Interview: Off Topic On The Nameless Mod

By Quintin Smith on November 26th, 2009 at 4:24 pm.


Earlier in the week we had a look at The Nameless Mod for Deus Ex, which was announced complete a few days ago following seven years in development. Here we chat to Chief Creative Officer Jonas Wæver of Off Topic Productions about how you create one of the largest mods ever made, why you’d set it in a virtual messageboard and how to deal with the Dunce Gamers’ League.


RPS: You’re Creative Officer of Off Topic Productions. What does that mean?

Jonas: It’s just a fancy word for Game Designer. When we became a company we joked about giving everybody a Chief Officer title. I’m the lead designer on our projects, which on TNM meant keeping track of the documentation, writing the story and dialogue, bothering everybody on MSN and Skype every day, making sure they were working on the project, and taking over when people left the team without finishing what they were doing.

RPS: For seven years? How on Earth do you keep an unpaid team working for seven years?

Jonas: You pretty much don’t. You get people to commit to delivering certain things, such as the lit and textured geometry for a particular level, and then if they actually make good on that you see if they’re willing to volunteer for another piece of work. A lot of the time people will give up and leave you with a half-finished level, and then you try to find somebody to take over or do it yourself. Certain team members (which we called the core team) would stick with us to the end, but since it was a hobby project everybody worked in phases, including me. You’ll work hard for a couple of months and then it’s exam time at university or crunch time at work and you have to take some time off the mod for a bit.

Happily, if you’ve got a couple of really dedicated team members, they tend to inspire the rest of the team to put in a bit more time as well. While over 50 people worked on The Nameless Mod, not counting the voice actors, I really should mention our producer Lawrence Laxdal who kept me from killing half the team and vice versa, Chris Potts, who constructed well over half of our levels, our programmers Shane Tapp and Nick Van Sickle who continued to work tirelessly on the patches after we released our lead artist Jason Cooke, and our main sound tech Alek Burnes, who singlehanded made almost all our audio effects.


RPS: Were you always intending for TNM to be such a sizeable project? Or did it spiral outwards as you worked?

Jonas: No, we had no plans to spend more than a year on it. In the beginning it was just meant to be a single city hub linking to some mission areas and shops and such, but the project developed very organically because everybody in our community could follow our development process and chime in with suggestions. We were pretty bad at selecting between those suggestions, so pretty much everything just went into the design docs.

I think the central problem – which also ties into the last question – is that it’s very hard to get people to work on your ideas, you have to leave some room for them to add their own creativity to the project, otherwise they’ll get bored and move on. Some contributors you can keep in a fairly short leash, but others have to be allowed to do whatever they feel like some of the time.

RPS: So in allowing contributors creative freedom, they became more reliable at the expense of some quality control. That’s interesting.

Jonas: Exactly. The design document sort of specified the content and the features we needed in order to finish the game, but that had to be balanced with a suitable amount of feature creep to keep our contributors interested. It’s just a question of getting people personally invested in the project since you can’t pay them money to work on the boring stuff.

Back around 2002, the Deus Ex community was full of people with mod ideas but no idea how to realise them, and there were only so many skilled modders to go around. The fact that we could promise these modders their own character in the game definitely helped to get people interested. I’m not sure how much good it did us later though, some modders who might otherwise have wanted to help out just for the chance of being part of such a big project may have been turned off by the apparent exclusivity of it. Not to mention potential players who were skeptical about the weirdness whole concept.

RPS: Yeah. Let’s touch on that. TNM’s wiki describes the game’s setting as “a lame idea”. What makes you guys say that?

Jonas: I think there’s a pretty major stigma attached to so-called “forum fan fiction”, which is something you’ll find in a lot of tight-knit communities. It tends to be very exclusive and often quite poorly executed, and the idea of spending such a long time on a story about a bunch of nerds on an Internet forum seems pretty stupid, doesn’t it?


RPS: Stigma’s one thing. But it doesn’t mean there isn’t massive potential in this idea. My one criticism of TNM is that you didn’t go far enough with the setting. Often it does feel like forum fan fiction, but it didn’t have to.

Jonas: Yeah I think you’re right. The consistency of the setting is a common point of critique – it’s enough that you can get into it without “having been there”, so to speak, but if you take a closer look at the game, there’s a lot of potential for developing the setting in a more unique direction. I think the fact that we really wanted to maintain the Deus Ex vibe limited us in that regard.

