Charlie Cleveland's small-game biz

The maker of Half-Life's Natural Selection turns to Zen of Sudoku to pay the bills and explains how casual-game development and Steam will make his next game better.


For his first game, independent game developer Charlie Cleveland unleashed Natural Selection, an add-on to Valve Software's original Half-Life that walked the line between Valve-inspired first-person shooting and real-time strategy. A glowing critical reception buoyed the 2002 freebie game--released on Halloween 2002, Half-Life's four-year anniversary--to megamod acclaim. Today it remains one of the most-played Half-Life games, only behind years-old staples Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat.

But since then, the 33-year-old San Francisco-based developer has fallen on tougher times. His company, Unknown Worlds Entertainment, has delayed the development of Natural Selection's follow-up, Natural Selection: Source, due to the ever-changing PC game industry. Then the developer had a revelation: casual-game development.

Setting his sights on a follow-up to Natural Selection wouldn't be possible, he said, without Zen of Sudoku, a casual Sudoku PC game that's his "last option" to fund development of a bona fide next-generation title. Casual games aren't his long-term goal, but Cleveland admitted he has a new respect for them after Zen of Sudoku.

"Even though inside I'm like, 'OK, this isn't as cool; I know this isn't really what I want to be doing,' people I talk to--most of the time--get really excited about it," he said. "Or if they don't get excited when I talk about it, if I show it to them, then they get excited."

Cleveland talked with GameSpot last week about how computer Sudoku trumps paper, why Steam is the platform of choice for a Natural Selection sequel, and how a casual game like Zen of Sudoku brought him closer to his father.

GameSpot: Now, you turned to casual games--Zen of Sudoku, in particular--primarily to make money for real games, for lack of a better term. How's that going for you?

Charlie Cleveland: It's going really well. That was definitely the approach. But I have a lot more respect for casual games now, and I have to say I really enjoyed working on this game. So yeah, in a way it's not a real game, in other ways it actually forces [a game developer] to think about games from a much wider perspective than dark, sci-fi environments and strategy and stuff like that. But it's actually going really well. I wish I had done this a year and a half ago, because it's going to be so much easier to get going on the next game, because I think I'll have pretty decent cash flow.

GS: How did you get this idea, the casual-gaming idea?

CC: It's pretty much my last option. I had tried pretty much every other way to get going, from investors to doing contract work. I had made Natural Selection--and I wasn't trying to make money off of that game, obviously, because I made a mod and gave it away--and that was before Steam, so there wasn't really a way to monetize mods except in donations, which is what I did. If I don't want to sell a big chunk of the company to an investor who's going to take too much control, really the only way to get any kind of cash flow is to do a small project and sell it. So casual seemed like the way to go there.

GS: How do you walk that line when making games for these difference audiences? We're sure Natural Selection fans are like, "What? He's making this?"

CC: I have to say I've only gotten a couple bad comments--it's been overwhelmingly positive, which I'm really surprised by. I think it might be negative if I make another casual game after this. Then [Natural Selection fans] might start to be like, "What the hell?" They've been pretty patient, I have to say; from the outside I'm sure it looks like I'm just basically doing nothing. ...

Believe it or not, I think [Natural Selection] is surprisingly accessible for the kind of game that it is. Given that there's no training and no single-player, I think it's fairly simple for the amount of complexity behind it. That's my opinion. I know it's kind of a miracle that anybody's playing it at all, because I know how difficult the learning curve is. I always think about accessibility, believe it or not, is what I'm trying to say. ... I've learned a lot in the last few years about that stuff. I'm hoping that NS: Source will be a whole lot easier to get into. The casual games really make you think about this stuff, too. Like fonts and colors, and where people are looking on the screen, and making things flash when there's only one option to pick in a menu, and things like that.

GS: So how do you compete with, then, the big portals like Yahoo Games, MSN? Or do you just try to get your game onto those?

