If you've played Deus Ex recently you'll have noticed that it's as ugly as sin these days. In fact, you might remember it always being that way. But, for those of you who think HD is just a couple of letters cynical marketers use to sell TVs then.... well, you'd be right. Regardless, the team over at Emmersive Studios have been slogging away for five years (no, really) at a Deus Ex modification that reworks and redefines all models and textures in the game. The aptly titled HDTP is an enormous task to be sure, especially for a team that have needed to dedicate so much of their spare time that it's a miracle they're still together. I managed to steal some of that precious time the other day when I sat down for a little chat about their various exploits in modding and snagged three exclusive pictures:
DPP: How did HDTP come about?
Bann (Metche) - Project Lead: A precursor to this mod - one of several before HDTP I may add! - began many years ago in the original Deus Ex Eidos forum, before they shut the board down and archived it into history. I can't recall if there was even a name for the mod at that point. The idea of re-texturing the original Deus Ex game was not my idea at all. It came about through a forum thread where someone suggested that maybe we as a community should tackle such a project collectively. It fell apart pretty quickly. I think the problem was that it was chaotic and highly disorganised. There were no processes for team members to follow and no one wanted to lead the project which was a bit mad. As you can imagine the whole outfit sadly fell apart. I mean it's a huge undertaking. I don't think people get just how enormous a re-texture/re-model original assets mod is! Five years later we're still at it...
Next came the DX Retex mod. This was instigated by me stepping in to lead the old project because no one wanted the responsibility. If only I realised then what I was letting myself in for! Anyway, it was a little better organised than that of the forum run one but it still wasn't solid in terms of having a proper structure and plan and it failed.
It was only several months later after dropping DX Retex that my eyes were opened. I'd done some reading up onto how mods could be run effectively. Note that this is the first experience of modding I had ever had (technically still is!). I don't know why, but I couldn't just walk away from something that I'd picked the reigns up off all those prior months ago. Thus, HDTP was born - maybe out of sheer stubbornness, but I was so determined to be part of a successful mod no matter how long it took to complete.
Contrary to popular belief - we are almost done.
DPP: What are the main aims of the mod?
Bann (Metche): The main aims of the mod are pretty simple. Lovingly recreate the original object models and textures, giving them a fresh and high-definition feel without losing the original artists direction/vision. So basically - be sympathetic to the originals. It's been tough and sometimes I've had to make unpopular decisions. But you can't please all of the people all of the time and I hope the final product will make the community happy.
DPP: The Unreal 1 engine is undeniably ageing. What problems have you encountered so far?
Darren (Akerfeldt) - Coder: Well, the 8 textures per character limit has finally bitten us in the ass... with the Maggie Chow model. It still looks pretty good though.
Ben - 3D Artist: I really don't think the original designers thought the engine would go this far either.
Darren (Akerfeldt): We wanted to do some special texturing with her hair, but it was going to require more texture maps than the engine would accommodate. The left out textures may be included in DXR... if I ever get around to it. And ya, 8 textures was plenty for the time.
John (DDL) - Lead Coder: ... given that the original only had, like, 14 models for everyone.
Bann (Metche): It's kinda funny because even though Deus Ex is an old game, it's always had a huge community following - even now! Eight years - almost nine years down the road! And in that time, we've had fan-made modifications for the unreal engine and the openGL renderer which make the engine look better and allow for more high-definition textures. So, as our mod has grown so have our capabilities to remake graphics. At the beginning our maximum texture sizes were 512, but we upped this to 1024 a couple of years back after we had access to the new technology.
The hardest thing is probably how the engine does lighting and shadows. I know we had to be very careful with how we built our character models because we'd get this weird effect where their bodies would look too shadowed out.
It's also a fact that no one wants to mod for old games/engines no more - which is a shame. I know it's not chic to model low poly stylee with not a normal map in sight - but this is Deus Ex were talking about.
DPP: I'm surprised you've made it go this far. Is there anything you couldn't get done because of it?
John (DDL): Ha ha, do you mean "is there anything in life we couldn't do because of HDTP" or "is there anything in HDTP we couldn't do because of [Unreal Engine 1]"?
Darren (Akerfeldt): I can't think of any other examples right away. Except the riot prod, but that's a can of worms that hasn't popped open yet.
DPP: Why the riot prod?
Darren (Akerfeldt): It has an animated texture on it. And I'm not sure how that's going to work yet. So we'll see if that becomes a problem. I don't really want to re-use the one that Deus Ex uses since I'm sure it can be improved. But if I have to write yet another miracle program for that I'm going to blow up my computer... and become a dancer.
