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Regression Towards the Mean

I’m sure that 7 Days to Die (7DTD) is a rather niche topic of interest to most people here, much less discussion about experimental Alpha builds of an Early Access titles, but I feel like the things going on with its development are applicable more generally.

When the first Alpha 16 (A16) experimental build arrived, it was transformative. Sleeper zombies seems like a minor change, but it fundamentally changed how you interacted with buildings. Prior to A16, you knew pretty much instantly how many zombies were inside a given structure, and once you killed all of them banging on the doors trying to get out, you were free to loot the place in peace. That is no longer the case – now you must actively sweep each room, and double-tap each body on the floor to ensure it stays where it is. There are still some bugs with these Sleepers suddenly spawning right behind you, but the overall effect is that nowhere is safe until you make it so.

Then came the balance changes.

First, since the Sleeper zombie system necessarily increases the amount of zombies one faces, zombie loot was decreased across the board. This makes sense, as if prior loot rates stayed the same, you might end up getting more loot from the zombies inside a building than the building itself.

In practice though, reducing zombie loot makes fighting zombies considerably less fun, especially on Horde nights. Zombies essentially become resource drains, to be avoided if possible. Which… maybe makes sense. Games like Dying Light featured that model, with zombies that functioned as speed bumps and possible death traps, nothing else. The problem is that Dying Light also featured impenetrable home bases, whereas even a few ignored zombies in 7DTD can bring down the strongest base in time.

Another change? Resource gains were reduced significantly. Up to this point, there was a “last hit” bonus drop of resources when you finally cut down a tree or smashed a boulder. Not only were the bonus resources great, but it was also viscerally satisfying getting that last burst of stuff concurrent with destroying the object you were mining. Apparently it made the early game too easy for the devs’ tastes however, so they got rid of it. Now when you fell a tree, you get the same 2-3 pieces of wood you got from whacking it the first 30 times.

More recently, the devs have also messed around with Stamina gains and losses. Stamina has always been a bit weird in 7DTD. There are a lot of Perks that correspond with Stamina gains – from making Sprinting cost less, to making Stamina recharge faster, and everything inbetween – but none of them really felt necessary. There was even Coffee and Beer items one could craft to recharge Stamina faster, but why bother? You could get into trouble being chased by a bear after cutting down a tree, but Stamina otherwise served the purpose of preventing you from Sprinting across the map 24/7.

Now? Iron/Steel tools will pretty much instantly drain all of your Stamina. Setting aside the more realistic concern of whether a steel shovel would make digging a hole easier than a stone shovel, the change seems rather ham-fisted. Yes, by making it virtually impossible to complete any tasks without Stamina Perks, the devs have made Stamina Perks relevant. But I’m not sure any thought was spared regarding whether Stamina Perks were a good idea to begin with.

Waiting around for Stamina to recharge is boring gameplay. It is literally no gameplay. Even if the idea is for the early game to be more “dangerous” or difficult, even if the goal is to tangibly demonstrate how improved your character gets over time, this is NOT the way to do it. Having Sleeper zombies haunt every house already shoots the difficulty of the early game through the roof. Reduced Wood gain has made crafting your own base impractical for the first few in-game weeks. Making early lucky finds like an Iron Pickaxe practically pointless until well after the point at which you could create one yourself? Mind-bogglingly stupid.

Experimental builds are experimental, and all this could be reverted tomorrow. Still, it remains concerning to me that the devs are placing such a high premium on “older” ideas rather than iterating on what actually feels fun about the game currently. Half a dozen Stamina Perks do not feel fun, nor does funneling skill points into them. They seem committed to keeping them simply because they had them already, in some weird Sunk Cost Fallacy manner.

Hopefully, things will change – if not soon, then by the beta.

7DTD: Alpha 16 Impressions

The experimental version of Alpha 16 for 7 Days to Die (7DTD) came out over the weekend, and I have sunk close to a dozen hours into it already. Much as I was hoping before, the changes have revitalized my interest in the game generally. However, some of the same changes exacerbate underlying design problems with character progression.

Character progression in 7DTD has never really been smooth. Starting from Stone tools, you eventually craft a bow, some arrows, and a wooden club for defense. From there, the next “tier” requires the creation of a Forge, which requires a Bellows, which requires Leather and a Short Iron Pipe. The Leather can be collected by skinning animals you kill or breaking down leather couches in buildings. The Short Iron Pipe though, is either found as random loot or crafted. In a Forge. That you are trying to build.

