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  • Postmortem: The Nameless Mod

    - Jonas Wver

  • The Production

    Initial development was incredibly chaotic. We had no well-defined team structure and no communication infrastructure to coordinate our work. Level designers began to build maps before the plot had been written, characters were created based on the online personas of the forum users and were then written into the story afterwards, and weapons and items were constructed on the basis of a cool idea with no thought as to how they would fit into the game. The design documents were retroactively written around game assets that were already being created, taking input from everybody on the development team and anybody else who cared to contribute on the forums.

    Over the course of several years, we gradually got a handle on the project. By trial and error, we worked out a sane workflow and a reasonable team hierarchy, established reliable communication channels, and developed a solid understanding of our own project and the game it was based on.

    The amount of information we supplied our level designers with varied a lot depending on how much faith we had in their design skills. One of our designers was a professional, so we just sent him this MS Paint schematic illustrating the structure of the mission and its primary objectives.

    Whether by natural evolution or a lack of imagination, our final team structure was very flat, with our producer Lawrence Laxdal and myself functioning as the intersections of all communication. We became more demanding of our contributors and learned to quickly let go of anybody who didn't keep their promises. Moreover, we all became better at our respective crafts. Though this was a benefit for obvious reasons, in terms of scheduling, our perfectionism proved to be a problem. We estimate that 90% of everything we created in the first 2 years was later replaced, redone, or removed as our skills improved and we saw the flaws in our previous work.

    When almost all our level assets were completed and we had a playable alpha, we took a good hard look at what we had done and what we still needed to do, and then we began to cut down on the feature creep. We've almost regarded feature creep as a form of currency with which we've paid our team -- for every hour somebody has contributed towards finishing the game, we had to let them spend X amount of time working on their own pet features. As the project neared completion, we reduced X until the project entered feature lockdown around the summer of 2008. By this time, only the most dedicated team members were left.

    The final stage of production was dialogue audio and quality assurance. The process of recording the over 195,000 words of dialogue in TNM began several years before release and is notable for making use of a large amount of professional or semi-professional voice-over artists who contributed entirely for free. For this enormous project, we created an online database system which kept track of every character in the game, every conversation node attached to that character, each character's actor, the status of their lines, and which of our audio engineers was working on them or had worked on them.

    Early on, we recruited somebody specifically to oversee the voice-over process, and towards the last phase of the project, Lawrence and I ended up spending most of our time helping out as well. We always knew the large amount of volunteers would be a liability to the time frame of the project, but in the end we managed to wrap up the recording process about a month before we were finished with QA, much to our surprise. Three release candidates later, The Nameless Mod was finished.

    What Went Right

    1. Designing for the niche

    It took us far longer than it should have, but we eventually figured out how Deus Ex worked, what made it great, and what we had to do to maintain its core gameplay. We made the decision early on to stay loyal to the original game; Deus Ex was very well designed and had a clear high-level vision, and understanding the design principles behind the original game allowed us to support and polish the existing gameplay and create a new setting and plot reflecting, but not imitating, Deus Ex's.

    Judging from how TNM has been received, this was definitely the right choice. When developing a mod (or, one would imagine, an expansion pack or a piece of downloadable content or similar), it's a safe bet that the people who will be interested in your product are the hard core fans, and so it's not a bad idea to design your game for them. With this in mind, TNM had more freedom than Deus Ex and significantly more replayability. It also had a greater emphasis on role-playing, more long-term choice and consequence, and was a lot more difficult. None of these features help when it comes to accessibility, but to people who already knew Deus Ex's gameplay well, our design seems to have hit the sweet spot.

    Furthermore, most of our design choices were aimed at tipping the balance of the gameplay elements further towards role-playing and adventure dynamics: Talking to NPCs who react to your play style, making long-lasting choices, exploring large and detailed environments, tackling problems with thorough use of your character's skills and abilities, etc. In other words, exactly what many role-playing fans seem to feel is missing from more commercially viable RPGs. It was obvious that people wanted more Deus Ex, and I believe we succeeded in delivering that, while adding our own stamp of uniqueness to the experience.


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