Building Survival Gameplay as an MMO Social System

One of the more surprising developments in my recent check-in with Crowfall was just how much the game’s starting experience feels like a survival title these days. Now that’s not to say that it doesn’t also feel like an MMO, but from the very beginning to the very end the influence of the burgeoning survival genre can be felt. You start with nothing and have to forage to craft your first items, and neglecting your hunger meter can severely impact your gameplay. Even knowing it would be there, just how prominently it’s featured still managed to take me by surprise.

When I mentioned Crowfall‘s survival affectations to a friend, their initial reaction was effectively, “what’s the point?” I don’t think that’s an unfair question. After all, in its current state, is there much more to the game’s “chicken meter” than added managerial tedium?

The contemporary survival genre is what I’d refer to as MMO-lite. You have a bunch of players together in a persistent virtual world, but the design of these games rarely ventures towards the scale and degree of interconnectedness that’s typical of a true MMO.

At least in its early alpha state, Crowfall‘s survival design doesn’t seem to be straying much beyond its roots in an MMO-lite genre. Admittedly, the game’s hunger mechanic doesn’t appear to be adding all that much in terms of meaningful gameplay in the game’s current build. It’s a fairly rudimentary system; as your character becomes increasingly hungry, their performance is penalized with rapidly increasing severity, losing their health regeneration, stamina bar regeneration, and eventually being effectively limited to 20% of their maximum health pool. It’s something you undeniably have to pay attention to, but the actual depth of maintaining your own survival has a lot of room to grow.

During a recent episode of the Dungeon Crawler Podcast dedicated specifically to Crowfall, I began to wonder. If this survival system were expanded beyond its roots in the MMO-lite survival genre to a system more befitting a full MMO, what could those mechanics potentially bring to the game? Hold onto your hats because things are about to get a little bit wonkish.



What Should Survival Bring to an MMO?

So how exactly should a survival mechanic differ in an MMO? What could be changed to make the system synergize better with the rest of the game? The best way to tackle this question is to look at what makes the survival and MMO genres distinct from one another in the first place.

Survival games are interesting in that while they’re often multiplayer games, they aren’t necessarily designed too heavily around group play. Grouping up will make it easier to do bigger and better things, but unless you’re into PvP, it’s not something that you really need to do. I honestly think this suits them well – there’s something romantic about the mythos of one man or woman against the wilderness, alone and with nothing but their will keeping them alive.

MMOs, however, are fundamentally designed around cooperation between players. There’s antagonism between them as well, but almost universally that antagonism is still taking place between cooperative groups and organizations of players. Pushing players together into persistent communities to accomplish something greater than they could separately is the core of the MMO experience, and I would expect an MMO’s survival system to play into that same dynamic.

I spent much of my check-in with Crowfall comparing its crafting system to Star Wars Galaxies, and I think that might be a fitting source to draw inspiration from to make a survival mechanic more social – particularly since so many SWG-development veterans are involved in the creation of Crowfall. No MMO in history has had stronger or more varied social loops than SWG. The game may not have had survival mechanics of its own, but it did have an interesting analogue that’s worth re-examining.


PTSD in Star Wars Galaxies

Star Wars Galaxies had a number of unique social loops, modelling long-term injuries and even, controversially, PTSD into their game systems.

Combat players who took significant damage would receive Wounds, a special type of permanent damage that could only be healed by players specializing as doctors.These players could generally be found hanging out in hospitals and working for tips. Doctors could also supply long-duration combat buffs, which were generally sought out before heading out into any combat situations, creating a social combat loop where adventurers generally began at a doctor for buffing and ended at one to recover from wounds.

On top of this, taking damage would result in an increase in a slowly building stat called Battle Fatigue, named for the WWII terminology which anteceded the modern concept of PTSD. In Star Wars Galaxies, built up Battle Fatigue would reduce resource regeneration and limit the speed at which your character could move. To remedy this, players would need to visit an Entertainer, which were characters specialized in playing music or dancing who tended to congregate in cantinas, purely because it made thematic sense.

Between Wounds and Battle Fatigue, players who didn’t keep on top of these systems would have debuffed maximum HP, reduced resource regeneration, and hindered mobility. Where have I heard all those penalties before? Oh yeah – they’re the same penalties you find in Crowfall‘s survival system.


