Life has been a bit messy and unwieldy for Natural Selection 2, the hardcore FPS-RTS hybrid that Unknown Worlds Entertainment released at the end of October 2012. Since last year, the studio has left the development of the game to the community (titled the Community Development Team), and things haven't gone according to plan.
The game has had less than 400 concurrent users since the beginning of the year, and the last time that figure was over 1000 was January 2014. So things need to change, and that's starting with the developers. They're getting back on board.
It all became known to the internet overnight when a draft of an "announcement post" from the game's project lead Hugh Jeremy was inadvertently discovered. In that, Jeremy praised the community developers for ensuring the "long-term survival" of NS2 and adding "multiple high-quality updates [that] have made tangible improvements to the quality of the game".
But the community is small, very small. Jeremy wrote that "there is a clear and present danger" of the game dwindling into oblivion. To avert that, Unknown Worlds is experimenting by hiring a "small group of people from the NS2 community" and building "a business case for renewed NS development funding". "We are going to try things that conventional wisdom suggests are utterly insane."
That's what was in the leaked announcement, anyway. The official post on the Unknown Worlds site doesn't change any of that, although it is much more frank about the situation facing NS2. "The decision to return to NS2 is a big, complex, nuanced one," Jeremy said. "It is hard to describe it all in a single email, blog post, or phone call. It’s even harder to convey the idea that Unknown Worlds doesn’t have all the answers, and that not having an answer is OK."
To that end, Unknown Worlds has posted a string of Q&A's and blog posts from team members fleshing out the rest of their vision for how they might revive NS2. It's not organised or collated in any fashion, but from what I can glean the following appears to be things Unknown Worlds might aim at over the next 3-6 months:
- The developers won't be focusing on doing much media outreach, instead relying on word of mouth from the community and engaging directly with the community. Jeremy responded in a Q&A that "aiming for media exposure appears to be harmful to the success of a game" and that Unknown Worlds' projects have "become much more successful ... since abandoning [media exposure]". If their experiments over the next half year or so work out, that situation might change, but for now don't expect the developers to do much of a PR drive.
- The community development crew won't be dismantled, and Unknown Worlds has no intention of doing so (although Jeremy opined that their workflow might change). "The CDT is, and I think will continue to be, an outstanding success. People are going to give Game Developers Conference talks about it one day. They’re going to study and idolise the NS2 CDT," he said.
- The development team on NS2 is 8 people large, with only one — the engineering, network infrastructure and build lead — working full-time.
- Unknown Worlds wants to reward the community for their contributions, if it becomes widely accepted. In a post to the community, one of the Unknown Worlds team wrote "[the] contribution system has yet to be ironed out, but we’re looking forward to providing an environment where contributions are not only recognized, but compensated." They hope to have finalised the details for the contribution model within three months.
- As is becoming customary, Unknown Worlds will also be making much of the day-to-day patching more visible to the community. "In addition, we will be striving to create mechanisms to allow you ways to give direct feedback on specific changes," the full-time engineer on the NS2 team, Brock Gillespie, wrote.
It'll be interesting to see how things go for NS2. There's certainly a chance that they can pick up some interest over the holiday season with a well-targeted Steam sale — they're not far away — although one suspects the game needs more concessions for casuals if they want the community to grow. An efficient matchmaking system, ala CS:GO, wouldn't go astray, but finding a way to allow new players to function as the Commander without ruining the entire game might be just as crucial to fix.
Either way, I hope they find something. I remember brief dalliances with the original Half-Life mod and there have been few quality FPS-RTS hybrids over the years. NS2 is still one of those, even if it never did strike the chord with the wider gaming masses that I wish it had.