Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the long-anticipated third game in the Deus Ex franchise, hit with a bang last week, ratcheting up an 89 on Metacritic, and receiving effusive praise from critics who are calling it “a game that puts almost everything else in the genre to shame.”
Game Design grad Bruce Kelly has lived and breathed Deus Ex for the last two years, first as a level designer before transitioning into narrative design. He managed to carve some time out of the crazy launch schedule to speak with us about his work on the game, the future of AAA-title gaming, and his advice for people looking to break into the industry.
Tell us a bit about your journey since graduation.
Bruce: Like many in the industry, I owe a lot to a handful of people who took a chance on a wet-behind-the-ears, straight-out-of-school neophyte designer with only his portfolio and aspirations. VFS definitely gave me a substantial leg-up on the competition, and the overall production experience I gained was invaluable, but ultimately your network is your greatest asset. Without one, it’s a hard industry to break into because of the premium put on experience, especially as a designer. That’s only something you can acquire once your foot is already in the door. Luckily for me, a friend of a friend landed me an interview at a company back home in Montreal, and I guess the rest is history.
How did you become interested in game design? When (and why) did you think you could turn it into a career?
Bruce: I love this question, because it feels like traveling back in time every time I answer it. I think at a very, very young age I was lucky enough to know what I wanted to be when I grew up, and it was right around the time StarTropics was released on the NES. I must have been six or seven years old, and while I might not have been aware of it at the time, that game left an indelible impression on me. It was a huge inspiration, and probably still influences me to this day.
Everything about it was so incredibly imaginative and absorbing, from the packaging (if anyone remembers the physical letter you had to dip in water) to the world, characters, and ridiculous story. I was enthralled, and distinctly remember thinking to myself how cool it would be to someday make something like this. After finishing it, I actually ended up drawing (I was a much better 2D artist then than I am now) sketches for new monster concepts, characters and dungeon layouts for this theoretical sequel I had in my head.
So I guess that was the first time I started thinking about a game more as a “designer” and less as a player. That pattern continued, and while at some point in my teens I may have lost sight of the end goal of becoming an actual game designer one day, the passion for both dissecting and creating gameplay experiences always remained. After studying film in college, and a brief stint in 3D animation, I don’t think it was a surprise to anyone when I finally enrolled in the Game Design program at VFS.
What was your involvement on Deus Ex: Human Revolution?
Bruce: I was originally brought on board as a level designer to help out on the city-hub production, but I knew the side-quest team was short-staffed, so I lobbied hard to join their skeleton crew (which at the time consisted of one lead, another level designer, and a contract writer).
While familiarizing myself with the project’s engine and toolsets, I came up with this big convoluted conspiracy plot for a potential side-quest; wrote up a design doc, went bananas on a gym (basically a prototype level), and pitched it all to the lead level designer. It must have impressed someone, because a week later, I was on the SQ team, and knee-deep in, well, everything.
It was a wicked (albeit initially harrowing) experience and I got to work with some amazingly talented people, on practically every facet of production. I can honestly say the last couple of years have flown by.
The Deus Ex games are considered some of the best and most influential of all time. How did you deal with those expectations during development?
Bruce: Something that I kept repeating, at least to myself (and anyone who would listen my rambling and often incoherent tangents) is that we can never underestimate the player. Whenever I was designing something, I always operated under the assumption that someone smarter than me would eventually be playing my content. I think it did a good job of keeping me grounded, and forced me to double-check and often re-think everything. Whether it was writing dialogue for a character, gameplay scripts, or planning out a combat setup, I would always question: “Is this asking the player to think? Am I giving the player enough options? Am I rewarding them even if they do something I didn’t expect them to?”
I think that’s what fundamentally set the original Deus Ex apart, or at least that’s what always made it stand out in my mind. It was one of the few games to treat its audience like adults, where agency was paramount, and thinking outside of the box wasn’t just rewarded, it was encouraged. And I know I wasn’t the only one on the team with that mindset. In the end, because we all knew what was expected of a Deus Ex game, I think we just focused on making sure we made a good game, period; a game that did justice to the spirit of the franchise, without necessarily trying to upstage the original. It’s a classic after all, and you can’t imitate greatness.
Your title has changed from Level Designer to Narrative Game Designer. How did you make this shift, and what does a Narrative Game Designer do?