The game is actually riddled with these regressive, bootstrap requirements. The Workbench is a necessary structure to craft mid-to-late tier items, and requires a Wrench to be consumed in the construction. Meanwhile, the Wrench can only be constructed with Forged Steel, which is an endgame resource material that requires a high player level. Oh, and a Workbench. You need a Workbench to create a Wrench so you can craft a Workbench. But hey, sometimes you can find a Workbench out in the world, so you can dismantle it and place it back at your base… provided you have a Wrench.

[Fake Edit: Just kidding, Workbenches in the world can’t be dismantled anymore.]

These problems already existed in Alpha 15, but it’s kinda worse now. The devs introduced “Sleeper” zombies, which basically means they seeded every corner and basement of every building with zombies that can wake up while you’re trying to loot. This makes looting houses much more tense and exciting, for sure. However, they also reduced zombie loot without actually increasing it elsewhere. Ergo, you end up having to do more fighting with less rewards, while stuck with worse tools for longer.

Another example of regressive design? The devs reduced the amount of Wood gathered with Stone Axes, and eliminated the Last-Hit bonus (generally +20 Wood when a tree is finally felled). “Better tools result in better yields” makes sense, right? Sure, conceptually. The problem is that by the time you have a Forge up and running to craft an Iron Fireaxe, your need for Wood has considerably decreased. In fact, considering the rate that even a Stone Shovel gives you Small Stone and Clay, it’s actually easier to create a base out of Cobblestone than Wood.

Alpha is Alpha, of course. That said, I think there is a lot that the devs can do to bridge the progression gap and otherwise tighten up with the core gameplay loops. Some suggestions:

Introduce a Scrap Iron tier of weapons/tools.

The current progression path is Stone –> Forged Iron. That is quite the jump, especially with such considerable gaps in coverage in some areas. For example, your first knife is a Bone Shiv, and the next requires Forged Iron AND a Blueprint (Hunting Knife). You can craft Iron Arrowheads all day, no problem, but a sharp piece of a iron? Impossible.

I would also suggest making the Cooking Pot craftable with general Iron, rather than requiring a Forge. The Cooking Pot is just too integral to basic survival given that there are zero non-loot sources of fresh water in the game otherwise. Well, you can create Yucca Juice from harvesting cacti in a pinch, but you can’t cook/craft with that.

Perform a general sanity check on existing Blueprints

I am hoping that the current Blueprint system is a placeholder that eventually gets revisited, because it really makes zero sense sometimes. For example, the general progression of clubs is Wood Club, Iron Reinforced Club, and Spiked Club. You can craft the first two without Blueprints (although the Iron Reinforced Club requires a whopping 100 Iron), but the Spiked Club requires both Forged Iron and a specific Blueprint. For a piece of wood with spikes on it.

What makes the Spiked Club even more ridiculous is that you can craft Barbed Wire with simple Iron right from the beginning of the game. And Barbed Wire Fence for that matter. Barbed Wire + Wood is fine, but Barbed Wire wrapped around a piece of wood is way too complicated. Or using the Claw Hammer and some Nails on a piece of wood.

Reduce the Bootstrap Gating

I mean, I kinda get the thought process here. In crafting games like Terraria, Minecraft, and others, the limiting factor that gets you out the door of your base is resources: you need that Platinum/Diamond/Magic Ore/etc. Resources are needed in 7DTD too, but the overwhelming impetus to scavenge is the simple fact that you can’t just slowly work your way up the crafting tree. You need Short Iron Pipes to craft the Forge that makes Short Iron Pipes, and you need a Wrench to build a Workbench that can make Wrenches.

At the same time, the difference between finding a Wrench/Cooking Pot/etc on Day 1 and not finding anything for 7+ in-game days is enormous. Random loot is exciting, and there is absolutely still a place for that. But I think there should at least be the possibility of a bridge between Nothing and Everything. Perhaps a Crude Wrench, or Makeshift Cooking Pot. Make them have the chance for failure or ruined ingredients so that the Real Deal is still desirable, if no longer strictly required.

