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Lessons Learned from Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (DEMD)

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Bolt-Action Gaming

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Minor update: In the lower portion I have some errors which were corrected by Sylvain Douce, the Senior Technical Designer @ Eidos Montreal (who made DEMD).  He states:

"Very good piece! One minor things: AI middleware we used for DXHR and DXMD is Navpower ( http://www.babelflux.com/ ), everything else was built in-house."

Also, it's extremely awesome of him to read it, enjoy it, and retweet it! Thanks a lot Sylvain!

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I don't think it's any great secret that I love Sci-Fi, especally cyberpunk dystopian themed sci-fi.   While I find Bladerunner a bit droll, the environment it helped create persists as one of my favorites.  So Deus Ex games have long fit into my inventory of favorites and this game was no exception.  I absolutely loved Human Revolution so it was only natural I'd eventually get around to playing through Mankind Divided.

Now for reference I should mention this was played through on PS4.  This means it almost always is going to be somewhat graphically optimized to improve the speed and provide a fluid experience on a console.

I've decided to do a rather lengthy deconstruction of the game as it pertains to Independent Gamedevs specifically using Game-Guru.  Others may find it useful, your miles will invariably ... vary.

First of all, it bears mentioning this game was developed using the 'Dawn Engine.' created by Eidos- Montreal.

The engine is not without some controversy due to some issues with load times.  Overall though, it's a fairly stable engine that ran relatively well in my instance.  It did, however, seem to lack some of the really high end features that can set apart an engine.  From what I could tell though:

  • It seems to have been developed directly for DEMD as no other games have used it since it's inception in 2014.
  • it has reasonably high graphical fidelity with low framerate cost.  I will discuss this in greater detail below.
  • The AI package used was very good, albeit it's middleware (APEX AI).  There's actually a fair amount of middleware, but that's not tremendously surprising. (SEE ABOVE)
  • The game engine is apparently a heavily modified glacier 2 engine.  For those not aware, that's the 'Hitman' game engine.  I recommend reading the linkthrough for a highly technical summary of what the Dawn Engine encompasses.

That all aside, let's begin our lesson.

Graphical/Lighting tricks

Deus Ex: Human Revolution gave us great gameplay in a fantastic looking game.  Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is no exception.   There are a lot of extremely fancy tricks used to produce great framerates while providing a very impressive visual experience.

The first thing you'll notice, if you're new to Deus Ex, is there is no more 'gold filter'.  This means the scenes feel less cohesive if they're not built specifically to match.  While the gold filter is a bit of a bludgeon, it did give a sense of character to DEHR that is somewhat lost in DEMD.  DEMD however makes up for it in spades by having a significant amount of purpose built coloration in the scenes while at the same time using giving identity to each area.  On one hand they lose the 'Deus Ex' filter but gain individuality in each scene.  It was a reasonable tradeoff.

Gold filter comparison
Modders removed the gold filter and added some fidelity in DEHR, but it also serves as a good example of the type of difference you see between DEHR and DEMD.


I am big fan of using colors to 'unify' the palette so that a scene feels more cohesive.  This technique artistically speaking is useful for helping to help join together disparate textures which I have a massive quantity of due to many different artists providing many different assets for my use over the years.  In my case, I'd have kept the gold filter or color tone map (assuming you are using reshade).  All in all though if you have a ton of custom art in a lot of wildly different locations like DEMD did, it makes more sense to not filter them all through a gold lens.




PBR and resource management.

DEMD uses a physically based rendering pipeline which allows for some really impressive visuals.  While mirrored surfaces don't look particularly impressive, the shine on the floors is really good.  Certain elements of the environment really stand out, notably pipes.  These shiny surfaces help you realize that in terms of our own engine (GameGuru) which recently obtained PBR capabilities we'd want to use them selectively on things that BEST show them off.  While it's nice to have every single thing in your game use it, it simply eats too many resources.  Selectively choosing the best scenes for it (shiny metal, hardwoods, glass, etc) is a much more attractive option than putting it on bland surfaces where you receive minimal visual 'pop' like concrete.  This in turn helps us save vital resources, which is a struggle with a 32 bit engine like Game-Guru.



The reflections used localized cubemaps which are definitely available in Game-Guru so that's a nice addition on Lee and Preben's part which will allow us to create beautiful reflections  on pipes and mirrors.

Transparencies on light planes

DEMD cleverly uses light planes with alpha-transparencies to create the illusion of 'dust' in the air.  The game supposedly has volumetric density for the engine, but I suspect they de-tuned it for the PS4.  If that's the case, at least it's given us a specific example we can draw from.

Streams of light
Those streaming beams of light look more like vertical 'planes' from head on.

