Emergent Gameplay: Deus Ex Made Me Part 1

By Kieron Gillen on June 23rd, 2010 at 9:23 pm.

My inspiration for an image totally failed me here.

It’s been a decade since Deus Ex. A realisation struck me: the industry will now be peppered with people whose formative experiences were with Deus Ex. For them it was, in one way or another, inspirational. I decided to hunt down a few and talk to them, about what Deus Ex said to them, how it shaped them, what it taught them and how they bring it into what they make today. By which I mean, drop ‘em a line and say “Deus Ex, eh? Thoughts?”. First up are 2k Marin Designer Steve Gaynor (Bioshock 2) and Ninja Theory Senior Technical Designer Rob Hale (Enslaved: Odyssey To The West)…

Steve Gaynor, Designer 2k Marin

I’m not going to claim to be hardcore. I know people who have played it a dozen times through. Folks who do a run every year. Speedrunners. Prod-only guys. Dudes who know the exploits and glitches that enable a 100% nonlethal playthrough. I’m not one of them. But that doesn’t mean that Deus Ex wasn’t important to me.

I first played Deus Ex in the summer after I graduated high school. I was staying with my girlfriend’s family for six weeks. It was then—while I was a continent away from my 3D-accelerated gaming machine—that the Deus Ex demo was released. Her dad was a senior engineer for Intel, so they had a respectable computer, but not one meant for gaming. I first visited Liberty Island in software rendering mode, at around 20FPS. I stumbled through, choppy and pixelated. I died, died again, slowly acclimated myself, and was gradually absorbed into the game’s mix of stealth, shooter and RPG, despite the technical limitations. Somewhere around first light I captured the NSF officer and returned to the real world.

As soon as I returned home I dove into the full game, hard, and didn’t come up for air. Unfortunately, my first choice in the game would eventually be my undoing. On Liberty Island, Paul offers you three weapons: the Mini-Crossbow, Sniper Rifle, and GEP Gun. I chose the Sniper Rifle, and stuck to it– deadly stealth, headshots from the shadows, creeping around the periphery and avoiding detection, but killing with impunity, as quietly as possible.

And, well, Deus Ex is a long game. Very long. And being a sneaky man doesn’t make it any shorter. As the game progressed (at least how I was playing it, maybe as too much of a stealth generalist,) my sniping seemed to become less and less effective, especially against heavily armored MJ12 commandos and Men in Black. The stealth required to avoid them completely became more and more tedious. It was during my 700th or so skulk through an air duct (not terribly far from the end of the game, I would later find) that I just lost interest. Deus Ex had bested me.

But see, Deus Ex has a way of hounding you. Its profile only grew over the following years. It was one of those names that kept coming up among friends as well as games journalists and forumgoers. And so, between my 2nd and 3rd year of college, duly hounded, I resolved to see the end of the game. When Paul so generously offered me my first significant player choice on that dock, I made the right one (as far as I’m concerned): GEP Gun, all the way. And oh, it would be glorious. By the time I merged with Helios, the blood of countless aggressors and innocents covered not only my hands, but the walls, ceilings and floors of Hell’s Kitchen, Hong Kong, and every port of call in between. I’d played my way– maybe not more subtly, intelligently, or strategically, but the way that nevertheless suited me as an individual– and I’d prevailed.

That, at its core, is what Deus Ex taught me: that if it’s designed right, the player of an FPS could excel not by playing better, but by playing differently. My approach, my playstyle, my longterm decisions, became more important than my fine motor skills; who I was as a player was truly important. We were all the same Quake Guy or Gordon Freeman. Maybe some of us died more or favored the shotgun, but we were all duplicates, the same in any way that counted. Deus Ex was different. Your JC Denton was not my JC Denton, and so your Deus Ex was not my Deus Ex; and so, more than any of its peers, Deus Ex made us matter, as players.

There aren’t a ton of noble reasons to become a game designer. Fame, fortune, insider knowledge, no. But, to make players matter, to give their decisions weight and consequence, to encourage players to think of themselves as meaningful agents of change… As a game designer, what more could you really hope to accomplish?

Rob Hale, Senior Technical Designer, Ninja Theory

I was 18 when Deus Ex was released. When I was 19 I got my first job in the games industry. I was just about to go off to university and a future in Music Production when I saw Deus Ex in my local Game. I bought it based on the Box Art and a vague memory of it appearing on Bits. At the time I was using my parents PC to play games and up until just a few months ago the most powerful computer in the house had been my Amiga 1200 and an ageing 486. Deus Ex was in fact my very first experience with an FPS since Duke Nukem 3D and at this point I hadn’t even heard of Half Life – as far as I was concerned Deus Ex was the logical result of the FPS games I had played before and I wasn’t aware just how unique it was. A week later I picked up a copy of PC Gamer where somebody called Kieron had given the game a glowing review and I suddenly discovered that not all games were like Deus Ex.

During the next few months I learnt how to use the level editor, joined a mod team, left a mod team and eventually ended up in a phone call with Kieron talking about Johnny Casino, a talking car and Birmingham. By this time I was at University and failing due to spending far more time modding Deus Ex than going to lectures or doing anything else productive. When I discovered that I had in fact failed my first year I decided that maybe I would give being a Level Designer a try. Fast forward a few more months and I had secured my very first Games Industry job as a Level Designer on an Unreal 2 powered FPS for Runecraft based almost entirely on my experience modding Deus Ex (well that and I was cheap, willing and lived nearby).

Every single project I have worked on in my career has referenced Deus Ex at some point. It’s something of a holy grail for the Designers and Programmers I’ve met and it is probably the most often cited example of a game where things “Just work” (Those who had the pleasure of modding Deus Ex know just how far from the truth this is). Doors are often the most used example of a truly systemic design that not only allows but encourages emergent play – There was more thought put into the Doors in Deus Ex than gets put into most major features of a modern AAA Blockbuster.

For nearly ten years I’ve wished that I could work on a game like Deus Ex and I know I’m not alone in this. It makes me sad to think that with most games needing over 2 million sales to break even these days that games as intelligent and open as Deus Ex just won’t happen anymore. I look forwards to being proved wrong though.

Thanks for your time, Rob and Steve. And stating the obvious, if you’re a developer who was forged in part by Deus Ex, do feel free to drop us a line.

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61 Comments »

    • The Walker says:

      @Schaulustiger Baboo!, videogames!, The Wizaaaaaaaaaad, horse bag, Far Cry 2, etc.

      Yeah, Idle Thumbs is pretty great, and so is Steve Gaynor, by extension. I never could get into Deus Ex, though, the FPSing was too frustratingly clunky for me to get enjoy.

    • Ben says:

      Quoting the Idle Thumbs inside jokes is even funnier when remembering that Scoops freakin hates them :-D

  1. Matt Jones says:

    Sure is a lot of news about a game I never played… Should I rectify that, or is it too late?

    • Xurathar says:

      Play it. It’s a really good game, and it plays well after some acclimatizing time.
      Finished it yesterday for the first time and I had a great time. I really recommend it :P.

    • Garg says:

      Nah I wouldn’t bother.

    • Jad says:

      Play it. The production values are not amazing (and were not even when it was released), and there are some impressive flaws, but the overall gameplay design has still never been equaled, or really even approached.

    • Nephilim Rising says:

      I definitely think it’s worth playing. I started playing it again about a week ago, and was delighted to find out that the exact time my brain thought “You know what I really need to play? Deus Ex” coincided with the 10 year anniversary of the game.

      Nothing brought nostalgia on more than hearing Gunther and Anna discuss how there must be a conspiracy by the janitor with the vending machines.

  2. Marco Antonio says:

    “For nearly ten years I’ve wished that I could work on a game like Deus Ex and I know I’m not alone in this. It makes me sad to think that with most games needing over 2 million sales to break even these days that games as intelligent and open as Deus Ex just won’t happen anymore. I look forwards to being proved wrong though.” Sad but true :(

    • Sonicgoo says:

      Isn’t this a big failure of the gaming industry, though? If their costs are that high, shouldn’t they be putting much more work into their tools and practices so that they can do more with less people or in shorter periods of time? That wouldn’t just benefit the profitability of blockbusters, but also help mappers, modders and perhaps even indies.

