What Fall­out 76 can learn from sur­vival games

Bethesda is step­ping into a crowded genre, so what can its big­gest suc­cess sto­ries teach us about what makes the best sur­vival games?

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One Of the things we love about sur­vival games is that they tap into the core ap­peal Of play­ing a videogame in the first place; test­ing your­self against the sys­tems that a de­vel­oper has cre­ated to chal­lenge you. To­day that test is against thirst, hunger and fa­tigue, ran­dom en­coun­ters with en­emy AI or the threat of other hu­man op­po­nents in a sparse open world set­ting, when pre­vi­ously the test would have been be­ing able to leap from one block to an­other as fast as pos­si­ble while avoid­ing a pur­su­ing ghost. The value is ul­ti­mately the same even if the tech­nol­ogy now is far more evolved and im­mer­sive in na­ture.

And so, in some re­spects, the rise of the sur­vival game genre and its co­pi­ous ex­am­ples of the form in re­cent years should come as lit­tle sur­prise. It’s the very epit­ome of the stripped, back to ba­sics ap­proach to game de­sign that so many feel an affin­ity with.

And while Bethesda’s Fall­out ti­tles have tended to be much more in­volved and com­plex beasts, it also makes a lot of sense that this fran­chise would look to tap into that core ap­peal a lit­tle more and test it­self in a new play­ground that can ap­peal to a dif­fer­ent kind of gamer than its RPG fare has reached thus far.

For starters, Bethesda’s foray into the sur­vival ex­pe­ri­ence, Fall­out 76, comes pre-pack­aged with one of the most im­por­tant things a good sur­vival re­quires; an in­ter­est­ing world. “I think an in­ter­est­ing uni­verse is as im­por­tant as a good game­play loop,” 11 Bit Stu­dios part­ner­ships man­ager Pawel Miechowski tells us. “It makes things be­liev­able for the player even if we’re talk­ing about fan­tasy worlds.” 11 Bit’s re­cent sur­vival of­fer­ing, Frost­punk, was a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from most since it brought to­gether el­e­ments of sur­vival with city man­age­ment. How­ever, what it shares with the wider Fall­out uni­verse is a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic world set­ting that pushes hu­man­ity to the edge.

The chal­leng­ing moral as­pect of sur­vival in a un­for­giv­ing world is well es­tab­lished in Fall­out and prom­ises some in­ter­est­ing dilem­mas in Fall­out 76 al­ready, as we’ll get into, but get­ting the world right and mak­ing it a place worth ex­plor­ing and want­ing to sur­vive in is re­ally so vi­tal to mak­ing a good sur­vival ex­pe­ri­ence. There needs to be in­trigue and beauty around ev­ery cor­ner, as The Long Dark has been prov­ing through its Early Ac­cess devel­op­ment.

“I think the en­vi­ron­ment de­sign is of para­mount im­por­tance to our ex­pe­ri­ence, as The Long Dark is pri­mar­ily about sim­ply mov­ing through the world and re­act­ing to the sim­u­la­tion el­e­ments like wildlife and weather, as op­posed to craft­ing or com­bat, which are the sta­ples of most other sur­vival games,” says Raphael van Lierop, founder and cre­ative di­rec­tor at Hin­ter­land Stu­dio. “Also, as a small in­de­pen­dent stu­dio launch­ing a game into a crowded mar­ket­place (like Early Ac­cess), it was crit­i­cal that we find a way to stand out, and the best way to do that is cre­ate a vis­ual style that is evoca­tive and eye-catch­ing. Peo­ple see a screen­shot or video and want to know more.

“Be­yond that, I al­ways wanted the game to be a vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ence where the beauty of the en­vi­ron­ment stood in con­trast to how harsh and de­mand­ing it would be. I think that para­dox is very true to na­ture, and is very the­matic to The Long Dark.”

