Contemporary games in the survival genre suffer from a severe, almost ubiquitous, design failure, that of Hunger & Thirst systems. It’s a necessary mechanic in the eyes of developers, and that view isn’t necessarily wrong, but almost every implementation of hunger and thirst I’ve ever seen lacks the finesse necessary to sell it as anything but a source of frustration.
RUST, for example, routinely throws you into the game world buck naked with your very own pet rock and near empty hunger/thirst bars. You strike out on an exhaustive item looting streak in the search for food, only to find yourself stranded in the woods with your health ticking down to zero and no food in sight. There’s no mushrooms, no pigs to hunt, no deer, just yet another dead end session where you collapse onto the floor wondering why you just spent the last 30 minutes playing, the infinite possibilities spawned by the rare items you found in your short life collapsing before you in an instant. What lesson does the player really learn from this outcome other than that the game world is capricious, needlessly cruel, and tedious?
Minecraft fares slightly better, only punishing the player through a reduction of health regeneration, but eventually turning into damage over time if the player allows it to go below a certain threshold of hunger. Thankfully one will never find themselves falling over from failing to find a timely food cart in the wilderness, but you will find yourself in a tense place of vulnerability, providing the necessary motivation to indulge the primal urge to hunt down a terrifying pig.
Still, something doesn’t quite feel right about all of this, you’ll often find yourself in the late game scenario as a powerful walking god clad in battle armor complete with advanced weaponry, with no need for sustenance or succor that cannot be immediately fulfilled at your whim. However, that early game plight continues to haunt you through the entire experience without rational justification, and nothing is more obnoxious than an epic adventure coming to an abrupt and absurd conclusion because you didn’t stuff enough meat into your pockets, after all, few epics end because the Grecian hero heard his stomach rumbling. As much as I love logistical ramifications in gameplay, it works against you here, immediately ripping the player out of any sense of immersion and narrative progression while discarding the priorities at hand.
Late game mechanics in survival games should reflect the nature of the player’s achievements, to be liberated from scavenging trash piles like a rat when you’re an otherwise near-mythic entity. Minecraft and RUST both try to address this through utterly broken farming mechanics that rely on farcical agriculture, walls of hand-planted corn stretching out haphazardly in every direction to routinely snag when sprinting past on the way to rain unholy fury upon your enemies, only to be delayed on your quest by the promise of delicious corn.
We should strive to experiment with systems that reward instead of punish the player for a routine and natural state we all find ourselves in from time to time. Alternatively we should at least employ an internally consistent model, taking hydration into greater consideration than hunger. Outside of games, good food can provide us energy, but can also slow down our metabolism, leaving us nearly as lethargic and tired as someone in the early throes of starvation, yet no one appears to be penalizing gluttony.
A lot of MMORPGs treat consumables as unique buff items that provide marginal perks available to all players, encouraging you to plan for optimal outcomes in exchange for marginal investments of time and resources. It’s a far smarter model that rewards the player for thinking ahead without hampering their immersion or putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of larger plans.
Too often, survival games feel like work, a time sink that drains morale instead of a delightful escape or break from the mundane. It’s hard enough to juggle materials for crafting and struggle against other players without being weighed down by tired design tropes. We can and should do better as designers to provide players with meaningful, compelling incentives that provide encouragement instead of discouraging the joy that can often spring forth from the sandbox of possibilities. After all, it’s the role of a developer to provide a healthy framework that provides incentive for adventurers, anything else can fall easily into just another chore that dumps the player’s mindset right back into their daily grind.
Next time you reflect on how to approach a game mechanic, strive for the mantra of empowerment instead of simple, tedious maintenance.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice