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In survivor series we drop in on some of PC gaming's most interesting survival games. Today, Holly Nielsen investigates the popular free zombie survival game, Unturned.
Unturned is a sandbox zombie survival sim. Looking at it scrolling through Steam, it seems like any other Minecraft clone. What makes Unturned interesting is its popularity. With over 219,000 reviews on Steam, 92% of which are positive, and a huge player base it s become an odd sensation.
What you can t help but notice first is the way it looks. A bit like Minecraft drawn on Microsoft Paint; it s not going to win any awards for graphical prowess. Every now and again I saw a moment and got a glimpse of an odd kind of beauty in its chunky primary colours. For the most part however, you have to ignore the strange cuboid potatoes and basic houses.
The controls are equally clumsy. I found myself pressing buttons multiple times to get the desired result, and fiddling with sliders and switches on the menus that seemed to do nothing. The UI and inventory system are not intuitive. You ll need great eyesight to make out the tiny writing informing you about equipment you collect. It felt unnecessarily cluttered which led to confusion as to where things were meant to go and how stuff was equipped. It s like the game is trying to make up for the simple graphics with a complex menu, which does not work.
The survival elements of the game are the same as a dozen of its predecessors. There s nothing truly original here, it has borrowed big parts from games like DayZ. However, although not original, it is all still serviceable. There are a number of things you need to keep an eye on health, stamina, hunger, thirst etc. You eat what you can salvage or grow, you drink what water you can find (preferably not dirty) and you try not to be mauled too severely by zombies. The maps are littered with settlements that hide the best loot, however, zombies tend to congregate there.
There are four main maps in single player with varying sizes and difficulties based on the environment. PEI, best for beginners; zombie-heavy Washington; the freezing Yukon best for experienced players; and the recently-added huge and varied Russia. Although the differences in environment are mainly found in the colouring, little touches such as a zombie in a restaurant dressed as a chef or a lumberjack zombie in Yukon made me smile. The ability to craft items and build shelter enable you to create a stable home-base, but you have to be prepared to defend your lowly homestead.
While many people unfamiliar with survival games may be put off with the pressure and hours of sneaking about before you get a weapon or dog food to eat, Unturned is far more accessible than the likes of DayZ. After an hour in single player you ll probably have a decent weapon, a backpack full of supplies and maybe even a vehicle to zoom about in. Unturned isn t as stressful as other survival games with loot being more readily available and zombies easy to sneak past. It is refreshing to head off into an unknown map safe in the knowledge that you have a rucksack filled to the brim with canned food and an axe. This isn t to say that Unturned is boringly easy. In large quantities the zombies quickly become a formidable force. The weather also plays a part in your survival as maps like the Yukon with their snowy terrain require you to shelter or build a fire so you don t freeze to death. None of this is revolutionary. The real popularity of the game doesn t lie in the survival mechanics, or the aesthetic. Unturned has amassed a following for two main reasons- the multiplayer and the price.
While single player is a decent way to while away a few hours most people seem to sink the most time into playing online. Unturned features both PvP and cooperative play. To new players PvP is baffling. I started in a house with a bunch of strangers, some of them were naked and I was also naked it was like a house party everyone wants to forget. After a bit you re warped to a small map and you will probably be mowed down pretty quickly. Although a large engaged community is a great boon, it also means to a newcomer entering this world on your own it s impenetrable. After being destroyed in PvP I decided to see if I would fare better in a more supportive environment. If you had a bunch of friends all playing together, this is where Unturned really shines.
The availability of Unturned is the crux of its popularity. It will run on most PCs and it s free to play, making it a great one that all your friends can pop in for a bit of co-op. The freedom that Unturned allows the online players means that a complex world has been created. Gangs are formed, intricate structures built and planned attacks take place. When I turned up none of this was available to me as a lone player wandering the map. I didn t even see another player let alone build a castle. However, this is hardly surprising, and more the fault of my lack of friends than the game itself.
Unturned is free to play, with an option to pay 3.99 for a permanent gold upgrade that gives you more customisation options, access to gold servers and an array of skins. I can imagine playing without ever spending a penny, which is impressive. But if you re hooked, the paid version of the game would be very tempting.
