Fifteen years ago this week, Ion Storm Austin released its debut game Deus Ex.
The first-person cyberpunk game would go on to garner long-standing critical acclaim, become a high-water mark in the careers of game makers like Warren Spector and Harvey Smith, inspire a generation of developers, and cement the "immersive sim" genre of game design. (Alongside Looking Glass' System Shock series and later Ion Storm Austin release Thief: Deadly Shadows.)
But in the weeks following the game's launch, lead programmer and assistant director Chris Norden tells me that most of the developers at Ion Storm Austin had no clue that the game would be anything other than a well-received summer release.
"We didn't know what was going to happen," Norden, who now works for Sony in Japan, tells me over Skype. "The game didn't really get famous until a considerable amount of time had passed. At first, it was like, 'Oh yeah, this game is cool. The reviews are good. Okay. Cool.' It didn't become a real hit until many years later. So we all had no idea what was coming."
Looking back, it seems like a foregone conclusion that Ion Storm Austin's efforts would spawn a franchise and influence game designers around the industry, who went on to work on big-budget projects like BioShock and Fallout 3, as well as more intimate games like Neon Struct and Catacomb Kids. (It's all charted out in Rock Paper Shotgun's "Deus Ex Made Me" article series.)
Now, 15 years on, it seems appropriate to reflect back on the foundation of Ion Storm Austin and what it was like to work on its first and arguably most significant game. In a series of conversations conducted separately with project director Warren Spector, lead programmer and assistant director Chris Norden, composer Alexander Brandon and lead writer Sheldon Pacotti, we seek to shed some light on how this seminal game was developed, how it reflected the identities of its creators and how it affected the course of their careers.
Excerpts from those conversations are published below for your edification and enjoyment.
Warren Spector: There's no question the development of Deus Ex was a high point for me. The team was like a dysfunctional family at times, but their commitment to the project and our mission was complete. People worked very, very hard to deliver on the promise and potential, that's for sure!
There was a very strong sense that we were doing something special... unique. That kind of opportunity - to make the game of your dreams with no creative interference - comes up very rarely in life, and I think everyone, not just me, knew that and, as a result, really swung for the fences.
Sheldon Pacotti: Deus Ex was total immersion for me. I lived and breathed Deus Ex for a year, seven days a week, fourteen hours a day. I was just that excited by the potential of the game. The only comparison I could make is to writing a novel, where you completely lose yourself in a fictional world until it becomes indistinguishable from reality.
At the time, few people expected video games to represent reality or tell a story you actually believed in, so I was thrilled to find a team that was trying to make that happen. But I had no idea if fans would "get it." The most gratifying thing for me is the number of players, continuing up to today, who -- like good players in a paper role-playing game -- have stepped into the fiction and abandoned themselves to it. A collective hallucination.
Alexander Brandon: Deus Ex is the game I hear the most about. I'm proud of everything I've worked on. Unreal pushed boundaries of level design and fantasy world exploration in the context of an FPS. Unreal Tournament honed multiplayer combat. But Deus Ex blew the doors off genres, and at the time, hardly anyone had done that.
The time that I spent on it was pretty incredible. And I hardly made any revisions to anything I did. I'd certainly change that in hindsight, but at the time what we did just worked.
Chris Norden: At the time, we had no idea what it was or what it would turn into. We really had no idea. We hoped it would be a success, at least critically, and it kinda turned into something...big.
A partial Deus Ex development team photograph from 15 years ago, provided by Chris Norden
I've been at Sony for almost 10 years now, and I've been a very public face for developer support, and now Morpheus; I give a lot of the developer talks about Morpheus. And I still get people coming up to me today saying hey...weren't you that guy that worked on Deus Ex?
We knew the type of game we wanted to make: something that had real choices, that didn't just have A-B conversation trees where none of the choices really mattered. We wanted it to be interactive, we wanted it to be fun, we wanted it to have pretty good tech, and we wanted to have a strong story.
I think we were in between for about six months after Looking Glass shut down. We were basically jobless for like six months, and we were doing pitches and talking to publishers, and I think it took about six months total for us to get Ion Storm onboard so they'd start funding us to start and get staffed up.
Spector: Basically, Looking Glass Austin shut down because Looking Glass as a whole was in pretty dire financial straits. The LG Austin projects couldn't move forward until and unless I could find external funding for them and, despite the efforts I made, that just wasn't happening. I talked to the folks in Cambridge and we all agreed that it made no sense to jeopardize the larger organization trying to keep a satellite office open. I was pretty confident I could find another deal, so we shut down.
