I had the pleasure recently to speak to Jonas Waever, the ‘creative lead and handyman’ of The Nameless Mod. This was an ideal time to talk to him, the mod for Deus Ex has been available for a few days now and they have already had 4,000 downloads. Read on to see the full interview.
The Reticule: Jonas, can you tell us a bit about what your role on TNM is?
Jonas: I’m credited as lead designer, project director, level designer, and writer – this is sort of the long way of saying “creative lead and handyman”. I started out by writing the story (for better or for worse) and by far most of the text in the game, and then I’ve had to learn a bit of almost every other job on the team to fill in when we couldn’t find new team members or to pick up the pieces when somebody left. But lead designer generally sums it up pretty well I think.
The Reticule: So you have obviously been very involved in this creation, what made you want to start working on TNM seven years ago?
Jonas: I’d attempted to start my own mod about half a year earlier, but we had to give up when it became apparent that most of us didn’t know what we were doing, which made me realize it’s not enough to have a good idea to run a mod team, so I’d more or less given up on modding. I was working as news editor for PlanetDeusEx when Lawrence (aka. Trestkon) mailed me about this small mod he was working on, and I noticed they were on the look-out for a writer. I think it’s still pretty rare to find a fully equipped mod team with artists, designers, and programmers missing a writer – usually it’s the other way around. So I jumped at the chance.
The Reticule: How did work on TNM progress from there? Did you soon have a solid idea of where you wanted to take it, or did you go through several different ideas until you got to where you are now?
Jonas: Lawrence already had the basic idea down, of making a mod featuring characters based on people who contributed – that’s why he managed to get a whole team together within a week, much to his own surprise, because everybody wants to see themselves in a computer game. I suggested we should go all the way and literally make the mod take place in some sort of giant metaphor for the forums, and everybody thought that was a fun idea, so I started writing the story around that. I believe we went through 4 revisions of the story before we settled on a framework that we liked, and that included a list of levels we wanted to make (many of which were already being constructed at that point). Even then, the documents we had didn’t quite describe the mod we ended up with, that’s just when we sort of stopped updating the design documents.
A lot of the changes and revisions were spurred by us gaining a more solid understanding of how Deus Ex was programmed to work – the game was designed for an overall linear story with branches and open hub levels along the way, and we originally wanted to make a completely open game where all the levels were connected to a central hub map from the beginning, but a few of them would only be unlocked later as you made progress in the plot, but we ended up making it a little more linear like Deus Ex’s design.
Our original design just wasn’t feasible with the way Deus Ex is set up to store variables and savegames and such. But in the end our changes made for a better game because we could change the world more as you moved through the story.
The Reticule: Have you had any negative feedback about putting yourselves in the mod as characters? Do you play key roles, or are you kept hidden away?
Jonas: We’ve had quite a lot of backlash because the whole concept tends to remind people of various poorly written “forum fan fiction” where the writer inevitably plays the invulnerable protagonist and saves the day, and maybe kills the villains in the form of any forum members the writer doesn’t like, but thankfully it seems like most people warm to the whole thing when they actually play it and realize we’ve executed the idea a lot better than what they may be used to. Our characters do play key roles in the game, but we’ve definitely avoided the “plot armour” problem many fan fic writers fall victim to. Personally I took care to make my character as much of a pain in the arse as I could, and the same can be said of most of the characters named after team members – we generally haven’t made ourselves very likeable. Not sure what our therapists would think about that.
The sort-of-exception is Trestkon, whose character is the protagonist of the story, but that wasn’t his idea, in fact he was against it for precisely the reason that using yourself as the main character is incredibly egocentric, but we bullied him into letting us use him because we couldn’t think of a better solution (it took us weeks of discussion to decide how we wanted our protagonist to be). I’ve written almost all of Trestkon’s lines, and I never thought of him as an avatar of Lawrence’s, but rather an avatar of the player.
The Reticule: Did you all do the voice work for your own characters? Is it strange to hear yourselves speaking in a game, even if you do sound like a pain in the arse?