In any case, I still find the game to be quite entertaining, although I’m unlikely to derive the same 60+ hours of fun I did when everything was new. Which is likely good news to the people more interested in my potential thoughts on the upcoming FFXIV and Guild Wars 2 expansions.

Delayed vs Rushed

Remember when I said I was pining for an update to 7 Days to Die? It’s finally happening.

Hopefully.

It has been over eight months since 7 Days to Die has been updated to Alpha 15. Reaction to the Alpha 16 update announcement has been… mixed, but mainly due to that very length. (And streamers getting first dibs for no reason.) The game is still in Early Access, still in Alpha, still missing every single Roadmap and timeline the developers have offered. That said, there is fairly routine forum interaction from at least one employee, there have been multiple Alpha 16 videos, and so on. Development for this zombie apocalypse game hasn’t, ahem, died.

My thoughts on this are somewhat conflicted. Shigeru Miyamoto of Mario (et tal) fame once said:

A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.

Within the context of traditional videogames, he is 100% correct. If you released a cartridge game and it was rushed, then it was forever rushed. There were no patches back in those days, bizarre Sega shenanigans notwithstanding.

Sonic3

The current gaming climate is completely different. Games will frequently be released broken, as in totally nonfunctional (see: Fallout New Vegas), and even the better ones often have hefty Day 1 patches measured in gigabytes. Even for single-player games, the norm these day are several content patches over the “life” of the title, and not just DLC either. Just look at Mass Effect (both trilogy and Andromeda) and FF15.

Early Access muddies the water even more. When is a game actually “released” anymore? When it goes Gold? When it starts charging money?

Regardless, I think the fundamental concern these days is Mission Creep and the anxiety surrounding whether the developers actually get around to… well, perhaps not finishing the game, but at least not abandoning it midway. Some Early Access games are more playable than others, but sometimes the developers decide to go off on a design tangent that leads to a forever incomplete game. For example, in 7 Day to Die, the developers spent a considerable amount of time on Alpha 16 incorporating the ability to “paint” blocks. It’s texture paint, so perhaps that will make future Points of Interest creation/modding easier. And there’s electricity/auto-turrets now too. Meanwhile, the zombie AI is still pretty dumb, zombies can’t dig downwards so bunker-bases just win you the game, and so on.

The ideal is always going to be Polished and On-Time. If one must choose between Delayed and Rushed however, I find myself leaning towards Rushed more and more these days. Rushed means bugs, usually, or imbalance in mechanics. But at least it is something, something real and tangible and able to take the edge off that burning desire for novelty. Delayed means “possibly never” and is often just as imbalanced and in need of additional updates anyway.

Crafting Survival

It is not very common for me to succumb to a desire to play a particular genre over everything else, but I got hit by a “crafting survival” bug pretty hard on Memorial Day. I’m deep in Mass Effect: Andromeda, I’ve got FFXIV on my plate, and yet I wanted to collect things by punching them repeatedly something fierce.

The somewhat surprising problem is that I’ve already played most of them.

My go-to game in the the Crafting-Survival genre is 7 Days to Die. I could – and did – play that game all damn day, and it’s hard to really indicate why. I have more or less mastered the flow of the game, so technically I should be “done” with it. The extra issue is that the Alpha 16 patch should be out (Blizzard) Soon™ and it contains some pretty big feature sets, including auto-turrets and electricity and more traps and such. I’m worried that spending more time playing in Alpha 15 will result in me getting bored with the base game and thus miss out on all the new stuff.

Once 7 Days is off the table, I’m back to a weird state. Minecraft? That’s the quintessential hook for the genre, but I’ve long been done with the game. Terraria has had some updates since I last played, but no thanks. Starbound is done. I’m passing on Ark until they actually spend time optimizing their goddamn code. The Forest might be satisfying, but I’m not sure I want Survival-Crafting-Horror at the moment.

What else? The Long Dark was intriguing, but a bit too much on the “never be safe” side of survival. I have high praise for Subnautica and will definitely play again… once it gets out of Early Access. The vast majority of these games languish in Early Access for their entire duration, actually, which is only usually a problem when you get hooked on them. Don’t Starve was a fantastic game that graduated Early Access and even has two expansions. That said, I have spent considerable time playing it already and don’t have much of a drive to go back.

