How video game makers build a better SF, pixel by pixel
December 23, 2016
Updated: December 23, 2016 7:00am
December 23, 2016
Updated: December 23, 2016 7:00am
The new hacker-activist video game “Watch Dogs 2” features a nearly photo-realistic version of San Francisco, so detailed that the graffitied walls of Clarion Alley in the Mission District are included. After an in-real-life visit to canine-friendly Dolores Park, the developers decided to include more dogs in the game.
A generation ago, video game developers couldn’t create much more than a blocky 16-bit version of the Golden Gate Bridge. Now God-playing designers can replicate a freely explorable San Francisco down to the street signs and manhole covers.
The city’s topography, recognizable landmarks and swashbuckling history make it a good fit for game developers looking for a recognizable setting — even when they choose to alter San Francisco because of legal issues, design preferences or just to make the city a little more fun.
“Is there a better setting for a game?” says Shawn Livernoche, who co-owns the High Scores arcade museums in Alameda and Hayward. “Think about how many different rich geographic locations there are to really express. You could set (the game) now, or you could set it right after the (1906) earthquake. You could set it right after the Gold Rush. … Do you know how amazing Chinatown is to someone who has never been to Chinatown?”
The first use of San Francisco as a setting in arcade and console games dates back more than three decades. Livernoche points out that early designs for the landmark 1980 arcade game “Missile Command” had San Francisco clearly marked as one of the cities targeted for nuclear annihilation.
As 3-D graphics advanced in the 1990s, San Francisco became a popular virtual racetrack for driving games, including the “Crazy Taxi” and “San Francisco Rush” arcade series. “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater” and “Pro Skater 4,” released in 1999 and 2002 respectively, featured Alcatraz and the Embarcadero; players could execute skateboard tricks on the blocky twists and turns of the Vaillancourt Fountain.
But later in the 2000s, as the technology developed to allow a more realistic “sandbox”-style San Francisco that could be freely explored, designers began altering reality.
The 2011 Ubisoft game “Driver: San Francisco” resurrected the failed plans of the Central Freeway, allowing uninterrupted Autobahn-like passage heading west off the Bay Bridge, north past City Hall and northwest toward the Golden Gate Bridge.
The designers of San Fierro, the second fictional city encountered in the 2004 game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” decided to keep a version of Foster City in their satirical mock version of the Bay Area, while removing most of the Marina and the Richmond District. (The Richmond, sadly, is almost always a casualty in San Francisco games.) In one of the city’s many throwback moves, San Fierro’s baseball park was moved from China Basin back to the Mission District, where the Seals and Giants played until the late 1950s.
When the coin-operated arcade game “San Francisco Rush” was released by Atari in 1996, producer John Ray says the Milpitas team debated things like whether to include fog or Sutro Tower. But there was never a question that realism would take a backseat to entertainment value.
“If you were going fast enough, you could jump over all of Lombard Street in our game,” Ray says. “Sure, you could drive down Lombard really slow if you wanted, but isn’t it more fun the other way?”
The Palace of Fine Arts was moved a little bit west of its current location in “San Francisco Rush,” and a secret tunnel was built underneath Cow Hollow and the Tenderloin. The half-built Embarcadero Freeway, demolished while the game was in production, was retained for its benefits as a launching point for sweet “Dukes of Hazzard”-style jumps.
Still, if video game developers don’t prefer these “improvements,” legal issues can prevent a 100 percent accurate San Francisco, even though laws surrounding accurate city building generally favor the game companies.
Eric Ball, a partner at San Francisco law firm Fenwick & West, points out that game companies, like movie houses, can re-create whatever is in public view. “Watch Dogs 2,” for instance, features a completed version of the still-under-construction Salesforce Tower.
During “the beginning of ‘Full House,’ when they’re flying in and showing the Golden Gate Bridge and the (Painted Ladies) houses, they don’t blur those out,” Ball says. “You’re allowed to show those. They’re not getting a license from the Golden Gate Bridge folks to show the Golden Gate Bridge.”
But Ball adds that game developers must get permission to replicate the insides of buildings, even if they’re portrayed accurately. The few games that have replicated the interiors of San Francisco buildings — such as the Metreon in the 2005 game “Jet Li’s Rise of Honor” — cut a deal beforehand.
Livernoche hasn’t played “Watch Dogs 2” yet, but he says game companies have historically failed to tap into the potential of San Francisco. He points to stylish and artistic Japanese games such as the “Yakuza” series and “Shenmue,” which offer interpretations of Tokyo and Yokosuka that make a gamer want to visit those cities in real life.
“I just think it’s a shame because (San Francisco) is so interesting culturally and so representative of some of the best parts of America melding together,” Livernoche says. “I see Japanese pride when I play their games. It’s something that we should be making art about.”
While Ubisoft is headquartered in San Francisco, “Watch Dogs 2” was produced by the Ubisoft Montreal team. The developers made frequent field trips to the Bay Area, visiting hacker collectives in Silicon Valley and San Francisco’s Mission District, while immersing themselves in the city’s mores and politics.
Guay’s team subscribed to local newspapers; one rule was that every “mission” for the lead character had to be inspired by a real-life Bay Area event. There are tech buses in the “Watch Dogs 2” San Francisco, and lead character Marcus Holloway has a backstory that includes being born and raised in Oakland.
“The most challenging thing was to try to keep all the landmarks, keep all the interesting and iconic elements that you want to keep, but then shrink the city and make compromises that people won’t mind,” Guay says. “I think that’s trickier for San Francisco — a lot trickier than it was for Chicago (for the first “Watch Dogs”) — because of the hills. If you start scaling things down too much, you end up with impossible slopes.”
San Francisco isn’t the only locale that received a makeover. It seems the further you stray from the city in “Watch Dogs 2,” the more the game ventures into fiction.
Marin County is much more forested, seemingly scaling development back more than a half century. Silicon Valley, home of the Google-like tech campus called Nudle, bears almost no geographic resemblance to the real thing.
“To be totally honest, it’s more of a Silicon Valley-inspired section of our game world,” Guay says.
Back in faux San Francisco, though, Guay proudly points out some local details that might be missed, including, in a meta turn, the ability to go inside Ubisoft’s headquarters. There’s also a pile of happy sea lions near Pier 39 and a character inspired by the “Bushman” busker near Fisherman’s Wharf (players can actually take a selfie with him in the game).
Yes, along with the hacking, driving and firearms-related mayhem, “Watch Dogs 2” encourages the San Francisco tradition of shameless tourist behavior.
“This probably shows that I’m not from San Francisco, but one of my favorite things to do in the game is grab a boat and sail to Alcatraz,” Guay says. “When I got a copy of the game, I told my kids, ‘Now you can finally visit San Francisco.’”