04 February 2014

Rust: For all you people who keep Googling "game like fort zombie"

I would've put a screenshot of some dongs but meh, they changed it anyway.

I'll confess: I don't actually feel very strongly about Rust. No, let's be precise! I have nothing if I don't have pedantic precision.

I have opinions regarding Rust that I feel strongly about (surprise). I am about to regale you with these opinions.

I don't feel particularly strongly that it's good or bad. I wouldn't recommend it unless you have a lot of free time on your hands, in which case I'd say it's worth a laugh.

Let's cut to the chase

I try to assume when writing this blog that my reader(s) are capable of using Google. So I will assume you know what Rust is.

How it works

The next question is: "Well, what's it like?" That same Google would point you to some Let's Plays... But, actually, I think they're misleading. And by that I mean I got the game and it turned out that I was misled by the Let's Plays - they made me think Rust was a game I could enjoy, but it later turned out that I couldn't enjoy it.

So, allow me to explain. Rust is sort of like a Minecraft without blocks. You can't affect the terrain at all, but you gather resources by punching trees (which do not themselves disappear, only stop yielding wood), punching boulders (which spawn and disappear), punching animal carcasses (in turn obtained from live animals, by punching). And you can't build anything you like, you have to pick from a few preset models - although there are wall, floor and roof pieces which give you a lot of freedom in building a house.

This isn't meant to be critique of Rust. If you want autism, you should just go "play" Minecraft (or you know, just fire up some voxel modeler and go nuts). Rust is about zombie apocalypse survival. Static terrain and restricted crafting (presumably) saves the developers a lot of work, and allows things like hi-poly models and less "blocky" gameplay. The idea totally works.

Some other important things that aren't really that dissimilar from Minecraft: There are a few towns (pre-placed on the game's only map - oh yes there's no worldgen) which periodically get loot that you can go grab. Airplanes can randomly spawn and paradrop some supplied. You can fight other players (this game is multiplayer-only) and when you die, your items go (although your constructed things stay and you can even spawn in your bed).

Is it fun?

The zombies and animals are the only NPC challenges right now, and both are either very easy to defeat or avoid at any level. The main danger is players. There is no explicit buddy/clan system in the game, it's FFA all the time. There is a nifty voicechat, which only nearby people can hear (why don't more games do it like this?). You can try to negotiate over the chat. Some people will still kill you, though - unless you have good gear. Then you can play the only fun part of the game, the PvP.

The problem is that the game is really bare right now, and most things feel like placeholders. The animals drop chicken breast, even though the only animals are deer, wolves and bears (I get that this is supposed to be a joke, but honestly? Dude, you could have just made the name "steak" instead. It would literally be no extra work. This is just cheap - "let's make a reddit-tier joke to get free publicity from idiots trying to find a cool subculture").

Because the game is so bare, there is really not much exciting stuff going on (except being chased by bandits) until you spend some time doing enough bitch work to get some of the best items in the game (this also means that when the game actually "starts", ie. you are able to play it enjoyably, you have no new crafting left to learn). You may get lucky and have some established players take you in, but it seemed unlikely.

This time you spend on getting tooled up is actually several days of intense effort. And it has to be done in reasonable succession, because:
  • Abandoned in game objects decay and disappear pretty quickly, so you will lose progress on your house.
  • Servers tend to wipe regularly.
  • Breaking and entering someone else's house (doors normally open only for the owner) takes a very long time at all but the highest level of play (people who have access to C4 probably won't care about your shitty house), but if you let the house sit long enough, sooner or later someone will do it.
So unless you can somehow play this game for a couple days straight, and assuming no other players decide to help you out, then you will basically spend a lot of effort grinding (so that you can "get to the real game") but when you come back for a second session, you will see that you must start over.


Playing for a weekend is definitely not enough to get anywhere in Rust, and not playing for 5 days is enough to lose everything you built. So if you have a job, good luck playing this game.

What works

I actually don't think the impermanence mechanic as a bad idea. Years ago, there was a game called Haven&Hearth. On the surface, it was completely different from Rust because it was an isometric 2D MMO with hand drawn sprites and global chat. But on the other hand, it had a very similar feel to it:
  • Players formed ad-hoc communities
  • Permanent death made you care about confrontations
  • Always on PvP made trust an important concern in all interactions with other players
  • If you're gone for a while your stuff will get raided 
I remember the same sorts of complaints I level against Rust being made for Haven&Hearth and many similar games. And yet for those games, I would disagree - it was very well possible to gainfully play even if you didn't have much time. Obviously you wouldn't be top dog on the server, and you would never get to be one of those "legends" - the few very high level players who are basically treated by the playerbase as gods. But assuming a modicum of skill and a tiny bit of luck, you would progress a bit more every time you play, with a very real danger of losing everything that makes it all the more fun.

Rust is fun for similar reasons, and it's also attractive because of the more fluent, engaging, active 3D FPS play style. It's much more fun to run around and jump on rocks and shoot things than clicking to make a tiny sprite walk an endless world-shaped omni-treadmill. The theme is also fresh for the "creative collaborative building" genre - a zombie apocalypse with modern weapons.

But Rust shoots itself in the foot with the way the game is structured. The time it takes to get to the interesting stuff (a couple of days) is too long, the time to lose everything you have (a few days) is too short, the servers are too small (30-40 people) to have any established communities that recruit newbies (if you and your 3 friends start a house together, what reason do you have to bring in random nobodies when you can already dominate the server as it is?), and because resources spawn only near the center of the map, you can't just run off into the wilderness to build up in secret, which is the standard solution to this sort of "the big boys keep bullying me" problem.

