Q&A About UWE Coming Back to NS2
Ed. Note: The context for this article can be found in the post “Let’s try something new.” These questions were collected and prepared by Chris ‘Ironhorse’ Gates. Chris’ questions are in bold text. Answers are from Hugh, and written in standard weight text.
Chris: Is NS2 actually able to be revived, or is this simply hopeful thinking that we can bring a sustainable number of players back and retain them? We would need new and interesting content, address players’ feedback directly, and have massive exposure in the media for it to work. Is this realistically possible with a 3 month time frame?
Hugh: Yes. There’s no simple hope here, there’s informed optimism. The assumption that ‘content’ is needed is one that needs testing. We need come up with effective ways to work out what it is that NS2 needs, not presume we can intuit the answer. In that way, feedback is absolutely essential, yes. It’s fundamental to this process that Unknown Worlds works out how to better respond to feedback on our decisions.
A need for ‘massive exposure in the media’ is another assumption, but not one I think we are going to spend much time testing. Unknown Worlds has obtained substantial evidence that it is not a good assumption. That in fact, aiming for media exposure appears to be harmful to the success of a game. We’ve become much more successful with our products since abandoning it.
We can’t make NS2 big in three months, but can run useful experiments in three months. Those experiments can inform how we proceed towards ‘big’. And along the way, I’m sure those experiments will yield some tangible improvements, though probably not massive ones.
C: What is the goal for player numbers – what number specifically is desired and considered sustainable? This should not be an arbitrary measure of success when so many are pouring themselves entirely into it. A goal line should be present and public if transparent development is truly desired.
H: Charlie and I have a phrase we’ve been throwing around: “Thousands of concurrent players, tens of thousands of people engaging with NS2 every week, and millions of dollars of yearly revenue.”
It’s a bit vague, but it’s more accurate than to say something like “Let’s have 5,000 concurrent players.” There’s only false comfort in being that specific. Let’s get thousands of people playing NS2 every day.
C: How will a paid core NS2 development team work alongside non paid NS2 contributors? It is a fragile situation and if those freely contributing feel less valued and less impactful than before in any way then it may have negative consequences, given that a full team with support is unarguably better than a core team of few.
H: It seems to me that the key phrase in there was ‘feel less valued.’ If people are contributing great things to NS2, not being paid, and don’t feel their work is being valued, then that’s the root cause of the issue. It’s not an acceptable situation. We need to find ways to reward people for their contributions.
It’s not good enough to say that on one hand, we have people hired by Unknown Worlds, and on the other we have people working for free. If people are working and creating value, then they need to be rewarded.
Often times, ‘reward’ doesn’t mean money. But often, money is the only realistic way to reward people properly for the brilliance of their creations. We shouldn’t shy away from that. We should be coming up with ways to make that happen.
Some developers have tried to do that and have created really shitty products, where people feel like they are being nickel-and-dimed and exploited. Others have tried to do it and created products that their communities love, that involve their community and reward those who do things that contribute to everybody having great fun in the game.
I don’t know how we’re doing to do it. But I do know that we are already experimenting with various methods, and I am very sure we will find a method that works really well.
C: Is the CDT going to be disbanded? This could be demoralizing for those still contributing their free time who enjoy being part of a team and a goal.
H: I bloody well hope not. The CDT is a brilliant entity. There’s got to be some clever thinking about how CDT and Unknown Worlds can coexist. There’s no value in conceptualising the situation as a binary model where either CDT exists, and Unknown Worlds doesn’t develop NS2, or where Unknown Worlds returns to NS2, and the CDT dissolves.
The latter case wouldn’t just be demoralising. For many people, NS2 is their social group, their out-of-work cognitive challenge, their hobby. Unknown Worlds can’t just walk in and wreck that.
C: Would you honestly consider the CDT successful thus far? We have no metric for this other than player counts and praising forum posts – which are often inversely proportionally related oddly enough.
H: Absolutely yes. 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.
The CDT can be judged from many different perspectives. If your benchmark for the CDT is ‘take a decaying game, a game that has been operationally abandoned by its developer, make it huge and make it indefinitely sustainable’ then you are an asshole. That’s not a reasonable expectation to make of a system like the CDT.