There is nothing original about the mechanics of Unturned and the low production values can be off-putting. However, it is impossible to deny its appeal. At first the overwhelmingly positive responses can seem inexplicable, but the combination of a passable game with an open multiplayer that costs nothing was bound to equal a hit.
The first thing you ll notice about Nelson Sexton is his work ethic. Since the release of his free-to-play, sandbox zombie survival game Unturned in 2014, he s developed, playtested, and implemented over 150 updates. Each one contains a small parcel of miscellaneous new content that s airdropped weekly sometimes daily into a hungry community. A one-man operation can come with a lot of tedious pressure, but it also means you can deliver what you want without the hassles of a Q/A team or publisher approval. On February 5, in patch 188.8.131.52, he added a police helicopter, a thief costume, building decay, and back buttons to the main menu. On February 12, in patch 184.108.40.206, he added pancakes, waffles, pizza, and, of course, a nailgun.
Every day Sexton wakes up and scratches a few more things off a vast itinerary, all small steps towards the everlasting goal of creating the perfectly limitless Walking Dead experience. The audience has waited decades for a developer willing to take that challenge, but instead of a billionaire conglomerate, they found an industrious 19-year old kid.
On a day-to-day basis I pick something that looks interesting to work on, work on a bit, finish it, and move on to the next thing, says Sexton. I ll go through these cycles where there s a whole bunch of stuff on my to-do list and I m like I m going to busy for a long time, there s all these cool things to work on, and it ll get closer and closer to being empty and I ll think maybe the game will release soon! But then there s always a ton of new suggestions I want to add and the list gets huge again.
Sexton released Unturned on Steam when he was 16 years old. Since then it's been downloaded 24 million times it currently has roughly as many owners as Counter-Strike Global Offensive, making it, best as we can tell, the third-most-owned game on Steam.
Like many games of similar amateur origins, Unturned carries the same blocky, easy-to-program aesthetic of Minecraft or Terraria. Your goal is to sustain yourself on a zombie-infested Prince Edward Island, balancing four simple vitality meters representing health, starvation, thirst, and disease. There s a crafting system, a skill system, a fort system, and a number of different servers promising unique spins on the difficulty and scalability of survival. In the two years since release Unturned has added a bounty of new weapons, animals, food items, buildings (anything from a research station to a mine tunnel,) new zombie types, a multiplayer-only arena game mode, and VR support. It s clear that Sexton was influenced by the prototypical DayZ mod, and the promise of a truly visceral, modular, unforgiving, constantly expanding apocalypse that these dreams are all built off of programming skills he honed at 15 is hugely impressive.
I remember one day I came home from school and I was thinking about adding an attachment system, where you could add a grip to a gun or a silencer or stuff like that, says Sexton. Just in that evening I went through every single gun, added attachment points and the attachments, and by the end of the evening that version was in the game.
In Hearthstone the community pleaded for two years before Blizzard finally acquiesced and gave them access to additional deck slots. EA held SimCity hostage to an always-online disaster until they alienated even the most ardent of Maxis fans. Capcom launched a feature-bereft Street Fighter V to make an aggressive release date, and, to the surprise of no one, has spent the following six months mollifying the player-base. The video game industry is built by giant companies, and giant companies tend to be stubborn, slow, and scatterbrained. Unturned s patch notes are downright giddy by comparison. The game has consistently been in the upper 10 percent of Steam s top 100 played games, and much of that can be chalked up to Sexton s discipline.
For ages everyone had been asking for helicopters and boats and other transportation and I had always said yeah maybe, we ll see. says Sexton. But then there was this two week period [earlier this year] where I was just like you know what? It would just be so cool if there were all these vehicles in the game, so everyone was super surprised because out of nowhere there was this awesome update that added helicopters and airplanes, and the next week I added the boats.
In the past Sexton has given access to his Trello (a project mapping website) to the community so people could always keep track of what new items, features, and fixes were in the pipeline. That s no longer transparent due to the rumors it generated, but he still keeps a clear, open line of communication. The Steam Forums are particularly adorable; a sea of kids throwing out hyper-specific suggestions like and, um, a .
