The Survivalist: How procedurally generated maps stretch the life of survival MMOs


It’s no secret that I love to explore. And exploring the dangerous new worlds of survival games has been something I have really been enjoying this past couple of years. But there is dark cloud looming over each of these experiences: They end too quickly. These games, most of which are still in early access, have a very finite map. Once I’ve poked my head into every nook and cranny, once I’ve built what I wanted, and once I have completed the game tasks, there’s nothing left for me to do. I am not one who likes the whole wipe-and-start-over idea, precisely because there is nothing left to explore for me. And the PvP scene is no long-term draw either. Sure, maybe the studio was happy to have folks for just those few months, but wouldn’t retaining players be better? So how do you keep things fresh and keep players playing?

Different games are exploring different approaches. Currently, Conan Exiles is releasing new areas and expanding its map, offering plenty of new spaces to survey. ARK: Survival Evolved releases expansions that are completely new worlds. But to explore those new areas, you have to buy them. It’s actually a different strategy that ARK employs that I think solves the problem best, especially for games with a smaller map-type. Three words: procedurally generated maps.

Having procedurally generated maps is a key to elongating the life of a survival game. These games are smaller than MMOs by design, and play becomes stale and same old, same old after a time. So you need to offer enough new to keep folks interested. And these unique, never-before-seen maps do exactly that.

The first time

I realize not everyone is all (or mostly) about exploring, but there is something special about firsts for nearly everyone. First experiences create some of the most powerful memories. And you have to admit that plenty of time is spent trying to recreate those first feelings, especially in gaming. So why not offer more firsts? I’ve personally played ARK for well over two years, racking up over 1300 hours. Over 95% of that was on the main island. That said, I have to admit that the magic is gone. There’s nothing new to see. Sure there are new creatures still being introduced, but once you find and tame it, you’re right back to square one of been there, seen that. So my survival eye has been wandering, looking at new things, experiencing new places.

Then we experimented with a procedurally generated map, and it was love at first sight again! Every hill I crested, every corner I rounded was new experience. What lies over yonder? Could it be a beautiful view, the perfect place for a base, or maybe a savage death? The thrill was in the unexpected. Although I knew what dinos existed on the map, I didn’t know where I would run into which ones. Just starting over from scratch for starting over’s sake isn’t worth it to me, it’s the element of the unknown that’s the rush.

You might be thinking, wouldn’t an expansion offer the same thing? Yes — but perhaps not soon enough! I am not advocating doing procedurally generated maps instead of expansion, but as a companion to them.

Complimenting expansions

Yes, expansions — be they free like Conan Exiles or paid like ARK — offer that newness. Sometimes even more so when all new creatures are also introduced. But these expansions can only happen every so often; there’s quite a bit of development that goes into new landscapes, new features, and new creatures. During the interim, players might have already gotten a bit bored and wandered off. Do you want them to be off, invested in some other game when your new content finally releases? Some of those players will surely wander back to see the new shiny, but you’ve lost the others. They may be playing something else, or they may just not be inclined to go back to something they have left. Keeping folks engaged and present is much better; retention is far better than hoping for returns.

If folks are still enjoying your title, they are far more likely delve into your expansion when it comes out. This helps your bottom line: If your expansions must be purchased, that means more moolah for you. Folks who have grown bored and left are less likely to shell out for the new content.

Getting your money’s worth

Who doesn’t like feeling like she really got her money’s worth? That factor alone can sway how people feel about a studio and determine whether or not there will be future dealings with said studio, not to mention also affect the possibility of recommending games to others. Public perception is important. I’ve certainly gotten my money’s worth from ARK, having played so much. I don’t know what other people’s personal thresholds are for reaching that point, but I think I can safely say that the higher the number of hours players can enjoy a game, the better. And procedurally generated maps can really increase those hours.

You might wonder why I (or others) don’t just move on once we get our money’s worth and just enjoy new games. For reasons: Some might be because friends are there, and others might be because of mechanics and features I enjoy. In ARK, for instance, I love riding dinosaurs! I love dinosaur pets! I sure don’t get that anywhere else, so to get that fix I need to play ARK. However, there reaches a point where you have finished the game; I can only handle so much monotony before logging in feels like a chore. Had I not had friends in game with me in ARK, and if we hadn’t wiped and started over a year ago, my 1300+ hours would have been significantly reduced.

Replayability fixes that: It’s a major component for feeling like you got your money’s worth. That feeling inclines folks to warmer and fuzzier thoughts of a studio. And that, my friends, leads to happier players who spend time and money on your games and invite others to do the same. Adding replayability to the game in the form of procedurally generated maps means there’s something new and different to keep players’ attention until the big new and different comes along.

