Massively Overthinking: Are survival games the new MMO?


A few Overthinkings ago, a MOP commenter said something that seemed very simple but still hit me really hard, to the point that I’m still thinking about it: “Survival games are the new MMO,” MurderHobo opined. “Have been for a while.”

He was echoed by TheDarthStomper in another thread: “I think we’re at the point where ‘MMO’ now functionally means ‘Moderately Multiplayer Online.’ A few dozen players per shard, or the equivalent of a survival game private server” as compared to co-op titles where you’ll never meet random people.

You know we have to address this in our weekly Massively Overthinking. We’ve talked plenty about the insane rise of survival games and even survival MMOs, but mostly in the context of “multiplayer titles that might have some gameplay MMO players like” – not so much “the subgenre that’s making truly massive online experiences obsolete.”  Are survival games the new MMO? And if so, is it a bad thing? Let’s hash it out.

Andy McAdams: I don’t think they are in their final state yet. They are easy to make but hard to do well, and as much as I like my small group of friends survival experiences, it’s very distinct for me from a proper MMO.

Couple that with the fact that a lot survival MMO sandboxes are really thinly veiled gankboxes because lol content is other players. I think these games have a lot of growing up still to do. The fact that they are a dime a dozen right now is more to do with the fact that they are (relatively) easy to churn out, especially compared to traditional MMOs.

But that’s not to say that I don’t they’ll grow up. Survivalboxes have a lot of the elements of sandbox MMOs of yore that we’ve been asking for for… well, decades. I think over the next few years we’ll more of a blending here of survival into MMO to bring us closer to the true metave… I mean, virtual world.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): The thing I love most about MurderHobo’s comment is that he wasn’t really meaning it as a bad thing, that survival games were the new MMO. He was arguing that the MMORPGs of the last decade or so weren’t delivering the sandbox gameplay he wanted anyway, that MMO sandbox gameplay is unbundling and going into this other genre, so he had settled in to play survivalboxes, and I can hardly contradict him because he is correct. And I can see the argument that if we have to lose sandbox content from MMOs, at least it’s going into something that can roughly approximate the experience, even if they aren’t massive. But I’d rather have the big massively multiplayer sandbox.

Ironically, the better survivalboxes still have significantly more in common with Ultima Online than UO did with World of Warcraft. If you started MMOs long enough ago that UO was your baseline, the interloper in our genre is WoW and its clones… not smaller-scale sandboxes.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): The cooperation that can be inherent in survivalboxes (or the competition if that’s more your bag) can certainly hit a lot of “missing” coordination and communal gameplay loops in traditional MMOs, but I tend to appreciate these games as the adjacent subgenre they are instead of a wholesale replacement.

I might be old hat here or doing this wrong depending on when you started playing MMORPGs, but our genre is still based on roleplaying games, with all of the stats, classic archetypes, and progression treadmills. Survivalboxes distill some of these aspects down but do so in enough of a way that they can categorize themselves alongside the genre entire as opposed to making them the new normal. They’re just the new hotness.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I think we are looking at an evolutionary branch of MMOs, just as much as other hybrid games have come out of other ancestors in the past. Survival titles certainly scratch that itch for world persistence, progression, housing, and social connection that MMOs provide. And being live service games that experience continual development, many of these survivalboxes tend to shift more and more in the direction of MMORPGs over time, such as No Man’s Sky or some MMO Minecraft projects.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I can’t imagine survival games really being a true replacement for MMOs, but there is something to their prevalence over the last 5 to 10 years. It’s also certainly the bandwagon genre to develop for. Survival sandboxes often have many similar core game loops to MMOs, but they miss on the most important one. And that’s got to be running around a town in the best endgame gear that’s offered only to PvP players. Without being able to feel others’ jealousy and the “oohs” and “aahs” as you flash a /dance and a couple of /flex, it’ll never be a real replacement. You just can’t get that experience in some offshoot server with 10 friends and strangers. It’s just not the same.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I’m not really sure what “the new MMO” entails precisely. I think survival games scratch some similar itches, but can’t really replace the niche MMOs fill.

For me, the biggest appeal of an MMORPG is in persistence and ongoing evolution, and I don’t think survival games deliver that, at least not in the same.

Maybe I’m misunderstanding things because I don’t play them much, but it seems to me that survival games are very trend-based. A new one releases, it draws huge player numbers, and it’s all anyone talks about, but then they seem to drop off quickly. When was the last time you heard someone talk about playing V Rising? I’m sure some people stick with these games long-term, but it feels like most people play a survival game until they’ve more or less maxed out their character and base, then move on to the next thing. MMOs are more about being a long-term investment that you keep coming back to year after year.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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