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?
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.