Rust, H1Z1, and the emerging 'survival MMO' genre


I'm naked and alone again, but that's OK. After having to level up in other games a million times, deal with boring tutorials, repeatedly turn in quests that add no value to my play time, and then watch as my guild slowly bleeds members to the next MMO asking us to repeat the whole ordeal, "naked and alone" is actually nice. Well, maybe just the naked part.

And that, my friends, is the horror-survival/post-apocalypse genre. I love MMOs, but recent themeparks and building games have left me wanting something a bit more dangerous but still not a pointless murderfest. For the most part, these games are less about levels and quests and more about finding items to make sure you don't die. Hunger meters, diseases, and limited supplies in a world filled with enemies who loot you certainly feels like a good throwback to classic RPGs mixed with the multiplayer I've been craving since Asheron's Call first hooked me on MMORPGs.

But community-wise, these games have seemed more like lobby shooters than MMOs, which for a long time made me hesitate to try them. If you've been finding yourself in the same situation, hopefully my little plunge into this bloody genre will give you some ideas of what to expect.

As a sandbox and PvP fan, I've always been interested in horror-survival games that focus on persistent worlds, but I'm tired of the paid alphas that dominate this genre. Still, there are just few other options that appeal to MMOers. Most FFA PvP games (aside from games like Albion) still have levels or skills that increase or decrease your power, so even though you may lose your Staff of Awesomeness, you can easily murder newbies with starter gear. Even "hardcore" MMOs, like Wizardy Online with its attempt at permadeath, allow players to save stats and items so that player enemies can never touch them. As much as people may say the genre is already overdone, I think that in MMO terms the horror-survival theme has barely started. I don't expect it to become mainstream, but it seems to be a genre MMO gamers have heard of much more than they've experienced, which seemed truer than ever in the wake of H1Z1's recent reveal.

While I've kept up with DayZ and Nether myself, I suspect Rust is the survival game most deserving of my own time and money. DayZ may be the oldest and has some interesting ways to die, but living in that world isn't particularly enthralling, especially since the standalone version currently has fewer features than the mod. Buildings forts and machines really would be neat in addition to fighting zombies and being handcuffed and forced to eat disinfectant, but seeing as only the latter is in, well, you'll have to excuse me for wondering whether there was something more interesting to start with. And Nether is probably most MMO-like, but the technical and customer service problems were a hindrance to enjoyable gameplay.

I ultimately chose Rust to explore for this article because it's the most sandboxy and boasts some of the features most relevant for anyone considering H1Z1. It has a hunger meter; you need comfort and weapons to protect yourself; there's some light item customization; and there are areas to scavenge for quick access to desirable supplies. But most importantly, it has building. Any time you let players put up something that other players can use, blockade, or destroy, you're giving them license to really make it their world, and I really respect that sentiment. You just have to fight your fellow players to keep what you create!


Jumping into a survival game certainly takes some getting used to. Rust in particular feels old school. There's no long tutorial, just trial and error plus finding blogs about what to do next. It really does feel survivalish, especially because I could be killed and looted in my sleep (while logged out). Hunger, cold, comfort... they're all important! Using bullets feels like shooting gold, which was how I felt about using arrows and magic in AC. I know many people these days have forgotten what it was like to run out of "ammo" in an MMO, but it really added to the balance and immersion of combat. If someone is shooting at me, he either considers me a real threat, thinks I have something on me worth the bullets, or is rich (in which case, killing him will make me rich). In this way, I've found I can trust people with guns more than I can trust a fellow newbie.

