The Survivalist: When survival sandboxes are more MMO than actual MMORPGs

On Life is Feudal's RP server and other ways survival sandboxes giveth what MMOs taketh away

    
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Ever since Life is Feudal announced at the end of last month its dedication to developing a deep roleplay-focused server, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how much we’ve lost from MMORPGs over the years (roleplay servers being at the top!). For a fan, it is disheartening to see the genre I loved so much bleeding out features, tossing those things that helped constitute the lifeblood of full and vibrant worlds. The trend is to chop, chop, chop away at what… things they think of as unnecessary? Those features are what made the worlds homes!

And yet, there’s a genre that is picking up those features: survival games. More and more it strikes me that survival sandboxes giveth what MMOs taketh away. I’ve gravitated to these survival games so much lately because I am finding a more MMO experience in these non MMO games! From roleplay servers to housing and trade, I can reliably get features I crave — just without the massively multiplayer part. And I am not sure I can see that trend reversing any time soon. So perhaps survival games are better MMOs than MMOs in some respects.

Ready for roleplay

There is no denying that roleplay servers in MMOs are mostly dead and gone — ghosts from the past that tug at grieving players’ heartstrings. Many games just don’t even bother to put them in at all, which is really a disappointing tragedy when the RP community tends to be a stable one that comes to a game for the long-haul (not to mention purchase cosmetics). Players who want to gather have to elect an unofficial server and just migrate to it, hoping the community isn’t fractured along the way. But even worse is when games strip existing ones out!

Star Wars: The Old Republic’s removal of Ebon Hawk in 2017 is a prime example of why this is a bad idea: It takes a dedicated community and throws them into a place that is unwelcoming or even openly hostile. Want to drive away these stable players? Yeah, go ahead and take away their world. I’ve also experienced this personally with ArcheAge; although our Tahyang server survived the first set of merges, it succumbed to being mashed in with non-RP the second time around. There is no question that the overall mentality and personality – even maturity level – of a RP server is inherently different than a general population server, and there is a reason people select that type of server whether they roleplay themselves or not. Wiping out that community and forcing them in with players who don’t welcome them just kills the game for many and they leave. Even EverQuest II axed Lucan D’Lere, but at least our server was merged into the main RP one. However, that didn’t stop the move from effectively destroying our community.

That’s why it was so great to see Life is Feudal not only put in an RP server but strongly emphasize it. And on top of that, stress that it is meant to be a comfortable place for the RP community! Now, granted, this LiF is the MMO, but it still started as – and continues with an incarnation of – a survival sandbox. And Life is Feudal is still very much a survival game at heart. I sure wish other MMOs would listen and learn here.

Oh give me a home

It is more than frustrating when you can look back at games 15, even 20 years ago and they have housing, yet so few MMOs can include that feature now. At least in most cases the feature isn’t removed after having it in game, although World of Warcraft’s adding an “almost” with garrisons feels worse, and Aion and Final Fantasy XIV’s housing that limits many players’ options for the larger houses (though all can have apartments) can feel super restrictive and disappointing.

Of course, when you count in the aforementioned server merges for ArcheAge, you may not have lost the feature of housing, but you lost all your existing homes, so it is practically just as bad (if not worse). To have and to lose hurts. I was willing to forge ahead with life on the non-RP server, but losing my homes was a deal-breaker. I left myself.

And then, we can talk about all the games we’ve lost completely that took the housing with them when they turned out their lights for good, such as WildStar, Star Wars Galaxies (of course), Vanguard, Landmark, City of Heroes, and Asheron’s Call.

Now let’s look at the survival games. The vast number allow you to not only have housing but to build and customize it yourself. This is a budding architect’s dream! The games may not have the most robust decoration arsenals, but there is sufficient for populating your abode. And sometimes mods, which a number of these games like ARK: Survival Evolved support, give you more than enough. Talk about having your own personal space! Honestly I felt like the housing feature has been a lost cause since SWG, but now thanks to the survival sandboxes, it’s seen a revival! This feature alone keeps me coming back for more and more and increases my time in survivalboxes while it decreases it in MMOs.

Take that (in trade)!

One super duper pet peeve of mine is when MMOs started removing the ability to trade with other players. I’m not just talking about not having a robust player economy to play in — I am talking about the ability to hand an item over to a friend. To me, having player-to-player trade interactions is crucial. This trend of removing it, which seems to be the norm for the Asian MMOs, is a complete deal-breaker for me. Oh, I tried hard to play Black Desert Online; the game is gorgeous and has many cool sandbox features. But I couldn’t trade! I couldn’t spend time growing or gathering resources and then giving them to my best friend so he could craft. I couldn’t receive a gifted horse or even pet feed without going through some frustrating gyrations on the auction house/broker all the while praying someone else doesn’t nab it first). It’s one reason I had no real interest in giving Bless Online more than a cursory glance. At least no-trade games like Guild Wars 2 allow you to mail items to others!

