Eidos Montreal takes on ambitious projects, Thief 4 and Deux Ex 3

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      Eidos announced on May 11 that its Montreal studio was developing Thief 4, the highly anticipated follow-up in the acclaimed franchise that made stealth a video-game strategy. This is the second game in development for the Montreal shop that opened in 2007. The first, Deux Ex 3, is part of just as acclaimed a franchise and is just as highly anticipated.

      The pressure’s on, it seems, for Eidos Montreal. The studio, which was opened by general manager Stephane D’Astous in February 2007, was staffed up and working by May. The shop moved into its permanent offices in October, already hard at work on its first game.

      “Right now we have a very good grasp on Deus Ex,” D’Astous told me in an interview at the Vancouver Convention Centre the day after the Thief 4 announcement. D’Astous was in town to attend the inaugural Game Developers Conference Canada and did not try to hide his excitement about his studio’s first two projects, even as he admitted that working on both the Deus Ex and Thief franchises was ambitious.

      The development teams have already established forums to solicit audience feedback. The designers are asking gamers to share what they’ve liked and what they haven’t liked about the earlier games in the Deus Ex and Thief franchises, and what they would like to see in the new games. Said D’Astous, “I want my guys to read what the fans are telling them.”

      D’Astous, who spent time as an industrial designer at the Quebec-based aerospace and transportation company Bombardier and supervised the development of flight simulators, started working at Ubisoft Montreal in 2003 when the company had 450 employees. His title was director of operations and project management, and his job description was “to reach 2,000 people as soon as possible without losing control”.

      It was an interesting time at Ubisoft Montreal. With a mandate to grow so dramatically and so quickly, it required creative strategies for recruiting people from other industries and walks of life.

      “When you need to quadruple your size in a short time frame,” D’Astous explained, “you need to take risks.” At that time, the list of management-level candidates with experience working on AAA video games was short. D’Astous widened his field of search for candidates and refined his filtering and interview techniques, and was pleased to have recruited as many qualified and talented people as he did.

      I jokingly asked D’Astous how many of those people followed him from Ubisoft to Eidos, and he laughed. He said that the titles being worked on are so appealing that “people were knocking at the door, ready to drop anything they were working on to join the team”.

      In addition to the two development teams, D’Astous is responsible for Eidos’s quality assurance team, which was moved to Eidos Montreal last year. The major Eidos franchises—Batman, Tomb Raider, Just Cause—are now being tested at the Montreal facility.

      D’Astous admitted that the decision to move the QA department from London, England, to Montreal was, in part, influenced by tax incentives provided by the Quebec government. But, he said, saying that the tax incentives were the only reason is oversimplifying the situation. The real estate and operational costs in Montreal are also, he said, lower than anywhere else.

      While the projects being developed at Eidos Montreal have only recently been confirmed, D’Astous said that the studio opened with the goal that its first two games would be Deus Ex 3 and Thief 4.

      “Our business plan, in a nutshell, was to reach 350 people within three years,” he said. Essentially, that’s adding a development team every year.

      Which begs the question as to what its third game is going to be. D’Astous said that he hopes to announce the third title by the end of the year. “Initially it was supposed to be an original IP,” he said. A second option is to take on another property in the Eidos portfolio. A third option is to take on development of a project for Japanese game publisher Square Enix, which just completed an acquisition of Eidos.

      D’Astous said that his team at Eidos Montreal hasn’t been working on ideas for an original IP, but if they decide the third project will be original, he’ll hire a core team to generate ideas. Developing games from new intellectual properties is supported by a recent restructuring within Eidos, said D’Astous.

      A new position of chief content officer was created to oversee the generation of new game concepts throughout the company. The job of the CCO, said D’Astous, is to collect ideas from all the studios and decide which of the ideas will received funding to be developed into prototypes. The current CCO has asked all studios to be prepared to pitch at least two new ideas every year.

      The restructuring at Eidos, D’Astous explained, has also given the individual studios more autonomy. “We’re taking more responsibility,” he said. Before, once studios had completed development on a project, they handed off a master disk and moved on to the next project. Now, marketing and promotion for products is done by the studio that created the game.

      How this will change now that Square Enix owns Eidos is not clear, but D’Astous is sure that the development cultures can learn from each other.

      As for Deus Ex 3 and Thief 4, D’Astous is equally sure that his development teams are equal to the challenge. “I have a talented senior staff that understand the franchises, want to bring something new to the table...while also respecting the old fan base.”

      D’Astous has structured his development teams so that they are smaller in size with longer cycles of production, something he said is an advantage. “We have a team that is human-sized, and we’ll give them sufficient time to do their work and to reach the full potential of the game.

      “We only have one chance to properly make the next Deus Ex,” said D’Astous. “And the expectations are high.”