History Lesson: The story of Deus Ex

Alex Calvin
History Lesson: The story of Deus Ex

Before Deus Ex, there were games about stealth and titles about shooting but rarely did these styles cross over.

This was a fact that made Deus Ex creator Warren Spector desire for a more open and realistic style of game – where the player had the option to burst in all guns blazing, sneak to their goal or talk their way to victory.

One reason behind Deus Ex's creation was in response to Thief,” he tells MCV. I worked on that game for about a year, and was testing it one day and I got to a spot when I wasn't good enough to sneak past a guard. So we had a team meeting and I said I should be able to fight this guard because I wasn't good enough to sneak and the team said: ‘No, if we let people fight no-one will sneak because it'll be easier to fight'. So I sat there and thought: ‘I'm gonna show you guys, I'm gonna make a game where you can fight or sneak past'.

So I decided to do a ‘Real World Role Playing Game' and put together a pitch for something called Troubleshooter where you play Jake Shooter: an ex-CIA operative in the real world who solves all the problems that the CIA finds too tough. Combine that idea with the desire to prove the Thief team wrong, and eventually you end up with Deus Ex.”

Anyone who has played Deus Ex will testify that it's complex. Each and every objective can be tackled in any number of ways, any character can be killed... to say that Deus Ex is ambitious is underselling it. Even Spector's then-employer Looking Glass Studio wouldn't touch the project. But development legend John Romero – and his new outfit Ion Storm – were very interested.

Romero said when he signed me up that I could make the game of my dreams, no creative interference, no one will ever tell me what to do,” Spector says. And we'd have the biggest budget we'd ever worked with.”

He continues: It was definitely an ambitious game. One of my mottos is ‘fail gloriously'. Why strive for mediocrity when you can try to do something great? It started out with a relatively small team – you usually start out with your lead people and then build from there.

The first thing I decided was that I wanted to do a game that had some role playing elements as well as some action and ‘immersive simulation' aspects. So, I put together two separate design teams, which was probably the stupidest thing I've ever done. I went and got a bunch of old [‘90s RPG series] Ultima guys, and a group of Looking Glass-inspired guys who did immersion and simulation. So I put them in the design team and they wouldn't talk to each other.

"One of my secret goals was to shame the rest of the industry into never making one-note puzzle action games ever again."

Warren Spector, former-Ion Storm


I thought I could manage the tension between them and I was completely wrong, so I split them up into two teams. Neither one of them would be Design Team 2 or Design Team B so I ended up with Design Team 1 and Design Team A, which will tell you how dysfunctional the team actually was.

But that worked out well, too. It was a very small, totally dysfunctional team. We argued all the time, but everybody was united by a desire to change the world with a singular focus on making a game where players tell their own story.”

Though Deus Ex is today viewed as a video game great, at the time Spector and the team were very anxious about how it was going to perform.

You have no idea,” Spector laughs. Honestly, right before we shipped, I put my head down on my desk and I said: ‘Oh my gosh, if people compare our combat to Half-Life or our stealth to Thief or our role playing to Neverwinter Nights, we're dead. But if they figure out they can do anything they want and play it however they desire and find their own fun, we were gonna rule the world'. I had no idea which way it was going to go, no idea at all. It was terrifying.

Though Spector was scared about what the world would think of Deus Ex at the time, the game went on to have a huge influence on the medium. Look at many triple-A titles, such as Far Cry, Assassin's Creed, Fallout and Dishonored, and the influence of Deus Ex's ‘play how you want' concept is clear to see.

I should probably never say this out loud but I'm not good at keeping my mouth shut. One of my secret goals, and I never told the team this during development, was to shame the rest of the industry so that publishers would never release one-note puzzly action games ever again,” Spector says.

I don't know if we succeeded at that level. But certainly it would be disingenuous for me to say that we didn't have some influence. There are finally more people doing games like Deus Ex.

The funny thing is when I was originally working on the project, everyone in the team would look at each other and say: ‘Why doesn't everyone make games like this?' because no-one was making anything remotely similar. And now you look around and can see that style of game all over the place; it's not just Far Cry or [Dishonored developer] Arkane making very Deus Ex-like titles.”

"Before we shipped, I put my head down on my desk and I said: 'if people compare our combat to Half-Life or our stealth to Thief or our role playing to Neverwinter Nights, we're dead'."

Warren Spector, former-Ion Storm


After laying dormant for several years, a third entry in the Deus Ex series – Human Revolution – launched in 2011, with a sequel, Mankind Divided, hitting shelves later this year. Human Revolution featured much of the same DNA as the 2000 original, and reviewed well, but was criticised by some more die-hard fans for lacking the original's level of depth. Yet Spector has very positive feelings towards these new titles.

It's funny, I get asked that a lot and people are always disappointed when I don't say: ‘Man that really pisses me off, I can't believe they're doing this',” he says.

All I feel is that it's cool y'know? Having been part of something bigger than yourself that has an existence outside of you and your team. It's like having a baby and watching it grow up.

The best thing about it is that the team at [developer] Eidos Montreal respect what we did. They made some design choices I would not have made let's just say that – when I played the game, I was screaming in frustration over the things I would have done differently. But for the most, when I finished I sat back, happy, and said ‘y'know, I just had a Deus Ex experience'.

It felt like Deus Ex, it sounded like Deus Ex capturing that sound that Alexander Brandon came up with for the first game, it had some of the thematic depth that Deus Ex needs, and that I think all games actually should have.

I'm honestly just really proud and can't wait to play Mankind Divided.”

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