Today 7 faithful years ago a few gentlemen gathered together to release a mod that simply took the gaming and modding community by storm, that mod is Natural Selection for good old Half-Life. At that point it was something fresh and exciting that captivated gamers to extremes of thousands of people becoming dedicated to the game, spending a large chunk of their gaming quota on a mod is almost unheard of especially in gaming today.
Its really crazy to look at the stats of Natural Selection on its ModDB profile alone Natural Selection has been downloaded over 18,654 times from 2007 and since its release in October of 2002, has had over 2 million downloads world wide, and had been played for 2 billion player-minutes. That is a lot of people enjoying something a few guys cooked up on their home PC's with little to no experience in professional game development.
To celebrate this event I was able to get in touch with Natural Selection 1 and 2's game director Charlie Cleveland to ask him about how he feels looking back on 7 years of blood, sweat and aliens.
ModDB: What was the toughest part of development in the past 7 years?
Charlie: There was a bleak period before we got any investment, where I was funding the company off my credit cards. I was heavily in debt and a small team and I had been working without much to show for it. I had made a casual game to try to bring in more revenue and that didn't do nearly as well as I was hoping. I remember going to the Game Developer's Conference and everyone was asking me what was wrong - they could see how frustrated I was. I was feeling like a failure and didn't see a way out.
The last day of the show I was giving a talk and frankly told the audience (that turned out to be about 50% NS players!) forget investors and forget publishers and that the best way to get your dream game made was to make a much smaller game quickly, make a little money off of it, grow a little, make another game, etc. until you finally have the money and resources to make the game you wanted to in the first place. The process is known as "bootstrapping" and works great, but can be long and tiring, especially when the fire in your belly burns for another game. In the audience was a local investor who heard my (desperate, I can only imagine) story and for some reason came to speak with me after. 1 year later, he and a few friends of his ended up investing in Unknown Worlds.
ModDB: What were your aims at the beginning of development on Natural Selection?
Charlie: I was endlessly excited about a game that both first-person shooter and strategy fans could play together. My co-workers wanted to play FPS games and I wanted to play Starcraft. In real battle, there is tons of planning and strategy. R&D and technology plays a huge (if not dominant) component. I didn't know why game didn't bring these two together.
I saw the top-down mode in Tribes but it wasn't fleshed out. Battlezone was a huge push in this direction but was designed such that one player had to play both FPS and RTS simultaneously. When I saw Counter-strike I realized that mods have come of age and were a completely viable way to get a game out to the masses. In summer of 2001, I started coding up ideas in the Half-life engine. My goal was simply to bring this game concept to as many people as possible. I knew it was hard to make a popular game and make money right out of the gate, so I thought it best just to try to make a popular game and figure out the business stuff later. I'm a developer, so that's the part that excited me anyways.
ModDB: What time in the development of the original NS did you decide to focus on making a sequel?
Charlie: After continuing work on NS for so long and putting out over 20 versions, I could finally catch my breath. At first it was about fixing the big issues, then it was about reworking the game to flow better. I was trying to grow it and make it as large as possible. NS v1.0 was kind of like an alpha and it still needed a lot of work. After a couple years of that (and living hand-to-mouth off player donations), I realized my personal life needed a lot of help. I had been in my room for a few years and needed to move and rediscover myself. I also wanted to bring NS to the next level so I started thinking about how I could get NS2 funded. I didn't have a high opinion of publishers and I wanted to keep the NS intellectual property so I thought about investors. All of those things led to me moving from Boston to California and trying to get NS2 funded.
ModDB: Did you ever expect to have come this far on one idea alone?
Charlie: Sometimes I wonder how far we HAVE come! We've made some significant progress, but come on, it's been 7 years! I wish it went a lot faster. Sometimes feel like other people are starting companies, launching games, etc. and we're still just plodding along, trying to get NS2 built and released. There were a few years there where it was a bit depressing and I just didn't know how to make any progress. That all changed when Max (co-founder and lead programmer) joined. The company took another big leap when got our first angel investment and another leap when Cory (the lead artist from NS) joined us full-time. I had been trying to get him to quit his job and work with me for YEARS! We never had the money to pay him.
So it's been a whole lot of small steps and today we're just a bit closer to our goals. It hasn't been easy and at times it's been downright unpleasant but I can't imagine doing anything else.
The story of Natural Selection and the Unknown Worlds team will long be remembered, unlike the other successful mods out there to date like Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, DOTA, Natural Selection is only where it is today because the extreme dedication and love poured into it by Charlie and his team. So from the staff here on ModDB and modders world wide here is to another 7 years of Natural Selection!