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.)

Looking At Unity 5 and Unreal 4

I totally stole this image from depaul.edu.
(I totally stole this image from depaul.edu.)

One weekend I got the idea that it would be simple for me to write a hit video game, make tons of money, and leave my day job*. I’ve dabbled at writing games now and then since I first learned programming back in the 80s, so this is nothing new (I have yet to actually complete a game, though). Anyway, I started reading up on popular 3D game engines. From what I can gather, there are basically two choices: Unity 5 or Unreal 4.

Unity 5

I started with Unity, looking at tutorial videos. I liked what I saw right away. The IDE looks nice and clean, the framework is well-organized and easy to understand, code is written in C# (which I use in my day job so that’s a big plus there), the tutorials are thorough. From a developer standpoint, I don’t see how a game engine could get much better.

My biggest worry, though, is that it won’t scale well. It seems perfect for small, simple games, but what about a large, complex, multi-tiered, multi-player game? What about a full-blown MMORPG with millions of players? What about a twitch game where maximum performance is vitally important? Will all that overhead that makes the engine so simple to use eventually slow down the game’s execution? Will the developer have to spend all of his time optimizing and tweaking and even replacing things to get around the limitations of the engine? Will all the abstraction layers keep the developer from truly optimizing the game? I don’t know the answers to those questions.

There is also a somewhat disturbing amount of designer-style editing that can be done in the IDE, at least in the tutorials. I equate it to ASP.NET development. There are a lot of nice visual web designers and drag-and-drop gizmos and data binding tools in Visual Studio but I sometimes (ie. almost always) find it faster and easier to write out code by hand for large-scale projects. Dragging-and-dropping something once or twice is okay, but dragging-and-dropping things a thousand times is a nightmare of maintenance issues. I hope there are code equivalents to all of the automatic stuff that happens when you drag-and-drop things around in the IDE.

Still, it’s a pretty popular engine. I looked over a list of games that use the Unity engine and found some fairly impressive results. The Forest is a beautiful game that runs pretty well, about which I once wrote: “Whatever engine this game is using should be used for all future MMORPGs, in my humble opinion.” Guns of Icarus also looks fantastic. Sir, You Are Being Hunted is a fine game. Besiege and Kerbal Space Program don’t focus on graphics but they are really fun. Shroud of the Avatar, which I haven’t yet seen in person, looks pretty nice in screenshots and videos.

And they are all indie games. I suppose now that I’ve looked into Unity I can see why smaller and/or newer teams would want to use it. It’s got a very low barrier to entry. I can easily see brand new programmers stepping out of college right into Unity.

Unreal 4

Next I looked at the Unreal engine. I gather that Unreal is the more “pro” option that big budget AAA studios use. I don’t know if that’s because it’s actually better or just that it’s been around longer and is more entrenched.

I ran into problems with the Unreal engine right away. The first problem is the tutorial videos. They aren’t good. They definitely assume you already have some knowledge about not just object-oriented game engines, but Unreal itself. They don’t walk you through a logical process of building a game from start to finish but rather skip around in somewhat puzzling directions. Most of them assume you have a huge library of 3D assets lying around waiting to be imported as well.

Then there is C++. That automatically gives it a much steeper learning curve than Unity. I’ve been around the programming block a few times so C++ doesn’t necessarily bother me, but it definitely gives me pause. I’m just one person, and writing C++ is time-consuming. Yes, it’s fast and efficient and exactly what you want to use to write games. But with so much of the computationally-intensive work done by the engine framework or the graphics card, it leaves mainly game logic for you to write, and there’s a lot of overhead to deal with in C++ just to write a bunch of if-then logic.

Conclusion

Since there is almost no chance of me actually completing a game, let alone getting it into a marketable state, I figure I should make things easy on myself and use the simple framework. That’s definitely Unity 5.

Now if only there was an easy way to make 3D models.

* My goals are always very realistic.

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?

The Forest, A Visual Feast

In January, I went through a phase where I wanted to play some survival-type games. I’ve been intrigued by The Forest ever since I first saw it show up on Steam, but I generally try to resist buying Early Access games, particularly from unknown sources. Until one day when I was bored out of my mind with my current games and wanted to look at something new. And hey, it was only $15.

In a nutshell, you play the lone survivor of a plane that crashes in the middle of a procedurally-generated forest. You have to find food and shelter and protect yourself from weirdo cannibals that also happen to inhabit the forest. Each game has a different landscape, so it looks like there’s a lot of replay potential.

TheForest 2015-02-02 15-55-12-88

The main thing I want to get across is that this game is drop dead gorgeous. The forest environment is extremely realistic and immersive. That’s what attracted me to the game in the first place, to be honest. Whatever engine this game is using should be used for all future MMORPGs, in my humble opinion.

Collecting logs and sticks.
Collecting logs and sticks in the warm glow of the morning.

Beyond standing around looking at the pretty forest, the gameplay is also pretty decent, too. I’m not exactly a connoisseur of survival-type games, but this one so far seems to have a good balance of crafting, exploration, and combat.

It’s supposed to be a survival-horror game, but I didn’t find it to be all that scary. The cannibals are a bit creepy but I didn’t jump out of my skin or anything. (However the first time the cannibals beat you up they take you back to their cannibal cave of horrors, which is pretty messed up.) The environment is realistic, but fortunately the hacking and slashing is not.

These jerks keep ruining the nice scenery.
These creepy jerks keep ruining the nice scenery.

There are some oddities in the game though. Once you cut down a tree, it’s gone forever, but sticks and rocks and plants seem to respawn indefinitely in the same places. (Not that I’m complaining, because you need a lot of them. You need leaves to feed your campfires.) The cannibal AI is pretty smart, and you do not want to get caught out in the open around these guys, but they have a tendency to blindly step into campfires and burn themselves up. I’m not sure if that’s intended or not, but it seems a little overpowered right now. It makes for a very effective means of protecting yourself from them. Far better than trying to fight them hand-to-hand.

Don't worry, I didn't axe the turtle. Because they turtle up in their shell.
Don’t worry, I didn’t axe the turtle. Because you can’t. They turtle up in their shell.

I’m not really sure what the goal of the game is beyond surviving as long as you can. After five or six tries I was able to build a home base in which I felt like I could survive indefinitely and I was fairly well protected from the cannibals, so I think I “won” the survival part of the game. But then there was still a lot of environment around me to explore. Maybe the final game will have more objectives in it. There was a hint in the opening movie that maybe I’m supposed to rescue someone. Anyway the whole landscape changes with each new game so I could see myself playing it again and again even after winning.

I like the way building works in The Forest. You put down a “blueprint” of the structure you want to build, then you keep depositing materials into it until the structure is completed. So for example if you want to build a shack, you put down the blueprint where you want to build it, then go cut down trees and add logs to the structure until it’s finished. That model works for me. It feels like you’re really building something without it being so tedious that you have to actually place every single log in precisely the right place (like, say, Landmark). I don’t even mind running back and forth between picking up materials and placing them in the structure, because when you add in the roaming cannibals, it adds a certain element of “gaming” to what might otherwise be a boring process. Sometimes you have to stop building and run for your life.

I really like the game but I think I’m going to put it away for now and wait for some more updates. I would hate to burn out on it before they even finish it.