Steam users seem to have quite the affinity for survival-themed games, lately.
To name a few strong performers, there’s DayZ, Rust, 7 Days to Die. They’re all sold as in-development games, via Steam Early Access, and all of them give the player one main goal: to survive.
Last week, almost out of nowhere, a new survival contender showed up: The Forest from Endnight Games. The title shot to the very top of the charts within two hours of its launch.
The reason the game went straight to the top has partly to do with how the game already had a fan base before the alpha ever went on sale. The buzz for the game actually started with a trailer that accompanied the game’s successful Steam Greenlight campaign last summer. The game was promptly greenlit, and a second trailer helped the game gain even more interest.
“Apparently people are really into chopping down trees, and getting chased by cannibals,” laughs Mike Mellor, who’s working on A.I., design and programming for The Forest.
It also helps that the game is quite pretty, which can be attributed to the heavily-modified Unity engine and the fact that the four people who comprise Endnight come from the visual effects industry for film. The visuals and the survival premise have given players something to rally behind.
The game started as a one-person project by Endnight’s Ben Falcone. Burnt out by the movie industry, he left and took a year to make the iPad survival game, called Endnight. Following that project he started The Forest about a year ago.
“I wanted to do something bigger and use procedural generation,” he says. “I thought the forest would be a really good place to do that.”
The Forest actually begins in an airplane. In the next seat, a child is sleeping peacefully on your arm, when a sudden jolt occurs, and next thing you know, the front half of the plane is missing and you’re headed for a crash landing in the forest.
As you awake, a mysterious tribesman stands above you, and takes the child away. You lose consciousness again, then regain it and begin your fight for survival against hunger, cold, and some extremely creepy, cannibalistic enemies who tend to show up and do odd and violent things, when all you want to do is finish building your log cabin.
Developing in Early Access
Having interacted directly with the community during the Greenlight campaign, the team at Endnight seems comfortable, if not overworked, in developing a paid alpha. “We’ve had lots of 48-hour-straight ‘work days,’” says Falcone.
But Early Access was the best option for the team. Anna Terekhova, who works on interface, design, level layout and other areas of the game, says, “As a team of four people, it’s really difficult to release a full game, and get all the testing that we need. Early Access allows us to get the community involved and get the community involved and keep it going.”
Falcone says, “Spending all that time to get it to a final version is pretty much impossible for us. But we knew we could get a first alpha build.”
“At first we were all pretty nervous, but it’s pretty awesome to get a big list of bugs. Just getting a list of a hundred bugs, and just knocking out the bugs we missed is great,” he adds. “You do have some people who do expect it to be a finished, polished game. And it is strange when some sites review alpha copies of games, which is a bit bizarre. Reviewing the 0.01 version is probably not the best thing to do.”
The Forest’s approach to procedural generation
As other small-team game developers have realized, effective implementation of procedurally generated content can make up for the lack of studio personnel. The Forest uses a mix of procedural and non-procedural tools.
“The original intention was to procedurally generate everything, which we did early on,” says Falcone. “The issue is that it’s really boring. I find that any procedural game you play, you just start to see patterns and it’s just not as interesting when you can handcraft something and really dress it up.”
But that doesn’t mean everything in the game is handcrafted and hand-placed. The studio uses a system called Greeble, which is a way of procedurally placing objects, based on simple rules. This makes objects and items appear hand-placed, when it’s actually done procedurally. At the beginning of the game, the plane crashes at a random spot on the map as well, each time you play, giving a sense of variety and providing more replayability.
“We can have really distinct-looking areas. We’re such a small team, obviously we couldn’t lay out all that stuff. So it works out really well,” Falcone says.
Endnight’s a very young studio, and is approaching game development challenges in its own way, and questioning design tropes constantly.
“The biggest [challenge] is just making a game and taking a different path than a lot of games would,” says Falcone. “There was a point about three months ago where I was saying to Anna, ‘I wish we had just copied another game.’ Everything we do, we’ve been trying to rethink how it’s being done.” Features such as the 3D crafting system and the game's survival handbook went through hundreds of iterations before their current form. Everything is being made with VR compatibility in mind as well, adding an extra component of difficulty.
Falcone also says that getting the player to simply do something has been a challenge, especially when you want a truly open design that isn’t heavily based on missions and quests.
“The reason games bombard you with missions and pickups and collectibles and things to do is because otherwise the world feels dead. What do you do in a world where you’re not being forced to do anything?” he says. People would play the game and just not know what to do after stepping out of the plane’s wreckage at the start.
“Until we had enough elements in the game to make it interesting — lizards climbing trees, rabbits running around, plants all cuttable and destroyable — there were a few scary points where we thought maybe we should turn it into Far Cry 3,” he laughs.
Endnight is instead following its own vision for The Forest, and now that it’s selling well, the studio has a commitment to its players. Falcone expects the “final” version to launch around six months from now. In the meantime, the studio will be adding features, squashing bugs and learning the lessons taught by launching a game on Steam Early Access.
“That’s what we thought, that it could be as buggy as hell, but as long as the vision for the game came through, I felt that we’d be in a good place,” says Falcone. “And I feel like we got there, where it is super, super buggy, sometimes broken, but you can actually see the vision. I think for everyone in the audience, that’s the most important thing.”