I am quite disappointed by this, since I'd love to be able to play Rust. It has a pretty nice desolate atmosphere, with this rugged survivalism feel to it. Unlike Minecraft and such, the graphics are actually good and not "let's make it look as shitty as possible and then pretend it's indie-ironic". Building houses is fun. Running from zombies and hunting animals is fun. Meeting a stranger, and feeling that rush of anxiety, trying to decide if they are friend or foe, trying to negotiate the encounter, is fun and challenging.

How to fix it?

I can see, as usual, a number of ways that Rust could be improved. However, in this case, I think there's a real chance that some of these might actually get implemented. The developer seems reasonable and not some delusional "daddy knows best" idiot, at least based on the choices they've made with the game so far.


As I said above, 40 player servers that reset every once in a while simply don't work for this game. The sweespot wipe-cycle is probably something like 3 months to a year. Note that in its current state, nobody would play Rust if the server persisted for half a year. There just isn't enough to do - this must be improved. The late game really needs to be more than "get a kit and grief newbies".

Perhaps latter projects can take immense amount of work. Perhaps holding on to great wealth becomes harder due to some mechanic. Perhaps Zombies become a rapidly growing threat to you as you advance? Perhaps newbies get some kind of advantage against you? Perhaps big projects require cooperation (eg. manufacturing armor requires several people to work together)?

The servers definitely need to be bigger. Meaningful organization is very difficult currently. This is because there are just too few people to band together into alliances - but just upping the player count wouldn't help. The meaningful map area (you can run pretty far from the starting area, but there's no point - you won't find any abandoned towns that spawn advanced resources, you won't get access to plane drops, you won't even get any basic resources like wood and food) is still too small.

Not enough to do

The other thing that makes most of the game boring is that there just isn't enough to do. At the late game stage, your options are fairly limited: Basically you can build a big fort and defend it with superior weaponry until you have to log out, or you can go and shoot a few weak players who aren't much of a challenge. But the beginning is much worse - and especially if you don't play Rust constantly, most of your time is spent in this "beginning" where you mostly hit rocks and run away from everything.

Low hanging fruit

They could stop wasting time with back-end development and prioritize the low hanging fruit.

As an example: Everything in the game drops chicken meat, but the game has no chickens - this is not hard to fix, and it would visibly improve the game for players. I know it's meant to be a joke; it's not that funny.

As a player, back-end updates are the most boring devlog items out there. Even bugfixes are some sort of observable progress, although you probably don't care - you've been playing all this time despite the bug, haven't you? But when the developer releases an update after 2 months saying "he cleaned up some class diagrams and refactored his code" - who cares? This makes zero impact on your experience as a player. What's worse, it's also the most laborious kind of update, and takes far more time than just adding a new game element (especially with things like adding more meat varieties, where you only really need a few extra rows in the database and no new logic).

You might be thinking, "wow this guy is stupid - doesn't he get that all the effort up front will translate into easier extendability later on?"  No, rest assured that I'm not stupid. Indeed, good foundations do help future improvements - but it's a fine line between laying the groundwork and adding frameworks that you don't really need.

It seems that this is a very common issue with independent game developers: Once their proof-of-concept starts getting attention, they become enamored with their own creation, and the point of development goes from improving the game to crafting monuments to themselves in the game's engine code.

And the trouble is, when you do this hip new "let's sell people a broken alpha and promise to finish it later if they just stick with it and give us money" thing, if you then waste the players' patience with back-end updates that don't affect their playing experience, they will get bored and stop caring by the time you've started reaping the benefits of your early hard work. You've essentially defrauded your early supporters into paying for development of features they will never get to experience. Perhaps it's fine because they can always come back and play again (but they're already too bored of your game!) and because why would people pay all the preorder prices if they weren't having fun to justify it (actually they paid the money for the promise of eventual fun and were disappointed). But I don't think this will last. Sooner or later, the customer will learn to never trust preorders, or if you're counting on the steady influx of young, naive gamers keeping everyone gullible, the gaming press will eventually catch on and become so cynical that it will be impossible for even genuine preorder projects that aren't scams to get financed.

In general, I think that ideally you should really finish your back-end stuff before you release the game as a preorder alpha. Then you can start rapidly adding game content, and the players actually get to experience the game slowly growing as they play.

Of course, completing the whole skeleton of a game without anyone buying it is harder than coming up with a bunch of promises to sell. But the skeleton is actually good value for the money, and it does make later development much smoother. Developers and players really need to understand this.


Rust is an interesting prototype for something that could be cool and fun, one day. It does a few things right that really needed to be done right by some game. But it also does a few things wrong that it really shouldn't have. In the end, it's a fun time-waster if you have the time to waste, and if this was one of those times in my life when I have nothing to do all day except goof off with friends, I would have enjoyed it for a week or two. It so happens that I'm not, I have many things to do and I can only devote so much time in general to video games, and I am certainly not able to accommodate a rigid schedule imposed on me by the game. I would definitely not recommend it for this reason: It's not bad (although it's not great - it's definitely fresh and interesting), it's just inaccessible to people who have a life.

Score: 2/5 if you have a job, 4/5 if you're unemployed or an irresponsible student