The genre change after 10 hours of Subnautica

When I first encountered Subnautica’s genre switch, I was upset. But luckily I’m also a fan of solving puzzles just for themselves so I’ve stayed. Most players don’t. Steam Spy says that Subnautica had 200K players in the last two weeks out of 1840K owners, that’s 11% (the launch hype helps). PUBG has 20M/27.5M, that’s 73%. I’m not comparing the total numbers, but the 11% to the 73%. It seems that PUBG buyers are much more likely to continue playing than Subnautica buyers.

Playtime total: 184 hours average, 120 hours median for PUBG per player. 25.5 hours average and 10.5 hours median for Subnautica. So a median PUBG buyer (the “random dude”) plays 12x!!! more with his game than a Subnautica buyer, despite both are buy-to-play games with similar price. The Subnautica buyers stop playing exactly when they get into the “witch altar zone”.

Why? Is it badly written or ugly? No, that’s the dunes. The problem is that the gameplay of the first 5-15 hours is significantly different from later part. That’s not the case in PUBG: your first n00b game is exactly the same – just easier – than a 2200 rated game you play in the top 100. What does a player do when he starts playing? He dives into the ocean to get materials. Copper and mushrooms for batteries, quartz for flashlight, sulfur for repair tool, silver for habitat builder and larger air tank, creepvine parts for a knife. Oh, and fish to eat and purple fish to get fresh water. Then he start seeking fragments which are laying around like materials to have a better base. And more materials to build it. And even more fragments and materials to build ships, small and large. The “original Subnautica” gameplay is searching for stuff on the ocean floor and building stuff from them.

But after these hours, the gameplay fundamentally changes. The player no longer collects materials and build things. He pursues clues – assuming he does and doesn’t just look up spoilers. The gameplay that got him hooked is gone. There is no more reason to collect any more materials. There is no more reason to dive to the random ocean floor to find something. Anything that isn’t clearly an alien structure or a huge skeleton is uninteresting and irrelevant. You speed through zones without caring about them because they cannot offer anything you need.

That gameplay doesn’t appeal to most players, so they stop playing. They don’t curse and ask for refund because they had 5-15 hours of fun out of the game and theoretically they can continue to do so and some people use their imagination, like building a hotel by the Cove Tree. However most just say “meh, it’s not fun anymore” and move on. So it’s not really a “bait and switch” as the buyer gets some of what he asked for. A few hours of diving into a beautifully made alien ocean with treasures to claim and dangers to dare.

But there could be much more! There are whole zones what the ordinary player doesn’t even see. These zones could be scoured for materials and bases built there. There should be objectives in the dunes, the crash zone or the mountains. Not just driving trough, looking for alien obelisks to lead to clues to the cure.

Progression should extend the gameplay and not replace it! Seaglide extends gameplay: now you can swim faster, but you will not use Seaglide all the time, you will still swim afterwards slowly to search. Seamoth extends it even more. You get a new option of movement, but it doesn’t replace Seaglide or swimming. Bioreactor and growbed replaces gameplay: you never catch fish or seek sunny/hot place again.

This doesn’t have to be this way. All it needs is to redesign the late game to match the early: to demand resource collection and building to get to the next step. We should actively participate in making the cure instead of just doing a favor to the Sea Emperor to earn the cure from her. For example the research facility should be flooded and offline, providing no data, this could be a task to gather materials to patch the hole and build a pump and power it to drain the facility before the watertight doors of the inner room open and give access to the next step of the story (like a key to the power plant). We could build a supercomputer with lots of microchips to analyze the complex data in the sanctuary, providing necessary blueprints. We could build a drill to clean up rubble that blocks the entrance to the power plant which is otherwise inaccessible. We could collect or breed lot of fish to craft a “huge fish torpedo” that can be launched from Seamoth or Prawn at a leviathan who catches it, becoming well fed and peaceful for a day. And so on, and so on, keeping the story only as background element and making the progress on what it was in the first 5-15 hours when players were still enjoying the game: collecting materials in an alien ocean, dodging dangerous creatures.

While I’m still a firm believer that the game needs a hard mode, matching the late game to the early on all modes (with level-appropriately difficult material requirements) would greatly increase player enjoyment. Unfortunately, it can’t be made as a mod, because devs announced no modding support even planned.

Author: Gevlon

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12 thoughts on “The genre change after 10 hours of Subnautica”

  1. “But after these hours, the gameplay fundamentally changes. The player no longer collects materials and build things. He pursues clues –”

    What? No. That’s not what happens at all. You still need to build things. You have some ‘splaining to do. To b fair? The story mode is seriously problematic, but not like this.


  2. @Smokeman: nope. You don’t *need* to build anything. You are still building things because
    – you like building things (that’s why you got hooked on the game)
    – the game trained you to solve problems by building things and you assume that this is the way of progressing
    – you obviously suck in finding clues as evidenced by the fact that you encountered a huge alien structure *and* a key, yet you didn’t bother to look for an entrance. Ergo, your only way of progressing is brute-forcing by overgearing with bases and submarines

    When you finally finish the story, you’ll realize that 95% of the stuff you’ve built was in vain and didn’t progress you any more than the minipets progressed Arthasdklol


  3. Replacing gameplay can be part of a good design. You graduate from having to look for food, which frees up time to go looking for something new, something more complicated. The replaced gameplay should itself be replaced. If it’s not, it raises the question of why it’s in the game in the first place. Generally, the reward for playing a game should be fun, rather than the reward being not having to play (parts of) the game anymore.


  4. No, your take on this is not only wrong, but it’s self serving and designed to support your agenda, which has nothing to do with Subnautica. Neither does it have anything to do with PUBG. This is all about you wanting to put bigger death penalties in MMORPG games, ignoring the fact that they were removed for good reason.

    Subnautica is a building game. It’s core gameplay is building stuff, you can build stuff throughout the game (I heard about one guy who solved the final area with a sprawling base complex.)

    The reason people quit early is not because it’s “too easy”, it’s because the story aspect, which is an important sub-component of the game, was poorly structured. In addition, the base building is shallow. If you get bored with the base building, and can’t progress the story… you quit. If you quit after enjoying the scenery after a dozen hours, well, that’s not so bad so you don’t throw a fit over it.

    Yes, I missed the first, should have been obvious clue that the structure was enterable. I DID look for an entrance, I just missed the barely hidden actual entrance. Instead, I went up the marked path and searched all over the top of the structure. Why? I didn’t think about it at the time… but that’s what the game had trained me to do. That’s how you got into the Aurora as well. (Of course, I had trouble doing that, too… so what the game REALLY showed me is that you have to go on the internet to get spoilers.) Where there was about a minute left for the Sunbeam to arrive, I ran back to where I was supposed to be for that part of the story. After the sunbeam left, I had no reason at all to return to the structure, as I thought I searched everywhere.

    You can’t design an exploration system that you have to be an OCD patient to solve without spoilers. You can have EXTRAS for those people to find after they finish the game. but doing it the way they did will only lead to players that stop playing. Now, that entrance at the Enforcement Station wasn’t OCD grade difficult to find, it was actually pretty easy. I just missed the chance to see the cue to it during the window I had to see it.

    Other story telling media don’t rely on this kind of chance to tell their story. If you read a book, for example, you can be sure that it will be full of “pages” and that the first “page” is the place to start for the story. You don’t try other means to get the info out of the book.

    Does that mean books are boring and “too easy” and should be avoided?


  5. @Alrenous: you are answering your own question. If searching for food is a bad gameplay, then it shouldn’t be in the game to begin with. If it’s good gameplay, it should remain in the game. There is no excuse for the “search for food in the first 10 hours, never after”. You can argue to add depth to it. Like harder to catch but more nutritious fish. Or some tool that makes you more effective in fishing (hint: gravity trap)

    @Smokeman: you are mixing reality with hopes. Subnautica is a point and click story game and not a building game, as evidenced that you get the game over scene if you solve the story. Now some steps along the journey can be made easier by building stuff. But again, I’d refer to the 19 mins speedrunner who built exactly one tube section and a hatch during a complete game play (if he didn’t glich the base, he could probably need 1 more tube+hatch base. Now you CAN build stuff, just like you can collect minipets in WoW. But it won’t really help with progression.

    I didn’t say they quit because it’s “too easy”. They quit because they – like you – believe that it’s a building game and realize their error when they end up like you. You are more persistent and more self-aware than them, so you neither curse the devs for failing to find the door, nor you gave up playing after missing a serious part of the story. They do.

    You don’t have to be OCD to solve it without spoilers. I did. And I even enjoyed it (not the last 5 hours of finishing my map). But that’s a very lucky combo: someone who likes both building and exploration games. I’ve found all kind of side story elements, like the Sanctuaries or the vents that are not needed for completing or even understanding the story, just add spice.

    I do agree that the story should not be embedded into a sandbox building game but should be done in “pages”. But it’s YOU who want a sandbox building game, if the story would be like it should be, you’d never play this game. You only picked up because you mis-genred it (pun on liberals intended).


  6. Perhaps something changed during the Early Access process, but when I played Subnautica last year, the goal of the game was very clearly to escape the planet. Building bases, exploring the ocean floor, etc, were all in service to eventually getting off-planet/rescued. As with most open-world games, you can ignore the story and play around doing whatever, but as you said, there very clearly is an end-point via going through the plot. Compare that with an actual sandbox game like 7 Days to Die or ARK.

    RE: Finding Food, if you’re playing a survival game, you absolutely should be able to graduate from having to bother with food/water to whatever is a more interesting challenge. A starvation mechanic exists as an early impetus to explore a dangerous location, which you would be less inclined to do without better gear. After getting established (e.g. base, farm, etc), you explore dangerous areas because there are interesting things to discover/loot.

    The only survival game I have seen to eschew this format is The Long Dark, which only really works because the environment itself ends up being the primary challenge the entire game. Well, I hear it has a story mode now too, so who knows.


