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.