'No Bullshit': The Management Style Behind Deus Ex: HR's Success

By Christian Nutt

For Stéphane D'Astous, the general manager of Eidos Montreal, a lot has changed in the last five years. Gamasutra toured the studio in 2007 after its founding, and spoke to D'Astous about his undertaking.

"One of the challenges was to find a place where we could grow three ways," said D'Astous back then. "With that in mind we have the whole floor here for us. Right now we're only using 60 percent of the floor, but by next summer we'll occupy it completely. At this stage we have 150 people. Stage two we'll have 250 people, and in stage 3, about December 2009, we should be 350 people."

As he discusses in this new interview, that went to plan. So did the studio's plan to reboot the Deus Ex franchise with Human Revolution, which launched last August. Eidos Montreal is now at three teams and 450 people, which is where D'Astous plans to cap things, as to preserve the culture he has built.

In this interview, D'Astous talks about growing the studio, revitalizing old franchises, working with management, the Montreal development scene, and how he hopes to tackle the next generation of consoles head-on.

Your studio just had its fifth anniversary.

SD: It really started with nothing, and that's the beauty. The challenge that I embraced is to build a studio from scratch. The initial mandate was about 350 employees, three projects, bringing the QA department to Montreal -- and that was basically my job description.

But in retrospect, now, we're really proud of what we've accomplished, because a lot of big studios that were built from scratch, you don't see much of them. People acquire existing studios with maybe a couple hundred people.

But starting from scratch, Montreal seems to be a little bit more possible to do that, because we were the fourth studio in Montreal, back then, and now we're at seven major studios.ret

I think not a lot of people realize what it takes in this very competitive, very fast-moving industry, to build something from the ground up. And having a very high quality bar, too, as an objective. And I think the goal was to do one step at a time or else you just get too intimidated. So it's like climbing a mountain; you just do it one step at a time.

You said the original goal was to do three projects.

SD: Yeah.

Do you have three projects now?

SD: Yep. Yeah, in fact yeah, the two first projects were pretty much set in stone in the very early beginnings: Deus Ex and Thief. We had some discussions about which one we should start with, but I think the consensus was Deus Ex, and follow up with Thief. Third project was always an open option for us. We didn't want to set in stone too many years in advance.

So we knew our challenges as for projects. Maybe we were a little bit innocent in saying, "Yeah, we'll do that." But people around the studio said, "You're starting with what?" You know, "You said what?" Also with the community, the fan base, were saying, "Oh, Deus Ex is being done by a team other than Warren's team, and Looking Glass, and Ion Storm?" We had some headwind in our face for a couple of years, and we knew that we needed to really address that, because we didn't want to start with a strike, so we really did our homework.

We totally respected the franchise. If you don't respect the franchise to start with, and you say, "No, no, we'll do it with our flavor," and all that... The guys really took time to understand what worked well in the first and second.

Over the course of this generation, the definition of a console game has changed. You see bigger and bigger blockbusters at the top end, and downloadable games at the bottom. It's stratifying, and the competition is getting very fierce at the top. How do you feel about that, and what it takes to compete at the top end?

SD: The entry-level bar is going up every day. Obviously, especially, with what's coming in the near future, the entry-level is going to certainly go higher and higher.

So what I think is really important to make sure that we're able to play with the big guys is to have a solid understanding of what we want to do, and how we can accomplish it, with a good headquarters. The headquarters needs to have an understanding of what you're trying to do, which I think Square -- and previously Eidos -- understands.

I think we're well-equipped. Square is two billion revenue per year, and we're quite conservative in cash, so we keep a lot of cash in bank just to make sure that what we want to support, we're able to support well.

Other companies right now, they're going through little rough patches. I don't want to name one, but this is exactly what we had three years ago, before the Square Enix acquisition of Eidos. And those guys, I don't know how they're going to go through that storm.

So yes, more money is going to be made by fewer games, and that can be scary, a bit, but if you believe that what will sell is a strong experience, quality has to be their value. I think the elimination will be done naturally.

