Warren Spector was tired of fantasy and science fiction video games.
It was the early 1990s, and Spector worked for game developer Origin as a producer on titles such as Ultima Underworld, System Shock and Wing Commander. He had an idea for a big-budget game set in the real world: Called Troubleshooter, it would star an ex-cop turned security specialist who tackled all the dirty jobs the police or government didn’t want to do. Stealth and strategy would be just as important as shooting. Each mission would offer multiple solutions, enabling players to tackle problems as they saw fit.
This idea became Deus Ex, one of the greatest PC games of all time. Lauded for its excellent design and innovation by the Game Developers Choice Awards, the Interactive Achievement Awards and BAFTA, it sold over a million copies and spawned a number of sequels. The latest entry in the franchise, Mankind Divided, arrives on multiple platforms worldwide today.
But in 1994, Origin wasn’t interested in the project. Spector shelved it for years, until he got a call from John Romero. Romero, best known as the designer of classic ‘90s shooters Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake, had created a company called Ion Storm, and he wanted Spector to sign up.
Make the game of your dreams, he told Spector. No creative interference. We’ll give you the biggest budget you’ve ever had, along with the biggest marketing budget you’ve ever had.
“I mean, who says no to that?” Spector told me earlier this month.
Released on PC in 2000, Deus Ex was a game that defied genre labels. Part shooter, part role-playing game and part stealth game, it offered an unprecedented amount of freedom. As cybernetic anti-terrorist agent JC Denton, players could be as violent or nonviolent as they wished. They could complete objectives in a variety of ways, including stealth, brute force, dialogue or computer hacking, and their actions had a substantial effect on both gameplay and plot.
“Most games, there’s only one way to solve a problem, which makes the designer the important player in the game,” Spector said. “What we wanted to do was empower players to show off how clever and creative they were. Seeing that come to fruition was by far the most exciting thing.”
Spector fondly recalled players discovering that they could navigate Deus Ex’s game world using an explosive device called a Lightweight Attack Munition, or LAM. These devices can attach to walls and act as proximity mines. They blow up if enemies come near, but won’t activate if the player approaches them.
“What players started doing was planting an LAM on a wall and jumping up on it, because it was a physical object,” Spector said. “They would jump up on it, put another one higher up, jump up on it, put another one higher up, and create what we started calling ‘LAM ladders.’”
“None of us anticipated that,” he said. “I mean, just none of us.”
Although Spector was given creative and financial carte blanche, creating something as ambitious as Deus Ex wasn’t easy. To make the sort of hybrid game he envisioned, he hired both role-playing game designers and what he called “immersive simulation” designers. It was more like a dysfunctional family than a team, Spector said. There was often friction between the groups. Sometimes, people didn’t talk to each other.
“I thought I could manage the tension between those two groups, and I was completely wrong,” Spector said. “I had one team that wanted to be Design Team A and the other wanted to be Design One, but neither would be B or Two. And I will never do that again.”
He also needed a lot of writing done in a fairly short amount of time by someone who understood interactivity and how difficult it is to achieve in the context of a game narrative. He found Sheldon Pacotti, a programmer and scriptwriter who could take all of the team’s ideas and turn them into characters, missions and storylines.
“He was my first experiment at hiring a programmer who could write, instead of [hiring] the writer and then trying to turn him into a programmer,” said Spector. “And also, he had carpal tunnel syndrome or something in both of his wrists, and so he spoke every line of dialogue. We got him a speech-to-text program and we’d walk by his office and hear him talking to himself all the time.”
“It was pretty rough,” said Pacotti. “I could script it, though. It saved me a ton of time, because I had it actually build out structures and conversations with one command, and I’d just sit back and watch the keystrokes go flying onto the screen. So, it wasn’t all bad. But unfortunately, I can’t act, so we re-recorded it all.”
Following the success of Deus Ex, Ion Storm produced a sequel in 2003 called Invisible War. As studio director, Spector oversaw the project, and Pacotti again worked on the script. Although critically successful, it failed to completely capture the magic of its predecessor. During a University of Texas lecture on game design, Invisible War director Harvey Smith admitted that it was a very difficult project. He felt the team had suffered from bad chemistry, that the game had shipped too early and that they’d tried too hard to appease hardcore players who criticized the first game.
“And the story was even bad,” Smith said. “We moved it into the future, which really we didn’t realize at the time but [it] undermined a lot of what made Deus Ex great—the familiarity, the groundedness.”
“In the end, we made an 85-percent rated RPG that was not a worthy sequel to the original.”
Spector left Ion Storm in 2004 to pursue other interests, and the studio shut down the following year. It was later acquired by publisher Square Enix, best known for the Final Fantasy saga. Eight years after Invisible War, Square decided to revive the Deus Ex franchise and handed the reins to then-fledgling developer Eidos Montreal. Both Spector and Pacotti were invited to the studio a couple of times to play early versions of the game, a prequel called Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
“I gave them some thoughts, but I think they approached the franchise with a great deal of reverence and seriousness and had their own direction they wanted to go,” said Pacotti. “And I think they did a really good job with the [intellectual property].”
“It’s funny: It seems like people want me to be really upset about it or envious or something, but I’m really just happy,” said Spector. “I mean, how often do you get to work on something that ends up being bigger than yourself? The closest I can describe it is it’s like you have a kid and then the kid grows up and leaves home, and they turn out OK.”
Although Human Revolution’s boss battles were maligned by the gaming press, many praised its striking gold-and-black aesthetic and open-ended gameplay. It was a commercial success as well, and it led to a sequel, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. In the new installment, players once again fill the shoes of cybernetic badass Adam Jensen as he unravels Illuminati plots in Prague. A direct continuation of the previous game, it continues the series’ long tradition of player empowerment.
“It was just so different from everything else,” said gameplay director Patrick Fortier. “Deus Ex came to symbolize, I think, one of those bastions of player expression and true choice and consequence and that, ultimately, is one of the really, really powerful tools that binds you to the game experience. Because you feel the weight of your decisions and you start thinking about what you’re doing, rather than just going around like a zombie and doing whatever the objective is telling you to do.”
“That was the magic of the game. I think the Eidos Montreal guys get that pretty well,” said Spector. “It’s the designer’s job to get off the stage so the player can get on it.”