Five things survival games need to stop doing

I spent most of lockdown playing survival games with friends. After two years of the most intensive game playing of my life, here’s my current list of current survival game design trends I wish would die.

“Punching Trees”

One of my gaming buddies hates survival mechanics, and often wryly observes in the first few minutes of any game that includes resource gathering that that we have to start by “punching trees”. It’s a rare game that includes resource gathering that he will put up with (Valheim is one of the few).

But he’s right! Far too many games expect you to “punch trees”, by which I mean hold a button for an extended period while not doing anything else. Sometimes it’s literal, as in Minecraft, where you start with nothing but can punch wood blocks to get your first resources to craft tools, or figuratively, like in Satisfactory, where you can craft anything at the craft bench, but you literally have to hold the space bar or mouse button, sometimes for minutes at a time, to do it.

Punching trees interesting the first time you did it in Minecraft, because it was a “realistic” way to interact with a simulated and internally coherent world, but now it’s been done to death. It’s not challenging or fun. It just adds dead time to the game, time devoid of interactivity, so bland that it won’t even induce a ‘flow’ state. It’s just a waste of time — and it’s my leisure time it’s wasting.

Far from being a basic tool in the game designer’s toolkit, onerous resource gathering should only be included where it is justified by other gameplay mechanics or outcomes. If you are going to ask players to spend time gathering resources, make that time a finite resource to be carefully meted out — so that the choice to punch a tree is also the choice not to mine a vein of iron. To do this time itself needs to become severely limited in some way.

I don’t think this can be solved with an ‘emergent’ timer like a hunger bar that can be padded out by eating (another overused survival staple), because then it has to be balanced as part of the in-game resource economy, which is really hard to do. I think it has to be some sort of objective, external timer— an approaching snowstorm, night falling, etc. Miss the threshold, game over. A game that does this well by making it finite is Outer Wilds, where you only get 22 minutes per loop to solve a mystery before the world resets.

Or, if you must have resource gathering, make resource gathering fully and usefully automatable by an early point in the game. The game should ask you to prove you can do it on your own once, then move on. Satisfactory does this well, and in fact turns this into an entire game. Another way would be to have ‘peons’ you can direct to do it for you (like in Banished and all the Banished clones), and make managing their time a meaningful gameplay decision. Maybe you can’t gather materials yourself, but you also can’t get more peons, so you need to be really careful with how and where you send them. The recent flavour of the month hit V Rising did this really well with servants.

Chests

My god, I am so sick of having to develop “storage systems” in games. I am even more sick of trying to keep them organised. Yes, it’s realistic for stuff to take up space, and it’s realistic for you to have to walk it over to a chest and grab the stuff and bring it back to the crafting table. But it’s not like the game makes you heat and hammer the iron — it just wants you to ferry it around before clicking on the ‘craft’ button.

There is a difference between “realistic” and “interesting”. Storage systems are realistic, but they sure as hell aren’t the reason I’m playing a game about being a Viking or a Vampire. What exactly is the point of minutely simulating only the boring aspects of the world we live in, and skipping over the fun parts like the actual forging? Even when a game makes you take a shit, it doesn’t make you stare blankly at the wall for five minutes then wipe your arse. There’s no “pulling up your pants” quicktime event or “doing up your belt” minigame. It just gets on with it, usually with some sort of bar filling up or emptying in an abstract way, because it knows that the expulsion of bodily waste is not what you came for.

If I want to manage logistics I’ll play a game about logistics, or, failing that, get a job at Ikea. For everything else, just let me click one button to put everything I have in one giant container, and when any of my crafting tables craft it, have them automatically grab it from that one giant container. Better yet, have it all in my inventory and let me craft it without a crafting table (Horizon Zero Dawn even lets you do this in the middle of a firefight!).

If you can’t get all the way there, at least have crafting tables take stuff from chests in their vicinity and stop making me do it for them. Automation is precisely why we invented computers in the first place!

Tiers

If you’re going to have a tier or gating system, be honest about it — don’t hide it behind an oddly specific resource that only spawns from one monster in one part of the map. The Legend of Zelda solved this problem in 1986, by making certain areas of the map off-limits until you found (not crafted) one particular object (not hundreds of them). This was great way to gate your game in 1986 and Breath of the Wild proved it’s still great in 2017.

Tiered crafting recipes suck because grinding monsters is really boring. Once you best a challenge once you’ve proven you can do it, by the third time it’s getting routine.

If you must have a crafting system and tiered gameplay (and there’s no reason to have either, let alone both), look at Monster Hunter, which acknowledges that there’s limited interest in repeating gameplay challenges. Hunts in that game don’t get appreciably easier until the fourth or fifth time you hunt a given monster, and by that time you’ve got more than enough of the resource you’re after.

Or, look at Oxygen Not Included, where access to oil is gated partially by being able to outfit your ‘dupes’ in heat-resistant space suits,and other planets are (initially) gated by your ingenuity in getting the game to produce steam (which can’t be easily made by a machine, or kept in gaseous form for long).

Have tiers emerge from your already interesting gameplay loop, or gate them behind a test of skill you repeat at most until mastery is achieved, and not a second longer.

Corpse Runs

What’s with games making me collect my gear from my own grave, naked? If I couldn’t survive whatever killed me fully clothed in level-appropriate gear, I’m hardly going to pull it off in my undies.

What’s the point of this? It’s not a test of skill, it doesn’t produce interesting choices… if anything it’s a punishment, but why is my hobby punishing me? Disincentivise death, sure, but don’t go overboard (unless I guess you’re the sort of psycho that enjoys hardcore mode). Either lock me out of the fight until my team is dead and we have to try again, or make me run back (fully clothed). Anything more is just the devs having a laugh at their players’ expense.

Not respecting my time

All four of these gripes have one thing in common. All four of them are a form of grind. They all waste my time, and time, unlike virtual wood, is a finite resource.

By one read, games and really all leisure activities are by economic standards a “waste” of time in that they produce nothing, but I disagree. I play games as leisure — they “produce” fun. Satisfaction. Wellbeing. There’s nothing less likely to produce wellbeing than having work suddenly intrude on your leisure time, and grind in games is just work.

I have never once regaled a friend with an anecdote about my favoured storage system in survival games. I’ve never recommended a game because it had a more diverse palette of unique resources in it than other games. On the other hand, I’ve been told not to play games with too much grind, and myself recommended against them.

The games I find the most rewarding or enjoy the most are the ones that respect my time, and I feel relaxed, energised, or accomplished at the end of every session. I can hardly be alone in this.

Survival game developers: respect my time. Enough with the grind. You can ask me to do low-intensity tasks in between all the high-intensity ones. Your game can have ebbs and flows, learning curves and skill plateaus. But stop asking me to do meaningless things in service of padding out the number of hours I spend playing your game.

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Nick Irving

Nick Irving

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.