The History of Deus Ex
Article by Brian Penaloza
When Deus Ex first released on PC back in 2000, it was a phenomenon. However, since the release of the first Deus Ex the franchise has seen itself on a roller-coaster of sorts in terms of success. To understand this roller-coaster we must first start at the beginning with a grand vision by Warren Spector.
Warren Spector cut his teeth working on Tabletop Role-Playing games including GURPS, Marvel Super Heroes, and even the second edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. In 1989 he was hired by Origin and was the co-producer on such games as Wing Commander and Ultima VI before becoming a full producer on such titles as Ultima Underworld, Wings of Glory, and what would become a huge influence on Deus Ex, System Shock.
In 1993, while at Looking Glass Studios, Spector first started planning what would later become Deus Ex under the name Troubleshooter. First pegged as an Underworld style first person action game, planning on the game was stopped when Spector and his team were laid off from Looking Glass Studios in 1996. But before the dream could die, Spector was approached by John Romero at Ion Storm with a deal he could not pass up. Romero offered Spector the chance to build his dream game with full creative control, as well as a huge marketing budget. Thus, in 1997, pre-production began on Deus Ex whose working title at the time was Shooter: Majestic Revelations.
Pre-production on Shooter lasted 6 months and the game was due to be released by Christmas, 1998. The setting was developed first, as Spector had a vision of a world where the conspiracy theories people have are real, in a contemporary setting (which was later changed to near future). Colossus: The Forbin Project, Robocop, The Manchurian Candidate, X-Files, and Men in Black were all used by Spector as reference points for the story and setting. After the setting was decided upon, work began on the actual game mechanics. Half-Life, Fallout, Thief: The Dark Project, Goldeneye, and System Shock all influenced the design of the game, and when you play it you can clearly see many of those influences throughout. The last piece of the puzzle was the influence of Suikoden, which had limited choices. Spector wanted to take that idea and expand on it, which would become what the game was best known for once it shipped.
The game entered full production in 1998, blowing right past the Christmas ship date with a 28-month production phase. The game was play tested by trusted close friends of the development team whose input would prove invaluable during the development of the game. By mid-1998 Shooter was officially renamed Deus Ex which better encapsulated what the game would eventually become.
The focus from the beginning was character development, and was designed to allow the player to make decisions the way they would if they were actually in the game and to have the world and the story change based on those choices. It was one-part simulation, one-part role-playing, one-part first person shooter, and one-part adventure game. Due to these lofty goals, the story changed drastically during production as it was play tested and pieced together. Development altogether proved very difficult as the game systems did not work properly once coded, the conversation system was flawed, and the skills and augmentations were far less interesting than anticipated. The AI was completely forgotten about until the near end of development of the game. Spector’s grand vision was almost too grand to pull off…yet somehow, they did.
Finally, on September 20th, 2000 Deus Ex was released to critical acclaim. Critics praised the games deep gameplay and freedom of choice. Due to some of the limitations of the Unreal engine for building this type of game, there were some issues with graphics that some critics noted, but by and large the game was a hit and today sits at a 90 on Metacritic with a 9.2 user score, selling 1.1 million copies. The final game was rife with intricate, conspiracy-laden story-telling, plot twists, character development, player agency, and freedom. With that in mind it’s surprising that the sequel which released in 2003, Deus Ex: Invisible War, is so maligned amongst fans of the series.
Invisible War is tricky in that commercially you would call it a success. Selling 1.2 million copies actually means that Invisible War outsold the first Deus Ex game. In fact, it was also well received by critics. However, there were other issues that just did not click with gamers. For one, Warren Spector took on a more supervisory role and promoted Harvey Smith as the director of the game. While one could say that Spector had a lot to do with the shortcomings of the first game, you can’t argue the fact that his worldbuilding and vision were second to none. Unfortunately, with this change much of the world building that had been done was sidelined for a more futuristic setting which was not really what the first game was about. The game featured a new main character, Alex Denton, and the narrative also focused more on terrorism and less on the conspiracy aspects, which was one of the things that really spoke to players in the first game. Of course, this is not to say Harvey Smith made a bad game. It is in fact very solid, and still does a lot of things right. The point is that, with Spector taking more of a back seat, the magic of what made Deus Ex also seemed to take a back seat. Beyond that. The game also suffered from a myriad of technical issues.
While the graphics were a major improvement over the first game, due to the game being developed for PC and Xbox in tandem (as Xbox was the only console at the time with enough memory to even conceive of running the game, no PS2 port was ever made) the team had to focus on fitting the game within the limitations of what the Xbox could do. This meant that they needed to scale down the environments to be able to accommodate the limited RAM and processing power. The Xbox version of the game actually handled everything considerably well, despite having framerate issues. The game actually came out on Xbox first, the rationale being that the PC ports would be better optimized. Invisible War was also developed on Unreal Engine, with some parts (including AI) being built on Havok. Unfortunately, the AI issues that plagued the first game would not be fixed with this release either.
The game also simplified many of the mechanics, both in an attempt to lure new players that were more First-Person Shooter focused and to simplify the UI for the console version. This proved to water down the mechanics a bit more than people would like, which became a point of criticism from both gamers and critics alike.
Ultimately, despite what went wrong, Deus Ex: Invisible War more or less succeeded at what it was trying to do. It is a difficult task to follow up on a game like Deus Ex and Invisible War should be lauded for even making the attempt. With so many changes to the development of this game, much more could have gone wrong. It was still a solid game and it was more Deus Ex, which is never a bad thing. At the time, it was a great game and most of these nitpicks are from taking a retrospective look at the series. That just makes what happens next all the more interesting.