Take for instance the above picture.  I walked back and forth and noticed several clear planes (2 dimensional flat objects in a 3d space).  Now granted, it was probably algorithmic or volumetrically done but we can reproduce the same effect with this basic texture for our plane in Game-Guru:


Poorly drawn image by yours truly
Yeah, I got lazy and made the last line too wide.
So basically what we have here is a series of blank spaces that are alpha masked completely open.  Then I took the 'filled' areas, put in a white to grey gradient, then created an alpha mask off those as well.  This gives us a semi-transparent 'beam' of shadowed area.  So we basically get the OPPOSITE effect of what we see above.  Give it a try with your own plane.  I'll probably put one of these on the store (for free) once I correct the mistakes made in the above file.

Flares on lights that  get a lot of attention

In the opening area of the main game you begin in Adam Jensen's house, which acts as a sort of technical demo for the game.  In that location if you look up you'll see a significant amount of studio lighting but notably they use a flare decal that is facing the player.

lightflares example
Those are circular lights with a line-shaped flare.
 We can achieve this same effect using a decent flare and the player_facing.lua script that is included with game-guru.  One thing that DEMD did really well though was it's occlusion; when you are NEAR a corner the flare switches off subtly so that it looks seamless.  Overall, a fairly simple but nice looking effect is achieved.

Baked lighting 90% of the time. 

These days, a lot of games really rely on  dynamic lighting.  It's fancy, it looks nice, and it's GPU intensive.  It also has clear limitations which are another topic for another time.   Deus Ex uses an updated older technique, notably Tiled Lighting that's baked in.  This allows high speed renders of scenes where the light is not likely to change and also allows the artist a great degree of control if they're willing to invest the time.

DEMD Prague outdoors static lighting example
You start to see it everywhere the more you start looking for it.

Unfortunately Game-Guru cannot do dynamic lighting very well and as such it leaves us in a pickle a lot of the time. However in DEMD they do a LOT of baked lighting and it shows.  This game is virtually a showcase for 'how to do static lighting the right way'.  Color choices are not obtrusive, are placed to provide windows with indoor light.


Jensen's apt indoors static lighting example
The red circle shows where the light is, outside (approximately 30ft behind the wall).


Note the placement of the light and how it streams in through the window.  It bakes cleanly onto the surface and gives it a nice 'early day' feel.   This same technique can be done with Game-Guru, rather than relying on 'sunlight' - we pre-bake static lights outside of a window to provide the building interior with realistic lighting.

Clever transitioning

One interesting element I think is worth mentioning is, as the heading suggests, 'clever transitioning'.  While many levels simply pop you to a loading screen, moving about the main city of Prague gives you a varied scene (depending on where you are going to or coming from).

Jensen looking bad AF on a train
The screen changes perspective several times and the characters all move around to provide a sense of 'aliveness'.
The only downside is the animation is repetitive, but that makes sense given it's literally just a facade over a loading screen.  While I realize loading screens are effectively the devil I thought it was worth mentioning it.  I don't have an answer for Game-Guru in that respect as our loading system is vastly different but I think it at least underscores the need to give people something to look at other than the basic 'Game-Guru loading screen'.   The best answer is probably something like the other loading screens in Deus Ex, which effectively consist of a picture and some information for the player to read.

Have a mini-game 

The hacking mini-game remains mostly unchanged from DEHR but really felt at home in this game. While it's a lot of extra work, at the same time it can really provide a payoff for the player who needs some variety in their game beyond the usual 'shoot or sneak' methodology.

Dat hacking minigame bro
Oh no, only 2 seconds left! ABORT! ABOOOOOORT!

Often I found myself in a higher sense of tension from the hacking minigame than the actual game itself.  Sometimes even the threat of discovery while hacking (the world doesn't just stop while you're hacking) provided it's own 'sinking feeling' while you were ferociously attempting to subvert system nodes to bend an non-compliant computer to your will.  While the additional 'sink' of adding a mini-game is seemingly unnecessary, it also adds a lot of play value to a game.

A living city

I have a good friend who also is very into Deus Ex; he's actually the one who first pointed me at Human Revolution, even bought my copy back when I was flat broke.

I asked him what he thought of Mankind Divided, without spoiling anything.  He replied "it's a great game, they really did a great job of making it feel like a living city."

I felt that was worth mentioning here given how spot on his analysis is.  This game really does a great job of making you feel like you are in a living, breathing, ALIVE environment.  Each area has tons of sandboxing and detail which makes every single space different and independent.  So how did they do it?

Lips on a building!
The red light district, for instance, really takes it's name to heart.

Well, foremost - each area is it's own 'scene'.  It's as if they built one overarching area, built the major components, then filled in the rest with minor story pieces.

