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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 3 of 4 Next

What Went Wrong

1. Project Scope

Natural Selection 2 was an ambitious follow-up to our free independent Half-Life mod, Natural Selection. Our original plan was to make a quick commercial sequel on the Source engine to start making money. Instead, we spent six tough years developing our own engine and almost going out of business multiple times.

We also decided we wanted to make the most moddable game ever. We did this by implementing 100 percent of our game code in Lua. There wasn't a Lua IDE on the market that we thought was good enough, so of course we spent more time to write our own (called Decoda).

NS2 is all written in Lua script. (Click for larger version)

The final product was more commercially successful than we had originally hoped, but that came at a big cost. The game was too large in scope, took too long, and because of that, ended up being very high-risk.

If we could do this over, we would have reduced the scope of the game significantly, or made a smaller game, so we could get cash flow positive sooner. We certainly wouldn't have made our own technology as part of our first product. We bit off more than we should have, and the jury is still out if the engine flexibility, modding, or lost time will make up for it.

2. Ignoring Team Problems

We have a completely unstructured environment, without task lists, priorities, managers, producers, or even job descriptions. We rely on people to figure out the best thing for them to work on, and how to do it efficiently.

Early on, we hired some talented folks that didn't fit in. They had the skills and we liked them as people, but we now realize that they were demoralized without structure. We were so consumed with making the game that we didn't notice these team problems -- only that morale was low. We would've been better off had we realized that personality fit and talent aren't enough: people need to mesh with your working style. When people are unhappy, it spreads through the whole team.

The original happy team.

Now, when we interview, we try to determine from the candidate's personality and experience if what kind of work environment and structure they expect. We tell them that we are completely unstructured and it's up to them to figure out what they should be working on: not a manager or producer. If we get a blank stare, grimace, or nervous laughter, we know the candidate is probably not a fit. We are also being more proactive about asking people what they want to work on and how they want to work, and trying to accommodate both.

3. Inexperienced CEO

We were perpetually broke. There's no other way to say it. And as CEO, it was my responsibility to make sure the company had proper funding. But as a first-time CEO, my primary skill and interest lied in game design and development -- not finance, nor fundraising. But we were learning about fundraising as we went along.

Unfortunately, not having any money is not a good position to be in raise more money. Legal expenses were exorbitant, so we handled the contracts and paperwork on our own as much as possible. And every time we started to run out of money, it was a huge burden to drop everything and try to raise more. It was like a wound that would never heal.

Common startup advice says you should raise twice as much as you think you need. In our case, three or four times would've been better. The same work is required to raise $1M as it is to raise $100k -- you just have to talk to different people. No matter who you talk to, you have to convince them you're going to make them a profit, and you're still in for months of negotiating and legal work.

I often say that starting a company is similar to getting your MBA: it takes about the same amount of time and money (more, in our case) and will teach you everything you need to know to start a business successfully. 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.

Looking back, I spent most of my time working on the game, not pitching to investors. If you decide to raise money, jump into it completely. Pitch constantly and refine your technique every time. Constantly meet prospects and work your contacts. Get multiple parties interested so you can leverage their offers against each other. Make sure each party knows you're going to get funding with or without them. In short, do it all at once and make it count.

Next time I would probably look for an additional partner who is an experienced fundraiser and CEO so I could stay focused on what I most cared about: the game.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

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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 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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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.


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!