Tech by VICE

San Francisco Police Refused to Help Ubisoft With 'Watch Dogs 2'

Freedom of Information Act request reveals insights into how Ubisoft created its memorable open-world game.

by Leif Johnson
Mar 9 2017, 2:00pm

Investigative researcher Dave Maass couldn't help but be impressed by how well Ubisoft's recent hacking and exploration game Watch Dogs 2 captured the essence of street life in the San Francisco Bay Area. That admiration would have sufficed for many of us, but Maass, who sits on San Francisco's Sunshine Ordinance Task Force for reviewing public records requests, took it several steps further. While recovering from knee surgery last month, he shot off a Freedom of Information Act request to the San Francisco Police Department to see how their collaboration with Ubisoft's went.

"The game is just so rich that I couldn't imagine that they would have been able to pull it off without any kind of city involvement," he said.

Unfortunately, the collaboration didn't extend that far at all, but at least it wasn't for a lack of trying on Ubisoft's part. As a bonus, the episode provides a glimpse into the design process behind similar open-world games.

As the documents Maass recently obtained show, on March 30 of 2015 Ubisoft contacted SFPD asking for interviews with police officers on patrol and interviews within the Tenderloin police station. In order to help "creative a realistic and believable universe," Ubisoft announced it would have a cameraman and an interviewer on the ground that would "make documentaries, investigate, report real stories and anecdotes, which will be intended to feed the creative teams."

Above all, the Ubisoft contact (a research director whose name has been marked out), emphasized that the studio wished "to accurately reflect the perception of the SFPD about crime, your working hardness and not the prejudices."

"This looks like it's going to be a no," Albie Esparza, the SFPD's public information officer, told Ubisoft almost two weeks after the initial email. The internal debate about the merits of participating appears to have stuck on the question of what the themes of Ubisoft's games are, and at one point deputy chief Hector Sainez admitted he'd never even heard of the games Ubisoft listed as cred (such as Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, Rayman, and, of course, Watch Dogs).

And that was that, aside from some later emails with miscellaneous bits including reports about a homeless man "defecating and urinating" near Ubisoft's loading docks.

"One of the things I'd hoped to find out in the records request is whether the police department raised any issues about the types of engagements the players would have to have with police officers in the game," Maass said. "For a lot of people, the game often ends up with you, you know, shooting a lot of cops, and I was wondering how SFPD and Oakland Police Department would feel about that and whether they raised any concerns."

Maass did, in fact, send a FOIA request to the Oakland Police Department as well, but they recently missed their deadline.

"The outstanding request from OPD seems to indicate that they have to compile a lot more documents, or at least that was the excuse they gave for missing their production deadline," he said. Maass notes that the OPD figures much more prominently in Watch Dogs 2 than the SFPD, and that they're "portrayed particularly badly," seemingly in response to some corruption scandals rocking the department in recent years.

When that report comes in, Maass says he'll send it over to us.