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.)

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.

ARK – Another Chance In The New Year

With the start of the new year, I decided to give ARK: Survival Evolved another chance. So many people rave about this game, in streams, podcasts, and blogs. I had a lot of bad feelings to overcome, but I figured it was possible that I was the one who was wrong about it. So on January 1st, I fired up a single player game, determined to play until I “got it.” I ended up playing about 18 hours over the holiday weekend.

What I call my Beach Base on the northern edge of The Island.
What I call my Beach Base on the northern edge of The Island.

I will refrain from writing at length about the poor graphics programming over at Studio Wildcard, Instinct Games, Efecto Studios, and/or Virtual Basement LLC*. I’ve covered that before. I choked down my outrage over having to reduce the rendering settings to nearly the lowest, blockiest, homeliest settings there were to achieve something resembling 60 fps. (The last time I had to lower my resolution from the maximum my graphics card could handle was sometime around the time of Quake and Quake 2.)

But enough about that. I’m trying to be positive here. I spent a couple of hours figuring out how to find wood, thatch, stone, and flint, craft a pick, build a campfire, kill some penguins and dodos, chop up their corpses for raw meat, cook the meat, craft some clothes, and generally stay alive. The crafting and survival aspects of the game are done fairly well. Perhaps not as good as some, but probably better than most.

The biggest key to surviving in ARK, of course, is running away from large carnivorous dinosaurs, saber-tooth tigers, and giant gravity-defying birds until they (hopefully) lose interest. You also have to hunt for berries and meat almost constantly. The survival, crafting, and gathering parts of the game are fun and interesting, although admittedly once you get it figured out it’s not difficult to get to a place where you can survive indefinitely**. You can last forever on berries, a torch, and the occasional cooked dodo.

That’s where I’m stuck right now. I can survive indefinitely, but I can’t really do anything. I setup my own private LAN server so I have The Island all to myself, and I’ve built up several different bases along the north coast so I have places to go after I respawn. Because inevitably after I venture out to try to tame dodos or explore further, some big monstrosity comes along and one-shots me and it’s back to the drawing board.

The leveling curve in ARK seems slow, but maybe that’s my imagination. After 18 hours I got to level 15, mainly from the experience gained by crafting and gathering. Killing things is somewhat rare for me, since at this point there aren’t many things I can kill with my meager little stone axe and spear. Dodos, penguins, trilobytes, and sometimes the little compys (I call them tinysaurus) are about all I can reliably kill. Running away is often the better choice. (Except with raptors and t-rexes, which I can’t outrun.)

Still, I have to admit that the game has its hooks into me now. It’s very addictive–the kind of game where you look up at the clock and realize you’ve just spent several hours playing without realizing it. For me, that might turn out to be a detriment to playing in a cooperative or multiplayer environment, because it means it’s very time-consuming to advance in ARK. People of the Internet who have more spare time to play are going to have a big advantage over more casual players like me. I’ll come into the game with my spear and dodo pets and everyone else will be using assault rifles and flying spaceships.

ARK has issues beyond the rendering speed, too. Some aspects of the user interface, like the inventory and hotbar system, are rudimentary at best and require a lot of dragging and dropping. (Drag-and-drop has been a crutch for lazy interface designers since the beginning of time–a pet peeve of mine.) At this point, though, with the amazing success of the game, I doubt they will do anything to improve it. They have to please the masses now, so they’ll spend their time adding new dinosaurs and holiday events. Gamers quickly adapt to terrible interfaces when they enjoy the gameplay. (Reading over the patch notes basically confirms this hypothesis.)

But overall it’s a lot more fun than I originally gave it credit for, and I now understand why everyone likes it. The real question now is whether to keep playing it or stop until it’s actually finished.

* Why does this game have four different developers? Is that why it’s such a technical mess?

** At least until a pair of Sabertooths moves into your base camp, kills your dodo army, and runs you out of town.

Games Of My Year 2015

Here’s my year end “Best Of” list, because if you’re on the Internet, you have to do a year-end list of some kind. It’s the law.

2015 Contenders

After studying my Steam purchase history and searching my memory, I’ve come up with the following list of new games that I purchased and played in 2015. These are only games that were released in 2015, not every single game that I purchased or played in 2015. In other words, this is the pool from which I’m going to pick my games of the year.

  • ARK: Survival Evolved
  • Besiege
  • Fallout 4
  • FFXIV: Heavensward
  • Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns
  • GRAV
  • The Park
  • Rocket League
  • Savage Lands
  • Shelter 2
  • Skyforge
  • TOXIKK
  • The Witcher 3

Not a huge list, very few AAA titles, and of course they are all PC games. I should also say that my controversial definition for the “release date” of a game is the time at which anyone can purchase or download a playable game. So, for example, Trove, which “launched” in 2015, does not appear on the above list because I purchased and played a substantially similar version before 2015. And Prison Architect, which I bought in 2015 and Steam lists with a launch date in 2015, does not appear because its Early Access release was before 2015. (Steam overwrites the Early Access launch date with the Release launch date, but the Internet remembers.) Similarly the Early Access titles ARK, GRAV, and Savage Lands appear on the above list because they became available to buy in Early Access in 2015.

