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Postmortem: Unknown Worlds Entertainment's Natural Selection 2
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Postmortem: Unknown Worlds Entertainment's Natural Selection 2

February 26, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next
 

3. Iterative Process

From day one, everyone on team played the game -- even before we had any art assets or game-specific code. The first thing we did was create a basic level, coded a rifle and an alien bite, and ran around a small box attacking each other. There wasn't even an interface or menu -- you had to know the right console commands to start or join a game. You can see here the Skulk view model from NS1 and an untextured placeholder Infantry Portal model.


Our first playable prototype in Spark.

These tests were great for boosting our morale, and getting us in the right frame of mind: shipping. We had a game, albeit an ugly and boring one; now we just had to make it fun. Instead of the end goal remaining amorphous and undefined, we simply had to shape what we had into something great.

As development progressed, we played more and more, until in the beta the entire team was playing a couple hours a day. It's quite difficult to ignore gameplay or implementation problems when you're hearing or seeing their exasperation about some aspect of the game. Many features were reworked multiples times and/or cut to fit our tastes.

By the time we released, NS2 had many thousands of games played, so we didn't have much to fear. Through this iterative development, I came to understand just how important it was to take feedback from non-designers, and the game was so much better because of it.

4. Open Development

As a small company without a marketing budget, how do you build an audience? We decided to take our fans "behind the scenes" and open up our development. We blogged, tweeted, recorded video footage around the office, and otherwise became as transparent about our game development as possible. When we didn't have game footage, we showed screenshots. When we didn't have screenshots, we showed concept art. Before concept art, we wrote about what we were planning to create, and why. Even the most mundane aspects of game development can be interesting for people outside the industry.

The first time we did this was in 2006, when we released our "dynamic infestation" prototype. It ended up getting linked all over the web, which felt incredible. We worked with one of our "super fans" who was a video whiz to create development videos about design and technology decisions. These regularly got tens of thousands of video views, and gave us feedback much earlier than we otherwise would've gotten. We even cut our "taser" weapon after we showed the concept art and basic functionality: our fans hated it so much we just dropped it.


Our early infestation demo.

Besides the PR benefit and the early feedback, open development had another bonus for us. When we were almost out of money (the first time!), we thought: "Why don't we ask our community if they would pre-order our game?" We put together a polished video that shows the technology, and a first look at the new game, and launched it with our preorder program. It ended up making over $1M over the next two years of preorders, saving the company and buoying our morale.

Open development helped us again when the Overgrowth team suggested that we do an unprecedented "preorder bundle" of our two games, and make it a PR event. We thought it was a great idea and we generated another $40k each in just a couple days. It worked so well that they then formed Humble Bundle, Inc. and turned it into a profitable venture-backed business.

Another way we leveraged open development was way before our playable alpha. We didn't have any maps yet, but we did have assets for making maps. So we released these props and textures, along with a document describing how to build a map and our barely-functional editor. Some of our pre-ordering folks started making maps right away. We asked the most promising community members to work on official maps for the game, for a share of the eventual revenue instead of our sparse cash. Without releasing our assets to our community, I'm not sure how we ever would've built our first map.


Early community mapping shot using our released assets.

Open development helped us in countless other ways. We used it to assemble a die-hard group of volunteers that performed all our QA and gave us tons of valuable feedback. We hired a key game programmer from the community -- he had never worked on a game before, but proved his worth with dozens of gameplay videos he assembled using the source code we distributed with the beta. It's now clear to me that we would not have shipped the game without him.

At every step of the way, we would release what we had, talk about what we're building and why, and listen to feedback. Whenever someone talented emerged from the community, we did everything we could to work with them. Whenever we created anything of value, we would release it, and hope it would grow momentum in the form of revenue, talent, audience, or buzz.

5. No Crunch

One of the reasons we started Unknown Worlds is because we believed making quality games and having a great life went together. We view game development as a marathon, not a race. So we made sure to keep fit, have a life and not crunch. There were times when we did work late nights and weekends, but only when our company situation or funding was dire. Looking back on those times, I do believe we did the right thing to work extra, but we probably would've been better off had we taken a step back and figured out a way to raise more money instead of working harder.

Now we are actively trying to improve our ability to both hit deadlines and make outcomes and goals clear for everyone. We want to constantly improve our efficiency, as well as give more work flexibility to our employees. At the end of the day, employee retention is the most important success factor for us, so we never want people to crunch.


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Comments


Geoffrey Rowland
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I remember when some of the original NS team came to the biggest Tribes LAN - UVALAN in Chantilly, VA to show off Natural Selection. Even though this game doesn't have vehicles or skiing or flags...it definitely reminds me a bit of Tribes at times (mainly the teamwork aspect)

Charlie Cleveland
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Tribes was a huge inspiration, Geoffrey! It blew my mind.

