Interview: Augmenting Deus Ex: Human Revolution With Game Director Jean-Francois Dugas

One of the more high profile developers we got to interview at PAX East 2011 was Jean-Francois Dugas, Game Director on Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Eidos Montreal hopes the upcoming sequel will establish the franchise as a dominant force in gaming, but it’s been a long journey for Dugas and his team in their attempt to accomplish that. Throughout the interview we talk about the challenges of reviving an older franchise, their unique relationship with their Japanese publisher, Warren Spector’s feedback, and influences from movies to anime to Metal Gear to… Professor Layton?

The Development

Michael Gutierrez, Warp Zoned News Editor: So when did you guys begin development on Deus Ex?

Jean-Francois Dugas: 2007, four years ago. Actually, it started in May 2007.

WZ – Mike: Have you switched engines over that time?

Dugas: No, it was not about changing, switching engines – Duke Nukem style or what not… (laughing)

No, no, it was just that we were building a new studio, we had to hire the teams, start to work together, get used to the engine. Making a Deus Ex game, it’s quite challenging, it’s a very complex game. So, with all those factors together, you try to build a Triple-A game from the ground up, and today the standard is about 3-5 years, really.

WZ – Mike: So you haven’t changed engines, but has the gameplay or game design radically changed over those four years? Because a lot has happened in gaming…

Dugas: Actually, it’s the first project in my career that the original vision, that we established in 2007, the game today is 90% close to it. We kept the same speech for four years we didn’t change anything. And we delivered what we said we were going to deliver except a few little things, and I’m saying little things, really little things.

Bringing Deus Ex Into 2011

WZ – Mike: Do you think it was hard to adapt Deus Ex to a new generation of gamers or at least a new generation of gaming?

Dugas: What is challenging is just making the game itself, it’s trying to recapture the sense of the original game, try to give it a new flavor, try to give it a life on its own. I think that has been the most challenging part, as opposed to “oh my God, will gamers, will they get it or not?” It was more like, with the advent of games like BioShock, Fallout, people are more and more comfortable with games. There’s a big trend about casual gaming and everything, so I can play bowling with my mom and things like that, but she’ll never play Deus Ex. But people are really into games, now. I think more and more people are ready for compelling, really engaging games, and I think Deus Ex is going to fall into that category, and I’m not afraid they are averse to something like that.

WZ – Mike: So what is some of that new flavor that you put on top of the old formula?

Dugas: A lot of things. Like the visuals, definitely. We put a lot of effort, it took us about two years to get the visuals where we wanted them to be, and not in terms of technology, but in terms of the art direction itself. We wanted to go with something that’s unique, so that you don’t confuse it with another game, and that took us two years. Also, we wanted to make the augmentations more spectacular, give them more ‘oomph’ when you use them.

So I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the trailers with the blades and all the explosions that go 360 around the character and things like that. It seems kind of obvious, but when you’re in the middle of trying to figure those things out, it’s really, really hard. Like, “are we going too far or not far enough?” Or, “how is this going to play out?” I think we recaptured the essence of the original one in terms of you’re in this world that’s very immersive, you feel that don’t know who you can trust, there’s a conspiracy going on, you have the same gameplay pillars.

They play differently than ten years ago, but you have the same kind of recipe. And yeah, I think that’s how we infused the game with brand new visuals, a lot of augmentations we pushed for, and I would say even the storytelling, it’s more engaging than it was before.

WZ – Mike: Could you think of what the most important aspect of the older games you had to preserve was? Like, “we need to make sure this is still in here.”

Dugas: Um…

WZ – Mike: I know there was a lot… (laughing)

Dugas: Definitely, it needed to be a conspiracy kind of game. It needed to have stealth, combat, hacking, social. It needed compelling characters that you can relate to. We needed to have an immersive world. It’s all very high-level stuff that I’m saying, but those were our goals, we needed to hit them at some point, and that took a lot of time, because even with the main character Adam Jensen we knew we wanted a character that would be more compelling like JC Denton was over Alex Denton. So just JC for us we thought he was more interesting than Alex in the second game. And we really wanted to go back to those kinds of roots and everything, and Adam Jensen, he went through several iterations before he got to where he is today. Like at first he looked like Inspector Gadget or what not! (laughing)

And eventually, one of our artists had a very nice idea about it being this guy, the jacket, the thing without the jacket, and things started to happen, but it’s been a very long road.

The Influences Part I

WZ – Mike: Yeah, he’s very well designed, it’s very impressive. You mentioned BioShock and Fallout, were there any modern RPGs you guys took cues from?

Dugas: I mean, we started to work on the game even before the first Bioshock. Even Mass Effect wasn’t out. Definitely we looked at those games when they came out, but we were already on our own track. It was interesting to see what others do sometimes, some have a good idea about how to present something to the player as a tutorial and what not. But as far as a specific cue, “oh, they have that, we need that,” not really. I think our main inspiration was the first Deus Ex.

WZ – Mike: Well one thing that’s definitely changed over the course of the development was Square Enix coming in. Has anything changed with that, or could you talk about what they’re like as a publisher?

Dugas: When they bought us out, the game was fairly advanced in production. Therefore, it was really too late to change whatsoever. But they didn’t come in and say “let’s change this or that.” They came in, we presented the game, they got really excited about it, and they just got behind us and started to support us and give us what we need to make it a good game. Our biggest collaboration together has been on the CGI trailers.

Nicole Kline, Warp Zoned Senior Editor: Those trailers have been unbelievable.

Dugas: They’re crazy, right?

WZ – Nicole: They’re amazing.

Dugas: And it’s been a collaboration between Goldtooth, which is a company in Vancouver, us in Montreal, and Visual Works in Japan, which are the guys who are making the cutscenes for the Final Fantasy games and things like that. So it’s been a collaboration between the three studios to produce that. It took us ten months to get those trailers out. Ten months of work, and working late, and a lot of efforts.

WZ – Nicole: Well, it’s paying off, because all my friends are like “what can you tell me about this Deus Ex game!? These trailers are amazing!!!”

WZ – Mike: Yeah, even people who never even heard of Deus Ex before, they want to know everything about it.

Dugas: And plus it was strategic, because we knew that a lot of people today really don’t know about Dues Ex at all, most people are like “huh, what?” Or, “oh, yes, my older brother might have it in his library,” but not much more than that. And we wanted to go more with ‘mainstream’ in bracket, it’s still a first person game, so not everybody that can play those kind of games. But we really wanted to make sure that Deus Ex was out and people know about it, and with this trailer that’s really compelling, it attracts certain people who don’t care about those kinds of games usually. And that was our goal, because we knew we were not an established franchise. Hardcore fans think it’s an established franchise, but that’s not so.

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