[Live Interview] Sheldon Pacotti - Deus Ex series - Part 2
Reminiscing Deus Ex With Sheldon Pacotti: The Invisible War Dilemma
Jonathan S. "Liquidize105"
Jonathan: Okay, let's talk about the 2 Deus Ex games now.
Jonathan: I have to say that the market at large still wasn't ready for Deus Ex back in 2000. To have a first-person game that breaks the FPS mold … it’s the general (mis)perception thing that is often encountered by pioneers. You know what I’m talking about? People can’t wrap themselves around what looks to be a FPS; they try to play it like a FPS, fail miserably at it, and then quit.
Suffice it to say, many people didn't understand DX back then, they were estranged by it. Heck, I didn’t understand it right away either, not till I made an earnest effort to accept what’s in front of me.
Honestly, gamers are a conservative bunch not unlike publishers.
Sheldon: Well, at least the game was fairly successful. I think it was profitable, though I don't know if the franchise ever succeeded in being "mainstream."
Jonathan: Who came up with the Sandra Renton scenario in the first Deus Ex? What's the history behind that? That hit pretty close to home actually.
Sheldon: I think that was pretty much a Warren thing (just making an assumption). I agree that it was one of the better-conceived situations in the game. The cast of characters came out of company-wide brainstorming sessions, though, so you'd have to ask someone who was there to get the whole story.
Jonathan: Let's get back to real life for a second, where good intentions go astray.
Jonathan: What happened with Invisible War? For a change, folks were ready this time, and the title had picked up serious momentum in the intervening years. I mean, its coming was heralded by the legendary “Deus Ex” namesake – innovative, freeform, multiple approaches… Everybody wanted a piece of it … till the demo hit the fan. Pardon the pun.
Sheldon: Well, game development is tough. Can I end my answer there? I have a number of answers to that question. Time pressure, unexpected bumps in the road as we headed into production, a different team with different priorities... But I think it boils down to the fact that "good" art, at the corporate level, is sort of a magic thing. You end up with the right team at the right time, and everything just comes together. I think we had amazing talent on the Invisible War team, but somehow the pieces just weren't right. Consensus was hard to create and sustain. And I think, more broadly, no one was sure how to take a complex game like Deus Ex and make it console-friendly (i.e. mainstream). We didn't know when/if to compromise on the original design, or even if the things we wanted to do even WERE compromises.
Jonathan: Certain features were removed - ammo types, skill point customization, inventory management (inventory tetris we call it) which further distanced the game from its RPG leanings.
Jonathan: As for mainstream: I think the word is "action," that everything has to revolve around gut-crunching action.
Sheldon: Yeah, that's a simple answer. I think we were looking for a complex one.
Jonathan: Even stealth has to be aggressive kind. Splinter cell renovated the formula and was able to thrive on the mainstream playing field.
Sheldon: Well, that ties back into storytelling in general. You want your main characters to drive the action, make choices, WANT something. For whatever reason, this turns out to be a very hard thing to implement, even in plain prose.
Jonathan: Right, because cut-and-dry "action" means having to kill for its own sake. The underpinning motive is usually “triumphing over evil,” “kill them before they kill you,” or simply “off you go.”
Sheldon: Yeah, before there can be aggression, and action, there has to be desire in the player (or main character) to drive forward to a goal. I think our design decisions (including story and level design) overcomplicated the main character's motivations. And with the underlying gameplay tools being complicated... I think it was too much for most players. They had a long journey to complete before they got to the "action."
That's "meaningful gameplay" again. The first game was grounded very solidly by the player's brother, Paul Denton, greeting you on your first day of work. You had a family, a job, a New York landmark fifty feet away, and terrorists. All very personal and easy to grasp. I think Invisible War, by trying to be even more open-ended than the first game, ultimately felt too abstract to the average player.
Jonathan: YES, that’s it. Abstract is the word I’ve been waiting for.
A good example of that is during the endgame on Liberty Island with the gathering of key adversaries. The problem is, some players didn’t even realize this and dispatched them as they would any ordinary foot soldier.
Sheldon: Interesting point... that the last mission is that confusing. We were really proud that there were so many paths through that mission. The player can side with anyone he wants at that point, betray his faction mid-stream, assassinate the leaders of opposing factions, trigger ambushes based on his actions; etc. But it sounds like the game could have done a better of job of communicating what was going on.
I actually loved our dark endgames, with hope mingled with despair in each of them. But I don't know if the game earns them, and we had to rush those out the door so fast that they really could have been better, in terms of production value.
Jonathan: Now, I welcomed the metachromatic branching and forking through out the game. But like you said, the endgame offered the player a rather tenuous awareness of all the available options.