RPS: I actually think you best Deus Ex in terms of a conspiratorial setting. In Deus Ex I was waiting for the game to tell me the truth after I’d blown up another robot. In TNM, it feels like the truth is right there if you could just get into such and such a computer. Was that a conscious decision?

Jonas: Yes. One of the main things I love about Deus Ex is how it’s narrative is everywhere – when you play it, even though the main points are always explained to you, there are tons of details about the background fiction lying around in newspapers, emails, public bulletins, and so on. I wanted to do as much of that as possible in TNM, and a benefit of 7 years of development is that it leaves a lot of time to develop the setting and add details like that to the world.

I love that lineage of narrative design that you can trace all the way back from Origin’s games through Looking Glass to ION Storm Austin and Irrational, where the idea is that the player should always know what he or she is supposed to be doing, but everything else is optional. We’re aware that TNM’s narrative can be very overwhelming with its complexity, but as long as you always know what you need to do – which is what the goals menu is for – we’re perfectly okay with it if you’re confused about some of the motivations or allegiances of the different factions and characters in the game.

RPS: The mod’s willingness to overwhelm in general was something I really liked about it. Less “Complete this one task” but “Here are your overarching goals- go”.

Jonas: Yeah. We had to actually scale back on that a bit. We had some missions that basically gave you no instructions on how to achieve your objective, but they did get a bit ridiculous at times. As a game designer, it can be pretty hard to tell when you’ve gone overboard with that – I really wanted to trust the player, but I think if I hadn’t specifically designed those missions myself, I would’ve just been confused and frustrated by the lack of direction.
Our voice-over manager, Gelo, who helped out a lot with the plot and some of the writing, declared himself an advocate of the Dunce Gamer’s League and compelled me to add more guidance to those missions, and I do think the game is better for it. Between us, I think we’ve reached a pretty good compromise between guiding the players without holding their hands.


RPS: I hate the Dunce Gamer’s League.

Jonas: Yeah I hate them too, but sometimes I fear that I should be a card carrying member.

RPS: Traditionally, making a mod opens eyes as to how much work is involved in making a game, but having overseen something bigger than some commercial games in your spare time I feel you’re entitled to the moral high ground. What element of TNM would you love to see in commercial RPGs?

Jonas: A week ago I would’ve said the way the game responds to almost everything the player does – how the characters constantly comment on your actions and react to your play style, and how many choices you get all the time. But I’ve just finished Dragon Age, and I’m frankly astonished by how much detail like that they’ve managed to cram into such an enormous game.

So now I’ll pick the environmental interaction instead. That’s another thing we got from the Looking Glass school of game design, of course, and Deus Ex in particular, but being able to actually hack people’s computers to read their email is the kind of feature I wish more games had. GTA4 had a lot of that, but it was spread pretty thin across their game world. TNM is a lot more dense. If I may say so myself.

RPS: I’m still waiting for the cop or cowboy game which gives you a very small town for the entire game, and you get to know every resident of this small, highly interactive world.

Jonas: It’s what I wish BioShock had been. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed BioShock, but its setting begs to be a microcosm full of incidental details.

RPS: It begs to be a System Shock game rather than an FPS, yes.

Jonas: I didn’t want to say it! I guess Irrational wanted to actually sell some games.

RPS: And who can blame them. Thanks for your time, Jonas.

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39 Comments »

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  1. hydra9 says:

    Well, that was simply a great interview! I’m definitely gonna play this soon.

  2. sana says:

    What’s with the shameless promotion?

    • Jonas says:

      I guess Quinns really really liked TNM :-)

    • Nick says:

      When most mods are never finshed, or barely get past the concept stage, I think a 7 year developement time mod that was actually released is interesting enough to warrant extra attention.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      The fact that this came out after seven years of development is enough to guarantee it a place in mod history alongside all the other curiosities (CS and DoD, Natural Selection) and means people should really be paying attention to TNM.

    • yogSo says:

      Don’t forget to add T2X: Shadows of the Metal Age to that list, although they only took 5 years or so to complete it ;)
      And The Dark Mod as well.

    • Zaphid says:

      More like Nameless promotion isn’t it ?

    • MD says:

      Why should shame come into it? He’s giving attention to a wonderful game, which also happens to be non-commercial. If you’re going to call ‘shameless promotion’ on *this*, I’d like to see your reaction to the hundreds of other articles ‘promoting’ commercial games.

