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Impressions: No Man’s Sky

Before its release in August 2016, the hype train for No Man’s Sky was insane. Something like 17 trillion different planets in a vibrant galaxy full of procedurally-generated lifeforms. Do anything, go anywhere! Reality hit people hard, including me, even though I did not buy the game at release.

I did buy the game a week or so ago though, and I can say that after a year of actually substantive updates, No Man’s Sky is almost ready for its debut. Mostly.

The first hour or so of gameplay is not that great, and can be worse depending on the randomly generated planet you start on. The vast majority of planets have hostile weather that necessitates the constant recharging of suit protections, driving you to seek shelter in your ship or a cave or farming Zinc from plants. Your ship needs Plutonium to lift off the ground each time, and your Life Support systems can only be charged with Thamium9. And you have to juggle all of these competing element requirements with a micro-inventory that gets worse before it gets better.

That’s really the summary for the game: No Man’s Sky gets worse before it gets better. Mostly.

After getting a few upgrades here and there, especially getting a better ship, the game opens up tremendously. You still need all the survival elements, but you have the space and cash to stockpile a few stacks. Then there is the forward momentum that comes from the primary quests, assuming you did not choose to free-roam. Things progress quite nicely, especially after unlocking your base and assorted goodies like Exocraft, e.g. vehicles.

Here’s the thing though: the core gameplay loop is incredibly tiny. On each non-lifeless planet, there will always be the following: Life Pods, Habitable Buildings, Trade Posts, Crashed Ships, Monoliths. All of them will look the same, although there are a few different types. All of them will be randomly scattered around, but the scattering itself will be very uniform across the entire surface of the world. By all measures you can actually fully upgrade your Exosuit before leaving the original planet you spawned on (assuming you somehow got the cash).

Planets are literally the size of real planets, but everything you could really ever need on any individual one of them will exist within 10km of wherever you land. Each star system has a Space Station, and each Space Station is set up exactly the same way. You can accept “missions” from an NPC there, and these missions are essentially Radiant Quests ala Skyrim. Kill X number of Y, collect Z resource, kill some space pirates, deliver this item, etc. As you increase your reputation, more lucrative quests unlock, which feature harder to find Z resources, or tougher pirates.

Some of the gameplay elements remain half-baked. Early on, you will find many rocks that contain Deuterium, which you are unable to mine. After unlocking Exocraft, e.g. vehicles, you can finally mine them. I was pretty excited… up until the moment I realized Deuterium is only used for Exocraft upgrades. Once you install the ones you want, the element has no purpose anywhere else in the game. The same applies to another element that comes from “raiding” (read: blowing up) protected silos. Why would you ever mine Deuterium or raid the other element again? It not being used for anything other than the thing it was needed for seems comically short-sighted.

It’s not obvious at first, but No Man’s Sky is more of a game about economics than anything else. Each plant or creature you scan gives you Units. Some elements exist only to be mined and sold as vendor trash. Completing missions gives you Units, and unlock better missions that grant more Units. Some of the base-building requires specific elements, but for the most part its Iron which is everywhere. Pretty much the biggest reason to have a base at all is so your can start a Farm, which lets you “grow” special elements. That you then turn into unusable-but-very-sellable items. So you can eventually buy a Freighter for 186 million Units… to have more inventory space. For Units.

I’m at over 50 hours at this point, and I have no idea why I still find this fun, but I do.

The key, I think, is to temper your expectations. This is not Minecraft in space. This is not 3D Starbound/Terraria. I’m not even sure if it’s all that good for Explorers, given that procedurally-generated terrain/plants/creatures generally all look the same after a while. That said, I do find the Primary quests to be interesting, and I very much enjoy the ability to just fly around and do whatever. Want to stop what you’re doing and warp to a different star system? You can. Want to just make a bee-line to the center of the galaxy? Go do that. Want to make the perfect farm so you can mass-produce Circuit Boards and sell them for 1 million Units apiece? Yeah, I’m on it.

No Man’s Sky has gotten a lot of updates since release, and it seems as though more might still be on the way. I ended up buying my copy for $20, and at that price I feel like I got my money’s worth already. In a few months, it might even be cheaper with more content and better gameplay loops. We’ll have to see.

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Survival Equilibrium

I may have mentioned it before, but I really enjoy Survival games. For the most part.

I am currently playing The Flame in the Flood, which is a Survival roguelike, and not at all a catchy Vance Joy song. The experience was immensely frustrating for my first run, as I felt like I never had enough of any supplies, and was about to uninstall and set the category as Finished in Steam. The second run, which I have been playing for the last five hours or so, has reached that point beyond which eventual victory is all but assured. Nevertheless, I hit up every single location I can, hoarding ever-greater numbers of probably unnecessary supplies for some kind of nightmare scenario. Which kinda makes sense in the vague, post-apocalypse setting.