Now, let’s put in the way-worse-category games that used to have the ability to trade and have removed it! Yes, stripped it right out and tossed it in the trash. I am looking so hard at you right now Aion. That was a final straw that made me leave the game permanently.

In the survival games, I may not always have a radial option to click trade, but I can at least throw the items down on the ground for someone to pick up or place in a chest they can loot. If MMOs are supposedly so multiplayer, why do they make it impossible to actually cooperatively play with those other players?

Survival games getting more MMO than MMOs

I’m telling you, it is reaching the point where I feel that the survival sandboxes are becoming more MMO than MMOs. MMOs are taking away key elements that I play MMOs for while the survival games are adding them in. I don’t want a solo experience just surrounded by other player bodies – I want a multiplayer experience. And I am getting these experiences in games with fewer players; yes, they seriously lack the massively multiplayer part of the equation, but they are winning for multiplayer while MMOs themselves are crushing their own communities.

Are MMOs losing their MMOness, and are sandboxes a viable alternative to you to fill those voids? Let us know below! And tell me your favorite survival game to inhabit.

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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Arsin Halfmoon

I don’t do survival games, BDO’s the closest I’ve got to a survival game. But MMOs can’t have nice things like trading because of all the RMT and stuff. I’d imagine it’s because survival box games eventually end, someone eventually wins and people start the game all over again. An MMO’s endpoint is years later, so there’s precedent to set up an RMT business, naturally devs counteract that by not allowing trading or something of the like.

Even if RMT wasnt a huge problem in games, games with cash shop models need a tight grip on the economy since real money is involved. I’d also imagined horizontal progression plays a role in it too, trading would make it way too simple to gear up a character, and unless you’re GW2, this can cause some pretty major issues.

You know what? It’s kind of funny how MMOs are like a microcosm of human history, we did start with a bartering system, and now we’re moving into something more currency based!

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Rick Mills

I have never had very good experiences in survival games – maybe I just haven’t run into the right crowd?
But I think an MMO with great RP is LOTRO. I love the community on Landroval and have always felt welcome just about anywhere on any level on that server.

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Fenrir Wolf

That’s what I’m sayin’, you know what I’m sayin’?

It genuinely bothers me how stable, persistent, loyal, and generous a group roleplayers are, and yet how regularly undermined we are by those who make hese games. They’re so stuck in their ways, and then they wonder why their pet projects haven’t been a rip-roarious success.

It’s bizarre to me how many of these companies with attempt to maximise number of players. That isn’t the way to do it! You shouldn’t care about that, you should care about sustainability and profitability, it’s not a popularity contest, you’re not trying to be gender’d honorific Universe.

How many games have to sink themselves before this is classified as a self-evident truth by new businesses entering into the field? Or is it just that the entire genre will be wrote off as non-profitable because apparently none of them are able to pay attention to their own data.

The balls-up faux pas with Heart of Thorns really got to me because it confirmed my long running suspicions. The question is: Why couldn’t ArenaNet have figured this out before putting so much time and money into a flop like HoT? Why do they need to critically fail before realising this self-evident truth?

I worry that many MMOs have fallen because of the nostalgia of those making them who want to just recreate what they’re nostalgic for rather than what would be profitable. I definitely get that impression from some of the industry figures.

This is why I’m at a point where I think we need to flip this thing on its head. These old dinosaurs, these relics should be left by the wayside until they can learn to be relevant again. What we need is very introverted youngsters who’re able to understand that they’re trying for a profitable game, not what they’d want to play.

I’m past the point of asking how many MMOs have to die before the developers and publishers realise this, because instead of realising it they’ve pretty much wrote off the genre. That’s extremely frustrating when everything you need to do well is right there. It’s all within the genre’s history.

Basically: Don’t be Heart of Thorns.

Here’s some do’s and don’ts for themepark MMOs:

Your next MMO should not have forced content of any kind, especially not forced grouping. Have the content scale to the number of people playing it.

Your next MMO should have difficulty settings which only affect the challenge posed by the content, not the rewards.

Your next MMO should not focus on grinding and vertical progression, as these serve to alienate paying customers.

Your next MMO should have diversified content, reference games like Guild Wars 2, Free Realms, Puzzle Pirates, and The Secret World rather than having an over-reliance on combat.

