7DTD – The Great Minibike Catastrophe

I’m now 56 days into my Navezgane 7 Days To Die game. I’ve built a forge and a workbench and a cement mixer and my base is getting upgraded to concrete and reinforced steel. Just in time for the bigger zombies like policemen, soldiers, and weird alien “feral” zombies.

I also found some iron veins to mine. I had a hard time finding them because I kept hearing that you’re supposed to dig where you find gravel but it’s not actually “gravel” that comes out of the ground, it’s sand and stone (which combine to make gravel).

It took a long time to assemble the parts, but I put together a minibike. The way it works is you plop down a “minibike frame” on the ground somewhere and then add the rest of the parts as you find them until you get a working machine. You need to scrounge up an engine, a battery, handlebars, tires, etc.

(I built mine inside my base but I wouldn’t recommend that because once it’s complete you have to drive it out and it’s not super easy to navigate a minibike through doors and spike traps.)

I got some of the parts by buying them from the secret stash at traders (there are two different traders in range of my base). Some of the others I scavenged from cars with a wrench. I only recently learned that you can use a wrench to “take apart” items out in the world, like cars and air conditioners and refrigerators. You get things like gasoline and springs and mechanical parts and electrical parts. I had a bunch of wrenches lying around but I never thought to use them before. That was how I got enough mechanical parts to make a workbench.

Eventually I put the last minibike part in place (the seat) and I was able to sit on it (Ayyyyyy, says The Fonz). It needed gasoline so I filled it about 30% full and then dropped all of my stacks of gasoline in the minibike storage so I’d have some in case I got stranded somewhere. (I had gotten gasoline by scavenging from gas station pumps and cars.)

It was night time when I finished the minibike so I had to wait patiently until morning before I could ride it. When morning came, I crept out of my base and around all the spike traps and hit the open road. Minibikes are really fast, compared to running. And for some reason, it switches to a third-person view while you’re driving, so you get to see yourself.

There’s some graphical clunkiness that goes with the minibikes, but it’s a small price to pay for long-distance transportation. The biggest problem with the minimike is that you can’t see the map while you’re riding. You have to stop, get off the bike, then open the map. Which was probably a contributing factor in what happened next.

I drove and drove and drove, going farther than I’d ever gone before. I wanted to do a big circuit around the map and try to find as many city centers as possible. I figured I’d be able to drive all over the map and get back before dark, because I’d gone a huge distance and it wasn’t even 9:00 AM yet.

Then suddenly I started taking damage. What? Did I hit a spike trap? Was I starving? Was somebody shooting at me?

Nope, I’d driven off the side of the map into the radiation zone, where you get killed pretty fast. When I realized what had happened, I turned around in a panic (bumping off the road and through a desert terrain filled with cactii, which in real life undoubtedly would have given me a flat tire and a a faceful of thorns) and drove back as fast as I could. But it was too late, and I died.

*headdesk*

If you haven’t played 7 Days To Die, maybe you don’t appreciate how much of a blunder that was, so I’ll try to explain.

First, when you die, you drop everything you’re carrying at the spot where you die. Nothing in my backpack was irreplaceable, but far more infuriating was the fact that the minibike I’d spent forever building also got left back there where I died.

When you die, you respawn on the last sleeping bag you set down, which means I spawned waaaaay back at my base. It had taken no time to drive out to the edge of the map on a minibike, but running back there would take most of the (game) day. And as I’ve mentioned before, generally you don’t want to be out in the open at night in 7 Days To Die.

But it gets worse because I’d died in the radiation zone. That means I would have to run out into the radiation, get my stuff, and run back (on foot) and hope I didn’t take too much damage in the process. I didn’t know how far I’d have to run or how much damage the radiation would do.

I had collected some parts of a hazard suit, which is supposed to resist radiation, so I put those on, grabbed some basic gear, and started running. I almost died of heat stroke on the way out there because it was mid-afternoon in the desert by then, but I made it. I put down a sleeping bag in a house near the radiation zone so I wouldn’t have to run so far in case I died.

My temporary base at the edge of the map.

Fortunately my backpack and minibike where not too far over the border into the radiation zone. Un-fortunately it was still too far. I ran out there in my hazard suit, got to my backpack, picked up everything, turned around to run back, and died before I could take a step.

So I lost my hazard suit in addition to my supplies and minibike.

Next time I ran out there I died before I even got to my backpack. I tried a couple more times but it was pretty obvious I was never going to recover the backpack or the minibike, unless I happen to find some Rad-X in this game.

So I ran all the way back to my base. (Actually to be honest, first I rage-quit* for a while.) Then, to add insult to injury, as soon as I arrived back at my base after a long run, a zombie dog got inside and killed me before I could put down a new sleeping bag. So of course I respawned alllllll the way back at the house on the edge of the map and I had to run back to base again. (After waiting through the night because it was dark by then.)

All in all it was a very depressing first minibike adventure.

The only good news is that it won’t take too long to build a new minibike, because while I was out getting killed and running back and forth, I stumbled across a “Minibikes For Dummies” book, which means I can now build the parts for a minibike, instead of hoping to find or buy them. (All but the tires, at least.)

* Rage-quitted? Raged-quit?

7DTD – New Game, Treasure Hunt

So I’m going to write some more about 7 Days To Die since it’s all I’ve been playing lately, and there’s this weird expectation that bloggers are supposed to post things occasionally.

I gave up on Conan Exiles because I already feel like I’ve done everything in the game, or I should say I’ve seen all the game mechanics that are in the game. Those mechanics are: Gather stuff, build stuff, and kill stuff. Everything you gather is gathered the same way: Either pick it up by hand, or hit it with a tool. Everything you build is built the same way: Put the component in your hot bar and place it where you want it. (This includes thralls.) Everything you kill is killed the same way: Shoot it with a bow or crossbow, or hit it with a melee weapon. (Or hit it with a club if you want to drag it back to base and make a thrall out of it.)

What’s sorely missing from Exiles is a reason to build and kill stuff. I don’t think I’ll be back until or unless they add that in. They could start by making the environment a lot tougher to live in. The static nature of the spawns makes it very easy to survive.

Let’s compare the monsters in Conan Exiles to the zombies in 7 Days To Die, which is a far more advanced survival game even though the graphics are more primitive.

