The Black Death, video game, box art, title, medieval, rain, knights, town, sword, archer, peasants, fight, clouds, thatched house

Surviving the survival genre

Back in September 2015, an increase in horror games led me to write an article about the best and worst of the genre. Interactivity and adrenaline rushes make for amazing experiences while video games themselves give developers a medium that provides so much freedom and creativity; but on the other hand, a generalisation of the category has increased an influx of subpar titles in an oversaturated market. There are almost 900 entries listed under the ‘Horror’ tag on Steam right now and that’s not to mention the additional 200 admissions on Steam Greenlight.

It’s a similar flooding that has afflicted the survival genre during the past year or so. Perhaps its popularity can be attributed to the fact that gamers love exploring open words and multiplayer survival games offer the possibility that these environments are more than just pretty textures. But with acclaim comes oversaturation and we’re now stuck with a huge amount of inferior releases which recycle a formula that revolves around building-stuff and building-more-stuff-with-the-stuff-you-just-built.

In addition, many survival titles become stuck in Early Access for long periods or possibly forever, possibly due to goals that are too ambitious or a lack of funding. The situation has created a negative perception of the platform among gamers with Tyler Wilde writing for PC Gamer:

I’m not saying online, open-world survival games should go away, but this constant stream of glitchy Early Access ‘me too’ games feels like a lot of wasted talent. There are so many clones to sift through that I’ve lost faith in the whole genre. Please, don’t make me cut down any more trees. My arms are tired.

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At the EGX expo in September 2016, I had the opportunity to watch a session hosted by Small Impact Games where they discussed how to ‘survive survival’ and what they’re hoping to do differently. Pete Harries, James Rowbotham, Cameron Small and Mitch Small spoke openly about the double-edged sword of Early Access and the issues they’ve faced in speaking to the community about an unfinished game.

Since being released onto the platform in April last year, their massively-multiplayer-online (MMO) The Black Death has faced plenty of criticism. Only 48% of people rated it as positive in Steam reviews on its initial day with many highlighting bugs, empty servers and poor quality levels: a higher-than-expected volume of revealed technical and optimisation issues. With one of the first reviewers going so far as to write ‘not sure if this Rust clone is really this messed up or if we are being trolled’, the Small Impact team had plenty of experience to draw upon during their presentation.

They began by covering the pitfalls of the genre and in particular picked up on one of my own personal grievances. Zombies have become a survival trope, an overused archetype of a nemesis, and an overwhelming number of releases rely on them as the central enemy type throughout their entire gameplay. Animator Rowbotham explained that they aimed to actively avoid the undead and other clichés during The Black Death’s development – although they still earned a ‘another zombie survival game’ comment on this YouTube video.

Despite the stigma attached to Early Access, this was the route taken by Small Impact and the benefits realised because of it were examined during the session. Their project’s Steam page advises:

…we want players to join us in shaping this new medieval role-playing experience that offers a unique take on survival. As a multiplayer game, continuous community feedback is vital for us to enhance and evolve the strong foundations that we have built. This is your chance to get involved.

And enhance their title using community feedback is exactly what they did. Responses received from players resulted in ‘fluid changes in the direction of development’ and inspired the team to implement a quality system for items where, for instance, better cotton means better bandages and therefore increased healing. Additionally, the comments gave insight into how their game was being played so they could ensure functionality and items couldn’t be misused. As said by Small during the presentation: “Look at Twitch – and then make sure you fix whatever is being abused!”

But there’s a downside to Early Access too and the developer realises they should have treated The Black Death’s release on the platform as a real launch: an unfinished project doesn’t mean gamers are going to be any more sympathetic when it comes to bugs and other problems. The team revealed how easy it is to get bogged down by negative comments but it’s important not to focus on them and instead take out what’s useful. For example, one player stated that the title was ‘pure cancer’ in their review after around 20 minutes of playtime; Producer Harries described how this was taken as an indication that the early game needed improvement and allowed them to focus their efforts accordingly.

Steam advises developers to be careful when responding to unfavourable reviews but gamers who are informed and feel as if they’re helping tend to be a lot happier than those who don’t. Small Impact explained that they reply to individual players to let them know when a bug resulting in a poor experience has been fixed, and hopefully this will go some way towards persuading that person to give The Black Death another chance.

Although I experienced the title at a few events last year, I haven’t yet played it for any great length of time. It would therefore be unfair of me to comment on whether the negative reviews are justified so I reached out to Hudson for his opinion. Here’s what he had to say on the matter:

Survival is a busy genre right now, and being a big fan of it I’ve played my fair share and generally keep an eye on new survival games. The Black Death does a great job of standing out with a unique take – trying to avoid the plague – and medieval feel. Being able to buy properties and play as different classes is also something you don’t see very often.

However, I think it was released a little too early. When it first hit there were still a lot of features being worked on and a couple more months behind closed doors would have been beneficial. It’s also a bit dead: severs are ghost towns most of the time, which is a shame.

There will always be hyperbolic reviews that are way over the top and it seems like sometimes people don’t really take on-board the Early Access thing. They can be very quick to judge nowadays and will write off releases within an hour or less. Whilst some of the complaints are justified, I can still see potential in the game.

Small Impact are slowly managing to reverse the negative opinions. Their project was patched within its first 24-hours in order to fix smaller issues, while bigger problems were worked on over the next week and stability was prioritised. They’re also focusing on building the community’s trust and this is something that Hudson picked up on:

I’ve spoken with the developers on Twitter and they’ve always been chatty and engaging. They put out regular updates with dev blogs to let people know what’s going on, which is great to see. I feel like they’ve always been transparent and upfront about The Black Death’s progress and that’s essential for developers with an Early Access project.

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Indeed, the main thing I took away from chatting to Rowbotham, Harries and Community Manager Emily Jane Barber at the EGX expo was just how much they care about their players. They had such a positive attitude despite the criticism aimed at their game, and it was inspiring to see how they’re turning even the worst of feedback into something that will enable them to improve The Black Death going forward. It’s an approach which seems to be having an effect: that 48% rating on Steam reviews has now increased to 60% and with development continuing, the figure will hopefully rise even higher.

As soon as I’ve had the opportunity to play The Black Death properly myself, I’ll report back with my findings – and in the meantime, the best of luck to the Small Impact Games team.

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