Okay… what’s left? I have zero interest in PvP-centric survival, which crosses off a lot of the more famous examples, like Rust or H1Z1. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds actually popped up under “Crafting” for some reason, but no thank you. Craft the World? Played. Empyrion: Galactic Survival was actually on sale a while ago, but I’m not paying $20 for it now. Same with Rimworld.

What I ended up purchasing was Dig or Die, sadly at full price (8 whole dollars). It is still in Early Access (of course), but the description basically paints it more as a Tower Defense Terraria: build a base with turrets and defenses to survive the night. Except with more fluid physics, e.g. water and lava. We’ll see how it goes.

7 More Days to Die

I technically wrote my last 7 Days to Die (7DTD) post last week. As of today’s post, I have more than 30 hours in the game.

Things were dicey there for a bit. As mentioned, I had a wooden house on stilts on top of a gas station. While I survived the 7th day zombie horde with ease – whose zombies automatically see you through walls – there was a night where some zombies made it to the roof and were mucking about, seemingly ineffectively.

7daystodie-Pillar.jpg

Cue foreshadowing.

When I tried to repair a bit of the damage they dealt, I noticed that 3-4 of my roof blocks kept falling down. As I was walking around on the remaining roof tiles trying to figure out why… the entire wooden structure collapsed. Which destroyed my forge and two wooden chests, instantly destroying all of the items inside. Apparently one of the stilts had been destroyed, destabilizing the structure.

It is the nature of these sort of games that such a setback is enough to justify starting a new map.

Although I wanted to give up right then, I decided to pack up what little I could salvage and then strike out into the world. If I was going to give up, I may as well poke around and get some additional experience with the game world, eh? After walking around for a while, I suddenly saw it:

7daystodie-Stadium.jpg

Home, sweet home.

Yep, a football stadium. Score.

Over the next in-game week or so, I holed up in a makeshift structure on the roof of the press box, making traps and speeding along the crafting path. I might have just stayed there permanently, but I had no source of Potassium Nitrate, which is a key component of Gunpowder. While I understand that this is good game design, e.g. not having all resources in the same biome, it was nevertheless extremely annoying. So, I packed up some supplies, and struck out into the world again.

In the course of my journey, I came across a burnt forest biome. While scavenging a destroyed house, I noticed a well. With a hatch. Hmm. Opened the hatch and descended down, only to see a bunch of wooden stake traps in front of a bunker door. I spent the waning hours of Day 21, e.g. horde day, tearing down that metal bunker door with increasing trepidation. I had no backup plan; it was either this or death.

When the door finally fell, I walked in and… yeah: Loot for days.

I created a makeshift barricade down near the bunker entrance, but it did not appear to be especially necessary. The zombie AI had little issue attacking me on top of the gas station or even the stadium, but they have significant issues with underground bases, apparently. Indeed, none of them even really got to the well itself. I have read on the forums that there will eventually be digging zombies or something, but it’s hard to imagine them being able to get through ~10 blocks of dirt and then the concrete bunker itself.

Ironically, this was another logical end point. All my resources were back at the stadium, but I had effectively found a zombie-proof base. It reminded me of the endgame of Civilization matches, where winning is a foregone conclusion and you are left with just the drudgery of going through the actual motions.

Nevertheless, I’m still playing. I ended up leaving the bunker and trekking to a snow biome to finally get some Nitrate. By the time I got back to the stadium, I sat through Day 28’s horde with relative ease. At the point I stopped, I had a mini-bike (7DTD’s only vehicle) all but completed, and was considering the logistics of moving all of stuff to the bunker, including fertilized dirt since the burnt forest biome is kinda depressing. But… nah.

Am I done with the game for now? Probably. Maybe. Who knows? Unlike many other #ForeverAlpha games, 7DTD’s forums have active developer commentary and updates scheduled. The next build, for example, is supposed to include electricity, wires, automated traps, and some base-destroying behemoth zombies for all your endgame needs.

The game is fun and compelling in a visceral way for me, but I’m definitely heading towards the tail-end of novelty and optimization. If I play some more, I’m abandoning the default seed (of which I downloaded a map; cheesy, I know) and heading to randomly generated worlds. I’m just worried that this game will go the same way as Minecraft: a fantastic sandbox that I play in Alpha/beta and then never go back to, even after they add all the good stuff by release.