Zombies in 7DTD spawn randomly. They walk in random directions or stand still. They aren’t chained to a single spot. They walk across the landscape. They break stuff in their way. They walk in groups (usually marching in your direction, unfortunately). They will follow you forever once they sense you, until you either kill them or run far away from them. Even if they stop following you, they might still wander in your direction again. Some of them (screamers) summon other zombies. They are relentless killing machines, and come in a variety of nasty flavors, from easy to hard, and they’re all mixed up together. And when night falls, they get exponentially more difficult to deal with, because they can run forever while you can’t. You can hide with some success, but there’s never any completely safe place to stay. Even if you manage to avoid the zombies for the first 7 days, on every 7th night, waves of them will hunt you down no matter where you’re hiding.

And by the way these zombies are no pushovers. There’s a good chance they will stun you if they hit you even once. If they hit you three or four times it’s over. With a zombie dog it’s over in seconds. It’s basically impossible to fight a lot of them at once (I mean, unless there’s a machinegun or flamethrower in the game somewhere).

That’s a threatening environment in a survival game. Knowing that zombies will attack and kill you every 7th day is a fantastic incentive to gather supplies and build a base. (And/or to never carry anything important, like those early days of Ultima Online.)

In Conan Exiles your incentive to build is … curiosity?

New Game

I was getting tired of spending so much time patching up my base so I started a new 7DTD game. I wanted to try something different, and starting over in a survival game is like starting an alt. (Except in this case the new character looks exactly the same.)

I started the new game on the Navezgane map this time, which is the hand-crafted map. Apparently if you explore around this map, you can learn some backstory about the zombie apocalypse, so I thought it would be fun to try that. I’ve had the game for two years but I have yet to see much of this map. It’s big.

I started in the snow surrounded by lumberjack zombies (a particularly tough breed). I walked through the mountains, died a lot, stopped by a trader, made my way south to a subdivision (Diersville–the places have names on this map), then settled on a corn farm. I found a metal shed that looked remarkably similar to the one I’d just abandoned in my last game and built a base there in the middle of a cornfield. This time I made it much smaller so it doesn’t take so long to maintain it. So far it’s survived past day 21.

Welcome to Diersville which is apparently too poor to afford an ‘E’ for their sign.

This time I was very lucky to find a cooking pot early on in the subdivision, along with a 9mm handgun. Surprisingly, pistols don’t do that much damage to zombies. You still have to hit the tougher ones several times in the head to stop them. Seems a bit unrealistic that a hand-made bow-and-arrow does almost as well as a 9mm pistol but I guess I shouldn’t complain about realism in a zombie game.

There’s a house across the road from the metal shed, presumably the farmer’s house (I had to kill a few zombies in farmers’ coveralls when I first arrived), with a basement in it. I thought it would make a good escape route so I dug a tunnel down under my metal shed over to the farmer’s basement. It took a while and so far it’s been a pointless waste of effort, but it looks kind of cool. It’s neat when you can destroy terrain just as much as build on top of it.

Escape tunnel!

The other big adventure I’ve had in the new game is trying to follow a treasure map to a nearby cache. This is another one of the many great things about 7DTD–you occasionally find little quests to follow. I dug a hole roughly 50 miles deep in the indicated spot but didn’t find any treasure. I broke down and Googled how far down I was supposed to dig, and discovered the treausure is only supposed to be 3 or 4 blocks deep, which I was going to protest vehemently until I found there was one tiny little spot on the edge of my massive round hole that I’d missed, and sure enough there was a chest buried there about 3 blocks down.

A very big unnecessary hole in the ground.

Despite wasting 3 games days digging everywhere but the right spot, the treasure was well worth it: The chest contained a sniper rifle, ammunition, precious metals, and about seven thousand Duke’s tokens (“cash” accepted by the traders). A massive haul of loot, in other words. I sold the precious metals to a nearby trader for even more Duke’s tokens. From now on, I’ll be dropping everything to follow any treasure maps I find, and it just so happens I have a second one. I can’t wait to go dig it up.

The other great thing about digging an enormous hole is that it really improved my Mining skill. I also bought the “Mining 69er” perk which turns out to be a really useful skill for increasing your mining yield and also decreasing stamina usage, so you can sit there digging all day without having to stop to rest.

Loot Drops

This brings up the topic of loot drops. Some survival games really know how to do good loot drops. Perhaps this is one thing that attracts me to the genre. It’s something that MMORPGs have completely forgotten how to do. I almost never care about loot in MMORPGs any more. In fact, I usually find loot to be actively annoying because it just fills up my inventory with useless junk that I have to sort through later. (Guild Wars 2 is particularly offensive in this regard.) Never finding any interesting or surprising loot is a major contributor to boredom in an MMORPG.

But with a survival game like 7 Days to Die, the loot drops are almost always useful, sometimes lifesaving. There’s a little rush of excitement when you find a can of peas on a zombie while you’re starving to death. And sometimes, the drops are amazingly useful. Like a sniper rifle or a chainsaw. Those kinds of things are so precious that I almost don’t want to use them for fear of losing them. That never happens in MMORPGs any more.

7DTD – A Forge Makes All The Difference

I played a large amount of 7 Days To Die this weekend. I finally discovered some things to make the game more enjoyable beyond the 7th day.

A trip to the market.

I bought 7DTD way back in February 2015 for $25. That must have been before my $10 rule or a random exception, because I don’t think I’d heard about the game beforehand. I didn’t play it very much in 2015 because it was still early, but it was fun, and I liked what they were doing with it. It’s been on my desktop pretty much all the time since then.

It’s now February 2017 and for some reason the game is still Early Access, though it now seems very complete. The models and animation still aren’t that great, and some of the sound effects make me cringe (the fire axe hitting a tree, for example, sounds roughly like a metal pipe hitting my ATA-approved plastic Stratocaster hardshell case), but it’s got rock solid survival gameplay.

The basic idea is very similar to other survival games: You’re stranded in the wilderness and you need to eat and drink and build shelter to survive the elements. You can play on a fixed map or a randomly-generated map. It’s kind of a voxel-based system like Landmark, but not quite as advanced. In 7DTD your main threat is a zombie horde, dysentery, and the occasional angry bear.

Sounds boring right? Well there’s some mechanics that make it really interesting (to me, at least). With the default settings, the zombies are fairly docile during the day, but at night, they get really aggressive and run after you. And when I say run, I mean you won’t be escaping from them at night, so prepare to fight or die. (You’ll probably die, because it’s really dark at night and you can barely see them.) What that means in game terms is that you typically spend your days scavenging and your nights hiding.

