Deus Ex GO is no more. With the shuttering of its developer Onoma, Embracer, their parent company, are turning off the servers, rendering the game unplayable for all and taking countless fond memories with it. But what made the game, and 'GO' in general, such an important landmark for mobile gaming?
For while we’re all familiar with smartphone licensed game ports such as Apex Legends Mobile, or even ambitious projects like Alien Isolation, one of the first series to not just port but really adapt the style and themes of the franchises they were based on was the GO series.
Starting with 2014’s Hitman GO from Square Enix Montreal, a game that was followed by Lara Croft GO (based on the Tomb Raider franchise) in 2015 and Deus Ex GO (again, based on the 'new' Deus Ex series) a year later. The series formed a trilogy of unique puzzle games that adapted some of the most successful and iconic gaming series of all time into new forms that truly made the most of mobile.
Square Enix Montreal was originally drafted to join the company's series of AAA studios producing console games, however as the times changed so did their mission. The company's initial WIP titles changed from being part of the Hitman series itself, to developing a mobile game based on the franchise. A tall order and one that drew scepticism at a time when adaptations usually consisted of the poor ports or loosely identifiable genre games.
The ‘GO’ in the title should be an indicator of just how crucial the mobile platform was to the development and conception of these games. These were not just ports, or adaptations into existing genres such as match-3 or card battlers, but an effort to bring a complete, premium experience to your smartphone. These were games unique to the platform, that capitalised on its strengths and diminished its weaknesses.
As then lead engineer on Lara Croft GO, Antoine Routon said in an interview with PG.biz at the time about the conception behind the game “One might think it would be respectful of the brand to make an exact copy of Lara's adventures as they exist on consoles; with camera in third person, intense action sequences, virtual joysticks, etc. But the result would disappoint: "gamers" would rather play such a game on console, mobile and casual players would find it too complex to play."
His response to solving this problem perfectly encapsulates what the GO series was about “That's why we're really careful about crafting experiences specifically for the device we're working with. We're not trying to replicate exactly what has been done on console, but rather to create our own space and offer a complimentary entry point to the franchise.”
The Art of GO
The ‘GO’ titles initially took a board game style approach with Hitman GO, which structured its levels as board game boxes. However, later entries such as Deus Ex GO and Lara Croft GO instead chose to stick with an abstract puzzle game style and ditch the original playing-piece aesthetic. Hitman proved to be the most frequent collaborator with Square Enix Montreal outside of the GO series, with the studio producing Hitman Sniper and Hitman Sniper: Deadly Shadows, both shooting gallery games set within the universe.
Part of the GO series initial appeal was how it utilised the weaknesses of mobile to instead be a strength, as Routon stated, many games at the time struggled with virtual joysticks and both natural and technical limitations of the platform. Unable to support the gameplay that the original series were known for, the GO series instead broke it down into the ‘feeling’ of what the originals were like. Hitman GO focused on the distraction, stealth and ‘perfection’ aspects, Deus Ex GO adapted the hacking minigame that featured in both of the newest ‘full-size’ entries, whilst Lara Croft GO prominently featured the climbing and treasure-hunting aspects of the console games.
The graphical fidelity limitations were overcome by utilising extremely stylised graphics, as mentioned previously in the style of a board game, or with limited polyGOns that emphasised the most recognisable elements from the series being adapted. Overall, they were an excellent way of working around the limitations imposed by less powerful hardware, making something that stood on their own and not as a scaled-down versions of the originals.
Whether succesful or not, the GO series was an experiment in how feasible a premium mobile title could be. However even with general success, the landscape around it was moving further towards FTP, not away from it.
As we covered in an article way back in 2016, Square Enix Montreal were a strong believer in the potential of premium games on mobile. At a time when 75% of games on the app store were free to play, it was a bold choice to GO against the grain, and the games saw equal amounts critical praise and success.
By utilising a pay-up-front model and the occasional IAP for hints or other small ‘helpers’, Square Enix Montreal wanted to encourage players to think of the ‘bang for your buck’, getting a full package and spending less money than they would over time on a free-to-play game as a result. Sadly, the series wasn’t as successful as it could have been as the graphical fidelity, more console-like gameplay and content of free-to-play games accelerated and overtook.
Ultimately, Square Enix Montreal couldn’t justify pushing into the premium space any further and we covered the life and death of the GO series in depth at the time as a sharply felt loss to know the trilogy would not be continued.
However, if that was just the end of the story, with the franchise discontinued but these unique games being available to play forever then we likely wouldn’t be discussing them now. But the recent news that Onoma, the rebranded Square Enix Montreal, are unable to continue support of the Deus Ex GO game, even for players who install it before it ceases sale, raises serious questions about the series and the larger issue of game preservation and rights.
The GO franchise is not only unique and interesting from a business standpoint, but also as an educational tool about working within limitations to adapt a series. When AAA games remain focused on graphical fidelity and big new ideas, we often forget that it’s not just indie studios that can find success in experimentation and moving outside their comfort zone.
Hopefully, as the news continues to spread and people ask why this is the case, we may see some clarification from either whomever is handling the defunct Onoma’s games now, or Embracer group itself. Although it may not be as easy as flipping a switch back on for those that want to keep playing Deus Ex GO, we hope that the game doesn’t simply become lost forever in the name of progress for the people who created, played and enjoyed it.