John (DDL): Animated textures don't get much better if you make 'em bigger, to be honest.
Darren (Akerfeldt): I think Unreal Engine 1 was created just shortly after the time when your programmers did everything in making a game. So getting assets into a game kind of shows that.
DPP: Over the long period of time that the mod's been in development with the huge graphical advances in gaming since then, do you feel a need to constantly re-evaluate the level of detail you are aiming for or has there been a certain level that you have set out to reach from the start?
Darren (Akerfeldt): I think for the whole of development, the artists have been striving to pack as much detail as they could into the constraints given to them by the limits of the engine. Trying to pull off graphics comparable to games like CoD 4 or Crysis, are simply not possible in UE1 so I don't think anyone is going to feel let down if HDTP doesn't look better than those games.
Craig (Wokky) - 3D Artist: One of the main areas in which graphical advances have been made is that of shader usage - Unreal 1 being as old as it is restricts us to generally just using diffuse and environment maps. Increasing texture resolution even further doesn't really compensate for a lack of shaders.
Darren (Akerfeldt): Exactly.
DPP: Yeah, I guess it's really down to the huge difference between the mod and the main game. That's the 'wow' factor. So, what part of the mod are you most proud of so far?
Bann (Metche): Personally, still being able to still see light at the end of this very long development tunnel! Aside from that I'm very proud of my team - especially the guys who have been with me from the very start. I'm just proud of everything we've done as a mod team - the guys have been so amazing and during the five years we've been working this gig, they've just kept amazing me with the quality of work they've produced. I honestly could not have asked to have worked with a nicer bunch of guys. I think they pretty much want to kill me and bury me in their back yard by now, but hey...
Darren (Akerfeldt): I'm going to self-pimp and say the characters, since I put so much work into them.
Craig (Wokky): I think some of the characters do stand out as being rather special.
John (DDL): When you see them actually moving it really is a "WOW" moment.
Ben: Yeah, the characters add so much to the game, as the old ones were the main thing which you always notice as [lacking detail].
Craig (Wokky): Mitten hands!
DPP: Yeah, I got that on a recent play through. The cut-scene close-ups were quite jarring and, yeah, the mitten-hands! The lip-syncing was also really noticeable. Is there anything you've been able to do with that?
John (DDL): Not really. The number of animations dedicated to mouth movements are fairly limited, but still surprisingly sophisticated for the tech at the time. It actually parses audio into whichever mouth phoneme it thinks is most appropriate.
Bann (Metche): characters were very touch and go at one point - without Darren and of course John I can assure you we wouldn't have a character pack to download.
Darren (Akerfeldt): The one really big drawback is that the engine doesn't blend the mouth animations from one syllable to the next so it looks really old-school. The increased resolution in the faces though has at least made the facial animations look more realistic.
Bann (Metche): Also, we've alleviated the mittens effect. They all have fully posable fingers!
DPP: Well, that was the main thing! I know In terms of getting the whole completely updated Deus Ex end-product, there are a couple of other 'graphical enhancement' mods currently in development. Are you trying to work alongside them?
Bann (Metche): Yes, absolutely - we are like a symphony because there is HDTP which deals with game models and their textures, then there is New Vision which remakes all the environment textures and finally [Deus Ex Reborn] that will port HDTP and New Vision's work into a UT 2004 Deus Ex port!
Darren (Akerfeldt): That's kind of a funny topic because, over time, the members of all the mods ended up working on HDTP. So, though they are separate mods, the development teams are, in a small way, the same people.
John (DDL): There are, after all, only so many texture artists and modellers out there who like Deus Ex.
DPP: So was that by chance? The different mods updating separate parts of the game, I mean, and they're compatible?
Bann (Metche): Yes! Which is nice.
John: Well, Deus Ex Reborn is compatible only with itself, since [it's a] different engine, but it can use all the other stuff. And HDTP and New Vision are mutually compatible. They're doing the feet, we're doing the hands, so to speak.
Bann (Metche): It's funny, but HDTP started and everything and then I think the rest of the community wanted to expand on our efforts and it goes to show what a fabulous community we have here!
Craig (Wokky): I believe HDTP originally planned on updating world textures as well as items, but after a while it was decided that focusing solely on items would make it far more manageable - it was probably inevitable that somebody else would decide to do the world textures.
DPP: It is amazing that it's still going strong eight years on. Why is that?
John (DDL): It's still an incredibly playable game, to be honest.