The number of zombies wandering around goes up the longer you survive, so where at first you might run into one zombie here or there, later on you’ll encounter herds of zombies wandering the fields. During the day you can avoid them (unless they wander in the direction of your base), but if you hit a herd at night, well, you’re probably going to die. (The moral of the story here is don’t go out at night.)

Finally there is the “every 7th Day” mechanic. When night falls on every 7th day (22:00 on the default settings), the sky turns red and a wave of crazed zombies spawn nearby and attack. It doesn’t matter where you are or how well you’re hiding, they will lock on and sprint straight to you, breaking down any doors or walls in the way. If your base isn’t strong enough to slow them down, you’re probably going to die, to say nothing of the havoc they will wreak on your base. And each 7th day wave gets progressively stronger. (I assume. I’ve only witnessed two waves so far.)

The 7th Day Zombies* are what usually kills me whenever I play the game. I get to the 7th day, get murdered, and start again, trying to find a better place to build a base.

New Discoveries

Over the past two years, I normally play 7 Days to Die for a few hours over a few days and then give it up for something else. I never disliked it, mind you, I just couldn’t find that extra little bit that made it hard to stop playing. And, you know, I kept getting murdered every 7th day.

But a couple of things happened this weekend that really ramped up the addictiveness of the game for me: 1) I learned that you can stick torches on walls, and 2) I learned how to craft and use a Forge.

When it gets dark in 7DTD, it gets really dark. You can’t see much of anything unless you’re holding a torch. Unfortunately you can only hold one thing at a time, which means if you’re holding a torch, you can’t do anything (except craft items from your inventory). You can’t hold a torch and fight at the same time, for example, so any night-time combat for me was literally shooting in the dark, with mixed results. Due to the lack of visibility, most of the time during darkness I just sat in my inner base sanctum crouched down waiting for dawn, alt-tabbing to some other program. (By default the days are 50 minutes long so the night time lasts about 15 minutes of real time.) That part of the game was pretty boring for me.

Then at some point I discovered by accident that if you right click on a wall while you’re holding a torch, it sticks the torch to the wall. This was a revelation. Suddenly I could fight in the dark! I could move around and build things inside my base! I was no longer a prisoner of the darkness that falls every night.

Lights! And waiting for dawn so I can get my backpack.

(There’s a gamma setting, too, but I feel like that would be “cheating.”)

Of course you only get one torch to start. If you’re unlucky enough to die and lose your initial torch, you won’t even have that one. It’s easy enough to get the ingredients to make more torches, except for one thing: You have to melt animal fat down into tallow, which as far as I know, can only be done with a cooking pot over a campfire.

You could get lucky and find a cooking pot somewhere, which I did once. Talk about a fantastic loot drop. No magic sword drop has ever equaled the thrill of searching a garbage pile to find a cooking pot in 7 Days To Die.

But say you can’t find one. No problem! Just craft a cooking pot, right? Welllllll. See, you have to make this thing called a Forge (or a Furnace, depending on the menu), which lets you smelt iron ore into shapes like cooking pots.

This weekend was the first time I’ve ever been able to make a Forge, and it opens up a whole new world in the game. Once you have a Forge you can make all kinds of useful stuff. Cooking pots? Yep. Barbed-wire fences? Yep. Iron tools? Yep. Bottles to hold water? Yep. After you make a Cooking Pot you can finally boil all that murky water and make it safe to drink! You can make Golden Rod tea to cure dysentery!

Sadly Forges aren’t that easy to make. You need stone, clay, a bellows, and an iron pipe. Getting the stone is easy: Just break up rocks. Getting the clay is also easy, once you figure out where to dig it up with a shovel. (Areas of clay are shown by grayish color blobs on the map.) The bellows and iron pipe are somewhat more problematic.

The bellows is made of animal hide and another iron pipe. To get the animal hide you have to kill a bunch of deer or pigs. Bears too, I assume, but I’ve never tried to kill one. Hunting animals is not very easy since they tend to run away from you, so it can take a while to collect all the hides. There is also the minor issue that every time you chop up an animal and carry around its raw meat, every zombie in the area is attracted to the smell. (That’s another neat mechanic in the game. Do you risk carrying the meat or leave it behind and risk starvation?)

Assuming you’ve collected the animal hides, the only thing left is a couple of iron pipes. How do you make those? Well, you can’t! Oh, you can make them in a Forge, but you don’t have one of those yet, do you? So you have to run all over the map scavenging every garbage pile, car, and shopping cart to find two iron pipes. One for the bellows, and one for the Forge.

It doesn’t take as long as it sounds, and it’s kind of fun to explore around the map. Iron pipes are fairly common items to find in debris (well, not uncommon at least), however I haven’t yet been able to make a Forge before Day 7.

Once you’ve built a Forge and outfitted your campfire with a Cooking Pot and a Grill and whatnot, you can’t help but get attached to your base. You find that it would be kind of a bummer if a zombie horde stomped through and destroyed everything. So a large percentage of my playing time this weekend was spent building walls around my base in an effort to keep zombies out.

Day 14 And Beyond

In my latest game, which, as I write this, is on Day 18, I was lucky enough to spawn in an area with a lot of cacti. (The humble cactus is a life-saver in 7DTD because you can harvest them for yuccas, which you can both eat and make into juice, thus giving you eternal dysentery-free life.) I found a nice steel warehouse close to a lake and setup shop there. I built walls around the warehouse using scores of upgraded “wooden frames.” I built a sort of “gatehouse” at the entrance with an outer door and an inner door, using classic castle-building strategies. It’s not very pretty, but I’m more of a function-over-form kind of builder in games.

When Day 7 arrived, the zombies came and punched a big hole through my gatehouse with ease. I don’t remember exactly, but I think I fell off a wall and broke my leg. I died a bunch of times and I’m pretty sure I lost my backpack, but at least my base supplies (in chests) survived the night intact, so that was a win. I had to rethink my gatehouse though.

After that I was able to make a Forge, light my base with torches, and reinforce some areas with iron. In preparation for Day 14, I setup a new gatehouse with a bunch of obstacles to slow down the zombies, but not necessarily stop them. The theory was that I would be able to shoot at the zombies while they were breaking down each obstacle. I also surrounded my “castle” with spike traps.

