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…