I’m already old and bitter when it comes to survival games. I’ve killed zombies, dinosaurs, infected bears, maybe even infected dinosaurs, and people. Lots of people. Even for food, and I don’t mean apples. I’ve been been forced to hand over my clothes in the freezing cold, drowned myself to escape imprisonment, and endured beaches full of dead, starved naked men on a PvE server that was unable to provide food for its citizens. It’s been the worst parts of The Walking Dead when I’ve been looking for the “It’s going to be OK!” moments. All this during what’s largely proven to be an unending “Early Access” period.
To say I’m critical of the survival genre at this point may be an understatement. By all accounts, someone might think I hate them, and they’d be half right. I hate most of what I’ve played. There’s cool stuff, but it’s like finding a $1 bill in what you hope was a pool of mud. It’s cool, but not really something you want to do a lot of. You mostly want the good stuff. Frostkeep’s upcoming survival MMO, Rend… well, it’s hard to not get excited, but my time talking to the developers actually gave me some faith for the future.
MJ plays survival games, but prefers PvE. I like PvP games, but don’t generally like survival games. The fact that Rend was one of her most anticipated games of 2018 should say something. If not, maybe this will help: I’m adding it to my own.
I’m still going to be cautious though, since I’ve had my heart broken before (looking at you Maguss, EQNext, Landmark, H1Z1 pre-battle royale….). I talked to CEO Jeremy Wood, Community Lead Evan “Scapes” Berman, and Executive Director of Global Communications Michele Cagle, and a lot of what I heard resonated with me. However, spin happens. Hype happens. Before I go overboard, let me go over my own concerns and how Frostkeep’s tried to address things.
First, Wood sees the survival genre as the “natural successor to old school MMOs,” something I probably once would have said myself. The problem is that despite the fact that Wood thinks fixing the problem is as easy as getting rid of the bad for the good, so many other people have failed. ARK does some good stuff, but I was burned enough from Early Access. It’s difficult for me to go back to a game that’s burned me. There’s also the small detail that stuff I like isn’t always going to be universally well liked, or even healthy for a game. Me drowning myself in a puddle to escape enslavement sounds bad, but I actually like that story and liked that experience for what it was. I won’t get that in Rend.
However, at the same time, I also know I’ve enjoyed games more when my friends play them. When Wood says he wants to give the survival genre the World of Warcraft treatment, I immediately bristled. “How dare he!” I thought. Then I remembered that WoW is the longest time I’ve given an MMO outside of the Asheron’s Call series because I just knew so many people playing it. It’s not that I don’t have fond memories of WoW; it’s just that my memories are mostly more about the people than the game. I don’t have super cool stories like my Darkfall days, but I had fun.
Loss and persistence
Next is the fact that the loss mechanic for the factions has been removed. Previously, each team had an objective that could be destroyed that would cause their faction to lose and sit out the rest of the season. Turns out it was a bit too hardcore for people. I liked the idea myself, but also understood how it could limit people’s enjoyment. See, like Crowfall, Rend has win conditions and long-term progression that carries over between match seasons. Those are currently tied to the server.
Now, any casual survivor genre player can immediately see the problem with this. Server lists can get messy. I’ve lost characters on “official” servers many times. There’s too many, the game doesn’t default to that server, etc. Then you go to play on a private server and there’s a hacker issue, or the admin gets mad and destroys everything, or the guild owners just want random victims to terrorize, etc. And at this point, you’re gone. You’ve seen as much as you can stomach.
Carrying over stats is cool, yes, but if you never want to go back to that server, or it disappears, you lose all your progress. That sucks. That’s why Frostkeep is looking into getting your information to carry over between official servers at the least. Private servers clearly could cause issues.
Again, this is another area I bristled at: The team wants to encourage modders. While I love mods for single player games, in my MMOs they can break things. In survival games, they can do cool stuff, but ugh, the pain of finding a good private server. But Wood once again surprised me: They want a rating system for private servers, a way to show who has a good server and who doesn’t. And hey, if a server is really good, maybe it can become an official server. The team’s already hired a super organized person from their friends and family alpha, so clearly they take passionate players (my friends and family certainly didn’t track bugs when I asked them to beta my game!).
But, there’s the MMO thing. Rend sounds less MMO than Crowfall. There’s no out-of-campaign middle ground. Persistent stats can be something you do in a MOBA. And while we can sit around all day talking about how many players you need to to be a Massive game, Rend’s current 60 isn’t impressive. Yes, the team can do more, but it didn’t sound as if the devs are committed to that.