CC: Exactly. I'm making some money by just selling it off my Web site, but really the way to go in this space is just to do the distribution deal with as many big people as you can. I've been talking to all the big ones. They just basically all want to put your stuff up. It's free money for them: You come to them with a finished game and it's pretty much no risk for them. They're not putting any money into marketing unless they see it start to sell. So yeah, they just want to do business. Send them a demo and a week later you've got the paperwork. Pretty amazing--unlike the traditional publisher route, which is agonizing, and they just delay and delay and delay.

GS: It must be refreshing then.

CC: It's incredible. Plus, a game of this size is so quick to demo. I can do a demo in 15, 20 minutes and then a couple e-mails later, there's a contract. It's just incredible. So it's really refreshing.

GS: How do you compete with the paper-book market for Sudoku?

CC: That's my whole target. And I guess the only way to compete with it is to try to do things that it can't. So in this case, [Zen of Sudoku] has got a hint system, so if you get stuck it can teach you the specific strategy you need to make progress. It'll say, "By the way, when you have two pencil marks here, and there's another pencil mark over here, you can eliminate this one." That kind of thing. Obviously, it generates infinite puzzles, which is a big deal [over] paper. And the aesthetic, and the kind of, quote unquote, immersive aspects of it--something that the paper can't do as well. And, of course, the price point. I'm bringing the price down to something much closer to the paper version.

Also, the paper version has more of a learning curve. A lot of people, if they look at the paper version, if they open the newspaper or the [San Francisco] Chronicle or something, they try to do Sudoku but they don't know what it is and they see the amount of work they have to do to get to the fun, enjoyable part is enough, and the barrier is high enough, that I think a lot of people won't do it. Whereas with Zen of Sudoku, between the tutorial and the guidance and highlighting things where you need to, and watching what you're doing and being smart about it, I think it can get you over that hump; it can reduce the barrier. It can get you to the point where you're enjoying the logic part. That's really all I'm doing--reducing the barrier to entry to Sudoku--and not changing the [game] at all.

GS: We wanted to talk a little about Natural Selection. Have you ever been approached by Valve? They've scooped up Day of Defeat and Counter-Strike, and I always thought of Natural Selection as being in that same league.

CC: Yeah. We were never as popular as those two--I think we were basically just below the popularity where [Valve] would want to buy us--but they've been asking for NS: Source for a long time. They're always around saying, "You should really put out NS: Source. Why haven't you done that before?"

GS: Is that just a way to encourage you to develop, or do you they provide any publisher-type support?

CC: That is probably more under NDA, so I can't mention it too much. But [in general] they definitely provide publisher services. They definitely have some financial investment in a team. You can't just go to Valve and say, "I want to put a game out on Steam." They choose the projects. And people do pitch them. They're actually more like a traditional publisher in that sense--they don't want crappy games.

GS: How much have you played with Source?

CC: Honestly, very, very little. I would have loved to--I can't think of anything else I'd rather do right now--but, cash flow. You know? Until Zen of Sudoku, I haven't even been programming. I've just been doing crap work, like going to the bank, and charging stuff on credit cards, and doing all the paperwork associated with the business, and all this garbage. Talking to investors, writing a business plan. All this stuff that I'm not even very good at. I have not been working in Source, unfortunately. Valve just had a Steam/Source developers conference, and it was actually amazing. They invited us all up and showed us what kind of cool stuff is coming down the pipe. They're doing some great stuff, and I'm actually starting to look into [Source] now in my spare time.

GS: Do you think Steam is sort of a playfield leveler? Because almost anyone can--if they're able to get access to Source--use Source and then they can distribute on Steam alongside Half-Life 2.

CC: I think so. Like, The Ship guys weren't able to sell a game to a publisher, so they had a game done for quite a while. They just couldn't sell it. And then Steam shows up and they run it by [Valve Software] and they start selling it.

GS: So is digital distribution what you're really leaning toward?

CC: I'm always going to be interested in a retail deal; it's just that I don't want it to be my only source of revenue. ... So we'll do the Steam side first, and then if that sells well, we'll try to get on the Xbox 360, or we'll get it on PC and retail, or Xbox Live Arcade. Who knows. All digital distribution is booming. Nobody can seem to believe how fast it is growing.