At this point the community and I are always talking, says Sexton. Some of the people I talk to a lot on the Steam forums I end up just adding to my Steam friends list and they ll do bug reports and make feature suggestions. A lot of my best friends are people I met from Unturned.
Christian, a 16-year old who s been playing Unturned since day one, says Sexton s warmth is what makes Unturned special.
It's great to have a developer that is so close to his community, and I feel as though many big corporations that seem like they should know what they are doing, could learn a lot from Nelson about how to manage a community as well as he does, he says. I am surprised Nelson puts up with such a loud audience and manages to continuously implement new features the community wants. [He s] a huge inspiration to me as he talks to the community, and isn't afraid to experiment with something that strays a bit from a straightforward path that Unturned could take.
Sexton agrees that the constant patches are what keeps people engaged. You get the sense that he shares the same vision as his community. Every update makes the game more free, more expansive, more laissez-faire. The long-term goal is to have an experience where a player can do anything, but for now it s nice to know that there s somebody listening on the other end.
A lot of people feel like their suggestions are getting into the game, he says. Every time I put out an update with a comment section I look through them and I see all these people saying hey he added my idea! I think it s unlikely that it s their specific post I saw, but even if it takes a couple weeks before it gets in the game people like knowing that the game is moving in the right direction.
Christopher had one of those moments. In 2014, around the time Unturned hit 3.0, there were some complaints about the inconvenience of managing your wardrobe if your character was wearing a lot of clothing. Sexton made a post on the subreddit looking for suggestions, and Christopher responded with a .
[Nelson] said he liked some of the ideas, specifically the clothing items next to the name bar, and in the next update the icons of clothing were put next to the name plates, said Christopher. I think the reason why the community stays so tight-knit is because they know that Nelson is probably reading what they're saying. The community is constantly discussing new changes to gameplay, rumors, suggestions, and bugs, and Nelson always listens.
Unturned is still free-to-play. You can hop in and enjoy the same experience as everyone else. There are no microtransactions or thresholds, and the only monetization is a one-time $5 upgrade which gives you access to special servers, unique clothes, and gold-plated weapons. This is enough for Sexton to sustain himself, and it s not going to change anytime soon.
I like how people can try out the game and ask their friends to play with them, and they can have fun with their friends, he says. For me the main thing I enjoy about Unturned is seeing the feedback, and I think the reason for that is how it s easy to get into.
Currently Sexton not in college, but says he ll consider enrolling if he starts encountering problems in game development he can t figure out on his own. He also mentions that there have been offers to take Unturned off his hands permanently.
I think it s just too much of what I do and what I enjoy to sell it, I think I d rather continue on having it being my hobby than have it become some corporate money-making thing, he says.
That makes sense. Technically speaking, Unturned hasn t been officially released. It s caught in that endless development cycle that defines a lot of Steam success stories. Unturned is Nelson Sexton s whole life. His friends, his work, his portfolio, his livelihood, all wrapped up in a single project he started in high school. Will he eventually cash in? Maybe. Notch eventually sold Minecraft to Microsoft for $2.5 billion, and while Unturned hasn t reached that level of cultural ubiquity, it s still been downloaded almost 24 million times on Steam with plenty of branding and monetization options left unexplored. There may come a day when Sexton is a little burnt out and the buyout number is just high enough.
But for now, he s here. Game companies spend billions of dollars trying to reach their market. They invite Wiz Khalifa to play Battlefield One and hire Drake to say nice things about FIFA. Sexton just talks to them on forums. Millions of teenagers have pooled their resources to lift up one teenager to make his game for them. They re all invested in the same fantasy. There s nothing lost in translation.
I love looking at the community-made maps and seeing them doing things I never even thought of. I remember seeing someone who put the kitchen cabinets I intended for the floor on the ceiling. I love seeing how people look at things I made and come up with their own ways of using them. There are maps with giant dams even though there isn t a dam object in the game, says Sexton. It s a special feeling. From the modding side of things, it s crazy to think there are people using my code and they re extending on it, and building on it.