Jack Nilssen
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Was the press even really all that important, then? Seems to me that the success of this game is riding squarely on the shoulders of a dedicated fanbase that's made sure that others know about good the experience is.

Raymond Ortgiesen
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That was a great read, lots of advice and useful information. I'm so glad you guys pulled out okay on the other end, nice work! My favorite part:

"It was more work and stress than we had originally anticipated, but everything worked out fine, and no one died or got sued"

That's all you can hope for right?

Nick Allen
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"We have a completely unstructured environment, without task lists..."

What about the Pivotal Tracker that was public during development?

Christopher Casey
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Speaking as someone who followed that tracker for a little while, it seems that they experimented with using that but ultimately discarded it.

Hugh Jeremy
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Pivotal served to track specific programming tasks for a time. But broader tasks, and the goals that those specific programming tasks were part of, were not tracked or defined.

Daniel Tarantino
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"Maybe your first business won't be a success, but at least you weren't in school, where there's not even a chance of success."

This is very inspirational to an aspiring entrepreneur like myself.

Chris Clogg
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Great read! Played the original NS a lot haha :)

The last page was really interesting; we ran into a similar problem with our iPad game last month... was very hard to get press (our first game release and no publisher I guess), but even with the blessing of Apple featuring us, our sales have dropped pretty quickly. It's nice to hear you still had solid sales even with the press issues. The app store is a bit of a "wild west" scenario... I think Steam has somewhat better content curation (or maybe just less stuff lol).

By the way was there a reason you didn't end up using the Source engine? Seems like it provides a lot in the form of network code and its UI/system/editor/feel is familiar to most PC gamers.

Charlie Cleveland
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Congrats!

Our sales drop off pretty quickly in general - it's all about the sales and promotions. But even when they drop off, our long tail is still profitable so we're in good shape. I wonder if sales and updates are useful for driving sales on IOS as well?

We actually started development in Source - for one full year. Dynamic infestation was the first thing we added and it caused enough scary changes that we immediately felt like we were fighting the engine.

Chris Clogg
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Ah yeah, interesting. I feel like the Source engine was intended by Valve to be a big juggernaut in terms of a license-able engine, but didn't get very far compared to others like Unreal. Still a lot of great mods though.

For iOS, it certainly helps to have sales and updates, but you're already starting from a low point of a few dollars. This also makes it difficult to advertise because if you convert someone from a click or impression, you're only making $1.99 or w/e. As well, many mobile ad networks aren't so hot on apps that cost money. If you're a free or F2P app though, then you can use the ad networks to buy users and then get up on Apple's charts (but you're going against $100k-$million of others' ad budgets).

Long tail is tough on iOS (or it seems so far) because as soon as you're done being featured, it's up to chart position and word of mouth (or ad budget)... and you're in the fray of 800,000 apps. 2 years ago it wasn't so saturated though haha.

Edit: Ps just bought NS2, going to play it later tonight :) Good thing your blog post reminded me of it haha!

John Trauger
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I loved "Nobody died or got sued"

Patrick Mullen
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It's "premature optimization" not "preoptimization". The real idea is that while a system is in flux, optimization can be very bad. Issue #1 is that that entire system may not even stay in the larger product if the direction changes. Taking time to make sure it performs as well as it can is a wasted effort if the entire section of code ends up being removed. Secondly, and more important, optimized code is harder to read and understand, and if things aren't finalized will slow down your process and may even limit you from seeing what really needs to be done. Sometimes this is in an isolated system, but it can happen in integration as well. For example, a slow pathfinding routine that it turns out the game only has to execute occasionally - making the routine itself faster is not as big of an improvement as making the game call the routine less often. But yeah, waiting until the entire game is done to make sure it runs well is overmature optimization :)

Steven An
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Nobody said programming was easy... :P

Charlie Cleveland
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Regarding task lists or lack thereof: people had their OWN task lists, but we didn't have a schedule or list of things for other people to do. Certainly people kept track of their own tasks their own way.

Gareth Eckley
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Having been one of Charles minions in the past, I'm going to have to point out that his extremely easy going and reasonable approach to everything has been the major factor in the success of the Natural Selection brand. He's a modest guy, but he does draw the best possible work out of those around him.

Brian Ortiz
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What about Zen of Sudoku? Was that time well spent?

Marcus Dublin
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Fantastic postmortem Charlie, and very inspirational. The Art Bully team and I are extremely grateful to have taken part in the games development. I personally can't wait to see what you guys do next.

Cheers!

Nathan Ware
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If you were to expand on what it meant to everyone in the company to have an unstructured management environment, I think there are a lot of developers here who would love to read an article like that.

Virginia Martin
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For a six tough years of development you have only 3 things that went wrong. Not look a bad statistic!


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