Not So Massively: I like survival mechanics, not survival games

    
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Not So Massively: I like survival mechanics, not survival games

When I played We Happy Few, one of the things that surprised me the most was how much I enjoyed the survival mechanics. I worried they might be annoying, but I found them an enjoyable and immersive experience. Soon after, both Fallout 76 and Conan Exiles ran free weekends, and I got to broaden my experience of survival mechanics.

What I learned from this trio of games is that I’m a fan of survival mechanics, but not of survival games.

Of the three, Conan Exiles was by far the least enjoyable for me. By contrast, I enjoyed Fallout 76 much more, despite its wealth of jank. There are a lot of reasons for this, and not all are relevant to this discussion, but I think one key factor is that Exiles is a pure survival game, and 76 isn’t.

Both Exiles and 76 had a lot of issues I found irritating, but I was a lot more motivated to work past them in 76, and I think part of the reason for that is that Fallout 76 has a storyline and a sense of purpose to it that Conan Exiles lacks.

Exiles is about survival – and nothing else. There aren’t quests in the traditional sense or a storyline to follow. There’s no purpose to the game beyond subsistence, and for me, an endless cycle of scrabbling to survive just for the sake of scrabbling to survive isn’t a game. It’s just a chore.

In Fallout 76, and in We Happy Few, the need for food, drink, and rest isn’t the whole game. It’s just one part of the greater tapestry, and I think that’s what makes it fun.

When I wrote about how We Happy Few felt like a virtual world despite being single-player, I talked about how the survival mechanics helped root me in the world, and I think that’s the advantage that survival systems can bring to games. They’re not all that compelling on their own, but as part of a broader experience, they can add an element of immersion that really elevates the gaming experience.

Think of it like using salt in cooking. Too much ruins the dish, but just the right amount enhances all the other flavors.

Player housing is a great example of a system that is greatly enhanced by the addition of survival mechanics. I like the idea of player housing, but in practice I usually find a rather dull feature. It tends to feel too disconnected from the rest of the game. It’s fun to decorate, but then why go back? Too often there’s nothing to do with your in-game home other than stare at the walls, and that’s not really what I’d call engaging gameplay.

Survival mechanics are an easy way to make housing feel meaningful. Make your in-game house a place where you need to return on a regular basis to craft, cook, eat, and rest and it starts to truly feel like a home, rather than a sterile digital trophy case.

Normally, as I said, I don’t much enjoy player housing, but in Fallout 76, building my CAMP was probably my favorite part of the whole game.

For me, the great advantage of video games in general and persistent online games in particular is the immersion. You can experience becoming part of an imaginary world in a way you can’t with something static and non-interactive, like a movie or a painting. It’s what makes this particular art-form special.

Handled correctly, survival mechanics can do a lot to enhance that immersion. Giving your character human needs like hunger and thirst makes them feel more like a real person, and not simply an avatar in a game.

It would be interesting to see the role-playing potential of this played up even further. Maybe higher quality beds provide a greater bonus to resting. Maybe you could even define your character’s tastes at character creation — do they prefer tea or coffee, spicy food or sweets — and get bonuses when they consume their favorite foods and drinks.

Right now, it doesn’t feel like there are a lot of survival games that fit my tastes; most are pure survival without story or direction, and very commonly they focus on cutthroat PvP, which I don’t enjoy. But with how popular the formula has proven, I wonder if we might start to see light survival mechanics begin to proliferate through other genres, in much the same way ongoing progression and other elements of MMORPGs have spread throughout the gaming world.

That’s something I’d like to see, I think. Obviously not every game needs survival elements, but I do think there are a lot of games that could be enhanced by them. It would be great to see survival mechanics no longer be limited to empty sandboxes and brutal gankfests. I could see survival mechanics working well in certain narrative RPGs like Dragon Age, and as I’ve said before I think adapting some survival elements could work well for an MMORTS.

I could also see the ARPG genre benefiting by stealing elements of the survival toolbox. ARPGs are all about a constant stream of loot, but this often creates problems with poor itemization or endless treadmills. Maybe an ARPG could be less about hoovering up new equipment — most of which is trash — and more about harvesting resources to support your character, or perhaps even a tribe of NPCs that depend on you to provide for them.

It would also be nice to see the potential for co-operative survival play explored more deeply. Right now most survival games have a heavy PvP focus, but it doesn’t need to be that way. After all, sharing resources to survive is literally how human civilization came to be.