I think that's the stigma of first-person RPG, it's double-edged. The setup demands a more explicit, fully realized game world. The simulation has to surpass a certain threshold in order to be credible...
Sheldon: The big faction-decision just before the last mission in Invisible War triggers a series of radio messages. I wish we could have cut away to Liberty Island and SHOWN what was going on there. Most players are getting shot in the face when our big defining story-choice happens in Invisible War. Then they're off to Liberty Island for the endgame.
Jonathan: In IW, the environments were smaller and more restrictive (a la abstract). For Christ’s sake, Liberty Island was in 3 pieces (?) interlinked by loading zones. I remember thinking to myself: "This is the culmination of all my choices?" It didn't feel like a just end, knowing what I know.
So yeah, the technology was a big issue right out of the gate.
Sheldon: The environments were smaller... yes, that had a big impact on gameplay, too, in which players could see less and therefore had fewer choices. That's how it goes in game development. There are usually some surprises. The company was making deliberate tech decisions throughout, balancing the needs of Thief 3 and Invisible War, but there were some surprises when the engine came together which impacted level design, gameplay, and the overall experience.
Developing tech and a game design in parallel is generally a very difficult thing to do. You don't have the luxury of prototyping and iterating on your design ideas.
Jonathan: Think IW might have had a fallout effect on Thief 3?
Sheldon: I didn't follow the marketing numbers too closely. What I heard was that Thief 3 did pretty well, actually, beating expectations. The dynamic lighting in the engine was very well suited to Thief-style gameplay.
Sheldon: I think there's a certain magic that makes a "hit" in any medium. Many great products have lackluster sales. So it's hard to take a mid-level product and ask why it didn't top the charts. I think the best you can do is try to learn from the superstars in any medium and apply what you can to your own work.
Jonathan: Yeah, one of the things I noticed this year at E3 is that creativity is not dead, but instead a lot of developers have simply retired to flex their creative muscles within charted waters.
And although the end result is still rather same-y, we do have a few shining examples to look forward to in the months ahead - BioShock, Assassin's Creed, Wii, etc.
Sheldon: And games are getting very expensive to make, which breeds conservatism. I don't think it's a bad approach at all to take something that's known and then try to add one or two new elements to it, though. Quite a bit of ground has been covered in the last thirty years, despite the complaints of game designers that huge, huge vistas remain unexplored. There is a lot of past work to draw from. God of War is a great example of a game that takes a known quantity and pushes it to another level, creating a very unique experience.
Jonathan: Care to shed some light on the planned prequel to Deus Ex, the one set in modern day?
Sheldon: Hmmm, don't know if I'm allowed to confirm or deny anything about a "prequel," but I do wish some of the stuff we were working on post-Invisible War could have seen the light of day. I think we were finally on the right track. Kind of like the Bad Religion album Back to the Known, after their strange experimental Into the Unknown.
Jonathan: Think we'll have a department dedicated to game-writing in the future, alongside art, programming, design, QA, etc.?
Sheldon: I'm not so sure. What I think will happen is that we'll have design teams that are better at creating the fiction of a game. Or a breed of lead designers who are also writers. Story really happens within the design department; it gets realized in a game to the extent that the lead designer internalizes it. And as games (hopefully) become more sophisticated, such that narrative events are built right into the gameplay, I think there will be even more pressure on lead designers to make sure all of the elements of a game are fitting together in a meaningful way.
The demand for writers may increase, and the credence given to the advice of writers may go up, but I don't think writers will ever pen game stories the way that a writer can pen a screenplay.
Jonathan: Because there are so many variables; because the wheel is constantly being reinvented.
Sheldon: Yeah, and so many different assets being made by various departments. Design is where decisions are ultimately made about what gets built. My feeling is that writing is extremely important, and that a good, early plan for the flow of a game is essential, but a writer can only propose and advise. The final plan needs to come from design.
Jonathan: What can we expect from you and from Netdevil in the future? Final question
Sheldon: I have high hopes that Netdevil will become THE "Next-Gen" MMO company. They are the only ones who have integrated a full-blown physics engine into a massively multiplayer game. The plan is to continue to refine the Auto Assault universe and meanwhile think about what else can be done with technology like this. As for me, I would love to be part of building an original world from scratch. (I DM'ed a lot as a kid and am still waiting for my chance to live out that world-creator fantasy as an adult.) But I'm not in a position to make any official announcements or predictions for the company.
Thanks for the chat... I enjoyed the mental workout. Let me know if you need anything else...
Excellent interviews about games I care about. Games I like to theorize about: though Miyamoto is my most respected game designer, Warren Spector shares my hopes most closely. He's the man whose brain I'd like to pick.
This is really great stuff, Liquidize105 (or should I say Jonathon?).