Jonas: Heheh actually that was the idea to begin with, but as the general quality of the mod grew as we learned more about game development and became better at our individual jobs, our standards for the quality of the voice-over grew as well. In the end, only a couple of us recorded our own lines, and we recruited aspiring or even professional voice-over artists to handle all the major characters. For example, Trestkon wasn’t recorded by Lawrence, but rather Jeremiah Costello who is the Creative Director of T-Recs Studios and quite a great guy to work with, and that’s probably for the best because Larry will be the first to admit he’s not a great actor. I did voice myself though – it was easy, all I had to do was overact. And yes, it’s amazingly strange to hear myself speaking in a game, but very satisfying to shoot my character in the face for some reason…
The Reticule: You mentioned you used professional voice-over artists like Jeremiah, how did these guys come to contribute to TNM?
Jonas: Incredibly, they actually volunteered for the most part. Larry did make regular postings for help on sites such as the Voice Acting Alliance, through which we got some great actors, and I think word of our project got out to more people in the VO communities that way. We were fortunate enough to make contact with a couple of professionals who had their own studios, namely Jeremiah and Mac, and they put us in contact with other professional actors who were willing to do a little work for free to expand their portfolios. Even better, these actors could then record their lines in Jeremiah’s or Mac’s studios, meaning we’d get great acting AND perfect audio quality, and we didn’t even have to sell our immortal souls to any of them (as far as I remember).
I think it’s a great deal for everybody involved, the actors get an enormous game project on their resume, which is especially good if all they’ve done so far is commercials or trailers or similar work, and we get free VO for our game.
The Reticule: While you may not have had to sell your immortal souls to get the voice artists to work with you, what impact has your work on TNM had on your personal lives? Have you had to sell your soul for anything?
Jonas: I know 7 years of working on a single project sounds like a remarkable amount of time to spend on something you’ll never make money from. First of all, though, TNM has always been a hobby project, so we haven’t always worked as hard on it as we did for the last couple of months leading up to release. Secondly, most of us have been under education pretty much the entire time, which tends to leave a lot of time free for hobbies. When I joined TNM, I was in the equivalent of American junior high school, and now I’ve nearly got a BA degree, so I wouldn’t say my life has suffered a lot due to TNM. That said, I am pushing a couple of moderately sized university projects ahead of me at the moment because all the work surrounding the release of the game (first getting it finished and prepared, then actually releasing, and now supporting it and addressing the bugs people report) leaves very little time for pretty much anything else.
The Reticule: I have seen you mention on Twitter that providing support for all the people now playing TNM is very time consuming, do you think this a problem that you could have avoided, or is it a problem most mod teams will experience?
Jonas: I do think more time than necessary is being spent just helping people install the mod, and we might have been able to avoid that if we’d brought in more testers near the end just to test whether the game would run on different hardware configurations and different versions of the game. For example, we’ve realized it would’ve been a pretty great idea to make our installer automatically put Microsoft’s Visual C++ runtime components on your PC if you didn’t already have them, since it’s needed to play TNM – all our testers save one who was on Linux already had those components, so we didn’t include them with the installer, but a LOT of people have turned out not to have them, so that’s giving us grief.
It’s also a right pain in the neck that there are so many versions of the original game – apparently TNM isn’t compatible with Direct2Drive’s version of Deus Ex though it works fine on the Steam version, and we had no way of testing that before release because we didn’t know anybody who had the D2D version. Obviously if you mod a more modern game with better built-in mod support like Half-Life 2 or Crysis, you’ll avoid most if not all of these problems.
Finally, I have to admit TNM shipped with a lot more bugs than we expected. I suppose that was a predictable consequence of trying to make a player-driven immersive RPG in your spare time (a genre even experienced game developers tend to struggle with; cases in point: Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines, Boiling Point and Knights of the Old Republic 2). Not to mention we had around 10 testers working on a game with an incredible amount of plot branches and convoluted gameplay logic. We’ve had over 4000 downloads already, so it’s not surprising people are doing things the testers never thought about and finding new and interesting glitches in the game logic.
The Reticule: You mention you’ve had 4000 downloads already, were you expecting TNM to become as big as it is already?
Jonas: Yes, to be honest I was expecting that, and arrogant or not, I’m expecting it to become an even bigger hit when we get coverage in more “mainstream” media – we haven’t sent our press release out to the largest news outlets yet because we want to release the first patch before we’re flooded with new players. Time will tell if these concerns are unfounded – I guess we’ve already reached most hard core Deus Ex fans, so the question is how many casual Deus Ex fans we can rope in.
