What it's like creating one of Steam's most popular games at just 20 years old

Nelson Sexton, 20, created Unturned when he was just 16.

Nelson Sexton, 20, created Unturned when he was just 16.

Unturned, a free-to-play zombie survival game, is more popular than Rust and DayZ combined. Currently sitting as the 16th most-played game on Steam with 28,000 players, it's more popular than a lot of things. When I bring this up to Nelson Sexton, Unturned's sole creator who began working on the game at just 16-years-old, he pauses a moment and then awkwardly says "thanks" like I just paid him a compliment. I think even he is having a hard time comprehending Unturned's success.

"It was just a hobby that I originally posted on my website, but when I did a revamp for version 2 I thought, maybe I can get this on Steam through Greenlight?" Nelson says. "I used to come home from school and take a look at Steam to see if it did. The first patch didn’t get through, but the next patch did and there was a big celebration. I think we had pizza that night as a celebration dinner. It’s crazy. I feel so lucky."

Born in Cowtown 

Nelson and I are sitting in a coffee shop on the outskirts of Calgary, Alberta, the city we both share. Calgary is a city with a lot of things—hot-to-trot oil and gas executives, people who own a pair of cowboy boots they only wear once a year, and the highest amount of 4x4 trucks in Canada per capita. It's like Texas, if Texans apologized more and wouldn't lose their shit over a few measly feet of snow. But Calgary isn't a place for game developers, so the idea that one of the most popular games of the last few years originated from a city best known for an outdoor show so ubiquitous with alcohol poisoning that Jugo Juice sells hangover smoothies is very amusing to me.

Last month, on its third anniversary since entering Early Access, Unturned finally released. It seemed like a good time to meet Nelson and ask him how he felt about telling a stranger his life story.

"Everything is still pretty normal for me," Nelson tells me over coffee. He says the success of Unturned hasn't really bled into his life in any dramatic way. He drives a Honda, has a girlfriend, and lives at home with his dad. Most times, his success is felt indirectly. "My girlfriend’s mom is a teacher and she tells her students that she knows the creator of Unturned and her students get excited," he laughs. "I love hearing those kinds of stories."

Unturned is undoubtedly popular with a younger generation of players. Conceived off the back of Nelson's experience building games using Roblox, its simple, blocky aesthetic feels more like Minecraft than DayZ. But it's still a zombie survival game at its core.

Nelson began making games when he was only nine. After attending a summer camp at our local university where he got to mess around with GameMaker, he convinced his dad to shell out the cash for it. "He had to sign up for a Paypal account and was really unsure about it because it was so new," Nelson laughs.

Eventually he upgraded to making games in Roblox before some members of that community got him programming in Java and then, finally, C#—the language used by the Unity engine. Unturned was never meant to be a commercial game, Nelson tells me. It just seemed natural that if he made something, he should share it with people. Growing up in tightly knit communities like Roblox, getting Unturned on Greenlight seemed like an obvious thing to do.

And then Unturned took off.

I feel really lucky to have gotten on Steam when I did ... there’s so many more games coming out and it's impossible to get noticed.

Nelson Sexton

Three years ago, Unturned hit its all-time peak at 62,000 players just months after launching on Greenlight. Nelson says he owes it all to a few YouTubers who started playing it on their channels. Beyond word of mouth, Nelson has barely invested anything into traditional marketing. He won the indie game lottery, and he knows it. "I feel really lucky to have gotten on Steam when I did, as opposed to now when there’s so many more games coming out and it's impossible to get noticed," he says.

Once Unturned had a thriving community of players, Nelson became trapped in the precarious circumstance of having to juggle school, being a teenager, and managing a community larger than every small town scattered around Calgary's city borders combined. "During school, I’d try and do my homework in other classes," Nelson says. "I’d finish math class really fast so I could do my English homework. I was always trying to cram as much work into school time when I had to be there so at home I could work on Unturned. I’d get home and work until dinner and then work until I had to go to bed."

I point out what an astonishing amount of discipline that takes for someone who is only a teenager and ask how he made time for being a kid. "I’m not the most social person," he responds. "I was able to do things like talking with friends online while working on the game."

I was always trying to cram as much work into school time when I had to be there so at home I could work on Unturned.

