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From Whence Fun?

The other day I was playing Words with Friends (aka Scrabble app) with my SO. She is not much of a gamer – although she did play WoW back in vanilla – but she enjoys board games, and word games the most. I play along with the word games mainly because it’s something we can do together, but… I don’t really enjoy it. Word games are not my forte, and it does not help that she is way better at words than I am. I have actually legit won on occasion, primarily on the back of a few critical plays when the tiles line up just right. For the most part though, she kicks my ass on the daily.

For those who don’t know, there are an abundance of Words with Friends “cheat” apps out there. What those will do is analyze your seven tiles and the board, and then list out the best possible scoring combinations via brute-force analysis. I have never played with any such apps, but I find the idea amusing simply because that is exactly what I try to do a lot in-game.

See, Words with Friends will only allow valid plays. So, if you don’t know whether something is a word, you can drop tiles and get instant feedback. I have gotten a lot of points before basically dropping random tiles in key locations and making a word I had never heard of.

WordsWithFriends

I don’t even know what “Jeon” is, but I regretted playing it immediately.

The difference between my method and using an app to do it for me is… something.

I suppose it becomes less of a contest between two players’ knowledge when automation is involved, cheapening the experience. On the other hand, my SO plays word games a lot – she runs several concurrent games at a time, in fact – so she has memorized all the different Q words that don’t need a U, and so on, which is a pretty big advantage. And like I mentioned, I can do everything the cheat apps would do, if I was patient enough to do it myself. So, at some point, her overwhelming knowledge versus my very basic brute-force tactics becomes analogous to one or both of us facing two different kinds of bots.

That thought led me to another: what if we both used cheat apps? At that point, the game would probably come down to the random nature of tile distribution, and perhaps a few scenarios in which we had to choose between two same-point plays. Regardless, it doesn’t sound particularly fun, right? If we have automated things that far, we may as well automate the selection of the answer, and just have two bots play against each other forever.

So… from whence did the fun originate?

I think it is safe to say that certainty reduces fun in games. While I do not necessarily mean that randomness needs to exist in order for fun to occur, I do mean that the outcome needs to be unknown, or at least in contention. If one person has the cheating app and the other does not, it’s not likely to be a fun game. Even if no cheating was involved, one player having an overwhelming advantage – either knowledge or skill – and the outcome is probably the same.

But what does that really say about our games, and the way we play them? The better we are at a game, the less fun we likely will have. Having a little advantage is nice, and the process by which we get better (experimenting, practice, etc) is a lot of fun too. At a certain level though, it tapers off. What’s fun after that? Direct competition? Maybe. Part of that fun is likely tied into the whole “unknown level of skill from opponent” thing though. Because if we knew he/she was using a cheat program, that fun would evaporate pretty quickly.

Now, there is a sort of exception here: it can be fun to totally dominate your opponent(s). Be it ganking in MMOs, or aimbots in FPS games, the reason a person would do such a thing is precisely to “collect tears” by specifically ruining other peoples’ experience. At that point though, the medium is kinda immaterial; the bully is just using whatever is convenient and less personally risky.

In any case, I went ahead and shared my thoughts above with my SO and her response was interesting. For her, the “game” within Words with Friends is actually just challenging herself in finding the highest-scoring move each turn – she does not necessarily care about the ultimate outcome of the game. Which, to me, sounds like she should be playing against bots, but nevermind. And I actually understand that sentiment: whenever I was playing BGs in WoW, my goal is not necessarily to win at all costs (e.g. sitting on a flag 100% of the time), but to amuse myself on a micro level, even if I was grinding Honor.

Still, I suspect my SO will eventually tire of the wordplay over time, once her skills plateau. Or… maybe she won’t. After all, I somehow find it infinitely interesting to collect resources in Survival games despite having achieved maximum efficiency usually by clicking the button once. Which leads me back to my original question: from whence fun?

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The Long Starve

I was reading through The Long Dark’s (TLD) wiki the other day, when I came across the missing piece of the game’s puzzle: it’s okay to starve. Mind. Blown.

