How to follow a revolution: The making of Deus Ex: The Fall
Square Enix and N-Fusion reveal all
Deus Ex has always been a series noted for its ambition and expansive nature, regardless of the platforms it has appeared on.
Having begun life on PC, it eventually put down roots in the console space thanks to a port of the original game in the series finding its way to PlayStation 2 – something that generated jeers aplenty from elitist PC players concerned it would be 'dumbed down'.
Fast forward thirteen years and, after two further sequels on console, Deus Ex has made its way to smartphones in the form of The Fall.
If there was a fear amongst fans that a then well-powered console wouldn't be a suitable home for the Deus Ex series, then just what would they make on a move on mobile?
In this week's Making Of, we delve into the decisions behind Eidos and parent company Square Enix's decision to deliver a fully-fledged mobile sequel, casting a keen eye on the decisions both it and the game's development team came to as it rolled towards release.
The studio tasked with bringing Deus Ex to smartphones and tablets was the New Jersey-based N-Fusion.
Formed in 1997 – and behind 30 games since its inception – the studio is perhaps best known for Air Mail, though the return of Deus Ex stood as quite a different proposition.
"The game was built from the ground up with smartphone and tablet devices in mind - this was always the goal," says James Wright, mobile producer Square Enix Europe.
"We wanted to bring Deus Ex to a wider audience, and smartphone and tablets are a part of us doing that.
"Eidos Montreal and the Square mobile team in London decided that the way to get the best results bringing Deus Ex to mobile was to build from the ground up.
"That way we could customise the controls and other elements to get a great experience whilst retaining our core values of action, stealth, hacking, and social interaction."
Much of the criticism aimed at the game since release is aimed squarely at its controls. It's a problem many developers have to contend with when bringing a first-person shooter onto a touch-screen device.
N-Fusion's attempted solution was to implement a hybrid of two systems: virtual sticks and tap movement.
"Controls were obviously a big part," explains Wright, "and one of the reasons we built from the ground up, [was] so that we could create a custom control scheme for the platform.
"Yes we have virtual sticks, along with a tap to move system where the player can tap the ground to move there and also tap cover to make Ben travel and automatically enter cover.
"We wanted to allow people to customise their ideal control scheme so there are a ton of options, such as choosing between manual, tap or auto aim modes - choosing to put a joystick on screen and being able to reposition the buttons and HUD as they see fit."
But the question of how best to control play wasn't the biggest issue the development team faced. According to Jeff Birns, CEO of N-Fusion, it was the sheer scale of the task and hand that loomed the largest.
"Most of our problems stemmed from the relatively immense size of the game," says Birns. "For such a small team, handling the gameplay, writing, and environments was a big challenge.
"Luckily, we had great support from Eidos and were able to work together to achieve what we think is a great game. We solved it by putting in tons of love and extra hours to make it happen. The team sacrificed themselves for the greater good of the game.
"Relating to the size of the game, supporting a game this large on the many available devices has proved to be a challenge - and is currently a challenge developing for Android."
Alongside the task of trying to duplicate the scale of a Deus Ex game, the team also had to translate one of its predecessor's graphical signatures: Human Revolution's fondness for golden hues blasting through venetian blinds, breaking up the darkness.
The solution? Borrow content from Human Revolution itself.
Black and gold
"It was a combination of reusing assets and building from the ground up," explains Birns.
"For the most part, the Human Revolution assets were too expensive for mobile gaming and it wasn't worth the time to reduce them down to a usable state. Even when we did, you'd find that it didn't look that good because the art wasn't meant to be technically reduced that much.
"So we'd end up building something similar from the ground up to stay in line with Human Revolution's distinctive art style. When we first started it was really important for us to find our ceiling graphically. We built a few levels and broke our devices instantly."
Birns adds that the team found the bottlenecks and fixed them, but that it was a constant battle right up until the last moments to push the devices "literally as far as they could go."
"When we thought the game looked 'good', we tried to make it look even better," he adds. "We never compared ourselves to other mobile titles, we always compared ourselves to console and PC experiences, because that's what we wanted this to feel like.
