H1Z1 – 5 Things Sony Online Entertainment Have To Get Right

H1Z1
It’s barely been 24 hours since Sony Online Entertainment and John Smedley revealed their latest free-to-play MMO but the survival community is already throwing up concerns surrounding the features of H1Z1. Information is still a little on the thin side but we do know that H1Z1 will utilized SOE’s proprietary next-gen Forgelight engine, the same engine used in PlanetSide 2, and we also know details surrounding some of the games features.

H1Z1 will have a heavy focus on survival and crafting, allowing players to form groups and construct safe houses to protect themselves and allies against the endless onslaught of the undead and groups of bandit players. Current gameplay footage also shows working vehicles in the game although Smedley has stated that players will need to collect a variety of different items in order to make vehicles roadworthy, after-all it’s 15 years after the apocalypse.

So far much of the information revealed could be tied to a number of other zombie related online titles such as Rust and DayZ. However, many of today’s most popular survival titles all share very similar flaws and it’s these flaws that SOE need to counter if they hope to make H1Z1 the game changer they claim it to be.

GameTalk Live had an early exclusive with John Smedley and H1Z1 and they have just released a new YouTube video showcasing some gameplay and many of the elements I’ll discuss in this article. You can check out the video in full below:

Attack VS Defense

A problem that’s not exclusive to the survival genre but one that’s present nonetheless, the critically important balance of attacking and defending. This mechanic only really appears in survival games that allow for player construction, such as Rust and 7 Days to Die. In these games players can spend hundreds of hours gathering resources and materials to build their own personal stronghold but in every title, this work can be undone in a matter of hours.

Balancing the ability to protect what’s yours while also maintaining the apocalyptic feeling of a world gone mad is no easy task. Players have to be able to defend their valuables but it’s just as important that other players can take them away. If you were able to stockpile medical supplies, weapons, food and other valuables, the fear of survival would be non-existent – thus making the entire survival genre a bit vacant.

However, the polar opposite can be just as damaging to the player experience. If it’s too easy to destroy the hard work of others, people just won’t bother. The realistic scenario of groups holding up and finding defensive locations would be replaced with roaming groups of bandits shooting anything with a pulse – or without in some cases. It’s not that the latter is entirely unrealistic in a survival scenario but it’s a balance of both that’s required for the experience to be unique among the other zombie survival games.

The solution is not an obvious one and I’m not certain SOE will even see it as a problem. However, if their claims of a bringing the genre to the next level are true, H1Z1 will really need something special to counter the many issues presented when the ability to dig in is available.

Player Progression

Even discussing the potential of player progression relating to H1ZI is a little bit pointless. During the interview with GameTalk Live Smed stated that there was no traditional character progression. No levels, no skills. People will take his comment in different ways but to me personally, it sounds like there aren’t any plans for any form of character progression whatsoever. The game has only just been announced so it’s a little early to call doom and gloom on anything yet but the absence of any sort of progression could be a huge negative for many MMO fans.

The very foundations of the MMO genre itself are the total opposite of that approach. As players invest more time into the game, they expect more in return. Whether that be new abilities, new enemies to encounter or new gear, all it comes hand in hand with the definition of the genre itself.

It’s an element that’s lacking in most of the recently released zombie survival games but them most aren’t really MMO’s either. H1Z1 will support thousands of players on a single server, over 10x that of what similar games support today.

The lack of player progression doesn’t necessarily mean MMO players won’t enjoy the experience, but it’s a time tested recipe and it works. Whether or not they’ll be willing to embrace a new approach is yet to be seen but I for one cannot see myself enjoying a game with such a heavy element of risk vs reward but without the progression.

Death Mechanics

Innovation surrounding death mechanics is a little absent in today’s zombie survival genre. Practically all of the games available today use the same approach. You die, you lose everything. There are slight variations depending on the game you’re playing but they all aim to deliver the same experience – the fear of death. In a world where respawns are just a click away players have become comfortable and past efforts have shown hardcore death mechanics are not always welcomed by the gaming community.

This is another challenge that SOE will have to overcome if they want to appeal to the larger audience. I won’t argue that there’s a hardcore corner of the market that crave these types of death penalties, but it’s not for the everyday gamer. You get in from work, dust yourself off and explore the online world of H1Z1 for the first time. You gather some loot, meet some players and survive the undead – only to get killed minutes before logging off and finding yourself starting in the exact same state the next day.