Your next MMO should not have competitive tiers of rewards as this only encourages bad behaviour and dark triad personalities. Have rewards for competition be leaderboard scores and titles at most.

Your next MMO should concentrate on the plot, narrative, and the characters with a clear end-point for each story told in the game. Look at ESO’s Thieves Guild for an example of this. Even the episodes of Phantasy Star Universe do a better job at contained stories than most MMOs, which draw things out so badly it reads worse than fan-fiction.

Basically, it’s time for companies to realise that those customers who’re willing to pay their way stick around because they enjoy the world and what they can do in it, instead of being patronised by operant conditioning chambers.

If the content is fun and the world is lively, varied, and interesting? People will stick around regardless, and you’ll likely have a community so surprisingly non-toxic that you’d become instantly newsworthy for that reason alone.

It’s not hard to do this right. Not with all the data available. It’s not arrogance when there’s so much evidence to be found throughout the history of the genre. It’s not that the genre is unprofitable, it’s that the genre has intentionally targeted non-profitable demographics.

And I’m a bit miffed about that, yes.

~~ Edit ~~

The reason I make the point about forced grouping is because I regularly don’t like the people I’m forced to group with. If I could complete the content myself, solo, or just with my partner first? Then I’d feel I have a safety net if the people are horrible, so I wouldn’t be held hostage to complete the content.

This means I’d actually group more to do content, and be much more invested in doing the best possible job I could. Because if people behave badly? I can leave! This means that the onus is then on others to be more socialised and well behaved, rather than expecting the systems of the MMO to make friends for them.

Often, the people who like forced grouping are dark triad personalities and those with aggressive personalities who have difficulty socialising outside of competitive settings (like the workplace). So this gives them a herd they can bully.

It’s the reason why wolves were thought to have a pack alpha, which the rest of the pack obeys, when really it was nothing more than Stockholm Syndrome expressed by wolves. They were trapped in their enclosure with a sociopath they couldn’t get away from. They were patrolling the edges of their enclosure not as a militant effort to defend their land, but rather because they were looking for a way out, to get away from the sociopath.

You can read up on this online. It’s all true. And humans can be very similar, we tend to not do so well when we feel trapped by bad actors. And that’s true for me as well, it drives my anxiety through the roof, it’s why I can’t even do dungeons, let alone raids.

By removing the forced element, you’d have a less toxic community and many more people actually agreeing to group!

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Robert Basler

You so dislike Heart of Thorns, yet for me it is my absolute favourite part of GW2. I like to be part of a big group trying to accomplish something together. Sometimes you get idiots who try to ruin it for everyone, and sometimes they succeed, but generally people are nice and helpful and let new people know what they need to do. I recently discovered that the Orr maps are like an early version of HoT and have been having great fun doing events there, although there aren’t always enough people anymore.

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TomTurtle

For what’s it’s worth, over the years I’ve enjoyed watching Twitch streams of people RPing in these various multiplayer titles, survival or not. The amount of work modders put into servers, when able, adds so much on top of the already flexible game mechanics. It all adds a lot of replayability and emergent gameplay.

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Anton Mochalin

Oh wait but online survival sandboxes like Ark etc ARE MMOs just with some specific mechanics putting them into “survival” category. It is simply a sub-genre.

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Fisty

RP keeps LiF going. At least LiF:YO anyway. The servers are usually pretty strict about RP being the driving force of the game. Cant kill, trade or even speak to people in local chat without it being under RP circumstances. Good times.

Random MMO fan
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Random MMO fan

Eh, I’m ok with “key elements” in FFXIV. There are RP servers – they are not marked as RP by SE but everyone knows them and it will only take a couple of minutes of research for new players to find the names for them. Plus many other servers have some RP going on, including eRP. Yes, I cannot buy large house for myself on my server but it’s ok – there are apartments available for everyone and I like having this kind of truly “rare” item in game, something you can’t buy from a store or grind for. And it still has player-to-player trades (which is cool when receiving random gifts from strangers).

As for survival games – Rust was fun to play for a while and especially to watch on streams, same goes for DayZ (the mod before it became dedicated game). Those who used to watch Lirik play it on Twitch years ago will know how fun it was ;-) But I never really wanted to spend as much time in them as in proper MMO games.

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Crowe

I understand what you’re saying about RP servers but the reverse can also happen. I don’t remember which game it was but my wife and I returned after a couple of years absence and found our characters (capped at launch max with the best crafting, etc. then achievable and decent but not truly amazing end-game gear) had been migrated to a RP server due to server consolidation. When trying to just join a group for a dungeon, it got really tiresome explaining why we didn’t use “thou” and “hast” and the like in our group chats. We didn’t even last the full month before we ended up canceling again. Just didn’t fill like we fit in there anymore.