I think we're well-positioned to be able to deliver that. We hit [our goals], and that is a sign that we have good people on board, good support, good tools, good methodology. My goal is to align all these factors to be able to deliver the end result.

So yes, there are going to be fewer people doing games, making money. There's going to be fewer people, maybe, in the triple-A [space] because, as you say, you need now to be extremely well-crafted to hope to make money. So I guess there's going to be a natural elimination of some.

It's a little bit like in any industry. When things are tougher, you cannot improvise, and for the publishers and game studios that are improvising, it's going to be a rough road. And I think we're doing our homework to make sure that we improvise as little as possible.


Are you worried about creative stagnation in triple-A games as people become more risk-averse?

SD: That's a good point. I think that three, four years ago, everybody was saying "Are the consumers going to always buy sequels?" It's something they know of, and they extremely trust, and we were starting to be afraid of seeing the stagnation of ideas and new IPs. And the buzzword I remember at EA three, four years, is a "we need to spit out three new IPs per year" kind of thing. It was a buzzword.

I think people now understand... In our case, maybe we haven't produced new IPs, but a major relaunch of a title like Deus Ex and Thief, we considered it almost like a new IP, certainly in the effort. So we bring back something from the cult classics.

This is maybe not considered new IP, but it brings a new flavor. Games are more and more sophisticated; it's less based on one or two mechanics. I think this replaces the necessity of having new IPs. The buzzword of "new IP, new IP, new IP," I have heard less, because the sequels are selling so well these days. Last year I think was the year of the threes: Deus Ex 3, Gears 3...

Modern Warfare 3.

SD: Modern Warfare 3, and Mass Effect 3, and Assassin's [Creed] III and Far Cry 3. So that's a good question, I think. Innovation and ideas are important, but if you're able to bring forward an existing IP to bring new types of experiences, I think people will buy them, because they know they can relate to a franchise they've played before.

And they say, "Well, if they bring something a little bit good and new," it's a little bit easier for them to cross this bridge. But obviously to have a regular new IP within a group of publishers is always important, but it's tough.

And new IP isn't the only way to introduce new ideas into franchises, either. I think that's what you were trying to do with Deus Ex, to some extent.

SD: Yep.

Is that where you look for creative opportunities?

SD: Yeah. Well, especially, if we concentrate on our two first games, we need to bring these classics into a new light, so people can be attracted to try them again. And it's certainly quite a challenge. So yes -- more of the same, I think people will hit a wall, if they do that. More of the same in any industry might seem attractive, because you reduce costs, and you just have a lower breakeven, but that is a short-term vision, and Square, I must say, has a very long-term vision for management of IPs.

Does the Square management and vision come from Tokyo? Does it come from Europe?

SD: People are really curious to see. The question that is often asked [is] "Have you seen a change since Square Enix [acquired Eidos]?" The honest truth of that is they realize that by taking us under their wing, they knew that we were doing a lot of good stuff, so they fully respected [that]. It's a partnership, more than a father and a son kind of relationship, so they let us really do our stuff. They don't intervene at a micro level, and I report directly to Phil Rogers, who's the CEO of Square Enix Europe.

I would say my day-to-day relationship between both headquarters is maybe 90 percent with Phil, and sometimes with Tokyo. But Phil really takes care of the interface of the information of the studios back to Tokyo. It's a good way to do things, because regular feedback comes through the same person. And Phil totally understands our reality, so for me, it makes my job a little bit easier. Maybe a little bit more reporting, but that's expected.

So they really respected us, and in the first year, just to show you how courteous they were, I think every month we had visitors from Tokyo coming to see an exchange on the tech side, HR, IT, creative, so at least they were really sincere in sharing, and to learn more, [rather] than "You do this, you do that."


Square Enix Montreal is also opening. It's interesting that there was a decision made, rather than expand Eidos Montreal, to open up as Square Enix Montreal.

SD: Yeah. Because when we were playing with the idea of expanding in Canada -- that was my other mandate. When they called me up maybe 16 months ago, they wanted to increase their footprint in Canada. They said, "Can you go see the different options, and come back with a recommendation?" So obviously I knew the Montreal situation, and I went to Toronto, and to Vancouver, did my homework on the people, on the government, and the industry.

And not because I am from Montreal, but I think Montreal did show the best option. And once we decided to go to Montreal, did we want to grow everything under the same umbrella? I recommended to not take a factory plant kind of approach.

Obviously, in Montreal, there's a very big studio, and a lot of people left that studio for our studio because we exactly said that we didn't want to become this big, big gorilla.

Because the 350 [employee] mandate was accomplished, we didn't want to turn around to our employees and say, "Okay, well now, the situation has changed. We'll be 700." And so I needed to respect what we were saying to our employees.

And so I think now, we will have a cap at 450, which is great for me. I think it's a good-size studio that can do a lot of different things, and have a brother studio, have them concentrate on a super franchise. [Ed. note: Square Enix Montreal will be concentrating on the Hitman franchise.]

And we'll be helping them in the backstage kind of things, all the admin. So we'll help them on finance, IT, and HR. So this reduces the risk, avoids duplication. We didn't want to have to duplicate everything. That would be nonsense.

But that studio, Lee [Singleton] and the guys, their personality will show within the studio. It won't be just an extension. Because one of our important values in management in our studio is to keep a human scale, a human approach to management, and you can do that up to a certain extent. And afterwards, when the mass gets too big, you're lying to yourself, basically. We can be attracted to the economy of scale, and all that, but you need to keep true to your values, and I think that's a clear sign that we want to respect that.

I mean, I have all the admiration for studios that are doing great triple-As with not-humongous teams. Rocksteady did great games with less than a hundred people. Bethesda, they do great games, but they don't need to ramp up to large numbers. And I really admire that, and I think that's the way to do it, but there are other companies, other publishers, that have more means to do huge things. Sometimes, it works. Not always, but it works.

Is it about the culture? If you get too big, you can't have a studio culture any more, a sense of what you do, who you are?

SD: Well, when I was at Ubi, for almost four years, I was exactly at that point when we [went from] a midsize studio to a very large studio. I came in at Ubi, we were 450, and when I left, we were 1,450, and that scale came in three years. And I, and everybody -- well not "everybody" -- a lot of people -- noticed that there wasn't the same type of company back then, and it lost a bit of certain things, and we want to avoid that. It's funny, because the other studios that have opened up after us had quite the same model that we put forward.

People like to feel like they're part of something, and it's hard to do that once things get monolithic, right?

SD: I don't know how many times I heard people say "[I want to] feel that I can make a difference, in the sense that I'm part of a team, and I want to be heard when I speak." And you can't do that when the scale is just too big. So it's really important to listen. And everybody has tried to bake a cake at 700 degrees. It doesn't work. It doesn't work. We've all tried that.

Mary DeMarle gave a speech at GDC Online about the writing of Deus Ex, saying that everyone on the team, at some point in the game, was brought into the story process. So even if they're making props, they could understand the overarching goal of what the team was making, and get context and thus understand, and appreciate, what they were doing.

I think with big teams, people can lose sight of what they're actually making. You get bogged down on one piece. From that, big games can feel really piecemeal. You can see the divisions between things.

SD: Yeah, totally. I'm playing a couple of games, and I said, "Oh, this is a different game level designer that did this, because there's a big seam, somewhere." And with smaller games, you need to have more multitasking people. They need to touch more, because you don't have super-specialists that just do certain tasks.

They like to not do just one single thing during three years. I think we're trying to put into place the better conditions for craftsmanship, because the games that I personally enjoy, I see the quality of how they assemble all this together, and -- for me, anyway -- that's something, really, that distinguishes yourself between a regular product, and a great product. And smaller teams are better positioned to do that.


