Deus Ex 2 Q&A

Ion Storm's Harvey Smith and Warren Spector talk to us about this anticipated sequel to Deus Ex.

Some of the most memorable and revolutionary PC games of the decade have been born of the creativity of veteran game designer Warren Spector. Dating back to Origin's Ultima Underworld and leading up to games as recent as Thief: The Dark Project and Deus Ex, Spector's games have always made the most of existing graphics technology to create worlds and environments that are totally immersive and completely believable. Those of us who have been following Spector's career and his chronology of games through the years are expecting no less of Deus Ex 2, which, like its characters and plot, is a game that's shrouded in mystery. However, as all good veterans eventually do, Spector is handing off the reins to a potential rising star--Harvey Smith, who acted as lead designer on the original Deus Ex, will be the one overseeing the overall development process of this anticipated sequel. While Warren Spector will still have a great deal of influence upon the game's design, it'll be Smith and his team of developers who will be in the actual driver's seat.

We recently sat down with Ion Storm's Warren Spector and Harvey Smith to find out more about Deux Ex 2, the direction its development is heading, what the team learned from the original Deus Ex--and to have them answer many, many more of our eager questions.

GameSpot: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, gentlemen. Can you begin by telling us how long Deus Ex 2 has been in development to date, when it is scheduled to be completed, and what your particular roles on the project are?

Take a look at a concept sketch of a new character from Deus Ex 2.

Warren Spector: We started preproduction work on Deus Ex 2 late in 2000 with a small subset of the team--most of the original Deus Ex team and several new hires worked on the Deus Ex single-player and multiplayer patches--and on the Game of the Year edition and Deus Ex for the PlayStation 2, of course. Midway through 2001, we had a pretty clear picture of Deus Ex 2, and some of those other projects were put to bed, so that was really when the team started ramping up. We've been in full production since fall of 2001 (though, to be honest, there are still some key bits of technology that still have to come online before we build final production maps and missions). Completion date? I don't think we're quite ready to talk about that yet.

As for my role, I'm functioning primarily as studio director around here these days, meaning I set the high-level goals for all of our games without actually being in the trenches on any one of them. Harvey Smith's taken the reins as project director on Deus Ex 2, stepping up from the lead designer role he played on Deus Ex. And Bill Money's handling the producer job. I'm keeping an eye on things, creatively and schedulingwise, but the team management and the bulk of the design decisions are coming from them. I'm an advisor, a kibitzer, and a nudger this time around. Frankly, Harvey and I have been working together for a long time now and we know each other really well. He understands Deus Ex as well as I do--maybe better--and he's certainly earned a shot at running his own project. As for myself, I'm enjoying building and heading up a studio that pushes the boundaries of immersive simulation on several projects rather than focusing exclusively on one.

GS: How many people are working on Deus Ex 2? Is it mostly the same team as the one that did the original game?

WS: Deus Ex 2 has about 20 people right now and we'll probably add another five or so, plus some additional QA folks when we get into testing. Several of the team members worked on the first Deus Ex, particularly on the design end of things. There's Harvey, of course, but Steve Powers, Monte Martinez, Ricardo Bare, Clay Hoffman, Sheldon Pacotti...they're all back. The art team's almost all new, and the programming team is all new, but we were able to bring on folks steeped in the ways of genre-bending, first-person games either through work at Origin or Looking Glass, and most of them got their Deus Ex feet wet working on the multiplayer and Game of the Year stuff. It's a really strong team...

GS: Deus Ex 2 will apparently pick up where Deus Ex left off...but considering Deus Ex has three different endings, how is that possible? That is, what's the back story to Deus Ex 2?

WS: Nice try, but it's too early to reveal anything about the Deus Ex 2 story at this point other than to say it's set in the same almost-but-not-quite-the-real-world setting as Deus Ex--but sometime after the events of the first game. But I should probably let the project director field Deus Ex 2-specific questions...

What to Expect

GS: Will we be able to import our saved games from the original game into the sequel?

Harvey Smith: Nope. That's not the approach we're taking to following up the first game.

GS: Will we encounter any of the characters from the first game in the sequel? Can you tell us about some of the new characters we'll meet?

HS: Yes. A number of characters will make return appearances. Though some have changed--at the start of Deus Ex 2, 15 years have passed since the end of Deus Ex. Some characters will be back--and older. Other important NPCs are descendants of Deus Ex characters.

GS: Deus Ex was praised for its open-ended structure, which lets you approach different situations using different means and then having to deal with the consequences of those actions. Are you seeking the same sort of feel for the sequel? Are you expanding Deus Ex's cause-and-effect system in any way?

"Frankly, I felt like Looking Glass threw down the gauntlet in games like Thief; we picked it up with Deus Ex, and...Grand Theft Auto III...threw it right back in our faces." --Warren Spector
HS: We are shooting for much more of this. We realized how to do this (through simulation and emulation) as we were working out the gameplay in Deus Ex (and as we looked at other developers' games, like System Shock 2, for instance). We're planning on Deus Ex 2 featuring far more flexibility and player internationality.