When Day 14 arrived, my system of obstacles didn’t work very well and the zombies got in again pretty easily, albeit slightly slower. They managed to climb up on the walls where I was standing and I died again. My backpack dropped on the ground outside the walls, and I spawned nearby. I sprinted as fast as I could away from my base, and all the zombies followed, eventually catching and killing me again. I spawned back inside my base, where the only remaining threat was a single zombie dog. I spent the rest of the night standing on a catwalk while the dog barked at me from directly below. For some reason I still don’t quite understand, the other zombies never came back. Next morning, I managed to lead the zombie dog to some spikes where it killed itself, then I was able to retrieve my pack and start repairs on my wrecked gatehouse. This time a lot of them dug under the blocks.

One thing I’ve learned from 7DTD is that it’s not that big of a deal to get yourself killed. As long as you have a sleeping bag that you can spawn on or near (that was something I didn’t know until they added quests into the game last year :), you’ll be able to get back to where you belong, even if you have to shiver outside your base, hiding in the cold until dawn. (The map in 7DTD is enormous, so God help you if you have to run back from a random spawn location. Before I knew about the sleeping bag, I just started fresh in the new location.)

The thing you have to worry about is the zombies destroying your chests full of supplies. If a zombie destroys a chest, all the stuff in it seems to vanish. That happened to me in a previous game when I was in a small base. It was pretty disheartening because I lost a working chainsaw, which is an uber-powerful weapon against zombies in 7DTD.

The interior of this base got mauled by zombies while I stood safely on the roof.
There used to be walls surrounding that sleeping bag, and two chests.

Ever since then I’ve put all my major supply chests up on platforms where hopefully the zombies will never go, even if I get killed. I set up the platform so I have to jump across a gap to get to them, which seems to be difficult for the zombie AI to navigate. (I don’t know what happens if the zombies destroy all the supports underneath a platform, but 7DTD doesn’t have very realistic physics when it comes to structures, so I suspect it would just float up there in mid-air. I should try that to make sure.)

Eventually I think I’m going to have to move my base, because I’m running out of nearby trees to cut down. I think I might try to take over one of those brick or metal buildings in a nearby city. That might be a disaster though, since cities are usually where you find the most zombies.

Wish List

To wrap up this enormous post, here are some things I would love to see in 7DTD:

  • Better inventory and sorting options. I can’t stand plain old drag-and-drop inventory grid systems anymore. I hate moving my mouse all the way across my mousepad just to move something from my inventory into a chest. It takes a fraction of a millisecond to make the move in my head, but my physical hand is always lagging so far behind. I hate moving inventory icons around to categorize things by hand, because computers were made for this very purpose! 7DTD has a sort button but I have no idea how it’s sorting things and it doesn’t make much sense to me. And why can’t I double-click things to move them from one box to another like every other game? Why must I shift-click them? Missing UI quality-of-life improvements drive me crazy because they add such a huge value to the user experience. Why must we take time away from our immersion to wrestle with the UI?? The goal is to be so seamless that it feels transparent.

  • I wish there was an option to display your status levels permanently, instead of only showing them when they get low. You have no idea where you stand when the hunger and thirst values are between 51% and 100%.

  • I’m not sure it’s doing this, but if it is, I wish it wouldn’t: It seems like your aim is affected by your Archery skill, as if it adds a little bit of randomization to the trajectory of your arrows based on your skill level. So many times I’m sure I should have nailed a pig dead center but the arrow hits above or beside it. (Weirdly, not scaring the pig.)

  • I wish there was a third-person view. First-person melee combat never feels right to me. (Then again, it would expose how mediocre the player models are, so maybe that’s not a good idea.)

  • I wish there were better tool animations and sound effects. It seems like a lot of things were pulled from generic Unity asset libraries.

  • I wish you could boil water inside those glass containers! It makes no sense that you can’t boil water in a glass jar without a cooking pot. Also for some reason you can’t stack cans of boiled water. I assume that’s a bug.

  • I wish you could scrap Sham Sandwiches to get Moldy Bread to make antibiotics. I find heaps of Sham Sandwiches but I hardly ever find Moldy Bread.

  • I’m not sure there’s enough of a death penalty. It doesn’t seem to hurt that much if the 7th Day Zombies* overrun your base and tear you to bits. Your pack will remain there until the next day when you can waltz back in and retrieve it at your leisure. (I now put most of my inventory into chests prior to the 7th day invasion, so I won’t drop much.) There’s little incentive to build a zombie-proof base. I feel like maybe the zombies should go after high-value targets inside your base after you’re dead, like the forge and the chests, so you have a much greater incentive to build a secure base. (Maybe it gets worse after the 14th day, I don’t know.)

Now that I think about, I’m going to try this on Day 21: Store everything in my inventory, take off all my clothes, and go stand way out in the middle of the wilderness somewhere far away from my base when 22:00 of the 7th day rolls around. The zombies should attack me repeatedly and ignore my base, right? I’ll let you know if it works.

  • A way to toggle off the UI feature would be nice for screenshots.

  • I wish it was easier to setup a private LAN server. I haven’t been able to get one working yet. I just play local “single-player” games. It’s probably just as well, since I assume time would keep passing while I’m not logged into the server, and that would be pretty bad in 7DTD.

* I don’t know what to call the red-sky zombies that spawn at the end of every 7th day, so I call them “7th Day Zombies” which is not in any way meant as a slight against Seventh Day Adventists, which I had never heard of until I drove past one of their churches every day to go to work for a few years, always wondering what they were, until the year 2017 when I unconsciously used the same word pattern to describe zombies in a game.

Conan Exiles, Part Three

You might be wondering why I’m still talking about Conan Exiles after trashing it for two posts in a row. Welllllll, see, it’s still kind of fun. :)

Some random shrine of some random priest.

It has that same sort of addictive crafting progression treadmill that ARK has: I want to see everything you can craft, so I have to keep leveling up and unlocking new recipes and finding more and more resources. And every time you craft something new, it helps speed up the leveling and searching for more resources. And there’s always something cool to craft just out of reach. So it’s kind of a vicious cycle that will continue until I either run out of things to craft and/or can safely walk anywhere on the map. (I quit playing ARK after I could craft winter-weather protection and a rifle which could kill any dinosaur I encountered.)

By the way, they fixed the connection issue I was having to my private server. I’ve worked out how to circumvent or deal with most of the other issues I’ve encountered, so they don’t really seem like bugs anymore. No doubt that’s what Early Access developers count on.

