Industry Insights – Classic Game Postmortem: Deus Ex [GDC 2017]


In this article of my Industry Insights series I will be looking at a very exciting 2017 talk from Warren Spector who is going to go over some key development insights from the development of one of gaming’s biggest classics – the original Deus Ex (2000), which incidentally is one of my all time favourite games. He goes over how the whole inspiration behind the game was to have a cohesive thread of meaning interwoven throughout the development. This, while primarily a narrative conceit, is what helped drive the choices in the game and ultimately creating one of the best immersive sims of all time. Keeping with the spirit of this series, I will do my best to be as brief and concise as possible, hard as that may be for me.

As a disclaimer –  I will inject some of my own interpretation and expansion of the ideas, as this is unavoidable. For the full picture, always refer to the sources, listed at the end.


This talk focuses goes over a lot of key aspects of the development of Deus Ex and its hour long runtime is far too loaded with development gems for me to truly summarize it.

As such, I will focus on the advice given by Warren that could be applied to most developer’s projects. It is broken down loosely into 9 “guiding design questions” (with example answers) as follows:

  1. What’s the core idea?
    1. Elevator pitch
    2. Example from Deus Ex – “The real world role playing game where players tell their own stories”
    3. Doesn’t need to be too descriptive or unique but should contain the core & soul of the game
  2. Why do this game?
    1. Why? – a simple but incredibly difficult question to answer – think of all angles from creative to business ones
    2. Is it gonna be a hit? – artistic expression is great but so is being able to survive
    3. Is it something you burn to make? – game development is hard, really hard so if you’re going to make something you best be sure your heart and soul are really into it otherwise you will easily burn out and creativity will be stifled (for reference, most of the mobile market)
  3. What are the development challenges?
    1. Hard is good, impossible isn’t
    2. It’s good to push to break new ground and do something unique or challenging but it should also be at least remotely feasible. Don’t try and make an MMO with 10 people or tackle a huge technical challenge if you are a fledgling development studio/team
  4. How well-suited to a game is it?
    1. “Doing” is better than “Being”
    2. Think of the verbs and exploration of spaces
    3. What might be an awesome concept in your head might end up better as a book, movie or another kind of more static media format
    4. Games are interactive – use that to its advantage, make games in which it is fun to do things and have spaces that are enjoyable to traverse, explore and interact with
  5. What’s the fantasy?
    1. Is it being a badass? Very charming? Unique situation?
    2. What is going to captivate player’s imaginations
    3. Example from Deus Ex: “You’re a James Bond figure who is equally good at sneaking, fighting and charming”
  6. What are the verbs?
    1. Sneaking, doing, talking, fighting etc.
    2. As popular as walking sims and narrative games are, try and utilize the interactivity of games as a medium to its fullest
  7. Has anyone done this before?
    1. If so – what can you learn from them? Do your research.
    2. If not – What does that tell us? Is it just a bad idea, or was it simply not feasible before due to other factors (technological etc.)
  8. What’s the one thing?
    1. What is the one thing that hasn’t been done before
    2. You need this unique defining feature that will surprise players (personal addendum – it could also be doing something others have done before but doing it better than ever – though this is a bold approach – not every game can be Spiderman [2018])
    3. Example from Deus Ex: unique combination of genres and player freedom
  9. Do you have something to say?
    1. Is there a meaning behind the game, a message?
    2. Deus Ex was heavily loaded with messages about technology, the future of mankind and the power of governments and corporations
    3. (personal addendum) Not every game needs to have a profound message, but having something to say is always important

In conclusion, this is an excellent talk that I HIGHLY recommend watching in full but if you don’t – keep in mind the above list is, as always, one approach to looking at Game Design and is naturally not suited to all development scales and aims. Nevertheless, it is always important to keep asking yourself questions as you design something and when someone with such a pedigree speaks – you listen.

I also recommend the excellent and thought-provoking Deck of Lenses by Jesse Schell – the companion to the equally useful The Art of Game Design book. It is essentially a deck of cards containing various guiding questions that aim to break your design down to bits. If it survives, you have a solid idea 😛



GDC Vault

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