This week’s journal will be on the notorious topic of Survival mechanics! To understand the evolution of the survival mechanic, we’ll need to go back to the beginning, when we first started conceptualizing the game.
At the beginning of the project, we had a few specific ideas of what we wanted for our game. The first one was that we wanted the game to take place in a procedural city - people had created procedural games before, but very few in urban settings (most in forests, space, etc). . The second idea we wanted to look at was a dystopian society. However, we did not want it to be bleak - it had to be a fun and colorful one. So with these themes locked down, we started thinking about why and what would a player be doing in a procedural dystopian city, and what would this mean gameplay wise?
This led to the idea of urban survival. We chose survival mechanics for two reasons. First, thematically it was super interesting - survival should be easy in a city because in theory there is plenty of food, water and shelter to go around. What if there wasn’t? What if it wasn’t safe? Second, we needed some simple but well understood mechanics since we already had so much on our plate with the procedural city and the social stealth (conformity) - the beginning of a game project is a lot about understanding what challenges we should tackle and what we should choose not to iterate on (risk assessment). With all these ideas fitting into one another, the game started to take shape and we loved the idea of having to survive in a happy dystopian city.
At the beginning stages, we designed the game as a hardcore rogue-like survival game, meant to be replayed a lot with short playthroughs. We didn’t want a tutorial, and permadeath was mandatory - no saving! We wanted our players to learn by dying and doing better in the next playthrough. That went well with the harshness of our fictional world. We had a story in the form of cutscenes, and the player had to survive until encountering each of them, and we were pretty excited at the prospect of intertwining story and roguelike survival.
Between PAX East 2015 and Early Access, things were going pretty well. We were receiving positive feedback from our Kickstarter backers and making tweaks to the gameplay. One important piece of feedback that we implemented during this time was to remove permadeath - a mechanic that is fun when you have short games but can be extremely frustrating as your play sessions get longer and more involved. However, players were becoming more and more interested in the world and story we were building - and that meant their priorities about what they were doing in the game was changing. And then Early Access happened, and that feedback exploded.
Two of the most overwhelming comments we received from Early Access players were: “I don’t like survival mechanics” and “I like survival games, but I don’t like getting distracted from exploring a strange world and its strange people and rules by being punished for not finding enough apples or getting enough sleep”. It turns out that we’d done a good enough job in world building that the types of people who wanted to play our game had rapidly expanded and we needed to provide choice to players.
This is in some ways a good thing, because we couldn’t have done much to change the setting, but we certainly could work on the survival mechanics. There was also legitimate balance feedback - the survival mechanic rates were very intense at the beginning, and we really didn’t teach you much about the world. So you’d have a ton of players who were excited about a story, but then stuck in a punishing survival game. So, the first thing we did was tone them down and up the narrative experience. We spent the next couple of updates tweaking the mechanics, and then added a mode (birdwatcher) that would remove the survival mechanics completely, to test whether that would work. It turns out, it did - Birdwatcher was probably the most well received feature that we built during Early Access. However, this was just a first attempt - it still did not feel right.
When you give up permadeath and make survival mechanics optional, then a ton of content and lore didn’t make a lot of sense any more (and not in a good way). If your game is thematically about a city that’s hard to survive in, then the mechanics should reflect this. The big question for us was: how do we create a system that allows people to feel safe enough to explore the world and its characters, not get bogged down in “meter management”, but still think food, water and sleep is important?
After many many months of research, redesign and community feedback, we settled on a system that makes the survival elements affect how strong your character is, but won’t kill you. We have removed a meter that fills based on the “value” of the food or drink, and moved to a buff/debuff system. When fully fed, hydrated, and rested, the player receives buffs for stamina recovery and maximum, for example. When hunger, thirst and sleep deprivation are high, the player is penalized in the same way. In between those states you’ll operate about normally. This doesn't kill you outright, but it makes combat and running away more challenging when you’re debuffed, and gives you advantages when you need it. For those players who prefer to play without those penalties, the new easy mode allows you to remove the debuffs (meaning you’ll never be bothered by a red debuff icon). You can also customize which option you want, with custom difficulty settings. This feels like an approach that solves what we and you guys are looking for: a system that gives you control over what you’re doing, doesn’t interrupt story moments or exploration, has thematic importance, but still is an important part of gameplay.
The primary gameplay loops of: survey terrain -> control terrain -> loot terrain -> repeat remain, as does crafting. You do all the same things as in the early days, and it is still the majority of the gameplay. And, for the survival purists out there, the more traditional, survival aspects will be back in sandbox mode (which will be an update to the game post release).
The survival mechanics have probably been the most discussed and iterated on systems in the game - and that’s entirely due to community feedback. PAX, Kickstarter, Early Access and Game Preview were all essential to help make this game what it is, because it gave us ongoing feedback during the growth of the game. What started as a survival simulator punctuated with story moments in the form of cutscenes has evolved into a hybrid actiony-adventure story and survival game, with narrative woven intricately throughout every part of the game. Creating a flexible system that appeals both to players who enjoyed the survival mechanics with those who didn’t, while keeping these thematically consistent, was one of the toughest challenges of the project, and we hope you enjoy it on 1.0.
Thanks for tuning in!
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