    • Xocrates says:

      @Sonicgoo: They do place a lot of work in their tools, that’s why they can do a cookie cutter FPS in a year or so. Making those tools so that people like modders could use them would likely make games MORE expensive as it means they would need to be polished for public use.

      Heck, consider for a moment that what we would call a AAA game 10 years ago can nowadays be pulled of by handful of friends just out of college in a year or two. That’s how far the tools have come.

      You don’t really need to do more than compare Deus Ex to the upcoming Deus Ex 3 to understand why games got so much more expensive. Even outside graphics there are lots more of smaller tweaks that we’ve come to expect that take time.

      Games are more expensive because our standards are significantly higher.

    • bob_d says:

      @ Sonicgoo:
      There’s only so much that can be done. Creating more detailed models, more detailed textures, more complex animation and physics implementations, etc. all take more time and skill, no matter how good your tools and practices are. That is: one can only be so efficient. The tools out there now certainly allow people to do amazing things they couldn’t even dream about before, but that’s part of the problem. All those amazing new features become standard in games, and they require specialized skills and time to implement, not to mention all those tools cost money. Lots and lots of money. (That also means it becomes more difficult for modders to do anything.) So as tools and practices become more efficient, the expectations are raised even higher. Indie developers can (relatively) cheaply reproduce the AAA games of decades past, but they’ll also not get close to the AAA sales numbers.

      Other ways of reducing costs include outsourcing work to countries with lower wages and over-working the employees, but these are not good for the long-term survival of the game industry, and still involve increasing costs.

      Since the development costs of AAA games have risen so high that even being a top-selling game is no guarantee you’ll make your costs back (much less a profit), something is going to have to give, and soon. Tools aren’t going to solve the problem though, unless they’re artificially intelligent content-creating tools that do away with the need to have artists and programmers…

  3. Vinraith says:

    Gamersgate just jumped on the Deus Ex sale bandwagon, offering it for the same 75% off as on Steam. Options!

    • Chaz says:

      I went for the Steam option myself. I’ve still got my Deux Ex disk copy, never finished the game though, so I guess it demands a replay even though it’s been a long time now. I suppose I could of reinstalled it off my disk, but sod it I’m lazy, plus I get Deus Ex 2 which I’ve not played before.

    • Vinraith says:

      Two notes on this:

      1) Internet sources appear to confirm that mods work fine on both the Steam and Gamersgate versions.

      2) For those who have purchased a few things on Gamersgate in the past, you may or may not be aware that you get 5% the value of any purchase made back in “blue coins” which act as store credit. Consequently, like me, you may find you can get Deus Ex for free out of this deal.

  4. MJ12 Trooper says:

    (whistles) (hums) (coughs) (clears throat) (sighs) (grunts) (screams) (shouts) (groans) (gasps) (yell of pain) That got him. That’s one down. Check the area. Nice work. He’s down. Let’s try to get an ID. That was one tough S.O.B. Okay, let’s do the paperwork on this one. Tough day. Anyone else hungry?

  5. Alexander Norris says:

    A week later I picked up a copy of PC Gamer where somebody called Kieron had given the game a glowing review and I suddenly discovered that not all games were like Deus Ex.

    We’ve traced the Death of Innocence in Man to its origins, I see.

    Anyway, we need more game designers telling us how Deus Ex made them! Two is not enough.

  6. Paul says:

    “There was more thought put into the Doors in Deus Ex than gets put into most major features of a modern AAA Blockbuster.”

    Man…

    Why, why aren’t there more games like DX ? in those 10 years the only games that approached its greatness were Vampire Bloodlines (by now defunct Troika, I wanna cry!) and Deus Ex 2 (which was screwed, but still retained some of the qualities). Then maybe Stalker, Boiling Point and Pathologic, three russian/ukranian games. And that is about it. Alpha Protocol is good but completely different and utterly nonemergent.

    • Cooper says:

      The games many current developers grew up with were SNES and N64 games. Given that the majority of AAA games developers are based in the US, where Nintendo won the console wars.

