One thing that was rather striking to me about the community around Natural Selection II is that they're exceptionally nice. It's sad that I find this a pleasant surprise thanks to all the negativity out there, but nevertheless it's a redeeming quality that was enough to convince people to buy the game just based on comments in our official review.
"You can't manage a community, can you?" Unknown World's Hugh Jeremy told me. "I mean it's got to be such a natural thing. We like to think we can hopefully prod it in the right direction."
"We had a moment actually at that last eSports [event] where one of the hosts, she was doing things with the community during the game. She was asking people to join in competitions and you could win a video card during it, submit fan art and everything. She says we run this for every show we sell and this is the first show where a community has not sent me a picture of a penis, or made a penis joke about me. That was a really proud moment for us because whether or not that can last as we hopefully grow, it was really heartening to hear that people were treating other people with respect."
The dedicated community surrounding Natural Selection II is just as much part of the development process behind the game as the developers themselves. The community took it upon themselves to help the company any way they could, from trying to get merchandise going, creating an eSports league, and of course helping develop the game itself by creating new modes, new maps, and more.
"Our policy was we were going to try and make the core game mode as good as possible because we just can't make other game modes," Hugh explained to me. "The community has risen to the challenge and made this combat game mode which is a totally different way of playing NS2. It's a fully-fledged game mode. It feels mod-y, you know the polish isn't quite there but it's a fully-fledged thing. I think we have about 30% of our player base playing that at any one time. They're definitely generating very real content, it's not just play as a PlanetSide 2 character [skin mod], there's a lot of meaningful stuff up."
The whole Q&A team is made up of unpaid volunteers even. I played with these fans during my demo of the upcoming Gorgeous update, and Hugh told me they put in hours every day and manage the whole Q&A process.
"We thought we were going to lose them all after launch. We thought they're feeling like they're building it now but after launch they're probably going to feel like they're not building anything. But it hasn't happened. They've continued to build stuff, which is so exciting that they've stayed.
In fact, the community also helps them out at shows and there will be a couple of community guys helping demo Natural Selection II at PAX East this year. "Instead of hiring people, we're flying these [two] guys who volunteered to PAX and they're going to be our PAX booth people. We did that for every show last year except for the first one.
"After the first one, we realized 'Hey, we don't have to send the whole dev team.' There's people that would love to have a hotel, a plane ticket, and an exhibitor pass to PAX. That's cool, because when gamers walk up to the game at PAX East and they say 'Hey, what's this game about?' they don't get a PR pitch, they get someone who loves NS2 and has devoted hours and hours volunteering to it saying this is why I love this game and this is why you might love this game."
Hugh feels that part of the reason that they have such a loyal and passionate fanbase is that "maybe it's the feeling of they're actively building something with us. That it's not a one-way street [where] we're providing a product, and they're engaging with it. It's a very much two-way street. When [Unknown Worlds co-founder] Charlie is working on balancing the game he is taking input from people, and people see their input turned into game input.
"When people tell us this map is not working, and they send us alternate designs for it, those designs go in. The Gorge tunnel idea came from the community, the Babblers were cried out from the community. This stuff people maybe feel like they're building it with us. It's certainly why I wanted to work here, it's cause I felt like I was doing something with these guys even when I was just doing tutorial videos and stuff."
Hugh, like some of the other current staff members at the company, was in fact a hardcore fan before joining with the company. In an interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, it was revealed that Hugh left behind his home, girlfriend, and job in Australia and moved to San Francisco to be part of the company after he got noticed for the 300 plus videos he was creating for Natural Selection II.
"It makes it easier for Max and Charlie in terms of hiring because instead of putting out a job ad and then searching for hours and hours and spending all that time doing it. They just look into the community and go 'We need someone who's going to do more gameplay programming. Who's our best community gameplay programmer? Do they want to help us? Oh they do! Okay, hey do you want a job?' It's a wonderful warm thing."
Another aspect of Natural Selection II that made Hugh such a big fan ages ago, and he suspects the same goes for others, is that this is one of a handful of games that gives you an experience unlike any other. "There's one experience that I think hasn't been explored except in Natural Selection II and some other niche games which is that of leadership, a very real sense. People come into Natural Selection II and often they'll try Commanding and they'll say that was really hard, and we say why was it really hard? They say well I didn't know the tech tree, I didn't know what to click on, etc.
"We found that the best Commanders are not necessarily the ones that know the game the best, [but] they're the best leaders of human beings. They walk into a Command Station and they don't give orders, they lead. There's a huge difference between the two. They ask questions, they give feedback, they encourage, they give people even inspiration. You're encouraging people to move towards a goal together and be happy doing it, and achieving something in it and that's leadership. That's what was my drive, I just love that idea. Let's get that experience in gaming!"