‘Subnautica’ Game Director Says Early Access Saved the Studio

Jeremy Ray
Games Indie Games
Games Indie Games PC Gaming

The world loves Subnautica. Its blend of survival, story, and terrifying underwater close calls has become this year’s early indie success story. Not only is it famous for being fun, it’s become the new example of how to develop a game using the community’s voice as a guiding star.

For developer Unknown Worlds, Subnautica is miles away from its last game, Natural Selection 2 — a hybrid of real-time strategy and first-person shooter that saw marines battling aliens that would evolve mid-battle.

We grabbed the studio co-founder and game director on Subnautica, Charlie Cleveland, to talk about the road to launch and some of the game’s unique design decisions.

FANDOM: We spent a fair bit of time in Natural Selection 2, and this seems like a very different kind of project for Unknown Worlds. Were there any lessons from asymmetrical multiplayer shooters that carried over?

Charlie Cleveland: Heh. After many years making Natural Selection 2, we really needed a change! So we left the competitive RTS/Shooter genre and made a slow, story-based game. It was a great creative challenge that still let us leverage our sci-fi roots.

I would like to say we learned how to scope down after NS2 but I don’t think that’s true. I think we did figure out how to make a game that was much “looser” design-wise, which allowed many people on the team to contribute creatively without “breaking” the game. NS2 was tightly balanced, and with a few bad numbers the whole thing went awry. That was stressful and meant I had to make all design/balance changes, so we wanted to try something different with Subnautica.

The open-world and atmospheric nature of the game really meant we could have a lot of optional content in there that didn’t have to be tightly integrated with everything else.

You’ve had a very collaborative development process with your community. Can you talk about your favourite aspects of that, and what the collaboration resulted in?

We were on the brink of financial disaster, which was averted when our community started supporting us financially in Early Access. Simply put, Subnautica wouldn’t be the game it is, nor the success that it is, without our community.

We started by being inspired by Minecraft and Don’t Starve, but we didn’t know exactly what we were going to focus on. In the beginning it was all about procedural generation of worlds, sub-building and “science,” but we quickly realized some of those things weren’t working well. We also could see where our players were having powerful emotional responses – big creatures, scary creatures, scary environments, the deep, dark blackness below them, etc.

Charlie Cleveland says Subnautica saved Unknown Worlds

That made us drop the vague science elements and focus instead on the more emotional side of the game, which was absolutely invaluable.

Our community also gave us hundreds of thousands of Subnautica feedback tickets (submitted in-game), which helped us figure out what to work on next. We can no longer read reports individually, but we can run queries to see which keywords are “hot” and look for spikes in other terms.

Besides giving us lots of quantitative data (each report is tagged with the exact location in the world so we can find and fix the problems quickly), it also gave us a good temperature of what our players are feeling. One of our team members was traveling through London airport and was inspired by their smiley system, and used that as a basis for our feedback.

We’d love to get your perspective on what effect a “main objective” has on an open world survival game (eg, the great mystery in Subnautica). Does it help or hinder longevity? Does it attract a certain type of objective-oriented gamer that wouldn’t normally dabble in survival gameplay? What other effects does it have?

Our story mode happened quite organically. We could see our fans wanting it and we felt the desire for “more” as well. I think your questions are astute though – it may actually hinder longevity, as there is now an end, and once beaten, players might be likely to believe there’s nothing more to see.

But I’d like to think that players will sometimes ignore the story, preferring to play their own way, or continue playing instead of “finishing” it. I think we layered in the story in a subtle enough way that it’s more like breadcrumbs you can choose to follow, and only if you want to.

I haven’t seen a lot of survival games incorporate story so it’s certainly possible we appeal to a type of player who wants a dramatic experience and wouldn’t normally be excited about straight up survival. But in this market, I think games need more of a hook than just survival.

Is the mystery element something you plan to keep expanding on?

Yes and no. Subnautica as-is, is done. We made the game we wanted to make and we’re proud of it. We’re not planning on adding new tools, vehicles, etc. But that said, we’ve fallen in love with Planet 4546B and the world of Subnautica, so we’d like to add more to it.

So we’ve started working in earnest on an expansion which we’ll be announcing soon. It’s not a traditional expansion, but a full, standalone story set in the same world. So we fully intend on continuing the mystery.

Underwater levels have kind of been a traditionally hated part of gaming for a long time. Any idea why that is, and did you try to combat that in any way in Subnautica?

We knew this going in, and we had multiple people tell us our game would fail! Underwater is too boring, too blue and movement too slow. We solved the movement problem in our original prototypes and over time and with persistence, I think we solved the other problems as well.

We started the player in the most colorful and easy to navigate area, the Safe Shallows. Then over time, as the player gains faster speed (via fins, the Seaglide, Seamoth, etc), the player can journey to deeper areas that are less densely populated. Movement doesn’t feel too boring when you can move faster, and also when you can hear something terrifying just out of your vision. 😊

Tuning the visibility range and fog falloff was a constant process, and one that we handled differently in each biome.

The depths of the ocean remain remarkably unexplored by us, compared to the reaches of space — as James Cameron noted when he did his deep sea dive. Why do you think the underwater realm is so neglected? Did this offer you any opportunities?

James Cameron has been my lifelong idol and has served as a constant guiding light for my creativity and career. One day I hope to meet him and learn even more from how he lives and thinks! Ahem.

I really don’t know much about why we don’t explore the underwater too much, but I imagine there are a few reasons: it’s dark, scary and dangerous. It also seems to be remarkably sparse as you get deeper, so the payoff may seem to be smaller.

Build a sweet underwater base like in that horrible sci-fi movie 'SPHERE'

But we’ve talked with some folks (Nekton Project, Ocean.org, OceanGate), that are building real submarines and exploring for real and it’s incredibly exciting. I’d love to learn more about actual underwater exploration and maybe find a way to collaborate.

What if players could help collect data about the actual sea floor? Or if playing the game helped clean up the Pacific Garbage Patch?

I’m told the game will be highly moddable — do you know of any interesting mods being planned?

We put a lot of modding support into Natural Selection 2, but not Subnautica. However, we are using Unity, so this is a known engine which people have figured out how to decompile. So we don’t support mods officially, but there is a lot of knowledge out there on how to hack it.

Notably, we’ve seen the Subnautica Nitrox mod which has somehow figured out a way to add co-op to the game.

A good rule of thumb is that, if it looks like a terrifying Lovecraftian monster that wants to eat you, it probably is.

With such a long and open development process for Subnautica, with presumably more years stretching out in front of us, the concept of a “release” seems different these days. To what extent has the meaning of a “1.0” changed in today’s era of Early Access?

As I mentioned above, we’re focused on developing a new Subnautica game instead of continuing to add features to the current game. We’ve already worked on this game for 5 years and put out hundreds of patches so it’s time for us to move on.

We were unsure what Subnautica v1.0 meant for us, but I think it’s fluid. We are so excited to have had a big enough launch that we’re somewhat confident to devote significant resources to continue the story.

We might be able to eke out some small features to the core game as well, like new game options (increasing danger of creatures, etc). But thanks to all the support we’ve received from the community, the future is bright.

Our thanks to Charlie Cleveland of Unknown Worlds, and we’re looking forward to hearing more about this expansion!

Jeremy Ray
Managing Editor at FANDOM. Decade-long games critic and esports aficionado. Started in competitive Counter-Strike, then moved into broadcast, online, print and interpretative pantomime. You merely adopted the lag. I was born in it.
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