Not just class roles but player trust
Rend is doing skill trees, and not the usual ones. Again, no healers because “we’re an FPS” made me itchy, but a support class and a crafting class (not required to craft though) make me happy. And then the other shoe drops: specialized crafting. No, it’s not digging mini-games or Cooking Mama to soup crafting interesting, but specialization is important, and probably something we should talk about more in relation with our genre.
Raph Koster was just talking about this with his trust spectrum paper. It’s a long read, but one idea is that having different roles in games (not just digital, but sports too) means having to trust teammates to do their job. It means relying on others, and that can actually be fun. For me, if I can do everything, and you can do everything, we now have to compare skills, and that can be stressful. However, if I can only do A, and you can only do B, it’s less about comparing our skills than bringing them together. It doesn’t matter if you’re not that good with B if you can do it in a way that complements my A style. It’s one of the reasons why I probably enjoyed crafting in certain games more than others: I put in special effort and could coordinate that with people who had complementary crafting skills.
What this boils down to is team building. No, Rend won’t have true healers and that sucks, since it’s a role I like. But it’ll have specialized crafters and enough roles to matter. The team tried to sell me on the idea of a crafter being a Frodo and his PvP friends leading them to the mountain for an adventure, but I want to be more like Batman among the superheroes of the Justice League: I might not be as strong as everyone else, but I have a unique skill set that others can not only respect but rely on.
Again though, these are small servers. Thinking about the team’s past, the game population per server will be smaller than old school Alterac Valley in WoW. It seems similar too, in that the map and goals were designed to spread people out, though people tended to clump together. But maybe Rend figured something out.
The map is larger. That helps spread people out. Then there are biomes. There’s a swamp with toxic gas that has berries to cure a deadly poison from spiders in a high-level area you want to explore. You need to make a gas mask to get in there. To make that, you need to go to the desert, which means you need to make a container for water. You have all these smaller goals that, even without players and mobs, can be tough. And because everyone is trying to get the resources to do this, you have conflict spread around the map, even before you remember there’s true PvP objectives to hold!
This is important because it means small teams of players are largely going to be working together, both in direct fights and indirect fights. Remember, survival games aren’t just about winning the battle. In Darkfall, my tiny guild helped beat large alliances because we had tons of supplies saved up. I might not be able to play one night, but I’d leave plenty of bricks to rebuild walls to negate the enemy’s attacks.
This might not matter, as in the center of the game world essentially has raids that need to be crafted. These give people access totally OP items that let people jump over houses or teleport through walls, but since matches have defined endings and full looting means you can take those cool weapons for yourself, it doesn’t matter a ton in the long run. What does, matter, however, is that getting to that point requires not just direct combat, but crafters and gatherers of all kinds.
On top of that, random loot can fall from meteors in the sky, once again creating a conflict point. All of this still ignores the bi-weekly PvE sieges against your faction town that leave your faction vulnerable to PvP. Combined with the fact that Frostkeep wants to add portals into the map for fast travel and you have ways of making a smaller population spread out to cover multiple objectives and stay engaged rather than clumping up and zerging.
But maybe that’s what some people want. And it should be possible, right? We’ve heard about SpatialOS being able to do amazing stuff supposedly. Why doesn’t Rend just use that? Well, turns out it was considered. Wood looked into and said that, for open world games, “It’s not there yet.” That says a lot to me, and I’ll certainly be asking Improbable for a rebuttal when I meet with that team later this week.
The best of everything?
Already I’m seeing some truth in what Wood said about wanting to take the best parts of various games and smoothing their edges. Frostkeep wants to take ARK‘s dino system and put it into its pet system, letting people tame various animals in ways that respect their personality and unique talents. Frostkeep wants to take the PvE boss element from ARK and (to an extent) Age of Conan but add Crowfall’s end-of-match mechanic with stats being carried over. It all sounds good.
But one thing that I really like hearing is their idea of Early Access: It’s a real release. It’s a product they feel should be worth your time, not investment. Wood says it is still a refining period, and that the goal is to get community feedback and reward passionate players. Fans get to play the game more than the devs, so they can understand it in different ways. That should be rewarded, but it doesn’t require years of development. Wood wants a short EA period specifically for refining, not to release a half-baked product. Release just means the product is something borne of the devs and players working together. I’ll believe all this when I see it, but damn, do I ever want to see it!