I'm René-Martin Pauzé, and my role on Deus Ex: Human Revolution as Lead Level Designer was to create guidelines and rules to help the level team to create the layouts and challenges.
With the help of Francois McCann (Senior Level Designer) who was responsible of the first production level (Detroit City), we want to give you some insight into the level design philosophy behind Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
The first thing we did was replay the first two Deus Ex games. We had to take lots of notes to truly understand what exactly defines the Deus Ex experience, and how to design our levels with challenges based on the game pillars (Combat, Stealth, Hacking, Social and Exploration).
The major element that we took into consideration was the fact that the game is an Action-RPG. The idea was to extract and analyze all the high-level defining aspects of this genre, to understand how they can influence and help us refine the Level Design direction we needed to create a deep Deus Ex experience.
A few facts:
o The core Level Design team consisted of veterans Level Designers from established series such as Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six, which helped to create a proper foundation of tactical choices, multipathing, and multi-solutions.
o After playing the previous Deus Ex games, each Level Designer was tasked to list their Top 3 Best Levels and Top 3 Worst Levels, and explain the reasons behind their choices.
o Level Designers which were hired had to undergo a training session where they had to recreate a rough Deus Ex 1 level in the Deus Ex: Human Revolution engine, in order to truly understand the fundamentals.
o Throughout the production, our videogame inspirations were:
§ Metal Gear Solid Series.
§ Perfect Dark Series.
§ System Shock Series.
§ Rainbow Six Series.
§ Splinter Cell Series.
§ Bioshock Series.
§ Fallout Series.
§ Mass Effect Series.
We needed to understand why people were so enthusiastic of their memories of playing a 10-year-old game like Deus Ex 1, every time we talked to them about it. After a lot of analysis, we were able to define key elements which helped us create a similarly enjoyable open-ended experience for Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
We broke down this open-ended experience into three major elements, that we had to always keep in mind from a level design perspective.
Sense of freedom
o Create a semi-free-roaming level which can be explored on foot and let the player go anywhere, anytime, within its limits.
o Liberty to engage mission objectives or side-quests in any order.
o Let the player choose his own path, but with short / medium / or long-term consequences.
o Define the tactical options for the player to choose from, based on the gameplay pillar he wishes to explore, or even combinations of multiple options.
o Allow the player to make different decisions by experimenting with the tools he acquired so far, such as augmentations, weapons, and items.
o For each different option, include interactive elements for the player to play with.
o By combining the non-linear approach with the different tools at the player's disposal, he can create his own replayability experience.
To break any linear feeling, all environments (both exterior and interior) must support multipathing to some degree, allowing the player to find and use different entry and exit points (minimum of two). Each path must have a consequence and a reward, so as to balance why the player should use one particular path instead of another. To optimize "replayability", some alternate paths should be accessible only with a certain type of augmentations.
Multi-path can be broken down into three different categories:
o Immediate: Multiple paths to one room, one small floor / set of rooms (ex.: apartments).
o Medium: Multiple paths towards an objective or a challenge (ex.: different floors leading to a single large warehouse).
o Large-Scale: Multiple paths to one sub-location or to a compound.
We also defined all our paths with the different playstyles supported by the game.
o Generally the most direct one.
o Easy to find.
o Strongly protected by NPCs.
o Player is easily exposed to direct confrontation.
o Generally allows the player to avoid a direct confrontation.
o More difficult to notice and to find.
o Need to explore more and/or use augmentations.
o Generally accessible through exploration / alternate paths.
o Protected by security devices that requires the player to find a way to bypass them: either by hacking, finding a code, using an item (EMP grenade), or even sneaking.
o Rely on the conversation system and skills.
o Player needs to convince an NPC to help, in order to gain access to an alternate path, or even simply acquire information.
To infuse the same sense of freedom that we can establish through multi-path, which is all about navigation, the player must be able to rely on a variety of of solutions to overcome a single challenge.
In the end, any solution to a challenge must reflect the player's style: brute force, sneaking, hacking, interacting with objects or NPCs, and so on.
o The player can achieve his objectives by using the full frontal assault tactic.
o The primary focus is on combat skills, the use of destructive weapons against armed opponents.
o This tactic revolves around quick reflexes, adrenaline rush through combat and frantic action.
o This tactic generates chaotic and action-packed sequences (bringing reinforcements, ambushes, triggering alarms, etc).
o Firefights are extremely risky and requires the player to use cover-dependant tactics and precise aiming.
o While behind cover, the player can analyze the situation and choose a tactic which could potentially turn the odds in the player's favor.
o The player studies the topology of the environment and takes time to plan his stealth approach.
o Primary focus is be on using occluding cover, using stealth augmentations granting him invisibility and discretion, and silent weapons and tactics which will help him not being spotted by the enemies.
o This tactic revolves around accuracy, planning, keen observation and puzzle-solving skills.
o The player must eliminate, avoid or neutralize targets silently and without being detected.
o Experience great excitement through high-risk and high-tension gameplay.
o The player must try to challenge machines and security systems.
o Primary focus is on hacking skills to obtain additional rewards, information, turn the system against the player’s enemies and take control of a variety of devices and robots.
o This tactic forces the player to physically get close to security devices.
o Requires the player to use augmentations and software to hack the devices.
o Finding codes and passwords can also be an option to take over certain security devices, thus rewarding the player who explores his surroundings.
o The player has the ability to interact with some of the NPCs he comes across in the game.
o NPCs can provide the player with a wide variety of means to help progressing through the game, as well as enrich immersion and gameplay.
o They can give the player information which can be used to overcome a situation, gain access to another area, or simply to guide the player towards the objective.
o NPCs can also give the player items: either by selling them, as an aid to solve a situation, or as a reward for completing a quest.
o Also, they can add backstory on other characters, environments, mission objectives and the game’s world, so as to increase immersion.
In the next part of this article, we'll get into the overall game theme and its influences on level design, as well as bringing our philosophy to life.
Special thanks to alphagravy for all the gifs - we love your work!