The 10 year, fan-supported struggle to bring Natural Selection 2 to life
Natural Selection was a Half-Life mod released in 2002, and featured a team of human players fighting against a team of aliens. The humans had the advantage of a commander who saw the battlefield from a top-down perspective and was able to drop supplies and reinforcements for his team. The asymmetric nature of the game play and its complexity proved popular, and the game was updated multiple times through the years, enjoying a hardcore following.
It’s now almost ten years, to the day, of the original mod’s release, and a commercial Natural Selection 2 has just been released. It took ten years of waiting, six years of active development, and a large cash influx from fans to make it happen, but here we are. I sat down with Charlie Cleveland, the creator of the original mod and founder of Unknown Worlds Entertainment, to discuss why it took so long, what he learned, and the power of that original fan base.
You need money to make games, and you need more than you think
Natural Selection was a labor of love by Cleveland, and was released for free. “I made the mod on my own, I had saved up some money and spent 18 months on that, start to finish. I kept developing that for about a year and a half full time,” he said. In 2004 he moved to California to make game development a career, and he began thinking about a commercial sequel to the successful mod.
It takes money to make a game, and the sequel had to be grander than the original. Cleveland’s first idea was to release a casual game, and use the profits from that project to begin development on Natural Selection 2. The resulting game, The Zen of Sudoku, did well, but not well enough to fund a larger project. He spoke with Epic, who expressed some interest in the project, but without a team or a real plan they passed. In 2006 the game’s lead programmer and Cleveland’s business partner Max McGuire left his job and joined the company full time.
“We spent a lot of time just flailing because we didn’t have a lot of money, so we did a lot of things we didn’t want to do.” Looking back at that time he states that he was too focused on the game, and he didn’t want to be pitching the game to investors. “I didn’t heavily pitch, and now that I’ve been around this area for so long I know that when you want to fundraise you have to do it right and pitch like crazy. You do it very concentrated, and you do it in a couple months.”
Cleveland gave a speech at the 2007 Game Developer’s Conference, and at least one person in the audience was impressed with how many people remembered the first game. Luckily, that person was interested in investing in video games. It seemed like the perfect opportunity: A game with a strong name, no sequel, few direct competitors, and in need of investment. It took around a year for the funds to be dispersed, and suddenly the team had $250,000 to work with. Which… isn’t a lot of cash. They were able to hire a few more people, including Cory Strader, who was the artist who designed much he visuals of the original game, and moved into an office. Today, the team consists of a “whopping nine people.”
“We were totally naïve, we thought that we could ship a game with $250k on the Source engine, and that was completely, completely wrong.” They spent around a year developing Natural Selection 2 in the Source Engine. After wrestling with the Source engine for so long, McGuire asked for a week to get a level running in a custom engine, and he succeeded. He asked for another week to get it working in multiplayer, and a week later they were playing a cleaner version of the game in multiplayer.
“Max is definitely the best programmer I’ve ever worked with,” Cleveland explained. “Which is why I decided to give him half of everything, even through he came on relatively late” Moving to a new engine also resulted in another set back: They needed to create their own tools.
“We had just assumed that Valve would continue to let us use their tools but ship the game on our engine. Our assumption was that it wouldn’t be this crazy thing to re-write everything.” Valve, oddly enough, wasn’t comfortable with that approach, and the team ended up writing their own tools. It was a set back at the time, but now they have a game, complete with proprietary technology, that’s created to help mod teams create content. “When I say mod teams, that’s code for small teams,” Cleveland said. They don’t want to be a big company, so tech that works for small teams was very attractive. Now they own everything in the game, and the technology behind it. Natural Selection 2 was built from the ground up to be easy for modders to play with and adjust.
“WYSIWYG graphical tools and powerful scripting allow you to create new weapons, scenarios or entirely new games,” the official site states. “You’ll get all our tools (level editor, cinematic tool and more) as well as the full Lua source code to Natural Selection 2. Version 1.0 is just the beginning – ongoing automatic updates keep the game fresh by adding new maps, weapons and abilities. Steam Workshop support and auto-downloading makes playing and distributing mods automatic.”
