Unknown Worlds' Natural Selection is nearly a decade in the making, and began as the brainchild of Charlie Cleveland, who wanted to combine two of his favorite game genres.
Charlie Cleveland created the first Natural Selection because he was unhappy. The long hours and creative frustrations he endured at a Boston-based developer left him unfulfilled, so in his spare time he began to program and design a mod for Half-Life 2, inspired by mods like "Gloom" that had shown him that modding had potential to create something unique and atmospheric.
As he worked on Empire Earth, Stainless Steel Studios' 2001 real-time strategy game, he began to notice a divergence in tastes. While his friends wanted to play Quake, he wanted to play Starcraft. Their differences were irreconcilable in retail games, so he decided to use his modding skills to change that.
"I love real-time strategy games," Cleveland told Polygon. "But a lot of my friends only love shooters.
"I love real-time strategy games, but a lot of my friends only love shooters."
"It seemed to obvious to me that you could combine those two genres and let one person play the RTS and let everyone else play the shooter stuff," he said.
He teamed up with his friend and coworker, Cory Strader, to design a science fiction first-person shooter RTS hybrid. He found the process so rewarding that he saved money, quit his job, and spent 18 months perfecting the mod.
"Writing snippets of fiction, and programming and play testing — it was just so awesome," Cleveland said. "I’d never been able to do that before."
He released the first Natural Selection at the end of 2002, and the mod gathered 300,000 players, he said. The mod's success proved to him that there was a market for the hybrid he'd envision, and he's been working for the last several years at making its commercial sequel, the upcoming Natural Selection 2.
Unknown Worlds Entertainment is small independent studio based on San Francisco founded to make that dream a reality. Now that their intern has returned to France, the studio proper has seven people. Beyond that core team, there’s about 10 people off-site and an army of beta testers working to bring Cleveland’s brainchild, Natural Selection 2, to Steam in the next several weeks.
"We wrote our own engine, we got investors, we got a lot of money from our beta testers, and now we’re finally on the verge of releasing the game," he said.
Though Unknown Worlds is located in California, much of the Unknown Worlds team hails from Boston. The west coast headquarters began as a personal decision for a change of scenery and build a better life for himself, he said. But he learned that the location had other advantages, too.
"The investment side was definitely a lot easier, but not easy," Cleveland said.
"We’re right in downtown San Francisco, where it’s just wall-to-wall startups. The culture is really right for building stuff and getting money for building stuff. I just really appreciate that."
As the game gets closer to its impending release date, it was time to reveal the corollary to the "Heavies" in Natural Selection. Unknown Worlds wanted to include a corollary, but not copy it. The solution was the Exosuit, which the studio revealed in a video this week.
Here in the home stretch, the studio’s focus is on working with their team of 45,000 beta testers who entered the beta by preordering the game to make sure that Exosuit doesn’t nerf the balance and squash any remaining bugs.
Unknown Worlds’ focus is in its community, just as the mods that he made in 2002 were a service to the community.
"We’ve released over 100 patches and we haven’t released the game yet, and some of those are really big like yesterday’s like with new maps and new units, and sometimes we experiment with stuff," he said. "We’re just getting better at shipping and getting better at getting feedback and I think that’s all preparing us for when we hit [version] 1.0. We’re going to keep doing the same thing — keep iterating, keep pushing out more stuff, and improving the game.
That’s Unknown Worlds' plan: ship a good game, and keep giving.
"We’re gong to be here for a long time."