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Natural Selection team on the pressure to go free-to-play photo

Natural Selection team on the pressure to go free-to-play

And the importance of not fracturing players with paid DLC

3:00 PM on 02.19.2013     by Hamza CTZ Aziz

Right now, the team behind Natural Selection II is focused on making the game better. "No one is working on a new game yet," Unknown World's Hugh Jeremy told me at a recent studio visit. "Charlie (the co-founder and CEO of the company) is sort of maybe thinking about [new game] ideas and talking to us about them but everyone is still working full time on NS2 and will be for the foreseeable future.

"The end result of that is what you're about to see which is this Gorgeous update, so called because one of the units is called a Gorge and our community has kind of rallied around that as the most characterful character that they relate to and love. We've called it Gorgeous and a lot of the stuff going into it is around that character and giving it new things to do.

"We've got the people playing the game, we've got eSports stuff happening, we've got competitive play happening, we've got a healthy public community, this modding community that's taking off -- we just want to keep making it better."

The developers are working on adding new content, all of which will be free, in the same style that games used to be updated back in the day before game companies tried to sell every single piece of content they could.

"The business model, which I guess we're testing, is is it still feasible to do that and continue to sell copies of the game," Hugh told me. "Everyone tells us to go free-to-play, [and] we're kind of not doing that and we have to see if that will work. The old school was just yeah you make a game, and then you patch the game, and people continue to buy your game. But now it's like you launch a service, and you maintain that service. We haven't done that so it's going to be interesting to see where it goes."

There are a few reasons why Unknown Worlds is avoiding the free-to-play route for now, and part of that comes from the pay-to-win scenario. "A lot of games do free-to-play really well but there's a risk with a lot of games that they end up being pay-to-win, to some degree. Even if it's hidden behind layers and layers and layers of game mechanics,  eventually at some point, when you get down to it, someone is paying money and getting something before other people. We felt that was icky, for better or worse. 

"And there's also the whole infrastructure behind that 'cause if we want to, you know, in two years to have NS2 go into that kind of mode you have to have payment systems, you have to have accounts. I mean when someone loads a game of NS2 they don't even get a splash screen, let alone a login prompt. It's so old-school, you just go in, and you play, and that's it. We don't have any accounts for our users, we have no way to even contact them -- there's no tracking of anything. So yeah, there's barriers there but that Valve idea is so exciting. They're such clever guys. It's great, people do what they love [while] they get benefit out of it, the whole community gets benefit out of it, and the developer can continue to make games and economies for them.

"Personally, I would love it if people could create for NS2 and have that creation be popular and then they get benefit from it. But we don't have the infrastructure for that, so at the moment if you've got a map for NS2, you've made it in the map editor, you just put it up and it goes on the Steam Workshop. The most popular map, Summit, was a community creation. Hopefully he can put it on his resume and say 'Hey look, I made the most popular map for NS2!'"

There's a lot riding on the upcoming Gorgeous downloadable content as it will be a big deciding factor on the company's direction in the future. "We're going to put this [big content update] out, and we're going to look at how it does but we've already got plans for the next one. We're going to put this big content update out where it's got all this new stuff, then continue the maintenance builds for another three months, and then at the end of that do yet another content update.

"It's going to be really interesting to see if people respond to that with 'Hey, that's pretty cool. This game is still being supported. I might have been holding out on buying it and now I might buy it!' And then if they do and we get however many thousands of people choose to do that suddenly we've got a business case for continuing that post-release support for free. It is all of course for free to anyone that's already bought NS2. We're going to find out in the next few weeks what our business model for being able to support the company into the future is going to be, and whether people will still respond to what everyone used to do which was just patch games and continue that.

It was also important for the team to release all their future new content for free as opposed to charging for it. "[People] keep saying why is this not a paid DLC? Endlessly people say to us why don't you take the game free-to-play and then release this as piece mail content? There's multiple reasons, one of them is that we're all PC gamers here. We love PC gaming, and there are examples of games doing it really well but a lot of us have been exposed to games that have gone down that pay-to-win path. And also, it can be a community-fracturing path as well when you monetize everything in the game, and it all becomes about how much have you bought.

"There's that cultural thing, and then there's also the technical side. It's definitely feasible for a team of eight plus offsiters, but there's a lot of backend financial stuff that has to happen. And also if you do a DLC like the Gorgeous update and you have to buy it for $2 or whatever, say we have 3,000 concurrent players and 1,000 of them buy it, then suddenly we've fractured our community down the middle. Suddenly what happens to the competitive scene? Are we playing this in Gorgeous or are we playing this in Vanilla? What if we released another content update? How does that interact? It just becomes messy horrible mess of who owns what and we don't want that."

Natural Selection II was released October 31, 2012 for the PC. You can pick it up right now on Steam for $24.99.









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