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GDC Online: The Design Document That Made Deus Ex: Human Revolution Possible

The team assembled at Eidos Montreal to create Deus Ex: Human Revolution wanted to build a narrative-driven game with choice and consequence to its gameplay, and brought Mary DeMarle into the project early, as its narrative game designer and lead writer, to spearhead efforts to join the story fundamentally to the gameplay.

“We wanted to develop a process that would force every member of this team to develop the game together,” DeMarle said.

The team ended up developing what DeMarle called “The Blueprint” — a meticulously detailed document completed over several stages, early in production, which laid the foundation for every gameplay encounter and story beat in the entire project.

“You get to choose, by the end of the story, how humanity is going to evolve,” said DeMarle. “That becomes very important from a narrative standpoint, and from a game design perspective as well. Significant consequences have to be revealed.”

“We want you to feel this story and this world is reacting to your actions. From a writing perspective this gets very complex very quickly,” DeMarle said. “It’s a massive amount of branching that’s going on, which of course leads to a very important question… How do you ensure that branching narrative paths will coalesce into a coherent narrative?”

Defining The Concept

Four key people, the game’s producer, game director, lead game designer, and art director sat down and defined the concept at the beginning: by playing games, analyzing the original license, watching movies, “and writing all of their ideas onto paper and plastering the walls” of a conference room, they arrived at a cohesive, high-level direction for the game that encompassed gameplay, narrative, art direction and more.

“I was there just to help them make sense of it at the end,” said DeMarle.

“What we’re doing here in the game concept, is defining the elements that give us an anchor on which every later creative decision will be made.”

That lead to preproduction on the second Blueprint step, in which she created the story concept with the game director and lead level designer. This was “filling out what that world and what that story was. The bulk of it was on my shoulders,” said DeMarle.

“The goal was to turn the high level story summary into a fully-developed conspiracy-laden story outline.”

One thing that appeared at this stage, she said, was “an important thing that is often missed in games: the theme.”

Uniting Gameplay And Story

While transhumanism — the evolution of humanity by technical augmentation — was the core concept of the game, DeMarle identified a need for “an underlying theme that is gonna unite” gameplay and story — otherwise they’d stay separate, as in most games.

Since the gameplay is based on choice and consequence, the theme became “Why do we do the things that we do?”

“The story is about control — every single main character has something they want to be in control of, including [lead] Adam Jensen,” she said.

At this point the three developed incredibly detailed dossiers on the characters, corporations, the state of the world, and an entire historical timeline, “and eventually we were able to create the story outline from all of this,” said DeMarle.

“By developing all of these elements, we were able to come up with a tale upon which the game could be built, but it wasn’t yet playable.”

While this was going on, production had begun, and the leads realized that if they were all being developed separately — “even though we had meetings and the leads would talk to each other, but they weren’t being built together” — the project would not become cohesive.

“Entire Game In A Spreadsheet”

This forced them to complete the Blueprint — an Excel document with every sequence of the game broken down into smaller and smaller chunks, with gameplay elements mapped specifically to each, intertwined with the narrative of each sequence.

In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, “Each gameplay sequence has events or goals that the story requires the player to encounter in order to fulfill the aims of the story,” DeMarle said.

“Every gameplay sequence can be further broken up” into blocks that cover the moment-to-moment gameplay. Scripted events, exotic gameplay, dialogue, NPC behavior, and “most importantly, the choices and consequences” were tracked in this document — for every single gameplay/story sequence in the game.

It’s “the entire game in a spreadsheet,” DeMarle said.

“You can identify all of the specific situations that have to occur,” and focus the gameplay, determine the characters, and “and you can go so far into it that you end up with basically the entire game figured out.”
“It really gives us a very clear vision of what we need to do. But I tell you, it’s not easy,” DeMarle said.

“We sat in meetings from 10 in the morning until 5 every day… With the key people for each sequence.” This could change as different aspects of the game were touched on. “It was hard. We would present the goals of the story, and say, ‘How do we make this gameplay?’ and we would let everybody contribute.”

“There were times when story changed to accommodate gameplay. The story team would have to say ‘all right, we can make some adjustments,’” she said. However, “sometimes, the gameplay ideas had to change to accommodate the story.”

For three months, every day, they met. They didn’t just generate the document, DeMarle said. “In the end what it gave us was a true sense of ownership for everyone on the team. Everyone realized that their ideas mattered. And if they weren’t chosen, they knew why. And they understood the goal.”