Even though I was part of the decision, it was still pretty gut-wrenching when I left the empty office for the last time, I can tell you.
As far as Ion Storm Austin goes, it took some time, but I wasn't ever too worried. The core of the team was willing to wait while I found another deal. I kind of knew what I wanted to make -- based on thoughts I wrote up for Game Developer magazine about what direction RPGs could take.
Ultimately, I came close to signing a deal to make an RPG for a major publisher, based on an existing IP, but before I signed, John Romero called me and convinced me to sign on with Ion Storm, to create an Austin office for them, and to make the game of my dreams, which turned into Deus Ex.
Norden: So when we went around to pitch our games we hear about this company that Romero started, called Ion Storm. They're in Dallas, and they've got this massive amount of money and they're hiring up all these people to do all this cool stuff, and they've got this...you know, kind of now what you'd call a critical attitude, this whole "fuck you, we'll do what we want" attitude.
And you know, we didn't really buy into that whole mentality, but we knew they were good and smart guys, and we knew what they wanted to do, and it turned out to be a really good fit for us. Especially because we got to keep our office in Austin, because none of us were going to move to Dallas.
Spector: Okay, there were some frustrating arguments with people - not John!... with people who thought I should "just make a shooter." But I was able to fend them off and make the weird genre mash-up we ended up making.
Yeah, that game-of-your-dreams stuff was pretty good.
Norden: Warren had a bunch of awesome ideas, and we kind of put them together and they kind of formed the early framework for what Deus Ex became: this freedom-of-choice action-RPG with a lot of really awesome writing, which Sheldon did, and pretty cool tech at the time. Just cool open decisions, you know? Where you could do whatever you wanted, and approach problems in any way you wanted to.
Pacotti: I have a vivid memory of a design review during the summer of 1999, a routine event for the rest of the team, but for me it was a terrifying moment since I was a new, provisional employee, and since some of my early writing was in the game.
The developer playing the game (Chris Norden) behaved like a typical jerk player, killing friend and foe alike. This prompted Paul Denton, the player's colleague and brother, to say something like, "You jackass!"
Deus Ex demos running at E3 in 2000
I cringed, thinking everyone in the room must be thinking the writing was juvenile. After a few chuckles, though, everyone grasped that the game had reacted to Chris' playstyle. The only verbalization of that was Chris murmuring something like, "Wow, that's cool," before plunging ahead with the playthrough. But for me, that was a key moment where I realized that the winding pathways of logic I was writing were going to be appreciated--that I was on the right wavelength.
Norden: Oh yeah, I forgot about that! Everybody would respond to everything, basically. That was pretty cool. [Sheldon] is probably the most under-appreciated member of the team, I think. He pushed us so hard on stuff he wanted to do. I'm sure I said no to him a lot, because it was ridiculously hard, but we figured out ways to do it. We had a whole conversation editor and system, and you could do some really cool stuff in there that hadn't really been done before, with the storytelling side of things. Sheldon drove us a lot, to do that stuff.
Spector: It was also pretty cool seeing Sheldon Pacotti flesh out the story with a level of intelligence that still blows me away.
Norden: He was pretty much solely responsible for all of the story stuff; he wrote all the dialog, for the most part. He told us what the conversation system needed to be able to do. He designed the cinematics system. We implemented everything, and it turned out awesome. We gave him a lot of tools to tell the story he wanted to tell, and it turned out so good. He rocked that stuff so hard. Looking back on it, it's still powerful. The story is really powerful, and it still gives me goosebumps in places when I watch some of it.
Brandon: I think a lot of the voice acting is cheesy, but it still works somehow. It lends the game a personality, not in a realistic way that people can actually relate to, but that makes the characters more memorable. What's communicated in those voices instantly gives you an idea of who these characters are, I think.
I'm thinking specifically of the voices of J.C., Paul, Gunther and Anna Navarre. Gunther and Anna came across very clearly as people you shouldn't be fond of. You get into Invisible War, and there's a lot less of that; I hate to say it, but I think it's because one of our goals on that project was to hire better actors and do better voice acting. [laughs]
Which we did! But it kinda distilled it too much, oddly. Wiped out a lot of the character.