A Look Back on the Survival Sandbox

The survival sandbox genre of games has swept through the world. Let's dive through history and see how it came to be! From Minecraft and Terraria to Subnautica and Don't Starve, this is a rundown of the genre's rise to popularity.
A Look Back on the Survival Sandbox Cover
There have been many trends in gaming over the years that try to capitalise on what’s popular at the time. From mascot platformers and Doom clones of the ’90s to the military shooter and peripheral-based rhythm game craze of the 2000s. The gaming industry is always evolving and changing, moving from one game to another in a matter weeks or even days after release. It can be hard to remember that almost everyone was chasing after the pile of money made for the survival sandbox only ten years ago.
 
And it all started from two games: Minecraft and Arma II.
 
Let’s look back on the brief history of survival sandbox games and their evolution.

How It Started

Minecraft started a lot of trends once it got the internet’s attention. Games started to release in an unfinished state, updated into a full game over time. It’s what Steam’s infamous Early Access program is inspired by. Many more games started to include crafting systems, permadeath, or dropping your inventory upon death, and when night falls on the world it becomes much, much more dangerous. It’s not the first, far from it, but it popularised these systems into what we know today. How many people have rolled their eyes upon seeing that a game has a crafting system which is only an excuse to litter your inventory with useless junk or gives you more currencies to worry about?
From humble beginnings...

From humble beginnings…

Meanwhile, we have Arma II. The game’s basic premise and game design philosophy is to be as true-to-life of everyday military life. Gunfights are rarely in close quarters, getting shot is a death sentence without medical treatment, and real life military tactics and experience is necessary to survive most missions. But, it’s a game that appealed to a serious niche. Only the most serious military buffs would even dare touch a game like this and then stay for more.
 
So how did Arma II reach the top of Steam sales back in 2013 when the game released in 2009? Simple. A mod called DayZ released, which codified the zombie survival genre.
 
The mod’s designer Dean Hall used Arma II’s realism, turned soldiers into civilians, spread weapons, clothes and other survival gear around the map, and then added a bunch of zombies to ruin everyone’s day. Suddenly, the entire game had changed. In many games, the player is empowered, able to tear through hordes of enemies without a second thought. But in DayZ even someone kitted out in full military-grade gear could die just as easily as any other player, especially taken by surprise.
 
One of the mod’s purposes was to see if people would rip each other apart in a survival scenario. If you actually played any of these types of games, it’s safe to say that the answer is yes. Players would tell stories of tense stand-offs and negotiations, tales of survival against impossible odds, acts of humanity or acts of cruelty you can’t really find in any other game before it. These were all driven by players, not by the developers with set scenarios nor by the game’s programming. And that’s why so many people were drawn into the mod, even despite its bugs and jank.
It's not often players take other players hostage...

It’s not often players take other players hostage.

Now, these games are very different games that tackle different genres. A family-friendly game that encourages creativity and setting your own goals, and a realistic military simulator turned brutally realistic zombie apocalypse simulator where players are your biggest enemies rather than the zombies.
 
But, they have something in common: Your fun is not guaranteed.

How It Went

Both games don’t have a real “end” to it. Even though Minecraft has The End dimension and the Ender Dragon, you can always do more afterwards. You can even ignore The End entirely. Make that tower looming over the horizon, or the castle you can rule over, or destroy your world in a foolhardy attempt to beat enough Withers to have beacons everywhere.
 
In DayZ, making it to the next play session with all your items or more is your goal every time you log on. Surviving to the next day is stressful and requires a lot of resources you may not have at the time. There is no reward or tangible reason to keep playing these games; at best you’re going to get items that make your life in-game a whole lot more comfortable, but people keep coming back to them because there’s always something new to do and work towards; something not set by the game itself. It’s called survival sandbox for a reason; it gives players a world to explore and exploit, but it’s up to them to find their fun.
 
Eventually, some survival games had a definitive end to them, usually involving getting back to civilization or completing some sort of quest like defeating the final boss. A goal to work towards is nice, but more often than not you have no idea these endings exist without looking it up.
An example of one of many in the genre.

An example of one of many in the genre.

Of course, with any trend, there will be developers out there trying to get a piece of that pie before it passes. Hundreds of voxel or blocky survival games flooded Steam and app stores, and many clones of DayZ tried to deliver the same experiences with varying amounts of success. Ace of Spades, Cube World, Dragon Quest Builders all had at least some basis in Minecraft, and you couldn’t scroll through your phone’s app store without encountering at least a dozen of subpar ripoffs that use the same store-bought assets, or flood your game with ads.
 
As for DayZ, we got games like H1Z1, Unturned, and State of Decay that did their best to put their own spin on zombie survival, adding in increasing difficulty with each day that passes, losing access to precious resources like water and food over time and microtransactions.
 
Some found their niches and were supported for a long period of time, like Project Zomboid and 7 Days To Die, while many more fell into obscurity like Infestation: Survivor Stories, which didn’t have a good run to begin with.

How It’s Going

Nowadays, the survival sandbox genre of games is still going strong with the likes of Subnautica, Don’t Starve Together and No Man’s Sky. Meanwhile, Minecraft continues to be one of the most popular games in the world. It remains as one of the most-watched games on Twitch, has a very healthy modding community, and continues to have updates that treat it like a major event. Even recently, where the community voted for a new mob to be added into the 1.18 update.
 
But what happened to DayZ? It’s rarely talked about these days and has been forgotten despite its cultural impact.
 
DayZ - PC 1.0 Launch Trailer
The full release from a mod to an official game was actually its death sentence. Due to starting out as a mod, DayZ was further modified by players to include A.I. factions, trading posts with NPCs, base-building, better access to weapons, and much, much more. The player base broke into three communities: the people who play for its brutal survival simulation in a zombie apocalypse, the people who play with friends and try to thrive in such a world, and the people who just want blood and shooting on sight is their preferred way to have fun. So, when the full release came out and focused on the survival aspect, many players left and went to find something else to play, leaving it to languish for quite a while.
 
And one of those players happened to be Brendan Greene, or more known as PlayerUnknown.
 
Those players who want blood? They didn’t disappear or lose interest. They were waiting.
This game got kind of big...

This game got kind of big…

As you can guess, the release of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds started an entirely new genre, a game mode that continues to grow in popularity and make millions upon billions today.
 
The Battle Royale.
 
That concludes this brief history of the survival sandbox genre. What did you think? Surprised by anything? Let me know in the comments below!

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