WS: To follow up on what Harvey's saying, free-form gameplay is a big part of gaming's future--maybe the most exciting part. In Deus Ex, we tried to give players real choices with real consequences, but there's a lot more we can do. Frankly, I felt like Looking Glass threw down the gauntlet in games like Thief; we picked it up with Deus Ex, and some more recent games--like Grand Theft Auto III--threw it right back in our faces. We're hoping--and planning--to embrace that challenge here. If we realize even half of our plans, Deus Ex 2 and Thief 3 should represent big steps forward in the area of open-ended gameplay.

GS: Deus Ex lets you train in various skills, like with different weapons or in abilities like hacking. What are some of the new abilities and new weapons that will be in the sequel?

HS: All of the same powers will be there, in some form or another. We're adding a bunch of new tools, weapons, and augmentations, including a complete set of black market augmentations (now that nanotechnology has, in our fictional world, proliferated outside the control of the superpowers). In some cases, where players felt that certain character choices were weak, we've merged abilities. For instance, this time around, taking the aqualung augmentation (for the lung slot) also gives the player enhanced swimming; each tier of aqualung increases underwater breathing time and swimming speed until the most advanced character can breathe water indefinitely and swim at near running speed in the water.

GS: Deux Ex 2 is supposed to feature a realistic, new physics engine. How will this figure into the gameplay?

HS: We hope that the player will be able to bounce attacks (not just physical attacks, but lasers as well) off mirrored surfaces, and execute concussive attacks that will knock things over, push characters down or backward. Bodies and other objects will fall and bounce more correctly, so the illusion of exploring a realistic place will be stronger. It should be possible--using our general-purpose tools in conjunction with Deus Ex 2's high-fidelity physics--for the player to improvise more unplanned solutions to problems. Also, the new physics will afford us some climbing/rappelling gameplay that we lacked last time.

Lessons Learned

GS: The original game used the Unreal engine. How will the game's visual presentation evolve in the sequel?

HS: Our poly counts are vastly higher for architecture and characters. Our lighting (which is an in-house custom technology being written for Deus Ex 2 and Thief 3) will be amazing. And the world is being textured using materials, which gives us a lot more graphical punch. The game is going to look unlike anything that's out right now.

GS: Though Deus Ex does let you circumvent some of the combat, invariably, some sequences require deadly force. Will first-person shooter sequences still be emphasized in the sequel?

WS: Let me jump in and answer this one. See, you're right that Deus Ex got pretty action-oriented in places...but when we started thinking about Deus Ex, we really wanted players to be able to get through the game sneaking, talking, shooting, or however else they wanted. Unfortunately, time and technology imposed some unfortunate limitations on us. As a result, Deus Ex ended up being far more combat-oriented than I hoped it would be. Stealth was an option, but it almost always made the game harder than the brute-force approach. I won't speak for the rest of the team, but I consider that one of our failures. Harvey and the Deus Ex 2 team are working hard to make sure the same thing doesn't happen again in Deus Ex 2.

HS: We want the player to be free to solve problems in his own way. We have some devilish, just evil weapons planned, but we also have established a new goal for our game--we want the player to be able to play the game (and have fun in a challenging way), from start to finish, without touching a weapon.

WS: Go, Harvey! If that happens, I'll be the happiest guy in gaming!

GS: In general, though Deus Ex met with tremendous acclaim both from the press and from gamers in general, it did receive some criticism. Did the team take any of the criticism to heart in developing the sequel? How so?

HS: Of course. We knew the flaws better than anyone and probably regretted them more (though we did not know specifically which ones would stand out to players most). During our Deus Ex 2 preproduction phase, we wrote out this big document and circulated it through the team and through our friends in the industry--it enumerated what we considered the biggest flaws in Deus Ex and detailed the ways we planned on fixing these flaws.

WS: One of the things I'm most proud of about this studio and the people who work here is the fact that we're brutally hard on our own work. And we're almost ruthlessly analytical about game design--sometimes I think we think about stuff too much! We've spent a lot of time thinking and talking about what went right on Deus Ex so that we could do more of it in subsequent games, as well as what went wrong so that we could avoid the mistakes of the past. I'm quite certain we'll make all sorts of new and exciting mistakes on Deus Ex 2, but it won't be because we didn't listen to the critics or learn from experience.

Finding the Sweet Spot

GS: Deus Ex was quite a big game, and it offered plenty of replay value too. How long is the sequel going to be, and will it be as replayable as the original?

HS: Right now, it's estimated that something like 90 percent of players who buy a game do not finish it. If movies or books saw this same percentage, moviemakers and authors would consider themselves failures. Personally, here's what I'd like to see: A model where 70 percent of players finish the game once and hard-core players finish the game multiple times, experimenting with various approaches, combinations, and consequences. That's the dream.