Not a perfect solution

Unfortunately, procedurally generated maps are not without problems — something I’ve discovered in ARK. ARK’s system allows you to set the parameters of your island, and those parameters can be completely inhospitable! It takes a bit of trial and error to get the landscaping inhabitable. Trees can be too dense, mountains too steep, and waterways too infrequent. There are pockets of terrain you can get caught in with no escape. Then there are bugs that are plaguing these maps affecting their playability, from broken in-game maps to broken spawn points to completely missing resources. Because there is no stationary point that devs can link things to on these maps, it must be hard to get these functions to work, but I am hoping they do. Because if so, I have an endless supply of new areas to explore in between life on the expansions. Isn’t that what you’d want — to keep players around?

The game that lets me explore indefinitely is the game that will keep me entertained longer than any other. If massive expansions are not an option, or at least not a frequent one, games should consider offering procedurally generated maps for players to get their fix on.

In the survival genre, there are at least 1001 ways to die, and MJ Guthrie is bound to experience them all — in the interests of sharing them with you! The Survivalist chronicles life and death struggles against all forms of apocalypse, outbreak, mutation, weather, and prehistoric wildlife. And let’s not forget the two-legged enemies! Tune in here and on OPTV to see who feeds better: MJ or the Death Counter.
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A few things:

1. Only 1 dlc to date is one you have to pay for with Ark: Scorched Earth’s map. The Center Map and Ragnarok are both free dlcs.

2. One of Ark’s main functions (and purposes) as a game is modded content(and hence why 3 of the 4 current dlcs out are formerly bought out mods.) MJ’s article ignores the fact that there are also plenty more modded content maps out there(including some being stipend at 4k a month by the devs of Ark for future consideration in their featured mods program), due in part to her reticence to modded content(again counter intuitive for a game with a focus on mods). Many of those modded maps are extremely well done and offer so much more exploration. Coupled then with the plethora of other mods, variables of settings, and you pretty much have tons of hours of possibilities and play.

3. Since procedurally generated arks system was added, it has not been popular nor meaningfully updated for the last year. It only becomes more viable when coupled with mods that work around those short comings. The devs consider it a low priority in comparison to other aspects of the game that they’re putting more effort into.

All that said, if you really wanted to cite what actually stretches the longevity of a game like ark, its modded content. Procedurally generated maps is just a sliver of a reason for theirs.

Maggie May

Not a big big fan of the voxel worlds ala Cube or Trove. Fun at first but exhausting and too random after a while.


I just don’t know. Games like ARK that have Biomes essentially end up creating spawn areas you can identify within a few minutes of being there. You have the “I’m a noob” biome that’s Trikes, Dilos, Dodos, etc. You have the “Mountain Rage” biome that’s Rexes, Argents, Mammoths, etc. I mean once you see which dinos are there you can pretty much know everything you need to know about it. Whether I’m on The Island, Valhalla, Ragnarok or a randomly generated map soon as I see the dinos that are there I know what is there, what to expect, and what to prepare for.

So really then it’s only expansions that bring new challenges to that and new changes. Scorched Earth challenged my knowledge of the game because I didn’t know what to expect in an area. I was paranoid at every Rock for a long time because I knew about Rock Elementals but I had no idea where they were.

Jeff Mauney

In my opinion, 7 Days to Die has by far the best procedural generation of any survival game currently on the market. With the latest update, you can get huge, randomly generated cities in the mix, complete with skyscrapers. With just a little bit of modding effort, (editing a .xml file), you can even control which biomes will spawn, how big towns and cities are, width of roads, etc. I recently generated a world that was all desert and wasteland; quite challenging with the temperature mechanics, since just keeping your character cool and hydrated can be a challenge in such an environment.

And if you don’t want to contend with zombies, simply turn them off in the setup options. Then it’s just you, the beasts and a huge, gloriously random sandbox to explore and build in.

Robert Mann

Proc-gen can be great or poor depending on the implementation and complexity. Sadly, it does have some issues, but those issue are more developers not putting checks and secondary runs in… or not having clever mechanics to make them part of the game.

For smaller group or solo games, I agree with this a lot. Actually, one of the neater tools I have seen is the height map upload that fans made with several games. You can put your own height map into a generator, let it run, and then load the world onto your server. Sadly, it hasn’t really been done with solo on computer it seems… but still cool!

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Very much agreed! The first 10 hours of every minecraft world are normally the best 10 hours :) (speaking of which…it’s been a few months since I’ve fired up minecraft, maybe I’ll give that a whirl this weekend…still my favorite survival/building game so far)

Melissa McDonald

If I were making a game I’d definitely use PGM’s to create the whole world, then go back and add in some unique content and features to them. Seems like an incredible time-saver.

It reminds me of the “Genesis wave” from Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan.

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Alfredo Garcia

“The game that lets me explore indefinitely is the game that will keep me entertained longer than any other.”

That gets all the +1’s from me!