This was cer­tainly one of the el­e­ments that has kept us com­ing back to The Long Dark since its ini­tial launch in 2014 and an area where Bethesda is al­most

“I think an In­ter­est­ing uni­verse Is as Im­por­tant as a good game­play loop”

a step ahead hav­ing brought some ad­di­tional colour back into the waste­land with Fall­out 4. What we’ve seen so far of Fall­out 76 prom­ises an in­ter­est­ing mix­ture of pas­tures, forests and de­monic beasts as the rel­a­tively un­touched re­gion of Vir­ginia has fared well since the out­break of war. In­ter­est­ingly, it was ac­tu­ally play­ing Bethesda’s Fall­out 3 that helped to in­spire van Lierop and the cre­ation of The Long Dark.

“I was in­spired by my own pur­pose­less wan­der­ings in the Cap­i­tal Waste­land of Fall­out 3, where I found the ex­plo­ration of a wrecked world tremen­dously com­pelling (as op­posed to the com­bat and RPG as­pects of that game, which felt like they de­tracted from the core ex­plo­ration ex­pe­ri­ence), games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Half-life with their fan­tas­ti­cally at­mo­spheric worlds, and the long-term de­ci­sion-mak­ing as­pects of games like King Of Dragon Pass, where de­ci­sions you made to­day may not come to fruition (for good or ill) un­til far into the fu­ture,” he ex­plains to us. “Pulling these ideas to­gether and set­ting them in a Cana­dian win­ter world in the af­ter­math of a ge­o­mag­netic apoc­a­lypse re­sulted in me­chan­ics that are now seen to be ‘genre sta­ples’ for sur­vival games, but that’s not how the ideas started – they were just an out­come of want­ing to de­liver a par­tic­u­lar type of ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Of course Fall­out has al­ready made some moves in this di­rec­tion in re­cent years when a Sur­vival Mode up­date was made avail­able for Fall­out 4. Usurp­ing the pre­vi­ous Sur­vival dif­fi­culty set­ting, this mode in­tro­duced hunger, thirst, fa­tigue, a longer cy­cle on en­emy and item spawn­ing, re­moved fast travel, added weight to items like ammo and in­creased the ef­fects of over-en­cum­brance. Sav­ing was only pos­si­ble through sleep­ing in a bed or sleep­ing bag, com­pan­ions needed to be healed after en­coun­ters if they were knocked out and the ef­fects of ra­di­a­tion and tak­ing Rad­away were also much more pro­nounced.

This re­ally set the ground­work for how Fall­out could work as a straight sur­vival ex­pe­ri­ence, al­though Fall­out 76 is try­ing some­thing a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent again.

Bethesda has made it clear that this new game will be a sur­vival-lite ex­pe­ri­ence and while things like hunger, thirst, in­jury and ill­ness will def­i­nitely play a role, fast travel is pos­si­ble and the im­pact of en­vi­ron­men­tal pres­sures will not be as dras­tic as in some­thing like The Long Dark.

In many ways it re­ally feels as if Fall­out 76 is draw­ing more from games like Dayz, hav­ing el­e­ments of PVE and PVP threat­en­ing us to dif­fer­ent de­grees and of­fer­ing us very par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges. It begs the ques­tion, what does the team be­hind Dayz, re­cently re­lease on Xbox One, think makes for a suc­cess­ful sur­vival ex­pe­ri­ence?

“The es­sen­tial el­e­ments of a suc­cess­ful sur­vival ex­pe­ri­ence are, I think, based around what I call a ‘meet the ex­pec­ta­tions’ de­sign,” Bo­hemia In­ter­ac­tive lead pro­ducer Eu­gen Har­ton ex­plains to us. “Usu­ally, sur­vival games are quite com­plex sand­box ex­pe­ri­ences – the sys­tems need to be trans­par­ent and con­sis­tent in a way that you don’t break im­mer­sion for the player who’s try­ing to keep him/her­self alive in dire sit­u­a­tions. When you think of a so­lu­tion as a player, you should be able to ex­e­cute it and not fight the lim­i­ta­tion of the game it­self.”

