Inside the Driver game that died so that Watch Dogs could live

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When cars slip, they leave tire marks. In a game like Driver, they bring an aesthetic touch, being part of the inherent freshness of a handbrake turn. But those dark shadows on the road also tell a story. From the tire tracks, you can determine a vehicle’s speed, when it started to skid, and its ultimate direction of travel – long after the car itself has vanished in the distance.


The story of Driver’s transformation into Watch Dogs, and the rise of a new Ubisoft franchise as an old favorite languished, is set a long time ago – ten years to be exact. The memories are hazy, and a source contacted by VG247 initially said Watch Dogs’ connection to Driver was an urban myth. But look closely and you’ll see the tire tracks: the telltale signs that show us how one successful series has been supplanted by another.

Contacted for this article, Ubisoft declined to comment. But the company’s North American president, Laurent Detoc, gave an interview to IGN in 2013, in which he revealed that the studio behind Watch Dogs was originally building a different game. “They were working on a driving motor, we had the driving license,” he said. “At one point, it changed. That was at least three years ago, and then the Watch Dogs project reused some of the work that had been done on this drive motor.

As Detoc puts it, the game was initially all about driving, until a team shuffle led to a new Creative Director and a restart of the project. The result was an open-world game in which much of the action took place on foot.

“I wouldn’t say Driver has become Watch Dogs, because that’s not true,” he added. “This is not really what is happening. What happens is a game gets canceled and then you take pieces of that game to make a new one.

The story that VG247 uncovered is slightly different, however. Speaking to three sources – one working at Ubisoft, the second a former senior Ubisoft employee, and the third original Driver creator Martin Edmondson – an image emerged of a game that has gradually and organically overtaken the driving license limits, giving birth to The Watch Dogs series we know today.

“The game that came out as Watch Dogs started life as a sequel to the Driver franchise, but has always been largely what you see in the final product,” the source at Ubisoft said. “It was still modern times, there was walking, parkour, combat as well as driving, all in a big open world city, and the main hook was still modern technology and hacking. After some time of trying to incorporate this concept into the Driver franchise, the decision was made to turn it into its own new intellectual property.

Typically, a publisher will support a single game to restart a series and then build on that foundation if it turns out to be a success. But Ubisoft was working on two distinct visions of what Driver could be at the same time. One, led by Edmondson in the UK in the historic Driver Reflections studio, was captioned San Francisco. Both bold and nostalgic, it locked players inside the car, much like the ’90s original, but allowed them to swap between vehicles via a fun and fantastical concept called’ shift ‘. Players would float disembodied through town to own other drivers and have conversations with their passengers.

While development for San Francisco was underway, a team led by Far Cry 2 veteran Jonathan Morin from Assassin’s Creed Ubisoft Montreal studio showcased and designed their own sequel to Driver. Reflections had no influence on the story, which left out characters from the show like undercover cop Tanner, his partner Jones, and villainous Jericho – although this wouldn’t have been the first Driver game to be played. do it.

“Remember that by then, we had already moved Driver away from Tanner and Jones with Parallel Lines, which was set halfway in the 70s and half in the 2000s,” said the Ubisoft source. 2006 Driver: Parallel Lines also featured walking segments and GTA-style shots. Although Ubisoft Montreal had never created a Driver game before, its interpretation of the future of the series was rooted in what came before it.

The Montreal team were clearly aware of the story they were getting into, consulting the creator of Driver on his specialty: driving. “We were working on Driver: San Francisco, and I remember getting a first demo from one of Ubisoft’s producers, just to give some feedback,” Edmondson said. “Nothing to do with the game and all the Watch Dogs hacking stuff, just the manipulation patterns. “

The demo involved driving around a city. Edmondson commented on the feeling of sliding cars and was told the player would be able to hack traffic lights and other elements of the world. “It was then very, very early the doors,” he said. “It was so rough the cars weren’t even properly textured.”