GS: What were your gut reactions to the E3 news?

CC: I wonder what the impact will even be, though. I'd like to see [video games] on TV [during E3 week], but honestly, I can't say E3 is that meaningful of a show. It's kind of hard to do business there, and there's so much press, that I guess people just get inundated. I don't know. It's not like the Game Developers Conference is going away. That would be a blow. ... Game developers don't usually go to E3. They might just for fun; I usually go for fun. You want to get excited about what's coming. That's where you put your gamer hat on, or whatever.

GS: Have you ever had a presence at E3?

CC: No, that's way more money than I've ever had. No, it's definitely not a place for independent developers. But it's never been about that, at least not for years.

GS: Mark Rein, the guy over at Epic Games, was talking about how PC gaming in general is suffering because PC manufacturers just use low-tech, low-level integrated graphics [in entry-level PCs]. How do you feel that affects your market, both for casual games and for a Natural Selection follow-up?

CC: Well, it doesn't affect me for casual games. That [is], you never have to worry about technology--Zen of Sudoku runs on every damn PC out there. There's just no question it's going to run at 40 to 60 [frames per second] everywhere, so that's not a concern. But, I don't know. I don't know what he's proposing. I mean, yes, it's too bad that not everyone has a fantastic video card, but the whole reason why--one reason why--PCs are so great is that people are so price-driven, and they want the cheapest price they can get. For most people, they really don't want a $200, $300 video card--not if their PCs cost them $600.

I think game developers really have to focus on broadening the appeal of their games, instead of making their games use more bells and whistles. It's ridiculous. A few broad strokes with a design brush and you can make such a bigger penetration into a larger market than you can by improving the realism of your graphics. It's ridiculous. There's just no excuse. If you go talk to a regular person--just a normal, everyday person--and try to tell them about games, you just get blank stares. They're like, "What are you talking about? No, I don't want to be on an alien spaceship fighting off hordes of aliens." Maybe they do at some point, but that's not all they want to do.

GS: There's sort of a sentiment going around that we've heard, that maybe in a couple of decades from now the graphics technology will eventually become exponentially difficult to make it significantly better. People will all have the same tools to work with. Do you think that will help gameplay?

CC: Totally, totally. Right now, the easy way to try to improve your game--the knowable, obvious way--is to just make it look better and sound better and have the physics be better. Higher fidelity, basically. Once we get to the point where realism is no longer an effect...

We, quote unquote, get better realism in movies all the time, but it's incremental. And it's not the only way to make a movie better. People know that there's script and acting--all that stuff matters. I mean, the [game-development] tools are already getting so much better. Even mod tools. Look at what kind of content small teams can make. Like the Unreal Engine 3. We're going to get [to] the point where you can have a small team that can do amazing stuff. Of course, a big team will always still be able to do better stuff. But it'll definitely get [to] the point where technology evens out.

GS: You mentioned how you have been taking care of a lot bookkeeping tasks. We're assuming you don't love doing that, so what do you really love doing?

CC: Oh, game design. Game design and programming, but especially I love thinking about the high-level direction for a game. My business card says "navigator." That's the main thing I like doing--directing the high-level game experience and how it's going to affect people. With Sudoku, it's been really nice to see nongamers get a kick out of it and see people who have never played before--and who were basically scared to touch a mouse--and to see them spend a couple minutes with it and get the feedback and get rewarded. And suddenly you see they start to get excited playing the game.

I talk about this all the time, but it's really amazing to see my dad go from nongamer to, within just a really short time, beta tester. He never understood even what I did, I don't think. I would show him models, and I played music from the game for him, from Natural Selection, but he never understood the game. But now he gets the whole idea of play-testing...usability issues, feedback. All this stuff that he's never considered. And now I'm sure he thinks of games in a totally different way than he ever did. I'm sure he has much more respect for them.

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