Massively Overthinking: The survivalbox vs. the MMORPG
A few weeks ago in Massively Overthinking, the team discussed the resurgence in popularity of small-scale co-op games and whether that has impacted the MMORPG genre negatively or positively — if at all. This week, I’d like to aim that same question at the survival genre, so everything from ARK: Survival Evolved to Citadel Forged With Fire.
The question was sparked in part by a VentureBeat piece that points out SuperData’s numbers: Non-massive survivalboxes pulled in $400 million in the first half of the year. This is a lot of money that is not going into MMOs and MMORPGs that could be, which was the same thing we suggested about online co-op RPGs — only this subgenre is attracting builders and PvPers. Is it attracting them away from MMOs directly? I’ve asked our writers to reflect on the rise of survivalbox games: Do we play them? Do we prefer them, and when? How can we learn from them? Is the popularity of smaller-scale co-op hurting MMORPGs?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I have a real love/hate relationship with survival games, but I have to admit I’ve not only played more survival games in the past few years than true MMOs but have more experiences with them. I say this as someone who’s more of a gatherer/hoarder/hole-digger than a builder, and as a the willful hunted more than a hunter. Granted, most of my gankbox experiences are negative, but also reveal a lot about both gaming and the genre, but I suppose I’ll save that for another time/article.
To note, I’ve not yet played an online survival game (on a PvP server – sorry MJ!) with anyone I know, so I’m really missing out on in some ways. PvP is best done with friends you know already, as (hopefully) they’ll have your back and not stab it. Base building and look outs with friends are a lot easier to pull off
That being said, MMOs were always a tool I’ve used to connect with new people outside my immediate community. Survival games seem like a good fit for this after my experience in other sandbox MMOs (from Asheron’s Call to Darkfall 1), but it hasn’t worked out that way. I think I’ve wised up, probably because unlike MMOs, survival games generally require you to use a mic or risk having your killers miss text and just kill you for supposedly ignoring them.
The appeal is still there though, which is why I’ve doled out for MMOs that seem to try to want to combine aspects of survival games, especially permadeath (with some way to save some items or pass down stats). Like Bree said last time, smaller scale co-op is a threat to our genre because they often can pull off the gameplay without the MMO grinding that’s usually required. Level scaling in games like SWTOR, GW2, and ESO do help cut back on the grind feeling, but those games also don’t allow for the environmental freedom (or cutthroat PvP) survival games do.
Before, I mostly played survival games when I had the PvP builder itch. I love helping to build physical structures and outfit troops, and the MMO’s persistent worlds fed into that well, something I feel survival games still don’t do well with their less-than-stable (and often fan-run) servers. These days, I only really touch them for review purposes because early access has really turned me off to them. A fully released MMO that is more text than voice communication based, with stable servers that don’t get wiped and maybe a PvE option for non-PvP friends would be nice, but H1Z1’s been the closest we’ve had to that, and that title’s development rollercoaster is not one I’m interested in riding again.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): We saw the rise of the non-massive survivalbox at the same time we were seeing a rise in indie-made MMO sandboxes, post-Minecraft. Both were trying to fill the same niche that MMORPGs had abandoned — that open-world, hard-scrabble, build-your-own-world-from-scratch-and-then-fight-to-keep-it, survival-roleplay-centric feeling that hasn’t been particularly successfully attempted since before World of Warcraft.
The difference is that GTAO and ARK exploded in popularity when indie sandbox MMOs, most of them niche and old school, PvP-centric, did not. I think it’s fair to say that the games following the “winners” have leaned away from the MMOs they might have otherwise become in order to capture a slice of the growing multiplayer survival market. And I don’t blame them. Survival sandboxes offer the same thrills of sandbox play in MMORPGs without all the grindy, boring, elitist, time-consuming baggage developers insist make MMOs sticky. That’s the truth. This is why we’re losing.
Then again, ARK and Conan Exiles sit on my Steam account largely unused because I find the ephemeral nature of fly-by-night cheaterville private servers and cheapo gankbox gameplay largely unappealing, and I ultimately still long for massively populated, fully drawn, richly supported, and wholly stable virtual world spaces.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Unlike with the more small-scale co-op, I think there’s actually a legitimate case to say that the current survival sandbox boom is drawing players and design talent away from MMOs. However, I think it’s also design and drive that wouldn’t really have worked in MMOs, either, which sounds complex but kind of isn’t. Survival sandboxes cater to a desire to have a community and a grouping that allows people to feel the personal impact of what’s going on; it’s not just an anonymous house you wrecked, it’s Phil’s house, and Phil is going to be pissed, but that’s why you did it.