Edmondson doesn’t remember whether or not the project was considered a pilot’s game at the time, but knows he didn’t use any code from Reflections – only the studio’s expertise to spin the muscle cars in. the turns. After that, Edmondson had his head down, sending San Francisco out the door.

Pilot: San Francisco launched in 2011 with rave reviews, but lackluster sales. According to a former senior Ubisoft executive, it was the end of the series, “definitely the end of the road for this franchise.”

The same source says that Ubisoft Montreal’s Driver demo was redesigned in response, refocusing on his hacker fantasy: “They just did their own thing and convinced Yves. [Guillemot, Ubisoft CEO] he could have “his own GTA” instead of the cheap pilot.

The Ubisoft source disputes the timing, suggesting that Ubisoft Montreal’s Driver game had already morphed into Watch Dogs before the San Francisco release. But they agree that the hacking was the aspect that pushed the project into new territory for the show: “It took it away from anything that looked like Driver. They couldn’t adapt the concept to the franchise.

Both cite the same example as an explanation: the transformation of a planned Prince of Persia sequel to Assassin’s Creed, a few years earlier in the same studio. “It’s really the only way to get a new AAA IP out there,” says the former senior Ubisoft employee. “Start with a brand and use that budget to create a demo and create a spin-off. Watch Dogs was Driver, Assassin’s was PoP.

The Ubisoft source suggests that this is a common way for new series to start, across the gaming industry. “Developers love to work on new mechanics and new parameters without limits,” they say. “Businesses love the security of making sequels and expanding a franchise with a loyal player base. Every once in a while a team pushes the boundaries of a franchise too far, and if they can persuade companies to support their concept, a new franchise is born.

In the end, Reflections ended up bringing more than just commentary to Watch Dogs. Later in development, the studio took care of all the interiors of the Chicago open world buildings, as well as the art for the vehicles. More aptly, he designed the driving missions. Watch Dogs cars have a dangerous sense of weight and a rushed momentum that divided reviews at launch, but is recognizable in Driver.

In fact, once you know how to look for them, you can see the driver’s tire brands all over Watch Dogs. Like Tanner before him, Aiden Pearce confines himself to a shabby motel room when not at work and has a reputation for being a wheelie for the criminal underworld – “Chicago’s best chauffeur.” Missions tend to resolve into high-speed kamikaze cop chases, in which you have ample opportunity to crash police cars against hacked terminals, and rewarded with a cinematic slow-motion crash camera. Watch Dogs even updated vehicle stealth the way Driver first envisioned – asking players to stay in alleys, hide in garages, and as a last resort, kill the engine to escape the authorities. It was clearly a cloudier and more miserable take on the series than Driver: San Francisco, but no less valid.

Morin remained in place as Creative Director until the end of the project and took over the role of Watch Dogs 2 in 2016 – a rare open world game that is more than the sum of its parts. Reflections was also involved in the sequel, creating a more responsive and crowd-pleasing business model.

It would be natural for Driver fans to resent Watch Dogs. Driver has been dormant for a decade and shows no signs of recovering. While Reflections still exists within Ubisoft and contributes to driving models for games like Ghost Recon, it hasn’t been let go as the main studio for a big budget driving game from San Francisco. Watch Dogs, meanwhile, received a new entry from Ubisoft Toronto last year.

Again, the sequel to Driver that became Watch Dogs was a bonus. If sales in San Francisco really doomed the series, then Ubisoft Montreal has found a way for Driver to live in the DNA of a new game, with a different name. Display Marcus Holloway’s phone in Watch Dogs 2 and you’ll see that his taxi mission app is called ‘Driver SF’ – a rather sweet tribute to a series that may have gone missing, but still informs games about it. Ubisoft today.

” I do not think so [Driver is] too restrictive, ”explains the source at Ubisoft. “There are so many things you can do with it and different stories you can tell. But deep down, any Driver game has to be about driving, and genres come and go in fashion. Now is not the time for new driving games, but who knows in the future. “

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