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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.

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Survival Survival: The Forest

Short version: Survival Horror, with more of an emphasis on Survival.

forest_1

Really nailed down the forest bit.

Right from the start, I just have to say that the Forest is one of the most visually impressive games I have played, and it’s still in Alpha. Specifically, I played Alpha version 0.52

The game starts with you on an airplane with your son. The plane crashes on an island, you see a dude in red paint and loincloth take your son away, and… action. Loot some airplane food for sustenance, grab the emergency hand axe from the body of a flight attendant, and you are in the middle of the forest. Good luck.

While The Forest initially plays out like your standard Survival game, it diverges in interesting ways. For example, most Survival games limit the amount of items you can pick up either by weight, or fitting into grid, or something like that. In this game, you are limited by type. For example, you can only carry 8 sticks… but can also carry 8 rocks, 20+ arrows, a half dozen medicinal herbs, four melee weapons, a few bombs, a bunch of animal skins, and so on.

forest_rainbow

Sometimes you gotta stop and smell the storage containers.

The other interesting bit comes in the form of logs. Logs are the basic building component for pretty much any structure, but they are much too large to carry around in your inventory. So… you carry them on your shoulders, one at a time. You can craft a “Log Sled” pretty easily, which allows you to store and easily move up to 8 logs, but the physicality of it all adds an unexpectedly potent bit of immersion.

Also, dude must be ripped and/or a lumberjack.

The main hostile force in the game are the cannibals. While I have not spent a whole lot of time testing things, the cannibals are absolutely not the sort of mindless enemy that traditional Survival games utilize. Sometimes they rush at you and attack. Sometimes they rush forward and stop when you don’t make some move to retaliate or run away. Sometimes they just get on their knees and worship you a bit.

As time goes on – and as you destroy the forest around you building tree houses – the cannibals get more hostile. And that’s when you start building traps, walls, and stocking up on armor made of lizard skin and leaves. Or perhaps you chop the cannibal corpses into pieces, and construct a burning effigy to establish your dominance.

It was around hour 10 when I descended into a cannibal cave, confident I had enough supplies and arrows to face what was down there. That’s when I saw it, while I was dangling off the end of 50 feet of rope:

forest_nope1

Nope, nope, nope.

That’s enough Forest for me, for now. I’ll… yeah, I’ll wait for Beta. Or release.

Or the heat death of the universe.

Edit:

Since that last screenshot is too dark, here is what the creature looks like via an in-game photograph:

theforest_legs

…yeah…

Can’t quite tell if it is supposed to be two women fused together, or three. Probably three.

Survival Survival: 7 Days to Die

In short: zombie Minecraft.

7daystodie-GasBase2.jpg

Fortress of Mostly Solitude.

7 Days to Die (7DTD) is a fairly robust post-apocalyptic survival sandbox game that features deformable terrain, zombies, and the titular over-the-top weekly attempt on your life. I played version 15.1, and the game itself has been in alpha since December 2013. I just purchased it in the recent Steam Winter Sale for $10.

As with most survival games, you start out mostly naked with limited supplies. Run around, punch some trees, craft a Stone Axe that will be your primary tool for most of the game. The nice thing is that just about every single thing in the game world is able to be manipulated or destroyed. Craft a Stone Shovel early on and you can pretty much dig to bedrock. Or just dig a large moat around your future fortress. Then fill it with wooden spikes.

The zombies in this game are fairly standard walkers and runners, at least as far as I have seen. There is supposedly a “heat” system in place that determines whether the zombies will be attracted to your location, and the zombies themselves apparently can hear you (including the noise you make opening your inventory). Oh, and smell you too, if you happen to be carrying any meat. In practice, there will basically be zombies around at night no matter what you do.

7daystodie-GasBase.jpg

Further back shot of home.

Speaking of zombies, there is an interesting interaction with them and the game world. Everything is destructible, remember? That also means by zombies. While they can certainly try to break their way through windows and doors, there is nothing stopping them from literally banging their way through the walls either. Even elevated positions are not immune, as zombies with readily take their rage out at anything near your location, including any sort of support structures.

Oh, and have I mentioned that there are (rudimentary) physics in the game? Alpha is alpha, so there are some goofiness like floating candles and such, but buildings can absolutely come tumbling down if enough supports are destroyed. (Cue ominous foreshadowing.)

Mechanically, the game is… in an interesting place. The early game feels fantastic. Looting feels extremely rewarding, as you can get some rather extreme rewards from any random pile of garbage. Things get weird in the mid-game though, around the Iron stage of crafting. At that point you are going to need a standard, defensible base to craft a forge, and then start harvesting a ton of resources. If you haven’t looted some critical tools before the Forge though – such as a Cooking Pot – you almost might be better off resetting the game. You can craft such things, but it is so far along the “tech” tree that most of the benefit is moot.

