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7 Aug 2014

What Makes Survival Games Fun?

Survival games are making a splash on the indie scene as of late, and for good reason: they’re fun! Taking the crafting and building aspects that made Minecraft so addicting and incorporating an actual goal into the game (i.e. surviving), survival games have become one of the fastest-growing genres in gaming. From Don’t Starve to Rust to of course DayZ, it’s a great time to build a survival game.

But what actually makes them so much fun? What is it about trying to survive in a world where enemies are trying to kill you that’s so much fun? What’s fun about trying to craft, find and cook food, build shelter, etc. as you strive to survive just one more day?

It’s the endless struggle – the infinite challenge – of survival. It’s a universal concept everyone can grasp (after all, we all want to survive), and because the only thing standing in your way of survival is wits? These games become awesomely addictive.

If you have been thinking about building your own survival game, there are a few things you should know before beginning. Below are some of the things that (in my opinion, anyway) make survival games such a blast to play. Feel free to include some of your own thoughts at the end of the post, as we would love to hear them!


Endless options for survival

Maybe not necessarily endless, but the player needs to feel this way. They need to feel as if there are many paths to survival, and if they can think of an idea? They need to feel as if they can implement it.

Take Rust for example. If I want to eat food, I have a few options:

  1. I can kill an animal with my default weapon (a rock) and cook it over a campfire.
  2. I can build better weapons, kill an animal easily, and cook it over a campfire I build.
  3. I can build better weapons, kill an animal, and build a campfire inside a little hut I build so I’m safe from enemies.
  4. I can find other camps and stealthily steal their food.
  5. I can kill other players and steal their food.

See what I mean? There are many different ways I can eat food in the game. It’s what makes the game so addicting. Essentially, any path to completing a goal is yours if you can imagine it.

Let me give you an example of one of my Rust sessions. I was just starting out and had built a few items such as clothes, a bow and arrow, a campfire, etc. I heard a bunch of gunfire on the map, and I knew that if somebody saw me, I would easily be killed. Instead of fighting the players head-on (a match I would lose), I knew I had to think outside the box.

So I devised a plan. During the day, I would lay low, gather food and eat it when I needed, and basically stay hidden from other players and enemies. I traveled where I would hear gunfire during the day until dusk, where I would sneak out and find an open area for setting up a campfire. As soon as night fell, I would start my fire in the open field, making it clearly visible to anyone in the area. Of course, players would see the campfire, think I’m some kind of moron for making myself clearly visible at night, and they would come to my campfire trying to raid me.

Except I was across the field ready with my bow and arrow. As soon as they arrived to my campsite, I would shoot a bow and arrow in their head then loot them. Rinse, repeat until the first crack of dawn, in which I would go back into hiding.

I acquired some awesome loot doing this, and eventually, I was able to raid a small area and get even more loot until I accidentally fell off a mountain and died (what an anti-climatic ending).

Because Rust is such an open-ended game, I was able to create my plan and implement it however I wish. That is what your survival game should allow players to do: imagine any plan and implement it however they desire. It’s one of the reasons people will keep returning to your indie game.


The ‘uphill struggle’ must always be present

Even for players that are experienced and know how the game works. For example, I know how Don’t Starve works, but that doesn’t mean that I’m ever safe in the game. I always have to keep my hunger in check, sleep normally, stay out of bad weather, keep away from enemies, etc. because if I don’t? I could easily die.

The main idea behind survival games in the first place is survival anyway. What puts people into survival mode in real-life? You guessed it: struggles. The constant struggle must also be present in your survival game. Always keep your players on their toes and scrambling to stay alive, and again, players will continue to return for more.


Apply Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

You may have heard of Maslow’s Hierarch of Needs. It’s the basis behind survival games to begin with, and you need to ensure that your survival game follows this theory at all times. It’s really the main idea behind our second point, in that a struggle must always be present – but it needs to be the right structure.

Looking back at Don’t Starve for a moment, when the game begins you have to meet the most basic needs for survival: food, shelter, and sleep. From there, you have to ensure that you have enough resources for ensuring you can meet your most basic needs (providing you with a feeling of safety), and from there? You need to begin inventing things to give you a fighting chance to survive as long as possible in the wild.

In short, you need to make certain that the most basic human needs are met and always managed.What makes these games most fun of all is the ‘managing’ dimension: by always playing a balancing act with your needs, you must always scramble and do your part to ensure your needs are met. It goes back to the second point of uphill struggles always being present, and it’s a necessity to ensuring your survival game is a blast to play.


There are obviously other reason why survival games are so addicting, so I want to turn the topic over to your guys. In your mind, what makes a survival game so much fun to play? Let us know in the comments below!


2 Responses

  1. I played DayZ for a while and it was amazing.
    The beauty of that game is that you cannot believe in anybody, you never know when they are going to attack you.

    Funny story: I was running around and I wanted to find a gun, I see this guy really well dressed and he had a gun, I had nothing. I waited until he is was not looking and I started to attack him, he was just freaking out and started shooting around, but I don’t know how he was missing so much, so I had a lucky hit and I killed the guy. He started freaking out again on the mic :))

    1. Haha that’s awesome :).

      I remember the first time I played DayZ, I teamed up with a guy so we could go find a vehicle, firearms, and a little ammunition. We were walking around for about 15 minutes when a guy pulls up in his car, tells us he found a chopper with a ton of supplies, and would like to split it with us. Like a couple of idiots we said, “yes,” and jumped in the car with him. We’re riding around with him for about 30 minutes talking to him on voice chat, getting to know him, making jokes, etc. Eventually we feel like we trust the guy, and he asks us for a little food. We have some, so we all get out of the car to initiate a trade with him and he shoots us in the head.

      So he steals all of our loot, tells us to “not trust anybody,” and we never see the guy again. I wanted to be mad, but it was so ridiculous that I couldn’t help but laugh :).

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