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Multiplayer survival-crafting games lack a succinct acronym or single genre-defining style, but they’re absolutely taking over the world of modern online gaming. Older MMORPG behemoths like World of Warcraft have begun a steady decline while there doesn’t appear to be any stopping the new juggernauts like ARK: Survival Evolved. These new breeds of shared sandbox worlds evolved from Minecraft and traditional MMORPGs that had dominated the last decade and a half of online gaming.
MMORPGS: The Rise and Fall
The modern video game industry grew up alongside the rise of the internet, from dial-up modems tying up phone lines to being able to stream games online and store your entire life in the cloud. Massively Multiplayer Role-Playing Games began cropping up as early as text adventures and crude pixelated games in the early 90s – most with exorbitant subscription fees that caused many a parent to faint when they saw their phone bill.
In the late 90s gaming began testing the waters of truly massive online servers with thousands of users. Emerging 3D technology helped shape new virtual worlds that players could only dream of a few short years prior. Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Asheron’s Call paved the way for even larger worlds and universes like Dark Age of Camelot, EVE Online, and Star Wars Galaxies.
The year 2004 alone saw three incredibly huge, genre-defining MMORPG releases: City of Heroes, EverQuest II, and World of Warcraft. You don’t need to be a gamer to recognize one of those games as the most popular MMORPG of all time, reaching over 10 million subscribers in 2014.
World of Warcraft wasn’t the first MMORPG but it is the last survivor of the traditional subscription-based model. WoW exploded the MMORPG market in a genre that was already seeing massive growth.
Major publishers began scrambling to concoct their own WoW. In the last decade we had the Matrix Online, Guild Wars 1 and 2, The Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, Champions Online, Neverwinter, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Even traditionally single-player franchises like Final Fantasy and The Elder Scrolls embraced MMORPG spin-off entries.
The MMORPG bubble began bursting nearly as quickly as it started. While everyone can have a different definition of what constitutes success and failure in the MMORPG world, the goal of all of these games was to produce ongoing gaming experiences that would last for years. Nearly every single monthly subscription model failed in the long run, with the 13-year old World of Warcraft being a notable exception.
Save for the occasional oddity, it’s unheard of for a MMORPG to launch with a subscription model these days. Nearly every MMORPG has had to completely shift their revenue model from subscription into either free-to-play with microtransactions or simply relying on an upfront box cost plus paid DLC. The Elder Scrolls Online represents the rare success story of the latter, shifting to a “buy-to-play” model one year after its release, and releasing its first major paid expansion earlier this year.
Your World, Crafted
But the traditional WoW-style MMORPG has become quaint when faced with the explosive new genre of Survival-Crafting games.
Minecraft changed everything. It birthed an entirely new genre based on gathering resources, shaping the world around you, and sharing it with others. And it didn’t require a monthly subscription.
This new genre of games has steadily risen in popularity over the last several years. Minecraft begat single-player survival adventures like The Long Dark, Stranded Deep, and Subnautica, 2D pixelated adventures like Terraria and Starbound, and online first-person worlds like Rust, Osiris: New Dawn, and ARK: Survival Evolved.
They take full advantage of a generation who’s grown up with high-speed internet, YouTube, and livestreaming. These games provide tense, unpredictable gameplay with heartbreaking losses and hard-fought victories, all in real-time.
This week alone sees the Early Access launch of two more online survival-crafting games – Dark and Light and Citadel: Forged with Fire. Both games could trace their genus back to ARK: Survival Evolved, which debuted on Steam Early Access in 2015 and is launching in a few weeks on August 8. These games effectively blur the line between the Massively Multiplayer Online games that were all the rage a decade ago and the new world order of Minecraft-like shared worlds and private servers.
Theme Park vs Sandbox
Most MMORPGs subsisted on the Theme Park concept. The world was set up like one grand amusement park, with everyone standing around ready to dole out quests to park-goers. It was fun to explore the park and ride the rides, but at some point you could see everything. Your mark upon the world typically ended with customizing your own character with bigger and better stuff. Regular expansions added new theme park zones to explore, but in the end it was your guild or friends that kept you coming back, not the rides or gear.
Many Survival-Crafting games generate a completely random, empty world. Your world. You, along with friends and/or random strangers (depending on the server), help create the world around you. There may be existing cities and NPCs in place, or a meticulously crafted island. But you construct the houses, tame the beasts, and assault player-built fortresses. It’s a sandbox waiting to be built.
Their worlds aren’t quite as massive, instead relying on relatively smaller areas for more densely packed content and crowded neighbors who incite conflict. Servers are more democratized, with the best games offering both hardcore PvP options and more friendly cooperative atmospheres. The downside of free-form servers is they open up to hacking and cheating problems, which feels like an accepted trait that comes with the territory these games provide.
As a parent it can be difficult to navigate the murky world of online gaming. Due to the nature of building and sharing in these survival-crafting games, there’s an even greater risk of frustration, loss, and all manner of negativity, regardless of the game’s rating. Thankfully with so many games to choose from, it’s possible to steer your younger children in a direction you deem more appropriate, such as Dragon Quest Builders instead of Rust.
You can discuss with your children about what games they’re playing and why they’re playing them. Building a world together with friends can be an incredibly nurturing, positive experience at a time when many kids and teens feel they may lack control over their lives, or simply want to hang out with friends.
Only time will tell if this is the 2004 of Survival-Crafting games. We’ve seen some explosive growth in the last few years. According to Steam’s player counts, some of the more popular games in the genre like Rust and ARK: Survival Evolved hit 40-50,000 players every day, and both are still in Early Access. Meanwhile Final Fantasy XIV and The Elder Scrolls Online – hugely recognizable gaming franchises, enjoy a much more humble 10-15,000 players.
Since they don’t rely on monthly subscriptions the market may be much kinder than the MMORPGs of yesteryear. But one thing all these games have in common is they demand a large amount of time and dedication. You start with nothing and have to work hard to do everything, building your own theme park before you can ride any rides. It can be incredibly rewarding, as well as overwhelmingly frustrating.
Either way most gamers can only dedicate their time to one of these games at a time. It’s exciting to have so many new avenues to explore within a still relatively new genre. But history tells us it’s also a bubble preparing to burst, and only the best games will survive.