Hitting that equilibrium moment in Survival games though is bittersweet. It’s like the middle of every Civilization game I have ever played – the game part is over, and now you must go through the motions towards inevitable victory. Ideally, you would want the challenge of the game to match up with the game’s end, and not midway. Some games like 7 Days to Die will try extending the challenge with escalating enemies, but there comes a moment when the escalation outstrips the whole Survival aspect and the underlying game becomes something different entirely, e.g. a shooter.

Then there is the opposite problem, in which the game’s challenge doesn’t ever really end, and part of the reason I added the “for the most part” caveat. I have not played it since its release from Early Access, but I never felt good in The Long Dark. There never seemed to be enough food, or fuel, or supplies. You were always on the precipice. And that’s the goal, right? The precipice is where all the fun is had. But while the surviving part is fun, I feel like there’s an invisible Anxiety Meter that fills up for me, and once it tops off the fun drops to zero.

Plus, sometimes Survival games are bullshit. I frequently found dead bodies in The Long Dark, searched them for candy bars, but could not, you know, take their clothing. I get it, things are simplified and balanced accordingly. Still, it gets a bit annoying when you come across dozens of boarded-up buildings in The Flame in the Flood, but “Old Lumber” is a relatively scarce resource you have to specifically loot from places. Or that Flint is a consumable resource for making a Campfire. Or that nothing could be salvaged from a sprung trap you just made.

Makes me wonder though. Would a more “realistic” Survival game be any fun? Seems like the more realistic it is, the less the game could actually be about Survival. At least, unless you set it out in the straight wilderness. Which kinda brings you back to The Long Dark.

Advanced Ark Guide

A lot of the fun of survival games is learning from your early pain and suffering, figuring out how everything works, then coming back and steamrolling those same challenges. If you are just looking for some early-game direction, I recommend reading the Spoiler-Free Beginner’s Guide. It gives you a leg up, but not the whole body.

The rest of this guide? The whole damn body. Read at your own risk of adventure.

 

General Base Considerations

First things first: build two beds. You can stick two practically on top of each other, while still fitting in a 1×1 Thatch hut. Beds have a ~5 minute respawn cooldown, but it’s per bed, so having two will effectively remove the cooldown. This is a good idea whether you’re at an outpost or your main base.

Second… go ahead and double or triple up on everything, wherever you are. A stack of 200 Metal Ore takes over 30 minutes to smelt in one Refining Forge. Split that stack across two Forges, and now it only takes 15 minutes. Chances are good if you managed to collect a whole stack of Metal Ore, the extra 125 Stone and 65 Hide for Forge materials are not going to be a limiting factor here.

Ark_Campfires

Resources are cheap, time is not.

Similarly, if you’ve unlocked the Preserving Bin and have a dino capable of harvesting a bunch of meat, go ahead and throw down 3-4 Campfires at a time and light them all up. Stacks of Cooked Meat are always going to be useful, either as general walking-around food or Cooking Pot materials, and the collected Charcoal will useful for Gunpowder.

Third, take a moment to reflect on your base layout and location. How far are you from water? Are there strategic resources nearby? Is this area defensible? There is nothing particularly stopping you from recreating a primary base elsewhere… other than the logistics of either moving all your old stuff and/or tamed dinos. Better to get it right the first time though.

As far as layout goes, there are some obvious-in-retrospect ways of arranging things. For example, you are going to want most of your crafting stations and containers within reaching distance of each other without moving – this will allow you to move hundreds of pounds of resources between containers, e.g. double your max carrying capacity. Likewise, you will want there to be room for you to do the same thing when removing items from tamed dinos to your containers.

This was my base setup originally:

Ark_BadLayout

Not like this.

While everything was within reach, I actually had to hop over my Smithy to get out of the circle, and I was constantly running out of room for stuff. After watching some Youtube videos of other setups though, I realized that yeah, you can arrange your Large Storage Containers like this instead:

Ark_BetterLayout

Doubles as a good OCD test.

Four times the storage and more room to move around. I removed the Refining Forge entirely, because my main base is nowhere near natural Metal deposits, and it’s much more efficient smelting on-site, and either bringing back the Metal Ingots or finished products.

Base Locations

Speaking of that, where should you be building a base? The answer is: wherever you want.