This re­ally gets back to what we started out by say­ing about sur­vival games and how they are about test­ing your­self against the sys­tems a de­vel­oper

“I was In­spired by my own pur­pose­less wan­der­ings In the Cap­i­tal waste­land of fall­out 3”

has de­vised to chal­lenge you. It’s about im­mer­sion and emer­gent ex­pe­ri­ences and sys­tems be­com­ing in­ter­wo­ven with one an­other to cre­ate new and unique cir­cum­stances. Fall­out un­der Bethesda has al­ready shown it­self to be ca­pa­ble of that through its RPGS and its rov­ing mon­sters cre­at­ing ran­dom chal­lenges on the road, but that’s driven by a nar­ra­tive or our own cu­rios­ity to ex­plore. In a sur­vival game it needs to be more press­ing and ur­gent or it needs to be about ac­cu­mu­la­tion of strength and sta­bil­ity.

Fall­out 76 seems to be mov­ing in the later di­rec­tion with a heavy em­pha­sis on the craft­ing and build­ing me­chan­ics that were in­tro­duced in Fall­out 4. In this re­spect Co­nan Ex­iles might seem to be a good com­par­i­son point for how to ap­proach an ex­pe­ri­ence that is ac­tu­ally equal parts sur­vival, ex­plo­ration and ar­chi­tect. “Gam­ing nowa­days is, in big parts, about mak­ing mem­o­ries,” Fun­com PR and com­mu­nity di­rec­tor Natascha Röösli ex­plains to us. “Com­ing from a game de­vel­oper back­ground my­self I feel that one of our big­gest chal­lenges and mo­ti­va­tion is to find new ways to let peo­ple do ex­actly that; cre­ate their own unique mem­o­ries. While we pro­vide the world, the graph­ics, main as­sets and me­chan­ics, we al­ways wanted the game to be an op­por­tu­nity for play­ers to cre­ate and tell their own sto­ries.”

Fun­com has taken this even fur­ther by open­ing up server con­trol and al­low­ing play­ers to cus­tomise the world and cre­ate chal­lenges for each other, but even within the base game there’s plenty of room for in­no­va­tion. “There are of course lim­its and rules but a lot of play­ers think out­side the box and have been push­ing the sys­tem way be­yond what we thought was pos­si­ble,” Röösli adds.

“One of my favourites still is a set of houses that a player built which is in­spired by Avatar: The Last Air­ben­der and con­sisted of hang­ing houses. We didn’t even know it was pos­si­ble to build that way.”

Of course Frost­punk took some of that think­ing in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion be­ing a city sur­vival sim. We ask Miechowski what he felt adding sur­vival el­e­ments to the build­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of a sim brought to the game. “The goal be­comes to sur­vive, and es­pe­cially in our game, to see what hap­pens with peo­ple you rule over the course of sur­vival,” he says. “While in city-sim it’s the end­less build­ing. The en­gage­ment comes from very dif­fer­ent sources. In one you are chal­lenged to achieve some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary, or to over­come un­usual hard­ships and be­come sort of an in­de­pen­dent be­ing, while in the other you build, you cre­ate and the fun comes from be­ing an ar­chi­tect.

“You are a sort of mod­eller in city-sims and it re­ally doesn’t have any­thing to do with sur­vival.”

Fall­out 76 seems to be sit­ting some­where in the mid­dle with its mul­ti­player as­pects al­low­ing for the build­ing of a com­mu­nity, but still the pres­sures of ba­sic needs hav­ing to be met and threats ap­pear­ing from mul­ti­ple di­rec­tions, not least other roam­ing bands of play­ers who might have their own plans.

But that gets back to the core of a good sur­vival ex­pe­ri­ence, jug­gling all of these dif­fer­ent me­chan­ics and at­tempt­ing to put out ev­ery fire as it fits you. It re­ally takes the sim­u­la­tor ex­pe­ri­ence of some­thing like Sim City or more re­cently Two Point Hos­pi­tal and brings it right down to the mi­cro­cosm of your own body. And get­ting that jug­gling act right is re­ally the key for both us as play­ers and for de­vel­op­ers.

“In gen­eral, un­less a player falls to their death or de­cides to tan­gle with a bear when they are al­ready very weak, most play­ers die from a com­bi­na­tion of things,” van Lierop re­flects of The Long Dark.