Bruce: Honestly, it’s been such a blur; I’m not even sure how to answer that succinctly. When I joined the side-quest (SQ) team, I really didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was that I loved playing RPGs, and felt I could make some pretty kick-ass content in the Deus Ex universe. Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t quite aware of the exact technical skills required, so I spent the better part of the first 3 months of production thrown into the deep end, going through a literal trial-by-fire to get myself up to speed. Prior to this, I had very little experience with scripting or object-oriented programming languages, so that was the biggest hurdle. Once I could reliably get the program to do what I needed, the rest more or less fell into place, and the quests really started to take shape.
It was around that time that we lost the only contract writer assigned to SQs. Because both myself and the other level designer had our hands full integrating gameplay, and the writing staff were busy with the critical path, there was no one available to revise or improve the first draft of side-quest dialogue. As we started to playtest the game, we were getting a lot of negative feedback concerning the narrative state of the side-quests.
Fortunately, the lead writer on the project, Mary DeMarle, saw some potential in us and we were given the green light to overhaul all the dialogue in our quests. It was a fantastic opportunity, something I’ve always wanted to do, and the social gameplay really benefited. After a few weeks burning the midnight oil, we had another round of playtests and the feedback was unanimously positive.
Near the tail end of production, I was asked if I’d be interested in joining the writing team as a Narrative Game Designer. At first, I didn’t know a job like that existed, or that it even had a fancy title to begin with, but if it meant I could keep doing what I’d been doing for the better part of production, I was definitely on board.
As for what exactly a Narrative Game Designer does? It probably depends a lot on who you ask, but essentially my responsibilities revolve primarily around both designing the story and assuring it gets properly told through the various game systems (dialogue, readable artifacts, gameplay and environmental interaction, etc). It’s a very hands on job, and a rare enough title in this industry, so I feel lucky to be part of a studio that puts as much stock in to the integrity of the story as it does everything else.
A few years ago people were predicting the absolute domination of casual games and the end of large-scale, narrative games. With the imminent release of games like Bioshock Infinite and the buzz around a title like Dishonored, where do you think the industry is headed?
Bruce: While it’s definitely gotten progressively more expensive and difficult to produce grand, sweeping epics, and the risks involved are no doubt daunting for most publishers, I think there will always be room in the market for large-scale narrative games. I don’t imagine we’ll ever see another “golden-age of RPGs” like we saw during the late-90s, but games like Mass Effect, BioShock, Alpha Protocol, and Skyrim are all pushing the limits of conventional storytelling in videogames, and in different ways. There is immense demand for these experiences.
For what it’s worth, I think we’re definitely headed in a direction where the casual market will supersede the rest of the industry in terms of profit margins (if we haven’t already), but those profits could ideally fuel more ambitious and risky projects. The sustainable revenues generated by downloadable-content, micro-transactions and “freemium” payment models, when done right, could help leverage the goals of smaller, independent studios, so it’s not just the major publishers producing large-scale titles.
I’m very optimistic about the industry and where it’s headed, and feel we’re reaching a great balance between good ‘ol, made-in-a-garage type games and blockbuster AAA titles. Anyone who feels the industry is stagnating, or that we’ve lost touch with our roots, needs to take a step back and look at the big picture. The indie-games scene has come a long way in the last few years, and we’re seeing more creativity in the market place than ever before. I also don’t see any reason to fear the casual games market, since it does a great job of bringing traditionally non-gamers into the fold, which is good for everyone.
As the industry expands, diversifies and matures, audiences will grow, inspiring new minds with fresh perspectives to develop experiences we never expected. Ultimately, I think it’s the narrative form and how we express or tell a story within the limits (and advantages) of our medium that stands to benefit most. We’re closer than ever to the “Citizen Kane” of video games; it’s a great time to be a gamer.
What advice would you give newcomers looking to break into the industry?
Bruce: For designers, I would have to say: Don’t worry about finding your niche right away. Whether you’re studying in school or working on your own game, dabble as much as you can. Learn a programming language, do some scripting, write some dialogue, build a level or two. It’s easy to get caught up in the allure of being an “ideas-guy”, but no one’s going to hire you for your ideas (at first); they’re going to hire you for your skills, and what you can immediately offer in the short-term. Once you find a particular discipline you feel confident in, focus on it to the point where you can produce quality work for your portfolio, but always remain flexible in the long run. The greatest thing a designer can provide for their team is a robust toolbox.