After over two years of being in Early Access, Subnautica: Below Zero is set to launch version 1.0. The game’s story and progression have undergone a lot of changes, but many core concepts should remain familiar to long-time fans. In my case, though, I’m a newcomer to the series since I hardly played the original. However, that didn’t necessarily dampen my spirits. I even mentioned in our official review how the game managed to surprise and keep me engaged.
That brings us to our interview with David Kalina of Unknown Worlds. He serves as the Project Lead for Subnautica: Below Zero. We discussed a few tidbits regarding the game’s mechanics, design philosophies, quality of life improvements, and future plans.
Subnautica: Below Zero – Q&A with David Kalina of Unknown Worlds
PCI: Although I didn’t play the original Subnautica, Below Zero definitely surprised me and I had a wonderful experience. What were the key design pillars when you were developing the sequel?
Kalina: Early in the project, we established our design pillars as “Exploration and Discovery / Thrill of the Unknown” and “Player Ownership of Experience / The game is what I make of it.” When making design decisions throughout development, we try to make sure that everything new going into the game supports one or both of these pillars.
It’s not wrong to think of Subnautica as a survival game, but in my mind, exploration and discovery are even more important. We want players to want to survive. In order to do that, we’re continually trying to entice them with promising new corners of the game for them to explore. Survival creates necessity; necessity drives exploration; exploration triggers curiosity; curiosity leads to discovery.
As for the second pillar, we know that our player base is diverse in how they approach and play our game. We don’t want everybody to have the exact same experience. Instead, we want players to have the sense that they’re driving, that the game belongs to them. You can see this in the way we try to avoid prescriptive direction (we never state explicit missions or objectives), or in how we try to give players tools for customizing or designing their playspace (such as base-building or vehicle customization).
PCI: What were your inspirations for Subnautica: Below Zero, especially the frozen landscapes and alien mysteries?
Kalina: We take inspiration from many sources, and a lot of the aesthetic design goes back nearly a decade now! Our art director, Cory Strader, tells me that James Cameron’s The Abyss was a big influence on the initial underwater concept (danger, wonder, beauty), but there’s also a little bit of ‘Finding Nemo’ mixed in, adding vibrancy and color to the lush environments.
As for the alien stuff – we were influenced by Brutalist architecture, starting with big, blocky, dominating shapes that create simple, memorable silhouettes. Stuff that looks really imposing and harsh against the natural environments – clearly not blending in. For the icy, above-ground environments found in Below Zero, a lot of it came from a collection of real-world arctic reference material – mostly photos – the natural world is full of inspiration, everywhere. Then, we had some brilliant concept artists – Alex Ries, Pat Presley, Pavel Goloviy – who would take those references and bring their own perspectives to the work, bringing alien life and personality into the mix.
PCI: I did have some issues with navigation and going to new locations with lots of items. Can we expect improvements or features such as minerals or resources having stacks rather than filling up an inventory slot, a layered map (not the ones from posters), or even a fast travel option?
Kalina: We will have a dedicated team to continue supporting Below Zero after launch. We pay close attention to the community and make sure we’re addressing their needs. However, we do avoid having a more fully functional 3D game map – or readily available fast travel – as a matter of design principle. We want players to build a relationship with the world, and we believe that’s more likely to develop when players take the time to traverse the world.
PCI: I chose Survival mode for my playthrough, and, in my experience, it was really hard to get a massive base of operations ready. I had to do with just a tube plus a hatch. Are you thinking of ways to make base-building more manageable in other difficulties besides Creative mode?
Kalina: One idea we’ve discussed is allowing players to use any material in any of a base’s lockers for construction – rather than requiring lots of back and forth and fiddly inventory management. Not sure if we’ll make this happen, but it’s a possibility that I’d like us to explore at some point.
PCI: After completing the campaign, I was surprised that the Sam Ayou arc ended abruptly. Was this truly supposed to be the end or is there some secret that we’ve yet to discover?
Kalina: We wrote the story so that Robin has a chance to complete Sam’s work and honor her memory. It’s a quieter, more personal conclusion to that particular storyline.
PCI: What’s next in store for Unknown Worlds and the Subnautica franchise? Will we see another adventure on Planet 4546B, or will we head off to other systems?
Kalina: Part of the team will continue to support Below Zero and Subnautica moving forward. We think there’s plenty more to explore on Planet 4546B.
PCI: Most of the time, I enjoyed the peace and quiet of the ocean, though there were also memorable instances due to the banter between Robin and the supporting characters. Is the team planning to develop a Subnautica game with a larger cast of characters, or do you feel that the magic would be lost if you do that?
Kalina: Something players of the first game often told us was that they really loved the feeling of “loneliness.” Below Zero is a bit less lonely – thanks to some of the characters you meet along the way – but you’re still cast in a role that has you trying to survive in difficult conditions on an alien planet. I think going in an even more story-forward direction – with a broader cast of characters and more live plot – is unlikely, but we’ll see how people respond to Below Zero before we make any decisions.