  7. Speaking as someone who first saw subnautica on youtube years ago (when it first came to early development), but only actually started playing it fairly recently (so some outdated spoilers, but not up-to-date guides through every step), and who is now poised to pass through 1 portal and complete the game this evening, now that the game is “officially released”… I agree there is a conflicting tone within the game between a sandbox game and a story game – and it is quite jarring.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think this conflicting tone was avoidable due to the way the game was developed with the extremely early development release and massive dependence on streamers/youtubers and player feedback.

    The core concept of the game, from the beginning, seems to have been an open-world RPG along the lines of Zelda or Skyrim – just underwater on an alien world rather than the typical fantasy medieval setting. You start in a safe tutorial zone with nothing but some basic equipment and a helpful computer voice to guide you, and as you progress you build yourself better and better equipment, and unlock new technologies to make your life easier and yourself more powerful. Ultimately your goal is to piece the puzzle pieces together to free yourself from the planet, overcoming the alien quarantine trap by curing the disease in order to do so. There are even the beginnings of “quests” contained in the radio transmissions you pick up from time to time demanding your response/aid. And while the combat component of the game ended up being roughly nil, there *are* weapons in the game, and it *could* have been developed further to where combat would have been an actual, useful mechanic.

    However, because they released it so early with so little of the actual story/gameplay written – all people were left to play with/go crazy over was an empty sandbox game w/ unique visual elements/style.

    As such – almost all of the feedback they received (and used) came from people playing a combat-free sandbox exploration game.

    So, while they did eventually finish their core story arc – and much of the equipment progression still seems geared towards freeing the player from the worries of basic survival so they can enjoy their quest to escape the planet…it all feels rough/unfinished compared to the highly-polished basic survival game which was extensively play-tested and praised by nearly 2 million early-access purchasers. I agree the transition is quite jarring when you do hit it.

    Also, as you’ve noted, people start playing the game thinking it is a survival sandbox…because 2 million other people told them that was what it is…and it isn’t.

    I suspect it would have been a vastly different game if they had avoided early release (and bankruptcy, which it sounds like they also came close to). Whether it would have been better, worse, or just different is hard to say since it obviously never happened.


  8. Azuriel:
    “Perhaps something changed during the Early Access process…”

    That is my understanding of what happened: As early as 2015 when they were adding enough of the story to actually get somewhere with it, the devs specifically stated that the core of the game, the base building / exploration, would be retained, and the story was a side line that you could ignore.

    I think that where they made the “mistake.” is not properly cadenceing the story as “It can wait, it’s optional.”. Once you get a story, it becomes a dominant goal track. They should have put in an RP element early on that told you what the first story line entry was and what the goal was (Get home.) and then used that mechanic with each subsequent one. That way, you could ignore them as long as you wanted, or do them as early as you wanted while always knowing (Sure, it’s a fourth wall violation… but unavoidable in a sandbox.) that the base building / exploration is the game’s core.

    I like the story, I like it a lot. There’s a lot in it, but not if you can just jet to the end without doing ALL the chapters in between. What should have happened, is from the get go, you knew there was a way off this rock, and the first step was going to be to get to the Aurora. You discover that an alien particle cannon dropped the Aurora from orbit, then at the Sunbeam part you’re softballed the key that gets you into the building. This establishes the step process, and tells you how it works. Game devs need to understand that game story isn’t like a book, where EVERYONE already knows how to move forward with the story.

    If the next step in the story is to visit one of the other alien facilities… you can drop everything to find it, or just understand implicitly that it will wait for you. You can play in the sandbox as long as you want.


  9. @Smokeman: the situation is worse than that. The real problem is that outside of the story, there is no game, just a toy. Besides the story, there is nothing to win or lose. You can’t die like in a survival game – unless you are drunk or seriously mentally impaired. Sure you can explore, but to what end?

    As it stands now, Subnautica is a point-n-click browser storyline game with AAA graphics. Without the story, it’s “underwater minecraft, without ability to terraform.”


  10. It doesn’t make sense to level up your stomach. If you try to make eating more challenging or interesting, all the player will do is travel back to the safe shallows and hoard up a bunch of salted fish. Hence it needs to be replaced.

    I mean technically you could performance-enhancing drugs, which could then be hard to get and have drawbacks etc, but for cultural reasons I don’t see that as likely to happen or to go over well. Although ‘steroid fish’ and ‘Adderall fish’ would be pretty funny to me.

    So, e.g. have a fireproof prawn suit which requires a special lubricant to be refilled periodically. Feed the machine, not your person.

    This also enhances the sandbox. If you want to build elaborate bases for flavour reasons, it’s much easier if you never have to worry about food, and the player can simply not activate the replacing mechanic.


  11. @Alroneous: sending the player back to the safe shallows has its value on it’s own: to interrupt grinding and make it impossible to just “grind 1000 hours dumbly”. The food is a recurring “grind”, you grind and don’t progress as you get hungry again. It forces the player to be effective instead of just loooong.

    If player can even think of building flavor bases, the game is horribly easy. For flavor building, there should be some easy mode (and there is)


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