Fundamentally, you die in TLD when your Condition meter reaches zero. There are four separate meters (Needs) that affect the Condition meter: Warmth, Fatigue, Thirst, and Hunger. If any of those meters reach zero, you start losing Condition. However, you can still do things while a Need is zero, e.g. chop wood while hungry or thirty or cold. When at zero, the Condition loss per hour is:

  • Warmth -20%
  • Fatigue -1%
  • Thirst -2%
  • Hunger -1%

While you technically regain Condition as long as all four Needs are above zero, the gain is like 1% per hour. Meanwhile, if you sleep in a bed for 10 hours, you can regain up to 65% of your Condition bar in one go. The requirements? Drink some water before bed and consume ~600 calories. That’s it.

LongDark_Sleep

The exact calorie cost depends on a lot of variables.

To understand the implications, here is a paragraph from the wiki:

2800 calories would be consumed during 14 hours harvesting carcasses. But if no calories are available (Hunger is empty), about 15% of condition would be drained instead. Only 600 calories are required during 10 hours of fully replenishing sleep. So eating only 600 calories prior to sleeping can maintain a character with only briefly lowered condition taken as a trade-off. This is a great reduction from the 3,400 calories that would have been required to keep hunger satisfied the whole day.

In other words, instead of consuming X calories a day, you really only need ~600.

I always thought it was a bit too gamified how I had to maintain such a large calorie intake for normal things, but I chalked it up as one of those weird genre requirements. Turns out that was not the case. So, if you were like me thinking The Long Dark was a bit too brutal of a survival simulation with the constant juggling of resources… just stay hungry, my friends.

Impressions: The Long Dark

I first played The Long Dark ages ago back when it was in Early Access. It was back then, and still is today, a survival game of another kind: a true Player versus Environment. Your primary foe is hunger, thirst, and a cold Canadian wilderness hostile to your continued existence.

LongDark_Area

Welcome to the middle of nowhere. Population: You.

Having played it for a dozen or more hours now, I can safely say that I am pining for some zombies.

When I said your primary opponent is the environment, I meant it. Outside of the story mode (broken down into Episodes), there are no NPCs. Fauna consists of rabbits, deer, wolves, and bears. I have heard there might be moose involved, and I guess you can technically fish up, er, fish. But that’s really it. While you can eventually craft a bow or loot a rifle, this is not an action survival game by any means.

Given the above, the fundamental gameplay tension is food and warmth. The Canadian tundra is cold, the windchill is colder, and blizzards are colder still. Keeping warm is a challenge, and just finding shelter is not necessarily good enough. That’s when The Long Dark’s thumbscrews come out.

LongDark_Branch

Don’t do this by hand. Or in a Blizzard. Or, really, ever.

See, picking up sticks is easy. Come across a branch that can be broken down into sticks? That’s going to take 10 minutes by hand. Which the game fast-forwards through, but your warmth meter is depleting rapidly all the while (depending on weather and your gear), and now you’re at risk for hypothermia. And those three sticks you got from breaking said branch? That’s maybe 22 minutes of heat in the campfire, which might not be long enough to regain the Warmth you lost breaking the branch outside, nevermind the other firestarting materials. Oh, and it took 42 calories.

The Long Dark takes counting calories to a whole new level. Sleeping takes 75 calories per hour. Breaking down a crate for wood for a fire takes ~62 calories. Walking around for an hour takes 270 calories. Harvesting meat from an animal, so you can cook it to regain calories, takes X calories. Hopefully less than the amount it took you to kill said animal, but not always.

What ends up happening is that you never really feel safe, anywhere. Sure, finding a sufficiently warm shelter is nice. But necessity will drive you from that place eventually. Water is abundant, but needs fire to be produced. Which needs fuel to be collected. Which needs calories to burned. Which needs food to be scavenged or hunted. Which needs you to be outside, in the cold, taking risks.

