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Interview: Offtopic Productions Talks Making Mods And Taking Names

Interview: Offtopic Productions Talks Making Mods And Taking Names Exclusive

May 1, 2009 | By Phill Cameron

May 1, 2009 | By Phill Cameron
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Off Topic Productions are the men and women behind The Nameless Mod, a modification of Ion Storm's cult PC title Deus Ex that was in development for seven years before it was released.

That's crazy long even for a commercial release, so for a small group of what started out as enthusiasts managed to keep it together for so long, you know the end product is going to be something special.

Turns out, it was. TNM has received a good amount of critical praise, and an even more respectable amount of downloads in it's first few weeks, numbering in the tens of thousands. This is no small feat for a modding team, and especially for a game like Deus Ex that's been out for quite so long a time. TNM plays on this, setting itself in a forum based around Deus Ex, to allow for satire and wit to ease the players into the gameworld.

I talked to Jonas Waever, Off Topic Productions' lead man, about how it felt to get the game out, how hard it was to make, and whether he thinks it was all worth it:

For those unaware, what exactly is Off Topic Productions, and what do you do?

Lawrence: Off Topic Productions is a small group of game developers brought together by The Nameless Mod. Strongly influenced by Deus Ex, we’re dedicated to delivering unique, innovative gameplay that allows for an exceptional level of freedom and creative problem solving. The team is made up of individuals scattered throughout six countries and includes these fine gentlemen:

Lawrence: Based in Canada, Lawrence is the producer and general handyman as well as managing the staff recruitment, voice acting department, and public relations.

Jonas: In addition to being Danish, Jonas is the lead designer and has also been functioning as project director for the last several years " he’s had the overall creative responsibility, wrote the story and most of the dialogue and text, designed some of the levels, and has generally been in charge of filling our world with content.

Jason: Based in the UK, our manic modeller man. Jason is the artist responsible for almost all of our 3D assets.

Nick: Nick is American and is one of two exceptionally skilled coders who keep the bits and bytes from staging an uprising.

Shane: Based in Australia, Shane completes the coding tag team and, when not fighting off rabid kangaroos, works furiously to churn out the code to bring our projects to life.

Gelo: Based in the US, Gelo acts as an incredibly astute narrative consultant and sometimes-writer, working with Jonas to knit our worlds into cohesive and believable environments.

Alek: Based in the US, Alek is our lead sound technician and has his paws in everything from sound effects to processing voice-over.

Leo: Our lead musician, Leo is based Chile and works tirelessly to create the music that puts the piece de resistance in all our environments.

Martin: Based in Denmark, Martin is musketeer number two in our trio of fantastic musicians.

Steve: Based in the UK, Steve rounds out the team of composers.

The Nameless Mod has been in development for seven years, and has finally been released recently. Can you explain quite how relieved you are?

Jonas: Not with words. Perhaps through the medium of interpretive dance, but this doesn’t seem like the time nor the place for that. The greatest relief is that we didn’t let everybody down: Neither the people who’ve been following us since 2002, nor everybody who’s contributed along the way. The latter is especially important to us - all the people on our credits have worked on the game for free, and by releasing, we’ve ensured their contributions were not in vain. That feels very, very good.

Lawrence: It’s a rather odd feeling, actually; lots of relief mixed with some confusion as to what I should now be doing with my time. It’s quite difficult to let go of something that you’ve poured so much work into for such a long period of time, but in the end you just have to kick it out the door and cringe at the thought of all the polish you didn’t have time to add.

With such a long development cycle, and with no money coming from the project itself, how did you keep the team together and working?

Jonas: By tightly balancing business with pleasure. We like to say that for each hour a person spends working on something he or she must do in order for the project to be finished, we had to allow that person to spend 2 or 3 hours on something he or she simply felt like doing. I assume this ratio would be significantly lower if we could’ve paid people, but I still think it’s important to give everybody a measure of creative control in order to maintain their motivation. Unfortunately it also makes the game grow at a frankly ludicrous rate, and at some point you need to stop adding things and focus on finishing the game " thankfully at that point the team had been reduced to the most dedicated members.

Lawrence: Beyond what Jonas mentioned, we also worked very hard to establish a community around the game. To be sure, we did a lot of internal back patting, but nothing beats encouraging words from fans anticipating your work. To that end we put a lot of work into keeping our website updated with interesting news and media to encourage the fans to stick around. We also made an effort to release frequent internal builds. Even if it was just the first map, it’s incredibly encouraging to everyone when you can fire up an installer and see your work in action.

When you began the mod did you have any inkling as to how long it would take you to complete? Were there times when you didn’t think you’d ever release it?

