"We choose to go to the moon," Hugh Jeremy says, "not because it's easy but because it's hard."
This oft-quoted John F. Kennedy line may very well be the mantra for the whole team at Unknown Worlds, the tiny studio behind the not-so-tiny game Natural Selection 2. They have only seven full-time staff. And they're doing what Jeremy, the team's communications head and self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades, says "shouldn't be possible."
"We've taken on a massive challenge," Jeremy told me on the phone last week, sounding more excited than nervous. "We've bitten off more than we can chew."
Unknown Worlds co-founders Charlie Cleveland and Max McGuire have invested a great deal of time and money into this project. Over the past six years, they've dedicated weekends, nights, and early mornings to development. They don't take holidays or vacations. "They've been through a hell of a lot," Jeremy said.
It's not just them: the bulk of Natural Selection 2's development, which began all the way back in 2006, was handled by four people, including Cleveland and McGuire. They gradually evolved into a team of seven full-time employees, a handful of part-timers, and what Jeremy calls an "army of volunteers" who play the beta, give feedback, and even program their own mods and tools for the community.
This is hardly unusual for an indie game: critical hits like Braid and Minecraft were created by even smaller teams. What is unusual is that Natural Selection 2 looks like a triple-A, big-budget, $50 million title. It runs on an original engine that the team developed just for this game. It's ambitious, competitive, and difficult to market: as Jeremy points out, it's a simple game, but a "very hard concept" to sell.
"Natural Selection 2 is a little bit like the landing of Curiosity," Jeremy told me. "What has been done should not have been possible."
On October 31, 2002—Halloween night—a programmer named Charlie Cleveland released a Half-Life mod called Natural Selection. Sort of a cross between a real-time strategy game and a first-person shooter, Natural Selection starred two asymmetrical opposing races—the marine Frontiersmen and the alien Kharaa—as they fought a series of never-ending battles. Each race had its own set of units, resources, and special abilities. You could play them in entirely different ways.
What made Natural Selection stand out among the hordes of other shooter mods that sprung from Half-Life's engine was its focus on cooperation: one player on the marine team, for example, could play as the Commander, looking at the battlefield from a top-down perspective (as opposed to a first-person, in-the-trenches angle) and barking out orders to other players, who may or may not listen. Imagine playing a game like StarCraft, for example, except when you give your unit an order, he or she might just ignore you and do something else entirely. The units are humans. And players loved it.
At least 300,000 people downloaded Natural Selection. That's a "conservative estimate," Jeremy says: those numbers are only based on the people who downloaded the mod off Natural Selection's official website. It was available in many other places. So the actual number was likely higher. Cleveland's hard work was justified.
"[Cleveland] sat in his apartment for the better part of two years with no real income, no social life, no nothing," Jeremy said, "and just coded and created the original NS way back in the day."
But it's hard to make money off a mod: after all, it's attached to someone else's game. There are legal complications that can prevent you from selling it as a stand-alone product, no matter how popular or different it might feel.
"[He was thinking] 'Hey, how can I share this with more people?'" Jeremy said. "As a mod you are relatively limited in what you can do. You have to be getting resources from somewhere else since you can't sell the game, and it's important to have an income as a game designer."
So Cleveland brought two friends on board: Max McGuire, a programmer who is now the technical director on Natural Selection 2, and Cory Strader, art director for both games. "The three of those blokes are the real core of the team," Jeremy said.
The blokes put in some seed money, pitched their idea to investors, and eventually mustered up the funding to start their own company, Unknown Worlds. Several years later, in 2009, they opened up the beta and started letting customers pre-order Natural Selection 2. For $35, you could get your hands on the beta, a free copy of the full game when it was released, and complete access to the game's internal development kit, including animation tools, a debugger, and anything else that crafty modders might need to program and design cool things.
Without this openness, Jeremy says, Natural Selection 2 wouldn't have become what it is today.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article calling for game makers to be more talkative, for publishers to stop cultivating a culture of corporate silence.
Jeremy reached out to me the next day. "Some of us do talk. A lot," he said in an e-mail. And when we hopped on the phone for a chat last week, he elaborated: if not for the large community of fans and modders, the community that they talk to with every day, Natural Selection 2 would not be Natural Selection 2.
"The community is literally building the game, and I mean that in the most literal sense."
"I think the only X-factor we have is that Max doesn't pretend he's the greatest coder in the world: he just does amazing things," Jeremy said. "Charlie doesn't think he's the best game designer in the world: he just does great game design. And Cory doesn't think he's the best art director in the world: he just does great art.
"The best X-factor we have is our community. It comes down to the people who aren't in the office with us... The reason we're talking so much is that people are pre-ordering this game and funding this game's development. Without them the project would not exist."
Modders have created tons of features that made it to the final game, Jeremy says. They've created stat-tracking programs. A spectator system to allow outside viewers to watch games. Maps. Sound design tools.
"The community is literally building the game," he said, "and I mean that in the most literal sense... That should not be possible for a team like us. But it is because our game is open source."
In other words, they're successful because they don't keep secrets. Unknown Worlds has even made hires from the community: they hired several people, including a programmer and even Hugh Jeremy himself, based on their outside contributions.
(Jeremy was a YouTuber, he tells me: "a mini tiny version of [popular StarCraft II shout-caster] Husky." He was recording YouTube videos of Natural Selection 2 during his spare time and the team eventually asked him to come out and join them.)
"It doesn't matter how hard it is. We just have to do it-because we have to. There's no other choice."
Still, they're tiny. What a bigger studio might do with ten people, they do with one. So the folks behind Natural Selection 2 have put all their cards on the table. They're not afraid to communicate, to tell their fans exactly what's happening. And even when they can't deliver on promises—the game's original release date, for example, was fall 2009—they try to be open with their fans.
(The game couldn't meet its first release target because the team decided to shift gears, broaden the scope, and create their own original engine. They didn't realize just how much time and effort it would take. Jeremy says the game is now "a much better, bigger, deeper experience" than it ever was.)
"A lot of developers—rightly or wrongly—have to be a closed shop," Jeremy said. "A publisher will tell them that they're not allowed to release anything before the set marketing date, and that's fine: there's a lot of great games that operate that way. We just didn't have that option. We had to get involved with the nitty-gritty."
Theirs is a refreshing mentality, but it might be premature to say that it's worked. Unknown Worlds can't sustain themselves as a company based on pre-orders alone: 40,000 was a great start, but once they launch, they'll have to sell at least a few hundred thousand copies of the game to stay alive, Jeremy says. They haven't finalized a price yet, but Jeremy promises that Natural Selection 2 will sell for under $35. It'll be out at some point soon for PC only.
"We wouldn't tell any company what to do because we're not a success," Jeremy said. "It's entirely possible this'll flop and other studios will rightly look at us and go, 'Well that didn't work and it's not valid: you need more money, you need a bigger team, you need to do it faster, you need to lock it down.'"
So they're gambling. Hoping it will take off. Hoping Natural Selection 2 will be as popular as the first one was, that they can justify this unique approach. Hoping they'll reach the moon.
"Charlie, Max, and Cory have sacrificed personally, financially, emotionally—huge quantities of that into this game, into this project, and they continue to do so," Jeremy said. "It doesn't matter how hard it is. We just have to do it—because we have to. There's no other choice."