Natural Selection 2 Interview
In 2002 a group of modders released “Natural Selection”, a Half-Life mod that pitted aliens versus marines in combat. Ten years later the sequel, Natural Selection 2, is finished. NS2 is an FPS/RTS hybrid with a lot of promise. Unknown Worlds, the company formed by the team behind NS1, has set out to create not only an ever-evolving, polished sequel, but the very engine it runs on. Pixel Judge’s Apollo (Ben) had the chance to speak with Hugh Jeremy from Unknown Worlds.
Ben (Apollo): Hello again listeners and readers! It's Ben from Pixel Judge. Today I'm speaking with Hugh Jeremy from Unknown Worlds — the Team behind Natural Selection, Zen of Sudoku, and Dakota. He'll be answering some of the questions we have regarding the upcoming Natural Selection 2. Thank you so much for being here.
Hugh Jeremy: Thank you Ben for taking an interest in NS2!
Ben: Why don't we begin with some of the basic history behind Unknown Worlds and behind Natural Selection games (for those who are new to them). What inspired and drove you all?
Hugh: Well, Natural Selection was released 10 years ago as a mod for Half-Life, so Unknown Worlds didn't exist back then. There was no studio making Natural Selection — it was driven by Charlie who was the Co-Founder of Unknown Worlds. He put that out and he spent 2 years locked in his apartment coding away to make that mod happen (with the help of some other awesome people). In 2006 he decided that Natural Selection was such a success (and it WAS a big success) that it was worth trying to make a full-on standalone sequel — and that's where Unknown Worlds was born, and it was co-founded by Max and Charlie. Here we are today, 6 years on, about to release Natural Selection 2.
Ben: So as you mentioned it did come out 10 years ago and it had quite the positive reception. The sequel is now nearly finished with a release date of October 31st, what aspects of the game do you think were the most time-consuming during development?
Hugh: I think the most time consuming aspect was not the game, it's the thing that's more exciting than the game which is the Spark Engine, which is the engine NS2 is running on. It's a brand new engine developed in-house by effectively one man — Max (the technical director and co-founder), and that has been definitely the most time-consuming thing. It's also the thing that's produced the most benefits but the game itself has been built in conjunction with the engine. That, while not easy, has been less time-consuming than the engine itself.
The play styles and game mechanics of the two sides offer very different experiences to players.
Ben: You switched to the Spark Engine in 2008 because of licensing and flexibility, I think you originally had it on the Source Engine, correct?
Hugh: Yes but we didn't switch because of licencing. Licensing arrangement was fine, everyone was very happy. Valve is a very generous company in that regard, but the switch was simply because everything out there is very different. There is no engine that's the “best engine.” CryEngine 3 is very good at certain things. The Source Engine is very good at certain things. Unreal is very good at certain things. Each engine is appropriate for a different type of game. There wasn't an engine out there that was really appropriate for what Charlie, Max and everyone else wanted NS2 to be, and so the Spark Engine has been created to be that. And moving away from Source was, well, there were things that we wanted Source to do that it couldn't do, and that's not to say Source was not a good engine, it's just to say that Spark is a very different type of engine.
Ben: That's great, though it seems like it's a very ambitious project then, because what you're doing with Spark is you're creating your own engine that allows you to craft NS2 in a way that meets your vision for the game. Do you think you've really been able to do that?
Hugh: Absolutely Ben. You're right on there. There have been no limits with NS2 because the engine is being written from scratch. So for example, one thing that Spark can do is — all the environments are fully, dynamically-lit. There's no static lighting in Spark, versus Source (again, not saying this is better or worse, just that it's different and it's better for other things) which does statically light its environments and you compile a map before you play it. We can do things like cut the power to an entire room, so for example an alien could take down a power node and cut out all the lights. Suddenly it's pitch-black and none of the structures work. It's a very terrifying environment. Another side to that coin is that mapping on Spark is very very fast, because a mapper doesn't have to compile the map to see the results. It's instantly previewed. That kind of fast-iteration — stuff that allows small numbers of people to create big content very quick is at the core of what Spark is.
Ben: It's solid then. Do you all plan on licensing that engine then?