Being naturally driven from your comfort zone in a quest for survival is brilliant game design. But it is also dissatisfying. Instead of feeling like I have agency, I instead feel despondent. In 7 Days to Die, I forage for supplies so that I can construct defenses capable of outlasting next week’s Blood Moon. In The Long Dark, I forage supplies so I can… stave off the inevitable for another 24 hours. Technically they might be the same in principle, but one feels a hell of a lot better than the other.

Having said all that, I am currently working through Episode 2 of the Story mode and having a plot to follow makes things a bit better. Plus, the locations where the story NPCs live have a fire going 24/7, which makes things considerably easier. Not having the ability to unlock schematics and such as one does in the regular Sandbox version can be a bit stifling (e.g. not being able to craft a bow), but the overall experience is quite good, if a bit linear and directed.

Quick & Dirty Guide: No Man’s Sky

Right from the start, let me say that No Man’s Sky is often intentionally vague in order to engender a sense of wonder and discovery. In that respect, the following Quick & Dirty guide might constitute spoilers because I will be explaining some of the game systems as they exist in version 1.38. If you feel like that might take away from your enjoyment of the game, by all means, stop reading.

NMS_Backdrop.jpg

For everyone else, let’s roll.

Basic Gameplay

1. Land on planet
2. Collect resources
3. ???
4. Profit.

Seriously though, in the beginning, do not worry too much about anything in particular. A large part of this game comes down to Inventory Management, and you are never given enough space to collect all the things. If something seems like a super-rare thing, trust me, it’s not. You will find a planet with tons of it later on.

What you will want to keep an eye on though, at all stages of the game, are the following:

  • Plutonium: It costs 50 to lift your Starship off the ground.
  • Zinc: Basic way to recharge your environmental protections, once crafted.
  • Thamium9: Primarily for recharging Life Support, but used in Farms later on.

You will always want to keep a stack of those elements handy at all times, at every stage of the game. Once you get a decent Unit (e.g. cash) stream, all of them can be acquired quickly and in bulk by visiting a Trading Post on a planet in any economically successful system. We’re talking buying 1500+ at a time for like 40k Units. Much faster than farming, especially with Thamium9.

Quick Movement

Walking, and even Sprinting, seems really slow and never gets much better.

The better way to get around is to Melee+Jetpack. Basically, start walking in a particular direction and press the Melee button (Q on PC) and your Jetpack (Space on PC) at the same time. If done correctly, you will surge forward a few steps, and meanwhile that faster momentum will carry over onto your Jetpack. For best results, start Sprinting (Shift on PC) before the Melee hit and you’ll be able to traverse wide swaths of the world, as long as your Jetpack lasts.

How Do I Upgrade X?

Personal Inventory: Drop Pods can be found on every planet, and are specifically searchable by building a Signal Booster. Enter the Pod and purchase the additional slot. Each Drop Pod is only usable once.

Keep in mind that there are three different player inventories. The General Inventory can contain both items and tech upgrades. The Technology Inventory can contain only tech upgrades. The Mass Inventory can only contain items, but at Starship-level stack sizes, e.g. 500 elements, or 5 items per slot. While the General Inventory is cheaper to expand at first, if you place too many tech upgrades in there, you are simply limiting your ability to store goods later on. Luckily, you can scrap tech upgrades and rebuild them when you unlock additional Technology Inventory slots.

Starships: You do not upgrade Starships – you buy new ones or fix ones you find.

To buy a Starship, you need to go up to one that has landed somewhere, like at a Space Station or Trading Post, talk to the owner, and then choose Buy Starship. At that point, you can see how many inventory slots it has, what techs might already be installed, and so on. If it looks good, and you have the cash to cover the difference in price between your current ride and the new one, it’s yours. The sale is not final until you take off though, so you have some leeway in attempting to move over inventory that might not have fit, or that you forgot to move in the first place.

Note: you do not get a cash refund for buying a lower-priced ship, so don’t bother.

NMS_Crashed

Quite the upgrade.