Nelson Sexton

That dedication paid off. During its time in Early Access, he developed around 260 updates, far exceeding the number of features Nelson had originally promised. New maps, vehicles, tons of new weapons, weather effects—the list dwarfs the features of other survival games and that's without counting the thriving Workshop community that creates their own maps and mods.

But for Nelson, his unending thirst to continue developing Unturned isn't motivated by much more than a desire to bring to life whatever he thinks is cool. "One of the nice things about Unturned is I can find it a whole bunch of different things from other games I like," he tells me. "There is kind of the core of survival games, but then I can bring in things from other games. Like, I played World of Warcraft for a number of months so I brought in NPCs to Unturned."

Dodging the Early Access hate 

I ask Nelson how he managed to skirt the negative reception that seems to haunt other Early Access survival games and he shrugs. Unturned currently has 91 percent positive reviews on Steam, where other popular games like Ark can barely keep above 50. "With Early Access, there’s a lot less trust in it. At first it seemed more curated and the games were seen as trustworthy, but I think there’s some really unfair hate lumped on Early Access."

I suspect a lot of it has to do with Nelson himself. Since he's the only person working on Unturned, he interacts with his community directly. He tells me that he gets some hate mail here and there, but by and large everyone is very understanding and appreciative of the work he's doing. Unturned has also avoided the drama that seems to constantly haunt its peers. No sudden price hikes, no paid DLC expansions, no splitting the game in half and selling off its two parts. 

Looking into his patch notes, many are appended with intimate details that offer a window into his life. "Next week on the 3rd I'm off to Toronto to look at apartments for rent, and then several days later leaving to Italy for a holiday," he writes in his most recent update. "I'll be getting back home on the 22nd. I'm excited—this is my first vacation since I started work on Unturned 2.0!"

It's obvious that his candor pays off: "Have fun on your vacation, Nelson! It's good to take a break and relax, don't feel obligated to put out updates if you feel you need to chill for a bit," reads one of the more recent comments, with many more echoing the same sentiment.

I originally added the [paid] gold upgrade because new games were coming out and I wanted the money to buy them.

Nelson Sexton

I ask Nelson about it and he shrugs again, saying that there's no particular PR or marketing strategy. He just talks to his players the only way that feels natural to him. He treats them like humans and they respond in kind. "I originally added the [paid] gold upgrade because new games were coming out and I wanted the money to buy them," he says a little sheepishly. "As soon as I could afford videogames, I wasn't worried about money." 

Nelson's work space at his dad's house.

Turning forward 

Even though Nelson isn't exposed the drama that can sometimes come with being a big developer, Unturned has made him enough money to live on his own terms. Later this month, he plans to move with his girlfriend to Toronto so she can attend university. It's a big move and the first time either will have lived on their own—let alone together. But at least he won't have to fret about finding a job. "It’s definitely going to be a big step, but it's nice not to be too worried about money," he says. "Finding a place, sorting out all the new things of living together and on our own will be a lot. I’m very excited."

The change in scenery won't impact Nelson's approach to updating Unturned however. He tells me that he has a great deal of ideas left and an infinite checklist of things he wants to improve. "One decision I'm trying to make around now is trying to figure out when and how the right way to do version 4 is. Unturned has been in version 3 for the last three years, so it's lasted quite a while. But some of the earlier decisions are coming back to haunt me."

He tells me that, following some talks with developers at GDC, he's considering rebuilding Unturned from scratch using Unreal 4. "It's crazy to think I might spend another four years rebuilding Unturned again, way better than it is right now," he says and pauses to consider the monumental effort. "But there's not really another game I want to make. There's just a bunch of improvements I want to make to Unturned."

And part of that is because Unturned is still the hobby that Nelson started when he was 16. Unturned is as much a living chronology of Nelson's growth as a developer as it is a game. It's a canvas covered in eraser marks where he drew a line, decided he hated it, and started over.

"I'm very confident that I can always do better and improve," he says. "I think it is unlikely that whatever game I make next will be as successful or get as much traction on Steam. Unturned is probably the most popular game I'll ever make, and if I make a sequel or version 4, the core audience will transition and enjoy it. And as long as they're still there, I'll be happy. It doesn't matter to me too much whether it's 30 million players or a few thousand."

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.