      You only have to glance at the nature of AAA games to see that the lineage lies with Ocarina of Time and Goldeneye and not Elite and Deus Ex. All amazing, wonderful games. But in vastly different ways.

      For those brought up on the PC and Amiga etc. you have to look to Russia and the CIS countries.

      I’d love to hear someone from GSC or Icepick discuss their experiences with Deus Ex.

    • jeremypeel says:

      @ Cooper: That’s a really interesting point that for some reason hasn’t occured to me before. I personally seem to have had – at least until a few years ago – an upbringing full of broadly Western games. It was pretty strange excitedly entering conversations about ‘RPGs’ with Japanese-fueled gamers before realising that we were talking about utterly different genres.

      That’s partly because my upbringing consisted almost entirely of PC gaming rather than console gaming, but geography certainly does seem to enter into it.

  7. Roadrunner says:

    The defining PC game for me was Worms.

    • Cooper says:

      That rings true for me & my mate’s Amiga. Bloody hell did we play that thing to death…

  8. dtgreen says:

    MOAR DX coverage. MOAR!

  9. ilves says:

    Sniper rifles not being effective late game? BS… I was taking down the heavy armored commando dudes in a single head shot late game. He probably forgot to up his rifle skills.

  10. Gary W says:

    GOD HAND is nothing like Deus Ex, but approaches its greatness.

    It was mostly wasted on the console crowd.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Godhand is basically Quinns’ autobiography.

      KG

    • Oozo says:

      Is it me or was that a pretty random note?
      (Not that I wouldn’t disagree, just don’t know if I can follow your wandering mind…)

  11. RandomStranger#46 says:

    I’m tired of reading about Deus Ex. Am I bad because of this? :(

    • leeder_krenon says:

      bad at the internet perhaps given that it is generally fairly obvious that the article is about deus ex, but not a bad person as such.

    • Bret says:

      No.

      You’re bad because of the incident in third grade.

      Your mother would be ashamed.

  12. Cooper says:

    The point about the player matering is spot on.

    I loved Half Life, I adored it. The same way I love sitting in an old armchair at home to find my arse dent is still thre.

    But Deus Ex. Deus Ex was something else. I loved it in the way one loves a mentor. Sure it was difficult to get on with at places. Sure, it was woefully idiosyncratic. And sure, its edges were rough like that bird you end up pulling at 4am.

    By by gum did it teach me something. And in all sincerity, despite this sounding like something out of a pathetic cliche Hollywood High-School drama flick it taught me how to be me.
    Or rather that I could be me – whatever I wanted that to be. And that was ok, it was ok with me being me, and helped me to be me, in the way only the best mentors ever do.

    • RandomStranger#46 says:

      I have to try it then. This game just sounds like Socrates.

  13. Steve gaynor says:

    I copped to my own noobishness as opposed to blaming the game balance. I’m sure I could’ve min/maxed better, but, again, as noted, I am a scrub.

  14. Xercies says:

    Man i always feel young..i played deus Ex when i was 12 and at first thought it was just your standard Doom shooter. i thought the GEP gun was really the only option because i thought of the other guns…”a dart gun in a FPS you got to be joking me” or something like that…and then when i realised you could do stealth and those other guns weren’t silly choices it dawned on me. This was so so much more then Doom shooters.

    • Bret says:

      The GEP is still the best, mind.

      Heck, even when going non-lethal I pick the GEP. GEP!

  15. jeremypeel says:

    Looking forward to more of these interviews Kieron, this is great stuff. I’m not familiar with Ninja Theory, so that’s interesting ya know. Can’t wait to see who comes up next!

    The trend I’m starting to notice is not that current mainstream developers didn’t have the benefit of having Deus Ex as a formative experience – clearly we’re seeing many of them did – but that the majority of them believe that the chances of a game like Deus Ex being a sane financial prospect today are slim. This news makes me very sad.

    • Nallen says:

      They made that game with the red head on the PS3. Errrr….Heavenly Sword.

  16. Internet Friend says:

    Oh my god! I don’t care about Deus Ex!

    Why won’t you people stop harassing me with incessant articles about Deus Ex! Why!