Jonas: Yes, we were fully aware it’d take a year to finish. But then we had to push it another year. And then another. Then we gave up on scheduling for a while and just went with the flow, but eventually we settled on a summer 2007 date. Only, then we had to push it to 2008; and then January, then February, and finally March 2009. I would say that if there’s one thing TNM hasn’t taught us about, it’s scheduling, but actually we’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons about what not to do.

There was never really a time when the core team had no confidence that we’d complete the project. In the beginning we didn’t realize it would take this long, and the further along we got, the more we stood to lose by abandoning the project. There were definitely times when it looked a bit hopeless, but I don’t think we ever faced any challenges that couldn’t be solved by cutting content in the worst case scenario. The closest we came to a crisis was when we realized what a momentous task it was to get our main character’s dialogue recorded. We came very close to releasing the mod without voice-over for the protagonist, but our great friend Jeremiah Costello of T-Recs Studios stepped up and offered to handle it for us.

Lawrence: We had not the faintest idea of the chunk of our lives that TNM would consume when we started out. If we had known, we likely would have laughed at the thought of such a long development cycle and gone out to get PhDs, instead. I have a rather distinct memory of someone telling me a couple of years into the project that we should just give it up as an impossible job. I recall being rather disheartened by the thought of how much work remained to be done, but I don’t believe we’ve ever really seriously considered quitting, or the idea that we would fail to release.

You’ve recently released the first patch for TNM, which fixes a lot of technical issues with the game. Was lack of funding and testers the primary reason for the few hiccups at launch?

Jonas: Lack of testers has been a huge concern. We brought in a lot of people during beta, but only 10 of them were active at all. We were quite taken aback by how many problems our engine additions caused " by and large we’ve stuck to Deus Ex’s engine, but we’ve managed to add a bit of our own native code to e.g. implement ogg music support. Unfortunately the release version of that ogg player has turned out to crash quite a lot for many people, which is a problem our testers never encountered.

It’s no surprise that thousands of players make better testers than 10 volunteers, but this was further compounded by the complicated nature of TNM. We had more possible combinations of plot branches than our testers had time to discover, let alone test. To make sure everything was working before launch, we would’ve needed very thorough and systematic testing, and that’s more than you can ask a bunch of volunteers to do, and more than anybody on the core team could handle considering the pace we were working at just prior to release.

Lawrence: I’m not sure that funding factors in overly much, but it would certainly have made for more motivated testers. We grossly underestimated the story permutations that are possible with the non-linear gameplay we created, and our measly 10 testers just weren’t sufficient to properly tackle it. To be fair, I don’t think we could ever have tested it sufficiently using purely internal testers, the game is simply too large for proper rigorous testing using only the small number of people we could mobilize. However, we’re extremely pleased with how helpful and patient the fans have been as far as reporting, testing, and tolerating the bugs they’ve encountered. With the release of the upcoming 1.0.2 patch we feel that TNM will finally be in the shape we’d have liked it to be at release.

Now that the game is released, do you feel vilified? Was it worth it?

Lawrence: Vilified? Not at all. There have been certain factions of angry internet men (most of whom have yet to actually play the mod) who have unconditionally declared that we must be absolute idiots for spending 7 years on such an odd concept. However, the positive responses have vastly overshadowed the few naysayers. We also realize that with every release, no matter how good, you can never please everyone.

Jonas: It was definitely worth it, this is a fantastic hobby where at the end, you have this product you can look at and see exactly where all your free time has gone for the past several years. It’s also great to get other people’s feedback on our work, positive and negative, as long as they’re being polite about it. We’ve learned an incredible amount of things about game development that we’d love to put to use in the future, so yes: It’s all been worth it.

Did the mod go through several different iterations, or did the vision for TNM stay the same throughout?

Jonas: We estimate that we recreated everything we did during the first 2 or so years because we got better. The plot went through 4 revisions in the first year and was continually tweaked, expanded, and revised. Most of it also simply came about as we experimented with the game and the engine and grew familiar with what we could do " originally we were planning something even more open and free-form than we ended up with, but when we realized how fundamentally the game was built for a completely different type of structure, we reigned ourselves in and adjusted our design.

Even the basic concept of the game evolved a lot over the 7 years as we all grew up with the project and the quality of our work improved. We realized early on that our mod wasn’t going to appeal to a lot of people because it was too exclusive, so we spent a lot of time opening it up to a broader audience. Also, I don’t know if you ever go back and read what you wrote 6-7 years ago, but in my experience that’s a great way to embarrass yourself " I spent a lot of time rewriting old dialogue to be less embarrassing.

