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?
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.)