If the independent game development scene has seen one big change recently, it's in the advent of crowd-sourcing –- namely with the incredible success certain small-to-medium sized developers have seen with funding programs like Kickstarter. This model has allowed developers to target their audience directly, thanks in part to online and social media’s integration and the overall prevalence in many gamers’ social activities. The goal of crowd-sourcing in game development, at its most basic level, is to allow consumers to pre-purchase something they would eventually buy, and in the process contribute to the development cost and ensure its eventual completion.
To some, the resounding success of certain Kickstarter projects may have come as a surprise, but the online communities of gamers across all platforms and genres is one that has a long history of continuous feedback and participation, and extends beyond monetary commitments. So when a new role-playing game that harkens back to games seen over a decade ago on PCs can raise its funding in a matter of days, this says more about where audience appetite has always been and not where it may be today or in the future.
“Charlie Cleveland was the creator of the original Natural Selection, he devoted a couple of years of his life, locked up in his apartment, living off his savings to create an original ‘mod’. After it became a success, he thought maybe this was good enough to become a full game, and decided to form a company and create a full retail game. Together with Max McGuire he created Unknown Worlds - not to develop a game like Natural Selection 2, but a company created because of Natural Selection 2.”
Long before Kickstarter, gamers where contributing to their favourite franchises or genres through the creation and installation of mods (short for modification), which used existing game engines and development tools to create or “modify” existing content within a particular game. From something as simple as a new gun for a first-person shooter or sword for a role-playing game, to entirely new levels, music, storylines, and game modes, the mod scene has always been a vibrant community-driven presence in hardcore PC gaming. The mod scene has been around for decades and is one that continues to this day with the exceptionally popular Steam (and its Steam Workshop) platform being used by recent games for mod integration and delivery.
From new quests and textures for Skyrim to total conversions of an existing engine such as Half-Life being used to create the original Counter Strike, mod development stretches across all levels of skills and with a robust set of tools allows even moderately technical fans to create their own content. In terms of shooters this can be something as simple as a new map or a new outfit for a character created with very little if any coding experience required on the gamers’ part. It’s clear as it is with any creative undertaking; the vast majority of players enjoy the user-created content as opposed to taking an active part in its creation. But what’s different in the mod scene is that player and community feedback is completely open, and in the case of larger mods, this community interaction that pre-dates the social networking sites and tools which are commonplace today, actually shapes the end product into becoming something unique, and more importantly public, within what is generally seen as a closed off industry.
“Six years is a long time by any objective measure, however, this is not your usual game, and it’s definitely not your usual development cycle. Taking a look at similar games this size and it’s not uncommon to see teams of upwards of a hundred people or so working on them.”
Natural Selection 2’s Spark Engine was written in the scripting language of Lua which is widely used within the industry, but to help pay the bills and keep development moving along Unknown Worlds released their own in-house Lua debugging tool ‘Decoda’ for commercial use. Originally written to help the development of Natural Selection 2, which proved to be an invaluable necessity for such a small team, it also proved to be an invaluable tool for other developers across the globe that were using Lua.
In addition to ‘Decoda’ helping to keep the lights on within the Unknown Worlds office, as ongoing funding was a major concern for the team in the early days, they also created and released a small Sodoku game, which surprisingly enough, is still selling to this day. Thankfully, as development of Natural Selection 2 progressed and reached Alpha and Beta stages of completion, funding was entirely secured to allow the team to focus their entire efforts on releasing the final product.
Formed in 2006, Unknown Worlds is a small development studio created to realise one ambition: to create Natural Selection 2 -- an online multiplayer first-person shooter that was in fact a sequel to a mod, and not a traditional retail game. At its peak the original Natural Selection mod for Half-Life on PC had upwards of 300,000 players (with millions of downloads) all taking part in countless alien versus marine skirmishes in a game that blended elements from classic strategy games like StarCraft and team-based shooters like Counter Strike. Created primarily by Charlie Cleveland, the original Natural Selection was a classic mod in a very traditional sense, it was created on an existing engine and set of tools, brought entirely new elements to the table in a total conversion that included new textures, models and sound, and served as a gateway to allow community feedback, interaction, and testing to help shape the overall final product. And of course, it was created without funding or even an office, by various willing parties across the world.