Bann (Metche): Because the game is a technical masterpiece - the way the story unfolds and the characters develop and even though in many aspects, yes, it is a linear game, it didn't make you feel like it was when you were playing it. It was so wonderfully designed that you always felt like you have a million different pathways open to you even when there really wasn't.
Craig (Wokky): While perhaps the storyline wasn't very open-ended, you had a lot of freedom in how you actually played the game, that contributed massively in terms of replay value - I can still start another play through, and play the game in a way I haven't previously!
Bann (Metche): I think once you've tasted Deus Ex you'll always be left wanting more and unfortunately very few games live up to that standard. I think development time/cost is a major factor there.
Ben: Yeah, I think it's the depth of the game that keeps people playing it even now. That added with the face it's not impossible (though not easy by any means) to mod makes people keep going with it.
DPP: Deus Ex is a fantastic example of how a game doesn't need superior graphics to create an immersive enjoyable experience. Judging by the purpose of your mod do you disagree, or are they both as important?
Bann (Metche): for the first play through I'd actually recommend people play Deus Ex vanilla - like without using HDTP. It's important they take Deus Ex in as it were, so to speak, and appreciate it. and then download and install HDTP and enjoy a better graphical experience.
Craig (Wokky): Obviously we're going to be slightly biased, but I think that visuals are always very important when it comes to matters of immersion.
Bann (Metche): Mods like ours also help to keep the community alive I think - or at least I like to believe we've helped maintain interest in Deus Ex over the years in our own little way!
Craig (Wokky): Serious games such as Deus Ex are as much about evoking an emotional response from the player as they are about matters of gameplay mechanics.
Ben: For it's time, Deus Ex was still commented on as having bad visuals, but made up for it with awesome gameplay and I think that whatever happens a good game is always good even if it isn't as shiny as Crysis.
DPP: Were you guys happy with the response you got from the beta?
Bann (Metche): I think [the response] was mixed. Good in some aspects - people have been asking us to release the next lot for so long - which is encouraging - but mixed in the sense that the demo was so tiny and people were disappointed that there wasn't more to see. I think people will be shocked when they realise how much is in the final build.
John (DDL): Given that it's far more likely for someone to complain about what doesn't work than commend what does, I think we did pretty well.
Bann (Metche): Seconded. We didn't know how people were going to receive it - and the demo was soooo tiny.
John (DDL): It's surprising that when you first play HDTP you don't really get much of a WOW factor (characters excepted). but when you try vanilla Deus Ex again, you realise how BAD everything actually was originally. The match between old and new is really well handled.
Bann (Metche): Personally I think that's key - HDTP is not about changing the graphics beyond recognition - it's about a sympathetic remake.
Ben: Yeah, you gradually notice the little things looking a bit better, control panels etc.
John (DDL): Plus WEAPON MODS.
Bann (Metche): Oh, aye. I think the visible weapon mods will be hot in-game - people will go nuts over those - we've already had peeps drooling over the new weapons.
Ben: I think with the remodelling side they've been very true to the originals, taking what was there and fleshing out all the little bits that make it look truly unique.
Bann (Metche): I'm hoping our final release will be received well though, obviously - so much work by the team has been lovingly infused into this mod - so it's my job to make sure everything's ship shape before release.
DPP: So have you been conscious not to give out estimated release dates?
Bann (Metche): YES. I learned it was a bad idea to do so ... very early on. It's not fair on the community and it puts unnecessary pressure on the team. We've been at it this long - a little while longer to ensure optimal polish via play testing won't hurt.
DPP: I guess you get people so excited about the project they feel you owe them something?
Bann (Metche): Yes - weird feeling - it's hard judging your own mod and gauge its popularity, but if people keep asking for more you must have been doing something right!
Craig (Wokky): I think a lot of people don't entirely appreciate the difficulty of working to a schedule when you're working in your free time.
Bann (Metche): But... I should know better - the guys have been awesome - hands down - I owe each of them so much (quite a few beers I'm guessing!) - they've always delivered!
Craig (Wokky): And hell, if companies like Valve can't manage to stick to a release date, we haven't got a whelk's chance in a supernova!
DPP: So, I guess I don't get an exclusive release date story then?
Bann (Metche): 'Fraid not, Sir.
John (DDL): When it's done?
Craig (Wokky): I can exclusively confirm that it's going to be released before the end of the universe... maybe.
Bann (Metche): For my own and my team members' sanity - I hope we get done in the next few months - but this last 10% was always going to be the hardest. I'm preparing for an internal alpha build of the final for testing. I'd then like a controlled beta which will involve a select number of peeps from the Deus Ex community. Once that's done it'll be released into the wild and I'll have a cup of tea and a slice of cake.