While most mods take themselves rather seriously, trying to create something unique with the tools of the game, you’ve chosen instead to satirise Deus Ex by setting your game as a Deus Ex forum. Given that this took you seven years to complete, do you think the fact Deus Ex has drifted from the collective consciousness has hurt people’s enjoyment of the mod?

Jonas: I don’t know if it’s fair to say Deus Ex has drifted from people’s consciousness, in fact it seems a lot of people who never played Deus Ex but heard about it after it achieved status of a classic are using TNM as an excuse to buy Deus Ex and see what all the fuss was/is about. I do think the technological deficiencies of the game is hurting people’s enjoyment of the mod, though " a lot of our problems stem from the fact that Deus Ex runs on a very old engine, and early 3D engines aren’t renowned for holding up very well.

Lawrence: If anything, our association with Deus Ex has been a huge boon. People hear “Deus Ex” and are instantly willing to at least listen to what you’re about. A lot of people have certainly turned up that haven’t played Deus Ex, but they’ve all heard good things and many are picking it up so they can see what all the hype was about and give TNM a go. It’s a great two for one deal!

The humour in the game is often very wry and amusing, and mostly throw away, with comments made by periphery characters. Do you think the humour is necessary to making the game work, or was it just for your own enjoyment?

Jonas: I think the humour is necessary to ease people into the game. It’s a very unusual concept, and people often seem relieved to hear the game isn’t taking itself too seriously. Once we’ve established that we’re capable of self-irony, we slowly tone down the humour in favour of what we think is a reasonably engaging narrative, but in order to get to that part at all, people need to get over the fact that TNM is based on an Internet forum, and I think that’d be a lot harder without the humour.

In terms of our own enjoyment, the humour worked both for and against that. It gave us a lot of freedom to be wildly creative, but it can also be pretty difficult to maintain a consistent tone throughout such a long project. It’s been difficult, but very rewarding.

There’s a colossal amount of voice work in the game. How did you get so much done? Is that’s what’s been delaying the release for so long?

Lawrence: The voice work is certainly one of those things that really bit us in the ass. Being 95% naive and 5% dumb for the first few years of this project, we had no concept of how our massive script would end up translating into ludicrous amounts of work in the acting department. Work on the voice-over began about 2-3 years ago, with most of that first year generating only horrible quality material that sounded similar to a pack of angry cats eating a microphone. In our usual fashion, we simply forged onward and continued trying to locate quality actors. This strategy eventually paid off when the good actors began recommending their equally gifted friends, resulting in a rather pleasant domino effect.

However, the acting department did, in my opinion, result in the largest amount of hair-pulling and head-banging for us. When you’re working with so many unpaid actors (over the Internet, no less) it’s inevitable that many of them will randomly vanish, or take an insane amount of time to actually record their lines. We also discovered that keeping track of thousands and thousands of individual sound files and ensuring that they ended up in the right spots is... challenging.

Despite the rather mammoth nature of the undertaking, we did manage to pull it off to our satisfaction. We utilized our own rather nifty web based tracking system to track the files and eventually just learned how to deal with the occasionally flaky actors. In the end, the voice-over didn’t delay the project, although it was close! In our opinion, the countless hours of work that went into the dialogue were entirely worth it; the extra personality and life it brings to the characters is something we feel brings a lot to the game.

Quite a few of the development team seem to be characters in the game, yet they are not voiced by those they represent. Is it strange seeing yourselves acting within the gameworld?

Lawrence: Fortunately for everyone, I did not voice my own character. At one time we had thought that I would, simply because we were unable to find anyone dedicated enough to voice thousands of lines. Happily, Jeremiah stepped in and did a wonderful job. I did voice a few incidental characters, and the most important thing I learned is that I cannot act. The only character that I really get a kick out of is a crazy cult priest who I was able to use a completely zany voice for; I think he turned out really well and I rather enjoy listening to his inane rants.

Jonas: Many people on the core team have actually recorded their own characters (Nick, Shane, Gelo, our composers, and myself " basically anybody who could get a hold of a good microphone and act well enough to not ruin the game), and let me tell you it’s very weird indeed to hear my own voice coming out of a character in a video game. It’s especially surreal when people log into our IRC channel to tell one of us they’ve knocked out our character and stolen our stuff or blown us up because we were annoying.

TNM is probably one of the most meta games I’ve played. Would you like to explain a bit about what you were trying to accomplish with the mod?