7daystodie-glass

It’s always nice to have choices.

Speaking of tech trees, there is a rudimentary leveling system in the game, somewhat similar to Ark. Honestly, the implementation needs some considerable iteration, as it is not intuitive at all. There are some “big” skills that cost 10 points per rank, and grant you thinks like faster Stamina regeneration or bonus damage to blunt weapons. There are also skills that only cost 1 point each, such as Mining, which are naturally raised by performing the skill in-game, but can be purchased outright. Then there are other ones, such as Leather, which just straight-up grants you the ability to create leather. But there are also schematics in the game that are required before you can craft certain items.

Like I said, the Skill/Leveling system needs some work. It feels good seeing your crafting skills naturally improving, but you also run into the Oblivion problem of incentivizing, say, crafting a hundred wood clubs to power-level your way to the next unlock. It also irks me a bit that Iron and Steel take the same materials, with the latter just being kinda arbitrarily locked behind “Construction Tools X.” Some kind of progression system is good, but I’m not sure this one is the right one.

Overall though, I am both impressed and pleased with 7 Days to Die thus far. I put in around 10 hours in two days, and will probably be stopping here. On my second character, I built a sort of wood treehouse on the roof of a gas station, and survived the 7th Day horde attack with relative ease. As I started digging a moat around the perimeter in anticipation of the next one, it occurred to me that playing any further was likely to result in me extracting all of the fun out of the game before it is fully implemented/tweaked.

Alpha Impression: Sir, You Are Being Hunted

I have been spoiled by other games’ betas. That is clear to me now.

This part is okay.

This part is okay.

Sir, You Are Being Hunted is a game I mentioned being excited about back in May, then promptly forgot about. Recently, it was up on Steam Early Access at a discounted rate, and I decided to take the plunge. A few hours of gameplay later, and I feel thoroughly soaked.

The problem I have with the game is that it is basically a sandbox without any sand. When you start playing, you are introduced to the core gameplay – find pieces of the Device, plug them into Standing Stone – given some binoculars and food, and sent on your way. As a veteran of Don’t Starve, this opening felt perfectly fine. What became readily apparent however, is that the game utterly lacks interactivity in its present state. Alpha is alpha is alpha, yes. But when I rummage through three entire villages and am armed with 3 alarm clocks, one bear trap, and two empty bottles against robots with shotgun sniper rifles, things feel lame.

Now, of course, the name of the game is to be, well, hunted. But the present AI behavior reminds me of the delicate, high-wire act that all stealth games must perform. If you have enemies patrol in a set pattern, it turns stealth gameplay into a sort puzzle game with logical, measured moves. It might feel less “realistic” to have the guard always look to the left for three seconds when he walks to the balcony, but as a game mechanic it is grokkable and feels “right.” Alternatively, you could have enemies who basically follow no pattern whatsoever, looking randomly in any direction at any time. More realistic? Sure. More frustrating? Absolutely.

Right now, Sir basically has the worst of all possible stealth worlds. The world is procedurally-generated and I’m not really certain one of the procedures is to place the Device pieces near cover. I basically spent the last 40 minutes trying, futilely, to grab a Device piece in the middle of a field where two robots were “patrolling.” And by “patrolling,” I mean they walked in random, jerking movements in a 3-meter radius around said Device. Tenchu, Dishonored, and Deus Ex this ain’t; the only possible solution is dropping an alarm clock, crab-walking as far away from it as possible, and grabbing the Device and running.

Of course, the robots run as fast as you do, are armed with shotgun sniper rifles as mentioned previously, and the only way to lose them is to be crouched in foliage. Which they immediately begin to search, because that’s the name of the game. But considering how you can’t really sneak through the foliage at any appreciable speed, they will find you immediately and GG.

98% of your gameplay time is this.

98% of your gameplay time is this.

Alpha is alpha is alpha. But right now, Sir You Are Being Hunted is basically a crouching simulator and not much else.

The City of Steam Alpha Preview for the Rest of Us

If your own blogroll is remotely similar to mine, you have probably heard quite enough about that City of Steam game. The alpha test was wrapping up this past weekend so the devs started handing out codes to just anyone… which would explain how I got one. The beta test will not start for another ~3 months give or take, and there isn’t even a target release date, so the question undoubtedly on your mind – as was on mine every time I read about the game elsewhere – is simple: why should I care about City of Steam?

Well, do you have a few minutes? If so, watch this:

Feel free to expand that into 1080p full-screen, which is the resolution I played at.

In case you were not aware, City of Steam is a browser-based F2P indie MMO. And the above was from its alpha state.

