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"Our player base was absolutely not ready for this"

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided developer Fleur Marty details the strengths and shortcomings of the microtransaction-driven game mode Breach

In 2014, Eidos Montreal formed a Deus Ex Live team and entrusted them with handling everything for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided that wasn't part of the core single-player narrative game. Originally, that "everything" was supposed to encompass some downloadable content and some basic challenge maps that would remix various levels in the game with new objectives, but it ballooned into something considerably larger, and more daring for the Deus Ex universe. In a presentation at the Game Developers Conference today, Eidos Montreal producer Fleur Marty explained how her Live Team took that assignment and turned it into Breach, a new game mode that would eventually be spun off into its own free-to-play game.

When the Live Team was formed, it operated within some daunting constraints. At the time, there was just a year left before the game's expected ship date, and the relatively small group of developers weren't given much budgetary support, so they couldn't outsource work to speed things up. Despite that, Marty said the team was ambitious. After some tooling around on the challenge maps assignment they had been given, the team determined they weren't very fun. They wanted to try something more interesting, as well as something better tied into the game's narrative setting, particularly the idea of hacking.

Fortunately, they were left to operate in those early months with very little oversight, so without really telling anyone, they abandoned the challenge maps idea and set about fleshing out their ideas for Breach mode. The plan was to make the best argument they could before the higher ups checked in too closely, fleshing the idea out enough that they could present a concrete plan and prototype of the mode that would prove it out as a better idea than the challenge maps.

The prototype worked, and within three months of the team's formation, it had produced a first playable version of the mode that convinced executives to give them the greenlight and devote more resources to Breach. They needed help, but they couldn't go crazy with new hires, so Marty said they needed generalists. In a AAA industry full of specialists, she was trying to find a team full of Swiss Army Knives to work on secondary content instead of the more glamorous core game. That made it harder to assemble the team, but Marty said it ultimately wound up helping, because the people who did sign on chose to do it because they were passionate about the idea. The small team size also allowed them to gel quicker and create a fleshed out experience on a tight timeline.

While Breach is set in the Deus Ex universe, the many differences between it and the main game show just how flexible a franchise can be. In Breach, players aren't controlling Adam Jensen but a generic hacker. The mode also has leaderboards and a competitive element that doesn't exist in single player. It has a data extraction mechanic not seen in Mankind Divided's single-player mode, and it even looks quite different. That said, it does share the Deus Ex staple of giving players multiple paths and playstyles to achieve their objectives, although even those are handled differently.

In the main game, each level can accommodate combat, stealth, or hacking approaches more or less equally. In Breach, each level is a server belonging to one of three corporations, and each corporation has its own distinct style of level and defensive mechanisms that lends itself to a certain type of playthrough. It's possible to take the same approach to every level, but in order to rank competitively, players will need to adapt their strategies to beat each level in optimal fashion.

That's just one way the Live Team used Breach to encourage players to try different approaches. The more players use an approach--be it combat, stealth, or hacking--the better the enemy's defenses against that approach become. Players can use expendable items to downgrade the enemy defenses again, or they can alter their approach to reset the difficulty level. Randomized weapon drops are also designed to incentivize trying new things. Finally, the mode has two leaderboards, one based on score and one based on time. Speedrunning levels works well for time, of course, but players can rack up higher scores by combing through levels completing every last objective. Again, Marty said they wanted to push players out of their comfort zone and encourage them to try new ways of playing the game.

At the same time, the devs wanted to keep the Deus Ex pillar of choice and consequences, which they introduced with "patches," a number of consumable modifiers to a players level score with conditions attached. For example, a patch might give players a 33% score boost if they go through a level using only the basic pistol. They can fail the patch without failing the level, but the patch is consumed with no benefit and they'll need to earn another before they can try that again. There's also a limited inventory space for weapons, healing items, and the like, but players can sacrifice inventory slots for other upgrades to their abilities.

Visually, Breach offers a different take on the Deus Ex universe, and it goes beyond replacing human adversaries with more robotic computer defense systems. Marty said that Eidos' Deus Ex franchise bible has essentially banned the use of pink, purple, and fuscia. There is one character in the Deus Ex universe who wears purple, but there is a specific storyline purpose for having her appear different from other characters. Beyond that, those are forbidden colors. However, the Breach team wanted to differentiate the mode by using purple as a key recurring color.

Despite all that, the single most noticeable change was in Breach's use of microtransactions. Marty said during the creation of Breach, the developers were acutely aware that players will have already spent plenty of money on Mankind Divided and that adding in any additional monetization had to be handled carefully. Players would be infuriated by any hint of pay-to-win game design, but at the same time, the most commonly accepted form of monetization that doesn't affect gameplay--vanity customizations for player characters--didn't seem as compelling an offering for the player given that Breach is an asynchronous multiplayer mode where you don't see other players. They ultimately decided to include some vanity items in the form of skins for player characters, and also offered premium weapons that could be more powerful than the standard weapons, but also may have had quirks. For example, there was one premium sniper rifle with a very powerful shot, but it also had a blocked scope so players could only use it to shoot from the hip.

Marty said the team agonized over the monetization, frequently engaging in heated debates about what would be crossing the line for their player base. When in doubt, they defaulted to being less aggressive with the monetization. In the end, Marty decided that was probably a waste of energy.

"No matter how careful, how respectful we tried to be in our economy design, what we really didn't foresee is that our player base was absolutely not ready for this. And while the critical reception for Breach from the press was really good and we didn't hide the monetization from them, the simple presence of real money transactions in the game created an unforeseen outrage among our players. And it completely overshadowed everything else."

Marty said things probably would have been different if Breach had been introduced as a stand-alone free-to-play game in the Deus Ex universe, but as a game mode offered as part of a full price game, the monetization was a deal-breaker for a big majority of players.

"I am extremely proud of the work the team has done with Breach, and I truly believe we proved we could take the core DNA of the franchise and make something extremely innovative and different without betraying it. The only issue is that the business model was not ready to be experimented with."