Do you feel strongly about development of people's skill sets and careers? You're talking about people not being in one pigeonhole, of people working and being creatively satisfied.

SD: I think the profile of people that we recruit -- on Deus Ex, we were able to recruit a lot of senior people. Senior people like to work on smaller teams, and touch more on different things. Obviously, the reality is that we won't be able to recruit as many seniors as we did initially, because there are other studios and all that, so we're faced in front of a different situation.

But I think we want to recruit people, and again this is not news to you, but it's the passion behind them, and their commitment, and talent. These three things, I guess all studios want to do that, but I think they need to commit to our mission, to what we want to do.

I've refused a couple of guys that had very nice portfolios, great track records, but their heads couldn't fit through the door. And that doesn't work at our place. We want to have people level-headed. I'm ready to take risks on juniors, because sometimes they really surprise us positively, and to give them a chance is maybe the best decision we can do. It's a favor for them, and for you.

Yes, we have a system of mentoring, and we truly believe in internal promotion. We really look in our ranks before looking outside. Obviously, we need to do both, but we really need to have a career path for people, because people in our industry are young and ambitious, and they don't want to be put in the same job for too long. We need to keep them active. It's always a challenge in management, because you cannot promote everyone, obviously. You need to promote the good one at the right time.

Human management in the gaming industry is certainly not well understood, I think. It's quite a challenge. You have young educated people, mostly independent, they feel there's more demand than offers. It's certainly a good market for the young employees, and I think the studio has to brand its studio, and its products, to be able to attract them.

So, openness -- to be frank, one of our values is "no bullshit." I wouldn't put it on our website, but internally, it's, "let's not bullshit." An example: in my previous life, I had a schedule on my desk which was different from the schedule that was posted on the production board, and the reason behind the intent was "let them run hard." Once they are finally at the stage of, "Oh no!", we have six more months.

But this is so frustrating for the other people. This is a killer. It works once or twice, but afterwards the senior people, they lose confidence in the management. So my schedule is the same one that is posted on the wall, and that you update.

You get respect, and people know, "Okay, he has confidence in telling us the truth, so I'd better get my gear together. Let's do it." Because they know that in three months, we won't change these parameters. It seems simple, again, but so many studios, I see double-speeches. It doesn't work; not for us, anyway.

You seem satisfied with where you've gotten in five years, but it still seems like you also are aware that you can't just rest on your laurels.

SD: Not for one second. I was quite satisfied before I was asked to look into enlarging the footprint in Canada. I was starting to see a little bit more stability that we've built in three different phases. And I was glad to start now working a bit closer with the dev cycle guys.

But now, with this? Now we've opened a hundred new seats in our studio; half of them are already filled. And I think now my concern, my goal, is to be a bit more predictive in production. Again, it's difficult, because we'll have several projects, and it's not good to have three games ready in the same year.

You need to have a regular flow, and it needs to fit the corporate portfolio release. So ultimately this is something... On paper, everything looks nice. "Okay, you ramp up, you ramp down. There. You did it." It fits on a piece of paper; it looks perfect. But there's extra time, and we're glad that we took that decision [to delay Deus Ex], obviously; I think the consumers are glad.

We need to, but with what's coming up in the next few years, it's going to be even more difficult to predict. So my goals are going to be quite high -- to be constant, as much as possible. To be predictable. To not have big surprises, good or bad. I don't like, necessarily, surprises -- especially the bad ones. So I need to keep my people busy on the right projects, at the right time, and with the studio at 450, it's quite an important responsibility to have this goal.

It's not going to be easy, for sure. But that's certainly to make the most out of the studio, for the future years, and to be well-positioned for the next-gen, because you want to be there early, obviously. That is a goal for all publishers, to be early in the cycle, so you may benefit from the cycle. And Eidos, in the past, wasn't too good at that. They came out left and right, and now we're working very hard, the other studios -- Phil and everyone -- to really have a strong presence, and a strategy for the early goings-on of that. So that's certainly quite challenging, also.

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