Posted in General

Why can’t I get into survival games?


Over the past couple of years, we have witnessed the rise of a sub-genre of RPGs that collectively get called “survival sandboxes.” While the location and multiplayer functionality differ on these, most usually share the same template: You’re abandoned/deserted somewhere that’s foreign, hostile, and uncivilized and must craft and fight your way to a comfortable lifestyle. Since most of these roguelikes depend on making you go through this gameplay loop over and over, there are a lot of things that knock you down back to start (albeit perhaps with better stats or a stash somewhere), namely other players and very aggressive wildlife/sharks/zombies. The other key detail is that the environment is a strong factor and a challenge to overcome, whereas it’s a non-issue in most other RPGs.

From DayZ to ARK to H1Z1 to Conan Exiles, we’ve seen many developers try their hands at these lucrative and popular (and quite Twitch-worthy) games. They’re springing up just as fast as the MOBA craze of a few years back or the WoW clones of 2008ish, commanding top spots on Steam and creating bizarre stories like games that are eternally in early access somehow still selling full expansions.

(Oh yeah, they’re always in early access. I think if a survival sandbox ever comes out of early access, the developers are forced to drag it behind a barn and shoot it in the head because it’s not trendy enough and they’ll have to be responsible for the bugs.)

As we’ve established, I’m not exactly an early adaptor-type, but even after a couple of years of seeing the survival sandbox genre emerge, I still can’t get on board with it. I’ve tried a few of these games, found some things to my liking, some not, and always wandered away looking for entertainment elsewhere.

Is something wrong with me? Am I missing some sort of key revelation that would unlock the joyous fun that so many others seem to have found? Or is this some sort of mass delusion where a popular feedback loop is created, keeping mediocre titles more in the public consciousness than they should be because no one wants to be the first one to say that it’s all kind of a sham.

Probably subjective in the end, but I wanted to work through my thoughts.

Pulled apart for features, there’s a lot I can get behind for these types of games:

  • They’re kissing cousins to the MMO
  • They have a lot of RPG elements
  • I actually like factoring in the environment as a threat
  • The repeated fun of building yourself up from scratch (alts!)
  • The world feels dangerous
  • Lots of player housing
  • Crafting that matters
  • A nice compromise between hardcore permadeath and softcore corpse runs (rogue-lite)

Yet together, it still hasn’t gelled for me, and I have a suspicion that it might never. For starters, survival sandboxes seem married to the concept of throwing players at each other. To be sure, you can find PvE private servers, but that seems secondary to what everyone talks about and plays these games for. And I am seriously not a fan of PvP for many reasons I’ve gone into elsewhere.

Next, I have a certain tolerance for crafting that hits a limit and then gets me annoyed past that. Put another way, crafting is something I prefer to do on my own time on the side, not constantly as a central activity. Also, I feel completely silly making grass skirts and eating berries. I want the survival sandbox where I can pull into a McDonalds and pull away feeling accomplished.

I also have an aversion to player-run servers. In my gaming career, I’ve only rarely ever ventured on them, preferring official servers that aren’t the personal fiefdoms of capricious players. Plus, when there are hundreds on a server list, which one do you pick? And playing with only 30 or so other players feels downright constrained when one is used to an MMORPG.

But I think one of the biggest elements that these worlds feel generic and lifeless. I’m all for having players create their own structures and towns, but if there’s nothing much else out there other than random wilderness, it’s not very compelling to explore. I want the lore, the designed stories, and a world that has a history. In survival sandbox, I find myself missing those NPCs that we love to belittle.

Yes, it’s a different breed of game and maybe it’s unfair that I’m docking it for not being the type of game that I’m most used to and enjoy. I just feel a little bit puzzled and disappointed that what is obviously so captivating for many is shrug-worthy for me. Perhaps a game will come along one day to change my mind in this regard. Ain’t gonna be Conan Exiles, I can tell you that. The Secret Exiles? Keep talking…

13 thoughts on “Why can’t I get into survival games?

  1. I think I would like a game of Robinson Crusoe or Gillian’s Island. Solo or small team that must survive the Island and either escape or defeat the savages.

    No Lord of the Flies for me.

  2. The ironic part of all this to me is how the mechanics of the Survival genre almost exactly maps onto the original low-level game of the first wave of MMORPGs. If you read accounts (or remember from when you played if you were lucky enough to be around back then) of players starting out in UO or EQ the gameplay was all but identical.

    Let’s take EQ. Only a week ago I wrote about starting on the Project 2002 server which recreates the experience of playing as it was back in that year. I was dumped (not in the wilderness but in a town) with no explanation of what to do and no assistance in doing it. I was left to fend for myself, to find creatures to kill so I could arm myself with their weapons and dress myself in their clothes. Had I continued I would soon have been killing and skinning animals for their pelts and learning to craft armor from them. In UO I’d have been hacking at trees for wood and working towards building myself a house while hoping no-one jumped me on the way back from the forest, murdering me for my logs.

    Then of course everyone professed to find all this too much trouble and MMO developers came up with many ways for people to skip that part of the process. And yet now apparently people are happy to pay to play badly-coded, buggy, versions of exactly the same thing, only with all the rest of any MMOs wide-ranging and varied content removed. It baffles me.

    I just hope that eventually people will start to demand more from their survival sandboxes and move to ones that a) work and b) have more content. By which point we might be back where we started with some decent virtual worlds again.

  3. I’m like you, almost every beat that you like or dislike I agree upon. The only reason I started playing Conan Exiles is because my main MMO gaming friends are between MMOs (they’re sandbox fans), and they’ve temporarily set up base camp in CE (previously they played Ark).

    Whilst I’ve been having some fun in a few theme park MMOs I know they never will, so I’ve joined in the CE for now and it I think has promise. It still follows most of the same mechanics as the other survival games, but there is this small glimmer of PvE content in it, with some dungeons, the religions and the lore that they have to pull from.

    Whether they actually manage to craft any content worth playing or not, remains to be seen. But I would welcome some of the PvE content that made AoC and TSW interesting, finding it’s way into CE. Though I don’t know if Funcom actually has anyone left who could make such content.

  4. I can understand where you’re coming from. For me, I adore survival sandboxes, but they MUST have the ability for me to host my own server and tweak the server settings to a difficulty that pleases me and my team. I refuse to run on someone else’s server, especially if PvP is involved.

    The two survival sandboxes I have played extensively (7D2D and ARK), both allow me to host a PvE server via Steam just for my group of friends. I can tweak all the settings to make it the type of game we want to play (default ARK settings for taming, breeding, etc. are ridiculous!). We simply get together and turn on our server when we want to play, and turn it off when we’re done. Instant sandbox!

    I sometimes play solo games — usually of ARK — but it’s much more fun when you’re with like-minded friends. I also love building and crafting, so I tend to be the one dedicated to making the base while other folks are enjoying what they like best, be it fighting off dinos/zombies, gathering food, exploring, etc. My team is pretty balanced in our interests, so it works out.

    So I think it really depends on the environment you play these sandboxes in. If you’re joining up some random person’s server when you don’t enjoy PvP (like me), then it’s probably not a good experience. If you have a group of friends you host a server for, and you’re all on voice chat, it can be a ton of fun!

  5. I do think survival sandboxes require a bit more customization work out of individual players, in order to find something that suits them. MMOs, meanwhile, try to offer a little bit of something to everybody so that one size fits all.

    The big visible draw that we see on Twitch and Youtube is the survival sandbox as FFA PvP / territorial ganking simulator or schadenfreude entertainment generator via random decisions of other players causing setbacks on the observed player’s part.

    These are most likely the audience less captured by most existing MMOs, who try to design out opportunities for griefer-style play. Hence, we we see a lot of Bartle Killer types drawn like magnets to the sandboxes where they have the freedom to infringe on another player’s play (and that player is in turn playing on that very server because they want a chance to do the same to others, or they enjoy the versus-other-players challenge and openness to develop one’s in-game ethics however they like.)

    They aren’t necessarily the entire audience for survival sandboxes though.

    Most survival sandboxes that bother to let players create personal PvE servers and tweak settings on them, or play offline as a singleplayer game will also have smaller, less loud subsets of players.

    The multiplayer PvE ones are usually socializers who like playing with small, controlled groups of people they already know. I’m thinking of things like ARK, Wurm, and even things like Don’t Starve Together (graphically different from the typical survival sandbox, but same style of gameplay – collect resources, build base, people can divide up the labor, conquer environment.)

    As someone who primarily prefers to play survival sandboxes singleplayer, my motivation also differs. Me, I’m looking to explore systems – how did these particular developers decide to treat crafting or simulating the environment or wounds or warmth or hunger, etc. – and the world – what procedurally generated cool feature will I stumble on next?

    It helps if the game has a content structure deep enough to satisfy a single player while not being tooo slow and grindy because the devs assume a multiplayer cooperating audience. It’s why I haven’t personally found ARK to be quite that compelling – simple click button n’ craft stuff based on recipes, very level-based grindy with many systems assuming multiple player interactions, etc.

    The stereotypical survival sandbox, aka “first-person view, not terribly polished animations, allows Lord of the Flies gameplay” also tends to be perpetually in early access and lack sufficient content by itself (without other players providing content via positive or negative interaction) for singleplayer gameplay.

    But if we move away from that narrow view of early-access FPS style survival sandbox, we can also find things like Unreal World (one of the original classics, a survival roguelike), Lost in Blue (an old Nintendo DS game with a really cruel hunger/thirst system that will have you struggling to top off bars long enough to progress, rather get stuck in a “find water, find food, get enough rest” loop), Don’t Starve (which they’ve sensibly decided to call themselves action-adventure with survival and roguelike elements, instead of boxing themselves into a corner with survival sandbox)…

    …and of course, there’s the king of kings, Minecraft, which one can customize to their hearts’ content with as much or as little survival and lethality as one can desire.

    I do agree that most survival sandboxes need more work on their PvE worldgen / environment to incorporate more NPCs, lore and stories though.