Whatever way you want to go, it’s clear that there’s a lot of potential around survival mechanics that hasn’t been tapped yet. Like a lot of people, I’m fatigued from the constant stream of survival games we’ve seen in recent years, but I am excited about the potential survival mechanics might be able to bring to other genres.

The world of online gaming is changing. As the gray area between single-player and MMO becomes ever wider, Massively OP’s Tyler Edwards delves into this new and expanding frontier biweekly in Not So Massively, our column on battle royales, OARPGs, looter-shooters, and other multiplayer online titles that aren’t quite MMORPGs.

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Tazuras

If you are looking for a co-op game with survival mechanics and no PvP and are willing to also leave behind most combat and focus on crafting, harvesting, foraging, construction, and building a player civilization of laws I highly recommend ECO. I can’t wait for the big update due out later this year.

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Drew Kerlee

You. Have. Got. To. Try. Subnautica!

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Schmidt.Capela

I’m more or less the opposite. I love survival mechanics when they are a focus, such as in actual survival games; on the other hand, I loathe them when playing any game that isn’t about survival, such as anything Elder Scrolls or Fallout.

In fact, part of the reason I won’t touch FO76 before it implements modding is because I need to completely remove the survival mechanics (including inventory limits) before the game has any chance of being enjoyable for me.

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Zero_1_Zerum

Still want that open world PVE sandbox survival game.

Emphasis on the PVE.

No non-consensual PVP at all. Players have to work together to survive against the harsh environment and AI controlled enemy factions, not gank and grief each other.

Like, best survival experience I’ve had was Subnautica. I wouldn’t mind seeing an MMO in a similar style.

jedensuscg
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jedensuscg

Subnautica and The Long Dark both hit that survival mechanics without being typical survival game. Subnautica has an end to strive for, it has story, no PvP (single player game). You can eventually get setup to where you’re not spending all your time getting food and water. It’s about exploration with survival mechanics, and lot’s of fear thrown in. The Long Dark is similar, but less about unfocused exploration and more about learning where to find your next bite of food, or a temporary shelter while you stock up. You won’t build a base and stay there for ever. Eventually you have to move on. Both are great games.

The Raft hits on that CoOp survival you wanted. It’s all about surviving on a raft with a friend, building it up, keeping the sharks at Bay.

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Schmidt.Capela

Subnautica has an end to strive for, it has story, no PvP (single player game).

Subnautica has not even any combat to speak of; the devs, quite intentionally, never added any weapon more powerful than a mere survival knife, something awfully inadequate against even middle-tier critters, much less against the leviathan-class ones. They also made it so you never need to use the knife against a living being.

And, IMHO, the game is far better due to that.

You can eventually get setup to where you’re not spending all your time getting food and water.

15 minutes into the game if you know what you are doing. To the point all my runs, apart from the first couple ones when I was still learning, were vegetarian runs.

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Sarah Cushaway

Yeah pretty much. Survival mechanics can be fun. Survival games are usually a janky mess of griefing horror, with rare single player exceptions.

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Robert Mann

Yep. This is why I find myself interested in these games. The mechanics you don’t find elsewhere. I tend toward some of the games that allow more world-altering, have interesting systems for goods moving, and so on.

Hunger/thirst should be very minimal in any game where there’s not a major disaster, or wars taking food and drink away. It can be interesting when dealing with logistics, but otherwise it’s a mere chore… unless it’s made for fun (things like social gatherings for example).

The virtual world is the least attempted idea in gaming, and the most glorified outside gaming. It is difficult to make, but has an obvious fanbase.

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EmberStar

If you want some survival with your story, try Subnautica. I know another people have mentioned it, but I thought I’d point it out again. The story is less directed than what I’ve seen of “We Happy Few.” The opening cutscene isn’t quite as extensive, but it sets the stage for what’s going on.

Short version – science fiction. You are a crew member on the Starship Aurora, and something has gone very, very wrong. You are already in an escape pod, and nearly die as it gets caught in the shockwave as something explodes on the ship you just barely made it out of. You get knocked out by a piece equipment. When you come to the pod is on fire, the radio is broken, and likely the first thing you see after dealing with that and climbing out is the burning wreckage of the Aurora. And the ocean. The vast, beautiful, utterly alien, uncaring ocean.

The survival elements and crafting and story all loop back into each other. It’s not perfect, but in my opinion it makes more sense than in We Happy Few. You’re in a survival situation. You have limited food and water, partly because your pod is equipped with a super advanced 3D printer that can fabricate everything from food to building supplies… if it hadn’t been damaged in the crash. You need to find a way to get it working. You need to find materials suitable for making food, and tools. The default survival blueprints aren’t working, but it can reverse engineer them if you can find damaged equipment to scan.

