Interview: Designing Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Tom Francis



The thirty minutes I saw of the third Deus Ex game were exciting, but raised a lot of questions. So although I had time to ask game director Jean-Francois Dugas some wide-ranging stuff about Deus Ex 1 and 2, I was particularly keen to grill him on the ins and outs of how this game's systems actually work when you're playing. Refreshingly, he was willing to answer in detail on almost every subject. Without further ado:

Not how it actually plays, according to Dugas.

PCG: What did you like most about Deus Ex?

Dugas: A lot of things. Actually it's fun because when I think about this, I remember when Ion Storm the studio was born and everybody was working on Daikatana, and I don't remember their other game, and there was this little game I was reading about in PC Gamer one day. “Deus Ex? That sounds interesting.”

When this game came out it was like, “Wow, this title is surprisingly subtle”. What I liked about first was the universe, those characters and this film noir story. I was really immersed into it. Then it was that with creativity alone you can solve your challenges; that was really cool back in the day.

For me, a really good part was that the game was answering back to what you were doing. It wasn't really necessary to destroy everything or to kill everyone. I was like, “Gosh!” It was the first time ever that I had that kind of experience. So those things all together were really key aspects.

PCG: Yeah, on the first level, if you kill absolutely everybody, I hadn't noticed until recently, but your brother has a completely new line of dialogue: “You're a complete jackass!”

Dugas: [laughs] But that was strong, because even today not many games do that.

PCG: There seems to be a focus on making content that all players will see because everything is so expensive to make, and takes so much time. You don't want to record more dialogue unless everybody's going to hear that line. Anyway, how does the hacking minigame work?

Dugas: Actually, today on purpose we didn't talk about it, just to let you understand what you can do with it. But basically it's very simple. It can be deep, but the basics are very simple. It's a network, and you just enter from the IO port and you need to reach the registry, to get your information. Basically you have a data-course of routing that is protecting the network. As you capture nodes to get to the registry, on each node you capture there's a probability of being detected. If you're detected, the subroutine starts to trace you back to your point of entry, and at that moment you try to get to the registry before it gets to you.

If it doesn't wake up because your hacking abilities, augmentations, have hit the roof, then you can just go to the registry without being detected. If you're detected, the computer locks, the alarm rings, if there are still enemies around they'll go in to investigate the area, things like that.

PCG: So it sounds quite a lot like the System Shock 2 hacking, but with an extra layer added on.

Dugas: Actually yes and no. Yes in the sense that it's a minigame like in Bioshock. I mean it's not the same minigame, but it's a minigame. But the other aspect is that you totally stay in the game. So, today was hacking, but he could have looked with the camera, looked around if enemies are coming. So basically, if there's an enemy next to you, trying to hack might not be a good idea, because you can get shot at and killed.

PCG: For me, the moment that I got Deus Ex was when I realised that if there's two guys around a corner, you can't just run around and shoot them both. It seems, from the demo we saw today, that you're incredibly powerful in Human Revolution. Do you force the player to think around situations, or can he always shoot his way through?

Dugas: We're balancing the game, but in the demo you've seen today, it wasn't possible to die. He was invincible in the first place. That was more to showcase the game and the potential. In the game itself, we don't want it to be a run and shoot game. We're balancing it out like if you try to run and go at the enemies, 2, 3, 4 bullets maybe, and you're dead.

I mean, you can acquire the augmentations and the weapons that will make you a very kick ass killer on the field, but it doesn't mean that it's running all over the place, it's going to be hard. So, taking cover, looking at the possibilities and trying to find other ways, are all the possibilities that will often times save you from dying. It's really important to us to balance the game in a way that is going to encourage you to explore the augmentations, to explore the maps, to explore all the different tools around you.

It doesn't mean that it's going to impossible to be a straight shooter, but it's going to be quite challenging.

PCG: What are the rules for when you can do takedowns like the wrist-blade stabbing moves?

Dugas: The rules are very simple. You need to have the augmentation, and you need to get close to an enemy.

PCG: Does it matter whether they can see you or not?

Dugas: If they see you and you're not dead, it's going to be a different animation, because you're up front so it's not the same thing as surprising them from behind. What I've been explaining today is that basically there are two ways you can off them. You can press the button to kill them, or you can briefly press it just to make them unconscious. So when all the arm hatches are opening and he's going with his blades then it's killing, but if they're not opening then [it will be non-lethal]. So it's all in the player's control. Basically you can come from the front and still do it, but you need, to come in from a corner and surprise him. If you come from afar and you try, he's going to start shooting at you, and the chances that you survive are low. It can happen, but they're very low.