Ion Storm attempted to make a sequel to Invisible War multiple times, proving the success of the second game. That said, Deus Ex 3 was not able to be made before Eidos Interactive closed Ion Storm’s doors in 2005. It would be another two years before the next game would start its development at Eidos Montréal, and another four years until Deus Ex: Human Revolution would be released by Square Enix in 2011.
Set 25 years before Deus Ex Human Revolution took the game back to its narrative roots as a new character, Adam Jensen. The story went back to focusing on secretive organizations and conspiracies and shows the roots of the classist divide that the introduction of augmentations created. Gameplay was modernized and improved, and even the augmentations were made more useful and interesting than in either of the prior games. The environments were a larger scale than ever before, and the conversation system was deeper as well. Really, the only universal criticism to the game was that the boss battles felt out of place and were poorly done.
Human Revolution was released simultaneously on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 without any input from Warren Spector or Harvey Smith. The game was directed by Jean-François Dugas, and notably no one from the original development teams were involved in the development of Human Revolution. This set of fresh eyes on the Deus Ex IP may be just what was needed to revitalize the series as the core development team spent time playing through the first two games, taking notes on what they did and did not like and how they could modernize the mechanics that were already there. Early on it was decided to stay true to the series’ roots even though Human Revolution was more or less a reboot. Interestingly, the boss battles that were so heavily criticized were almost an afterthought, and at one point the team discussed cutting them from the game completely. Ultimately, the development team decided that for plot reasons they could not cut the battles, and so they outsourced them to a company called Grip Entertainment, which would explain why they felt so disjointed compared to the rest of the game.
When the game released in 2011 it sold well with sales of 2.18 million copies, more than the first two games combined. It was lauded as a return to form for the series, and critics and gamers alike loved the new game. The game enjoyed high ratings on Metacritic, and even received a Nintendo Wii port. Square Enix and Eidos Montréal were riding high on the success of Human Revolution and immediately began production on a sequel.
In 2011 production began on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. The game was a direct sequel to Human Revolution, set two years after the conclusion of that game. Mankind Divided focused its story on some heavy themes like discrimination and transhumanism while sticking close to its conspiracy laden motif. The main plotline is that after the events of Human revolution, augmented people are segregated from non-augmented people. In a series first you reprise the role of a prior protagonist, Adam Jensen, working as a double agent with a hacker group to expose the Illuminati.
Mankind Divided was built from the ground up for next-gen hardware and the game would be released on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. Originally, Eidos Montréal had no intention of making a sequel to Human Revolution, but with the sales above what were anticipated the team quickly realized that they had to continue the story. Mankind Divided had a longer than standard development cycle, which the development team blamed on learning new technology and attempting to create a deeper story. The idea behind development was to polish what worked, and to take what they had learned from the Director’s Cut of Human Revolution to fix what did not. By and large they succeeded in that effort, with the glaring exception of the AI, a long-standing series bugaboo. With such a good framework in place and with the same development team, what could go wrong? As it appears, not a whole lot in terms of the game itself. But major missteps in marketing tainted the hype and buzz for the game, and it would appear that sales suffered for it.
Prior to the game’s release, the marketing came under fire from the public and games media for its use of the word apartheid. Though the story that was being told made use of the word in a relevant way, its association with South African racial segregation was controversial. Further controversial marketing included the phrase “Aug Lives Matter,” due to its similarity to Black Lives Matter, a tone-deaf misstep that should have been avoided even if the developers’ claim were true that their phrase was chosen in 2013 before Black Lives Matter became a movement. Bad PR continued to pile up as the pre-order campaign that was announced had 5 different tiers. The perception was that this was a money grab by the publisher, and it left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths. Ultimately, the publisher would decide to consolidate the pre-order bonuses and make them available to all who pre-ordered the game. Even after release, the game could not escape criticism as the microtransactions became another point of contention for people who felt like they were being nickel and dimed by the game.
This would all culminate in the lowest review scores for the game, despite the game itself not really faltering in any real way compared to previous titles. The narrative was mostly praised, with some criticism of how it handled such complex themes. The gameplay was tightened up, with more options for stealth and non-lethal playthroughs. The environments were a step above the prior game as well. Even the boss battles were actually developed in house and could be avoided altogether with the right conversation choices. Minor gripes included the short length of the story, bad voice acting, and of course issues with the AI. All in all, you would be forgiven to think that this would have been considered the best game in the series.
While no sales numbers could be confirmed for Mankind Divided, what is known is that they were far below what Square Enix expected. After Human Revolution, the revitalization of Deus Ex was to be a tentpole series for Square Enix with the publisher discussing creating an expanded universe for the series. Instead, Square Enix announced that while Deus Ex was not canceled, it was most definitely shelved.
So, what does this all tell us about the roller-coaster of success and failure that Deus Ex has been on? After diving deep into the development and the stories behind these games, what has become evident is that when Deus Ex knows what it is, it is a great game. The first Deus Ex, and Human Revolution tapped into the most interesting elements of story and game design and created an incredible experience for gamers. Invisible War and Mankind Divided lost their path in different ways. Invisible War changed core elements just a bit too much while Mankind Divided stuck to its roots but could not get out of its own way with poor marketing decisions. Ultimately, one could argue that if Mankind Divided had merely avoided the unforced errors it committed with marketing and micro transactions; we could well have three well received games in the Deus Ex series. One could also argue that Invisible War is the only odd one out with its straying of the story and vision while Mankind Divided never really got the chance to shine in gamers eyes due to (well deserved) bad optics.
At the end of the day, despite every misstep this series has made, one undeniable fact is evident. Deus Ex is a marvel of gameplay and storytelling. It revolutionized the art of player agency and really was at the forefront of letting gamers choose how they want to play the game. As much as the series was influenced by other games, countless games would go on to be influenced by Deus Ex and what it did. That is one hell of a legacy.