PAX East 2020: Hands-on with MMO survival sandbox Population Zero


At this weekend’s PAX East, I got to sit down with Dmitry Muratov of Enplex Games to try out the studio’s upcoming game, Population Zero, on the show floor. The devs describe the game as an “MMO-ish exploration game.” It has a lot of survival elements, but they hesitate to call it a survival game or an MMO because they feel that there is more to it than what comes to mind when either term is used. It has quests and a single server (running many shards) like an MMO, but it has many of the crafting, PvP, and hunger/thirst/temperature mechanics you might expect from a survival title.

One thing that makes this game unique is the session system. Each session lasts for seven days, and players are given a series of quests to complete in that time. There is a very MMO-like quest system (quests that I saw involved gathering plants or killing monsters) that is designed to help the player learn about the world, repair their hibernation pod, and to survive in the various biomes of Kepler. At the end of the session, if the player has not completed all of the objectives, the planet’s surface will become uninhabitable, and the player’s character will become a mindless mutant (which, as you can imagine, is a loss condition). If the player is able to complete all of the objectives, he or she will earn account progress.

I asked Muratov what players do if they blitz through the objectives in a day. He told me that players are free to start a new session at any time, so these players can restart to continue account progression. As your account levels up, you unlock new features. For instance, base building outside of the starter fort is actually an unlockable. Muratov told me that survival games have a reputation for very steep learning curves, so the team wanted to ease the player into the game one system at a time. Other unlockables include special modes such as shorter sessions, or more intense enemies.

The map is not procedurally generated, and quests will repeat each session. Muratov explained that the team wanted to hand-craft the world map to avoid unrealistic anomalies often associated with procgen. He assured me that there is enough to explore that players will not be able to see it all in one session; the devs hope to keep adding to the world well after launch. The exact frequency of these updates is undecided, and they want to work with the community to figure this out.

While Enplex prefers not to label the game as a sandbox, it certainly has a lot of the markers of one, and open world PvP is definitely one of them. However, the folks at Enplex are well aware of the dangers of griefing, and I asked about their plans to discourage it. They said that the game is not full loot. Upon death, players will lose any resources they were carrying, but any gear that they had equipped has only a percent chance of dropping. The better the gear, the higher the drop chance. So if you come across newbies, you have no incentive to kill them, and if you run across well-geared characters, they should be able to defend themselves.

The game shards are capable of hosting several hundred players in one shard, but Enplex has decided that 200 is the sweet spot for the number of people they want you to be running into. So it’s not quite “massively,” but it’s bigger than some of the other survival games on the market. The game is absolutely gorgeous, and if you’re an MMO player who likes survival mechanics, you will definitely want to check this one out when it launches buy-to-play on Steam in May!

Massively Overpowered is on the ground in Boston for PAX East 2020, bringing you expert MMO coverage on everything (and everyone!) on display at the latest Penny Arcade Expo!
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