Jonas: Initially, we just wanted to do something we hadn’t seen anybody else do before " a game set in a giant metaphor for an Internet forum seemed like a pretty original idea. As we experimented more with the concept and grew more familiar with our own setting, it became obvious that TNM was ripe with opportunities for intra- and intertextuality and self-reference. There was a period when I was looking for ways to imbue TNM with some sort of cultural relevance, because it felt like we were spiralling down towards self-indulgent irrelevance, and going meta seemed like the best way to realize the potential of our setting. I just hope we managed to pull it off without seeming too smugly pseudo-intellectual.

There’s also the fact that TNM is meta on two different levels: On one level, it’s a Deus Ex mod taking place in a world created entirely around Deus Ex. A lot of plot points in the mod are explicitly motivated in the fact that Deus Ex is the pivot of our setting. On another level, we occasional play around with breaking the fourth wall by having certain characters address the player or muse about the fact that they’re inside a computer game " as opposed to on a forum, which would be well within all four walls. In fact there’s a whole little unlockable subplot about it all being a game, and I think the reason this is interesting is the double-layered self-reference " first we get you used to the idea that you’re controlling a forum avatar, then we make jabs at that by letting on that you’re in a game. But you won’t even find that unless you explore our levels religiously.

Modding communities are often only as healthy as the tools the developer releases with the game. How easy was it to mod Deus Ex? Would you consider modding something more recent in the future?

Jonas: I’ve given a lot of thought to this personally, and I don’t think the difficulty in modding Deus Ex is due to the quality of the SDK or the old technology so much as the ambitions the game fosters. Deus Ex has very complicated core gameplay based around a carefully " and often precariously " balanced mix of FPS, RPG, and stealth gameplay, with a healthy helping of adventure game elements thrown in for good measure. Most people who mod Deus Ex wants to recreate this gameplay and they let their ambitions get out of hand " we’re definitely guilty of that ourselves. You want to create missions that allow the player to make full use of the whole skill set, you want to support exploration, you want elaborate branching dialogue with a real impact on gameplay, and in the end you’re looking at creating a full-fledged game. If people would settle for just making a plain 3-mission action mod, it’d be far easier, but then they wouldn’t be modding Deus Ex in the first place, because there are far better action games with larger and more thriving communities to boot.

As SDK’s go, I don’t think Deus Ex’s is too bad. There are a lot of things we could’ve done better if we’d had access to the engine code, but how many developers allow their fans access to that? I think most of the problems we had were problems Ion Storm Austin also faced during Deus Ex’s development " they had to pull off a lot of hacks because they didn’t have time to rewrite large parts of the engine from scratch, and we had to work with those hacks and add our own on top of that.

Lawrence: Modding Deus Ex had its perks, but it really can’t measure up to the tools and documentation available for newer games like HL2 or Unreal Tournament 3. The Deus Ex modding community is relatively small, which meant that pooling resources to get things done was fairly easy. Of course, with such old tech and no access to any kind of official support, we often found ourselves fumbling around in the dark, using trial and error to figure out what would work, and what would cause everything to explode in our faces.

How popular has TNM been since release? Has it exceeded your expectations or fallen short?

Jonas: I think we set out to get 10,000 downloads during the lifetime of the mod. We’re pretty close to achieving that already. How many times has the mod been downloaded in the first 14 days since release, Larry?

Lawrence: By current estimates, TNM has been downloaded over 6000 times in just a few weeks. In terms of popularity, I think we’ve certainly surpassed our expectations. It’s amazing to see chatter popping up in so many forums all over the Internet, and incredibly gratifying to read all the kind comments from players.

Jonas: Of course as modders, it’s more important that our players like what they get, rather than that we get a lot of downloads. We’ve had a few negative comments here and there, most of it based on the fact that the first release of the game was unstable on some machines, but the response we’ve got has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve even had a few professional games journalists speak very highly of us, which is certainly encouraging. Whether it’s exceeded our expectations... I’d say it’s met them, but I was, perhaps arrogantly, always pretty sure we had something very impressive on our hands.

What are you next planning? Are you planning on making anything commercial?

Jonas: We’d definitely like to take everything we’ve learned making TNM and apply it to a commercial project. In a way, The Nameless Mod has been like a 7 year master class in how to design Deus Ex, and we’re quite eager to see if we can create something as engaging as TNM if we’re not leaning so heavily on a classic, proven design.

The next game will be smaller. We don’t have a lot of art resources, so we’ll probably have to recruit some people. We’re currently trying to work out how we can best leverage our skills and experience from TNM without getting bogged down with another 7 year project or letting the team grow too large.

Lawrence: Jonas covered the key points nicely: smaller, and with a massively better plan/timeline going into it. We’re hoping to take the many lessons learned over the last seven years and kick things into high gear for our next project!

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