A World Divided
January 10, 2017

A World Divided

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, developed by Eidos-Montreal and published by Square Enix, is an action role-playing game set in the year 2029 – two years after  Human Revolution. The highly anticipated game, which became available a few months ago, depicts how the world might look 13 years from now, with mechanically augmented people segregated from non-augmented people. The cyberpunk-themed sequel marks the return of Adam Jensen, from Human Revolution. Players assume the role of Jensen as he investigates a terrorist attack.

Here, Eidos-Montreal Environment Director Hubert Corriveau discusses the game settings and the challenges of creating them. 

How did you ramp up for development on the sequel?

A few months after wrapping Human Revolution, even though we didn’t have a story yet, our artists continued producing assets for the sequel, taking visual elements we thought we might re-use (couches, chairs, and lab equipment) and updating them for next-gen consoles. Before Mankind Divided development began, we had a bank of about 800 assets to drawn on.

As we received more details about the story, we started subdividing Mankind Divided environments into what we call ‘art palettes’ or distinct look-development templates for each distinct environment. This was central to our pipeline, making it easy to keep track of all them. We did each palette modularly, so once the base was complete, all the architecture was there; we just had to add life to it.

What other influences did Deus Ex: Human Revolution have on the sequel?

Human Revolution featured a lot of similar-looking environments, with several offices and warehouses , so we decided to make variety a focus for Mankind Divided. This time around, we also created design elements (clouds, fog, sun, darkness, rain, and so forth) that we could add to environments where players returned to, so if they were coming back to the same environment for the second time, there might be a subtle change, from day to night or sun to rain, to give it a whole new feel.

Reviewers have praised Deus Ex: Mankind Divided for its intricate environments. How many environments are featured, and what are some highlights? 

There are five main environments, with each containing many sub-environments. The city of Prague is one of the most notable, and within it are approximately 20 sub-environments. It’s the biggest beast – large and dense. We wanted to fill it with as much detail as we could, so the interior space of most of the environments are filled with more intricate rooms, allowing for greater player exploration.  

The city of Golem is another really interesting environment; everything cyberpunk is concentrated here. It’s a big, flashy representation of the genre with a dark and gritty feel to it. Cyberpunk, as a theme, is all about the protagonist losing control as corporations take power from the government. 

So the story itself lends itself to this sort of dystopian feel, and we wanted to ensure that Golem’s story would fit well into the environment. In the Deus Ex universe, the politicians wanted to build a city that would feel good for augmented people to live in, but when the money stopped flowing in, the people forced to live in Golem lost support, so the city stopped being built. From then on, the inhabitants had to finish the city themselves. This theme laid the groundwork for how we built the city. We began by creating an orderly metropolis on the ground level, then added elements to make it look abandoned and give the sense that the city was built by its inhabitants – a water recuperation system, clothes lines, wires hanging out of half-built structures, and so on.

Though the base element of Golem is the same, we had to find ways of separating out different areas. Most of the time, this meant we were adding specific IDs or landmarks so gamers could find themselves in the environment, but also to give richness to the story. Our team also added things we liked, such as a garden on top of the city. I could go on for hours about all the details, but they’re all designed to lend credibility to the world and characters living in it. 

Furthermore, clutter was a focus for Human Revolution, and we were releasing Mankind Divided five years later, so we had access to a new generation of consoles. This meant that we needed to add even more clutter for players to recognize the disorder of an environment. Golem needed to be an extreme example of clutter. I told the artists that there was no way they could put too many wires into the environment for our taste. One of them went crazy with it, and we really liked the end result, which you see in the game. 

Prague is similar in scope to Golem, although not as cluttered. To create a believable, coherent universe, we added as much detail and personalized artifacts throughout Prague. The amount of work we’ve done giving the impression that people are living in these environments is a highlight of the game.

What role do they play in thenarrative, and how do they impact gameplay?

Mankind Divided is all about giving players choices – from the equipment they use to the mission they choose. Environment-wise, this meant there needed to be multiple access points in each environment – like an in-between wall. Level Design added as many of these as possible, and we made them believable. To do this, we spent a lot of time personalizing the environments with assets that speak to the game’s lore. If there’s a guy in an office, we added assets to the space that specifically speak to his life.

What makes these environments unique from other games?

