Eidos Montreal's Stephane D'Astous

The GM discusses collaborating with Square Enix on Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Set up in 2007 and now part of the wider Square Enix publishing business, Eidos Montreal is currently at work reviving two of the companies highly regarded franchises, Deus Ex and Thief. Shown for the first time at E3 in June, Deus Ex: Human Revolution also marked the first collaboration between Eidos development talent and Square's CGI team in Japan, the results of which can be seen here.

Here, in an exclusive interview with, general manager Stepane D'Astous discusses working with Japan on the trailer, the passion of the Deus Ex community, and the responsibility of the development team and their duty to help expand the franchise to a wider audience.

Q: How's the studio, am I right in thinking you're in your third year?

Stephane D-Astous: It's been three years now, we opened up in 2007. At the time Eidos wanted to open up a new studio and it wanted to have internal growth rather than an acquisition. So it was a fresh experience for most of us, to be part of something that was starting from scratch. It was my honour to be involved with building the studio from scratch. We opened in the summer of 2007 and now we consist of two development teams and a healthy QA department.

Q: And what size is the team?

Stephane D-Astous: It varies depending on the production cycle but the important thing for us is to attract the talent we wanted to have the development teams to be a manageable size. Some other dev teams in Montreal, for other studios, are very big. It's a unique-sized team for a triple-A effort and we can give them a longer production cycle. It's like putting a cake in the oven – if you put it at 700 degrees it won't bake faster. We like a realistic balance of staff.

Q: One of things that struck me about Montreal was the was sense of community, not just within one studio, but amongst all the talent in the region. That seems to be a real strength of the area.

Stephane D-Astous: It's one of the largest IGDA chapters in the world. It's a very close community and it's very open. People really talk in the sense that we're proud of where we're going and we want to share as much as possible within the boundaries of reason. The culture in Montreal is that the staff there are really here to produce triple-A games. Everything started with Ubisoft, then came ourselves, Electronic Arts and THQ has just announced a new business in Montreal. If publishers want to open a new studio, Montreal has a good critical mass of talent and people are really attracted to that. We get a lot of interest outside of Canada which leads to a lot of multi-nationality dev teams. The value of the Montreal is the varied nationality of the talent. I always say Montreal is in between the European mentality and culture, and the business approach of North America. This balance between two distinct cultures in one city is quite unique.

Q: What's you relationship like with the other Square Enix and Eidos studios and how closely do you work together?

Stephane D-Astous: When we started at Eidos Montreal we really felt like part of a family. Crystal Dynamics and IO Interactive, they have a great pedigree and it's been an honour to work with them. We do share a lot more than in my previous life with a previous publisher where it was very competitive between internal studios. At Eidos we said we aren't big enough to be pounding our chest but we can be a bigger business by combining out talents. We share data, we share technology, we share best practice. Every year we have an academy of experts and we bring the experts of each domain – AI, animation – and bring the best guys together for a week to share their experiences over the last 12 months. There's a lot of sharing between studios.

Q: Did you notice a distinct change to the studio culture when Square Enix took over the business?

Stephane D-Astous: Not in the day to day operations. Our Japanese colleague are very respectful of the cultures that are within Eidos. They're not the type to interfere. They're here to listen to what we've got to say. We're learning and sharing together and from each other. We feel more supported than ever.

Q: Eidos Montreal was the first studio to work directly with Square Enix on Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Can you talk us through that process?

Stephane D-Astous: It was about a year ago that we need to create our CGI trailers. Around June of last year we really got started on our concepts of the CGI trailer and we found the pitch of the concept and we needed to have someone produce it. At that time we were sure the guys in Japan were booked up for years and there was absolutely no way they could have done this for us. But we took a chance and made a call asking, "should we at least try to ask, it doesn't hurt to ask." We phoned Wada-san and he came over with some directors from Japan to hear our pitch. They flew for sixteen hours for the one meeting so I knew they were serious and we had to make it count. And obviously it worked and we have the beautiful trailer to show for it.

Q: What did you learn from working with Square Enix's CGI team on that?

Stephane D'Astous: Their dedication, their work habits and work ethics. These guys are true professionals, they know their business and a they rarely compromise the quality. That's truly what we want to do. It's something we all notice with Japan. It's the unconditional dedication.