Hugh: We're not going to turn it into a licensing company or a technology company. So when I say that I mean like Unreal. For example, when someone wants to license Unreal there's a huge support staff behind it. It's very much an in-depth process. You require a lot of staff and expertise, and it's a big undertaking. What we would like to do, though, is to say to anyone who wants to create a project on Spark: Yes we can talk on a one-to-one basis, and we'd obviously want to come to terms that would be good for small, independent developers. Especially ones that are looking for a leg-up, and are looking for an engine that would be appropriate for them (for a small team), and that don't want to pay millions of dollars or whatever in licensing. We think there might be a small niche for Spark, it's not going to be a huge focus for anyone else, but we're excited by the possibility. What we are more excited about though is the fact that people can create games already using Spark. They already have, actually. They haven't sold them, obviously. But because NS2 is so ridiculously moddable, being open source and all, games are already being produced by a lot of people, so there's a lot of really exciting stuff out there.
Regardless of player count, every game has the potential to be totally chaotic.
Ben: Right, and that actually leads perfectly into my next question: when it comes to modding tools it sounds like there are already some going around out there. Are you going to be publishing any additional toolkits or anything when the game comes out?
Hugh: I love that question. I can tell you that they're all already out there, and they've always been out there, and they'll always be out there. Everyone who has NS2 on their computer has the development tools in their NS2 directory. They're there by default, they're included in every copy of the game (ever since the original alpha release), and they will be there for everyone that ever buys the game, so that includes everything: map editor, animation tools, cinematic editor (a bit like Source filmmaker) which we used to create our in-engine trailers, and heaps of other tools in there. Obviously, there's the scripting tool that you can really mess around with freely called Dakota. They're all out there and they'll always be out there.
Ben: How did you call come to decide, then, on using Steam as the sole distributor of the game, and were you approached by other digital download services?
Hugh: Steam, there has always been a very good relationship with Valve because the original NS was on Gold Source, and it might have lead to a couple of hundred copies of Half-Life being sold — you never know. So Valve has always been very nice to Unknown Worlds, they've been very supportive and it was a natural fit to use the Steam service as a back-end for selling the game. Obviously it's great to be on the Steam store, and we're very thankful to Valve for allowing us to be on there. But also there's the back-end of the content distribution. They've been doing the distribution through Steam of all the Alpha/Beta builds for the last two or three years, they're distributing the game, there are a lot of ancillary services behind it — server listing, all of that is coming through Steam. However, it's not an exclusive thing and Steam has kindly allowed us to put up keys for sale on other websites, so there's the possibility for people who would rather purchase from another outlet to do so. Steam's a great fit for NS, though, in terms of content distribution and server listing.
Ben: Alrighty, now I've got a two-part question! Let's talk markets and consumers. So how do you feel about the publicity of the game and what are your sales goals? Are you looking to break-even and simply provide the public with an unforgettable sequel, or would you like to maybe fund a continuation of the NS series (or fund an entirely new IP)?
Hugh: All of the above. It's very much the dream that Unknown Worlds will proceed past October 31st, and enough copies will be sold to allow us to move on to not only other projects, but possibly another IP down the track, or another NS. The most important thing post-release of NS2 is that development will start immediately after the launch party. That development is still NS2. We're not leaving it for occasional patching or anything, we've released 75+ builds of this game since it went up in alpha. We're not about to stop just because we passed our official release date. We will continue for a very long time to add content for free; maps, game content, modes, all sorts of stuff is coming. There are a huge numbers of features that we want to put in post-release. Now, to do that we need to sell copies. It's a business reality. We can't continue if we don't sell, so the answer is: We'd like to sell as many copies as possible because we'd like the NS experience to be shared by as many people as possible, and because we want to make the NS experience better and better and better for the entire foreseeable future.
Cooperation and reflexes required.
Ben: Publishers, then. Do you have active communications with any publishers, or have you strayed away from that and tried to remain independent entirely?
