Everybody dies: a history of Survival MMOs

2 November 2017

Don’t die! That’s a sensible objective for anyone’s life, so it’s no surprise that an entire videogame genre has sprung up around it. In these ‘survival games’ players must struggle against animals, humans and the environment just to keep playing, let alone progress. With a large crop of recent titles, in both singleplayer and MMOs, it seems like an entirely modern, new genre – but its roots actually sit in the distant past of video games.

Oregon trail screenshot

Origin – The Oregon Trail (1971)

The ur-game, the progenitor of the genre, was The Oregon Trail. This educational game was created by Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger in 1971 in order to teach a class about the westward push of settlers in America, and the perils they faced along the way. Given that personal computers like the Apple Mac weren’t widely available for another 13 years, it was run on a terminal to a remote mainframe computer.

In the two weeks it took to develop this text-based game, the three developers established the basis of the survival genre as we know it today. The school children who played it had to manage a small group of settlers, keeping their family, covered wagon and oxen alive as they traversed the 2,000 miles of rough terrain.

Maintaining each individual’s health, and keeping your equipment in good repair was essential if you were to fend off hostile animals and raiders, cross rivers in full flood, and stay health in the face of diseases like typhoid, cholera and dysentery. When a party member dies, that’s permanent. When they’re all dead, you have to start from scratch.

Though the original creators didn’t release the game commercially, other companies have sold over 65 million copies of the game during the past forty years. (You can read more about the creation of the game in this fantastic Motherboard interview with its creators).

Antediluvian – UnReal World

Antediluvian – UnReal World (1992)

Though Sami Maaranen’s and Erkka Lehmus’ unusual game started as a traditional ASCII roguelike way back in 1992, by the late ‘90s it had shifted into something more akin to a modern survival game, set in the Finnish Iron Age. Players were invited to adopt a traditional Finnish career like fisherman or trapper, and attempt to survive.

In a brave move for the time, temperature and rain systems were introduced to the game, along with starvation. Trapping animals for their fur became more complex due to whole-world persistence for the new AI-controlled animals – easier to do in a 2D single-player game than in a modern 3D MMO, but still an impressive feat for the time. Not until 2006’s Dwarf Fortress would a project of similar complexity emerge.

Today, after 25 years of continuous development, UnReal World is the longest-lasting roguelike of all time. You can buy the latest version on Steam today – or play it for free.

The Sims screenshot

Inspiration – The Sims (2000)

Will Wright’s The Sims doesn’t look much like a traditional survival game. For one thing, like The Oregon Trail, the player has oversight over a small group of people rather than one. Secondly, you have no direct control. Thirdly, your characters are hard to kill, and spend most of their time babbling at each other.

Though not a survival game in itself, The Sims is crucial to understanding the genre because it introduced a core concept. That concept was supplied by psychologist Abraham Maslow and is called the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’. This is the idea that there are certain fundamental elements that people need for survival, which come before others. Physiological needs like shelter, water, food and warmth come first, followed by safety, love, esteem and self-actualization.

The Sims itself implements this as a core part of the game mechanics – the player spends all their time working to cajole their sims towards satisfying their own most-basic needs – food, cleanliness, sleep, and so on – so they’re in a better psychological space to achieve their ‘higher order’ needs, like sex or work.

Whether or not Maslow’s theory is true (it could be argued that it’s focused on the more individualistic Western ethics, rather than more societal Asian ethics), it was a useful example for the path that players could take in games – though it’s not clear how far designers have actually internalised it.

Progenitor – WURM Online, horses

Progenitor – WURM Online (2006)

Before he became famous for creating Minecraft, Markus ‘Notch’ Persson worked on several personal projects. One of those was co-creating the open-ended, survival MMORPG Wurm Online, which started development in 2003.

Wurm was a 3D voxel-based sandbox world, allowing players to terraform its immense landscape by hand – well, by mouse. You could also mine, build keeps and cities, and craft objects which degrade in real time.

Wurm introduced many of the core elements we expect in survival games today. It’s got a horribly-hostile world, where players start with almost nothing; a lack of tutorial that’s staggeringly hard to push through; resource extraction and crafting which can be a real grind (pardon the pun); and a choice for players between co-operating or fighting with one another.

Mainstream – DayZ screenshot

Mainstream – DayZ (2012)

Yet very few people played Wurm WURM for any length of time. And though there were survival MMOs after it, they were often scrappy, ugly affairs. Until DayZ.

DayZ didn’t explicitly change that – after all, it’s a game that’s never left Early Access – but it did bring popularity to the genre. It started as a mod for ARMA 2 but was quickly more popular than the original game, with a million players in its first four months. A standalone version was swiftly released, which remains in alpha to this day.

DayZ is a zombie survival sim, riffing off Max Brook’s populist World War Z novels. Surviving in the game’s world  is hard. Each character has multiple points of weakness – from simple thirst, hunger and warmth, to more nuanced injury mechanics, where characters can suffer from fractures to limbs, infection, disease, shock and pass out from low blood pressure. (This granular level of detail is also included in the earlier Sims-like Project Zomboid and has become a staple of the genre.)

Amplifying the theme of Wurm and following George Romero’s influential “of the Dead” movies, the biggest threat in the world of DayZ wasn’t the zombies – frankly, they were slow and weak. No, it was other players. With no restrictions on behaviour, players were free to exploit each other and the game’s limited resources encouraged this.

This is a theme that’s been continued in DayZ’s successor games – RUST, H1Z1, Nether. These games increased the risk for the player, giving you limited incentives to co-operate and fight, with a bias towards hostile competition. RUST has building crafting available to all players, making a late-game server resemble medieval walled towns like St Gimignano.

Don't starve scene

Thankfully, The Future

At Improbable, we don’t doubt that survival MMOs are going to continue to grow. Developers from all genres have drawn upon the roguelike and survival mechanics to inform their own games, particularly singleplayer games. Gothic mystery games like Don’t Starve, real world games like This War of Mine or The Long Dark, or complex management sims like Prison Architect and Rimworld have all taken elements from the survival game and used them to improve their genre. The logical next step is to move these games to the larger complexity and interactivity of a multiplayer experience

There are constraints on their improvement though. Though the shooter-survival MMO genre has taken survival games to the mainstream, it has had its failings too. Many survival game projects were left unfinished or have never left Early Access. Further, given the early state of the code on some survival games, they have been vulnerable to attack by hackers or become hostile to new players with little development effort going into onboarding or fostering a healthy community. These are challenges that developers need to plan for and mitigate if the survival MMO is to maintain its appeal and reputation.

There are design challenges too. A lot of that comes down to what we want to call realism – objects that behave like they do in the real world. For example, to maintain cross-world systems on multiplayer servers requires AI entities – whether that’s animals, plants, weather systems or gravity – to persist when players aren’t there. Or to allow players to maintain a larger number of persistent buildings and cities, or let those cities be physically-destructible like Minecraft, requires large amounts of computation.

We at Improbable are working on answers to some of these questions. SpatialOS, our platform for enabling next generation multiplayer gaming features, allows for more convincing ecosystems – ones that don’t disappear when the player walks away or like Lazarus, where larger systems operate in the background, allows for truly emergent effects that aren’t just the result of broken code or trickery. Worlds Adrift has spectacularly demonstrated that distributed physics can work, by creating a huge 3D space with destructible foliage and flying ships.

To create compelling multiplayer survival settings, like scaled up versions of Don’t Starve, will be both a technical and design challenge. Yet with this inspirational history and the power of modern cloud computing, we’re confident that modern survival MMOs aren’t going to die quietly, but thrive en masse.