Friday, 6 June 2014

Subnautica Pre-Orders or Not?

It is now June 2014, and Subnautica has been in full-scale development for a few months. While much gameplay is still in the research and development stage, other components of this new game are starting to take on strong form. Subnautica has advanced far enough that Unknown Worlds can begin thinking about offering a product to potential paying customers. (Gasp!)

Subnautica at a very early development stage
There is a loose consensus on the team that we wish to release Subnautica in development form sometime in in the third quarter of 2014, which means a day in July, August, or September. We are fairly confident about doing this, having gained much experienced from Natural Selection 2's "Alpha" and "Beta" releases.

But could we offer Subnautica for sale before this date? Charlie and I had an interesting discussion about this option today. Might Subnautica be made available for pre-order? After all, like every game developer, selling stuff is how Unknown Worlds wheels keep turning. Surely selling more stuff earlier is a win?

Look, don't touch.
Not exactly. Step back to the third quarter target: What do we want to release at that time? If we do it, Subnautica will be in a very early development state. Gameplay will be limited to some basic systems, the environment restricted to a subset of its envisioned glory. But at the core, Subnautica must be fun. If it is not fun, we must not release it.

If a customer purchases Subnautica later this year, on Steam Early Access or another platform, we want them to be thrilled by it, enjoy playing it, want to talk about it, be delighted by it. We then want to update and build upon the game regularly, consistently and inexorably until it is ready for release. What we are selling is therefore twofold: A great gameplay experience, and joyride of updates improving and growing the game all the time.

This is the guiding principle. Make customers happy, and everything else follows. Marketing, public-relations, trailers, reviews, they all become a side-show that could very well help, but are not the core of what it means to be a good game developer.

Spot the Jumper...
What does a customer get if they pre-order Subnautica now? Not much. They do not get a great gameplay experience, they do not get updates, they get a receipt. And a wait. Woo-hoo. That's not to say there would be no value in the wait for some. Occasionally, after releasing development news such as pre-Alpha screenshots, we have received comments like 'I am throwing my money at the screen and nothing is happening!'

Comments like this are humbling, exciting, and morale-boosting for us. By offering Subnautica for pre-order, we might well make a few very excited people happy by giving the opportunity to turn that comment into a purchase. But we would not be doing right by them: We would be selling a promise we have not yet fulfilled. Unknown Worlds would have their money, and they would have a confirmation email. That is not a fair exchange of value, and not an exchange that is likely to induce real happiness in a customer.

Submersible concepts
Sometimes, pre-orders offer more than just an outlet for excitement. For example, some projects cannot proceed without early development stage funding. Kickstarters and Natural Selection 2 are great examples of this. Anyone who pre-ordered Natural Selection 2 was not purchasing a receipt and a wait - They were purchasing the chance for a project they felt passionate about to happen at all. The same goes for countless other worthy crowd and pre-order funded games.

This is not the state Unknown Worlds finds itself in now. Natural Selection 2 was a very successful game. Enough people found challenge and joy in it to fund not just its own development, but Unknown Worlds' future projects, including Subnautica, for a reasonable (but not infinite!) amount of time. Anyone pre-ordering Subnautica would not be purchasing the chance for the project to happen. While we can't be sure we can develop the game fast enough for this to stay true, we think we can.

Instead of offering pre-orders, we are going to double down on making sure that later this year, anyone that purchases Subnautica is absolutely delighted with what they find beneath the waves.

1 comment:

  1. I'm really impressed at a developer who could have pre-orders, and hence money flowing in now, but is far sighted enough to see that that may not necessarily be the best thing long term or doing right by the fans and potential customers.

    To be honest, I find a lot of me-tooism and half assery going on with Kickstarter, Early Access, 1 year out pre-orders etc these days and I'm really burned out on it. While I get that in some cases the developers literally need to do these things, there are other cases where it's being done 'because they can' and in some cases there's really no one looking out for the best interest of the customers and/or investors.

    It's refreshing and heartening to see comments like this, even though the cynic in me feels like it's the minority view point these days.