If your benchmark is, ‘take a decaying game and keep it stable, keep it active, keep its community engaged and having some fun’ then I think that’s a more reasonable benchmark. And it’s one that the CDT has clearly met. If it wasn’t for the CDT NS2, then it’s probable that NS2 would have died. Instead of dying, it’s gone on putting smiles on faces. That’s a fantastic achievement.
And what about benchmarks that don’t apply directly to the game? The CDT has served as a testing ground, training facility, and selection process for Unknown Worlds to hire new people. Who the hell is Unknown Worlds going to hire to work on NS2, if not CDT people? Are we going to hire a programmer off LinkedIn and try to get them motivated to reinvigorate a tired old warhorse? Not very likely.
So in short: If it wasn’t for the CDT, NS2 would probably be dead. And not only dead, but unrecoverable. So absolutely yes the CDT was a success and it will continue to be one into the future.
C: With your understandably limited budget for a 3 year old game, how did you decide which individuals receive compensation? It may have been tough to decide, but I believe everyone wishes to know how you made your decisions.
H: First up, the limiting factor in hiring people wasn’t really the budget. Well, it is and it isn’t. There’s nuance here and it’s very important. Making a team bigger does not necessarily make that team better at achieving a certain objective. An objective might be most effectively achieved with a small team, or a big team. When I proposed the new NS2 dev team budget, I proposed the budget I was confident would be most effective, not the budget I thought Unknown Worlds could afford. It just so happens those two numbers were fairly closely aligned.
On deciding who got asked to work at Unknown Worlds: The key, most important test is interpersonal communication skills. Which is a crappy way of saying “Is this person nice to work with?” That’s not the same as asking “Is this person nice?” Because everyone on the CDT is generally nice. But can a person change their mind, can they take criticism, can they defer to the judgement of their teammates while maintaining considered disagreement.
Not of all us can honestly say we would pass that test. I certainly wouldn’t have passed it two years ago, and I wouldn’t want to hire 2013’s abrasive, arrogant Hugh to work on this team. Many people have gone through a period of significant personal development in the CDT. They’ve grown and matured. They’ve become more effective team players. Over time I expect the CDT will continue to not just contribute software development to the NS2 world, but people too.
The second test is skill-set, functionality, the “what does this person bring to the team.” You might notice, looking at Scott’s post, that the NS2 dev team is extremely ‘thin.’ It doesn’t have the capacity to do much of any particular thing. For example, we can’t create lots of ‘content.’ We don’t have the people to do that. We can’t develop large new gameplay systems. That’s a deliberate, considered decision.
If our objective was to create large amounts of content, the team composition would be very different. We’d be seeking out more gameplay programmers, more 3d artists, more animators. We would have tapped the shoulders of different CDT members. That would be a different team. It would not be good at what this team is good at: Running rapid experiments with a holistic product perspective.
C: How do you compensate or show appreciation for those that have contributed thus far, but are not selected to be compensated going forward? Not everyone is happy with feeling like they are not good enough to “be on the team”, understandably. How does UWE rectify this or prevent damaging the goodwill that they have thus far received from voluntary contributors?
H: This really is the money-shot. This is what I spend most of my time thinking about. I’ve had hours and hours of conversations with various volunteer contributors discussing this issue. One of my biggest failings during this entire process is that I haven’t been able to effectively articulate the idea that there’s no ‘us and them.’ That is, someone might not be hired by Unknown Worlds for reasons other than whether they are ‘good enough.’
Unknown Worlds has hired a group of people to perform a very defined, experimental function. There’s no use hiring excellent content creators if the objective is not to create content. In my mind, the Unknown Worlds team is a part of a greater whole. Someone on the CDT who is not hired by Unknown Worlds is not somehow ‘lesser’ or ‘not good enough.’
Obviously, without concrete systems in place, that’s all a bunch of waffly bullshit. Of course people are going to feel left at out. Of course I’ve failed to convince them otherwise when talking to them. That’s why the Unknown Worlds team needs to start running experiments, and testing creative solutions to this issue.
If someone has a great idea for a game mode, a map, a weapon, then they need to be able to put that out in front of people quickly and effectively. Unknown Worlds needs to support them in doing that. Fundamentally, the people creating great content need to be rewarded for that work, in proportion to that value that the create for their fellow NS2 players.