The smaller limits of survival sandboxes make decisions like these have more ramifications and allow for that sort of medium-scale community interaction quite naturally, rather than the large-scale sorts of interactions where you can’t actually interact with players beyond larger leadership levels (i.e., EVE Online’s corporate wars) or small-scale interactions. It allows for an immediacy that might not be there in larger settings while still giving space for things that aren’t within your direct sphere of influence. All of that, I think, is a good thing.
That having been said, I think the according downside of all this is that you also lose out on that persistence which I’ve previously mentioned serves as a hallmark for MMOs. I can’t help but feel like an ideal balance could be struck, where you have these smaller supercolliders that run for a shorter time with people building and destroying, only to feed into a more persistent overall world of…
Wait, now I’m just describing Crowfall, aren’t I? Never mind.
At the end of the day, I think these games clearly take lessons from MMOs, but I think having them around is really a blessing. They’re exploring design space that doesn’t quite work in MMOs, and that means they wind up being richer on a whole for presenting alternatives. Not that I think most of them are going to make the distance, but unlike an MMO with a limited lifespan, some of these survival sandboxes seem likely to create studios that can survive the collapse.
Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I can only speak anecdotally. Many of my friends who were both roleplayers and PvPers have picked up survival games. However, I’m not sure about the staying power of these games. I will use my friends who played ARK as an example, but I see this kind of thing in all the survival games. They jumped into ARK very hard for about a week. It took them about that amount of time to settle on a server that they wanted to play on, which ultimately ended up being a server that they set up themselves. However, they kept an alternative server for PvP, but that really didn’t last long. What ultimately happened was that after a week, they would log onto their own server for the PvE elements only and play another game — even if it wasn’t their original MMORPG — for the social content.
Survival games are definitely money makers, but ultimately, I don’t think that they are actually taking money away from MMORPGs. No, if there is anything that is pulling builders and PvPers away from MMORPGs, it’s the lack of strong building and PvP elements in MMORPGs themselves. PvPers in MMORPGs are notoriously fickle, but builders, if they are given the right tools will stick with a game until the bitter end. Just ask any builder who played Free Realms. There were social gatherings and new things being built all the time in that game. If MMORPGs are looking to take some of that cash from survival games, they need to focus on creating tools for players to build the world and slightly less on building the world themselves. I’m interested to see if the Crowfall formula works for this. We might find out some day, you know, when Crowfall actually releases.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Do I play sandbox survival games? Yeah: When you combine all the ones I dive in, I pretty much play them more than anything else nowadays. I even write a whole column about them now. That’s because these games quickly scratch the exploration and building itches so well, something that I don’t get many other places. Of course, I play these games on my own servers or friends’ servers; I avoid any official or random ones as much as I can. That’s because I just don’t really have the time right now to waste on building stuff up to have it blown to bits and ruined by anonymous jerks. With such smaller server sizes, one complete arsehat can ruin stuff for a number of folks, and the chances of running into said person feels exponentially higher in the tiny population. Running your own server gives you control over whom you let in, and if you open it up, whom you boot out. After a number of unpleasant experiences involving inappropriate people out to ruin things, having this kind of control is really welcome. You can also run events, roleplay, build and perfect your home/base — all things that I love in MMORPGs.
Are these survivalboxes taking away development money from MMORPGs? I think almost anything is taking away from that genre now. My favorite genre of games does not seem to be what brings in the cash, and I can’t begrudge companies wanting to pick the direction that will result in revenue. But I really do still want to settle into an MMORPG virtual world. These survival games are not long-term worlds to live in; they are short bursts of life more akin to single-player games. They are so small in comparison to the vast worlds that can be explored. In short order, the tiny playfield is fully explored, and your ideal home gets built, you’ve survived — and then what? It’s game over time for that survival game. Starting over is not all that appealing to me, having done it a few times (and given up on early accesses where it becomes the common occurrence). Starting over on a new map or new game though, that is brings back that exploration and fresh building element.
Basically, I am playing these survival games while waiting for the right MMORPG virtual world home to settle in. I look forward to having a larger, bustling world to immerse myself in. I look forward to interacting with so many more (but not in forced PvP because that just attracts so many problem people). I do have to wonder, though, if I will ever have the time to devote to the world I want when it comes along. Or is the more bite-sized survival game better for the time I have available now? Bah! I’ll make the time!