MIGS 2011: Eidos Montreal's Insane Task Of Reviving Deus Ex
David Anfossi, producer on Eidos Montreal's debut title Deus Ex: Human Revolution told attendees at the Montreal International Games Summit exactly how and why he and his core creative team decided to take on the rather insane task of reviving a classic and revered franchise like Deus Ex.
It turns out that even though the team consisted of fervent fans of previous Deus Ex games, that wasn't the only driving factor behind reviving the franchise.
"First thing, and you know better than me, it's very competitive in Montreal," Anfossi told the audience.
There are a lot of established game publishers in Montreal, such as Electronic Arts and Ubisoft. Working with a well-known IP gave some recruiting leverage to a startup studio made up of just a few guys.
"By starting off with Deus Ex, you could attract the best talent," he said. "...I don't think there's a better choice than Deus Ex to attract people."
Also, by choosing Deus Ex, the series was able to lay the groundwork for what the team expected to become a triple-A game maker. And hitting a high quality bar with a relatively well-known property would help put new studio Eidos Montreal on the map.
But starting off on the project -- which ended up taking four years -- was not easy. Beyond the core members, Eidos Montreal had no team, no studio and no tech. "It was the most challenging project I've ever had to manage," said Anfossi.
Building A Studio
In the beginning stages, Anfossi had to analyze the situation before acting. "Recruitment is crucial," he said. "...For sure, it starts with people. People are the base and foundation for everything... They are the experts. Let them decide the way they want to work. Why force them to work under a standard pattern?"
Using that philosophy, the team expanded, and it was time to get into the concept phase. Anfossi said it was important that the entire team understood the franchise and its themes, defined the mandate, and that management defined a process that would "force the team members to work together."
"Define a clear and solid vision and earn the trust of your publisher," said Anfossi. Producers need a core creative team that has already faced failure, he said, and that wants to push the envelope. Team members, he added, need to be people that are headstrong, or as Anfossi said, have "a forehead all around the head."
"They are perfectionists... they want to push, which is very, very important," he said.
While in the concept phase for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the team was in a very basic office. During initial brainstorming about the game's design the office walls were lined with papers, full of ideas. "There was nothing on the computers that was the result of brainstorming. We're lucky there was no fire," Anfossi laughed.
"We defined exactly the way that we wanted to produce this game... we were the experts," he said. "Nobody was saying, do that, do that, do that... We were just focusing on defining the ambition of the game, not following a pattern." That helped empower the team members.
Conceptual work continued. Anfossi said the studio had to emphasize, "It's not about doing an action RPG. It's about reviving Deus Ex. It's a different thing. So you have to respect Deus Ex."
"Respecting" Dues Ex meant replaying the games, documenting their experiences, and making sure that the studio as a whole understood the essence of the series. "It's very important. Respect the initial invention," he said.
Aside from playing the original Deus Ex and its sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War, the team also delved deep into cyberpunk research. The studio read Neuromancer, Count Zero, Singularity and Humanity+ magazine, among literature. They also watched the Ghost in the Shell Series, Bladerunner, and other Cyberpunk-styled media.
And despite the name of the game, part of the mandate for Deus Ex: Human Revolution was not to make it a revolutionary game, said Anfossi. "Our challenge now is to turn it into a gamers' franchise," he said, and fix the perceived flaws that kept the series from gaining a wider audience.
It was time to go into pre-production. During this phase, the studio opened up a line of communication with gamers. Even before the release of a trailer, the studio opened up an online forum. "We received very strong feedback," laughed Anfossi. He flashed examples of "feedback" on a slide. "Don't fuck it up"; "Don't touch this franchise"; "Don't do another Invisible War"; and in a reference to the designer behind the original Deus Ex, "Forget it, Warren Spector is not part of this team."
"It was very hard to receive constructive feedback," Anfossi said. "It's good to listen to gamers, but there is a time to do that correctly."
Anfossi also stressed the importance of testing the production pipelines. "Take the time to make sure that your pipelines are functional," he said. "Very basic, but important... You have to test them and adjust them before production." The team produced three vertical slices, or sections of the game, prior to production in order to test these pipelines.
"It's time to do iteration before you start production, before you start up the big machine," he added. "We spent two years of our lives creating Adam Jensen," the game's lead character. Levels also were reworked repeatedly and extensively during pre-production. "The point here is that honestly... I don't believe a person can reach perfect results the first time."
Production And The Final Stretch
Finally, production on the game started. For Anfossi, this is a "time to deliver, not time to create."
Anfossi said empowering team members is crucial, and that involved frequent meetings that allowed for more communication between departments. These meetings allowed them to also make sure the vision was consistent, and they let the team bring their expertise and ideas to the table.
After much work, it was time for playtesting with gamers as well as with peers. Consumer playtesting was important to Anfossi. "Listen to gamers. At the end, they are the final consumer," he said.
Having a good team that delivers results helped the studio gain trust with the publisher. Anfossi said transparency between the studio and the publisher is very important. "It's about no bullshit, to make it simple," said Anfossi. "You have to tell them what's happening during development as a producer. If I'm not comfortable with a deadline, I have to be clear with the publisher. I have to fight for the team, to make sure they have time to produce what we want to produce... So no bullshit. Very important."
He advocated courage, that team members not take everything for granted. "As a team member, you have to analyze what we ask you to do," he said. "Everybody walks together."
And alongside courage is passion: "I think it's very simple. I think in the end, that will make the difference between an 85 and a 90 rating," he said. "...People with passion make the difference."
Deus Ex did very well with critics, earning an 89 on Metacritic. Eidos Parent Square Enix this week boosted its financial forecasts due to the success of the game, which shipped 2 million units shortly after its late August release.
While critics lauded the game's freedom, story, art direction, music and replayability, there were also rough spots, such as "difficult and forced" boss fights, outdated tech, voice acting and synchronization, no voiceover for European SKUs, inconsistent A.I., and issues with cut scene transitions.
"It was a solid game, with areas [in need] of improvements," said Anfossi. "I'm very proud of the team. ... I think we answered the mandate."