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  • Postmortem: The Nameless Mod

    - Jonas Wver

  • 5. Our project is a PR nightmare

    The final and perhaps the hardest problem we faced was making people understand that our game wasn't shit. We'd spent a lot of time making sure that people wouldn't be alienated by our game and that we had plenty of depth and internal consistency to keep everybody interested, but we'd completely underestimated what a huge turn-off the basic idea of the mod was to so many people. Every site where we published our trailer, and every forum thread where people began to discuss the mod, one sentiment would immediately surface like a knee-jerk reflex: What an idiotic concept. Why would anybody spend seven years working on this fan-boy circle-jerk of a game?

    We were pretty crestfallen. We'd gone to such lengths to make sure TNM was a game, not just a joke, and many people wouldn't even give it a chance because they immediately assumed the worst. But to make matters worse, we came to realize that we'd frontloaded all the internet references, the fan culture and the memes and the in-jokes right in the first mission of the game.

    Part of this was unavoidable. The first mission served by necessity to introduce the player to our setting, so all the opaque references and internet semiotics were presented to you immediately. Once out of the first introductory hub area, the setting would quickly slip into the back seat to leave room for the plot itself, but too many people seemed to never reach it, having lost all interest long before then. Since The Nameless Mod is free to download, we have no demo, but in terms of convincing people to invest their time in playing through TNM, that introduction area is all we have, and it seems to be doing a rather poor job.

    Perhaps our greatest mistake was to tell people that The Nameless Mod was inspired by a real community that existed on the internet at one point in time. I suspect people in general would be a lot more susceptible to our quirky cyberspace setting if they thought we'd just invented it as a Snow Crash-esque sci-fi take on the internet, because then they wouldn't associate us with the reviled genre of "forum fan fiction" to begin with, and once playing the game, they wouldn't be expecting in-jokes everywhere. Much of the feedback we've received has implied that people constantly see in-jokes and obscure references when by far most of the game's fiction was either invented specifically to suit the plot or the setting or twisted so far out of its original shape that it no longer bears any resemblance to the events or the people it was inspired by.

    A well-known games journalist graciously defending our concept wrote: "no wonder everyone makes games with space marines being gruff". I'd like to think people are generally open to new concepts, but I'll admit that our premise and our setting do us no favors. Not, however, because TNM is too weird -- there have been many successful games far stranger than The Nameless Mod and our world is quite recognizable when it comes down to it. But at the same time it reminds people of a genre of fiction that is almost never executed well. If we'd managed to set ourselves further apart from that genre with all the PR material we sent out, and if we'd done more to change people's expectations before firing up the game, I think we'd had a much easier sell.

    One of our design tenets was that every mission should have some sort of gimmick or setpiece to set them apart from each other. For example, our final mission takes place on a space station, leading to much new oxygen- or zero-gravity-related gameplay.

    In Closing

    In some ways, The Nameless Mod is a triumph for Agile development and iterative design processes. Not only did we learn how to make the game we were trying to make, we learned almost everything we now know about game development and project management. We learned these things by trial and error, and our errors pushed us to seek out the information we needed and apply it to our own work.

    It's unfortunate that we wasted so much time messing up and making bad design decisions. Part of this was because we didn't manage feature creep as well as we could have, and part of it was because we got carried away with perfectionism, constantly recreating old assets to match our new standards. If we'd known what we were doing right from the start, TNM could probably have been released in 2006.

    It's been an incredible project though, and it's changed some of our lives substantially. I think we ultimately came out on top of most of our mistakes, and we're very excited to move on to the next challenge. With all the feedback we've received on The Nameless Mod, hopefully we won't repeat any of the mistakes we've made. And now we have this post-mortem to help us remember them.


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