Trust is a big deal in this genre. FFA PvP games often start off with your spawning and another player killing you with little to no reason or warning. Those who apologize and offer you gifts just want you to get closer so they don't waste shells shotgunning you in the face. Welcome to your new life! It's certainly hostile, and it's just so easy to switch servers and wreak havoc anonymously. I would hope that a game like H1Z1 will launch with fewer servers and large worlds rather than many servers with small worlds so that players have a chance to spread out, build something, and then risk losing something for their poor behavior. But though I'd love to believe that the behavior is better with a larger playerbase, in Rust, the players I've met seem far more interested in speed hacking up to me and stoning me to death than building community. Finding social groups even on recommended servers has proved impossible, even on weekends at prime time. In a genre that should be experimenting with social models, the high number of servers combined with low death penalty for new murderers sadly generates only a lesson in drudgery. Perhaps a bit more PvE -- stronger mobs, wandering hordes that will take up residence in player homes, or giant, town-smashing monsters -- would help. Perhaps if there were a third side that players feared more than each other, they'd have more reason to work together.

While I'm usually more of an explorer, crafter, and politician these days, I did enjoy some of the combat I experienced in Rust. I found the remains of a battle, including some nice guns I had never been able to craft before, so I figured I'd play with an assault rifle for the first time. I wasn't expecting so much recoil, nor how fast my ammo would be lost; 21 bullets wasn't 21 loads but literally 21 bullets, which was not nearly enough for me to handle the swarm of mutant bears I had provoked. Fortunately, my trusty bow helped me pick them off as I ran in circles and hoped I wouldn't starve or be discovered before my mistake was rectified and I was awarded with the literal blood of my ursine enemies and sweet, sweet loot (yay for canned tuna!). The variety of speeds, shooting arcs, and recoil made things interesting, even when mobs could be a little, well, basic in their AI. (A bear that hides behind a rock waiting for you to leave your house would seem silly).


But remember, the big games in this genre are still in alpha, and Rust in particular feels abandoned by admins. During one of my early adventures on the official servers, I was disconnected for some sort of "violation" while I had been running for my life for about 10 minutes. The disconnect was only for a few seconds, but it was enough to get me killed by someone with a rock after I had just learned (the hard way) that the hand cannon is a terrible gun. I couldn't find any way to report the problem in-game. As I looked on from the safety of my shack, a hacker just outright killed me. He wasn't nearby and didn't loot me, and I was unable to find a way to report hackers, either. What was more depressing was that when I mentioned it in chat, my fellow players acknowledged that said player was a hacker, but there was simply nothing that could be done except to ignore him and hope he'd get bored.

I did meet friendlies during my journey. After one of my houses had been assaulted and robbed, I had picked up my sleeping bag thinking it was time to move when I spied another player. I figured he'd kill me, but nope: He dropped some chocolate and a pickaxe and left me alone. Another time, while I was running away from a ganker to protect my precious logs, a fellow player asked on voice chat if I needed assistance and let me know the wolves that had been chasing me disappeared. Unfortunately, my human attacker was still in hot pursuit, shouting, "Stop running and just die!" I'm sure you can figure out what happened to me next.

Text chat seems useless in these games. There's isn't enough time to type out "hello" before someone shoots you in the face, and there's simply too little time for interaction with people before they attack. Maybe it's a result of the type of people who play in this genre, but I played Darkfall for about a year, and I rarely had issues with my killers; some would thank me for putting up a good fight or chase, or they'd leave me with an item or two. Some even befriended me. In Rust, on official and private servers, big and small, there's just no community trying to create some order in the chaos. Text chat won't save you, teaming up and using the public voice channels is suicide, and having teenage Russian hackers threaten you with death on voice chat while you dash and bash them in the dark is more creepy than fun.

The volatile nature of Rust's servers can be a problem as well since player-run servers can just disappear. I had learned some good recipes and built up a nice little stockpile on one server until one day it was just gone. I'm fine with losing my stuff, but recipes are one of the few "progression" saves your character gets. Still other servers are just broken. One bug will prevent you from building anything better than the starter shack, and you might not find that out until you've been working for an hour or so to gather supplies.

I know Rust is in alpha, as are all these other horror-survival MMOs, but their ideas are compelling. I don't see how people are already tired of the motif except by virtue of having been burned by unfinished products. My time in Rust was fun enough, but I know I need a game I can invest in, a game where living players have more value than a dead player and his sack of loot. I'd love for H1Z1 to be the first survival MMO with enough support to make us feel as if we're living in a post-apocalyptic world rather than just dying in one.

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