A place where skeletons may be found.

Most of my combat issues were solved in one of two ways: First, make an iron pike. It’s the best weapon in the game so far, miles ahead of everything else (even better than the Stygian spear, a later weapon). Unfortunately it also has the worst animations. Second, build a one-story platform with stairs near enemy spawn points and use a bow. Due to the limited functionality of the AI, no enemy will ever follow you up a set of stairs so you can safely stand on top of your platform and plunk enemies to death forever. (Once a rhinoceros broke my platform so I guess you need to repair it occasionally too.)

Platforms from which you can shoot monsters with complete immunity.

About that crafting: Exiles and ARK have the exact style of crafting progression that I like, which is so rarely found in MMORPGs. You start out making small things, then later you combine those small things to make bigger things, then later you combine the bigger things to make really, really big things. Each new tier requires ingredients crafted in the previous tier. Each tier builds on the last tier, in other words.

MMORPGs typically do crafting with no dependencies between the tiers. You craft the new tier of stuff with a new tier of ingredients that you gather in a new area of the game. It’s the same crafting just with different names on the ingredients. You don’t usually need ingredients from the old tier after you’ve graduated to the new tier.

Crafting and combat and bugs aside, if nothing else, it’s a great game for screenshots. I mean, if you like desert terrain. There’s a lot of interesting scenery to look at. In some ways, playing survival games is sort of like camping “but without all that awful nature,” as Linda Belcher would say.

Sacrificial altar where something bad might happen, according to a talking stone tablet.

I’ve made some adjustments to my server settings. Two major game design issues that have consistently annoyed me in the game: The amount of damage that enemy mobs do is ridiculous, so I set the “player damage taken” setting to 0.5. The damage wouldn’t have bothered me, but I’ve crafted three tiers of armor now and none of them had any noticable effect on damage taken, so I’m just assuming that armor calculations are completely broken and/or armor is mainly for decoration.

The other issue is that experience gain is really slow. You get to a point where you’ve crafted everything you need or want from the most recent recipes, then look up and find you still have most of the way to go until the next level and more recipes. You can either craft things like crazy or kill things like crazy to make up that experience, and both of those things are pretty tedious and grindy. So I changed the XP multiplier to 5.0. I started with 2.0, then went to 4.0, and finally settled on 5.0. It still takes like an hour to gain a level.

One other thing I wish I could tweak is the drop rate for Bark. It’s a big bottleneck in the production process.

An outstretched hand structure extending out over the river.

It occurred to me one day that playing a good survival game is almost like playing an RTS, except zoomed way in to one individual unit that you control manually. Base-building, resource collection, and manufacturing are all components in a good survival game.

Exiles is a good start to a fun game. It’s really a shame they released it too early. By the time it’s feature complete I’m sure I’ll be bored with it. Survival games with fixed maps don’t have much replay value. It’s not like I’ll get a different result if I start a new character. Maybe Funcom will release new maps someday.

What Makes A Good Survival Game?

My recent test drive of Conan Exiles and a comment from Jeromai reminded me of a topic I once started writing about but never finished, which I will now take up again:

What makes a good survival game? What defines a survival game?

The Forest (way back in 2015)

What prompted me to visit this topic was a comment from Jeromai: That he became more interested in Conan Exiles after hearing you could play it solo. I think it highlighted one of the current problems with the survival genre: There’s a perception that survival games are defined as PvP last-man-standing games like H1Z1 King-of-the-Kill, ARK Survival-of-the-Fittest, Rust, etc., where your only goal is to log in and try to murder everyone in sight, basically like Quake Deathmatch in 1997, only using stone knives and bear skins instead of rocket launchers.

But to me that last-man-standing style of gameplay is not the genre. That style of game hijacked the genre.

What Defines A Survival Game

I define survival games with five fundamental characteristics.

Death Penalty. The first and possibly the most important characteristic is a steep death penalty. The main objective or “win state” of a survival game is to “survive,” so the “fail state” by definition must be not surviving.

In practice the death penalty almost always comes in the form of dropping everything you’re carrying when you die. It can get more or less punishing from there, depending on the game. Some games (eg. ARK) might re-spawn you in a place that’s even more dangerous. Some games (eg. Conan Exiles) might re-spawn you in completely safe territory. Either way, though, you have to find your corpse to get your stuff back, and oh by the way that thing that killed you is probably still there.

Consuming Resources. The second defining characteristic of a survival game is a gameplay mechanic that forces you to continually look for resources in order to stay alive. You have to eat something or you’ll die. You have to drink water or you’ll die. You have to craft or find shelter from X environmental element or you’ll die. Games can implement this mechanic anywhere from punishing (eg. ARK or Conan Exiles) to it’s-not-even-a-factor-why-did-they-bother (eg. Novus Inceptio or Fragmented).

Base Building. A third major characteristic is the gathering, crafting, and building mechanic, wherein you craft the tools you need to stay alive. Typically you start with nothing and build your way up. You have to craft a pick to mine stones so you can build a shelter, for example. The mechanic is similar to a “building” game like Landmark, but the buildings are not for aesthetic purposes. Instead they’re meant to protect you from the environment, be it cold weather or wandering monsters. It’s more of a “base building” mechanic, like an RTS, or a tower defense game.

There is often a progression system involved in the crafting, in that the longer you play, the more sophisticated things you can build. This carrot-and-stick mechanism is one of the things that keeps me playing a survival game, although if it takes too long to progress, I get annoyed and bored. (Conan Exiles takes too long to progress, ARK is about right.)

External Threats. A fourth major characteristic, and perhaps the most important one for alleviating long-term boredom, is an external threat to your existence. This can come in any number of different forms. In the initial wave of survival games, the threats were almost always zombies. In ARK, the threat is carnivorous dinosaurs and cold weather. In The Forest, the threat is a series of increasingly weird Lovecraftian creatures coming to visit. Various games implement this part in various ways with varying degrees of success. This is usually where I determine whether or not I like a survival game long-term. Sometimes the external threat is more random, as in ARK, and sometimes the threat is specifically hunting you down to kill you, as in the zombies in 7 Days To Die.

I can’t overstate the importance of the threats. Survival games are at their best (for me at least) when you feel a tension when moving outside of your comfort zone – your “base” – especially when you’re compelled to go out in the environment to stay alive but you’re afraid that if you take one wrong step you’ll get killed and lose all your stuff. There’s that big thrill of accomplishment when you finish the task you set out to do without dying, and return to your base with new “stuff” whatever it might be.

