Sunday, June 4, 2017

Hybrid Vigor

It occurred to me the other day, when I was reading Azuriel's post about "Crafting Survival", that I have never played a Survival game, crafting or otherwise.

I know what Survival games are. I know the names of several. I even have a vague idea what they look like and how they play; at one time or another most of the MMO bloggers I follow have written about them, often at considerable length.

By and large they're games that sound interesting, on the surface, but I've never translated that interest into action because I can't shake the feeling that, more so than almost any other sub-genre of video game I can think of, Survival games are objectively pointless.

They do, of  course, share the single purpose of all leisure activities, which is to pass the time in an entertaining manner, and time spent enjoying oneself cannot be considered to be time wasted. Still, there are many ways to keep yourself entertained; countering a set of pre-determined conditions in order to achieve stasis has never struck me as being one of the more appealing ones.

Games - or perhaps they could better be described as entertainments - where surviving is merely a backdrop to achieving another goal, those are a different matter. Minecraft, when played in a certain way,  may require the player to focus on surviving a number of threats but, once that's achieved, other, more creative goals take the place of simply not dying. At least, I believe so: I've never played it.

Conversely, looked at from the outside, titles like the reflexively-named "Don't Starve" seem to hold as their ultimate goal a state of Nirvana in which, finally, nothing happens, nothing changes. It's a state that can never be achieved because the game is coded in such a way as to ensure that, no matter how long you postpone the inevitable, in the end you will starve.

Enjoying these entertainments probably requires a similar mindset to that which seeks to experience and record incremental improvements in anything: a runner trying to improve her best time; a raider trying to improve his DPS; either by even the smallest measurable margin. Such a mindset may be the signature of someone as, or probably more, interested in process than in outcome.

In the comment thread to Jeromai's post linked above I asked "Is there any reason we couldn’t have a Survival MMO with persistent characters?", a question to which Jeromai gave, most likely, a fuller and more convincing reply than the question deserved.

It wasn't really a very intelligent question. Just how would I expect a "Survival MMO" to work, anyway? What would the players do once they had "survived"? Pacifying an unruly landscape and bringing civilization to the four compass points is a healthy ambition for an empire but settling down to a quiet, virtual existence in a safe, stable and peaceful world scarcely seems a viable endgame for an MMO intended to run on (and take money)  indefinitely. (Then again, Second Life...).

Presumably this is why sandbox MMOs, which frequently require a good deal of surviving, also tend to include the endless existential threat of player versus player violence. It's either that or never-ending waves of AI attacks (wasn't that one of the USPs of both Rift and the original Horizons?).

Ashes of Creation, currently taking three million dollars to the bank along with the title "Most Successful MMO Kickstarter Ever", doesn't look as though it will start you off in a cave with a club and a loin-cloth, while expecting you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps to become Emperor of All The Nodes, but it does have a faint whiff of survival about it, at least on a meta level.

Supposedly, all your works there, like Ozymandias's, can turn to dust. Were this a survival game that would, presumably, signal game over and a restart, whereupon you, the player, would attempt to last longer or build bigger, so as to beat your personal best.

Since AoC is an MMO, with persistent characters and a persistent world, that can't happen. The Emperor and his acolytes may lose face along with all their nodes but all the players who counted on their protection will find most of their progress wrapped up and packed away for a quick and painless return. More like moving to a new apartment than starting a new life.

Persistence is both a problem and a predicate of the MMORPG genre. Many MMOs start out as survival games of a kind, where the player-character begins with literally nothing more than a worn vest, a badly-sharpened stick and a dream of slaying a dragon. At the start it's all scrubbing for a living and trying not to die; by the end it's DPS meters and dance parties with a couple of dozen of your new best friends.

After two decades of this it's increasingly hard to see how the two ends fit together. Often they don't. For those of us, who find the grubbing about in the mud for a piece of old armor the rust might not have eaten all the way through yet the most enjoyable part, a reset now and then is a requirement. That's why we play alts or change servers or move to a new MMO every once in a while.

Endgamers, meanwhile, curse the leveling curve as a waste of time and resources, while developers increasingly treat it as legacy content, once required but now best leaped over with boosts, preferably paid-for. The difficult introduction to the world, first surviving then consolidating, that seems like an anachronism.

Going back to "Don't Starve" for a moment, does anyone even remember the days when you had to eat and drink in MMOs? I struggle to recall the details now but in original EverQuest, if you failed to keep up your liquid intake, didn't you cease to regenerate health? Or maybe it was mana. I'm sure there were other MMOs where running out of food meant, if not the end of your character's life, the end of their progress for that session.

Despite the strong showing of Survival games over the last few years I sense no desire to re-appropriate such mechanics to the mainstream of MMOs, either theme-park or sandbox. As the wheel turns and MMOs emerge, gasping and spluttering, from their long submersion and MOBAs begin their slow, inexorable slide, it may be that Survival's short, Edwardian summer is also drawing to a close.

Conan Exiles appears to have stalled. H1Z1 "Just Survive" is choking through lack of interest. ARK appears to be on a one-way trip to self-parody. The Battle Royales that are currently raging, as H1Z1 King of the Kill gives way to PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, are surely too far removed from anything we recognize as "MMORPG" even to count as belonging to the same genre. 

If Battle Royales and Arenas are scarcely even distant cousins, MMORPGs, Action MMOs, MOBAs and persistent Survival sandboxes all have closer ties, a shared DNA. Perhaps the next stage in the evolution of the strain will draw from the strengths of all of them.

Wasn't that yesterday's seven-day wonder, Crowfall's, plan? A genuine MMO with restarts? Is a true survival MMO what we'll find when we enter Amazon's New World? Will the Ashes of Creation give birth to a Phoenix that burns brightly with the combined energy of everything Intrepid threw into the flames?