So yes, in a way, I’m punishing developers for releasing games too early.

Game of the Year

The Witcher 3. Not much of a contest, really.

witcher3 2015-06-28 07-09-32-09

Biggest Disappointment Of The Year

ARK: Survival Evolved. Why do people buy this broken piece of unplayable crap? Why don’t the developers fix it instead of putting out new dinosaurs and holiday events? Do they not have any programmers working there? Are they all artists and modelers? I simply cannot understand why the Internet hasn’t lost their minds with rage over this game.

Standing on a turtle, the most fun thing I did in ShooterGame. I mean ARK.

Most Emotionally Devastating Game Of The Year

Shelter 2. A unique, beautifully atmospheric game, but if you fail at this game, it feels like your heart is torn out and stomped on. You must be an unfeeling robot to actually play this game more than once.

And because this is mostly an MMORPG blog…

New MMORPG Of The Year

Skyforge … but only because there is literally no other choice.

Polo shirt dude is going to defeat the world.

MMORPG Expansion Of The Year

FFXIV: Heavensward, because even though it’s a bit of a slog, I keep going back to it, whereas I have no desire to go back to the new zones in Heart of Thorns. I didn’t include Knights of the Fallen Empire here because, while I technically “bought” it (having a subscription) and have access to it, I don’t have any characters high enough in level to actually see it yet.

Heavensward

Now for some other categories.

Best Game That I Played in 2015

Dark Souls. Along with Dark Souls II, it completely took over my summer.

The Depths

Most Consistently Played MMORPG In 2015

I’m going to have to go with Star Wars: The Old Republic. I’ve played it a decent amount in six of the twelve months in 2015, and leveled a Jedi Knight from around level 13 in January up to (as of this writing) level 56.

SWTOR Screenshot_2015-12-18_15_33_11_000300

Best Game With Art From People I Used To Play Quake With

GRAV. A nifty survival/building game, check it out. Or not, because I’m totally biased.

 

ARK – Um It’s Got Issues

Here’s my advice: Do not buy ARK right now. At least, don’t buy it with any expectation of actually playing it. Because on my 12GB system it runs out of memory and crashes. If you run the “low memory” 4GB version it doesn’t crash, but it runs horribly slow. There is a good two minutes of loading screen to wait through before geting into the game (literally–I timed it). Then in order to get it to run at an acceptable frame rate (which to me is a rock-solid 60 fps, but I suppose in a pinch 30-40 fps will do) you have to disable almost every graphical setting, and then the game is painful to look at.

Standing on a moving turtle, the most fun thing I did in ShooterGame. I mean ARK.

If you have a gaming rig powered by nuclear fission and cooled by the vacuum of space, maybe you can play it the way the game is intended. I only have a GTX 770, which is fine to play every other game I’ve bought in the past year at the highest settings, but apparently is woefully inadequate for ARK.

As for the gameplay itself, I was so repulsed by the technical problems that I had zero desire to explore the game. Also, there is very little happening on the screen to make you want to explore the game. I only played in single player, and most times I spawned in and was killed instantly by some carnivore wandering the beach. It’s a great way to make a first impression in an exploration game, let me tell you. Oh hey what’s this on the ground? ROAR! CHOMP! Oops, I’m dinosaur dinner. Then one time I spawned in a grass field by a big turtle and could at least walk around picking up roots and berries. The interface is not very intuitive so I had no idea how to eat or drink or craft or anything. All I accomplished was jumping on top of the turtle while she walked around. And I learned that a big turtle is called a “Carbonemys.”

Also I noticed a big technical red flag: They didn’t bother changing the name of the executable from what I assume is the Unreal engine’s default name of “ShooterGame.exe.” To me that just screams out, “This development team does not have any experienced developers on it.” I mean, seriously, how is that not the very first thing you do when they make a new game project? They need to spend a lot more time working on their code than working on Halloween promotional events*, that’s all I’m saying.

ARK might have a great hook (frickin’ dinosaurs!) but it’s sooooo not ready for prime time yet. I don’t see myself coming back anytime soon unless I see some patch notes that include “massive overhaul of graphics engine.” Otherwise I’m just going to chalk it up to another case of the marketing far exceeding the quality of the product. If you want to see a first-person survival game with fantastic graphics that actually runs well try The Forest.

* Halloween events for Early Access games? Are you kidding me?