Winnable. A fifth, somewhat minor–but important–characteristic is that you have to be able to survive. Games where you inevitably will die no matter what you do, where your only goal is to survive “as long as you can,” are not survival games in my opinion. That is more of a “rogue-like.” There needs to be an equilibrium point where you can sustain your survival forever, after you’ve learned the mechanics of the game, even if it’s really hard to do. That’s the “win state” for the game. (To keep the game entertaining, of course, the game should disturb the equilibrium periodically, which is a part of the “threat” I mentioned above.)

If the game doesn’t have all five of those elements, to me it’s lacking as a survival game and shouldn’t be called one.

Some of the best examples of the genre, in my opinion, are: ARK, 7 Days To Die, and The Forest. (Conan Exiles is lacking right now, and not just because I still can’t connect to my private server.) Each does things a little bit differently, but they all have the major components that I look for in these games. ARK is more of an arcade-style game, 7D2D is trying for more realism (except for the zombies), and The Forest is more of a story-driven horror game.

Optional Survival Mechanics

Now notice I didn’t mention PvP at all. PvP should be entirely optional in a survival game. Unfortunately developers have discovered that players will let them take the lazy way out and count “other players” as the external threat. It saves them the trouble of developing an AI. I think DAY-Z and Rust were always built for PvP, but H1Z1 and even ARK were hijacked, so much so that people now seem to expect PvP as the norm (see Jeromai’s comment, Syp’s recent post, and Scopique’s recent post). The Forest, too, has spent a huge portion of their Early Access adding multiplayer support. I’m rather hopeful that Conan Exiles won’t go down that path, but the free publicity from zillions of screaming streamers is probably going to be hard for them to resist. (I’ve already seen tweets about “tournaments” so I suppose it’s already too late.)

I didn’t mention Exploration as a requirement either, because I feel like it’s implicit in the required mechanics. But the better survival games will also have an interesting environment to explore. It makes for a good incentive to leave your home base.

I also didn’t mention private servers, because I don’t consider that an intrinsic part of the genre. It’s just that most developers seem to make survival games out of FPS game engines (ARK and Conan Exiles), which by default use that Quake-style client-server technology that we all grew up with in the 1990s (QuakeSpy!). Personally I love setup up my own private server for survival games, because I very much like the gameplay element of being stranded by myself on an island or whatever. I’ve never once played any survival game on a public server, official or unofficial. (Well, not for very long, at least.)

Conan Exiles, Part Two

For some weird reason I’m still playing Conan Exiles. Probably some misguided need to get my money’s worth out of it. Also it’s a fairly relaxing game world to be inside right now. I can safely ignore everything in the real world while I’m breaking rocks. (And that is a big chunk of what you do–everything requires tons of stone.)

However, I will continue to list everything that’s wrong with the game, hopefully to shame Funcom into feeling bad about releasing their game too early. Let this be a lesson to you game developers: I will say bad things about you if you release too early!

(I suppose it’s possible that some of these issues could be a result of playing it on my own LAN. I run my server on a secondary PC which probably isn’t up to the quality standards of an “official” server. Although it’s only a few years old so it shouldn’t be that bad. Besides the Exiles server only uses up about 5% of the CPU when it’s running so it’s not exactly taxing the PC.)

Not That Dangerous

Initially I thought it was a dangerous world, but after you gain a few levels and figure out that everything spawns in exactly the same place every time, you can easily find places where you are in no danger whatsoever. Unless you run out of food and water. Water is easy to get, but you do have to kill things to get food. However you can live forever by killing the dinky little imps which are easy enough that you can punch them to death.

I setup a camp on a beach by the south river next to an imp spawn point, and I don’t foresee a time when I’ll ever need to move. I may want to move at some point, but I don’t need to.

Even the sandstorms don’t seem to do anything except make a nifty graphical effect on the screen.

Since the world isn’t that dangerous, you can get to some neat vantage points.

Combat Still Atrocious

There are really serious issues with the combat. Perhaps it’s just that the Unreal engine is terrible at melee-style combat. ARK had plenty of combat issues too as I recall.

  • In melee, you never know if you’re close enough to hit something. The range on the stone sword is almost non-existent, so you have to get right up next to the mob to hit it. And due to server lag or client-side prediction or whatever, you never know if the mob is actually where it looks like it is on the screen. It’s a crap shoot. And of course during the time you’re figuring out if you’re close enough, the enemy mob or mobs are hitting and damaging you.
  • Lag spikes during combat sometimes, so as soon as you swing, the screen freezes, or seems to freeze. I guess it’s a really intense process to calculate whether you hit anything. Maybe that’s just a problem with my server. After it “un-freezes” you’re left completely disoriented about where you’re pointing.
  • If you double-click your mouse button, you’ll swing twice in a row. It’s weird. It stores up the mouse button clicks in a bizarre way. Most of the time you’ll swing one or two extra times after you think you’ve stopped swinging. (The pick will often swing one extra time, which doesn’t yield any rock, but still makes a “whack” sound and damages your pick.)
  • Animation lock is another random factor in combat. If you’re holding up a shield and the enemy breaks it (which always happens after an enemy hits your shield two or three times), you’ll get stunned for a few seconds. During that time you can’t attack and just have to sit there watching yourself get hit over and over again. Sometimes switching weapons will cause an animation lock too. I haven’t quite figured the exact nature of that yet.
  • Speaking of shields, they are useless. It takes too long to bring them up to block an attack. By the time you see that Hyena lunging at you and click the right button, the Hyena has hit you and moved on to its next attack before the shield even comes up into blocking position. Also, they break after two or three hits, as I said. I gave up on shields.
  • The bow has plenty of issues too. There’s no range finder or anything so beyond a certain distance it’s trial-and-error to get the firing angle right, which is annoying because you have to break up a whole lot of rocks to make arrows. Since you can’t hit anything at range, most of the time you’re going to be near melee range firing your bow, and of course every time a mob hits you, it stuns you a bit and knocks your aim off. Kiting is your friend with the bow. Also you can’t tell if you’re actually hitting a mob with your arrows or not, except by listening for a particular “thunk” sound, which isn’t very distinctive, and doesn’t always play anyway. Sometimes arrows won’t fire for some inexplicable reason, even though they’re in your inventory and equipped properly. I have to shuffle the arrows around in the inventory for a while and eventually the bow will start working again.