Finding food and supplies drives the exploration. As you explore you discover new materials to use to build tools, and better tools allows you more freedom to explore. At the start you can only dive for as long as you can hold your breath. You can make an air tank to extend that (although in my opinion having apparently an entire scuba tank that allows you to stay underwater for an additional 60 seconds is just… a bit immersion breaking.) As you encounter more life forms you’ll figure out which ones are useful, or harmless, or scary beyond all reason. And behind it all there is a story, if you take the time to find it.

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EmberStar

I’ll also say that both Ark and Conan Exiles *do* have story elements. The games just make no effort to direct you to them. If you want to learn more about what’s going on, then it’s on you to find the handful of scattered journal entries and explorer notes. And in the case of Conan Exiles, haunted scenes where the same moment in time plays out over and over, a fragment of another story caught in an endless loop by the cursed magic that rules the Exiled Lands.

Granted, you’re definitely not likely to experience that story on any of the official PVP servers. Which is one of several reasons I’d strongly suggest NOT playing on the official servers. Play the game in single player mode (both games have this option) or on a private server with friends. Both games are also *very* suited to sandbox, “do whatever you like” role play… again as long as you aren’t on an official PVP server.

I’ve been playing Ark off and on since not long after it first launched into Early Access. The story I’ve experienced probably isn’t even to the level of bad fanfiction, but it’s *my* story. Starting out in an isolated cove. Building a small thatch hut, and then realizing that a spinosaur had found the cove and doing my best not to attract her attention as I explored. Discovering that a single brontosaur lived in the thick forest nearby, and nicknaming her Lonely.

I eventually managed to tame Lonely, and then to make a platform saddle so that I could build a little mobile house that was relatively safe from predators. (Because Lonely is massive, even though she’s low level, and a lot less things are willing to attack a brontosaur than a lone human.) Because she carried my little hut around with her, when I found a good spot I built walls to protect Lonely while I was away. Now Lonely is probably the least lonesome creature on the island – she’s the literal heart of my fortress, with an entire pack of dire wolves who I bred just to protect her and an honor guard of carnotaurs and rexes.

It’s not a deep or moving or terribly original story but it’s *my* story. And I love it a lot more than the five millionth variation of “You are Da Chosen One” that nearly every MMO I’ve ever tried leans on like an immutable law of existence.

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Robert Mann

Sandbox games have great potential, if people are willing to ignore the lack of pre-written elements and forge a story together with others. That’s a common complaint though, and I think that having more events and things that are noteworthy happen would be a driving factor in bringing people into the game and story-building.

Just my own thought on where things would be good to go, but since nobody seems to want to throw a big wad of cash at me to hire people to make it (not that I’m making any outreach there either)… XD

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Oleg Chebeneev

Also The Long Dark. You’re crushed in frozen wildereness and gotta find your way out. Story driven survival which is pretty good

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Oleg Chebeneev

Im the same. I cant get into most survival games even tho I enjoy hardcore survival feel. Survival games are almost all the same. Collect resources, build, explore sandbox with almost no PvE content. It grew boring.

By far the best survival game experience Ive ever had was in my Skyrim modpack called The Journey. It is hardcore and unforgiving, but I also played in permadeath mode which made it incredible immersive experience. You’re like living in the world with TONS of things to do, have to prepare for all battles, and any moment can be your last one.

Alomar
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Alomar

I’m not a survival gamer, I’m an mmo’er whose been bored and fed up with lackluster mmo’s for years. So I’ve ended up playing a few survival games in the last few years to fill the void. Conan Exiles was by far my favorite with over 1.1k hours into it over 5 playthroughs, some on pvp servers some on pve. F76 on the other hand, I disliked intently and didn’t even get 100 hours out of. Launch was horrible and I’ve tried to return twice and been put off so much by the inventory system in less than hour each time.

Conan exiles is about a lot more than survival, that’s a very limited opinion probably accumulated from less than 20 hours of play and only doing the most basic starter progression. There’s an underlying story you can investigate, world boss hunting for legendaries, dungeons for group play, the best building system I’ve ever played, very in-depth cosmetic attributes both in housing and avatars, thrall capturing and leveling progression, combat and non-combat pet collecting, horses for both combat and travel, and overall a push for exploration that rewards you by having recipes/unique items/unique npc’s/etc/ spread all around the world.

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Robert Mann

Building system is rather ordinary, it’s been in games since the mid 2000s. Sadly, games really haven’t improved on it much.