Unturned: how a survival game made by a 16-year-old racked up 24 million downloads

Screenshot via Steam user Sanders, Mordecai

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, he added a police helicopter, a thief costume, building decay, and back buttons to the main menu. On February 12, in patch, 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.

Unturned has been downloaded 24 million times, making it the third-most-owned game on Steam.

“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.

Screenshot via Steam user Toomas

Communal bonds

“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.”

Screenshot via Steam user MoltonMontro

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 better door animations and, um, a zombie-alerting airhorn.

“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.”

Screenshot via Steam user Lost_S0ul

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 mockup he uploaded to imgur.

“[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.”

Keep on turning

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.

Screenshot via Steam user Hexadecimal

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.”

Luke Winkie
Contributing Writer

Luke Winkie is a freelance journalist and contributor to many publications, including PC Gamer, The New York Times, Gawker, Slate, and Mel Magazine. In between bouts of writing about Hearthstone, World of Warcraft and Twitch culture here on PC Gamer, Luke also publishes the newsletter On Posting. As a self-described "chronic poster," Luke has "spent hours deep-scrolling through surreptitious Likes tabs to uncover the root of intra-publication beef and broken down quote-tweet animosity like it’s Super Bowl tape." When he graduated from journalism school, he had no idea how bad it was going to get.