Creating the undersea world of Subnautica

Five platforms and 6M+ copies: Why Unknown Worlds chose Unity to help bring their creative and business vision to life, including porting the game to Switch.

Unknown Worlds Entertainment: A Unity case study

How does an indie studio port a highly successful franchise to a completely new platform without compromising gameplay or tying up their top engineers for months? Unknown Worlds (UW) achieved this by partnering with the Unity Accelerate Solutions team, expert Unity developers who helped them port Subnautica and Subnautica: Below Zero to Switch.

  • The challenge

    Solve memory and frame rate issues, and get expert guidance on porting to a new platform

  • Platforms

    PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Switch

  • Team members

    28 animators, artists, designers, and programmers

  • Location

    Around the world

From indie darling to #1 on Steam Early Access

Since its 2018 launch, Subnautica has sold more than 6M+ copies across PC, Xbox, and PlayStation. With the early-access version of its sequel, Subnautica: Below Zero, hitting #1 on Steam and successful launch on Switch, the numbers are likely to skyrocket. 

For the UW team, cross-platform gaming is an imperative and Unity Accelerate Solutions was happy to help UW reach their ambitious goals.

Subnautica creatures
Subnautica undersea world

The results

  • Successful port of UW’s franchise title and sequel to Switch on schedule
  • Developers freed up to focus on gameplay, code architecture, and source control
  • Subnautica and Subnautica: Below Zero’s memory architecture completely reconfigured using the Unity Addressable Assets System
  • Optimized source control and best-practice workflows with Plastic SCM
Océan extraterrestre de Subnautica

Terror and wonder in an alien, undersea world

Subnautica is an open-world survival-exploration game set in an alien ocean. The game was originally to be set in space, but Charlie Cleveland, cofounder and design director, was a scuba enthusiast and suggested an undersea world would be a strong visual differentiator for an engaging game. The game places you on a hostile ocean planet where your worst fears – like the chilling sense of an apex predator lurking just out of sight – are real. 

Players can swim in any direction at any time and there’s something interesting in nooks and crannies in almost every direction.

Subnautica dans Unity

Moving from an in-house engine to Unity

In 2015, Unknown Worlds transitioned from an in-house engine they used for their previous game, Natural Selection 2 to Unity. “When we started working on Subnautica we knew we needed to try different gameplay ideas,” says McGuire. However, the proprietary engine wasn’t as effective for rapid prototyping, so they used Unity and loved the speed with which they could create. “We gradually transitioned from prototyping mode into development with Unity. It was especially valuable because we could easily integrate our custom tools and extend Unity to build out our content.” 

While graphically complex games are often unique, there can be unique issues when porting them to new platforms. And in the case of downporting Subnautica to Switch, the studio faced a platform with vastly different capabilities and requirements than a PC or console.

Iceberg sous-marin de Subnautica

Encountering cross-platform challenges

Some challenges of producing one game for many hardware platforms include game controls that range from a few finger touchpoints to multiple joysticks, and CPUs that range from older chips to 24-thread, 4.8 GHz hyperthreaded processors for desktops. Thorough QA can require testing potentially hundreds of devices, which can be quite time-consuming to meet some not-so-obvious certification requirements. 

Porting a game like Subnautica – with its custom water rendering and impressive voxel environments – from PC to console was one thing. Porting it to Switch was completely different: it would not be simple and might not even be possible without stripping out some of the game’s best features.

Unlocking market opportunities with Unity engineers

The studio has worked with Unity on a number of initiatives since 2013 – including with Unity Integrated Success – and Unity was the core component of the game, so reaching out to Accelerate Solutions for custom development assistance was a logical step.

The Unity team studied the studio’s early work and prototypes, asked key questions, and started building a comprehensive plan for the port. Verrette says, “The Unity plan tackled optimization, how to move everything over, and also pointed out where the big challenges were likely to be.” There were a lot of unknowns because the game was originally built for PCs, not consoles, let alone Switch. “We knew we’d have to make adaptations along the way, and Unity’s flexibility helped us all keep an open mind and go after the best solutions possible.”

Graphismes soignés de Subnautica

Ensuring everyone and everything is in sync

Making sure artists are always accessing and contributing to the right assets and build versions is a common challenge. UW had experimented with several source-control products before Plastic SCM, the one-stop solution for handling all their code and art content. UW stores the entire Unity Editor inside their repository to ensure contributors are using the same version, whether it’s a coder in San Francisco or an artist in Brussels. Verrette explains, “Our repository is massive, but everything is always in sync. And Plastic SCM is remarkably user friendly – our artists and non-technical contributors aren’t at all intimidated by it.”

Ressources adressables de Subnautica

From memory architecture to Next-Gen readiness

One of the most important issues the Professional Services and UW teams had to solve was memory management.They considered implementing the Unity Addressable Asset System, a method to load assets that simplifies content pack creation and deployment. However, the Subnautica architecture was unique and not exactly what the tool was designed for. Switch memory is comparatively limited for any game, especially one of Subnautica’s complexity.

In collaboration with the Unity engineers who had developed the Addressables system, the teams managed to adapt the tool for Subnautica. It was easy for the studio to get additional assistance from Unity as they prepared their games for next-gen devices. “Unity knows our game, they already understand how our systems work, and they’re sharing everything they know about next-gen roadmaps with us,” says McGuire.

Unknown Worlds : Subnautica

Expanding UW’s capabilities with Unity expertise

After the initial rave reviews for Subnautica: Below Zero in Early Access, Unknown Worlds continued to use Unity to optimize virtually every element of the game. Its early 2021 release – across PCs, consoles, and Switch – promises outstanding commercial success and an exciting future. According to Verrette, “Unity not only brought out our best gameplay, they also helped make this amazing game available to a new Switch audience. They’re more than a long-term partner – they’re part of the core team.”

Max McGuire, Technical Director, Unknown Worlds

“Besides getting our games out to a broader, multiplatform audience, Unity Accelerate Solutions truly helped us take all our games to a higher level.”

Max McGuire, Technical Director, Unknown Worlds
Michael Verrette, Development Director, Unknown Worlds

“The Unity team created a plan that tackled optimization, how to move everything over, and also pointed out where the big challenges were likely to be.”

Michael Verrette, Development Director, Unknown Worlds

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