Postmortem: Ion Storm's Deus Ex
December 6, 2000 Page 5 of 5
What I'm Not Sure About
the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it's easy to identify some things
as having gone "right" and other things as having gone "wrong." However, some of the most interesting things to consider are the ones that aren't so easily pinned down. Here are some questions that are
still very much open in my mind. (If any of you have answers, feel free to share them!):
- Is it better to start the design process with fiction and high-level gameplay goals or to dive right into game systems? We did a much better job, I think, of the former than the latter. Too much of our system stuff had to be rethought relatively late in the project. Only the conversation and inventory systems are largely untouched from where we started. We remained true to our high-level goals, but I can't shake the feeling we could have done a better job early in the project on the system design front.
- Is iconic/abstract representation of characters, power-ups, player rewards, tools, objects, and so on better than realistic/specific representation? In other words, are instantly identifiable floating crosses better as healing items than a med-bot, something the player may or may not be able to identify? Is it compelling to wonder if that guy over there is a good guy or a bad guy? Or is it better to know just by looking at him, so you can plan accordingly? As in so many things, we went with a hybrid approach -- nothing as extreme as floating health restorers, but instantly recognizable good guys, bad guys, rewards, and objects.
- Is it better to stop the action while the player is in interface screens or to keep the action going à la System Shock 2? We chose to stop the action because, for us, the tactical decisions this allows outweighed the artificiality and the loss of immersion. Was that the right decision? Probably, but there's no way to assess the road not taken in this case.
- Should you get to name your character or not? A holy war almost broke out on the Deus Ex team about this. "If you can't name your character, it's not an RPG," said some. "If we don't name the character, how do we write and record compelling conversations and create a cool story?" said others. "Story isn't the point…" "Yes, it is…" and on and on and on. We compromised: we gave the player character a code name and back-story but let the player select his real name, which came into play in various ways (though never in speech).
- Is it better to worry about graphics and art direction and cinematics early or late? We did zero flic work until the very end of the project, and though the game looks good, we left it to the end to go back and make a pass at consistency (getting the lighting and texturing just right, and so on). I decided it was more important to get the gameplay under control than to get the game looking good. We did make our art direction pass and we did make the game look better -- really good, in fact, in my totally prejudiced opinion. But it's unclear to me whether the game could have looked even better if we'd gone the other way and dealt with art issues sooner rather than later.
The Bottom Line
Part of the challenge of game development is making the tough decisions along the way, leading to many difficult junctures when you have to determine that something that can't be done right in the game shouldn't be done at all. Notice the complete lack of references to multiplayer action in this Postmortem. We wanted to provide multiplayer support but didn't have the time to do the job we knew we needed to do, and so it got cut.
Now, generalize from that point: It's all well and good to have design goals and an ideal game pictured in your head when you start, but you have to be open to change and realistic about what can and can't be done in a reasonable time frame, for a reasonable amount of money, with the personnel and technology available to you. And if you don't have time to do something right, cut it and do everything that's left so well that no one notices the stuff that isn't there.
I'm not saying we did that perfectly on Deus Ex. We certainly didn't ship a perfect game. But if we hadn't gone into development with the attitude that we'd do things right or not at all, we would have fallen far shorter of perfection than we did. How close we did get is something all of you can decide for yourselves. All I know is we're going to get closer next time.
Time: 6 months of preproduction and 28 months of production
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