The new engine and tools weren’t cheap to develop, and the estimated budget is around “ten times” the initial $250,000 investment. They had to go back and ask for more money, which Cleveland states in a common occurrence. “This is so typical, as I’ve read about other people and how they’ve done this, I don’t know why I didn’t read it before, I read about it after. Everyone goes back for more money, you’re always supposed to raise way more than you think you’re going to need. If I ever do this again I’m certainly going to do that.” The original investor gave them another round of funding, and they realized they would still need much more.
This was before the dawn of Kickstarter, but they knew they would be “screwed” without a larger budget to finish the game. They also knew they had a dedicated audience from the first mod. It’s nearly impossible to know the size of that audience, as Natural Selection was a free mod, mirrored on many sites, and often passed around at LAN parties. Cleveland estimated a player base of 300,000 people, give or take. “We opened a web page, sent a press release around, and said we’re taking pre-orders for NS2, and here’s a trailer.” They raised a million dollars from fans, which “saved their asses.”
The problem is that the game didn’t actually exist yet, and it was possible the team wouldn’t find the budget to finish it. So what would have happened if they failed and didn’t ship a game? “We never really investigated the legal ramifications of that, we just talked a little bit,” Cleveland said. “We decided that wasn’t going to happen. We committed to ourselves that even if we had to lay off the other people and take out other jobs, we were going to finish it and release. It may not be the dream game, but at least we’ll release it to the fans.”
The fans came through, however, and they were able to make the dream game using their own technology, listening to fan feedback across the game’s pre-alpha, closed beta, and even letting them test the engine. Fans of the game were able to play early versions, follow the work being done, and leave suggestions for the developers. There were live Q&A sessions with the team every week, and the game’s Facebook page was often updated with assets and information. The community had made sure the game was funded, and the community was invited along every step of the way.
So what happens if it fails?
Cleveland has put over a decade of his life into Natural Selection, and the sequel has now been released. With so much of himself invested in the game, what happens if it fails? “I just don’t think it could flop,” he said.
He described deleting an e-mail stating how he hoped it would be do well, or that people like it. He’s happy with what his team has accomplished, so any other success would just be icing on a cake that took a very long time to bake. “I’m really happy with this game, I’m happy with this team, I’m happy with the tech, I’m happy with the design of the game, I know people really like it. This is the game that we set out to make. I’m not going to make my happiness contingent on what other people think. That way lies madness. So I’m just happy with it, and I hope it does really well, and if not we’ll see what happens. But I’m quite proud of it.”
There were other issues now that the game has launched. They had to issue their own keys for the game back in 2009, and they then had to convert those keys into Steam keys for the final release. They’re also in a weird boat: All the hardcore fans have already purchased the game and funded its creation. These are the people that would have rushed to Steam to buy it on day one, so all the people who purchase the game now need to be new fans.
Cleveland said some of their investors were worried about that, in fact. “I believe those people are just creating an audience for us. So the pool is growing because of them. We’re not targeting NS1 players and as soon as that’s gone we’re out of revenue. Those people are our biggest supporters and they’re going to spread the game for us. They are our apostles.”
While the first round of enthusiastic gamers may have already purchased the game, Natural Selection 2 will have a large and thriving community at launch, and they’ll help to spread the game through word of mouth. Unknown Worlds doesn’t have to find and build a dedicated group of fans to keep the game alive, since that group has been playing the game through its alpha and beta phases. In some ways Natural Selection 2 gets to start on third base for a multiplayer game, and travel a much shorter distance to get home.
The plan is to continually release content and ape the Team Fortress 2 model where new items will be released into the game free of charge. The hope is the hardcore fans, the ones who have waited over the decade for this game, paid for its development, and paid attention through six years of development, will stick around, enjoy the new content, and get their friends to play. They’ve waited long enough, and Cleveland is determined to keep them happy.
“They’re going to spread the game for us,” Cleveland said about their fans. “As long as we treat them right.” The game is, of this writing, the highest selling game on Steam.