Q: Is that going to carry on, those collaborations with Japan, and can you see that filtering out to other studios?

Stephane D'Astous: Very much. The other studios cottoned on and they've all been knocking at the door. I do know the people at Visual Works, the CGI studio, for them this was something they wanted in their portfolio to show their diversification. We need to identify our strengths and eventually I would hope that it's the goal of all of Eidos to be able to create a project that would hit all territories successfully and the hearts of the Americans, the Europeans and the Japanese. That's a big project, a big challenge. If it was easy everyone would be doing it and a lot of people have tried and failed. With Eidos and Square we must be in a position to succeed eventually. It's a great challenge, that's the long term desire, to be able to finds the formula if there is such a thing.

Q: How is the development of Deus Ex: Human Revolution coming along?

Stephane D'Astous: It's going very well, the team has had a tremendous traction in these past couple of months. I think when they saw the feedback from the fans about the trailer it was very good for them. They've been working with their heads down for two or three years and they need to be motivated with the that feedback. Our demo that we showed at E3 was a pre-alpha build and they're pleased with that because the code is very solid, it came together very well in the two to three months leading up to E3. E3 is good because it gives the team a focus before the final release. Things come together very well and we're very optimistic about the quality.

Q: Are you confident you can live up to the expectations people have for the series?

Stephane D'Astous: Every day and every week we're getting more and more confident. The resounding answers is yes. It's certainly going to be respectful to the franchise but the important thing is the fanbase will be very pleased. But our duty is also to introduce it to a larger audience without diluting the content. It's a fine line that we need to walk.

Q: How do you judge and juggle that history of the franchise and keep it fresh to present it to a new audience at the same time?

Stephane D'Astous: That's the true challenge of the team. At the concept phase they really took the time to replay the previous games and they are all really big fans. To put it in perspective, these games are ten years old and people are still playing them, still talking about them, there's till vibrant blogs and forums. Why? Because it brought something truly unique to games ten years ago. To introduce this to a wider audience the gameplay has to be a little bit more accessible. It's a fine balance of finding the right gameplay and the replayability. People invest a lot of money into videogames. When I play I want to be able to replay it with different options and see different experiences. A bit like the Fallout games. Fallout 3 was a true example of that. I've spoken to people who have finished it and had completely different experiences. That is something that has inspired us.

With Deus Ex: Human Revolution we had to change the design, the art direction and we had to create a new character, which was a big challenge. Eidos has always had a great history of characters – Lara Croft, Thief, Hitman. For Deus Ex that was a big responsibility for us.

Q: Speaking to Yoichi Wada, it's clear he sees the future of videogames to be in the online space – connectivity and social aspects. How does that filter down on a practical level? How do incorporate connectivity into a game that might be considered a hardcore, enclosed, single-player experience?

Stephane D'Astous: It has to be part of the game experience. If it's not compatible it doesn't work. We could do a lot of things but if it's artificial or done to tick a box it's not going to let people share their experiences, their feelings about the game. We need to let players share their emotions. When people play games they have a lot of feelings and passion and we need to find a medium to let them do that. We're working very closely to get to that phase. Players want to share with the core community but there is also different layers. We're focusing on the community and it's important for them be able to share experiences.

Q: I'm not sure if there's another medium that generates such a vocal and passionate response from consumers as games. Maybe it's because it's the newest form of media but it seems more passionate than music and film...

Stephane D'Astous: Last night we sat down with a table of ten people and we asked them if you were on a desert island what three games would you bring with you? And the discussion ran for hours and hours. If I'd asked for three movies or albums the discussion wouldn't have been as long. Games really brings something out of people.

Q: I have to ask you now, what would be your three games?

Stephane D'Astous: [laughs] They're very old and they're not in fashion right now but I love the Myst franchise. That really introduced me to a game about exploration and to really examine and explore everything and the beautiful world that could be created within a game. I also like car racing games because the experiences are much shorter, it's instant gratification and with the balance between arcade and simulation I like Forza. And then with an RPG and action combination, to truly invest myself for hours and hours, although I love Fallout 3 I would probably go for Mass Effect 2. Those games are very rich and full of story and character.

Stephane D'Astous is general manager of Eidos Montreal. Interview by Matt Martin.

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