“The game re­ally de­liv­ers a kind of ‘death by a thou­sand cuts’ model where it’s how all the small things, the small de­ci­sions or the seem­ingly mi­nor af­flic­tions can stack up on you and then quickly be­come over­whelm­ing.”

It’s still not en­tirely clear how Fall­out 76 is go­ing to han­dle this bal­anc­ing act and how strin­gent it’s go­ing to be, but we could cer­tainly fore­see it work­ing well with things like limb spe­cific in­juries and ill­nesses al­ready be­ing well-es­tab­lished in the game en­gine. Get­ting crip­pled in one leg from a se­vere fall and hop­ping back to your base camp only to be set upon by bloat­flies or radroaches. Then you’re forced to used a ra­di­ated drink for some quick heal­ing, but now you’re poi­soned and the threat is grow­ing. These things can pile up, but you won’t be los­ing progress in Fall­out 76 at least in the game’s de­fault server set­tings (we imag­ine tougher cus­tom servers will be made avail­able) and you’ll respawn back at home in some state of health in the end.

The longer-term suc­cess of sur­vival games is all about con­tin­ued sup­port and feed­back, how­ever, as Har­ton ex­plains, “I think that va­ri­ety (in ap­proaches and so­lu­tions avail­able to the player) is the key fac­tor in keep­ing things en­gag­ing long-term. Ex­pand­ing upon the va­ri­ety of avail­able con­tent (ei­ther from the de­vel­op­ers and/or com­mu­nity creations) to em­power play­ers cre­ates this sort of com­mit­ment not seen in many other gen­res.” We’ve al­ready had con­fir­ma­tion from Bethesda that mod­ding sup­port will be made avail­able post launch for Fall­out 76, so that box is ticked, but there’s an on­go­ing de­vel­oper en­gage­ment needed too and that’s been a key part in Dayz’s suc­cess ac­cord­ing to Har­ton. “Since ev­ery game in the genre has its own unique twist to the for­mula, in gen­eral we at­tract cer­tain niche com­mu­ni­ties. But the core is­sue re­mains a gen­eral one. Since many of the games in the sur­vival genre have been de­vel­oped un­der the Early Ac­cess model in this genre (more than any other genre), con­sis­tency of up­dates and at­ten­tion to com­mu­nity is­sues are proven ways to re­tain a player base. If you can ex­e­cute on your pri­or­i­ties prop­erly, play­ers will be happy.”

And some­thing like mul­ti­player, which adds a player-con­trolled and de­fined el­e­ment to the ex­pe­ri­ence can be an­other re­ally help­ful tool in keep­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence fresh ac­cord­ing to Har­ton. “There is only so much vari­a­tion we can cre­ate as de­vel­op­ers to keep the game in­ter­est­ing.

“Mul­ti­player and the abil­ity to be con­fronted by other play­ers (both di­rectly and in­di­rectly) stretches the sys­tems in ways that we can’t pos­si­bly achieve. As soon as a game be­comes so­cial, and has el­e­ments that re­quire co­op­er­a­tion or mul­ti­ple ses­sions to en­joy it, it is much more sat­is­fy­ing to play a game like that.”

“En­sur­ing that play­ers can fil­ter for the kind of ex­pe­ri­ence they are look­ing for is one of the big­gest chal­lenges we have, be­cause ul­ti­mately their sat­is­fac­tion will stem from how closely the game de­liv­ered on their hopes and ex­pec­ta­tions,” adds van Lierop. The ad­di­tion of mul­ti­player in Fall­out 76 has seen some back­lash, even though many fans have wanted the abil­ity to at least co-op their way through a cam­paign. Ul­ti­mately what has made sur­vival games such a rich and fer­tile genre has been their ver­sa­til­ity and will­ing­ness to em­brace new chal­lenges and con­cepts and it’s good to see that Bethesda is do­ing that too. Just as im­por­tant though is lis­ten­ing to player feed­back.

