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Deus Ex: The Human Question

Stéphane D'Astous, general manager of Eidos Montreal, discusses the development of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and how the fledgling studio was able to staff up and tackle such a challenging project.

Christian Nutt

September 3, 2010

18 Min Read

With the Square Enix-published Deus Ex: Human Revolution, due out early next year for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC, the Eidos Montreal team has done something extremely difficult -- create a new sequel to the legendary 2000 original to primarily positive notice. The team has also done that while forging a new aesthetic vision for the title: the "Cyber-Renaissance".

Gamasutra recently spoke to Eidos Montreal's general manager Stéphane D'Astous to find out more about how the team forged this new creative direction, how to develop an open-ended game in a world of production realities, and how the team collaborated with Square Enix Visual Works, the Tokyo-based team which concentrates exclusively on producing CG cutscenes for the publisher.

While the game does have a strong central vision, D'Astous says that in fact it is only the sum of its parts; he describes it as "labor of love" for the whole team.

In addition to addressing the game itself, D'Astous opines on how to offer developers creative autonomy, how to hire the right people, and how to work with outside contributors and retain creative consistency.

With Deus Ex: Human Revolution, you have the responsibility now to take it to an audience that has never experienced it before, a larger audience. You have to honor the original games, but you have the duty to be creative, both to your audience and your staff.

Stéphane D'Astous: That is maybe the single most greatest challenge of the dev team, to walk this very line by respecting the, as we said, the heritage of Deus Ex but to bring it to another level because it has been several, several years. I think it's been eight years since the last Deus Ex, Invisible War.

So, we need to bring it to another level and have it accessible to new fans. So, we want to keep and not disappoint the old fans even though their expectations are this high. [Gestures above his head] But to bring new people to really discover this incredible RPG/action game.

It's not the only game, but it stands out as one of the earliest games that said, "You can play this how you want," and that is why people still talk about and people still play the original.

SD: You can replay. It's the replay value, and it's a sophisticated game in the sense that there's not single way to play it, so I guess that was recognized by the fans. One of our mottos for Deus Ex: Human Revolution is "choice and consequences."

I mean, we hear that quite often, but it's truly important to the team to have, let's say, four different ways to enter the police station. You can go through the front door, dialogue, try to win [with] your dialogue, or you could come in with guns blazing. You can go hacking. You can go through the sewers. So, this is an example of a multi-path game.

Those kinds of choices, is that a design question, or is it also a tech and art even, in terms of how you structure things?

SD: I think it starts with the design. I think Eidos has always had a great history of character and design. The games, if I take two things, it's characters with the Lara Crofts, with the Hitmans, and all this, but also with the design. These two components were truly important. To answer your question, I think it starts with the design, and tech... There's always a way to make it work somehow. Tech shouldn't be leading the design, but it has to be compatible. I think design is king.

That is also a tough question if you're speaking from a production standpoint. How do tech and design interface? Do you have technical designers?

SD: First of all, our floor space is managed in a certain way where an animator could be sitting next to an AI programmer, and it's very organic. So, we do cluster people together for a common goal, so it's not a row of programmers, a row of designers, and a row of modelers. No, we often configure the work and the workspace itself by deliverables. So, this is a key point. Have better communication and better productivity within the game. So, yes, we have some technical designers.

If you talk to different people at different studios about formatting the seating arrangements, the production pods, cabals, whatever you want to call them... If you look at every studio in the world, every studio has a different way of doing things, right? How did you arrive at yours?

SD: Well, first of all, when I recruited the team, most of them had worked together. We did start from scratch, but we had experienced people that had managed to deliver several triple A games in the past, so it wasn't their first run at this. It was certainly a challenge because the whole studio started from scratch, and it's quite an important IP.

I think how we function, it's very collaborative. I think the producer, the game director, and the art director is certainly a triangle that takes a lot of decisions. There is not one prima donna. At our studio, you could be the most talented, respected, but if you have a large ego, unfortunately you won't fit in our culture.

We have refused some candidates because we think that the culture that we're trying to put in our studio is really important, and people with big egos won't function as well in our studio than other team members. Everybody has to put the shoulder to the wheel, pretty much.

It's interesting to hear that you recognize a distinction between a creative vision and a big ego. Certainly with this game, it has a unique look and a unique take on the aesthetic; it's a strong aesthetic vision.

SD: This is a very interesting question because I spoke to my art director. We went for lunch, and he said, "Stéphane, I hope that you realize Deus Ex has a soul." He says, "I hope that consumers will see that it's a labor of love of a whole team, and it's not necessarily a vision that I had two years ago with the art direction", let's say for example.

He really hit an interesting point because it's true that I hope people will sense that it's a labor of love of the whole team, and it's not a one-man show. Somebody can have great ideas, great direction, and a great vision, but to make this reality, it's a team push, a team effort, and that makes the difference between an excellent game and an average game.