But you can do them anywhere, anytime, it's up to you. It's contextual, but it's not scripted. You could go in the city and do it to the civilians in the store and everything, but it's not necessary.

PCG: Those wrist-blades: do you upgrade them to unlock a specific move, or can you do all the moves with them as soon as you get it?

Dugas: Yeah, actually, you don't have to unlock anything for that. The way we see it is that getting close to an enemy should be a challenge on it's own, and it's more of a reward for getting close to the enemy.

PCG: So you can do stuff like knocking people out right from the start of the game?

Dugas: Yep!

PCG: On the very first loading screen of that demo, it had a little tip about the different things the strength upgrade. Do you just keep upgrading strength and that unlocks those different functions, or do you have to choose, “Okay, I want to be better at lifting things," or "I want to be better at punching down walls”?

Dugas: Basically, the way augmentations work, it works on two levels. There's the money economy, with the credits, and you also have the XP points. So at the Limb Clinic, you go there to buy the basic augmentations. Let's say the legs, something in your cranium, things like that. And for all the augmentations that you buy you have different abilities associated to that augmentation. Those can be unlocked by spending XP points. So when you go to Limb Clinic, this is the only time when you can buy the new augmentations, but with the XP points, you can level up any of the augmentations that you already have at any moment. You get those arms, those legs, and it's like Jensen is getting used to having them and is able to do more things with them, to explore their full potential. That's the idea behind it.

PCG: What do you earn experience points for?

Dugas: Shooting guys, playing a map stealthily, discovering a hidden area, hacking successfully, convincing a character to do something for you, and even by failing you still get XP points. You get XP points for doing critical path missions, you get XP points for side missions... and I missed a lot of things.

What is cool is that the game rewards you on a constant basis for the smallest thing you do. You can play for ten minutes and still have a few more points.

PCG: Do you spend those same points to upgrade your weapons?

Dugas: For the weapons, those are physical upgrades that either you buy or you find in the world. And you attach them to your weapons. If you want a mental image, it's similar to Deus Ex 1 and Resident Evil 4.

I saw this area in-game, it's surprisingly close to the concept art.

PCG: We saw Adam smash through a ceiling, drop down and blow up everyone in the room. What was that?

Dugas: It's two augmentations. Francis used one, used the other next to it, so it looks like one huge scripted moment, but it's not. Basically the first one is the Icarus Landing System, which allows you when you have this augmentation to fall or jump from any heights without taking damage. So this augmentation, when you try to explore all over the place and you're scared that you're going to fall, it's a good idea. Basically there are two ways to use it. The first way is that if you don't press any button, you're going to land super smoothly, not making noise. If you hold the trigger, he's going to do the punch and stun people around.

If you have the Claymore augmentation, now you can do what he did with his arms and those claymores to make them explode.

PCG: So that's one of those you'd have to go to the Limb Clinic and buy?

Dugas: Exactly. And then you need to refill the charges, because every time you use it it takes a charge. If you don't have any more you can't use it. With all the augmentations- or, not all, but the active ones, you spend energy bar. If you don't have any energy you can't use your augmentations any more, so you need to refill. Like, let's say Claymore takes that , and the takedown takes that , so they all have their chunk of energy that they take.

PCG: Okay, but you have a universal energy bar.

Dugas: Yep. But we don't have universal ammo. [laughs]

PCG: Does the energy regenerate over time?

Dugas: Basically the way it works, it's kind of a different system where at first you have two pips of energy, and you can upgrade to five, six. When you deplete one pip, that doesn't replenish. You need to find the right item to replenish it. The only one that replenishes all the time is the first one. So the first one, when you're totally empty, over time slowly it's going to replenish, but for one. But to replenish it all, you need to explore and find the items.

PCG: And do those takedowns cost energy?

Dugas: Yeah. You cannot just run and do it all the time.

PCG: Makes sense. We saw him use the crossbow, which was always my favourite weapon. Can you still use it to tranquilise people?

Dugas: Right now it's a lethal weapon. We have other weapons that are more non-lethal, but the crossbow in this game is more lethal. It's more mean.

PCG: I guess since it does skewer people to stuff, they're probably not going to survive.

Dugas: It's quite brutal.

PCG: Can you give an example of a non-lethal weapon?

Dugas: We're not ready to unveil all the guns yet, but obviously you'll have guns that are going to put people to sleep. Some are just going to frazzle them and things like that. When we reveal the guns later, we'll have the non-lethal ones.

PCG: When Adam paid to get into the club in the demonstration, you said that you could have shot the guard outside to get in. If he'd done that would the police have followed him inside?

Dugas: I mean, if he would have done it, it would have been a huge priority just to survive, because there are bouncers inside, outside, there are the Bell Tower Security lurking in the streets. You could survive, but it's going to be tough. It's an option, but you must be ready to have one hell of a time. The key with social environments, we balance it in a way that we don't encourage it. It's still possible, but we balance it in a way that if you want to do it it's because you really feel like doing it.

PCG: I noticed you could drag corpses around. What happens if a guard finds one?

Dugas: If they're not dead, they're going to wake them up, and both of them are going to look around for you. And if the guy's dead, the guy is going to go on alert and just patrol around, and if he sees his friends, he'll be like, “Watch out, there's someone around.” So if you decide not to kill anyone, then hiding them to make sure that they are not awakened is a good idea.

PCG: You can pick up crates and stuff. Can you also take cover behind the stuff that you've placed?

Dugas: Yep, like the crate he moved to go on the side of the big gate in the second part of the level, he could have taken this with him, put it there, take cover behind it. So he can move his cover.

PCG: Can you destroy one of those huge Boxguard bots with normal bullets?

Dugas: Actually, the way we balanced the game with the enemies, it's systemic. In the sense that it's not, “Oh, if you don't have this weapon you cannot kill him.” You could have just a simple pistol kill this big robot, but hopefully you have tons of bullets with you. It's going to take a while. For the purpose of the demo we made it more vulnerable as well, it was one rocket and it's dead, but for the final game it might take more than one rocket to kill it. We don't prevent you from using [any weapon]... obviously some non-lethal weapons won't do anything.

PCG: So it's like in Deus Ex - it was possible, I think, to destroy bots with bullets eventually, but it took a ridiculous amount of time.

Dugas: It was. I've done it, so it's possible, but you need to be really really patient and have a lot of ammo.

PCG: The only way I've ever done is to hack a turret to attack enemies, then watch through a computer terminal until the bot comes in range. It's kind of hilarious, you could just watch it pound away.

Dugas: You can do it in Deus Ex: Human Revolution as well.

PCG: Awesome. But I presume that if you're in the middle of a hack and the bot comes into range, it will attack you?

Dugas: Yeah, absolutely, if you don't plug away from the computer you're going to die.

PCG: Yeah. It was always funny in Deus Ex: if someone ran into the room while you were looking through the camera, they would just kind of stand there waiting for you to finish.

Dugas: [laughs]

PCG: “Oh, it'd just be rude to shoot him!”

Dugas: “Please! Complete what you're doing!” [laughs]

Highway 17 - where have we heard that before?

PCG: Can you just punch through any wall?

Dugas: No, if you observe carefully, all those big strong walls, some of them have weaknesses. It's not like Red Faction or something like that. They have weaknesses and if you observe carefully, you might detect them. But you're going to have an augmentation that is going to give you more information, what we call the Environmental Sensor. It's going to bring up your awareness of your surroundings and the possibilities, so you're going to see where there are weaknesses and you can take advantage of it.

Basically today, it was like, there was an enemy on the other side, so the demo combines it with Smart Vision that allows you to see through walls. But if an enemy was not there, you could still destroy the wall. It's not related to the enemy. If there's an enemy there, he's going to take advantage of the situation, but those two things are not necessarily related.

PCG: What do you think Invisible War did wrong?

Dugas: That's a good question, because when we started the project we went back to the first games to look at what was good and what was not good, and in terms of like, multi-path, multi-solution, things like that, Invisible War was quite consistent, probably more than the first game. Because the latter quarter of the first game, and maybe before that, started to become a very straightforward shooter with not as many possibilities as in the first few maps.

So in that respect, I think [Invisible War] was a good game and actually was fun to play. But I think one of the things that didn't help was that in the beginning of the game, you're this Alex Denton, you don't know who you are, what is your background, what are you doing in this world. And all those characters talking at you all the time, they all want something, and it takes hours before it starts to kick in. I think maybe it was too hard to absorb and immerse in that world because it took so many hours.

Also I think that the setting was very far in the future, was more futuristic and less grounded a reality that we can relate to, and those are all aspects of it that made it harder to get into. I'm not talking about, like, universal ammo and those things, I think that's another debate, but more on the broader appeal, I think it's the setting and how you perceive it. In the first Deus Ex you're just the super soldier out of this first nanotechnology project that is successful, and you work for UNATCO, a branch of the UN, and you're this super agent and you have this identity already clear in your head wherever you go. It's near future and you see, like, the statue of liberty, like the head is on the ground - “Oh my God, something happened!” There's something strong that you can relate to that I think Invisible War lacked in the first place.

PCG: Does Deus Ex 3 have an equivalent?

Dugas: Uh, you mean in terms of...?

