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Warren Spector looks back on making Deus Ex out of spite

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“At the time, though, what went through my head was, “I’ll show them. I’ll make a game where you can decide for yourself whether to fight or sneak past any problem.”—Game designer Warren Spector

During the 90’s, Warren Spector made a name for himself by working on a number of games, from the Ultima series to Wing Commander II. One title he’s commonly associated with is 2000’s Deus Ex, which has an interesting connection to Thief, a franchise he briefly dabbled in during the earlier part of his career. 

In a look back on his 40-year tenure in games, Spector recalled his brief time at Thief developer Looking Glass Studios in the late 90s. While he was quick to stress that he merely “contributed” to that game’s development, he did credit it with helping lead him to what would eventually become Deus Ex. 

Spector remembered playing through an encounter in Thief he thought was “too tough to sneak past,” and told members of Looking Glass that he wanted to “fight my way past things that are too hard for me.” Upon being told that being a fighter would negate the need to sneak around, he was inspired to make a game where the player could decide their own method of play. 

After being laid off alongside the rest of Looking Glass’ Austin studio, Spector joined Ion Storm and sought to revive a proposal he’d written in 1995 for a project dubbed Troubleshooter. It was to be “the real-world roleplaying game,” though he opted to set in in the future because “people know how the real world works.” 

With free reign from John Romero to make the game as he pleased, Spector and ex-Looking Glass staff such as Harvey Smith and Chris Norden wanted to “[give] players choices about how to solve problems. The game had to be about how clever and creative players were, not how clever and creative we, as developers, were.”

That creativity is also partially why Deus Ex has its title. Not only is it a play on “deus ex machina” (‘god from the machine’ in Latin), but it also has a “smartness” that refers to a bad narrative approach in literature. And by Spector’s own admission, he thought it would be funny “if people mispronounced it and had to say ‘sex.'”

Deus Ex had a big impact on Spector and games overall

Spector was candid about his concerns in being compared to other big studios at the time: “If people…compare us to Thief’s stealth, we’re dead; if they compare our RPG elements to Bioware’s latest, we’re dead. But if they get that they can decide how to play, to do any of those they want, we might rule the world.”

Deus Ex released in 2000 to critical acclaim and was eventually dubbed one of the best games of all time. It would also be the only game in the series with his full involvement (he advised on 2003’s Deus Ex: Invisible War), as he admitted to being “not much of a sequel guy.”

While proud of his success and considered “definitely a high point” of his career, Spector believes that first Deus Ex is a game that couldn’t be made today. 

“At the time, it was science fiction and people took it as such,” he noted. “Too many people would see it as a documentary. […] Now, the idea that games should empower players and give them agency to tell their own stories? That I will always do. But the world and the narrative? Nope.”

Spector’s full look back on his career in game development, which also includes his time at Origin and Junction Point, can be read here.

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