To what extent are you able to push the idea? It has to go on the screen. You need to have your consumers be able to play with it. So, the ideas are very often good at the start. It's how it ends.

I think that having a creative vision pushes that soul. You can have a game that's created very competently, that hits all the notes in terms of what it has to have, but if there's not a vision there, it's just lacking.

SD: Exactly. For some people, it's "tick the boxes". You could have a whole column of tick boxes, but if the game is without a soul or without an interest... We cannot fall into the trap of saying, "This is... tick!" It doesn't work like that. It's the ingredients, it's the recipe, it's how you bake it, and it's how it comes out of the oven that really makes it work.

It can be easy to lose sight of the creative goal, given the pressure to create. When you talk about deliverables and schedules and features and map building. It can be a repetitive, complicated process to boil it all down and stay consistent. How does the team approach that?

SD: Again, as I mentioned, the producer has the power to take decisions that affect the whole project because even though the art director or anybody else in this case has a great idea, it has to be feasible. And if we just throw ideas in a bucket hoping that everything will be okay, it doesn't work like that. So, I guess the producer definitely has the accountability to make the scope, the budget, and the time. This is the oldest triangle of project management. Time, money, and scope. That it's well balanced. So, you need to work on that balance.

When you knew you were going to be working on this IP, did you give it a lot of time to bubble up and have a long pre-production process before you made any decisions about how exactly you were going to tackle it?

SD: Yes. Well, at Eidos, prior to the Square Enix acquisition, we had a greenlight meeting process. So, different publishers call it different names, but basically it's when everybody gets around the table -- is it green or yellow or redlighted -- and so we followed this process.

And yes, we have a healthy period for concept because the guys took the time... Before throwing ideas on the table, they replayed, replayed, re-replayed the games, the first two, and all the references games that are not Deus Ex, to really do a good background check. And afterwards, they built up. So, it was a very healthy concept phase period.

And we have a deliverable that we need to show to executives, and afterwards, the decision continues. So, we took our time because when a tree starts to grow crooked, it's going to be hell to put it back straight. So, concept is this. Your tree needs to be as straight as possible.

You know, it's always hard to nail down gameplay in the preproduction process, but to nail down open-ended gameplay is almost a contradiction in terms.

SD: [laughs] Yes, yes. This is the rule of our game director, Jean-François Dugas. I hope that you have time to interview him because this is definitely one of the biggest challenges of any game director, a game of this size, of this magnitude with multi-endings.

Jean is somebody very structured, so he has great idea, but he is able to lay them out on a table. We call it a blueprint. This is internal. So, he's doing the blueprint of the house basically, but it needs to be logical obviously, it has to fit, and it has to be compatible.

And he can show this to his coworkers to make sure that they're driving through the same thing. And the multi-ending, if you don't have this plan-out phase, you're asking to improvise, and when you improvise at this stage, you will waste time and energy. So, you need somebody that is somewhat structured or else you're going to go in different directions.

It's just that it's a daunting, complicated project, even more so, I think, than probably many can take on.

SD: [laughs]

I mean, that sounds like a "your game is so awesome" kind of question, but what I'm really talking about is this: there's a lot of pressure. You're founding a new studio, you're working with an IP that people love, you're trying to take it in new creative directions, and it's a complicated game.

SD: Yeah, but I think the key thing is that I'm as good as the people, and the group is as good as the people we hire. We really went through an important hiring phase. We needed to be aggressive, but we needed to make sure that we're hiring the right people at the right time for the right scope for the right mandate.

This is the GM talking. I'm very proud of the team I've built, and I think the more we went forward, my shoulders were starting to finally [sigh of relief] ... I was able to breathe because these guys and girls were able to pursue what we wanted to do.

And I think if it was a one-man show -- again, I'm going back to my staff story that it cannot be a one-man show, it has to be a team effort -- it would have been impossible to do this game if we wouldn't have a strong team.

And since all my lieutenants and the guys and the girls on the floor, they're quite professional, talented, motivated, and passionate. And if you add this up, you can move mountains. Again, I'm saying some clichés, but it's true that the team is everything. It's maybe not an interesting answer, but it's basically what is reality in our studio.

We're talking about the balancing a creative vision with a team effort, right? There are a lot of discussions these days about group-effort theories versus auteur theory. How do you balance cohesive vision with team collaboration?

SD: Well, I think again our art director, Jonathan [Jacques Belletete], he had also a very huge mandate, because the black and gold and the Renaissance, the new Renaissance, is something that didn't come up overnight, I can tell you.

It was trial and error at certain points, and it's during the process of the stage-gating process that, well, this seems when we were showing our stuff internally, because we need to be honest during these meetings. And people were saying, "This doesn't work. This works."