PCG: In terms of giving the player a compelling fantasy from the first moment, making sure he knows what he's doing?

Dugas: I think we're really closer to Deus Ex 1 in the sense that you know who you are. You don't necessarily know everything about your past, but you know who you are, who you work for, what are the factions that employ you, what is the debate. We wanted to create a stronger character, someone you can relate to. I think a choice that is removed from you, and which you need to cope with, is something that we all have at some point experienced. For us, it was really important to put the players in a world where what's happening, and the dangers, have some sort of analogy to the real world so it's easier to get into.

PCG: Something else we complained about in Invisible War was that the levels were a little too small. I know the levels we saw today had open areas where you can go wherever you like, but do you have anything on the same scale of Liberty Island from Deus Ex 1?

Dugas: Actually we have... it's a mix of both. We have maps that are more compounds, that feel more like Area 51, it's slightly open outside but you go inside in the facility and there are secret areas. There's multi-path but you're in corridors and rooms and things like that. But also we have big cities, like Detroit and Shanghai. What you've seen today was just two corners of a street. The city of that map is really bigger than what you've seen today. Today was just a small part for the purpose of the demo. And yes, you're going to be able to explore every corner of those cities.

Also, we try to when it makes sense to broaden the flexibility of the objectives. For instance in Detroit, without revealing too much of the missions, you have Objective A, when it's done you do Objective B, when it's done you do Objective C. But when you start with Objective A, if you decide, “Okay, I could go and do it, but I want to explore in that direction.” You can go explore that direction. And at some point you see a terminal or something and you can hack it, you can shut it down. And one of your guys says,

“Hey Jensen, what did you just do?”

“I don't know, there was this switch and it just... what did I do?”

“I'll come back to you later.”

Your character, and you yourself as a player, don't know what you just did, but the game acknowledges it, and as you complete the objectives what you discover is that was [Objective C]. And basically, since you already did it, then your mission is done. You can go to extraction point and just leave, or go wherever you want to go.

So we're trying to keep the game as flexible as possible when it makes sense for those things. If you explore and you discover some items, “I don't know what I'm going to do with it”, but then at some point you meet characters that, for them, it's important. And if you already have it, your character will be allowed to choose, “I think I already have what you needed.” So even though the story is linear, as you play, what you do is going to be flexible enough to accommodate other play styles.

PCG: I know you guys said that the stealth is based on cover rather than light and dark, but does that mean that light and dark don't play any role in detection?

Dugas: Basically our system is based on the breaking of line of sight, and making no noises, because in our game we have some environments that are quite light. Some are darker, but some are brightly lit. Because of the context you go there in, it wouldn't make sense to put it in shadows and everything. Basically we needed to build a stealth system that would work everywhere, not just in some maps. That's why we decided to go on breaking the line of sight and managing the sound produced around you.

This might actually work.

PCG: My problem with cover systems is that inevitably there's a point where my guy just suddenly lurches towards something that I didn't want to stick him to. How do you combat stuff like that?

Dugas: I don't know if you played Rainbow Six: Vegas, if it felt right to you or not?

PCG: I did, but I can't remember quite what my opinion of it was...

Dugas: [laughs] If you felt it was right then you're going to think our game is going to feel right. But if you thought it was not right then you're going to think it's not right.

PCG: I'll go and play it.

Dugas: Basically, if you don't hold the trigger, you're never going to take cover. So there's no way to be confused and to enter cover when you don't want, or get out of cover when you don't want to. A lot of games it feels a bit like that. I was playing Mass Effect 2, I finished it a month ago or something, at some point I was in the heat of a battle and discovering, “Oh my God, I've left cover, and he won't go back!” What we do is that you need to pull and hold the left trigger in place, and when you release it you are out of cover. You just need to be close to where you want to take cover, just press it in. It should be simple. If you go back and play Rainbow Six: Vegas, you should feel right at home.

Update: I actually did exactly this when I got back to the UK, and fell back in love with the Vegas games. The cover system is great, perhaps the only great one I've tried, and it's both useful and intuitive. Being in first-person and precisely controlling your view means that it's almost impossible to stick to something you didn't mean to. And being in third-person once you are in cover lets you stop and plan how you're going to deal with the enemies you see around the corner. We're talking about it over in the forums, come and join us if you have an opinion.

Yesterday in Deus Ex week I gave you my blow-by-blow account of everything I saw of Deus Ex: Human Revolution in action. Since we've been talking a lot about whether it can capture what makes Deus Ex great, tomorrow we'll be returning to the first game to explore why it does work, and recount a particularly ridiculous play-through of the classic Liberty Island level.

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