Again, the greatest obstacle is probably our strange concept turning people off, but we’re hoping we can rely on our players to assure the skeptics that TNM isn’t just one big joke, but an actual game. Perhaps we’ll be more of a slow burner than a hit, like the original game was.
The Reticule: Even if TNM is a slow burner, do you plan on providing long-term support for it? You have already mentioned a patch, is that just going to be bug fixes, or will you introduce more content at a later date?
Jonas: We do plan to support it for a while, we hope we can get all glitches and bugs fixed with no more than 3-4 patches (the patch notes for version 1.0.1 are already pretty epic), but we’re not going to be adding a lot of new content. Version 1.0.1 will add a couple of new textures that we didn’t get around to putting into the release version for whatever reason, but any substantial content updates would rely on new voice acting, and that’s not really an option for us. We’re quite happy with the current shape of TNM.
What we do plan to do is release all our uncompiled content to make it easier for other mod projects like Shifter to change TNM (a mod of a mod, the mind boggles). I also know New Vision and the High Definition Texture Package (the two great graphics enhancement projects for Deus Ex) are both gearing up to release something, and anything they do will affect TNM as much as it affects DX – we’ll probably also have to patch the mod a bit when HDTP is released to make sure all our new weapons make use of their assets.
The Reticule: A mod of TNM? Very interesting, what do you think of people modding your creation?
Jonas: I love it! I hope we get more of that. I know one of our programmers has considered patching in proper mutator support so it’s easier for people to change small details in the game. Shifter is actually a very big mod with quite a wide fanbase, and I know several people who are waiting for Shifter’s creator to release a TNM-compatible version of his mod (which I know he’s working on) before they’ll play TNM because they don’t want to be without his changes to the DX gameplay. But yeah, I think… I get quite a kick out of watching what people do with our game, so far it’s mostly fan videos on YouTube that give me a good laugh, but if people start making mods for TNM, that’d just be fantastic. And hilariously meta.
The Reticule: Well TNM is already fabulously meta as it is with the storyline. Do you think the story telling in TNM may influence how other mod teams approach it in their mods?
Jonas: I would be thrilled if it does, because the primary reason we structured our story the way we did is that we love games like that and there are so precious few of them, but the reason there are so few is that they’re incredibly hard to make. We had the advantage of modding a game that was already like that – player-driven with lots of optional content and a plot that bent in response to the player’s actions – so most of the scripts and mechanics we wanted were already in place. I think it’d be a lot harder to make a mod like this for a game like… say, Crysis, to pick a game with a solid SDK. You’d have to mod in all sort of new storytelling mechanics.
In a way, I think it’s best for modders to stick to the core gameplay of the game they’re modding, if nothing else then because your audience as a modder is generally people who liked the game you’re modding, and these people tend to want more of the same. At its core, TNM is definitely more Deus Ex. Of course there’ll be exceptions such as if the whole idea is to try and turn Half-Life 2 into an RTS, but when you do something like that, the focus tends to shift to the gameplay rather than the story – not that there’s anything wrong with that of course.
The Reticule: What plans are there in the future for Off Topic Productions apart from supporting TNM? Another Deus Ex mod? Or something totally different?
Jonas: Oh dear God no! We’re pretty much done with modding – as I’ve mentioned, we’ll try to support the mod as much as necessary, but we really want to move on and have a go at some independent game development. Something we can actually make money from. TNM was a great learning experience, like a 7 year master class in game development with Deus Ex as a case study, and now we’ll try to remove the training wheels and make our own game from scratch.
I’ve also been thinking that it’d probably be a good idea for a couple of us to get actual industry jobs and spend a few years gathering experience that way, perhaps while our next game is in pre-production or something, but time will tell if that’s even possible. I don’t know how strict non-compete contracts are about that sort of thing, heheh.
We do have a few ideas for what we’d like to do next, but no matter what, it’s going to be a proper commercial product that we can try to sell.
The Reticule: Thanks for your time Jonas, I hope TNM does well and good luck to all of you for the future.
Jonas: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure!