[While The Nameless mod was not designed as part of a school project, many game-oriented university programs now require their students to produce mods of popular games. What can you learn from one of the most interesting total conversions out there -- of the legendary Deus Ex, no less? Read on...]
If we'd known what we were getting ourselves into, we'd have run away screaming. The Nameless Mod for Deus Ex stands out for a couple of reasons. First of all, the game, for which screenshots and videos are available on our site, a single-player total conversion, which isn't the easiest or most popular category of modification on the internet.
Secondly, it's enormous: The Nameless Mod features over 14 hours of voice-over, the average length of a playthrough is 15 hours, and that's just playing one of two significantly different, mutually exclusive plotlines. Third, and arguably most notably, The Nameless Mod has been finished and released to very favorable reviews.
The project, which is freely downloadable , and playable if you own a copy of Deus Ex, was in development for seven years, two months, and 11 days by an international team of hobbyists who never met each other. It placed enormous demands on communication, leadership, and quality assurance, and to top it all off, it started as that most reviled of genres: forum fan fiction.
The Back Story
The Nameless Mod for Deus Ex, released nine years after Ion Storm's magnum opus, strives to reproduce the multilinear design and unique aesthetics that made Deus Ex such a widely beloved classic.
While expanding on Deus Ex's core gameplay, the Nameless Mod also introduces players to an outrageous new world which is at once an homage to, and a satire of Deus Ex, its community, and the internet at large. Playing as Trestkon, a respected veteran returning to his old internet forum, the player is charged with investigating an apparent abduction that takes him deep into the history and politics of the community.
Release date: March 15, 2009.
Genre: first-person action/role-playing game; cyberpunk spy thriller; pop culture satire.
Core team size: 1 producer, 1 lead designer, 1 dialogue manager, 2 programmers, 5 level designers, 1 3D artist, 4 2D artists, 1 sound designer, and 3 composers.
Additional contributors: 4 programmers, 6 level designers, 6 2D artists, 4 writers, 6 sound designers, 5 composers, 23 testers, and 74 voice actors.
Length of development: 7 years, 2 months, and 11 days from conception to release.
Notable technologies: Unreal Engine 1 and the Deus Ex SDK including UnrealEd and Ion Storm's ConEdit. One of our programmers added OGG music support.
I would be lying if I said we had a game of TNM's final scope in mind when we started out in January 2002. We were originally planning a single "fan-mission" -- one or two maps connected by a simple, quickly grasped plot, with the twist that the characters in the mission would be based on the users of GameSpy's PlanetDeusEx forums where the team was formed. It was a premise that betrayed our low expectations for the size of the audience we would be able to reach: we were just making this for our own community.
However, the self-indulgent concept turned out to be a huge help in attracting qualified help. Everybody who joined got to be a character in the story, and who doesn't want to see themselves in a game? As the team grew, the scope of the project slowly grew as well, and the concept was expanded. We decided to take it even further, making the plot actually take place on the forums, in a virtual world inspired by the stories and the imaginary spaces we'd created for each other.
The most central part of the concept was never actually discussed nor given thought for the first large part of development -- it was a given, an unspoken rule that we all agreed upon: we would remain loyal to the original Deus Ex gameplay. Unfortunately our project initially suffered from a lack of conscious design. As we didn't have a lead designer until a couple of years into the project (I was a dedicated writer to begin with), we had nobody responsible for analyzing and recreating Deus Ex's gameplay, which is why our initial designs missed the mark in several important ways.
Our first concept was designed to be one very large hub level with complete freedom to move to the connected maps and handle the missions in any order. A prototype of the hub map revealed several problems with the single-hub structure, greatest of which was Deus Ex's old Unreal Engine 1 and its hard limit on level size.
Through four revisions of the first design, we eventually settled on a design more closely matching Deus Ex's own structure: A largely linear plot with branches and variations along the way, taking you through several hub levels. Unlike Deus Ex, however, we chose to branch the main plot into two parallel storylines early on.
We also chose to connect our three hub maps and distribute the missions across them all so the player could move freely throughout the game world with a single "point of no return" about half-way, giving us an opportunity to reset the game world and move time forward to show the effects of some of the player's actions. The result of these decisions was a game structured much like Deus Ex, but with far more freedom for the player to change the plot and far more optional content, but also a significantly shorter critical path.