Veteran developer Jeremy Wood pulls no punches before he rolls out the pitch for Frostkeep Studios “Rend,” the game he’s been diligently cranking away at for more than two years. “Simply put, most of the time, most survival games just aren’t that fun,” he says, as the producer piloting the demo hacks away at a tiny tree to gather wood for his all-important settlement. “There’s a kernel of brilliance there that keeps people going, but the overall design isn’t conducive to interesting play. Players aren’t really incentivized to cooperate, or to play in an interesting way. Frankly, we hope to change that.”
It’s an intriguing statement, but it has a familiar ring to it – you can almost hear it echo all around the clogged halls of the LA Convention Center, especially during E3. But who can blame him? After all, every game developer wants to be the maven who unlocked the secret of the Next Big Thing, like Brendan “Playerunknown” Greene, who transformed the concept of “battle royale” from a cult Japanese manga into a household name with last year’s shooter mega-hit “PUBG.”
But, to Wood’s credit, his words carry a certain truth: while survival games like “Ark” and “Rust” often crowd near the very top of Steam’s play-charts, even hardcore enthusiasts continue to knock the heavy-hitters for a multitude of lingering issues, such as a misshapen power curve, excessive monetization, and rampant griefing. “When you join a server in one of these games, you immediately get harassed by whatever mega-guild has set up shop there over the past six months,” he says. “And if you get on their bad side, they can basically just ruin the game for you until you quit or they get bored.”
Frostkeep’s solution to this problem is to gently swing away from the deeply-popular “go-anywhere, do-anything” mantra that has guided the genre over the past few years, instead honing in on a tighter goal: explicit competition. Unlike most survival games, “Rend” ties itself irrevocably to a distinct set of goals that explorers of its fathomless lands of plenty must reach towards, or risk being run out by their fellow players – survive and thrive, or else.
Like many massively multiplayer online games, players align themselves with one of three different factions that play essentially the same, but who hoist forth different aspects of the gaming experience – according to Wood, one is known for trolling, while another is regarded as promoting a more newbie-friendly disposition. “We didn’t write or design that, by the way,” he says. “We just rolled out the names, and the community sorted themselves, and we were so amazed with the results that we eventually baked it into the lore.”
These guildmates work together to gather resources and fortify their encampments ahead of attacks from abroad. Though your central hub is protected by a magical wall of force – ensuring that your loot won’t get stolen while you’re rotting away at your 8-to-5, or sleeping off an eight-hour build session – these “bubbles” aren’t completely impregnable. Twice a week at a preordained time that Frostkeep dubs the “Reckoning,” the ripples die away, and the factions are free to attack the entire range of their foe’s holdings with the full heft of their war machine. To Wood, these clashes between twenty-or-so teammates fulfill one of the core promises of the survival genre, which rarely goes fulfilled in their more free-form competitors – all-out combat with real stakes. “In these games, it always feels like it would be cool for two big groups to go at it, but the incentives rarely make it happen,” says Wood. “In our game, we try to make it happen.”
Wood emphasizes that armed conflict isn’t limited to these timed events; rather, players should expect small skirmishes to constantly break out around the landscape, especially around strategic placements. While I couldn’t actually take a shot at the helm myself, Wood describes the combat system as more reminiscent of “Rust” than “Ark,” partially owing to the unwieldy nature of melee combat under heavy latency, with fantasy armaments that fit into the typical shooter milieu, like a crossbow that fires thick clusters of arrows with every trigger-pull. While your HQ might lie under protection from raiders, your outlying waypoints are always vulnerable to enemy attack, with each giving you a unique bonus while it lies under your control.
Though it remains to be seen whether Frostkeep can manage to make a sizable dent in the colossal market share of their genre-brethren, for my money, “Rend” has all the makings of an underground hit. It certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but for those who delight in spending dozens of hours a week grinding away at a month-long battle of attrition between dedicated frontiersmen, it might be worth a look when it finally enters beta later this year.