Six years is a long time for game development, and with technology constantly evolving, this would usually be cause for concern. But in 2006, when Unknown Worlds was opened, with the sole purpose of the new developer to create and release Natural Selection 2, it did so with two key people (Charlie Cleveland, Game Director and Max McGuire, Technical Director) and a thriving worldwide community of willing contributors and fans looking to help at every step of the way. Although based on a mod, and with a large and vocal fan-base behind them, this was enough for Charlie and Max to take the plunge, secure some funding and create a new game studio.
“It was definitely a small operation and some of the concerns around the start of this were funding, how were they going to keep the lights on, and how were they going to keep paying the rent for the office. Not only that but what is the game design going to look like, and important things like ‘how are we going to make the game?’”
Throughout the course of its long development period Natural Selection 2 averaged only about four full-time workers working on the game day-in and day-out at any given time, covering the key aspects of game and engine programming. For anyone who has ever sat through the credits of a game developed and released in the past few years this would no doubt come as a bit of a surprise as in today’s modern technological climate creating even a mid-budget release, especially a first-person shooter, usually takes dozens if not hundreds of people. So when looking at the development of Natural Selection 2 one could easily assume that Unknown Worlds housed a veritable team of coders, artists, and network specialists.
But coming from the mod scene this approach of keeping the core team small is not unjustified, as it’s fairly common for things like 3D modelling (ie the ‘digital sculpting’ of in-game characters and objects), texturing (ie the artwork and images mapped onto 3D objects and models), music, and sound design to be ‘outsourced’ to other members of the community, who are usually just as willing to spend the vast majority of their free time contributing their skills and talents for nothing more than mutual appreciation. In the case of Natural Selection 2 this was no different, albeit now with the backing of a newly created studio and a retail release on the horizon, it meant that recruiting new talent didn’t stop at those who lived within the same city as the studio or a subsidiary, but allowed an identical model to be adopted, with financial backing to secure the very best of the community support, and to make sure they get paid.
“As we’re getting closer to release, we’ve currently got only nine people working in the office. In addition to this we’ve also got another nine full-time and part-time off-site workers who are excellent contributors, with animators elsewhere in the US as well as Indonesia. We’ve got all of our sound work being performed by someone from Sydney, Australia and pretty much all of our mappers are located within the UK.”
“There is a trend for sequels to simplify gameplay mechanics, especially when they’re being tailored for consoles. But there has been a huge amount of usability work done, as the original Natural Selection was a bit of a pain when you jumped into it. It was hard to work out what was going on, what you were supposed to be doing and where you were supposed to go. All of the intricacies were hidden, which people who have been playing the game for years, take for granted. We wanted to ease this initial access with Natural Selection 2, but whilst ensuring that the depth is still there and the skill curve is being maintained. This is not the sort of game where you jump in and buy the greatest weapon as a piece of DLC and instantly dominate a map - skilled players will always shine.”
A game that blends both real-time strategy (RTS) and team-based first-person shooting (FPS) into one cohesive whole? On genre premise alone it sounds like a game strictly for the hardcore, long before you throw in the mix of aliens and marines fighting it out on distant interplanetary industrial installations. And Natural Selection 2 wears this badge proudly -- it is a hardcore PC game. But even though this is a hardcore game, there is no point in having elements within a game being complex for the sake of being complex. This is something Unknown Worlds has gone to great lengths to minimise, not only to help broaden the appeal of the game to newcomers but to also streamline the experience for skilled players as well.
In the early days of the studio there were only a handful of people handling the brunt of the work, and a lot of the time was spent figuring out exactly how each element of the game was going to work. This was a slow process, but a necessary one if the developer was to reach their goal of not only surpassing the original in terms of quality but to make something special that will, in itself, create a new community and hopefully a new legion of fans. As the original Natural Selection was a mod of the original Half-Life engine it came as no surprise that development of Natural Selection 2 began utilising Valve’s very popular Source engine (which itself powered and debuted with Half-Life 2).
But early on during the development of Natural Selection 2, the team felt that in order to create their specific vision of the game, they would need to stop development using the Source engine and instead opt for creating their own, which would end up being called the Spark Engine. This shift meant that in addition to creating their very first game, Unknown Worlds were also creating their very own game engine. When factoring in the long development cycle of the game, this shift to an entirely new engine makes perfect sense when the details are explained but no doubt also justify exactly why the wait for the game’s release has well, taken so long.