The alternative method is to find a crashed Starship on a planet and then claim it. This method can allow you to significantly leap-frog any sort of Starship progression, insofar as you can find and claim a 48-slot Starship way before you would ever have enough Units to purchase one outright. The catch is that crashed Starships have broken inventory slots that can only be repaired via increasingly higher numbers of Units; the first slot might cost 33k to fix, but ten slots later the cost will exceed 1.5 million. The result ends up about the same, e.g. it costs X amount to fix everything, but this nevertheless allows you to “upgrade” your ship as money allows rather than needing a bulk purchase.

Finding crashed ships in the first place can be tricky though, as the “traditional” method involves discovering Communication Towers, solving a logic puzzle, and hoping it leads to a crashed ship. Alternatively… just fly around a planet and spam the 1 key, which is basically “target nearest ship.” While you will sometimes tag NPC ships flying around, especially near Trading Posts, this method otherwise allows you to comb a rather huge portion of the planet’s surface while flying around. If something pops up on your radar, fly down and take a peek.

Multi-Tool: Similar to Starships, you only ever find new ones.

NMS_Multi

Just from talking to a guy.

While you can get new Multi-Tools from Monolith or creature interactions, the more common method is simply finding them out in the world in display cases. Curiously, these display cases still require you to “purchase” the new Multi-Tool, even when it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

How Do I Unlock Y?

AtlasPass v1: Follow the story and it will unlock for you.

AtlasPass v2/v3: Same as above, but you’ll need some achievements.

Farms: It’s the last in a series of quest-chains related to base-building.

Exocraft: It’s one of the first in a series of quest-chains related to base-building.

NMS_Exocraft

Blueprints: there are basically three methods. First, randomly as interaction rewards, from talking to people or Monoliths or crashed ships. Second, as rewards for certain Missions. Lastly, bought from Tech traders by using Nanoclusters – each Star Base has a slightly different list that focuses on Starships, Multi-Tools, or Exosuits.

Technically, there is a fourth method, which is via questing. Unlocking specific farming crops requires completing quests from the Farming Specialist in your base, for example. There are also some specific blueprints tied to the Atlas questline and achievements therein, just like with the AtlasPass v1.

What’s the Best Way to Get Units?

Sell things. That’s… basically it.

In the very early game, pretty much your first cash-crop, so to speak, is going to be mining and selling Emeril. You can sell pretty much anything, but Emeril goes for 200-300 Units apiece, is easy to find on many planets (mineral around sinkholes), and isn’t used for pretty much anything else. You can do the same thing with Gold later on, but Gold is used in a few recipes and is usually found on more hostile planets.

Also in the early game, go ahead and sell any weird items you might pick up. Neutrino Controllers, Gek Charms, whatever. While they have functions later in the game – from recipes to increasing Faction reputation – you will find plenty in your travels, and it’s not worth the precious inventory space when you’re slumming around with less than 20 slots.

Later on, you have more options and a few more considerations. Keep in mind though, that whenever you sell something on the market, you will get a worse price the next time you leave the screen. So when selling, do so in bulk.

Missions: these are the Radiant-style random quests you can pick up from the Mission NPC on every Star Base. Each time you successfully complete a Mission, you get faction reputation and the stated reward. If the reward is a Blueprint you already own, you’ll get ~88k Units instead. The other items you receive are a bit esoteric and usually vendor trash, but sometimes can be worth a surprising amount of Units.

NMS_Selling

Almost doubled my Units right there.

No matter what method you end up doing, I recommend filling your Log with Missions at each Star Base you encounter. Many of them can overlap, such that you can fulfill several at once from the same activity (e.g. killing Sentinels, etc), and you can turn in successful Missions at any Mission NPC. Plus, as you move up the reputation ranks, the standard Mission starts awarding 250k Units by itself and the items can be worth several million.

Farming: This is pretty much the ultimate source of Units in the game. The idea is build a base, plant some crops, harvest said crops, and then turn the material into more expensive things that you then sell. Example:

  • 100 Frost Crystal + 200 Solarium = Heat Capacitor.
  • 100 Cactus Flesh + 200 Star Bulb = Poly Fiber
  • Heat Capacitor + Poly Fiber = Circuit Board
  • Sell Circuit Board for 1 million+ Units apiece.

