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What Makes a Good Survival Game

Updated on April 7, 2018
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John is a fervent writer, avid gamer, and guitar lover. He earns his sandwiches fixing automatic transmissions.

Survival games have emerged as one of the most popular game genres in recent years, perhaps surprisingly so. Games that pit you against the environment as much as any bad guy or monster, and leave to you survive by your wits and skill alone. Perhaps this trend really found its feet with Minecraft, spawning a generation of players who matured into wanting something a little grittier than 8-bit style blocks and cute monsters. Perhaps not, that’s just speculation... and it’s not what this article is about. We’re here to look at what makes a good survival game. Maybe you’re a game developer looking to make your own, maybe you’re just curious as to what makes these things so popular.

Maybe you don’t care at all but you’ve read this far so why not carry on?

As the name suggests, survival games are all about creating a game world in which simply surviving is the objective. The Long Dark, while beautiful to look at, creates a particularly hostile world for the player.
As the name suggests, survival games are all about creating a game world in which simply surviving is the objective. The Long Dark, while beautiful to look at, creates a particularly hostile world for the player.

Obviously many factors come into play when looking at what makes a complex beast like a video game successful. And there will always be exceptions to any rule so we can’t simply say “survival games that don’t do this are bad”. But what we can do is look at popular examples of the genre and see what they have in common. And, while a survival game with all of these common elements isn’t guaranteed to be a hit, it is a safe bet that not having these common elements will hamper any new game’s chances of being a hit. Now, let’s get into what these success stories have in common.

Solid Game Play

Okay, so this can be applied to pretty much any video game, not just survival games, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important enough to mention in this article so we’re going to start here. The single most surefire way to ensure a game will not succeed is to skimp on the game play quality control. Nothing puts a player off a game quite like janky controls, broken elements, and buggy game mechanics.

However a game developer decides to tell their story, whatever style of game they decide to go with, ensuring that the fundamental aspects—things like player controls—are nailed down is an absolute must. This is particularly important in games that require any degree of physical skill, such as shooters and platformers. In short, if a game involves surviving zombie attacks but combat is a bit hit and miss, players will very quickly consign that game to the trash.

One surefire way to put players off of a game is to have buggy gameplay. 7 Days to Die has seen its fair share during development.
One surefire way to put players off of a game is to have buggy gameplay. 7 Days to Die has seen its fair share during development. | Source

A Sense of Accomplishment

One problem open world survival games (which are often available unfinished in Early Access form) is a lack of something to work towards. Levelling up your player is all well and good, but levelling them up for what? Merely improving your stats so that you can better deal with the big bad in the game is fine for a while but will lose its luster fairly quickly if nothing changes.

One of the most popular way around this is to add a base building mechanic. Allowing players to put their resource collecting and skill levelling to good use in building a base to keep them safe against monsters or other players will provide your players something to aim for. Getting better resources and improving construction skills in order to build a more secure base is a very good way to keep your players invested in continued play. 7 Days to Die handles this especially well, as every seven game days the players are attacked by powerful horde of zombies that can do far more damage than the regular run of the mill zombies. This means that, not only do the players have something to work towards, but the game almost forces it as players without proper defences on horde night tend to get eaten.

One way to provide a sense of accomplishment in survival games is to a reason to mine resources, such as to build a base. Rust (pictured) also requires continued resources be used for "upkeep" of a base.
One way to provide a sense of accomplishment in survival games is to a reason to mine resources, such as to build a base. Rust (pictured) also requires continued resources be used for "upkeep" of a base.

Even this would eventually come become tedious after long enough, unless you found a way to continually change and add to your game’s narrative. But no game is infinitely re-playable. The trick is to make sure your game feels good value for money; if player’s are bored after three hours of play, they’re not going to pay AAA prices for it.

A Clear and Present Danger

Quite possibly the single most important aspect your survival game can have (aside from the fundamentals mentioned above) is an obvious danger. Now, any self-respecting survival game will have a number of dangers for you to face when you play, but in the popular survival games there is nearly always one threat that is significantly larger than the others you will face.

For many survival games, this threat is zombies. 7 Days to Die is a prime example of this. You can play the game without too much trouble with your undead neighbour, but as you progress, the zombie threat becomes increasingly difficult, until other concerns—hunger, wildlife, other players—become a secondary concern. DayZ is another example of this kind of game where zombies are the main threat.

7 Days to Die - Blood Moon Horde

There are other examples, however. Rust is a very popular survival game that initially had zombies, but decided to get rid of them. Now, Rust focuses on player combat, and the most significant threat in that game is other players. Simply staying alive in the environment and gathering resources is not all that difficult, but dealing with other players is. And server wipes—resetting the game world—has become an unofficial part of the game, forcing players who might have built up a secure base and a good stash of supplies to start over.

One final example I’ll give is The Long Dark. The Long Dark takes a slightly different approach in making the environment itself the main enemy. There are enemies to face in the shape of wildlife, of course,, but the main threat you face is simply staying warm, dry, and fed.

Give the player a specific main threat to focus on. It helps to make a game with many threats seem a little less overwhelming, it gives groups of players (in multiplayer games) something to cooperate over, and it adds an air of objective to a genre that can often feel quite aimless.

Survival!

Yes, it’s crucial to give the player a clear danger as mentioned above, but the survival aspect of the game should not be neglected. A staple of this kind of game is the necessity to perform certain repetitive tasks—such as collecting resources—in order to stay alive. The game doesn’t necessarily need to take the hyper realistic route, requiring players to stay warm, quench thirst and eat, but requiring the player to do something is a big part of survival games. It could be the aforementioned eating to stave off hunger or drinking to quench thirst. It could be simply collecting resources to keep armed and defended against the main threat. Counterintuitive as it sounds, a big part of the appeal of these games is the grind of daily (in-game) life.

This should be a continual process. For example, in Rust, you can build a huge base but once you’re done, you can’t just sit back and relax. The base itself requires upkeep, and if you don’t keep a constant stream of resources flowing, it will start to decay. 7 Days to Die achieves a similar effect through zombie attacks. The base itself will never decay, but if you don’t keep repairing it (requiring new resources) it will eventually crumble under the repeated zombie attacks.

Player health is an obvious example of this. Most survival games will require you to eat and drink and stay warm, which means continually finding food, water, and fire fuel.

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And that’s that. Survival games are most definitely a very popular genre (hence why there are so many of them) and that popularity doesn’t seem to be fading any time soon. Hopefully this article has given you a little insight into what makes them tick. Do you have a favourite survival game? Feel free to discuss in the comments!

© 2018 John Bullock

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