“The real story here may be with the Spark Engine which has been developed concurrently with the game. Every engine is different; CryEngine is different to Source Engine, which is different to Unreal Engine, which is different to the Unity Engine, which is different to Spark Engine. It would take a very brave person to argue which engine is best, because each engine does different things very well. Spark is a different engine, not a better one, it does different things well. Spark has allowed us to develop Natural Selection 2 faster, has allowed us to make it better, and it fits with the game’s specific gameplay and design philosophy.”
The Spark Engine in its inception and development was not created as a like-for-like alternative to established and well known engines such as Source or Unreal, it simply catered for the unique blend of strategy and shooting, and the science-fiction setting of Natural Selection 2. One of the key differences of the Spark Engine is in the way it handled dynamic lighting and by ensuring that the game could cater for a very simple premise of being able to turn off the lights, let things go completely dark, and then be able to switch immediately to moody red-hued emergency lights. This premise was a key aspect to creating the atmosphere within the game, as its science-fiction setting based on humans fighting alien hordes lends itself to game maps and environments where lighting reacts dynamically to each push and pull over territorial control.
Dynamic lighting exists in most engines today, and can definitely be seen in the Source Engine through the use of flashlights in games like Half-Life 2 and Left for Dead, but in these specific examples the dynamic lighting employed is simply a case of said lighting being placed on top of a statically lit environment or map. By ensuring the Spark Engine is completely dynamically lit, it allows for these real-time changes to occur without the need to recompile (or process) each map, and with little to no performance cost. As in the example above this has allowed for key mechanics within the game, such as being able to build and restore ‘power nodes’ throughout a particular map, to become one of the game’s trademark atmospheric elements. This makes the Spark Engine simply become the right fit, not only for the game, but for the developer overall. It speaks to the ambition and vision of the game whereby a key element that requires players to literally fight over sections of each map to try and keep the power and lights going that also infinitely adds to the atmosphere in addition to being uniquely strategic, was not compromised, but instead treated as a challenge that required to be overcome.
“From a philosophical point of view, Natural Selection 2 came from modding, and it owes its existence to modding communities and games being open. So it would be morally wrong for a game with that kind of history to come out being locked down, and not mod-able for its users.”
Open source is a term that gets most hardcore gaming enthusiasts and hobbyists that dabble in their own development, understandably exited. Natural Selection 2 was born from the mod scene, meaning that it basically owes its existence to communities created by game companies like Valve and id Software (amongst many others) who kept an open policy with their fans and allowed them to use the tools they spent years developing to create not only their own content but entire new game-worlds. Unknown Worlds knows this very well, and with their source code written in an open source scripting language (Lua), they were keen very early on to ensure that Natural Selection 2 was released not only as a stand-alone product but also with extensive mod tools of its own. And with that the overall ambition was to try and ensure that Natural Selection 2 and its Spark Engine could be seen as one of the most mod-able engines, and game environments, ever released for PC.
Not only has Natural Selection 2 launched (whilst also providing the tools in beta) with full Steam Workshop support for mod distribution and integration, but it also played an integral part during development which saw staff members hired based on their mod work. With everything from artists to coders to the entire mapping team (located in the UK), outside of the core team at Unknown Worlds, developers whom contributed (and in the case of some, still contribute) to Natural Selection 2, have a long history within the mod community of not only the original game but in other titles as well.
One of the benefits of the Spark Engine which has been tailored extensively to support mods is its fast iteration time, meaning that people can not only create maps but they can also make changes to them on the fly and witness the results almost instantaneously, without the need to recompile their work after each change is being made. By utilising a scripting language over traditional coding, means that the entire game code can be stored in a small 40kb file, which in relative terms means that as an overall benefit the use of scripting languages to program Natural Selection 2 has freed up a lot of time and space without having to hard-code every aspect of each element within the game. From an engine perspective this means that the Spark Engine was able to be created by a much smaller team of people that one would normally associate with coding absolutely everything from scratch.
“Merging genres is always going to be difficult, RTS (real-time strategy) and FPS (first-person shooter) especially because the core mechanics are so different. The core of a traditional RTS, or what people perceive to be an RTS, is that you will autocratically direct your units across a battlefield. Now the core of a FPS is the feeling of being the hero, of being free to do what you want and achieving the kill or victory on your own. In combining the two you’re presented with a challenge because by design and necessity, people should not be able to do either of those things.”