"We used Unity to make the game and were able to take advantage of just about every tool and trick it has to offer. If there was a feature in the engine we took full advantage of it. We use a lot of modern techniques to optimise rendering, so we're always rendering only the barest minimum of what we actually need to see.
"We also wrote a ton of custom shaders that mimic next gen effects and quality, but are done in a much cheaper fashion.
According to Birns, making art "in the usual fashion" just wasn't going to work a game on the scale of Deus Ex: The Fall. Instead, the developer had to make "creative use of what we had at our disposal."
"We went with Unity 3D for our game engine, which was a great choice," he adds.
"Audiokinetic's Wwise was used to pull off the audio and integrated well with Unity. To get the characters' lip sync and facial animations during conversations we used a tool called FaceFX. We also used EzGUI to help us implement our interface."
But what about some of the game's more dramatic elements? During our time with the game, we stumbled across an impressive vista: a passenger boat on the horizon silhouetted against a golden sky, with buoys bobbing calmly in the foreground.
It's an impressive scene – especially on mobile - but how was it achieved.?
"The backdrops are not painted on," explains Birns. "There's really a boat out there, and that buoy is a full 3D model bobbing around in the water.
"We tried not to compromise on any of the assets, we wanted them all to look like they really fit in the world, they received full lighting and texturing information.
"We were really able to cut down on rendering costs of these things by making sure they were sharing textures with other objects."
It's obvious pushing the game graphically was a key driver for the Deus Ex team, no doubt looking to tap into the same themes as the rest of the games in the series. The end result? A game that, on a visual basis alone, really does stand out on mobile.
It's easy to see that high quality art was integral during development, but Birns insists that gameplay came first.
"Because of Human Revolution's distinctive art style, art was a high priority," continues Birns. "but not our highest.
"We said from the very beginning our challenge on this project was going to be gameplay, not the art. Packing not just combat, but the stealth, hacking, and social aspects of Deus Ex into a mobile game was our highest priority."
Because of limited processing power, the team were a bit restricted in this department, however. Especially in regards to programming the A.I. Instead of delving into the specifics of the creation of the A.I, Wright assures that the team is still working hard to improve it.
"Since launch we've been working on taking our A.I. systems even further," Wright explains. "And have already released an update to make the A.I. smarter, more aware of the player, which means the A.I. doesn't lose the player during combat, thus making much more enjoyable combat situations."
One thing that was cut from Human Revolution, however, was the ability to jump, taking away some of the vertical exploration and, essentially, reducing the players' options.
But the reasons for the omission were entirely justified, explains Square-Enix's James Wright.
"We made the decision early on that we didn't want to challenge the player with having to run and jump in first-person using touch screen controls," he says. "Yet we wanted them to be able to explore and open up new areas.
"Swapping out jumping with vaulting does this, not only does it simplify the experience, it also allows the player to vault over an obstacle, discover a new area - and when combined with vents or ladders, the player can explore the vertical area of the level also.
"So we still retain some of the vertical exploration that players enjoyed from Human Revolution."
Another decision that was made at the outset was the game's pricing model. Despite mobile's penchant for free-to-play, Deus Ex: The Fall was always intended to be a premium game.
"From the outset we knew we going to produce premium content, so this in part helped us decided on a paid model with IAP," Wright reveals.
"The second factor was that we didn't want to have anything like a paywall break the experience for the player, so it was very important for us that after the initial payment to purchase the game the player doesn't need to put another penny into the game to see all of the content."
The team are focused entirely on supporting their premium vision for now, with porting it to other platforms a high priority.
"The game has always been planned for Android," admits Wright.
"We are well underway and it will be available shortly. There is a lot of interest in playing Deus Ex: The Fall on other platforms, so we are considering many options. However, right now we are focused on tablet and smartphone versions of the game."
Development doesn't stop once a game ships these days, you see, as Jeff Birns is keen to point out.
"In this day and age, development doesn't stop at release we are still currently in development to add more features and support more platforms."
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