    It’s just that there seems to be a sufficiently large and starved audience out there willing to put up with the bare bones of an early access game, just to be able to gank and be ganked (and be watched doing so) during the early hype period, and pay a premium for the experience. So I guess many devs don’t feel they need to prioritize going much further than that, when there’s a million other bugs they already have to fix to keep their existing audience happy..

    Content like that also takes time, I guess. If you’re going to take the time to make all that stuff, you may as well just change the genre of your game from survival sandbox to “action-adventure” or “RPG” with a procedural world and ‘survival’ elements and market it thusly. State of Decay, anyone? (Though they seem to have embittered their fans by now.)

  6. As someone who loves survival sandboxes but hates PvP, I find it saddening to see them perpetually associated with each other, by both those playing them and those watching from the outside. Which is why the ones I choose to play have some sort of option where you can choose to have PvE only, or are just single-player.

    I’ve had good experiences with ARK playing on the MassivelyOP PvE server, some really friendly people there. I’ve also had good experiences making my own servers in ARK and 7D2D (7D2D makes it really easy to make a multiplayer game within the game itself). I haven’t had a chance of playing much of Wurm Unlimited but I did play a lot of Wurm Online so I’m certain that it’s quite good (if you’re okay with the playstyle). If you’re looking for more story elements and can handle sacrificing multiplayer, Subnautica has an intriguing storyline, I’m quite a fan of Planet Explorers’ quests in Story Mode, and I’m certain The Long Dark’s Story Mode will be quite good.

    But judging by the concerns you’ve raised, I’m inclined to agree that survival sandboxes might not be for you, Syp.

    “Crafting is something I prefer to do on my own time on the side, not constantly as a central activity.” You see, crafting being the central activity of a survival sandbox is one of the things that draws me to them, as I find the crafting in MMOs to be mostly underwhelming. To lessen the crafting component would just leave you with an action-adventure with a hunger bar tacked onto it.

    “Playing with only 30 or so other players feels downright constrained when one is used to an MMORPG.” You might find a few larger servers here and there (Wurm Online has some) but in most of the games, players are spread out over many servers. Maybe they prefer it like that like I do, having a small group so that they can recognize every name that pops up in chat.

    “I want the lore, the designed stories, and a world that has a history. In survival sandbox, I find myself missing those NPCs that we love to belittle.” I would love some more story myself but it’s not necessarily going to be compatible with a multiplayer sandbox. Seeing as stories tend to be linear, do they move forward as players progress? What happens when players die and have to start from scratch or when new players join partway through? Do players get to affect the story somehow or will it just march forward without their input, possibly in a direction they didn’t like? I think throwing in little bits of lore and background story would be quite welcome, but I for one enjoy the opportunity to “write” my own story through my actions in these games rather than have one told to me. (Which isn’t to say that I don’t like story-driven games. In fact I love them but sometimes I just want something different.)

    Anyways, that’s my two cents on the whole matter.

  7. For me the problem with this kind of games boils down to this:

    1. If a game is designed to be multiplayer, i’d rather play it with other players.
    2. Unfortunately these games are not designed to be multi-player but multi-

    What i mean is that the basic principle of this game is that killing other players is encouraged and advantageous, while cooperating with strangers provides no significant benefit, while exposing yourself to the risk of him just waiting for a weak moment to take advantage of you. (To reap the above mentioned benefits of killing you. )

    This is in strong contrast to any semi-realistic environment. I mean just imagine in the real world, you are stranded on an island. You have just a knife, while the guy you are stranded with and who you don’t really know has a machete. Would you really try to kill him to get the machete, or would you rather work together to survive? In any realistic environment cooperation is key, but in any of the survival games i am aware of it would be advantageous to kill the other one to get the bigger weapon. After all, in any of these games where i informed myself about everybody is a crafter who can produce everything, so any other person is just a rival for ressources, while bringing no direct benefit.

    The only exception seems to be when cooperating to kill other players, but from all i learned that is almost exclusively done by people who already know each other before playing the game. So the bonding happened outside of the game, while the game itself discourages it.

    So by game mechanics, all of those games are along the line of “psychopathy encouraged, social behaviour punished”. This doesn’t make them attractive for me and at the same time the popularity of this kind of games tells me a lot about a significant part of all gamers.

  8. hehe… Damn. The Editor ate a bit of what i wrote as i marked is in pointed brackets…

    Correctly it should have read like this (brackets now replaced by quotation marks, as those should not be eaten):

    2. Unfortunately these games are not designed to be multi-player but multi-“insert derogatory term here”

  9. I’ve been meaning to pick one of these up for awhile now, always telling myself that I’ll wait until a decent looking one reaches full release.

    So yeah, needless to say I haven’t even played one yet.

  10. Hahaha! Now THERE’S AN IDEA!

    “Also, I feel completely silly making grass skirts and eating berries. I want the survival sandbox where I can pull into a McDonalds and pull away feeling accomplished.”

    A “survival sandbox”, but on a map like GTA. A “real world” survival sandbox. It might start feeling a bit too much like the Sims, though… but when you have nothing, the world is certainly a dangerous environment.

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