Subnautica has an easily-fixed game design problem that's costing it an enormous number of players

grizwald87grizwald87 Members Join Date: 2020-04-16 Member: 260105Posts: 2 Fully active user
Apologies for the dramatic title, but I think it's justified. Short version: a significant number of new players attacking the game cold (i.e. without researching tips and tricks, and without any involvement in the online community) aren't realizing that they can make a seabase out of a single tube section, and are quitting out of frustration over storage issues.

Long version: for the record, I just finished the game and I love it; it's in my lifetime Top 100. That said, looking at the plot-based achievements, it's interesting (i) that only 8.5% of players finished the game, and (ii) that the biggest drop-off occurs between players jumping in the water and players building their first crude seabase, which shouldn't be separated by very much gameplay.

75% of players jump in the water, which I assume means 25% of players bought it on sale and haven't installed, or finished playing during the beta before achievements activated. But only 48% of players built a basic seabase which means that fully a third of all players who bought this game, installed it, and jumped in the water, quit before engaging in one of the first and most basic, satisfying activities.

There's no guarantee they all quit for the same reason, but I can't help noticing that the drop-off happened at a point that nearly caused me to quit for good, too. I was careful to read the survival guide on my PDA, which mentions the importance of building a seabase, I wanted to build a seabase because it seemed like a cool thing to do, and I desperately needed the storage. But looking at the menu in the Habitat Builder, it was not at all clear that a single tube section is, totally alone, a functioning base within which I could build storage lockers.

The "Quick Start Guide" in the data entry for the Habitat Builder mentioned starting with a basic compartment, but I never even saw that data entry. As careful as I was to read data entries throughout the game, it never occurred to me that the description for my basic tools would contain critical plot instructions. Without any size reference and without knowing that a tube would grow supports when placed, I assumed when I reviewed the building menu that I was looking at passageways between functional rooms, not freestanding structures - useless on their own. I tried to wait until I found a room module, which of course takes a good 1-2 hours before stumbling across the multipurpose room blueprint on the floating island. During those 1-2 hours, frustration is mounting quickly: since the player's instinct is to collect everything in sight, the lifepod's storage fills up almost immediately, and no seabase means managing a bunch of tiny floating storage lockers. That frustration is going to lead less invested players to quit.

Some reading this might roll their eyes and call me an idiot, but I'm just going to point at that 33% drop-off in players who bought the game, installed it, booted it up, and then quit before attempting one of the most basic, satisfying aspects of the game. Beginnings are such delicate times, to steal a line from Dune. You want a player to build a crude seabase as quickly as possible to keep the logistics functioning and the cycle of positive emotions flowing, and for that, you need to make it more obvious that a tube alone is good enough for those players who don't read a tool description.

The solution is straightforward and will take very little effort. (i) In the PDA's Survival Checklist entry, amend step #8 to read "Find or construct a more permanent habitat (refer to Quick Start Guide)". Make the Quick Start Guide a PDA entry that you start the game with. If you want to really drive it home, include a little illustration in the QSG entry of a single-tube base with a hatch, solar panel, and struts coming out the bottom, to help the player visualize what they're being told to do and avoid confusion about the role of foundations (not actually necessary).

If you really want to take a swing at the problem for those players who aren't natural readers or paying close attention to their PDA, you could make "Step 1" more visually obvious by inserting an entirely separate tab in the Habitat Builder's menus titled "Emergency Shelter", with a single entry: a linear tube section with a hatch on one end and a solar panel on the roof. Make it cost the same as all those items separately.

P.S. The second-biggest drop-off is in players who never find the Disease Research Facility. Although I had no trouble with this, I've heard anecdotally that many players either didn't scan the item in the QEP that gives the necessary guidance, or forgot to read that databank entry in all the excitement, and had no clue what to do after the QEP destroyed the Sunbeam, leaving them motoring around the map aimlessly until the radio calls ran out and they lost interest. There's no good reason why about a third of the players who had the dedication to build a Cyclops wouldn't also have had the dedication to explore the Lost River. For whatever it's worth, I don't think this would be all that difficult to solve, either.


  • KiterinoKiterino GermanyMembers Join Date: 2020-04-19 Member: 260187Posts: 1 Fully active user
    I agree that the game lacks some guidance, i've played several hours before if found the multipurpose room and build my first base and while i was still having fun, there was some frustration mixed in with it.
  • QqponQqpon Members Join Date: 2017-05-21 Member: 230653Posts: 2 Fully active user
    What you say is rather relevant. But it's a common ground that most purchased games, are never fully experienced by the player base.

