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Why Shooter Survival Modes are so Successful
by Joshua McDonald on 03/31/10 11:54:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

I'm not sure who started it, but over the past few couple years, most shooters have been adding in a survival mode, and player response tends to be extremely positive. In my own case, I'm a huge fan of Gears of War 2, but I've never touched the campaign: I just play Horde mode.

If you analyze these against prevailing viewpoints on what makes a game good, you would expect them to be generally uninteresting: No story, no character development, no puzzles, unchanging landscape, etc. So how is it that you can cut most of a game out and find something that many people like even better than what you originally created?

First, survival mode is pure core gameplay. All of the things I listed above can be fun, but they can also be a distraction from the fun (if the core game is good enough). If you want to sit down and shoot some stuff, you don't have to wait for cutscenes or play "Simon Says". Further, instead of trying to learn new landscape, you're focusing on developing tactics for an environment that you're already familiar with. Basically, survival mode just focuses on the best part of the game and tosses out the rest.

Second, survival mode is less scripted. Many of us don't feel much satisfaction from following the pre-planned track that the designers came up with. In campaigns, vehicles, weapons, cover placement, and many other things are carefully placed so that each player runs through roughly the same experience. In survival mode, sure there's careful placement, but there isn't a clear path or an apparent "best" method. It falls on the player's shoulders to find the method that works best for him in a given situation.

Finally, survival mode has unlimited (or at least absurdly high) difficulty potential. Shooters tend to do a better job of implementing high difficulties than most games do (though you always have that crowd who wants something harder), but even in those, the situation is often so scripted that there's not much room to formulate new strategies (i.e. if you can't get headshots off faster, this part will always be impossible on top difficulty).

With that in mind, there's no reason that similar gameplay modes couldn't be made for different genres. Viewtiful Joe could have had an amazingly cool survival mode for a minuscule amount of development time. Zelda could have a carefully crafted room that allowed you to make tactical use of all of your gadgets to hold off waves of enemies.

Finally, this would be an awesome feature to add to RPGs, particularly those with a higher tactical potential. In games like Baldur's Gate, Final Fantasy, or Fire Emblem, I'm constantly working to develop the perfect, super-powered group, but the only thing I can do with it is play out the script (with the occasional side-quest thrown in). In fact, if I'm successful in making my super-party, the game becomes really easy.

When you've finished carrying your party through a 40+ hour scenario, it would be cool to have a gameplay mode simply designed to test how awesome you managed to make them. Heck, I'd probably replay some RPG's in their entirety with my entire focus devoted to making a group that could get as far in this special mode as possible.

Overall, I believe that in nearly all games with fun core gameplay, there can be a lot of added value for little cost by adding in a pure gameplay mode. I just hope that more designers start to see the potential.

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Prash Nelson-Smythe
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Early arcade games were all essentially survival modes. They started easy and the difficulty ramped up until you died. Then you got a score to prove it. So it is perhaps *the* oldest idea in gaming but it is making a recent comeback. There is something quite raw and pure about it. There is something very satisfying about gradually increasing difficulty and as you say it doesn't hurt the ratio of game longevity to development time. The low level of asset production required is probably why the first video games used this technique.

Jonathon Walsh
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Dawn of War 2 has had a lot of success with their co-op last stand mode. I think one of the big reasons its so popular is that it's one of the most effective ways to implement a co-op gameplay with unscripted behavior. Co-op + people panicking is instant fun.

Kyle Jansen
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You mentioned that a survival mode would work well in Zelda. Isn't that effectively what the Cave of Ordeals (Twilight Princess) and Savage Labyrinth (Windwaker) are? A practically infinite series of attacks, with no puzzles or exploration, serving no purpose other than proving a player's skill?

Yes, there are some slight differences (it does actually end, and the Windwaker example does have a plot piece hidden inside), but the basic framework of "nothing but core combat gameplay, high difficulty and practically endless challenge" is there.

Some other Nintendo games have done this too. Smash Brothers had Endless Melee/Endless Brawl, depending on the version, and I remember something like this being in the Pokemon games.

Surprisingly old for a recent fad, isn't it?

Joshua Sterns
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The DLC challenge mode for Ninja Gaiden II has six different survival modes. Dante's Inferno may also have a survival mode (but I can't remember if it's true survival or just a lot of rounds). Even Batman has a dlc survival game. I wouldn't mind seeing this added to GoW and Bayonetta.

So shooter and hack n' slash seem to be the dominant genres. I'd agree that RPG's could also use this feature. I'd play my mage from Dragon Age ad nausea with enough enemies.

Soon enough people will realize that old school mechanics aren't dead. There just waiting to be re-invented or re-introduced.

Chris Sykora
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I think Hoard mode was so successful because it was short, scorable survival with characters that are ready for the job. Not to mention that Gears of War is just a popular franchise in itself. Like someone had said, this is basically Gears of War's version of Space Invaders.

Jesse Tucker
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I think a lot of the appeal is based on the highly cooperative nature that is encouraged by this type of gameplay. Sure, a lot of linear games have multiplayer co-op, but very rarely do they crank up the need for tight cooperation like survival modes do.

EM Green
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Then Left 4 Dead put it all on a wonderful path of panic and chaos and down it we went.

