Video Game History: The History Of Deus Ex Part 1 (“Problems, Not Puzzles”)

Augmentations, nanotechnology, Area 51, the Illuminati, the divide between man and machine, hacking, freedom of choice, and government conspiracies. What do all these have in common? They’re all common themes and ideas behind the groundbreaking series Deus Ex. While it may not seem like such a big deal now, the original Deus Ex was a groundbreaking game, with its successful combination of role playing, first person shooter, and stealth mechanics, all wrapped in a plot that involve shady government conspiracies, powerful corporations, and the mysterious group known as the Illuminati. Since then, the series has spawned three sequels (with the newest games coming out in a couple weeks), books, Internet memes, and even a supposed live action movie.

But like many popular franchises, the road to success hasn’t been easy for the Deus Ex series, because while the series may be stronger now, then it’s ever been, that wasn’t always the case, with the first one having a very rocky development. And so, on today’s gaming history, let’s put on out trench coats and fight some conspiracies, as we take a look at the history of the Deus Ex series, by first looking at the game that started it all.

The game that would be known as Deus Ex was first conceptualized by Warren Spector in January of 1993, after finishing development on Ultima Underworld II with Origin Studios. Noticing that his wife really enjoyed The X-Files, Specter dreamed of a concept that combined, according to him, “real world, millennial weirdness, and conspiracy theories”. He pitched the idea to Origin in 1994, describing the game as “Underworld-style first-person action”, with “big-budget, non-stop action”, but was ultimately rejected. Spector kept the idea in the back of his mind, and later left Origin to work at Looking Glass Studios, the developer behind the System Shock and Thief series. He kept refining the idea, and pitched the game again as Junction Point (which would later be the name of his studio that would make the Epic Mickey games); once again, he was rejected by the higher ups. Spector would later say that the “timing was not yet ripe because the business teams were not interested, the technology was not yet feasible, he did not have an interested team or the resources to make one, and that publishers did not want a “first-person, cross-genre game”” That would quickly change, when in 1997, John Romero (the developer known for his work on Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein) asked Spector if he could join his recently created studio Ion Storm, to make whatever dream game that he wanted, without restrictions; Specter said yes immediately.


Pre-production on the game (under the working title of Shooter: Majestic Revelations) began in August of 1997 and lasted for six months, with Warren Spector as both producer and director, and Harvey Smith as the lead designer. During those six months, the team came up with the setting of the game before any of the mechanics, creating a narrative that derived from many real life conspiracy theories, including Area 51, CIA drug trafficking, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy; this research into conspiracy theories really helped the team understand how conspiracy theorists think, which helped them immensely with the game’s story. When it came to the design of the game, the team agreed that the game wasn’t going to primarily be a shooter (ironic, considering the working title of the game at the time), and wanted to have role playing elements, where players could customize their character based on their personal play style. Around this time, Spector would write what he called an RPG manifesto, in which he describes the perfect RPG, which included principals such as “problems, not puzzles”, “players do; NPCs watch”, and “no forced failure”; Spector would later say that he felt the original Deus Ex accomplished what he proposed in his manifesto.

After pre-production concluded, the game official began development in early 1998. Almost immediately, there were problems, as many members of the team had many disagreements, with some artists not being completely invested in the project. At one point, when two designers wanted to be the lead designer, Spector decided to split them into two teams, which he thought could be easily managed and the competition would spark new ideas; it didn’t work, and Spector was forced to merge the two teams into one. The team was also working with the relatively unknown engine at the time by the name of Unreal; though the engine was designed for first person shooters, the team struggled a bit to understand the engine, as the team would often program “special cases”, instead of multi-purpose code that could be used much more often. Spector would later conclude that it would have been easier for the team would have understood the code better if they had made it themselves, and that the whole ordeal was a lesson in preferring “general solutions” over “special casing”.