But, really, here are some other considerations:

Ark_Map

Consideration 1: Metal Nodes

The above map displays Metal Nodes around The Island map, along with the Obelisks. No matter what you plan on doing in Ark, you will need Metal eventually, for weapons, ammo, structures, tools, or even just saddles. It’s not impossible to build your main base over near, say, the Red Obelisk, but you will be performing some serious long-distance trucking to get those ingots.

Another consideration? Check where beacons come down. That’s right, there are specific, set locations where beacons spawn on the regular. Most of them will be filled with garbage, especially if you build up in the southern areas of the Island. But, hey, free is free. If it’s all the same to you, I’d suggest going over to that next ridge where they spawn before setting down roots.

Finally, consider where some more esoteric resources might be available. Giant Beaver Dams, for example, are great sources of Cementing Paste and Wood. While the specific spawn locations are not fixed, there are some rough guides. Giant Bee Hives can spawn pretty much anywhere, and can technically be moved, but if you manage to find one near a potential base location, that area should be considered prime real estate. Oh, and if you’ll be needing Sap, maybe choose something closer to the Redwood Forest area.

 

Countering Dinos

When you are just starting out, just about everything is scary and can kill you. Once you figure out “the trick” for specific tiers of dinos though, they start becoming speed bumps instead of brick walls. Less scary, but can still kill you if you’re sloppy.

Here are the tiers:

Slingshot: This tier encompasses any dino encounter that can be defeated by simply backpedaling at normal speed. This includes any passive creature like the Dodo, but also more dangerous ones (once provoked) like the Trike and Turtle (Carbonemys), provided they could catch you. Which they shouldn’t be able to.

Spear: The simple spear provides enough knockback to keep the target at bay until death. Quintessential example being the Dilo (Dilophosaurus), aka the spitting one. Insects and most fish belong to this group too. Troodan, notably, do not, since they can leap back at you.

Bola: Too fast or large to be affected by the spear’s knockback, but small enough to be rooted by a Bola. Most common contender in this tier is the Raptor. While the Bola can trivialize encounters with these dinos, keep in mind that it takes a few seconds to wind up the throw, and most of these dinos are especially dangerous if they get the jump on you on the ground.

Platform: Encompassing the rest of Ark’s carnivores unaffected by the Bola, you will likely need to be on a platform (e.g. cliff face, rock, structure) in order to safely take it out. Alternatively, sometimes a platform can be substituted with a Wooden Spike Wall instead. This works well with creatures like the otherwise deadly Therizinosaur, who will happily attack the 3500 HP wall while you re-feather its head with arrows.

All of the above assumes you are trying to take down a dino unassisted, using common weapons around the level of the beast you are encountering. Facing down a Carno on foot with nothing but a Crossbow is scary. Doing so while wielding a Pump-Action Shotgun and 400+ HP with armor? Much less so. Hell, add two Trikes to your bodyguard detail and you can take out a large chunk of the food chain using just a Spear yourself.

Taming Dinos and Utility

It always bear repeating: Ark is a dinosaur taming game. What balance exists in the game is dependent upon it; a lone survivor isn’t one for long. Here is some early-game progression:

  • Unlock the Slingshot at level 5. Go tame a few Dilos.
  • Unlock the Wooden Club at level 8 and Bola at level 9. Tame some Raptors.
  • Farm Hides for a while, using your Bow (level 10) and/or dino buddies.
  • Unlock the Trike Saddle at level 16, craft it, and go tame a Triceratops.
  • Unlock Mortar and Pestle (level 6) if you haven’t already, and use the Trike to collect hundreds of nacroberries in less than a minute so you can turn them into Narcotics.
  • Tame another Trike, and leave both parked in your base for protection.
  • Unlock Tranquilizer Arrows at level 21. Enjoy your ability to tame damn near anything.

Along with their normal characteristics, many dinos have “secret” talents that elevate their value far beyond normal. For the most part, you will need to have a saddle created for the dino in order to take advantage of their skills, but sometimes you do not. Here is a non-exhaustive list, based on the level at which you can craft a saddle for them:

  • (Lvl 6) Phiomia: Force-feeding Stimberries will create Medium Feces on demand.
  • (Lvl 16) Trike: Excellent tank/base defense, gathers 100s of berries at a time.
  • (Lvl 18) Raptor: Best early-game mount, and protector while exploring.
  • (Lvl 20) Equus: e.g. wild horse, has reduced Stone weight and is fast. Saddle acts as Mortar & Pestle.
  • (Lvl 30) Iguanodon: Infinite Sprint on four legs, high jumping on two. Can turn plant into seeds.
  • (Lvl 31) Mammoth: Wood gathering machine, and makes Wood weigh 75% less.
  • (Lvl 34) Doedicurus: Stone gathering machine, and makes Stone weigh 75% less.
  • (Lvl 36) Ankylo: Metal gathering machine, and makes Metal weigh 75% less.
  • (Lvl 37) Sabertooth: Efficient at gathering Hides, Chitin, and Keratin. Decent speed.
  • (Lvl 38) Pteranodon: First flying mount. Pretty speedy too. Can grab tiny dinos.
  • (Lvl 40) Beelzebufo: e.g. giant toad, huge jumps, turns insects into Cementing Paste, fast in water.
  • (Lvl 43) Pelagornis: Flyer that can land on water. Harvests fish easily. Fishing Pole from saddle.
  • (Lvl 61) Castoroides: e.g. giant beaver, Wood gathering machine, gathering Wood automatically while Wandering. Wood, Stone, Thatch, and Fiber weigh 50% less. Fast swimmer. Saddle is mobile Smithy.
  • (Lvl 62) Argentavis: Fantastic flyer with lots of Stamina and Carry Weight. Can pick up most medium-sized dinos, including Raptors, Titanboas, etc. Best everyday flying mount.
  • (Lvl 69) Therizinosaur: Insanely versatile, bordering on OP. High health, high DPS. Left-click harvests Meat and Wood incredibly fast. Right-click harvests 100s of Fiber from bushes. C attack harvests Hide and Chitin from corpses, Berries from bushes. Each level-up also allows greater specialization in harvesting types (Delicate vs Power) via Interact Menu.

As you might expect, higher levels give you access to better options. Do note however, that your ability to actually find and/or tame these dinos are not assured at the level you could. For example, while you unlock the saddle at level 34, the Doedicurus curls up into a defensive ball after losing health, which makes knocking them out difficult without having Tranq Darts (unlocked at level 62). One of the few ways around that is to use a Beelzebufo’s attack, which adds Torpor while dealing little damage. But even then, the Beelzebufo saddle is only unlocked six levels after the other one.

Then there is the matter of finding these dinos. The Mammoth and Equus are relatively low level tames, but they are not commonly found in the South, which is where you might be spawning as a newer player. So, if you want to be taming creatures when you unlock their saddle, you might have to, ahem, hoof it yourself and find them.

Cooking Like a Pro

There are two types of recipes: Standard and Custom. It’s a good idea to utilize both.

Standard Recipes

All recipes below require there to be water in the cookpot, in form of a filled waterskin.

  • Enduro Stew (+melee, +healing): Mejo (10), Carrot (5), Potato (5), Stimulant (2), Cooked Meat (9)
  • Focal Chili (+crafting, +movement): Mejo (10), Yellow/Blue/Red (20), Lemon (5), Cooked Meat (9)
  • Lazarus Chowder (+underwater): Mejo (10), Corn (5), Potato (5), Narcotic (2), Cooked Meat (9)
  • Calien Soup (+hot area): Mejo (10), Yellow/Red (20), Lemon (5), Stimulant (2)
  • Fria Curry (+cold area): Mejo (10), Blue (20), Corn (5), Carrot (5), Narcotic (2)
  • Medical Brew (+40 HP): Red (20), Narcotic (2)
  • Sweet Vegetable Cake (special): Fiber (25), Corn (2), Carrot (2), Potato (2), Stimulant (4), Sap (4), Giant Bee Honey (2)

As you might expect, the feasibility of having a ready stock of most of these items is dependent on having a robust Greenhouse situation and/or playing on a server with Crop Growth cranked up. Medical Brew is the exception, needing only some Narcotics and 20 Tintoberries, both of which can be harvested enmass by a Trike or other herbivore. The catch is the 2 hour spoilage timer, although it lasts longer when refrigerated.

Custom Recipes

While custom recipes might sound both cool and complicated, it is really neither. The steps are:

  1. Craft a blank Note.
  2. Place Note and ingredients in Cooking Pot.
  3. Click Make Recipe
  4. Ensure Recipe note is in Cooking Pot with ingredients, then start fire.

The final output is an item with a percentage of the effects of the individual ingredients. What percentage that ends up being is based on your Crafting Speed stat at Step 3 only. A full optimization would require a level-capped player to consume a Mindwipe Tonic, place all of their upgrades in Crafting Speed, consume a Focal Chili, and then pen some recipes before using another Mindwipe Tonic to get their stats back. Thereafter, whoever uses that recipe will get the full benefits no matter their Crafting Speed. Because that makes sense.

For the rest of us, the “hidden” benefits of custom recipes (with the help of Focal Chili) still makes things worthwhile. For example, a custom recipe for 20 Raw Meat creates an item that grants 43 Food and 32 HP. That may seem pitiful considering a single piece of Cooked Meat restores 20 Food and 8 HP. The upside is that the custom recipe doesn’t need to be cooked, weighs 0.3 pounds, and lasts for 48 hours in your inventory, rather than 20 minutes.