“Since re­lease we’ve al­ready im­ple­mented sev­eral me­chan­ics and fea­tures that were specif­i­cally brought to us by the com­mu­nity and we will con­tinue to do so within our ca­pa­bil­ity and man­power,” Röösli tells us. “Hav­ing the player base giv­ing us in­put but also help with test­ing on our Testlive servers is a priv­i­lege and one that we are very thank­ful for. A game like Co­nan sim­ply can’t ex­ist with­out fan in­ter­ac­tion. That doesn’t only in­clude pos­i­tive feed­back, which is of course very ap­pre­ci­ated, but it’s also im­por­tant to get con­struc­tive feed­back that we might not be so happy to hear.”

There are so many flavours, styles and lev­els of dif­fi­culty, vary­ing from games that aren’t far short of walk­ing sim­u­la­tors to pun­ish­ing mul­ti­player ex­pe­ri­ences that de­mand ev­ery last ounce of your at­ten­tion and in­ge­nu­ity. What they have in com­mon is the im­me­di­acy and sense of place they can evoke through the pres­surised cir­cum­stances of sur­vival and emer­gent story-telling. “I think sur­vival games can cre­ate a stronger sense of con­nect­ed­ness be­tween the player and their char­ac­ter in the world, and that sense of phys­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­ity is re­ally at­trac­tive to cer­tain types of play­ers,” van Lierop sum­marises. “So, there’s a stronger el­e­ment of im­mer­sion and per­sonal at­tach­ment to the ex­pe­ri­ence and out­comes that is hard to repli­cate in other types of games.”

Fall­out 76’s jour­ney into this field shows once again how ver­sa­tile and adapt­able the con­cept of a sur­vival game can be. It’s eas­ily the big­gest brand name to have ven­tured into these wa­ters bring­ing with it a fan­base that has very par­tic­u­lar ex­pec­ta­tions and hopes for what a Fall­out game can de­liver. But, if it can learn from some of the games we’ve talked about here it will be all the stronger for it be­cause games like Dayz, The Long Dark, Co­nan Ex­iles and Frost­punk have been some of the most en­gag­ing we’ve played in years.

“as soon as a game be­comes so­cial, and has el­e­ments that re­quire Co­op­er­a­tion or mul­ti­ple ses­sions to en­joy It, It Is much more sat­is­fy­ing to play a game like that”

Dayz has re­cently come to xbox one after a long wait, but has man­aged to re­main vi­brant and rel­e­vant in the sur­vival genre for a long time now, which shows how im­por­tant reg­u­lar up­dates and com­mu­nity en­gage­ment can be.

West vir­ginia of­fers Bethesda a rel­a­tively un­touched re­gion of us land­mass for set­ting its game. With no mas­sive cities, it is sup­posed that it would not have been dev­as­tated by nu­clear fall­out in quite the same way as Wash­ing­ton, Bos­ton or ne­vada.

Co­nan ex­iles seems to be of­fer­ing the best ex­am­ple of the di­rec­tion that Fall­out 76 is hop­ing to go in, of­fer­ing sur­vival, craft­ing, build­ing, ex­plo­ration, pve and the op­tion for pvp com­bat as well. plus there’s a grow­ing mod­ding com­mu­nity be­hind the game too.

While Fall­out 76 is cer­tainly en­cour­ag­ing us to team up with friends, it can still be played as a solo fall­out ex­pe­ri­ence. Bethesda’s pete hines ap­par­ently plays it that way and the lone Wan­derer perk card even en­hances that way of play­ing.

the long Dark has grad­u­ally been build­ing it­self up since 2014, con­tin­u­ally adding new maps and con­tent along the way, in­clud­ing a more in­volved story mode and all sorts of new threats. as a more purist sur­vival game, death of­ten comes from sim­ple mis­takes or over­sights.Frost­punk is a great ex­am­ple of how the life and death ne­ces­si­ties of the mo­ment can greatly im­pact and throw off any longer term plan­ning you might have in a sur­vival game. get­ting from mo­ment to mo­ment will al­ways take prece­dence, even if it ends up cost­ing you your very ideals.

mod­ding com­mu­ni­ties on sur­vival games have helped to bring about some amaz­ing new ways of play­ing, not least the very cre­ation of the bat­tle royale style of shooter that found fer­tile ground in ti­tles like Dayz and h1z1. With mod­ding com­ing to Fall­out 76 it will be in­ter­est­ing to see how far that can be pushed.

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