But easily the biggest hurdle that the team had to face was Ion Storm itself. You see, when Warren Spector was brought on in late 1997, he founded Ion Storm Austin, who worked on Deus Ex, while Ion Storm Dallas was the main studio run by John Romero. Romero was already in trouble with players and the press alike after the ad campaign for the infamous game Daikatana, which was nothing more than a red poster with the phrase “John Romero’s about to make you his bitch”, but the numerous delays of the game combined with Romero’s well publicized expensive tastes (including racing Ferraris), spending millions of dollars to get a penthouse style office at a Dallas skyscraper (which actually made working there hard due to the sunlight), and hiring his then girlfriend to be the lead designer (causing many of the original developers to leave en masse) left the studio with a poor reputation in the eyes of many. This negative response to Ion Storm Dallas in turn effected Spector and his team, as many of the members took the negative coverage personally, and the controversy effected how Deus Ex was covered by the press. Spector would later reveal that “too many talented people” refused to join the project due to the fledgling studio’s notorious reputation; while the team eventually developed a “we’ll show them” attitude, there was no denying that it certainly put an unnecessary strain on development.


Despite these hurdles, Deus Ex was finally released on June 17th, 2000 for the PC, with a Mac release coming a month later, and was ported to the PlayStation 2 two years later. Set in the year 2052, players take on the role of J.C. Denton, a UNATCO agent with nanomachine technology, who is tasked with taking down a terrorist organization called the NSF, who have recently stolen a shipment of Ambrosia, a vaccine for a disease called the “Gray Death”. What starts as a simple mission however quickly turns into a massive global conspiracy, as Denton crosses paths with various shadow organizations such as the Triad and the Illuminati, and ultimately discovers that not everything is what it appears, with a climactic battle at the mysterious Area 51. The gameplay was a stealth/shooter/role playing hybrid, with huge sprawling levels for players to explore and with various missions to take part in, which could be completed anyway a player sees fit based on their personal play style, meaning that regardless of what a player specialized in, they always had a chance to complete a mission. NPCs in each stage acted differently based on how Denton reacted and completed missions, with the story changing completely based on the player’s decisions; heck, you can kill off two of the game’s bosses at the beginning of the game if you wanted. Players would be awarded skill points throughout the game, which could then be used to specialize in eleven different areas, such as stealth, hacking computers, or weapons. Players could even pick up one of eighteen special augments which grant them permanent special abilities to parts of Denton’s body like his arms and legs, such as the ability to lift heavy crates, or being able to take less damage from explosives; however, players could only pick one of these augments to install on each part of the body, so players had to pick wisely which one to go with.

When it was first released, Deus Ex garnered universal praise from game critics and players alike. Though critics were lukewarm on the graphics and sound, the gameplay and story were both well received, with Thierry Nguyen from Computer Gaming World saying that the game “delivers moments of brilliance, idiocy, ingenuity, and frustration”. The game would go on to win numerous “best of” awards from various publications, win two awards at the Game Developers Choice Awards in 2001 for “Excellence in Game Design” and “Game Innovation Spotlight”, two awards from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences (AIAS), and even a BAFTA for PC Game of the Year. Years later, the game would also appear on various “Greatest Games of All Time” lists from various publications and websites, including IGN, GameSpy, PC Gamer, and Gamasutra. And while it didn’t sell well, Deus Ex gained a cult following, and still live on today thanks to mod support, with Warren Spector himself being surprised at the game’s success. To this day, he still gets emails from players talking about how they still play it. Shortly after the release of the first game, the team began work on a sequel, hoping to address concerns that people had for the original. The final result being a game that while an okay game in it’s own right, could successful capture the magic of the original.

In the next part of our look back at the Deus Ex series, we take a look at the game’s divisive sequel, Deus Ex: Invisble War. Why is this game often looked down on by fans of the series? What lessons did the team learn from this game? And why is it that after the sequel, did the series go dormant for a few years? Find out in the second part of our Deus Ex special.