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GDC 2012: Finding the 'soul' of Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a complex title rife with risk and high expectations. According to designer Francois Lapikas, the project only succeeded because the team took the time to plan out their process and find the game's "soul."
Creating Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a daunting and complicated task for the team at Eidos Monstreal. The game had to live up to one of the most highly regarded PC titles of all time, and the team had no prior experience working with the beloved franchise. According to senior game designer Francois Lapikas, the project ended up a success since the team made sure to nail down the game's design well before it ever went into production. "It was a huge endeavor… and I'm a bit emotional about it. Everything just went so right for such a big project," Lapikas said in his GDC 2012 presentation on Wednesday. Lapikas explained that the key to developing a successful Deus Ex title was to figure out what makes the franchise so popular in the first place. Even before the team began to design the game or its systems, the team took some time to explore the previous games and other related media. By doing so, they hoped to find a creative spark. "Nothing is created from nothing. We need to immerse ourselves in other things to fill our brains with juice to fuel our game," he said. The team went through numerous games, books, films, and more until everyone had a clear understanding of where Deux Ex had been, and where it had the potential to go. The team also clearly defined which media would serve as the game's key inspiration. By explicitly referencing other sources, everyone on the team could more easily understand the game's creative vision. "It would help us communicate our ideas," Lapikas said, noting that games such as Metal Gear Solid, BioShock, Rainbow Six, and many more all played a huge role in defining Human Revolution's tone and mechanics. After establishing the game's overall trajectory, Eidos Montreal finally set out to flesh out its mechanics and systems. "For each system, we'd say exactly what that system needed to do," Lapikas said, "By the end, we knew before going into preprod what we wanted to do and what each system would do in the game." The team decided on four key gameplay pillars: combat, stealth, hacking, and social. Lapikas said that each of these systems had to be fully realized on paper before anyone started putting them together. "We papered over our walls with notes… and this was very important," he said. "Unlike a spreadsheet, [paper notes let you] follow your process from beginning to end, and you never lose sight of your goal." With such careful planning during the game's conception, Lapikas said that the team laid out a solid foundation for the game's design, leaving little doubt as to how these systems would come together. "We didn't really rethink the game when we started production, we just went full speed toward the end," he said. The thorough planning and design also helped the team find an emotional investment in the project. "It was crucial for us to pour ourselves into the game during preprod," Lapikas said. "I feel like the game has a soul when you play it, and I think that's the reason for it." When production began, however, Lapikas said the project wasn't without its hiccups. One particular problem came with the game's boss fights -- which eventually became infamous among fans and critics alike for being far too difficult, and even dissonant with the game's typical stealth and action gameplay. The problem, according to Lapikas, was that "we didn’t have a production sheet for boss fights. We kind of forgot about it... It was only during production that we started design on them, so we were struggling with time." When designing these encounters, the team sought to break up the game's typical stealth and action gameplay with something a bit more action focused. "We figured by putting in enough ammo in the room, we would be fine and could move on." Of course, players thought otherwise, as many were unprepared to handle these combat-only scenarios. "They were a big part of the game, and we should have put more effort into them; truly sorry about that," Lapikas said. Despite the slip-up with the boss fights, however, Lapikas is thrilled the game received such a warm reception overall. He attributes that success to the team's dedicated and thorough preproduction process. Not only did it give the game a clear direction, it made the team all the more invested in realizing that vision. "What I've learned is that there's no magic recipe, it takes a lot of work… You've got to follow your gut. You've got to pour yourself into what you're doing," Lapikas concluded.

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