Or maybe we'll just find ourselves sifting through another generation of muddled compromises. And
perhaps I should at least try a survival game before writing about them at such length. Y'know, just so I can pretend I have the shadow of a ghost of an idea of what I'm talking about...

Nah. Life's too short to just survive.


  1. "Still, there are many ways to keep yourself entertained; countering a set of pre-determined conditions in order to achieve stasis has never struck me as being one of the more appealing ones."

    Is that not "winning the game", as it would be in any single player game? When I finished Skyrim, my character had saved the world, could take on any foe, and had completed all of the side quests & story chains, and even built each of the houses, having them fully upgraded and nicely furnished. Being finished, I sat my character down in the library of the house I used most often, logged out, and uninstalled the game because I had now beaten it. In MMO's, players often have a personal win condition, such as completing the game's main story, finishing each zone, collecting certain items, all the way up to clearing each raid on the highest difficulty. Players also often have "stretch goals" of a sort that they may work on a bit, for things that you cannot put all of your focus into or is only fun in doses, or whatnot. And when you get to that point of "nothing left to do", you have essentially beaten the game and you see people regularly disengage, unsubscribe, stop logging in, and start on something else (though they may come back at some point).

    Isn't getting to the point of "nothing else to do" exactly what you're describing here, and the same as achieving your win condition in any other game? When I played Don't Starve, while I did not complete every possible task in the game, when I got to something that met my personal win condition of basically being able to survive in perpetuity, I got done with it and quit. Much like an MMO, when they added stuff that caught my interest (particularly multiplayer, which caught the wife's interest), I came back and played around with it some more until the both of us reached that win condition again.

    1. Yes, it totally is - if you're the kind of person that plays these things as "games". I often question whether I'm a "gamer" at all (I think I probably am, although not a mainstream one). When I came to MMORPGs it was very much from the "virtual world" camp, although long years have changed both my expectations in that regard and what developers seem to be interested in offering. My main motivation is still to wander about and look at stuff, although I do have a strong interest in character progression. I don't really see the point at which I wander off to some other MMO as my having reached a "win condition", more as a sign of my limited attention span.

      By and large I still consider MMOs mainly as the playing fields on which games can be played rather than games in and of themselves. That, of course, does allow for personal "win" conditions as well as any number of self-contained or open-ended mini-games, the rules of which you set for yourself. I know a lot of people do that - personally, I can barely manage to focus on a single, simple goal like leveling one character. My "gameplay" is a lot more whim-based and ad hoc than that.

      So, yes, I agree that the two things can be seen as very similar, if not identical, but only, I think, if you are coming at them from a direction that I don't usually take.

  2. And for what its worth, I think it's worthwhile to at least check out one of the survival games. I'm not super big into them, especially the PvP side of many games, but I cannot recommend Don't Starve enough. The name is only indicative of the first and most readily apparent challenge in the game, but it quickly gets much more involved than that. For someone who so much enjoys "grubbing about in the mud for a piece of old armor the rust might not have eaten all the way through yet", I'm surprised you wouldn't be more interested in one of those games, as having to regularly start over and get a bit further each time is such a core part of the game. It's rerolling in an MMO and having to scrape by on a smaller scale, I think.

    1. That's very much how I read it. I think the Survival genre has a huge amount in it that would directly appeal to me. I don't think it is entirely true to say (as I did at the start of the post) that I have never played a survival game - I think I did once, a very long time ago (like 20 years). I can't even recall the name - about all I can remember is how addictive it was.

      I might try and get one for my Tablet. It seems like the concept might be a better fit there than on a PC, where it becomes a destination activity rather than something more throwaway.

  3. Bummer, I cannot comment! I had two lengthy comments here, but Blogger keeps saying "there was a problem" and dropping it when I publish.

    1. I do apologize - it does that sometimes. It may be because of my unofficial, unapproved layout or it might just be Blogger being Blogger. The comments did come through though - twice! I've tidied up the extras.

  4. Heh, you pulled out such an old comment, I barely remember it now. In the wake of the sucess of survival sandboxes today though, I'd have to qualify my previous comment that I was thinking on a big MMO scale and one persistent world.

    Limiting the audience to that of a small server or invited guests, some 20-50 or less, seems to be fine to keep them running, or at least not imploding, or if they do implode, it's just start up another world but play the same game. ARK seems to allow persistent saving of progress on an account basis, or gave that impression during my limited experience with it, but the worlds can change.

    You should give some of the survival games a try though, if only for us to appreciate your thoughts on them. Don't Starve and Minecraft are the big ones (the more recent Don't Starve Together successfully enabled a multiplayer experience) and ARK seems popular with those who need more of a social atmosphere. My guess is that you might appreciate the more immersive aspects of a survival game but miss the background noise of an MMO where people are always running about.

    1. I definitely don't count these small-scale environments as "MMOs". They can be persistent online virtual worlds but I don't consider anything that doesn't accommodate several hundred players, concurrently, in the same, shared gamespace as "massive". I've always had issues over including lobby-based games like the original Guild Wars in the canon for that reason, although in the end I did feel that the "lobbies" were sufficiently numerous, large and integrated into the world in such a way as to justify stretching a point.

      I really should try Minecraft. It's a bit ridiculous never to have played it and there's a very good chance I'd enjoy it, I think. I'm surprised Mrs Bhagpuss never went for it given her love of building things but she took one look at the graphics and dismissed it out of hand. She found even Landmark far too "blocky" to stick with for long. I never liked the look of ARK and almost everything I've read about seems off-putting but I might fancy a run in Conan Exiles one of these days.

      When to fit it in though, that's the thing.


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