Owain abArawn
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I'm not familiar with shooter survival modes, but it kind of sounds like the same trade off gamers face in MMO games between playing a structured quest driven MMO or a 'sandbox' MMO. Quest driven MMOs force players to ride the 'quest rails' for content and character advancement, following a developer provided story line, while a 'sandbox' MMO, such as the Ultima Online or Eve, provides a more or a game world, where the developer gets the hell out of the way while players go about defining their own story lines and activities.

From the survivor mode description, given the predictabiltity and lack of originality in most game story telling, I'm not surprised that gamers prefer the core experience provided by a survival mode over the regular campaign mode, particularly once the campaign has been played through one or more times. Campaigns do not make for compelling replay value in most cases, where as a free form mode should be less predictable, and may provide a better game replay experience.

Joshua McDonald
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Thanks for the comments, everyone. A few responses:


I played most of the way through Twilight Princess but had no idea that the Cave of Ordeals existed. I looked it up after seeing your comment, and it looks like it would have been my favorite part of the game (now I'm considering dusting off my copy). I guess Nintendo's ahead of me on this one.


Agreed. Good co-op is a major part of what makes survival games good.


I would say that's basically accurate. While the article focused mostly on survival modes, the principle really is about games or gameplay modes that focus entirely on excellent, open-ended core gameplay, rather than story or script. The style of entertainment found in survival modes can also be gained in setting up mega-challenges in games that have decent bots (Unreal Tournament, DotA, many RTS's), where you're allowed to play 2v4, 2v5, or 2v(some really big number) to really push what you're capable of.

John Mawhorter
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Similar to Survival Mode is the concept of a Arena or Danger Room. Let the players pick a stage and pick out the characters they've developed and enemies to fight against. If your battle system is deep, these can often be more fun (as you've pointed out) than the single-player campaign. I would argue that a game to come out with a really customizable Danger Room that lets you do both infinite enemies, limited respawn, or single spawn fights in a variety of rooms will be quite successful.

Owain abArawn
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It would seem that a sandbox MMO with a free for all PvP format would provide similar unscripted challenges, with other players as adversaries rather than bots. Alas, other than EvE and Darkfall, there are no current sandbox, free for all PvP MMOs around I am aware of. For unrelated reasons, EvE is not to my liking, and Adventurine's handling of the North American DarkFall server soured me forever on that game.

Mortal Online, maybe, if and when it is released. One can only hope.

Simon Fraser
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I think that's a very interesting idea, to have "survival mode" for games like Baldur's Gate. It would really reward thoughtful party building, and would give superfans something to invest their time in that would feel rewarding.

Although I realize you're concerned with player VS computer, I think it's interesting to note that your points about why survival mode is so great all apply equally well to competitive multiplayer gameplay, like StarCraft or CounterStrike.

-Pure core gameplay


-Unlimited difficulty potential (playing against people as good as you)

-Players work on mastering familiar environments

The main difference is that you focus on survival mode as a way to further explore, tweak and generally have fun with the characters you've trained, whereas competitive MP tends to be all about raising your own personal skill.

But survival modes could be a way to make single player games feel unlimited in the same way that competitive multiplayer games feel unlimited - you can "play forever". In fact, when you introduce a "see how far you can get / how well you can do" mode to a single-player RPG, it effectively becomes a competitive multiplayer game, since the main goal will often be to optimize your team / strategy, and get farther than other people did.

dana mcdonald
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I agree that multiplayer offers many of the same benefits, but it also has many drawbacks (at least for some people). The biggest things that I think make PVE better for me are I don't have to play against jerks, PVP has enough chaos going on that it is hard to test out specific strategies because you never know what you are going to face, and PVP is often too competitive for me and I get discouraged because I don't play the game enough.

Vikas Maini
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its an old method of game play.......but u can say old is gold......

great concepts come from past only........

John Kwag
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@Owain APB. not free form but nicely sublte hidden matchmaking in a sandbox environment.

Nicolas L
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"Finally, this would be an awesome feature to add to RPGs, particularly those with a higher tactical potential."

You should try Battle for Wesnoth (a free turn based strategy-rpg game), especially the extension "Survival XTreme". It is quite good, despite not having been built upon the best mechanics for it, and balance issues. It's easier to win by sacrificing other PJ and getting their gold, or sometimes just by camping instead of cleaning the map.

Dustin Bennett
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I believe that these survival-type modes(like Horde and Firefight) are popular for two reasons:

1). They encourage teamwork between a group of people, which is just amazing fun coordinating tactics between friends and

2). They make the player feel powerful. After a half-hour of killing waves of monsters and aliens that could kill you at any minute, you have to just stop and view your body count in awe.

Joshua McDonald
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I didn't say that they're more popular. I'm simply saying that some people prefer them and that they're a good add-on to improve the life of a game and expand the audience.

Stephen Chin
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One additional factor that I think these sorts of modes do - particularly in the case of co-op versions - is that it does not just reward core attributes (twitch for shooters, micro for RTS, etc). It supports communal play as well was thinking and risk taking. Two players of average skill working together end up doing better than one really good player and one really bad player not playing together. The player feels rewarded for finding their own solutions and takes risks that have meaningful impact and that came from their own actions. It's a great sense of player agency - that players are being rewarded for their head and not their fingers. Most importantly, these modes reward this not through complex number mastery but common sense and practical application.