So, really, custom recipes are mainly about saving space and avoiding spoilage. Did your Mammoth get bogged down with hundreds of pounds of berries when it was harvesting lumber? A 10 lb stack of Tintoberries can get refined down to a 1.1 lb paste that grants you 53 Food and 15 HP.

Bonus tip: Stimberries and Stimulants are great for giving a Stamina boost at the expense of thirst. Cut out the downside by creating a custom food (as opposed to drink) recipe of, say, 50 Stimberries. That’ll give you 27 Food, 8 HP, and ~89 Stamina back without the thirst. Just note that these gains are capped at basically 1/second, but it should still aid in your sprint out of danger.

Harvesting Specialty Resources

Beyond the basic building resources like Stone and Wood, there exists a lot of specialty resources to craft more advanced items. Gathering these special resources is sometimes a pain, depending on the method. Here are some of the best.

Cementing Paste

The default method of creating Cementing Paste is x4 Chitin/Kreatin + x8 Stone. This is incredibly inefficient though, as it would require 200 Chitin/400 Stone for an Assault Rifle, or even 2400 Chitin/4800 Stone for a Wooden Tree Platform.

The best and easiest source are wild Beaver Dams. These are built by Castoroides, and are located on land or in the water. While accessing the inventory of a Beaver Dam will cause all nearby Castoroides to go hostile, each one usually contains 150+ Cementing Paste. Since items do not respawn inside containers, it’s best to loot (and drop) the rest, so that the Beaver Dam collapses and another one can spawn later.

Ark_BeaverDam

Basically, any water feature not the ocean or swamp.

The second best source is from the Beelzebufo mount. Using Right-Click against insects will result in 5-15 Cementing Paste apiece, along with some Chitin. The biggest challenge is finding a stable enough insect population. The good news is that the mount is adept at navigating the same areas where Beaver Dams spawn, so one can double-dip in farming.

Third, there is a “passive” form of collection: from tamed Achatina, e.g. giant snail. These creatures will slowly accumulate both Achatina Paste (same properties as Cementing Paste) and Organic Polymer up to 100 apiece in their inventories. The catch is that Achatinas only eat Sweet Vegetable Cake, which requires both Sap and Giant Bee Honey, which are themselves specialty resources.

(Organic) Polymer

The default method of Polymer production is x2 Cementing Paste + x2 Obsidian. This isn’t too terrible by itself, although it requires the construction of a Fabricator, which uses Gasoline as its fuel. Organic Polymer can be substituted for Polymer in all situations, and the Ghillie Suit actually requires Organic Polymer specifically in its construction.

Note: You will want a Wooden Club or Metal Sword for harvesting Organic Polymer. A tamed Pelagornis will also work effectively. Hatchets or Picks will give you none.

The best and easiest farming target are Kairuku, aka penguins. Each iceberg in the NW corner of the Island has a dozen or so, and they react basically like the Dodo when attacked or threatened. Tragically, the babies have the most Organic Polymer, so club them first.

Ark_Duck

They are basically… ahem, sitting ducks.

If you are far from the North, the alternative source will be from Hesperornis, aka duck-like birds. You can typically find them swimming around shorelines and rivers hunting for fish. While they have zero offensive capabilities, note that that they frequently exist in otherwise dangerous areas. Keep an eye out for Sarcos, Spinos, and other river terrors.

Considering that Organic Polymer spoils extremely quickly (~30 minutes) and is unaffected by most preservation techniques, be sure and have the other materials/blueprints ready to go for when you collect this resource. The last thing you want to happen is collecting a bunch and then scrambling to find the other materials.

Obsidian

Black rocks on mountains. Go mine them.

Oil

There are several different sources of Oil in Ark, with different levels of ease of acquirement.

The first would be the Oil Rocks up in the NW corner of the Island, and scattered about in other snowy regions. While the environment is hostile, mining them is almost as easy as clubbing seals for Organic Polymer. The tricky part is actually traveling all the way up there, so be sure to stock up via boat or wagon train once you’ve made the effort.

Second would be the Oil nodes located in many places in the ocean. These are usually closer to home, but often require long dives in hostile waters. Cook some Lazarus Chowder and bring a dino that can breathe underwater. Underwater caves are another source, but chances are that you won’t be needing this guide if you are advanced enough to be plumbing those depths.

Third, is from killing/harvesting Trilobites and Leeches. You actually get a respectable amount of Oil from each kill, but the trouble is actually finding a suitable amount of targets. In that regard, be sure and stop what you are doing and kill them if you happen to spot any, no matter what else you might have been doing.

Finally, there is a quasi-passive source: Dung Beatles. These animals have to be tamed and brought out of the caves they inhabit, then be fed a constant source of Feces (tame a Phiomia) before it is turned into Fertilizer and a bit of Oil. While it ain’t nothing, Medium Animal Feces is turned into x2 Fertilizer and x4 Oil after 15 minutes. This might be enough Oil to keep the lights on (via Gasoline), but not for those endgame Industrial stations that need 400+ to craft.

Sap/Giant Bee Honey

These are combined because the only real reason you might need either is for Sweet Vegetable Cake, so they go hand-in-hand.

For Sap, there is no reasonable way to avoid crafting at least one Tree Sap Tap. Then you have to specifically place them high up in a Redwood Tree. Being able to collect the Sap will require either a Wooden Tree Platform (600 Cementing Paste!) or constructing your own janky scaffolding out of Wooden Pole and ladders. Once that’s done, visit it periodically to collect your 20 Sap.

Giant Bee Honey can be harvested from Giant Bee Hives, tamed or wild. The taming process to set up your own Hives in convenient locations is quite difficult, and requires a lot of prep work – Bug Repellent, Ghillie Suit, hand-feeding Rare Flowers to the Queen Bee, etc. If you don’t need a constant source of Sweet Vegetable Cake, it might be better to just note the locations of wild hives and swipe their honey when needed; a Ghillie Suit and fast escape mount are recommended.

Final Thoughts

Ark is a fascinating sandbox experience, even when just played in Single-Player. No matter how powerful you end up feeling, the game world is ready to remind you to take it seriously or suffer the sometimes absurd consequences. While even a low-level Argentavis mount can effectively (albeit slowly) murder the meanest Alpha predators with impunity, all it takes is one Microraptor sailing out of trees to knock you off your mount into a pool of Megapiranha before you realize how dangerous the world still is.

Hopefully the above guide is enough to give you the edge necessary to survive out there. Or at least live that much longer.

Arked

Maybe there was some fanfare somewhere, but it came as a complete shock to me that Ark came out of Early Access this past week. As in, it’s fully released. It even has a Big Boy Pants price going on:

Ark_Price.JPG

Glad I picked it up for $12 a year and a half ago.

Deleted my prior saved game and started fresh on a “Single Player” server. The results were… rough.

The early-game in Ark is essentially broken as shit. I spawned in the “Easy 3” section of the default Island, which puts me on a beach. The first few minutes is the traditional Minecraft experience of punching trees to create tools. As you gain levels, you can spend Engram Points to purchase schematics according to your level, which kinda allows you to differentiate yourself between a builder or scavenger or whatever. Which is fine, but particularly sucks in single-player considering that I’m level 10 but still can’t build a Thatch house (since I went for weapons).

The real problem though is the absurd difficulty spikes. The beach where I spawned has a cliff face blocking access to the interior of the Island, and the water is filled with massive sharks. No matter which direction you travel down the beach, there are extremely aggressive raptors essentially trapping you in a corridor of death. You can respawn after being eaten, but whatever items you were carrying will have been dropped, and the dinosaur responsible will still be by your corpse.

Ark_SpawnCamp

Carno corpse camp.

Oh, and your items despawn after 15 minutes.

In other words, in the early game, consider your former items to be permanently lost. Which wouldn’t be too bad if not for the fact that getting back to some baseline of combat readiness requires you to punch trees, craft a Pick, mine some stone, create a Hatchet, gather some wood, then make some Spears. Oh, and hold E down when near about two dozen bushes so you can craft some clothes. All so you can maybe engage some raptors that you cannot outrun and will likely kill you. So you can do the whole thing over again. And by the way, you can actually spawn into the game right next to a raptor or T-Rex and start getting eaten before you even have full control of your character.

If you make it past this early game though, you can craft a house and a bed that will let you respawn at a stationary location. And perhaps build some storage containers filled with surplus equipment, so that you aren’t starting from zero every time.

Ark_HellNo

Carno, Alpha Raptor, Therizinosaurus? No thanks, I’m good.

This terrible beginning experience will not deter my Sisyphean struggle however. Part of the reason I stopped playing Ark 1.5 years ago was the terrible optimization that caused my PC to run it at 24 FPS max. With some settings tweaks, the game runs basically around 50 FPS at all times now. I’m hesitant to say everything is fixed on this front though, because I have a GTX 1060 now instead of a 970, so your frames might vary.

In any case, what I’m curious about is how the single player portion will play out. Supposedly there is an actual storyline involved, rather than this being a pure sandbox experience. [Fake Edit: Nope, no story] I routinely boot up 7D2D despite there not being any particular narrative, but the fundamental fact is… I like these sort of survival games. Ark scratches that “collect hundreds of Wood to build things” itch, in spite of being unbalanced as hell thus far. So, I will persevere. And should the boulder roll back down, I shall smile as I walk back down to push it up again.

At least, unless I spy a more interesting boulder somewhere else.

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.

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.

Black Desert?

So, Black Desert is currently on sale on Steam for $6.

BlackDesert

Considering it is a B2P game, I was considering just picking it up now and then playing later at my leisure. Something was making me hesitate though, even at this low price-point.

Then it came back: Gevlon had a series of money-making posts regarding Black Desert, and I remembered what bothered me. Specifically, the fact that wealth generation in the game entirely revolved around keeping the game running on your computer overnight/while you were at work.

Offline progression doesn’t particularly bother me in the least. Nor, of course, needing to actively grind. But being AFK while your computer runs all day? Some people in the comments to those posts were talking about how doing X is better than Y if you couldn’t remote desktop to your PC while at work in order to restart production. What the literal shit kind of game is this?

The sale is on till Wednesday, so perhaps I’ll pick it up regardless just to say I gave it the ole college try. But if you have played Black Desert and can explain some of its redeeming features, I’m all ears.

CraftCraft

A few weeks ago, Gevlon had an interesting post on how crafting in MMOs is fundamentally broken:

If you fight monsters or players, you must constantly cast spells. If you gather, you must move between spawn points. Both needs you to sit at the computer and press buttons (unless botting). But to craft, you just press a button and maybe wait and you are done.

Basically, crafting is broken because all other options available to get in-game currency take keyboard effort (gathering, grinding mobs) whereas crafting does not. And, having reflected on that, it is 100% true. Just as in real life, the people making bank aren’t those doing the work, but the ones working the bank.

Gevlon concedes that there really isn’t a solution to this problem, mainly because “active crafting” would essentially be a grindy minigame. Well, he says the solution is to make it so that everyone can craft everything, thereby hopefully making the crafter-class irrelevant. I’m not so sure, considering how much gold people already make from selling vendor mats in WoW. Any knowledge gap is enough space for the Bourgeoisie to pop up like mushrooms.

Would a minigame really be that bad though?

Maybe. I remember getting pretty frustrated with Wildstar’s crafting system, which was essentially a lot of RNG and wasted mats. I did not spend a whole lot of time in FF14, but I recall a similar minigame there that required button presses for optimum results. Based on the comments on Gevlon’s blog post, it seems there might be other, older MMO examples as well.

Still, I’m thinking that that pretty much has to be the “solution.” This is assuming that you believe there is a problem to begin with. But crafting has felt divorced from the general MMO gameplay experience for ages. Even Fishing in WoW feels more interactive than the normal sort of insane grind (or extreme automation via addons) that is, say, prospecting stacks of ore and/or creating Glyphs. Running around Herbing on a toon feels fun. Smelting ore and transmuting it does not. And yet one of those is much, much more lucrative than the other.

A more active crafting overhaul would require a fundamental rebalancing of the sort of boilerplate crafting experience though. Most crafting systems are predicated on you crafting hundreds of redundant items, for example. Skill-ups – assuming they still exist – would perhaps need to come from successful strikes on the anvil, rather than just one for the finished product. Or perhaps simply an offline system ala EVE.

In any case, I do feel like active crafting is the way forward. There would still be a goblin-esque master class, as I find it unlikely A) even an active system would be slower at gold generation than grinding mobs, and B) a good 80% of the player population is too lazy to craft their own gear. Maybe the right system hasn’t been found yet. Or perhaps the right system is trapped on an older MMO?

Cold Open

There have been two games I played recently that have started with a cold open, e.g. one with no tutorial that just sort of throws you into the game. The first was The Long Dark, and the second is a space-sim called Hellion; both are in Early Access and both are survival-based games. So, in a sense, it’s difficult to determine whether either one intentionally set out to have cold opens, or if this simply reflects their current, unfinished states.

Hellion-Oops

Pictured: falling out of the airlock into open space.

 

There is a lot to be said regarding the power of cold opens. In an age of 24/7 information coming from every angle, it is refreshing to be thrust into an unknown environment without any sort of hand-holding. It absolutely appeals to Explorer-types, and also those looking for more difficulty in their games. Plus, many times it makes thematic sense, say, if you just woke from cryo-sleep in an otherwise abandoned life pod.

Personally, I find cold opens to be exceptionally difficult to pull off well.

