Conan Exiles Re-Revisited
Sandbox games and I don’t usually see eye to eye. Thus far I’ve only gotten one to work on a wavelength that I can be interested in, which is why I feel bad about having picked up Conan Exiles. Twice.
See, I’m not averse to evaluating games as they come. If there’s a game that looks cool, or has excite people I trust, then I’ll consider it even if it’s in a genre that I usually steer clear of (notable exception: Blizzard games, because people are irrationally excited about Blizzard games all the damn time). When Conan Exiles hit early access (EA) I had absolutely no intention of getting roped into this survivalbox game. I had tried ARK, H1Z1, Rust, Planet Explorers, et al., and of the long list of games the only one I liked was Eden Star because it was the most forgiving of all of them, IMO.
But as you may know, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to git with other people when I feel that the gittin’ is good, and this seemed like a great opportunity. I had two groups of folks who were starting up paid servers, so I bought the game and jumped in with the rest of them to make my way in Hyboria, a place I admit I know very little about.
I died. A lot. I got lost. A lot. I collected a bunch of stuff and lost it all…a lot. It didn’t take long before I was asking myself what the hell I was thinking. How the hell was this considered fun? My staple requirements for enjoying a game are that I have a fighting chance and that I see myself progress, neither of which was happening here. While I was within Steam’s refund window, I resigned myself to the fact that survivalbox games aren’t for me, and requested a refund.
Being me, however, means never having to stick to my guns. It was only a few days of keeping up with the activity on the servers by listening to folks in Discord that I started to think that I didn’t give the game a fair shake. So I bought it again. This time, though, I put my head down and charged through it. I took it slow, keeping my wits about me and making sure I wasn’t in a situation where I was overwhelmed. I spent a lot of time gathering food and water. I spent a whole lot of time harvesting rocks and wood and fiber from shrubs and trees. I build a small rectangular house where I could throw down my spawn-point bedding, and I was pretty impressed with myself…until I looked over the yard and saw the palaces and fortresses that other people were making.
I don’t have the stomach for the kind of work that I need to do in Conan Exiles. My time consisted of collecting rocks and sticks and grass. Eventually, I would be able to make a wall or a ceiling tile. Of course, I always had to stop harvesting to spend materials on repairing tools. And of course I always had to interrupt my harvesting or repairing to gather food and water. I ended up spending far too much time doing repetitive work and that kind of bothered me.
Syp of Bio Break fame asked why can’t he get into survivalbox games and proceeded to list of his requirements. That got me focused in on what I feel is throwing me off this genre myself:
- All work and no play. If I wanted to spend my evenings performing tasks for very little payout, I’d stay at the office. Zing! But seriously.
- Ultragrind. Survivalbox games are all about starting with nothing and making something. In order to do that, they mete out bigger and better things so you feel like you’re “growing” as a character in skill and reward. But in order to realize that, you need to break a lot of rocks, feel a lot of trees, and thatch a lot of roofs. A massive portion of these games is just you spending the time harvesting resources to build, and then to maintain, if not your tools and structures, then yourself.
- Kill or be killed. Supposedly, Conan Exiles has a narrative in there, but most survialbox games don’t. They rely strictly on interpersonal conflict, and rely on it in some of the most agonizingly antagonistic ways possible. Your body doesn’t vanish when you log out, meaning people can kill and loot you when you can do nothing about it. People can trash your structures (see points one and two above for the ramifications of that). PvP is really the foundation of survivalbox games the same way it is for pretty much every flippin’ mobile kingdom builder game is — hurry up and build your defenses before other tribes find you, because people are dicks, and dicks are the kind of people we’re courtin’.
- Lack of purpose. If you’re not into PvP, tough shit. Hope you brought a stack of magazines to keep you busy in between the days worth of harvesting you’ll be doing.
- Missing the potential.
It’s that last point that makes me sad. Survivalbox games are great in theory. Remember TV shows like Earth 2, Terra Nova or even Battlestar Galactica? Those were shows about people in environments where they had to survive, and they didn’t do it by quarrying rocks to build mediocre huts. They worked together to make something in the face of having nothing, and while we can do that in survivalbox games, the only mechanically supported reason why we would is for protection against other players.
Instead, I’d love to see a game in this genre whose mechanics throw people across the map without a GLOBAL channel. Players have to work together in tribes because each player can only learn so many tradeskills, and all tradeskills are needed to make a building, and then a village. Specialists are always in demand, so it’s important to not reject someone who happens along with a skillset that your group doesn’t have. And even then, take in refugees with redundant skills because not everyone can be online 24/7.
Then strike out and explore. These games need reasons to venture out that aren’t strictly about finding better resources programmed to spawn further from the starting points. Resources can come in many guises, like recipes, retainers, or even ruins that can be repaired and used. Fight the flora and fauna in dungeons, or go on a rescue mission to retrieve a tribe member who went missing.
And eventually, tribe will meet tribe. But maybe eradication doesn’t need to be the default diplomacy. Trade routes should be considered. Maybe tribes have been focusing on different aspects, like minerals versus crops. Maybe there’s an exchange of knowledge. Maybe there’s a need to reach a critical mass of players to undertake a common project.
These are the kind of actions that build worlds. What we have now are neolithic Hunger Games scenario-builders, except you don’t get a nice house in a shitty district for surviving…just more rock splitting and tree collecting over and over and over. Once again, I regret my second-time-is-not-always-the-charm purchase of Conan Exiles, but I suppose it being the impetus for this post serves as a warning to my future self not to fall in with the hype for a genre that I have never been able to find purchase in.