What To Do?

There really isn’t much to do in the game right now except level up and build things. And take screenshots.

Since you’re not in much danger, it begs the question of why you need to level up and build things, though. This is supposed to be a survival game, not a building game like Landmark. In ARK, you level up and build more advanced stuff so it’s easier to survive–you need to build a base because random wandering carnivorous dinosaurs will eat you if you don’t. There’s no danger like that in Exiles. The mobs don’t wander far from their spawn points and even if you do happen to get attacked inside your base (which can only happen if, for example, you drag a monster back home with you), as far as I can tell, the monsters don’t hurt your structures.

Thralls

The main reason I’ve kept playing is that I wanted to see the “thrall” system I kept hearing about. It takes a while before you can get a thrall, though. You have to be able to build a Furnace, a Tannery, and a Wheel of Pain.

The basic idea is that you find another exile (ie. humans), which are typically found around big campfires, smash them over the head repeatedly with a Truncheon until you knock them out, then drag them back to your Wheel of Pain with a rope. Put food into the Wheel of Pain and eventually the thralls will be “broken” (it takes a few game days for it to happen) and then you can “place” the thralls around your base just like any other furniture item.

Thralls guarding the beach.

So far I’ve only seen the melee fighting thralls. (There are also archers and crafters I believe.) They will fight any monsters who wander close by, very similar to ARK’s tamed dinosaurs, except these guys actually go back to their starting positions (something I fervently wished ARK’s dinosaurs would do). My thralls so far are only capable of killing imps, though, meaning they are very weak.

It’s an interesting idea, however, as with most things in Exiles, it looks like it’s at the “minimum viable product” stage of development. Thrall (and also enemy) AI is pretty terrible. There’s no way to equip the thralls with gear, or level them up. At least not that I can see. Maybe that comes later.

You could build up your own thrall city by plopping down thralls everywhere, but I don’t really see the point. I suppose you could take over an area that is teeming with monsters by putting thralls in the area to kill them. I’m guessing there are more powerful thralls available which could handle fighting bigger monsters.

Anyway the latest patch (05.02.2017) broke my ability to play the game (black screen on connection), so I guess I’m finished for a while.

Snap Judgment – Conan Exiles

I wasn’t going to buy Conan Exiles right away, because I could tell from the streams and the early gameplay videos that it wasn’t ready yet, but I bought it anyway because I just didn’t feel like playing FFXIV. $30 isn’t too much to waste on a game, right? Eventually they’ll fix it up into a finished game, surely?

To nobody’s surprise, I should have waited for a sale. Let’s start with the bad stuff.

The short version is: Yes, they released it too early. It has all the hallmarks of a game that has had zero quality assurance. Do they even show these games to people outside the development team anymore? Even once? I’m thinking no, they don’t. I suppose there’s no point, since we all buy the games anyway.

You can expect the full assortment of glitches that come with a lack of polish. Random hitches in the frame rate. Random lag. Random models appearing and disappearing. Random getting stuck on paving stones on the ground. Random clipping, seeing through your own arms while swimming, etc.

So what exactly is Conan Exiles? What do you do in this game? Well, imagine ARK. And … that’s it. You’ve got the whole thing. Not to be too sarcastic, but it’s an exact copy of ARK’s gameplay, except instead of dinosaurs, there are Conan-themed monsters and other exiles roaming the landscape. You pick up sticks and rocks and plant fiber, just like ARK, you make them into axes and picks, just like ARK, you make camp fires to cook meat, just like ARK.

Let’s talk about the combat. It’s awful. Yep. That about sums it up. You know how some games really feel like you’re fighting with big heavy weapons? Conan Exiles is on the exact opposite end of that spectrum. This game feels like you’re pushing a mouse button and watching an animation play on the screen. If you’re lucky, if you’ve managed to position yourself close enough to the other model, and guessed which direction you need to point to make contact, maybe you’ll hit something. Probably not, though. I think they spray blood all over the screen to hide the fact that you have very little control during combat.

The enemy AI? Wow. Just wow. And I don’t mean that in a good way. One guy actually sat down in the middle of a fight. He was like, “Whew, fighting this player is too tiring, I’ll just sit down now.” That was pretty cool. Sometimes they stop in the middle of a fight and raise their arms in a war cry without moving their mouth. Pro tip: If you’re in trouble, just swim into some water. No enemies can swim, and nobody ever follows you through water. Okay, well, one crocodile did.

Now for the most egregious problem: Your speed when strafing left and right is considerably slower than moving forward. That means the moment you touch a strafe key while moving or running, it feels like you stop dead. It’s a huge problem.

Bitterness over the death of my dream of playing a AAA-quality survival game aside, Conan Exiles has some merits.

It’s pretty, and it’s fast. At least they managed to tune it so that it runs at an acceptable frame rate out of the box. Unlike some other games *cough* ARK *cough*.

I like the setting of it. I’m a fan of the Conan universe and low fantasy and so forth. (According to the early access notes they will be adding sorcery eventually.) It’s got a nice ambiance, with the ancient ruins dotting the landscape and whatnot. It’s kind of relaxing.

The crafting system looks pretty good, if not particularly inventive. It’s about on par with ARK, in the early game at least.

There seems to be some kind of story element, but as yet I don’t know how deep it runs. There’s at least one wandering NPC that you can talk to.

I like that the world is dangerous. A key component in any survival game is a dangerous world, and they’ve nailed that. (You’d be surprised how many survival games you can just walk around in forever without any chance of dying.) If you walk too far in the wrong direction, you could run into a wide variety of nasties.

The music is pretty good.

It has some nice sorting options in the inventory.

It was fairly easy to setup a private server on my LAN. The server runs, well, just like ARK. It’s the same game engine, after all.

Overall though, I would recommend playing ARK until Conan Exiles goes through about six more months of iterations. I mean, unless you like to complain about bugs. :)

ARK – So Good Yet So Bad

If anyone looks at my YouTube channel*, you can tell I’m still playing a fair amount of ARK. I’m in a very “I want to be by myself” gaming mood right now and toodling around by myself on a giant island of dinosaurs is a good fix.