If you’re looking for a more in-depth guide, see this Reddit thread. Circuit Boards aren’t the priciest item you can create, or the easiest for that matter, but that’s the basic idea.

Trading: If you have a lot of starting capital, a LOT of free inventory space, an Economy Scanner, and plenty of Warp Cells, you can make some money buying vendor trash from one system at a discount and selling to another at a profit.

Next time you’re at a Trade terminal, look at what items are for sale. At the top of the list are likely some random items with a little green Unit symbol and the text that they are -X% cheaper than the market average. These items have tool tips which then tell you which systems need them more, e.g. will sell for over the market average price. So, buy as many as your Starship will hold, fly over to the target system, and sell them all. Then at this new system, buy the next set of goods, and sell at the next system. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Scanning: this is more of a side-hustle than anything else, but Units are Units. Basically, each time you touch down on a new planet, go ahead and scan as many plants and animals as possible.

With zero upgrades, you only get about 200ish Units for each discovery. With two Scanning upgrades though, suddenly each new plant will give you 20k and animals will sometimes break 100k apiece. I have as yet to find the third upgrade for either Scanner, but I’m looking forward to the boost in income from doing something I was going to do anyway.

Miscellaneous Tips

Gathering Kelp: While you can grow or purchase pretty much anything you might need for crafting purposes, the exception are Kelp Pods. For these, you need gather them manually, and they only exist on planets with water.

The best way I have found to gather them is using a Nomad, aka hoverbike:

NMS_Kelp

As pictured, drive over the water on the Nomad and use it’s mining laser to collect the Kelp. This method is significantly faster than trying to use the Roamer to drive along the bottom, and much better than the default method of actually swimming around.

Fun Collecting

Syncaine made an astute observation in my prior No Man’s Sky (NMS) impression post:

I’ve never read, this included, anything that suggests the game is actually fun. People point out what is missing or broken, and what is there, but never a series of ‘things’ that are interesting or fun.

As I mentioned in the post itself, I do find the game fun, and have been playing it now for over 60 hours – far longer than most AAA games these days. But… why? What are the fun bits?

In NMS’s specific case, I think most of the fun is derived from the accumulation of things. If you have ever played another survival game like Don’t Starve, 7 Days to Die, or even Minecraft to an extent, and enjoyed collecting 200 pieces of X so you can craft that next upgrade, well, NMS is here for you. Hell, it’s also sorta like herbing in your typical MMO. Run around, press the E button near a node, continue on. Except with spaceships and mining lasers and landing on different planets.

That’s… kinda it, really. Well, assuming you aren’t interested in the background plot.

Let me contrast NMS with two games. First, Starbound. Staround also features procedurally-generated planets, collecting all the things, and a plot that mostly glues the experience together. Starbound is the better game by far though, because combat spices things up and synergizes with the collection of things. In NMS, all you really fight are the Sentinels, which are everywhere all the time, and only ever escalate things if you don’t kill them fast enough. Compare that with Starbound having to dig deeper into a planet for the best minerals, with enemies getting tougher the deeper your go. The gameplay loop in Starbound and the engaging fights are more interesting and fun.

The second contrast would be with Sunless Sea. Procedurally-generated exploration game with a focus on profit from selling trade goods. Sounds pretty similar, right? Sunless Sea also has a mild Lovecraftian vibe and some great narrative. It also completely sucks as a game and feels terrible to play. The nominal gameplay is quite different – FPS versus overhead ship battles – but that is kinda the point. NMS feels engaging in a way Sunless Sea does not, even if they are both games that revolve around exploring and collecting and obtaining cash.

In the comments, Helistar mentioned that they would just “stick with ETS2 for the time being.” I had to Google the acronym, which is apparently Euro Truck Simulator 2. My first reaction was to scoff. What does driving trucks and selling cargo for cash have to do with flying around space… and selling cargo… oh. Well then. There you go.