The document, however, was “so clear, that two years later we’d look at the Blueprint and there it was,” whenever a question came up during production.

Still and all, “it didn’t give us the final product; it was just a design on paper.”

Beyond The Blueprint

Gate Meetings, held during production, were the next step. For milestones like first playable, the leads approved the builds “to ensure that the creative directives were understood and being met.”

It also functioned as a “form of peer review. What that enabled, is it enabled every single person to bring their own creativity forward… bring their own creativity to the table and find the solutions.”

She summed it up this way. “Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a very ambitious project.” The goal was to create an “immersive, very story-driven game that would react to player choices in significant ways.”

In the team’s quest to “recognize story as being a central part of the experience,” the Blueprint became essential. However, DeMarle warned, “a process is a process, it worked for us, but it may not work for everyone else. It worked because of our ability to see that every aspect of the game were all part of a greater whole.”

“You hear that story is a necessary evil,” said DeMarle. “We didn’t see it that way. It was this philosophy that enabled us to create not just a cohesive, story-driven, branching game, but a cohesive and immersive world that allowed players to get lost in that experience.”

Canada’s video game development scene is booming

Deux Ex: Human Revolution

Fall is the video game equivalent to the summer movie season, when the biggest blockbusters battle it out for the consumer’s dollars.

This year, the release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution from Eidos Montreal Studio on Aug. 23 marked the beginning of this perennial season of wallet emptying. Met with unanimous critical praise, the game, Eidos Montreal’s 4-year project, is being touted as a worthwhile adventure to purchase. The overall success of this game is indicative of how far big budget video game development has come in Canada.

Game development has exploded in Canada in the last decade, with recent examples of Warner Brother’s, THQ, and the Ubisoft studio openings in Ontario and Quebec.

As a gamer and a Canadian I was interested in exploring exactly why this phenomenon was occurring.

It seems that the proliferation of Canadian game development is largely due to proactive government incentives. By emphasizing video games as a conduit to scientific and technological advancement, companies are given tax breaks and grants. Examples of this include the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), Scientific Research and Experimental Development Program (SR&ED) as well as many province-specific incentives.

The distribution of tax dollars for scientific and technological innovation appears to be exciting development studios. This is not to say that government incentives for games are fool-proof in terms of producing quality content, but with the pedigree of games coming out of Canada, it’s clear that Canadian developers are doing something right.

Montréal is envied as a leader in the multimedia field. There are few cities that make that boast. An exceptional talent pool and a level of creativity and innovation that, supported by excellent schools and by the government, make Montréal a business location like no other in the world. Its record over the last ten years is convincing proof.”— Stéphane D’Astous, Managing Director, Ediod-Montreal, 2009

In a report from “A talk for the ‘Digital Poetics and Politics’ Summer Institute”, Nick Dyer-Witheford, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, outlines the pros and cons of game development in Canada.

A particularly interesting prerk for attracting development in Canada is a conducive legislative landscape. Promoting creativity by having less problematic policies and regulations regarding intellectual properties is good news for developers. Property management in a landscape of David v. Goliath, independent v. corporate game development is crucial for there to exist a balance in profiteering from games.

The Government of Canada also provides government-funded infrastructure for growth in the sector. Other pros include a very strong, already-existing infrastructure, a highly talented workforce and an overall learned population.

The most significant cons are centered around the lack of Canadian publishers — who ultimately control the dollar-sales — and the relatively small size of the industry compared to that in the United States. However, regardless of these hindrances, the Entertainment Software Association of Canada reports, “despite the economic recession, the industry grew by 11% annually and is projected to grow more rapidly over the next two years at 17% per year.” (ESA 2011)

If Deus Ex: Human Revolution is any indication of the quality coming out of the Canadian talent, there is a bright future ahead.

To me, this level of public and corporate interest on the creative side of game development is on its way to finally meeting the sentiments of the consumer base itself. The fervour is largely concentrated on the message of selling creative potential, rather than any product from any one company.

Parlaying this creative potential, along with the emphasis on scientific and technological innovation, perfectly represents both the objective and subjective aspects of what makes games enjoyable. But excitement is what it takes to push a neat idea into becoming a novel product — and eventually, a gold standard.

And in the end, that’s all that really matters.

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