then it's very much managed by the producers here and the producers in the other studios with regular check-ins at gates and milestones to evaluate the content, as opposed to continuous feedback.
Typically, the closer a game gets to shipping, the less of a role the creative director has. Now that you're inside of a year before Legion launches, how has your role evolved? Are you starting to come off the reins a little bit now, or is it still, head down, full steam?
CH: If you look at all of development as like a graph of control, like on day one, I have 100% of the control and production has zero percent of it. Then on the last day, they have 100% of the control and I have zero percent of it.
Again, I think every creative director and every project is different. In my case, it's been moving further away from the details, making sure that the directors are owning their pieces and closing them down, trying to provide feedback or firefighting support where necessary, while at the same time, more and more of my job becomes things like E3, press, marketing, and more generally outward-facing.
A year and a half ago, before we brought in Kent Hudson to be the game design director, I was effectively the game director as well. Once we brought Kent in, the very early conversations were like, "Look, a year from now, I'm not going to be even on the floor half the time. I'll literally be out of the building in some other country, or meeting with partners, or at a show somewhere." And that's an important part of my job.
The last year and a half has been making sure that every piece of the design gets fully handed off and owned by the game director so that I don't have to worry about it, so that I can go and do that other part of the job.
What is that feeling like, to lose control over the project? Do you feel like there's something being taken away from you, or is it that a proud moment like, watching your kid go off to college?
CH: It's a bit of both. Deciding where to steer the ship is fun. And then being there to tie the rope to the dock and push the gangplank out is also fun. But, you have to let someone else be the one who ties the bow line.
You kind of miss it. Tying off the bow line is fun, and it's an important part of the job. But you can't do everything. It's good to be able to decide where to go, and it's good to be able to set the direction and propagate it out to the team. But at the same, you have to let go of a lot of the small, fun stuff because there are other people with jobs, too, right?
Do you think there are any sort of universal skills that are necessary for a creative director?
CH: You know, I don't know if there are. I think there are things that I value, things that I think are more important. There are some directors who are really empathic and really work with their directors to understand their vision and what their creative goals are, and some that are more dictatorial, and some that are better at getting the best out of their people, and some that are more hands-on.
I think there are better and worse kinds of people, but I don't think that there are better or worse kinds of creative directors in that sense. I think I'm a pretty hands-on kind of creative director, and I try to be less so. I try to be more empathic, and I try to understand my directors better, and help them grow and give them more autonomy.
I don't think I do that to become a better creative director. I do it to become a better person. I think there's just different kinds of people. I should make a game about that [laughs].
You're in a role that changes so much throughout the entire process; do you have a favorite part? Is it the conception part? Is it the first playable demo? Reveal? Launch?
CH: I like all the different parts for different reasons. I like the open-ended, free, brainstorming, dreaming part of conception. But while I'm doing it, I'm missing the constraints and the production realities and the "spread-sheetiness" of actual development. And then I love the closing, and I like being in the room with the closers making the hard decisions about what fits in the plan and what gets cut, and how to simplify things in order to make the deadlines.
So, I don't really have a favorite time. I think every time's your favorite time until you're sick of it. Being in conception is wonderful, but being in conception again for the third time in a row after three years and not shipping a game just really sucks.
Being in production is great. Everything's moving, and everybody's energy is really high, and people are moving quickly and decisions are being made quickly. But after a year, it's really exhausting. Every phase has its own good parts, and every phase can get really draining after a prolonged time.
Watch Dogs: Legion is doing something that we haven't really seen before when it comes to "Play as Anyone." Where exactly did that idea come from?
CH: The idea comes from the first Watch Dogs. A lot of the core team of the first Watch Dogs game was the core team from Far Cry 2, so they were good friends of mine, and I knew a bit about what they were working on.
I remember when I saw the game announced, and I saw Aiden walking down the street and profiling people, and seeing little details about people's lives, it created this illusion of everybody being much more real and much more fully simulated.
What if, instead of that being a little bit of smoke and mirrors that creates the illusion of people being more simulated and more real, what if we actually just did that?