Being cyberpunk is unique; there aren’t a ton of games in this genre. We tried to be different, but not too far-fetched. We wanted players to feel as though they’re in the near future, almost recognize the world they’re in; the drugstore they feel they’ve visited or an apartment they might have rented. By juxtaposing sci-fi on top of old architecture, we were able to achieve this; it also allowed us to emphasize old versus new. Prague has this really ancient set of architecture, so we kept it as is and then layered newer structures and design elements on top. The environments also feature a multitude of interactive assets ranging in complexity, probably more than most games. For these to work, we had to support everything that moves or reacts physically to the gamer’s presence, whether a box the character can grab, clutter that flies away when shot at, or a gun that is being manipulated. It was such a large undertaking that we had a dedicated team of six artists working on interactive assets for the world.

Tell us about your approach to building environments on this project. 

There’s a level artist team and a level design team. The design team makes the gameplay, and the level artist team dresses up the environment and tells the story with it. We wanted to make sure everything was credible from an architectural sense, without restricting the level design team. Between the two teams, there’s a great difference of opinion on what an environment should look like, but this clash was important to making the game credible. Level artists made the most architecturally sensible environment, and level design worked to make a gameplay-rich environment. There was a lot of back and forth to find a compromise, which was key.

From the project’s onset through to delivery, we worked with a concept team managed by the art director; they’re an instrumental part of our pipeline. They designed all the ideas and established the look. We then spoke with them, took what they created, and tried to match it as much as possible. They couldn’t design everything, so we extrapolated for what they didn’t have time to design.

From a technical standpoint, we used two UVs for the vast majority of environmental assets because we wanted to save memory. This allowed us to save material information (like the metallic material, wood surface, and such) on one UV and all the details specific to an object (mechanical lines, volts, and vents) on another, which was crucial to fitting an environment like Prague in memory. 

How big was your team, and where did they find inspiration? 

At peak production, we had 14 level artists handling modeling, texturing, and world building in our new Dawn engine, although most of the time there were 10. Inspiration provided from art direction and the concept team guided our design. We were inspired by the Kowloon walled city, especially for Golem; it’s one of the closest real-world cyberpunk environments that ever existed. Architecture magazines and books were also useful references for building designs, though the bulk of inspiration came from the incredible work of our concept artists.

Which tools did your team use?

On top of our new Dawn engine, we used a little bit of everything – Autodesk 3ds Max, Autodesk Mudbox, Pixologic ZBrush, and Quixel DDO. 3ds Max was our main tool for 3D asset modeling. It made sense for this production because a lot of our artists in Montreal are working on it, and people are comfortable with it. Personally, I like the modifier system; it’s great for VFX-related effects. It keeps everything that’s modifier-based in memory, and you can use it without sacrificing anything. Our team also uses the smoothing group system often to help with hard-surface-level modeling, using a customized Auto Normalizer tool that uses the smoothing group system to great effect.  

We built the entire Mankind Divided world on our Dawn engine, including thousands of assets created in 3ds Max. Having designed what we call a Contextual Modeling tool, our team was able to load sections of environments in the engine, reload them inside 3ds Max, and work with the 3ds Max toolset. Essentially, we put the engine inside 3ds Max and worked on the meshes there. We loaded hundreds of assets from the main world, put them in Max, modified them in context, and re-exported them as each of their independent pieces in the engine. 

For this to work, we had to do a bit of engine customization so that the assets would work with the game; we placed cover points, anchor points, or different technical data we needed to set up to make the game work. We were able to do this automatically by creating a bunch of tools in-game that automatically wrap the asset as a template, an overhead of an asset that can own anything we add to it. An asset in the game isn’t just a wall with a bunch of textures and materials; it’s a wall with behavior assigned to it. All the assets came out of 3ds Max with the concept of what they were built in with our tools. That helped us greatly.

Mudbox was also important for creating organic environment assets. It’s got a great texture management system that allows us to generate materials straight into the software and manage textures in a similar way to how they work in-game. We also used ZBrush for character creation and Quixel tools for procedural texture generation on guns and other large assets. 

How has the evolution of technology impacted environment design?

Knowing we wanted to make the most seamless city possible, players would need to be able to transition between environments without hard loading. Advancements in technology made this easier this time around. Our new engine gave us the resources to handle all the interactive assets and the volume of connected interior and exterior environments. We were also able to create and render large distant vistas for backdrops. In Human Revolution, we had to fake distance, but with the new engine, we can really do distance. 

What technical challenges did your team face?

All games need to fit into memory, but this one was challenging because of Prague. The environment is so large and dense, which is intensive on both the hardware and the engine, so our tech team had to work around it to ensure a seamless experience. The technical side of the game really enabled the artistry to come to life.