  17. maesterz says:

    I hope Deus Ex Human Revolution can render justice to the original. Got to say, it’s looking good from what I saw.
    Can’t wait!

    (litteraly starting Deus Ex 1)

  18. Flemming Laursen says:

    I just visited Liberty Island and the statue of liberty yesterday, and all I could think of, was where you started out in that first level of Deus Ex. Honestly I only played the first level before I gave up, but I still remember how much I hated the pistol, because it was firing so damn slow.

  19. Shazbut says:

    Even if no PC game ever beats this, I hope people remain vocal to the end about it, just so the legacy is truthful and it stands as an embarrassing blot on games history.

    Young child: “What, you mean, all those developers, with all that money, didn’t use the first person perspective for anything other than simulating what it’s like to fire a gun? Ah haa ha ha! As if! Surely there was one that tried to simulate a non-violent form of interaction, like, I don’t know, talking, relating”

    Teacher: “No, Billy.”

    Young child: “Oh come on. If they just scripted a bunch of people in a room, and you walked up to one and they said they wanted to talk to a pretty girl, so you introduce the girl from the other side of the room and they chat, but they don’t get along because he has bad body odour, so you have to break this to him ge…..”

    Teacher: “Yes, Billy. But, it was too difficult back then”

    Young child: “But it’s not difficult”

    Teacher: “But back th…”

    Young child: “No. It wasn’t difficult. How could it have been difficult? How could it be hard to script a human drama if they could send planes crashing through buildings and allow you to shoot down every tree in a forest”

    Teacher: “It wouldn’t have sold very well”

    Young child: “Earlier you were telling us that the most successful PC game ever is one in which you spent most of your time getting your character to take a shower or cook himself a meal. It f***ing well would have sold”

    Teacher: “Billy! Detention!”

  20. EBass says:

    Thinking about it, perhaps what isn’t commented on much and which is also very impressive about Deus Ex is that its fully voice acted.

  21. Casimir's Blake says:

    Deus Ex, now officially the most overrated PC game, ever, courtesy Rock Paper Shotgun!

    Bloody hell guys, at least do a piece on Thief, or Ultima Underworld… or, you know, that other Looking Glass Game that I keep subtly mentioning.

    • bildo says:

      I bet you think half life is over-rated.

    • Huggster says:

      Underworld left the largest impression on me of these classics, but this may have been due to my age.
      I can remember all the theme songs still.

    • Casimir's Blake says:

      For the record, no, I don’t believe Half-Life is overrated, though I wouldn’t necessarily peg it as the best “linear or story-centric FPS”.

  22. Number47 says:

    The most impressing thing about Deus Ex is that it was made be the same company that made Daikatana :-) Speaking of other games by Ion Storm, why is noone talking about Anachronox, which was a very fine RPG game with good humor?

    On a side note, I still prefer Systom Shock 1, to both System Shock 2 and Deus Ex.

  23. Gassalasca says:

    I deplored the GEP, and each of the three times I finished the game I used almost only my trusted sniper, with some prod thrown in for good measure. -_-

    • bildo says:

      I love games where you can use a sniper to pick ‘em off from a distance and blow ‘em away up close. Deus Ex was that game. Also, I like games which the player can use a pistol to pick ‘em off from a distance and blow ‘em away up close. Halo was that game. I miss the pistol : /

    • AndrewC says:

      The first paragraph of this is quite exquisitely ironic. Well done for digging this up, I am happy now.

    • DMJ says:

      That’s the sort of thing I’d normally expect to find nestled in the Sunday Papers. It’s like a little nugget of interesting come a few days early.

    • AndrewC says:

      @DMJ Well consider me impressed that you managed to get through it. Internet points for you!

  24. PacifismFailed says:

    How did you first discover RPS? surely there should be a PC Gamer reader option

  25. Gary W says:

    It was originally a reply to Paul’s comment above, but I messed up.

  26. Gary W says:

    Jaysus. NM

  27. Brumbek says:

    Deus Ex, so awesome! Just a public service announcement: be sure to download several mods that make Deus Ex go from being an awesome game to a nearly flawless game. The mods are Shifter, HDTP, and enhanced rendering engine. Just search ModDB. You are welcome.