      Anyway, great interview! Quinns and TNM both represent the kind of thing I would love to see more of on RPS.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      yogSo: those two definitely have a place in the mod pantheon for struggling against adversity and making it out to the public against all odds, yes. Definitely the sort of lucky happening I’d list alongside being picked up by a publisher and commercialised. :)

      I wish I could say Dystopia ranks alongside them, but our development hasn’t been nearly as rocky.

    • Jonas says:

      The Half-Life 2 community is kind of like the spoiled rich kids of the modding scene. All the rest of us scowl at you when you walk by with your fancy tutorials and your intuitive toolset and grumble about how good you have it and how you wouldn’t survive a MINUTE with the original Unreal Editor, god damnit! ;D

    • sana says:

      Did you just call Hammer an intuitive toolset compared with UnrealEd? HAH!!!!

  3. kyrieee says:

    This game is really great, but the ending areas are quite weak unfortunately =(
    Also, I heard they took out some hard areas. Too bad, because I liked them! :D

    • Jonas says:

      Didn’t take them out actually, we just removed a couple of the more insane obstacles. Specifically the ones that might cause you to get stuck if you didn’t know before-hand what was going to happen and you didn’t have a surplus of medkits with you. It was only a couple of traps in one mission.

      I’m sorry to hear you thought the ending areas were weak. Care you extrapolate? I’d be interested to hear your feedback to take it into account for future projects :-)

    • kyrieee says:

      Well, I jumped on it as soon as it came out so my impressions aren’t that fresh, but the enemies weren’t nearly as interesting (sorry, I think you voiced them :P) as in the rest of the game. Fighting them felt like a chore, and don’t get me started on the ‘little ones’… hehe. Maybe it had something to do with the setting that came before it. That area was really inspired, it felt like a real escalation, and the buildup continued throughout it, but then you go to where you go and the air kind of fell out of the balloon.

      When I think about it though, the thing that stands out to me is how I really didn’t like the NPCs there. They just seemed kind of retarded in the sense that it didn’t seem like they would be capable of much, definitely not capable of running the stuff they did. They didn’t inspire awe, fear, desire to kill them or any real emotion. They were just kind of dull in every way (sorry =[ ). It’s like Half-Life’s Xen. It’s not easy to keep escalating a game

      Like Half-Life though, you guys did a really kickass job of escalating until that point though. That last part is not a very big part of the game, and I really loved the rest of it so I don’t want to sound to down on it. I’m only typing this because you asked :P

    • Jonas says:

      Thanks for your reply, I understand what you mean. We did nerf the small ones in one of the patches, but your points still stand. Definitely worth keeping in mind in the future.

  4. medwards says:

    So in allowing contributors creative freedom, they became more reliable at the expense of some quality control. That’s interesting.

    I thought this was pretty common? The reason you have to PAY people is because they don’t actually want to do your work (which sort of demolishes the ‘dedicating yourself to the company/mission statement/project’ sort of bullshit I’ve had to put up with from clients, bosses, job training). I mean, ‘wage slave’ isn’t far off from the truth, especially considered against the conditions under which the rise of waged labour took place.

    The truth is, if you want to get someone to work on something for free, they gotta have a stake in it and they gotta be able to influence it so they can feel like it’s theirs.

    • Quinns says:

      I’m not sure how far that influence usually extends though. Take some of the more popular mods in the last ten years- you think anything from Science & Industry to Dear Esther would have let their skinners or level designers add new areas, characters, items or features whenever they felt like it?

  5. st_martyne says:

    Why wasn’t the most important question asked?

    What now, Jonas? What does the future hold for Off-Topic Productions?

  6. ascagnel says:

    For those of you about to rock (or play Deus Ex for the fist time), Steam has it for $9.99US, Direct2Drive has it for $9.95US, and GamersGate has it for $9.99US.

    I’ve been playing TNM since it came out, and I think it holds up as one of the best single-player mods ever made. The level design may not be as good as Minerva (nor the graphics, but TNM is using an engine from 1998, and one that was on its last legs when Deus Ex came out), but the story is pitch-perfect. Like Minerva, its not just “good for a mod,” instead, its “just good.” For the year, at least, I think I’ve spent more time playing TNM than any other SP game.

    Jonas mentioned above that OTP is going for a stand-alone game. Is the current idea to make a spiritual sequel to Deus Ex, or even TNM? If you’re going commercial, and continuing TNM’s story, how are you going to handle introducing people to the concept? Films like “The Matrix” and “Johnny Mnemonic” possibly spoiled that idea for the general public, and reclaiming that goodwill could be a challenge as games go more mainstream.