Once we started talking about what it would mean to have a full simulation of a population, we also started thinking, you know, in Watch Dogs, you play Aiden, you play one guy, this loner vigilante dude. Then in Watch Dogs 2, you're part of DedSec, and you're this team of five or six people, even though you mostly just play as Marcus, but you're kind of a team.
And we started asking, well, since we have this full simulation of all these people – why not just make it so that you build your own team? Since they're already there and they're simulated and we can interact with them, why don't we just make them our playable characters? Once we had that idea, it just snowballed.
Was there any struggle in communicating this idea to the production teams? Was there any resistance?
CH: The idea came very early. It wasn't like there were 150 people working on the project, and then we said, "Hey, what if we did this?" The idea came even when I was the only person who was full-time on the project. People were onboarded to the idea one at a time, or a few at a time. There was never a big meeting of having to sell it to 200 people at once.
There were a lot of people who worked on it for a couple of months, worked on some part of it for a couple of months, and then left the project. There were a lot of challenges for sure.
I think different people have different capacities to sign up for an abstract dream, to say, "I'm going to spend 10 years of my life working on something that could fail." Different people have different capacities to take on that challenge, and that's fine. I don't mean that as a criticism. People need to be able to work on things that they're comfortable with and do work that they find fulfilling.
That's another one of the great reasons why it's such a good fit to be at Ubisoft because there's so many options for people. If people aren't interested in a game or a project or an IP, or the specific tasks that they have to do, there are lots of other options. You don't feel like, "Oh my god, I have to do this for the next three years even though I hate it."
What was the experience like building up to the big reveal at E3?
CH: I've been working on it for 10 years. It was amazing. It was wonderful. In the lead up to E3, when we were trying to bring the assets together, the stage demo and the trailers, and working on the speech, and the hands-on demos, and all the builds, it was extremely demanding.
But it was super important because, to tie back to the previous question, a lot of people have a really high capacity to sign on for big, risky, unknown things, and they joined us on this pretty long journey of working on something that was risky and unproven for a very long period of time. In some ways, gambling some part of their career, some part of their working lifetime on this idea.
It was really important that those people see it as being worthwhile in the end. We really had to make sure that we delivered something awesome and prove to the whole world that this was a really cool thing so those people would be proud of what they'd done.
What is it like on the development team when you find out your game leaked a week before it's supposed to be announced?
CH: I think it depends on the nature of the leak. In our case, it was shocking and frustrating, and we were angry about it. I don't think it hurt us, and it may have possibly even helped us. People on Twitter were asking, "What does that mean, you can play as anyone?" I think it actually put a lot of people in the right mindset to be asking the questions about the game that we were then going to answer.
That said, if your game leaks in a much more significant way, like had our stage demo leaked due to some network error, or someone hacked in and stole it, that would have been devastating.
As a creative director, what have you learned in the time between Far Cry 2 and Watch Dogs: Legion? How has your approach to direction changed?
CH: I learned a lot going from Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory to Far Cry 2. On Chaos Theory I wasn't just the creative director, I also had the title of lead level designer. And I wasn't a guy working with the script writer, I also was the script writer. I was literally doing three jobs.
When I went on to Far Cry 2, I was very lucky to have Dominic Guay as the producer. Dom is really good at hiring people and filling roles. He made sure that I was surrounded by other strong directors so I didn't have to do three jobs. Far Cry 2 is where I learned to be able to empower the other directors and trust them to deliver on the vision.
What made you want to rejoin Ubisoft?
CH: Ubisoft makes games, and Ubisoft has to ship games. I really wanted to come to a place where I knew I would be able to ship games, and also a place where I could trust the company and rely on the fact that I understand how the company operates and what the company's vision and direction is so that I would be able to be successful.
Ubisoft was attractive because of that, but also because the kinds of games that Ubisoft makes, and the kinds of risks and the kind of creative ambitions that Ubisoft has as a company are very much in line with my own. Whether that's because I started my career here or because it's a natural fit, I don't know. But either way, it seemed to make a lot of sense.