WS: I don't know about his specific percentages, but Harvey's basic idea is absolutely spot-on. For my money, Deus Ex ended up being a little too big--big enough to intimidate a lot of people. For all of our future games, we're trying to find the sweet spot of fun, duration, and value. That probably means games that take a little less time to finish than in the past but make up for it by being deep enough to encourage repeat play--and not just by the hard-core gamers Harvey was talking about. The win isn't a specific number of hours but, rather, an experience that varies from player to player and from walk-through to walk-through.

GS: Though Deus Ex shipped as a single-player game, Ion Storm released a free multiplayer add-on some months later. How was it received? Will Deus Ex 2 have multiplayer out of the box, and if so, what will it be like?

WS: The multiplayer patch was well received, if not as widely played as we might have hoped. Everyone who played it and took the time to tell us about his or her experience seemed to appreciate how different the Deus Ex multiplayer experience was from the rest of the multiplayer games out there. And that was our goal, really. We wanted to see if our character and experience differentiating gameplay tools worked as well in a multiplayer setting as in a single-player one, and we got the answer we were hoping for. Having said that, the work involved in creating a genuinely unique multiplayer experience and in supporting a multiplayer community turned out to be...significant...and we need to keep our focus on the single-player experience. There's a petition out there right now asking us to do multiplayer versions of our future games, but I really think we're better off--and players are better served--if we focus on what we do best, which is providing a first-rate, single-player, story-based, character-driven experience.

GS: You and the team probably have other game ideas in mind--why a Deus Ex sequel rather than a completely new idea?

WS: You're right when you say there's no shortage of game ideas around here! If we'd felt like striking out in entirely new directions, we could have. In reality, though, we spent a lot of time on Deus Ex figuring out what the heck kind of game we were making (and nearly as long making sure it was fun!). We made a lot of mistakes and we identified all sorts of ways in which we could have done better. That's the most compelling reason to return to the world of Deus Ex in a sequel--we know we can do better and we know how.

Beyond that, though, you just have to look at how expensive game development has become, how risky it is, and how much it costs even to try launching an entirely new game if you hope to compete with all the sequels and licensed games out there. From a survival standpoint, we'd be nuts not to follow up on the success of Deus Ex. Having said that, we're not just churning out a quickie sequel using old technology and old gameplay with a dollop of new story stuff. If anything, we're taking advantage of the success of Deus Ex to take even more risks on Deus Ex 2. The code is entirely new. The art is entirely new. The story is entirely new. The game systems have been redesigned, merged, and made more compelling based on what we now know about Deus Ex-like games. I don't think anyone will be able to accuse us of taking the easy way out with Deus Ex 2 or of trying to make a quick buck!

Final Thoughts

GS: Ion Storm is also working on a new game in the Thief series. Do the Deux Ex 2 teams overlap with or work together with the Thief 3 teams? How so?

WS: I was really happy to bring the Thief line to this studio. With Looking Glass gone, Thief was the perfect complement to what we were trying to do with Deus Ex. The projects grew out of some of the same design philosophies (no surprise, given how many of us worked with Looking Glass over the years and how many Looking Glass [members] are now here with us). I just couldn't bear the thought of Thief going away or going to another studio...

"I was really happy to bring the Thief line to this studio. With Looking Glass gone, Thief was the perfect complement to what we were trying to do with Deus Ex." --Warren Spector
Anyway, to answer your question, the Deus Ex 2 and Thief 3 teams are working very closely together. The programming teams have worked together for about a year, building a core code base that will be used studiowide. Each team will build unique game systems on top of that core, of course, but the engine driving the projects will be largely shared. The designers, artists, and management teams talk all the time too, sharing ideas, arguing about stuff, helping each other with knotty problems. Having the two projects here under one roof is a big win.

GS: What do you think is the most exciting thing about Deus Ex 2?

WS: The most exciting thing about Deus Ex 2? Hard to single out one thing...we're pushing the envelope in so many ways--codewise, artwise, designwise. The audacity of the project is pretty scary to me, especially now that I'm one step removed from the day-to-day development process!

I guess the best way to answer your question would be to say that Harvey has really embraced the challenge I laid out when he stepped into the project director role--I told him (and Randy Smith, on Thief 3) not to let me push them to be too conservative. That's obviously a risk when you work on a sequel. I wanted Harvey to be audacious, to make decisions that made me think he was nuts, decisions that seemed so wacky they gave me ulcers. That was the best way I could think of to ensure we weren't being complacent, repeating past successes, instead of shooting for something bigger, more dramatic. And Harvey and team have certainly embraced that challenge--I have the ulcers to prove it!

The most exciting thing about Deus Ex 2 is that I'm convinced it'll be as revolutionary as many people perceived Deus Ex to be. As a studio director, I can't ask for much more than that.

GS: Thanks for your time, guys.

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