This presents another problem that is, in my opinion, the greatest flaw in any type of competitive gaming. The casuals never progress. Hardcore or players with more time to dedicate to the game become top of the food chain but due to gear, not individual skill. Anyone with less time to spare is just cannon fodder – presenting a walking meat sack of supplies to anyone with the arsenal to take it. There’s nothing wrong with rewarding your more dedicated players but when it comes to the survival genre, the typical MMO-esque incentives don’t work.

Rust has what I personally consider to be the best death mechanic of the zombie survival genre. Upon death a player loses all the items and gear they were carrying, but the skills and recipes they’ve learned remain. This offers an exciting combination that drives the adrenaline fueled response of loss on death while also maintaining some level of progression so the player is constantly moving forward – at least in one aspect.

The lack of player progression severely hinders the potential death mechanics SOE could use. Although we know very little about the feature itself, it’s safe to say from Smed’s comment that it’s a full loot PvP system. Check the end of the video for the full lowdown.

Supporting The Lone Wolf

It sounds like an oxymoron but some players do enjoy the MMO experience without the massively multiplayer aspect. DayZ, Rust, 7 Days to Die, they all offer the excitement and challenge of survival – an element rarely explored in the traditional single player games. Today’s offline experiences tend to rely on the ancient approach to telling a story, they need a beginning, a middle and an end. MMO games don’t take that same approach so they can offer more open-ended gameplay which is rare in the single player field. I can’t deny titles like The Elder Scrolls, Far Cry and Grand Theft Auto V all deliver an exhilarating open world experience, but even in those games it doesn’t conjure the same emotions.

Repeating a task in any of the aforementioned titles will eventually become tedious. Whether you’re dumping hookers in the river or slaying dragons on the mountainside, eventually you return to the games natural progressive nature. The MMO format provides a different approach. Sure survival in itself doesn’t sound all that appealing but when you consider the myriad of micro-elements and features within that specific goal, it’s a lot more diverse.

But herein lies the problem. The Lone Wolves of the MMO world are constantly pushed aside for their more social comrades. Players are forced to group for dungeons, defeat difficult bosses to progress through the story, and join raid groups to enjoy the end-game content – very few MMO’s actually allow players to progress without at some point being forced to group with others.

This issue is even more prevalent in the survival genre. Think Call of Duty on a massive scale in a 5v1 match. It doesn’t matter how good you are, come the end of the day you’re going to lose the battle. This causes solo players to alienate themselves from the game completely, feeling as if their journey means very little when it meets such an abrupt end every time.

It could well be that SOE have no intention of catering to the lone player experience, but not everyone has lines of friends waiting to log in and the survival genre itself appeals to a far broader range of player.

If you’re reading this it’s likely that you’ve enjoyed the experience on offer in the likes of DayZ, Rust and 7 Days to Die. How many times have you found yourself totally at the mercy of a large group of players? It can sometimes be a memorable experience but for the most part, it ends up with your corpse getting tea bagged and your well earned loot getting robbed. I’m not denying the competitive nature of multiplayer gaming but the survival genre never makes it beneficial to actually take a moment to think.

Without some kind of system or feature in place to support communication, outside of trade, I fear H1Z1 will become little more than a PvP on a large-scale – in other words, DayZ.

Looting System

One of the biggest problems shared with games throughout the zombie genre is the looting system. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Rust, DayZ or 7 Days to Die. If you’ve played one or all you’re undoubtedly familiar with the exploration lacking reward mechanic. Too many of today’s zombie survival games see players walking for hours on end for very little reward, often discovering a few low tiered items that don’t have much use as other players have recently scavenged everything of worth.

Many games have tried to implement innovative solutions to this problem but for the most part, they’ve yet to succeed. You can spend hours exploring today’s zombie titles and return with just a few hats and useless medical supplies, often leaving players with a sour taste after spending much of their day playing the game, yet having very little to show for it.

Then there’s the games that have taken the total opposite approach to looting – including too many items. DayZ is the perfect example of this. You can find dozens of items that by themselves are totally useless. Requiring other items in order to become effective. This is present across the board, from medical supplies to weapons and customization features. So instead of leaving players disappointed with the lack of loot they instead feel overwhelmed with too many items, not enough space, and the frustration of needing to find almost as many items just to make the original set useful.

I have been covering Sony Online Entertainment’s MMO games for many years. From EverQuest to PlanetSide 2 and EverQuest Next, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in that time it’s this. They rise to the challenge each and every time. The reinvented the MMOFPS genre with the PlanetSide franchise and EverQuest Next is shaping up to do the same for the MMORPG world. If there’s one developer that can force the evolution of the zombie survival genre, it’s SOE.

What are your thoughts? Do you think the current mechanics and features spread throughout the zombie survival genre are fit to continue or do we need a fresh approach? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.