With the exception of Glitch and Kingdom of Loathing, I tend to stay away from browser-based games for… well, no particular reason. I suppose I never thought of them being “for me,” where that is defined by nebulous double-standards like a willingness to pay for a discrete product as long as I don’t have to use a cash shop or spam my friends. Then there is the soft-spot in my cold, black heart for games with character progression deep enough to optimize the fun out it, as one might squeeze whey from cheese. Except, in this disgusting analogy, I eat the whey.

What were we talking about again? Ah, City of Steam.

I have read some descriptions comparing it to Diablo, but the gameplay is more akin to, well, a typical MMO. All the dungeons are instanced, there are some dungeons within dungeons (Dunception!), you can form traditional MMO parties of up to 5-people, guilds exist, the hub areas act as lobbies of sorts, there are daily and story quests, extensive crafting/modding system that alter actual weapon/armor appearance on your avatar, and… let’s stop here. It’s alpha.

While I had an indie MMO developer’s attention though, I just had to ask some (perhaps impertinent) questions:

Me: This is kind of a Bigger question, but… why browser based instead of stand-alone game? Was it easier to go with browser, or more accessible?
Me: I know I can’t be the first one amazed with the graphics. They are very, very well done and came at a complete surprise. Which is kind of why I ask.
Gabriel V. Laforge: It made it more accessible; we wanted to go on the idea that it’s a lightweight game that almost anyone can just jump on and play
GL: hence the short loading times and no massive client downloads
GL: Unity 3D and loads of our own in-house tools really helped optimize that, without sacrificing all that much in terms of graphics or content

Me: Have the more high-profile MMO news – like 38 Studios collapse, SWTOR going F2P, Funcom stock crashes – affected how you build or design the game? Has it complicated the seeking of outside investors (assuming you need any)?
GL: Yes and no…. the game started out as being something we just really wanted to do. Our lead designer, David Lindsay, wrote a series of Roleplaying books, (The New Epoch), upon which the game is based
GL: as for competitors, well, those are large downloads to play, so we don’t necessarily consider ourselves in the same league
GL: we have nowhere near the team or budget they do ;)
GL: as for investment, we have had funding from an investor who helped us get this far, so we’re set on that end
GL: from here, we still have to decide whether we’ll publish independently, or sign on with a publisher (we’ll only go with one who can share the same vision of making this game with integrity…. we REALLY don’t want to go with a pay-to-win model or any crap like that)

Me: A lot of us in the blog world are speculating on whether the MMO genre in general is contracting. Some have suggested that its widespread popularity was just a “fad.” Is that something you worry about as an indie developer? Or are you simply happy to be able to do a job you love? :P
GL: personally, I’m just happy making games
GL: as a company, we’re trying to present something different, and if it works, all the better
GL: if not, we gave it our best
GL: so far though, we’ve been having very positive feedback and reviews, so we’re optimistic

Me: Are there multiple instances of the hub world? If so, how many people can there generally be?
GL: Instances are private for now, for solo and groups of up to 5
GL: we plan to have publick instances for a lot more players later on (we were limited by the endgine before, but now we can make it)
Me: I mean The Refuge [ed: the first main area].
Me: I see a bunch of people running around, but I imagine there is some kind of cap, right?
GL: We havent’ reached (broken) it yet, and have gone up to 600 PCU so far
Me: haha
Me: I’m pretty sure that’s more than I’ve seen in WoW ;)
GL: Really…? Lucky us! :D

Me: I noticed the Mount slot… this is a vague question, but how big of a world will CoS be at launch?
GL: Pretty darn big; Nexus, the City of Steam, it a massive metropolis
GL: there will be enough places to explore to keep people very busy ;)
GL: right now, Alpha has about 150 difference levels
GL: at launch, we plan to have more like something in the upper hundreds, maybe a thousand or so, with more added with future updates
GL: might not be open world, but it will have plenty of flavour
Me: have you settled on a max level yet?
GL: 30 for Alpha, 40 for Beta, and from there, beyond :) (once higher level content is added)
Me: For my audience (such as it is), I have to ask: will there be a Looking-For-Group feature to facilitate grouping for the 5-player content?
GL: We plan to, given engine limitations on whether we can pull it off, but yes, is planned :)

Assuming you are still with me at this point, you might be wondering why I am devoting all this space to a browser-based indie MMO in its alpha state. The answer is quite simple: this may be the future of the genre.

Perhaps not City of Steam specifically, but here is an indie developer doing its best to craft an MMO on a shoestring budget in a world of AAA companies getting 38 Studio’d. And what is impressing me here is that the “nightmare scenarios” we tell ourselves in the blog world might not actually be that bleak. I no longer feel that it has to be $50+ million budgets or bust. Whether it is City of Steam or another indie offering, I am now convinced the possibility exists.