We went back to Montreal and we re-grind our ideas, re-filtered them and dropped that... What came at the end was the black and gold, the Renaissance, the cyberpunk. With very few elements, you diffuse this afterwards back to the team, and they have a clear understanding.

You need to let them a certain margin of flexibility because they're not robots. I mean, we have dozens and dozens of artists, but if it's too clear, they feel like a robot and they won't be productive. So, you need to have a little margin, but you need to have a clear vision. "We're going this way."

It might be a coincidence, but it just occurred to me that Montreal is the home of Renaissance aesthetic right now in gaming, right, with Assassin's Creed and your game. It's just a strange coincidence. Do you think that's just a coincidence or is there something about Montreal?

SD: [laughs] Well, as I say often, Montreal is geographically situated between Europe and the Americas. We really feel we have the best of both worlds. I guess we have this connection with Europe, the culture sharing, the multicultural, the joie de vivre, but every day we wake up, and we're in the North American standard of living, the rhythm of business, the very dynamic business environment. So, that said, I think we have a special hybrid connection with these two continents.

Montreal has always been quite creative. If you think about it, Softimage started in Montreal. Autodesk are pretty much based in Montreal. The Cirque de Soleil kind of thing. So, I guess now, some products are getting more attention, but we have pretty much always been a creative hot spot, and I'm very proud about that because it's something that you cannot outsource. It's the savoir faire, it's the gray matter of Montreal, to come up with innovative, interesting approaches.

I wanted to talk to you about the fact that you're collaborating with Square Enix Visual Works in Tokyo, which is pretty fascinating.

SD: Very much so. This is a great story. Square Enix bought us in April 2009. And in that period of the year, we were starting to plan our CGI trailers for Deus Ex. Initially, my thought was, "Well, we obviously know that the people at Square Enix are doing great CGI, but they must be booked until 2030." [laughs] And I didn't even entertain the idea of having them working.

But we went through a process, and at a certain point, we came out with a pitch, a nice pitch for the trailer. We were at the junction point where we needed to find a partner to produce the CGI, and that's one morning I remembered very vividly in the month of June. I said, "I think I need to call Phil [Rogers], my CEO, to throw him the idea. Is it worth it to ask Tokyo if they have people availability?"

So he says, "It doesn't cost anything to ask." So, he calls [Square Enix president and CEO Yoichi] Wada-san. So, it's the phone chain. Finally, Wada-san and several of his directors of Visual Works flew to Montreal, 16 hours of flight, for a one-day meeting. [laughs] So, that was very crucial.

I will always remember that day, and we did our pitch for the trailer. In the process of decision-making, it went quite rapidly, and they said, "Yes, this is too much of a good opportunity to start collaboration. We'll make space in our schedule at Visual Works. This will be the first real concrete collaborative deliverable." And it worked out so nicely. So, I'm very, very glad that our studio was implicated.

How was the process of working across that distance? And as far as I'm aware, the only other game Visual Works contributed to that wasn't internally developed by Square Enix was Star Ocean: The Last Hope. So, it's a new process for them, too.

SD: Yes. Very good point. So yes, when everybody says, "Yes, we want do this," how do we manage this now? [laughs] So, yes, I think the complications were always put on top of the list of things we needed to understand, that there are no stupid questions.

Language is obviously something that we need to handle, but we had good support from the people at Square Enix Los Angeles. So, when the emails have to go through and be translated, we were able to do this quite efficiently. It was not without challenge, I must say. A lot of sweat, a lot of blood, a lot of labor of love again...

We had a couple of meetings face-to-face, and that really accelerates the problem-solving, the misinterpretations. Obviously, they could not be in Montreal every week, but every time now and then, we called the meetings, and that truly helped. So, it wasn't without difficulty, but everybody believed in the potential, and that makes a whole difference.

The newest trailer is very visually arresting, which is what we expect from Square Enix. Is the aesthetic all derived from Montreal? Or is it a collaborative approach?

SD: Good question again. When I mentioned that the concept pitch was accepted, this came, and they're on the credits of the trailer. It's a small -- not small anymore -- but a small Vancouver-based group called Goldtooth. And they pitched us.

The concept pitch that we retained was from them, and we kept them after their pitch to be the intermediate between Montreal and Tokyo because our dev team didn't have sufficient staff to fully support the trailer.

So, they understood our vision, our values of the game, and they were able to transmit this. And they were working very closely with Square Enix. But when major decisions were to be taken, all three of us needed to be around a table or around a conference call to make the call. So, yes, they had a very good pitch that we followed through.

Final Fantasy XIII has got amazing CG, but the real-time visuals really live up to the standard, right? And there's a high-level of consistency between them. I'm assuming that that's an approach that you would like to emulate.

SD: Well anything compared to Final Fantasy when you're talking about cutscenes, it's quite the highest level you can obtain. It's certainly going to be one of our objectives. We're presently exactly working on this topic, the in-game cinematics. So, we'll see the results, I guess.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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