As an independent developer working without a traditional publishing agreement, Unknown Worlds Entertainment has to find non-traditional sources of revenue to fund development, and founder Charlie Cleveland says direct pre-sales of its upcoming Natural Selection 2 are becoming a bigger part of the picture.
"Natural Selection 2 pre-sales have completely changed our financial picture," Cleveland told Gamasutra in an interview this week. Unknown Worlds has generated about $220,000 from preorders, compared to nearly half a million dollars raised from angel investors.
So while a majority of the San Francisco-based studio's funding still comes from outside firms, the impact of preorders to faithful fans has been significant -- moreso than Unknown Worlds had banked on.
Natural Selection 2 is an PC online multiplayer strategy/shooter hybrid, a direct successor to the original Half-Life mod Natural Selection -- one of the most popular and original Half-Life mods ever, and one which retains an active community even as of its seventh birthday this week.
The game's mechanics, which blend multiplayer FPS with one player's unique strategic top-down "commander mode," have rarely been successfully duplicated elsewhere.
The new game, due next year, is a standalone product, not a mod -- and the team, led by technical director Max McGuire, has gone so far as to develop its own complete engine and development environment, after dropping Valve's Source engine two years ago due to usability and cost issues.
"We knew that we needed more money," Cleveland explained. "We thought, 'Hey, why aren't we pre-selling this game? We've got enough here that we can actually start showing.' So we did, and the fan response was way bigger than what we were expecting. We're hoping that they will continue to support us and that more people will be tempted to preorder as we show more, and once we give them stuff they can download and play with."
The studio is selling two preorder packages through its site: a $20 standard version, and a $40 version with cosmetic in-game additions. As it turns out, 95 percent of preorders have been for the more expensive package, which Cleveland admits has "really surprised" the team. One of the bullet points on that second-tier package is "Our eternal gratitude."
The direct-to-consumer strategy makes Unknown Worlds part of a growing body of online-focused PC developers who are succeeding among the hardcore community on the back of constant interaction with their fans, who in return seem more willing to offer their financial support. Two other studios adopting similar methods, Runic Games (Torchlight) and Riot Games (League of Legends), both released games this week exclusively through digital distribution.
Digital distribution's rapid growth has carved out a space for those studios that hardly existed before. "The model has changed so much, so quickly," Cleveland said. "Five years ago, there wasn't a clear path for us."
Earlier on, the studio made extra money here and there with side projects -- it released the casual Zen of Sudoku through Steam, and it has licensed its internal Lua debugger, Decoda, to external game companies including Electronic Arts.
Now, Unknown Worlds hopes one of the biggest incentives to spurring preorders is early access starting next month to its ambitious proprietary toolset, which includes all of the studio's own assets necessary to make custom levels and post-processed cinematics. The company has said it will purchase the best user levels for official inclusion in the final release.
And Cleveland says its tools are robust enough that modders or indie developers can use them to make entirely new games -- just like Unknown Worlds did with the Half-Life engine when it made the original Natural Selection.
"People should be able to build whatever kind of game they want to," he explained. "RPGs, RTSes, FPSes, all that stuff should be totally easy, as long as it's basically current-gen 3D. It uses Lua script, with no waiting for anything to build. All real-time editing for levels -- see your changes in-game instantly."
The real-time editing capabilities were part of why Unknown Worlds eventually dropped Source, which doesn't have that feature. "Because we are a small team, we are focused on having tools that easily allow us to make a cool, innovative game," Cleveland said. "By building those tools for ourselves, we should give them out to our players, too. We came from the mod community. We want them to build cool stuff."