Meow
This room exemplifies the microcosm within macrocosm feel.
 
There's a world of microcosms within the macrocosm of the individual 'global' level and it really provides this deep sense of uniqueness to each specific room.  The stories for these rooms aren't anything significant most times.  Often they are simply something as simple as 'this is the asshole gang dealer who doubles as your local black market shop' room.  Other times small rooms take massive twists and turns, such as the crazy cat lady who ends up having her own miniature story that makes her a much CRAZIER cat lady.

While often the rooms are 'revisited' for story purposes and such you can pretty usually boil them down to a basic, simple story.   Obviously the indy dev can't afford the time to write a massive, engrossing story for each sub-mission in their game.  Which apparently, neither can AAA devs.  Which brings me to my next point.

Secrets are simply unexplored areas 

In my "Lessons learned from Doom's Level Design (part 1) (part 2) (part 3) (part 4) " I discuss use of secrets and their necessity for gaming.  It's something that helps reward a player for investing even more time in their game than absolutely required.  I mean let's face it, most people play games to feel rewarded, to enjoy the satisfaction of accomplishing a challenge.  Deus Ex rewards this in spades by ensuring that every single hidden area is replete with it's own set of rewards ranging from extra ammo to hidden secret rifles.  I still remember being in the ARC headquarters level and going down literally 5 or 6 stories on tiny rails just to find a hidden rifle.  It was an insane amount of detail for a single secret, but these are the types of things players remember.

ARC: the throat secret gun
I was being literal in the literal sense.  That yellow dot is where you start at before worming down to the gun.


Try to use your dead ends and open spaces to provide the players with additional reward for looking at your hard work.  Open up your single alleyways into branching paths that lead them to interesting rooms that really are just there to provide life and depth to the game.

Open ended level design

Deus Ex games have been renowned for their  open ended level design but it's worth discussing, at least briefly here how it was implemented in DEMD.  DEHR had a fair amount of 'open-endedness' to it, but I think in this case DEMD gets the upper hand.  You literally had piles of avenues to perform different possibilities.  Missions had more than one failure or success condition and you often had branching trees that could spell serious disaster later on.

I remember in mission one, I was helping out an agent (Singh).  You are to save his life at the end which is no small feat as you're attacked by masked assassins in a sandstorm.  It is, in short, a train wreck of a situation. Keeping him alive is incredibly difficult.

Dubai: sandstorm
I'm sure you'll see him if you just keep staring long enough.
 I did this, but only to have him die later in the game because I neglected one small sub-objective on that same mission of disabling a communications tower.  This causes him to get killed while undercover as his cover was blown.  Little things like this are like a spaghetti plate of decisions, which require lots and lots of planning.  That means writing things down.  Which also means, you guessed it, a design document - and we all know that's basically the same thing to an indy dev as garlic to a vampire.  Sure, it won't kill you... but it's damned uncomfortable.

Multiple answers to singular problems.


Moreover level design is incredibly fluid; you have lots of answers to single problems.  This means you often have the choices of going in loud by shooting everything in sight, hacking your way in via a console, taking rooftop access stealthily, running through vents to come up behind your foes, or a myriad of other alternate choices that often boil down to 'get from point a to point b'.

Palisade bank
There are about a dozen ways in and a dozen ways through the 'uncrackable' Palisade bank.


This depth of level design is a big draw for this game type, allowing players to really dig in and pick how they want to do things.  Sometimes you just want the pure visceral thrill of unloading a 28 round magazine from a fully automatic pistol into some poor bastard who dared to wander too close.  Other times hitting people with tranquilizer darts in the neck out of sight of others is the better tactical choice.  These types of dynamics often aren't so much planned as they are a result from thorough level design and planning with a focus on building multiple avenues of approach for a single objective. 

Intelligent AI design

The AI in this game is something else.  There are a lot of times where you feel like you want to really get in there and mix it up and find yourself dealing with attacks from both sides.
While a lot of this has to do with level design (alternate routes, enemy placements, the location of an enemy taking the shortest route to your location) it also has a lot to do with an intelligent system that is attempting to find the best way to kill you.  It's impressive and not easily duplicated.  Maybe one day we'll have that depth in Game-Guru, though at this point in time your best method will be use of lots of navigation nodes and good enemy placement.

Wrapping up

All in all, I found myself least interested in the main story, which is the unfortunate side effect of having an impressive game with great mechanics.  I can't think of anything about the game I really hated.  Everything played well and it served as a great teacher to a willing student.  I highly recommend you give it a run through and see what you can learn from it too!

Addendum: 


There's a pick up objects script you can use to create a similar style to Deus Ex found here:
https://forum.game-guru.com/thread/207801?page=16#msg2562166

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