It’s not good enough for them to wait for the next ‘big patch,’ and then get a cut of some loosely related DLC item. We’ve tried that with things like Kodiak and Reaper. It’s not scaleable. It’s not fair. It puts Unknown Worlds in the role of picking favoured community members, which we’re not good at. It’s a really blunt instrument that was worth trying but we need to do better. We can do better. I’m confident the NS2 development team will find a way to solve this problem.
C: IF (big if) daily patches ever becomes a thing, won’t paying customers feel like they are involuntary beta testers? This is not an Early Access title, and being multiplayer means such a quick schedule could interrupt tournaments and balance. Also with a quicker patch cycle there are likely to be more bugs, something a paying customer does not appreciate and could therefore hurt numbers.
Some context for those that might not understand the start of that question: Unknown Worlds is going to blow up the traditional NS2 development model. Any time a developer changes the game, the change propagates out to the community immediately.
The old development model went something like this: “Hypothesis > Planning > Execution > Testing > Release > Analysis > Exhaustion > Recovery > Hypothesis….” The time frame between “Hypothesis” and “Analysis” was often on the order of months. Most often, by the time the team (Unknown Worlds or, post 2014, CDT), got to the analysis stage, there was no energy for proper analysis. Hypotheses were not being tested.
The new development model forces the team to constantly test their assumptions, and prove their hypotheses. It could be abstracted as “Hypothesis > Analysis > Hypothesis…” It’s not acceptable for a developer to say “I think NS2 needs a new game mode, because [insert long, qualitative argument].” They need to say “I think NS2 needs a new game mode, I’m going to come up with a creative way to test that hypothesis.”
This change is fundamental to why this new NS2 development team exists. It exists to try something new. The old method has proven, over the course of over five years, that it is not good at making good decisions.
To the specific concerns: We need to carefully test the assumptions being made. Without diving in to each one, let’s take “there are likely to be more bugs” as an example. What evidence is there for this? What secondary assumptions are being made? Have other sources of evidence been considered? This assumption, and the others, are ingrained in NS2 community culture. They are not necessarily true. We should all relish the opportunity to challenge them.
Again some context: Within a three months, The reformed NS2 development team must show the rest of Unknown Worlds evidence of positive outcomes time frame.
If we do show such evidence, then the development team will be maintained and the project will continue. The ultimate goal is a permanent development team and an indefinitely growing game, with a vibrant community.
As for specific ideas: The purpose of this team is not to execute any particular idea. It’s to develop systems that allow us to make better decisions. An analogy might be this: One could focus on making a ‘hit game,’ or one could focus on making a ‘hit game factory.’ We’re trying to build the factory. The ideas about how NS2 bigger will come out of the factory.
How will you ensure increased transparency and feedback support? What systems will be used? Do you have a Community Manager as part of your staff? How can the team increase the volume of feedback and organize it publicly to demonstrate players’ feedback being heard?
This is a really big question. I’m not sure I can give it a meaningful answer without writing a full-on stand alone blog post. I’ll do my best.
Because they are now part of Unknown Worlds, the members of the NS2 development team have easier access to the knowledge and resources that have been developed on Future Perfect, Subnautica, and other Unknown Worlds projects.
It’s clear that over the years, and especially since in-house NS2 development ended, Unknown Worlds has become better at communication with customers. We’ve become better at gathering and responding to feedback. I’m looking forward to transferring some lessons back to NS2. Specific systems, like feedback tools or communication methods, would probably be best discussed in a forum where I’ve got more space.
No one will be hired to be a community manager. It’s the whole teams’ responsibility to be communicative and responsive to what customers are telling us.
As a player, what should I expect to change with the game itself? Changes will have to be big in order to bring new players in (and retain them).. how does this specifically affect the game I love? Change alone can be unwanted by a portion of the customer base.
In the short term, a player can probably expect that not much will change. As I’ve alluded to earlier, Unknown Worlds is engaged with the ‘how’ more than the ‘what.’ How do we work out what a good change is? How do we reduce the number of bad decisions we make? So Unknown Worlds doesn’t know what will change right now.
The happiness of existing players seems to me to be a fundamental metric of success. If Unknown Worlds pisses off a whole bunch of players by turning the game into an open-world-survival-horror game, then surely we’ve failed.
Ed. Note: If you have follow up questions, or want more information about some topic, please forward your query to Chris. We can then make a ’round 2′ post.