Hugh: I'm sure Charlie and Max like the idea of staying independent, there are benefits to that and there are challenges — big challenges. There are images of publishers as the big, mean, scary corporations that just devour indie developers and destroy them. It's not entirely accurate. You occasionally do get approached by publishers who want to talk to you, you know, “Hey what's this cool game you've got.” Right now there just isn't a need. Unknown Worlds is doing okay without a publisher. Obviously, there are investors who have contributed to the project, but right now it's all fine. If we continue to sell well it will continue to be fine. We're not against talking with publishers, but we're a company who would like to retain the benefits of staying independent for now.
Ben: Natural Selection 2, according to its Wikipedia page, is funded largely by informal investors. I don't think Kickstarter was around when you first dove into development, but now that it's around could you see Unknown Worlds getting involved in the future?
Hugh: We actually did do a Kickstarter before Kickstarter even existed. Natural Selection 2 was mostly funded by crowd-source funding. Way back in 2009 there was a pre-order program for NS2 where the response was astounding, through which a significant and workable amount of funding was raised to allow the project continue. Those funds are still being used today. While there have been various kinds of investors, the pre-order program was the core of the project’s funding.
Ben: Was that crowd funding project based on your website? How did you facilitate and launch that?
Hugh: Yeah. It was all on Unknown Worlds website and the press was very kind and supportive to us. The word got out and I think a lot of NS fans thought this is not only an opportunity to contribute to NS2 but also a lot of fans, including myself because I wasn’t on the project back then, thought that we were paying for NS1. The chance for NS2 was a bonus that came with it. It was an organic promotion, it was on our website and it was very successful. To this day we are incredibly thankful to everyone who pre-ordered. The project wouldn’t exist without it.
The RTS portion of the game is robust, offering commanders a great deal of control.
Ben: As far as continued support goes — are you looking into releasing future expansion packs or are you more concerned on post launch support right now?
Hugh: It’s a combination of both and we are absolutely focused on post-launch support but when we say post-launch support we don’t mean just bug fixing. We’ve been releasing new content with almost every single patch for the 75 builds we’ve released. This is almost a bi-monthly thing. This will probably slow down a bit but we will very much continue to do it. This will just arrive on your Steam Library and you won’t have to pay for it. Now a long way down the track maybe there will be a new NS something or other with a nominal price but it will be charged only because it’s really big and really deserves to stand on its own. But that would have to be a very significant thing. The focus of the post-release now is to add more, more, more content. Think of this as Team Fortress 2. You bought TF2 way back then and you just got new content forever.
Ben: What kind of content are we talking about? You mentioned maps, weapons, new modes, maybe even new factions or races?
Hugh: A new faction or race would be a huge undertaking so I can’t promise that kind of thing. But absolutely new weapons, new abilities for life forms, especially new visual things. For example, we want to add new visual indicators for which ability an alien has and things like that. There are a lot of new game ideas rolling around. We also want to officially incorporate mod content into the game. We have already done that with maps “Summit” and “Veil”, which were created by the community members and then taken on-board officially. So we give modders a chance to be a part of the official game content.
Ben: So what do you prefer? Do you feel more at home in the commander's chair or on the battlefield? Or do you spend most of your time hopping around, slicing and dicing terrified marines?
Hugh: I like the commander mode. Back when I wasn’t working for Unknown Worlds what attracted me to Natural Selection was the fact that this game is about leadership. It’s very rare to have a game about leadership of other human beings as well as being led. It’s all about teamwork. In StarCraft you click a button and unit obeys because it doesn’t have a choice, it’s an autocratic system. In Natural Selection it’s a leadership system where clicking and giving a unit an order implies a further depth behind that. Maybe that person says “Why are you ordering me to go to this alien hive? I will die!” and you say “I know you will probably die but I need you go in there. I will give you a med pack and you should go in there because we need to see what their technology is and we need a scout in there. Do it for the teammates.”. It’s all about leadership and that’s what’s so cool.
Ben: The game footage we've seen looks like great fun! Everyone should definitely check out Natural Selection 2 footage on YouTube and read up on the series. Thank you Hugh for talking to us today, we all wish you the best, and we hope you throw a great launch party!
Hugh: Thank you very much for the kind words and for taking the time to listen. Thank you.