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What makes a good survival game?

We asked two developers what they think makes a good survival game

The successful release of The Long Dark has shown us that there are many types of popular survival games. However, they all have very similar mechanics to each other. Despite this fact, many of them are able to stand alone from the crowded genre. Today we’ll be taking a look at what makes a good survival game and how these mechanics can help games stand out from the crowd.


All survival games have a similar narrative. The player is stranded somewhere and must survive. Some games such as The Long Dark have a strong narrative and plot which give the game structure. However, this isn’t the case for all games.

Henry Meyers, one of the programmers from Urvogel Games who is currently developing the dinosaur survival game Saurian spoke with me on the matter. He explained that while their game doesn’t have a traditional narrative there are still “narrative moments,” in the game which are generated from the gameplay. As a result, the player creates their own narrative as they playthrough the game and intereact with the AI.

While Saurian is still in Early Access, the game has so far been a success on Steam which suggests that a developer created narrative or plot may not be crucial for success.


Meyers from the Saurian team mentioned strong AI to me as being crucial for survival games however, players have a very different view. I spoke with some users on Reddit about what survival games do well. One user states that survival games usually have dumb AI or no AI. Due to the nature of a survival game, they can get away with having no AI enemies to threaten players as the environment itself can be a worthy foe on its own.

Saurian is filled with AI dinosaurs for the player to interact with. Their aim is to increase the “potential for unique, memorable experiences” through how the player and AI interact. Not all AI in the game wants to kill or harm the player everytime they cross paths. On the other side to this is 7 Days to Die which is filled with zombies which want to eat the player.


Rick Huenink, one of the founders of The Fun Pimps the developers of 7 Days to Die states that “a good survival game has lots of ways you can die”. In addition to this, they have “lots of ways to circumvent death”.

This is certainly true for Saurian as well where it’s possible to be crushed, eaten, dehydrate and starve to death. Other survival games such as The Long Dark, Rust and The Forest are filled with many possible ways to die. Death in a survival game is brutal as the player is forced to start the game over again. However, survival games typically have many ways to avoid death also such as by finding different items to recover health or to eat.

Survival games should naturally be difficult. However, what makes them difficult? That’s a difficult question to answer as different games put their own spin on it. This War of Mine for example adds morale dilemma to the mix and forces players to make difficult choices. These choices impact the survival of the group and has a lasting effect on the mood of the survivors also. Clearly then, this is a different level of difficulty to attempting to survive as a baby dinosaur in Saurian.


While neither developer I spoke to mentioned PVP, this was something at the forefront of the minds of players.

One player described the situation of PvP in survival games as “near hopeless”. While Rust is an incredible PvP survival game, it’s got to the point where players just run around trying to kill those who are newer to the server than them. It’s essentially open season on anyone who has just spawned into the server.

In survival games, PvP is typically not very well balanced and many games struggle with it in regarding to griefing, cheats and new player killing. It’s difficult to say if there’s any truly successful survival games in this regard. The one closest to success is most likely Minecraft. Mainly due to the fact the admin can ban those who cause trouble on the server, unless the admin is the one causing trouble that is.


Naturally, the gameplay is very important when it comes to a survival game but there tends to be very few differences between survival games. So, it’s not really worth talking about in any detail. However, Meyers from Saurian did make an interesting point. He states that if the game isn’t “narratively grounded, the mechanics and core gameplay loops need to be compelling”. Additionally, “if the game is narratively grounded the mechanics need to be designed around the narrative”. So the narrative and the gameplay are very closely linked them which explains why most survival games are very similar to each other.


The Survival genre is a very complicated one. There are many factors which determine if a game from this genre will be good, entertaining and successful. Despite this, it’s clear that the genre still struggles on certain aspects such as PvP. As a result, players have come to expect certain things from this genre and their demands have adjusted accordingly. New games such as Saurian are looking to change this however by focusing on areas previously ignored by the genre.


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