How Square Enix brought Deus Ex to mobile

Later this summer, Adam Jensen won’t need to hack phones. He’ll be on them.

Jensen is the protagonist in Deus Ex Go, the upcoming mobile game developed by Square Enix’s Montreal studio. It’s the latest release in a string of mobile games based on some of the publisher’s biggest franchises. The previous game in the series, Lara Croft Go, (drawing from the blockbuster Tomb Raider) was released last year to accolades and awards, following the success of 2014’s Hitman Go, another Square Enix mobile game based on a AAA franchise that got great reviews.

“[Hitman Go] was hugely popular and successful, mainly because like, on the production side, because it was so fast to make,” Etienne Giroux, Game Designer at Square Enix Montreal, said.

At the recent Deus Ex preview event in San Francisco, Zam talked with Giroux to get a look at the delicate balancing act behind transitioning larger AAA games from consoles like the PlayStation and Xbox to portable devices like iPhones, Android devices, and tablets.

“[It always was] how do you feel playing like Hitman? How do you feel playing Tomb Raider? And how can we make you feel [the] same way but not doing the same things, because we don’t have the same play space,” Giroux said.

For Deus Ex Go, the team had to figure out how to take the futuristic first-person-shooter Deus Ex universe and meld it into the turn-based and puzzle gameplay mechanics the Go games are known for. This meant a view switch as well, moving from the FPS roots of the console game, to the top-down view found on the mobile Go games.

The Lara Croft Go creators were still finishing that title when work started on Deus Ex Go, so they weren’t directly involved at the start. This lead to internal conversations where the team tried to figure out just which parts of Go games were sacred, and exactly what being a Go game meant.

“The Go aspect of it is it had to be clean, it had to be elegant, it had to be a distillation of what the [original] franchise is,” Giroux said. “So because of that the definition has some rigidity to it, but it’s also kind of open…”

Given the differences between mobile and console audiences, the team didn’t want people to not play the game because they were unfamiliar with the franchise. Part of that included doing playtesting with players who had never played Go games, and tests with players that had never played Deus Ex, either. ”There’s absolutely no single thing in the game you that have to know before you play it,” Giroux said. “It’s a self-contained game.”

But another important part of the Go games is “paying respect” to the original games. Given this, aspects that seemed essential in Lara Croft Go weren’t quite fitting in with the vibe of Deus Ex. This included everything from small details like camera angles and camera movement, to the overall layout and design of the puzzle environments.   

Deus Ex Go didn’t just have to fit into the world of Go, either– it also had to make sense in the Deus Ex legacy. To do this, the team actually went backwards first, focusing just on Deus Ex.

“We kind of scaled back, all the way back to like nothing of the Go game, and just thinking about Deus Ex for a while,” Giroux said.

Some of the Deus Ex tenets– like hacking, augmentations, and narrative — were important for the studio to include. It felt that these specific elements worked within the scope of a turn-based mobile game, not just in the first-person roots of the console series.  “But, at every point of production it was always like ‘How does that feel like a Deus Ex game?,” Giroux said.

One of the first components brought in was hacking, and the team played with three or four different iterations to figure out how to best represent it. The team decided on a hacking mechanic which lets players use terminals to modify and change each level, such as taking control of enemy turrets or making impassable terrain safe. Players then have to switch those certain hacks on and off to pass through levels. For example, a player may only have limited terminals– each can only be linked to one hackable object–  and may need to balance turning off certain turrets, avoiding guards, and switching floors on and off to complete the level.

“We decided that we didn’t want to just disable or kill things with the hacking,” Giroux said. “We wanted to have it become a challenge that you re-use and recycle.”

Narrative is also important in Deus Ex, but story wasn’t present in any of the previous Go games. This was another discussion point for the team — “Is the fact that the other two games are wordless mean that we have to go wordless again?” Giroux said. In the end, Deus Ex Go became the first game in the Go series to feature dialogue and a narrative story.

Other parts of the larger Deus Ex universe — however — just didn’t work with the transition to mobile. The team tried to include choice as a game-play mechanic — another element Deus Ex is known for — but found that adding too many options made the experience too random, and took away from the puzzle solving.

“And even though the game is so different at the end I get this feedback from people who played the game that tell me like…’I still did Deus Ex things, I still felt like playing Jensen and [the] environment, but I did nothing of the first-person shooter game,’ which is basically what we set out to do at the beginning, so I’m glad about that,” Giroux said.

The hardest part for the team was trying to figure out what parts of the game were absolutely necessary, and what weren’t. Some of the elements the team had left to the wayside early on in development were added back in, while others the team was set on including ended up only were creating more problems.

“In the end when we let go of these things, everything became smoother and all of that,” Giroux said. “So it’s more about, we know Deus Ex…I also know the other Go games, and like, it’s basically drawing the line that’s the hardest. Because we could have made a completely different game, just tilting the focus like 10 degrees would have [ made ] a completely different game.”

Another development goal for Deus Ex Go was making the title more sustainable than Hitman and Laura Croft Go.

“Because everybody loved the other games, and they played it for like two days, and on the third day when we were still like sweating from the release people were like, ‘Fine, where are the new puzzles?,’ right?,” Giroux said.

Both of the previous games were created in a fashion that made it “very time consuming” to make new levels: it took roughly three months for 25 puzzles. With Deus Ex Go‘s new system, the team can create five or six puzzle within a week.

For Deus Ex Go, puzzles will be released post-launch, and players will be able to create their own, as well. The team is drawing from the analogue world for inspiration, and is looking at it in the same way as newspaper crosswords and will use weekly themes on a five day system, with the puzzles increasingly getting harder over the course of the week.

Having Go Set directly before the events of Deus Ex Mankind Divided also meant that the team was limited in what type of story it could tell, needing the ending to lead back to square one to fit within the lexicon. But for Giroux, that actually fit into the spirit of the project.

“It’s also kind of a nice nod to the fact that a Go game is simpler than a console game,” Giroux said. “It’s more elegant. It wants to be simpler.”