Deus Ex: The Fall by N-Fusion/Eidos Montreal
Published: September 12. 2013
Hack the planet with Eidos’ and N-Fusion’s iOS stunner, Deus Ex: The Fall
For those gamers with even a fleeting interest in cyberpunk, the Deus Ex series has been an important one. Influenced by the likes of Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Blade Runner and even The Matrix, the series hit its high mark with the release of Deus Ex 2: Human Revolution in 2011. Eidos had assembled a new studio and a new team in Montreal to reinvigorate the franchise, and with its success decided to create an iOS title to compliment it, helmed by the team at N-Fusion.
“We wanted to bring Deus Ex to as wide an audience as possible, which is why we looked at the smartphone and tablet platforms,” says producer James Wright. “We knew that in order to get the very best play experience, the best thing would be to create a new Deus Ex game from the ground up, so that we could take advantage of touch screen controls and make a really fluid and fun experience.”
The Fall is set in the year 2027—the same year as Human Revolution—so players who played the PC and console game will recognize elements and characters from past adventuring. The game has also retained its core values: action, stealth, hacking and social interaction, all of which Wright sees as central to the franchise. “We wanted to create a full Deus Ex experience, rather than something that felt watered down.” For the duration of its 12-month development cycle, the core team size ranged from 12-15 people.
“The most important thing for achieving a high quality game with limited resources came down to two things for us: having really good tools to work with, and having a set of people who could pick up any of those tools at any time,” says The Fall’s art director Carissa Isolano. “A lot of times the accepted techniques we’re all used to using just aren't going to fly on something like a tablet; with a game like this, we were hitting the hardware’s limit on every build we made. We were constantly sitting down and saying, ‘Okay, this level isn't running anymore. What can we do?’”
The team never wanted to sacrifice content or quality, however, and wasn’t going to compromise the game for the hardware. Memory was an uphill battle, and one that remained challenging throughout the entire development cycle. “Normally when you’re making a game, textures are going to be your biggest problem, but for us we really suffered when it came to meshes and animations,” says Isolano. “We had so much geometry we needed to batch that we were paying dearly for every vertex.” Batching something of a savior, allowing the team to get a ton of geometry on screen; as long as it shared materials, the FPS game remained solid. Still, all of this geometry memory made things tough, because while it’s easy to halve a texture, you really can't halve a level geometry or animation on a lower-end device. “We learned to make heavy reuse of a lot of art assets, especially textures, to really conserve on memory,” says Isolano. “It’s a different technique, but it allowed us to have what is considered to be a pretty expansive environment on a tablet. It really took all the disciplines coming together to squeeze out as much from the hardware as we could.”
The choice to develop with Unity came early in the process. “When we were ready to start The Fall, we had already used Unity for multiple projects and some demos,” says Wright. Most of the team had experience with Unity, and wanted to remain with it to keep building off the tools they had already created for it. “That’s something that set us off on the right foot: We were able to easily bring over scripts, shaders, and editor functionality from existing projects into the new game. And this trend will continue with every new game we make with Unity. We have a huge amount of content we can freely and easily move around and take advantage of over and over again.”
“I think Unity is a great fit for the kind of studio we are,” Isolano adds. “We’re a small number of people who are all multi-talented and generalists in their field, and Unity gives people who have drive the tools to get it done. We have designers who code, artists who script, and programmers who can focus on programming because they’re not constantly having to write new systems for the people who need to get their content into the game. A lot of other engines handcuff people who aren't familiar with code, making so much of the really important stuff hidden away. Unity puts it all out there for anyone to take advantage of. We didn't need to double our team size to include really specialized people, because Unity makes it so easy to learn to do it yourself.”
Getting the initial vertical slice up and running took roughly four months, in which time the team was able to test all of the core mechanics and see the potential for what they were creating. Isolano points to Unity's built-in occlusion culling as important, even early on. “When working on a game like this, where the player is in a large immersive world, [occlusion culling] cut down our rendering costs dramatically,” she says. “If it weren't for this tool, I don't think making a game like this would be feasible on tablets.”
Unity's prefab system was also essential. “[This was] a huge timesaver for our level designing,” says Isolano. “Artists were able to create small, modular pieces for the level designer to work with. Our level designer was able to adjust collision, sizing and cover positions extremely rapidly, without having to go all the way back to the artists to ask them to move something for him in the art. Thanks to Unity's light-mapping solution, Beast, whenever something was changed it took only a few minutes to re-bake the lighting for the affected areas. Because of this, we were able to iterate very quickly on levels without slowing down the whole team.” Finally, writing new shaders for Unity was also a smooth process, as artists were easily able to replicate complicated effects from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and create shaders that mimicked its “next-gen” effects in a way that was mobile-friendly.
The Unity Asset Store also helped N-Fusion achieve its vision. “EZGUI had an enormous impact on the production of the game,” says Isolano. “It was a complete UI solution that enabled us to pull off a lot of great stuff with our UI, like making it customizable, having scrolling lists, and saving on memory and performance, thanks to atlasing and button creation tools.”
From nearly any angle, Deus Ex: The Fall is an ambitious game, with a legacy that needed to translate to an entirely different platform. The result manages to support a variety of play styles, even letting the player go through the entire game without killing a single person (should they so desire). “I think [The Fall] is pretty unique for smartphone and tablet gaming, and shows we’re able to have more involved gameplay experiences for players,” says Isolano. “We wanted the best of everything: a ton of stuff, and we wanted it all to look and feel great. It was a huge balancing act, and we’re very proud of where we ended up. We didn't want to constrain ourselves to just what's been expected of mobile gaming.”
Small Screen, Big Ambition
Of course, controls were a big factor in the design of Deus Ex: The Fall, and one of the reasons the team built its game from the ground up. It uses dual virtual sticks, along with “tap to move” and “tap cover” systems. Players can customize their ideal control scheme from a host of options, such as choosing between manual, tap or auto-aim modes, choosing whether or not to put a joystick onscreen, and enabling them to reposition buttons and the game’s HUD as they see fit. “I’d say the controls really took the most time,” says producer James Wright. “We really focused very hard on making these as fluid as possible, and it paid off as I’m really pleased with our final control scheme.”
The Color Purple
“There was a nice moment when we went to meet with Eidos in Montreal and found out we weren’t allowed to use the color magenta in the game, as it’s reserved exclusively for the game’s celebrity newscaster Eliza Cassan,” recalls Deus Ex: The Fall’s art director Carissa Isolano. “We thought, ‘Oh okay sure, no problem,’ but continuing with the walkthrough of the game, we [realized] we had a completely magenta-themed nightclub, Nightshades. As you might have guessed, this was corrected before release.”