    In many games there is the possibility to be surprised by the amount of people who missed even the most basic things the game has to offer. But in this case, I don't see any downsides to what you suggest.
  • MarkJohnsonMarkJohnson Members Join Date: 2018-12-08 Member: 245346Posts: 12 Fully active user
    I agree, I had every issue you listed, and more.

    I stuck it out though. I ended up cheating a little towards the end at the alien stuff and days of failuires to progress.

    At the start I never realized I could live in the tubes. I did however, see the platform and built it so I could put all of my bags on it. lol Then I found scanner room fragments and built the scanner room, but I couldn't access it. I tried putting a hatch on it and nothing would take. I even tried putting a tube on it. It finally turned green and crafted it, but it didn't connect to the scanner room. But it let me put a hatch on the tbe, so I did, then realized I could have made a tube house all along.

    Anyway, I built power for it, made the crate and multiple things, but I couldn't find a was to craft a scanner room tool of some sort to allow me to scan.

    I went the whole game without a scanner room, until I was done with the game. I was bragging about finishing the game but complained of a useless scanner. Then a guy said I was probably too close to craft it. I went into the game and I was at my second main base with a moonpool and a couple MP rooms, and my scanner room wouldn't attach, no matter what I did. I remember the other rooms auto attached themselves with tubes, but the scanner room didn't seem to line up.

    I then went on back to me first tube base and got there, and viola, I moved back a little ways and it attached. lol

    The good thing about it all, is that I got a full three months of gameplay trying to complete it. Plus I beelined to completion as best I could, and missed out on a lot of stuff, so the second play though gave a another month of play time.

    Even though clearer instructions would have been nice at the start (like a tutorial button), it would have sped up my play time a bit. Probably not too much, but I would have had less aggravation. lol
  • JVRodrigues7JVRodrigues7 Members Join Date: 2020-04-29 Member: 260469Posts: 1 Freshly registered user
    Truth is that this could be so much greater than it is, because the ideia is very very good, but the implementations not so much.

    When I started playing I was fear to explore and find an aggressive creature and die. But once I know which creatures are in each biomes and what the creatures are capable of, and that the leviathan only shows when there's nothing else in map, I lost all the fear and just run through the map and yet I was kinda "Ok, so what I have to do now?" and progress really slowly.

    I think that the PDA could give some guidance when you're a long while without reach and objective, or progress through the story like "There's some alien structure signals, it may have the cure, you should investigate it", "There's some signals of known structures on a island, it could have any clue to get out this planet, you should investigate it" or something like that.

    Other thing that really bothers me is the lack of a map. Come on... An emergency mode PDA that doesn't has some kind of map?

    Once you know how stuff works the gameplay pretty much turns into fight against the game itself, like keep going back to base to dump inventory and come back where you stopped exploring 'cause your inventory is full, and it gets full really fast, and so does the storages.

    And the game could be so much larger, with more biomes, more story, more creatures, and a lot of other stuff. I build a Cyclops, parked it in the entrance of the cave in Blood Kelp Zone, and that's it. There's no reason to travel with it anymore, but it's really great as a mobile base, I never build a static base after build Cyclops, only a tube with 2 solar panels to recharge battery and cells, nothing else. I have 4 Bulbo Trees inside, don't need to hurry with food and water anymore, just eat a 'round 4 to 6 of these and I'm good. I only use water bottle and fish when I'm out to explore.

    I tried using scanroom, but it's kinda useless without the upgrades. The cameras are really useless too.

    Besides all that, I still think it's a good game, I still have interest to play it. But it's kinda disappointing to know this could be huge and explore so much more this underwater alien world. But to do all that the game need to be solid, stop crashing, stop shutdown pcs and be a little lower specs to play 60 fps.

    All that are just the way I think it is.
  • KayliRoseKayliRose Members Join Date: 2020-05-01 Member: 260548Posts: 2 Fully active user
    To be honest I agree and disagree.
    I agree because the new players' experience in the beginning is what drives home whether or not they will stay invested. More guidance would be very nice, and it would make the game more enjoyable for new and veteran players to experience.
    Likewise though I disagree because, too much hand-holding can also be a discouraging factor for players who like to explore their world. That's what Subnautica is after all: a game about exploration and learning to survive your own way. That being said I played around with the habitat builder, not really knowing anything about it, and like a lot of players I was confused about how each part worked. What made me actually understand is just randomly connecting pieces, building and deconstructing parts, until I figured out what works.
    My thoughts on OP's idea are yes, we need more clear guidance tips on how to use the habitat builder, and that it's a necessary step in survival. It should definitely be a highlighted part of the PDA's protocol, but make sure to integrate it in a way that it doesn't detract from the learning experience. Point them to it, and have them figure out where it goes.