    I do have a challenge for the OTP team: Make a console edition that retains all the depth of the PC game, but with a control scheme that works; at the same time, don’t gimp the PC version. If you can do that, you guys will take id’s place as the ‘it’ developer alongside Valve.

    PS: Did anyone ever get TNM MP working? There were a few threads about that, and I want the satisfaction of killing someone with the giant spork.

    • chris the cynic says:

      Jonas is fully capable of speaking for himself, but I see no harm in me answering a couple of those things.

      First, the new game will not be TNM 2. Off Topic Productions has no intention of continuing TNM’s story. If the story is to be continued it will be done by the fans. An SDK has been released.

      Second, so far no one has gotten a TNM multiplayer working. In fact, as far as I know, no one has tried yet. this is another thing that, if it is done, will have to be done by TNM fans.

    • ascagnel says:

      Second, so far no one has gotten a TNM multiplayer working. In fact, as far as I know, no one has tried yet. this is another thing that, if it is done, will have to be done by TNM fans.

      Holiday weekend. New SDK. I think I found my side-project.

  7. ZIGS says:

    Holy awesome, a commercial game from OTP you say? Thanks you so much, you just made my week

  8. bob says:

    Nice, no wild cats though. lol.

  9. stormbringer951 says:

    The Nameless Mod ftw. A very interesting interview.

  10. DarkT says:

    Great interview!

    As one of the founding members who worked on a couple of levels and then skipped out a couple of times , it was great to finally see the project come to fruition.

    I hope OTP will have success with their stand alone game.

    • Jonas says:

      DT! Holy hell, you’re alive :P

      I hope you like what I did with your work. I tried to use as much of it as possible in the final version of the Goat Templae. You should drop in on the OTP forums some time.

    • DarkT says:

      Hey Jonas, what a greeting! I’m still alive, though there are a lot of undead about atm so you never know.

      I’m on my first playthrough, but I’ll let you know what I think when I get there. I’ll drop by the OTP forums soon.

  11. Goddamn says:

    Why hasn’t Eidos hired OTP for Deus Ex 3 instead of that jackass who said DX was slow?

    • Jonas says:

      Making a game from scratch is hard work, and we’d probably prefer to start out with something slightly smaller anyway, rather than taking over a classic franchise as our first project. Hopefully Eidos Montreal know what they’re doing – let’s at least give them a chance before we declare that they’ve failed us all.

    • bob says:

      I agree with Jonas, let’s not judge it until we have played it. If I hadn’t played TNM because of the forum premise I would have missed out on an incredible mod.

  12. Trestkon says:

    A ghost from the distant past! Great to see you’re still around, DT :-) As Jonas said, you should drop by the forums once in a while!

  13. luphisto says:

    An excellent interview. I’m interested to see otp’s new project when it comes out

  14. Marty Dodge says:

    Deus Ex is one of the best games ever made. I just hope that the new game is anywhere is as good as the original.

  15. V. Tchitcherine. says:

    Mr. Waever, I love you! The Nameless Mod is utterly stunning, I still remember how impressed I was by the starting apartment and the deluge of details let alone the scope of the starting District. Congratulations for completing such a wonderful game, in spite of it’s most minor flaws, you managed to best Deus Ex in areas, an achievement few commercial developers with virtually unlimited budgets could ever claim.

    I’ve finished the PlanetDeusEx path through the game and have yet to complete the WorldCorp. storyline though already it has greatly increased my appreciation for the depth and sophistication of the game design, being able to wander around WorldCorp. with near complete impunity, exploring and interacting with guards felt so strange and unique after having to exercise stealth and ingenuity to merely get past the guards who are now my co-workers.

    Best of luck on your new game, and thank you for your tireless work over seven years.

  16. Pantsman says:

    “I’m still waiting for the cop or cowboy game which gives you a very small town for the entire game, and you get to know every resident of this small, highly interactive world.”

    Sounds rather like Mother 3, minus the “highly interactive” bit. But it’s still quite lovely.

    • Dominic White says:

      It may not be Cop or Cowboy, but Way of the Samurai on the PS2 really nails the ‘small town, short-form story’ format. You’re a wandering ronin, and you stumble upon a small mining town, caught in a dispute between two rival factions and the encroaching government. Over the course of three days, everything will go down, but there’s about a dozen ‘main’ endings and a ton of permutations of them. A whole playthrough takes about an afternoon, but it’ll take days/weeks to see the majority of what can happen because there’s so many ways for characters to react to your actions.