The fundamental issue I have is the dissonance between what the player expects and what the designers intend. What ends up happening is that players must essentially “metagame” how the designers actually intended the game to be played.

For example, in Hellion you awake from cryo-sleep inside a life pod without functioning Life Support. While there are a few tablets on the ground which give you a general idea of steps to take, that is basically all the guidance you are given. I searched the area and did not find enough items onboard to repair the Life Support. I found a jetpack without fuel, and supposedly a charging station for said jetpack, but could not determine a way to refuel.

So… what now? Did I miss an item in the search of the ship? Am I supposed to try and space walk without a jetpack? Is it a bug that there weren’t enough items to repair the Life Support? I have mentioned before that I am fine with tough puzzles, as long as I understand where the pieces are. What I absolutely despise is not knowing whether my failures are due to not performing correctly, or because I didn’t trip some programming flag from 10 minutes ago, or some other nonsense.

LongDark_GL

Somewhat more literal cold open.

I had a similar issue in The Long Dark, of which I played about an hour before turning off. It takes 30 game minutes to break a stick into pieces by hand? Okay, fine. But having found a shelter and tools, I saw no particular way to locate food, or reconcile my exhaustion meter with my temperature meter with the time of day, e.g. how was I to sleep and keep warm in the middle of the day and still survive the night? I understand that perhaps the intention is for the player to be constantly on edge in the quest for survival, but again, I’m not even sure how food really even works in this game yet. I have not seen any flora or fauna beyond sticks and snow.

Flailing around in the darkness is not my idea of quality game time.

I’m not saying game designers should go full Ocarina of Time and have Navi pester you for hours. Minecraft has (had?) a cold open that was relatively straightforward once you got over the intellectual hump of punching trees. Don’t Starve is a much better example of how to do a cold open – there isn’t much of an explanation of anything, but I still felt a sense of agency in being able to interact with things.

And maybe that’s just it: I might not be doing the right things, but being able to do something is important.

I dunno. I think the best compromise would be to have cold opens with a fairly robust PDA/AI Assistant/Crafting Menu. Those that want to wander around blindly can, but those who want to know what they can do… well, can.

Survival Survival: Subnautica

Short version: survival… underwater.

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Auspicious beginnings.

You know, it’s easy sometimes to get jaded with videogames. Go around the block a few times and it will feel like you have seen it all. Same mechanics, different textures. Then, something manages to catch you by surprise. Subnautica is precisely that something.

The premise of Subnautica is that you are a survivor of a spaceship crash on what appears to be a complete waterworld. Your lifeboat contains a Replicator, a Medical Replicator, a locker, and a damaged short-range communicator. Good luck.

I played version 42313 (Dec-16), and already the game looks goddamn amazing. More importantly, the game feels amazing. This is important because you will be swimming underwater 99.99% of the time. Initially, you are slow and clumsy, and have to stick to the safety of the shallows to find scrap metal to turn into Titanium. Over time, you can craft some swim gear, extra oxygen tanks, and eventually vehicles to travel with greater style.

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It really does feel great swimming.

The surprising part of this game, to me, was how… new everything felt, mechanics-wise. In Minecraft, Ark, Rust, 7 Days to Die, and countless other games, the beginning is always the same: look around, punch trees, collect rocks, build a fortress of doom. I spent the first 15 minutes of Subnautica in that same mindset, and filled my inventory with anything I could grab by left-clicking. Which ended up being a whole lot of relatively useless Acid Mushrooms that, while they can be made into batteries later, did nothing in the survival department right now.

That was when I realized that I needed to let go of what I knew before. Subnautica is its own game.

There is no better example of this than the Subnautica take on weapons. Basically, you have a survival knife. That you have to craft first. As far as I am aware, that is it. Stalkers and Sand Sharks and other carnivores have little issue taking a bite out of your scuba suit, so there is absolutely a sense of danger in the game, above and beyond the mundane (yet omnipresent) risk of drowning. Poking one with the knife will get them to retreat for a while, but this is a game where discretion is pretty much the only part of valor. Which, again, is completely refreshing.

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Yeah, don’t poke this guy.

 

I’m not entirely sure how much of the “game” game is implemented yet, but I am impressed by what I see thus far. I just hit what I imagine to be the mid-game: constructing underwater bases. This allows me to craft where the resources are, instead of having to swim back to my lifeboat each time. The crafting isn’t terribly complex, but yet still feels involved considering your limited inventory, which is limited further by extra oxygen tanks (which take up 4 cells). At the moment, I am trying to nail down additional debris fields so I can scan technology to build better vehicles/base structures.

Overall, Subnautica feels like… a breath of fresh air.

Yeah, I went there. And you should too.