Enforced Social Downtime

At this point, I imagine there are a few people wondering how this system is really all that different than the “managerial tedium” I was dismissive of just a few paragraphs earlier. I mean, it’s still busy work – what made it so much better in Star Wars Galaxies?

I’ve opined at length on this already in The Massive Identity Crisis, but the difference is that creating social loops in a survival system turns it from just a menial task that occupies players to a menial task that occupies groups of players – and that’s a big difference. It’s not just carrying around food and keeping track of a meter any more; it’s bringing players together, forcing them to rely on one another, and giving them the chance to form long lasting social bonds.

Raph Koster, Star Wars Galaxies veteran designer and current consultant with the Crowfall team, has written about this in the past. In his piece On Socialization and Convenience, he wrote of how pursuing this type of design philosophy, while important, can sometimes feel at odds with a development team’s other goals:

We want to reduce downtime. But people get to know people during downtime. That’s when they socialize. That’s when they make friends. In fact, I’d go so far as to state that it is a Law of Online World Design: Socialization Requires Downtime. The less downtime, the less social your game will be.

He expanded on this point in a subsequent piece, entitled Forcing Interaction:

In a nutshell, if the action is too fast and furious, people cannot take the time to converse. The faster the pace and the fewer the leisurely moments, the more likely that the socialization will reduce down to basic cues (shout-outs, expressions of fiero, “gg” remarks, disses, and so on). […] This led me to say that “socialization requires downtime” — which I didn’t mean as “put lots of tedious stuff in your game” but rather as “think about the quiet moments” or “don’t have a relentless furious pace.”

This appreciation for “the quiet moments” was a large part of Star Wars Galaxies‘ ability to foster the strong community it did. This is a phenomenon we’ve seen to a much lesser degree across a variety of MMORPGs over the years, particularly when you compare the communities of those games to genres like MOBAs or FPS where the oppressive, relentlessness of the game’s pace rarely leaves players with the opportunity to actually get to know one another in game. I can’t help but think back to all the friends I made in dungeons back in World of Warcraft, when every pull required the group to stop, plan, and mark their targets before proceeding. When dungeon gameplay devolved to the more frenetic, relentless race that we know today, the socialization stopped completely.

This type of design should be key in an MMO’s survival system, especially considering that survival systems are already inherently based around enforced downtime. That downtime shouldn’t just be spent chopping trees and hoping a few apples fall out – that would be a tremendous waste. Instead, make it an opportunity for players to come together, heal their wounds, and share their tales of war and glory in the game’s quiet moments.


The Dedicated Survivalist

So how exactly could Crowfall‘s bare bones survival system grow into something that encourages social growth? Let’s dive in.

For survival to flourish as a community building social feature, it is absolutely crucial that it requires hefty specialization in a manner similar to the game’s current crafting mechanics. If there are no opportunity costs associated with developing one’s own survival skills, there’s no reason that players won’t simply be able to take care of themselves, and if everyone can take care of themselves, survival will fail as a social system.

In Crowfall, this means requiring that survivalists dedicate a hefty portion of their account’s skill training to truly master their role. Perhaps even more importantly, survivalism should require a slotted discipline (essentially a subclass for which there are three available slots). This would make it function in the same way as crafting, where equipping the discipline would take the place of others that could potentially be combat focused instead.

Together, these requirements would prevent any one person from becoming an island, protecting the social benefits of the system from being undermined by individual specializations.


The Actual Mechanics of a Social Survival System

Now to be clear, I don’t necessarily think that ordinary players shouldn’t be able to replenish their survival bar on their own. There are going to be times where players are stuck out on their own, and I don’t think the answer is to have them running around, slowly, stuck at 20% of their usual HP pool. However, there should be significant benefits to visiting a dedicated survivalist whenever possible. So what would they be?

In order to bring people together, place needs to be important. To coin a term now, let’s refer to these areas as “shelter” zones. The obvious candidate for a shelter zone and the closest analogue to Star Wars Galaxies‘ entertainment system would be an inn, run by other players, in a player city out in the open world. This shouldn’t be the only type of shelter zone, but bear with me for now.

Players congregating in these shelter zones could be encouraged by buffing the efficacy of survivalists operating within them, or even as a requirement to access certain survival related utilities. This ensures that in towns, players will be able to intuitively locate survivalists operating in their vicinity in addition to providing a thematic backdrop in which those essential quiet moments can take place.