    On another note, I agree with JVRodrigues7, we need a map, or at least mapping tools. We got a PDA, a Sonar system in all of our vehicles, a Scanner room that can create a 3D model of topographic mapping, but we can't develop our own maps that we can put on our HUD and see freely? We have a depth meter, a compass, and the ability to fabricate things into existence at the push of buttons, but we can't chart out a map that shows everything we've seen? I'd even settle it for being an upgrade module like the compass is, that way I can see where everything is, mark places on the map without having 50 beacons all over the place, and know exactly how far I need to go, how deep I need to go, and what its near so I can prepare accordingly.
  • mayananamayanana Members Join Date: 2020-05-02 Member: 260587Posts: 1 Freshly registered user
    For what it's worth, I also organized my stuff early game into around 10-ish floating containers because I thought basebuilding would be a bigger hassle.

    My family members who later played Subnautica VR also had similar approach. They also managed to play for multiple days before creating the handheld scanner tool, but that might be because they were so enthusiastic about just swimming around and enjoying the VR experience. I'd suspect first-time players jumping into VR get easily overwhelmed and miss the tips and instructions.

  • QuartetapeQuartetape GermanyMembers Join Date: 2020-05-02 Member: 260578Posts: 5 Fully active user

    i was having exactly the same difficulties OP described. Most of the "hidden" game mechanics revealed themselves to me only when i first watched a speedrun for the game.
    - "Thus ended the fifth battle. By the treachery of men the field was lost."
  • M_QM_Q Members Join Date: 2020-05-02 Member: 260603Posts: 4 Fully active user
    KayliRose wrote: »
    On another note, I agree with JVRodrigues7, we need a map, or at least mapping tools. We got a PDA, a Sonar system in all of our vehicles, a Scanner room that can create a 3D model of topographic mapping, but we can't develop our own maps that we can put on our HUD and see freely? We have a depth meter, a compass, and the ability to fabricate things into existence at the push of buttons, but we can't chart out a map that shows everything we've seen? I'd even settle it for being an upgrade module like the compass is, that way I can see where everything is, mark places on the map without having 50 beacons all over the place, and know exactly how far I need to go, how deep I need to go, and what its near so I can prepare accordingly.

    A map would be terribly convenient, however I think that the devs didn't add it because it could undermine the novelty of exploration (which persists even when you have already been into an area because there are often details you haven't noticed) and make us look at a map to navigate through the environment, instead of looking at the actual environment and learning to look for POIs, notice its topography etc.
  • collegatorecollegatore Members Join Date: 2020-05-11 Member: 260916Posts: 1 Freshly registered user
    I can't say it was ruining my game, but frustrating - indeed. I had, well, probably 10 floating containers right beneath my lifepod, stocked with various basic resources, before I realized that a single corridor with a locker replaces them all at once. And up to almost the end of the game, I was trying to realize what to do with those containers, messing either my storage space or floating like garbage somewhere in the ocean, because _utility_ items destroyer aka trash can is hidden in the cosmetics section
  • SorenzorSorenzor Madrid, SpainMembers Join Date: 2020-04-04 Member: 259618Posts: 10 Fully active user
    I had no problems at all in my first experience and I played blind. I just built a tube because I didn't know that the multipurpuse room existed and it worked fine. I fail to find the problem here. I think that the moment I got the multipurpuse room my mind clicked and it was amazing. That process of discovery is part of the appealing of the game. It's not that hard to find it anyway, the multipurpuse room is everywhere.

    What almost made me quit when I was starting was something different. The first thing I did was swimming towards the aurora. About 3 minutes later a reaper got me and killed me in one strike. I didn't even see it coming because I was swimming on the surface.

    That made me think that the game would be really hard and frustrating. If I can't even swim to the ship that I am watching from the start without being killed what else can I do?

    Then I started the game in a different difficulty, without hunger and thirst. I tried to play slowly, not going far from my capsule and it worked. I improved slowly. But it was an amazing experience.

    Subnautica IS NOT FOR EVERYONE, it's not fortnite. And that's why it's so cool. If those players can't stand not having a multipurpuse from the start, I say LET THEM GO. They don't belong to subnautica.
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