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Witches

there is a reason people select that type of server whether they roleplay themselves or not

I don’t RP myself but i always play in RP servers, RP is what makes the game world seem alive to me.

Survival games are also much more feature rich than MMOs, in survival games you can actually use your hands for something other than holding weapons or blunt instruments, MMOs are stuck in a time where all you could do was jump, like someone said in some other thread god forbid we use our hands to climb that rock.

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Arktouros

Gotta say I disagree on the Black Desert front (surprise, surprise). No trading has had a large number of positive effects on the game as a whole.

No trading allows them to do massive giveaways without worry or fear of muling rewards and destroying their economy. Over the 3 years or so I’ve played BDO they have given away billions in free goods, items and rewards. If I could just hand off my stuff what’s stopping me from taking 20+ accounts and sending all my stuff to my main account? There’d be no way they could be as generous.

No trading also eliminates a colossal amount of standard botting activity. That doesn’t mean bots or botting doesn’t exist (mostly because they’re dumb and refuse to fix certain things) but the lack of trading basically eliminates the basics of it.

Both of these issues just aren’t things in Survival Games. There’s no free give aways or daily login rewards for most of those game types. There’s also typically no economy to be concerned about outside of the errant trade of materials here and there by a group too rich to be bothered to farm for something. There’s also no botting or RMT concerns from a game development perspective. When you really get down to it just seems like an odd comparison because one genre of game just doesn’t face the same issues as another even if there are overlapping or similar game elements.

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Witches

It’s pretty easy to code what can and cannot be traded, that’s not really a good reason to not have trading.

The problem with a cashshop that sells convenience is that everything other than combat is considered a convenience.

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Arktouros

Saying “it’s pretty easy to code” when it’s incredibly unlikely you have any actual insider information on the way the game is actually coded or developed is simply a baseless assumption. What’s “pretty easy” is saying it’s easy to code when you have no factual basis to make such a claim.

What we can factually do is look at the implications of making items non-tradeable would have on the game and the way the game mechanics work it’s entirely problematic. For example they just gave away a free piece of boss gear. I got a Bheg’s Gloves. I already have 2 pairs of Bheg Gloves and a 3rd has no value to me. At least I can now sell this 3rd pair on the market and get some silver. If they were untradeable I couldn’t do that. Let alone creating hundreds of duplicate versions of non-tradeable items that wouldn’t stack with the tradeable versions as the game is very generous in what it gives away to it’s players.

However it goes beyond just the simple example I brought up. There are other economic factors such as limited resource gathered economy. For example there are worker nodes that automatically gather resources for you while you are online. I can’t spend more CP and put more workers on the same node. However with trading I could have my 3 computers running on dummy accounts gathering resources constantly and feed them all back to the main account. I could have them all effectively botting due to the game’s build in AFK activities system and feed the cash influx from that as well. I can only have 10 farms on an account, but with this I could have 3 times the farms as well. Are you suggesting that you make all of that untradeable as well? None of these things are concerns in a survival game. The comparison is bad.

I have no idea what the cash shop has to do with the topic or what we’re talking about as it was neither brought up in the article or my reply.

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Witches

The cash shop is the reason trading is so restricted in BDO.

It’s not even a question of coding, we know it’s all about permissions because the things that can and cannot be traded have changed.

BDO wants you to have little bag space so they would welcome giving you stuff that doesn’t stack, that way you would have to buy more bagspace…from the cash shop.

Farming can be solved with caps, either to what you can gather within certain time frames, or to how much of a resource you can have, they can even go crazy and make the resource devalue if it is overabundant or vice versa.

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Arktouros

The cash shop isn’t the reason why trading is restricted in BDO. In fact for the great majority of BDO’s history you were able to gift items from the pearl shop from one player to another.

It’s absolutely a question of coding, because coding is how you enable something like that. To make the claim that it is “easy” implies some sort of insider knowledge on how things are coded. The idea is simple but nothing more.

They’ve actually taken a large number of steps over time to reduce the need for bag space and weight through game updates. They’ve reduced the amount of random garbage that drops when grinding and actually reduced some of the trash but made it more valuable (IE: Takes up less weight but is worth more). These kinds of changes wouldn’t happen if your assumption on their desire was true.

You should really educate yourself on the game you’re talking about before you start making statements regarding it. There’s already caps in place, and enabling trading will allow you to bypass those caps.