If none of the above clears anything up for you, then No Man’s Sky is not for you. It technically really isn’t even for me. There is something there though, some half-formed game system I can’t quite describe, which is compelling. Or, perhaps as Zubon would describe, “compelling but not entertaining.” But I’m weird in the fact that compelling is automatically entertaining for me.

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.

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.

Ark Life

Ark can teach you a lot about life. Namely, man’s futile struggle against a hostile, uncaring universe.

Ark_FeelingLucky

Don’t do it… it’s a trap!

It all started when I returned to my base with a handful of Obsidian from a scouting expedition. Emboldened by my success, and reading about the usefulness of the Sabertooths (Saberteeth?) I spotted on the mountain, I took flight again to snag a pair.

Life 1

I made it to the mountain in one piece, and scout around. I spot a pack of four Sabertooths, land on a nearby rock, and tranq two but the others had already wandered off. While taming, I am stuffing my face with Cooked Meat, because the temperature of the mountain is below zero. During this process, I realize that I’m out of Raw Meat, rapidly losing health due to the weather (no Fur clothing, because no Fur from these dinos), and while I have plenty of arrows, my crossbow itself is about to break. Shit. In a frantic bit of survivalship, I manage to kill some dinos for meat, tame the Sabertooths, and make my way to the warmer beach. Then I begin the journey back to my home base.

Along the way, I have to go through the Swamp biome. I stick to the edge, between the Swamp and the ocean, to avoid the more dangerous swamp creatures. What I did not avoid was the seemingly endless amount of piranhas. Despite doing only 15-20 damage per hit, one tiger dies. I hop off my bird to try and assist the remaining tiger. One minute later, the piranhas eat the remaining tiger and, somehow, my flying mount. I embrace the darkness.

Life 2

Take a backup bird to fly back and get my dropped items. This time, I load up on a fresh crossbow and extra meat. Spot my corpse, pick up my items. In the distance, I notice a low-level Sacro (e.g. giant crocodile). Thinking this might be a worthwhile tame to assist with the piranhas, I land on a rock and start shooting tranqs. With the Sacro down, I hop off the rock to start feeding it meat.

That’s when its mate shows up and starts feeding on me. Turning around to try and escape on my bird, I notice that the bird has simply dematerialized. No death record, it’s just glitched out of the game. Cool. I die.

Life 3

Fuck it, Imma build a boat.

Tour length: 3 hours.

I spent the next few days collecting resources and constructing a boat and adding crafting stations and such to it. The goal was originally to boat up to the mountain, tame the Sabertooths, then boat them back. That’s when I realized that the snowy biome sounds more interesting, and hey, those penguins give you tons of Organic Polymer when you beat them with clubs. No, seriously, that’s how it works. Since I need a bunch of Polymer to craft advanced weaponry, let’s head North instead.

After a long time, I make it to the Snow biome. Club some seals, mine some frozen Oil, good times. Off in the distance, I see a Carno and some of hell boars. Huh, interesting. I craft some stuff for a bit, and then start to prepare to take my bird out to collect more resources. Except now there is a Carno and some hell boars, having aggro’d and swam out to greet me, clipping through the bottom of my boat killing my birds and my favorite mount. Fuck this.

Life 4

I ruthlessly murder every Carno and hell boar that I see. At one point, I got a little too zealous and fell off my rock perch, and the hell boars got their revenge.

Life 5

Let’s just avoid that area and get a little further North. What’s the worse thing that can happen?

This. This is the worst thing that can happen.

—–

It should be noted that I am actively save scumming in Ark, e.g. backing up files. Why they just don’t add a Quick Save functionality to Single-Player Mode, I don’t know. Perhaps it goes against the general principle of Ark, or might give people the wrong impression when/if they try and go to public servers and lose all their stuff for real.

