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.

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.