Thanks to a suggestion from Aywren I’ve customized my server settings to make the game a little more palatable. I haven’t altered it much, just a few tweaks to GameUserSettings.ini to minimize the annoyances:

NightTimeSpeedScale=1.5
PlayerDamageMultiplier=1.5
TamingSpeedMultiplier=15.0

I find night time fairly annoying, so I shortened it a bit. (Night time is seriously dark.) I originally started with a 2.5 player damage but over time it started to feel overpowered, so I turned it back down. The taming speed multiplier is absolutely mandatory. I’m thinking of turning it up again to something like 100.0. I despise the needlessly time-consuming taming mechanic in ARK.

And because it drives me crazy how rare metal is, even with a metal pick, I added this to Game.ini:

HarvestResourceItemAmountClassMultipliers=(ClassName=”PrimalItemResource_Metal_C”,Multiplier=2.5)

At the default setting, I was barely mining enough metal to keep the metal pick repaired. (I might tone it down again because I discovered there are metal deposits in the game–rocks which provide tons of metal.)

Overall I’m a little surprised that I’m still playing ARK, but I think I know why. For one thing, like I said, it fits my current mood perfectly. For another thing, the game is designed to be very addictive. It quite literally punishes you for logging off. All of your “stuff” is on a ticking timer that winds down the longer you leave it alone. Things on the ground decompose and disappear (including your corpse if you die–you can’t logoff if you die). All of the things you build decompose and require constant repair, requiring you to constantly keep gathering materials and resources. All of your food spoils, requiring you to constantly keep finding or growing or killing more. If you have dinosaur pets, you also need to keep them fed, and sometimes predators come along and kill them, requiring you to run out and tame more (cough Alpha Raptor cough). All of your gardens use up fertilizer, requiring you to constantly keep picking up dinosaur poop to put in your composting bin. And all of that stuff keeps happening when you’re offline. When you log on a day later, all of your food is gone, and your fertilizer is gone, and you have to run around doing errands before you can even start to do anything new.

Granted, as you gain levels, it becomes easier and easier to maintain that status quo because you have better technology available to you. You get a preserving bin to store food in, for example. You get a feeding trough to store berries in. But preserved food still spoils eventually–it just takes longer.

It’s a brilliantly evil, addictive design, and I think it’s a big part of why the game is popular. You have to keep logging in to keep up.

The other brilliant thing about ARK is that you can run private servers. Until ARK, I never considered how much of a great thing private servers might be. I can’t even tell you how awesome it is to play an MMORPG-like game without having to worry about running into another player. :) I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but sometimes I really don’t want to deal with wondering whether that other player I meet is going to try to talk to me, or role-play with me, or try to kill me, or steal my kills, or take my resources, or ask to join me, or invite me to join them, or something like that. (I know this is a weird social anxiety thing, but my biggest fear when I run into another player** out in the wilderness is that they are going to invite me to join a group. I feel so bad declining those invites, but on a bad day I feel trapped and cornered and claustrophobic and like I want to shut off my computer and run and hide in the corner of my room if I accept a group invite–needless to say, it’s not fun to play a game when you’re feeling like that.) ARK reminds me a lot of Mortal Online, a game that I like, but I eventually stopped playing because other players were too stressful–even the friendly ones.

I really like the gathering and crafting systems in ARK, too. There’s a perfect balance between simplicity and depth. And I absolutely love the base-building aspect of the game. Starting with a campfire and turning it into a thatch hut and then expanding it into a wooden lodge and then building it up into a multi-level fort with walls is awesome. It really gives you a sense of ownership in the spot you’ve picked out to settle.

So the good parts of ARK are really good, but then there are the bad parts. The bad parts are really, really bad.

Of course there are the graphics that everyone knows about. The graphics optimization is the worst I’ve ever seen. Unless you’re running a $10,000 gaming rig, you’re going to have to turn the settings down to low to get anything better than a slide show. My PC is not quite two years old and runs almost every other game fine at the highest settings. But not ARK.

The combat system in ARK is so very bad. Ranged combat with a bow is moderately okay, but if you end up trying to stab a dinosaur with a spear, it’s god awful. It almost doesn’t matter which direction you point your spear. What you see on the screen seems irrelevant to the calculations. As best I can tell, everything is random. It seems to figure out whether you can hit the dinosaur based solely on your proximity to it. And sometimes you don’t even have to be next to it. The spear sometimes hits even if the dinosaur is nowhere near the spear tip. And the amount of damage seems completely random, too. Sometimes it takes five hits to kill a dinosaur, but next time, the same type of dinosaur at the same level is killed in one hit. It makes no sense at all. And of course even on the lowest graphics settings your frame rate drops to a slide show every time you’re in combat, making it that much worse.

The imprecision in targeting extends to picking up stones, too. You don’t have to be pointing at stones to pick them up. In fact the stone can be behind you and it will still pick it up. There’s a similar issue with chopping trees and mining. It doesn’t figure out what you’re mining by where you’re pointing, only by what is closest to your character.

I just discovered rafts. Rafts are fantastic for quickly moving up and down the coast, but the controls for rafting are the worst I’ve ever seen in a game. As best I can tell, the raft moves toward the direction your view is pointing. Which is fine until you want to look at any of the scenery you’re passing. There is no moving backward. Rafts routinely get stuck on terrain geometry. It’s almost impossible to get onto a raft from the water–you usually end up swimming underneath. It’s horrible.

The taming mechanic is inexplicable to me. I don’t understand why it needs to take so long. The only thing I can figure is that they wanted it to use up a lot of food resources to tame something, but if that’s the case why not make the taming subject eat faster? Why have it wait to eat one item every minute? Why not one every second? Why? Why??

The bad things wouldn’t bother me if I had any sense that the developers planned to fix them or even recognized that they were problems. But when you look at their release history and their plans for new releases, they give every indication that they intend to ignore all of the major problems and concentrate on throwing more and more crap into the game. Rafts have been in the game since 207.0 (September), and they appear to be just as buggy today as they were at the start. ARK looks to me like a textbook example of an undisciplined development team–when you put in a new feature and then immediately move on to other things without spending any time fixing the bugs in that new feature, that’s a bad sign. That probably means the developers are working on the things that are fun to work on, and not the things that are work.

But hey, I only spent $20 on it, so I guess I shouldn’t complain that much.

* Blog readers typically don’t watch videos (including me), so I don’t mention it much. Also I suck at making videos so I don’t want anybody to know about it. :)

** This phenomenon typically only occurs when I encounter one or two other people in the wild. I’m usually fine with bigger groups of people because I can just blend in and not be noticed.