Which brings us to what they would actually do. In my perfect system, this profession could have three different specialization variants, which wouldn’t necessarily be mutually exclusive:

  • The Chef – Prepares food, creating items that restore much more of the hunger stat than dropped items.
  • The Bard – The entertainer, with a skill to play an instrument that can buff players and increase the efficiency of all hunger restoring items consumed within a shelter zone.
  • The Camper – The camper, who can set up shelter zones in the wilds if the materials are available.

With this type of varied design, you would have a system that brings socialization to the forefront of Crowfall‘s survival mechanisms, building on it to provide positive reinforcement through buffs instead of only penalizing players who fall behind in the upkeep of their “chicken-meter.” This system would thus provide critical access for in-the-field survival gameplay, so that groups who can’t make it to a safe town aren’t left out in the cold to die.


Surviving in the Wild

I think it goes without saying that there won’t always be a city available in Crowfall‘s dying worlds – much the less one that is actually friendly to you. Sometimes, your wayward adventuring group just has to make camp. This is where the camper could come in.

Crowfall actually already gives players the ability to craft a campfire. It’s a cool feature, though not one that seems particularly fleshed out at the moment. This could be expanded to fit a much more integrated role within my proposed survival framework.

Camping should, I would say, be notably less effective as a shelter zone than a fully fledged permanent structure. Beyond simply being temporary, I’d like to see a system wherein the buffs provided by the survivalists skills are lessened, with the survivalist recovering some of that performance as they approach a maximum skill in camp making (inns, on the other hand, should always afford 100% irrespective of skill as part of the incentive to drive players to them).

There are a lot of different ways the specifics of wilderness survival could be put together, but to me, there are really only two big points that it has to address. First, it has to exist to begin with; players need an option to survive outside of cities (obviouslyh). Second, it should be inferior in effectiveness to an actual city, which would drive players to congregate in cities when they can, further incentivize land ownership, and provide something of a home field advantage to players operating within their own sphere of influence.


Broadening Horizons

There are a number of ways a social survival system could be expanded to better integrate with Crowfall‘s other game systems. For an obvious example – where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and I’d venture it should work the other way around as well. Should a camp in the wild send up a smoke signal that would potentially allow enemies to track the group down? Could reducing or otherwise managing that smoke output be a part of a skilled survivalist’s toolkit? There are a lot of options.

The food itself has room for expansion as well. Should there be a way for a skilled survivalist (perhaps a chef or a bard, if going off of my specializations above) to allow players to over-feed, taking their “chicken meter” over 100%? Perhaps this would be one of the benefits of resting within the relative peace of an inn.

Everyone who’s played a survival game knows that of all the items that can be looted off a corpse, basic survival tools like food are almost always the first to go. Would a system where players expecting to die could poison their own food supply in a final act of retribution be worthwhile? Potentials for counterplay are always worth considering.


Final Thoughts on Building an MMO Survival System

Crowfall is still in its early alpha state, and we likely have a few years yet before the game exists in a form that’s really recognizable as the realized manifestation of the vision we saw during its Kickstarter phase. As I wrote earlier in my check-in, the game so far is coming along really well, even if many of its systems – like survival – are still somewhat rudimentary. That said, this is exactly what makes it the perfect time to chime in with large scale, formative ideas about the ways these systems could develop.

Bringing survival to the MMO genre may sound strange at first, but that’s only because we’ve never seen it done in a way that complements the genre’s strengths. If ArtCraft Entertainment consciously works to bring a community focused design with enforced, social downtime to survival gameplay, we could finally see a return to the best of what this genre is uniquely positioned to deliver: a game with a tight-knit, healthy community where players move beyond the exhausting cadence of non-stop combat to living in a true virtual world. A world that’s brutal as well as beautiful, where after the battle is won, players can come together and bond in Crowfall‘s quiet moments.

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About Ethan "Isarii" Macfie

A lover of social gaming and virtual worlds, Ethan hails from a land flowing with craft beer and free-range chickens - Portland, OR. Best known for his work at Tamriel Foundry and The Errant Penman, he continues his search for a new MMO home as the Hobo Gamer to this day. Find more of Ethan's writing on his blog at The Errant Penman and on Twitter at @ethanmacfie.