In any case, I don’t even feel the least bit bad for what I’m doing. I cannot possibly imagine a scenario in which “cheating myself” out of that last loss will result in more game time than rewinding it. Maybe if this was more of a roguelike with a definite end, like Don’t Starve (Adventure mode), or even Binding of Isaac, I can see less replay value overall. With Ark though, losing an entire boat worth of stuff along with some of my best tames? I would be more liable to quit altogether than start over. Or perhaps never to have set sail in the first place, which is kinda the same thing.

I guess we’ll see. I managed to craft a modern pistol and assault rifle with my (rewinded) resources, while avoiding the anti-boat whale area. If the novelty of Ark wears off after gaining such weaponry, perhaps I did “cheat” myself out of time. Then again, I still have projects that I want to complete, caves I want to explore, and map to uncover. I’m thinking it’s better overall to trade future game time of uncertain value for non-frustrating gameplay right now.

Especially because of all the bullshit Ark throws at you out of nowhere.

Ark de Solo

In the comments for my last post, SynCaine questioned my decision to play Ark solo:

I’m not sure I’d understand the point of solo ARK. Say you push past the initial curve and get to the point where you have a base that dinos can’t mess with, you are near max level (so all blueprints you would want you have), and you have some low-mid range dinos tamed. What then?

In solo, again after the initial challenge, there is zero risk of another player causing problems, or of working together with a tribe on something bigger. So it’s just a slow grind that doesn’t have an end (you can’t ‘win’ in ARK), and gets slower and less rewarding as you go (taming a t-rex takes longer than a raptor, but what does the t-rex really give you over the raptor?).

The “what then?” is the same answer as any survival game: play until you get bored.

Ark_NormalDay

Meet Pinky. He’s basically a jet ski that flies occasionally.

I’ve been playing Ark pretty much the exclusion of anything else since the beginning of September. This past weekend’s project was shepherding an Ankylo up a mountain and setting up a metal refinement base at the top. Big improvement over riding a train of dinos to a now-depleted smaller hill along the coast. It was not until just yesterday that I got my first node of Obsidian, which was up a completely different mountain, near a full day’s flight (on my slow bird) away.

My next project is to try and snag Dung Beetles from somewhere – possibly a cave – so I can have easier access to oil, as I want to avoid underwater shenanigans if possible. Then I was looking at taming one of those snails, which requires the vegetable cake, which requires Sap, which requires a high-cost collection piece most easily inserted on top of an extremely high-cost tree structure, then you can’t forget Giant Bee Honey… and so on and so forth.

Until yesterday, I hadn’t even left the SE corner of the map. I’ve seen the Redwood Forests, but haven’t actually been inside yet. Much less anything North or West of that. Steam says I’ve been playing for 60 hours.

Ark_Hours

Actually kind of impressive.

Sure, exploring and exploiting shit is only going to get faster from here. I’m way more confident in my ability to handle (or avoid) hostile dinos than before. But the game is still interesting to me, still dangerous, and I still have things I’d like to do. Maybe try out some of the caves, maybe see how far along the tech tree I can get before things get too annoying. I don’t know how much more novelty the game necessarily has – could be another 60 hours playing solo, maybe only 20. At my current rate, I’m leaning more towards the former.

If I do get bored, I can try a fresh character in a different starting zone, for a different experience. Or perhaps on a different map entirely, e.g. the Center, or Ragnarok. There is already one paid DLC map on top of that, with another on the way. There is even apparently a procedural generated map option, or custom maps.

What I don’t need is other people to make my gameplay meaningful. I’ve gotten 200 hours out of 7 Days to Die so far, and who knows how much time in Minecraft. All solo. If I want the experience of social obligation and responsibility again, there are plenty of MMOs to fill that non-existent void. Personally, I’m still enjoying the ability to close games without having to apologize for leaving, or doing exactly what I want to be doing in that moment without asking for permission.

Is Ark more fun with friends? Possibly. It is also completely, 100% fine by yourself too. There is enough sand in the box to make for a good time either way. At least alone, you avoid getting sand into your shorts and hair from other people mucking about. These days, I’m good, thanks.

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.