As Natural Selection 2 recently launched on Steam, mods have already begun to start pouring into the Steam Workshop covering all expected additions from Hello Kitty rifle skins to remodelling the exo-suit found within the game to look more like the power suit Ripley from Aliens took control of when she yelled out, “Get away from her you bitch!” There are even some more ambitious mods starting to crop up, including one that’s still early in development called Sanity, which utilises the great dynamic lighting found with the Spark Engine to create a very moody science-fiction based horror game where the very lights themselves are used as weapons.
Although the original Natural Selection featured many elements that would find their way into the sequel, Unknown Worlds had to ensure this new game would further increase both the strategic and tactical elements found within the game whilst focusing on keeping everything balanced. Between the alpha and beta releases of the game there were upwards of 50,000 people playing and testing maps with huge amounts of feedback being given at every step of the way. This meant that although the core of the game remained relatively unchanged throughout this stage of development there were literally countless changes and refinements being made due to community response.
Take the Tram map found within the final release of the game. As the game and engine evolved and introduced new elements, players began to start playing each new build and the Tram map itself began to constantly change and evolve. During this time Unknown Worlds was able to collect huge amounts of statistics in addition to direct player feedback that showed them detailed heat maps pin-pointing exactly where players were dying, where hives were popping up, or where resources were being dropped. The end result was that the Tram map changed almost completely from its alpha incarnation to what can be seen today, not only in terms of layout but also in lighting, artwork, sound, and textures.
“The amount of community feedback that has informed the development of Natural Selection 2 is simply massive, we’re very proud of that and it has made for a better game. This isn’t a game that has been developed and played by some secret QA testers in a secret environment - this has been developed by the players themselves.”
During the development of Natural Selection 2 one of the engine programmers at Unknown Worlds, Dushan Leska, created a mod in his spare time called ‘Sky Cam’ and decided to release it to the community. Although very rudimentary in its inception, this mod allowed players in spectator mode to view the entire map from a top down perspective in a similar fashion to one seen in a strategy game. The community at this stage embraced this mod completely and a team of players developed it further into a competitive-mode style spectator system called ‘Insight’. Its success was immediate and developer Unknown Worlds took it upon themselves to not only integrate it into the actual game but actually hire one of the players responsible for creating the mod to become part of the development team.
This has also meant that maps that have been released with the final build of Natural Selection 2 were a mix of those developed by Unknown Worlds and those made entirely by the community of players who took part in the early play-test groups. This means that post-release, when the community of players grows substantially, both the players themselves and Unknown Worlds expect to see the game change and evolve substantially as time progresses. This has been compared internally within the studio to a Team Fortress 2-style development course whereby the game originally released by Valve in 2007 feels completely different to the one people can play today, and this is not limited to simply new maps and texture sets. As time moved on Valve added content regularly (in addition to countless hats), such as new game modes that were equally as brilliant and diverse as the ones released with the initial game, which Unknown Worlds hopes will also happen over time with Natural Selection 2 (but perhaps without the countless hats).
“We’ve got huge whiteboards in the office full of all these things we want to do but know we can’t do until after ‘Version 1.0’. From improvements to the spectator system, to the UI, new abilities and weapons, to even new game modes, in addition to new maps. We even have this idea where we’d like to see marine players be able to detach their flame thrower fuel canisters from the weapon and use it as a flaming projectile and clear out an entire room.”
Unknown Worlds can be defined as an independent studio that creates large multiplayer games where users can mod, change, contribute to, and experience as a community - together. Although they are in the Natural Selection 2 business for the foreseeable future as new additions and refinements are made to the game, this is the role that Unknown Worlds can quite easily grow into when they decide to branch out to other games.
Which brings us back to the success of programs like Kickstarter, which taking the development of Natural Selection 2 as an example, says more about where audience appetite has always been and not to where it may be today or in the future. But the mod community teaches us something else too, in that a supportive community of gamers can not only result in the financing of an entire game they want to play, but they can also shape, influence and nurture its development as well.
Special thanks to Hugh Jeremy and the team at Unknown Worlds for the creation of this feature.