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The Rust Diaries: Letting go of structure in video games
by Kris Graft on 02/12/14 09:29:00 am   Editor Blog   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

Kris Graft is editor-in-chief of Gamasutra (@krisgraft)
A lot of people won't "get" Rust. When you first log in to a server, you awaken -- you're born, really -- probably in the middle of a field, with a stone, some basic first aid, and a torch that hardly would last through the night.
The world of Rust doesn't wait for you or feel obliged to ease you in, and neither does its often ruthless inhabitants. It's like merging with heavy traffic: If you make a wrong move, you'll end up smashed up on the side of the road. Student drivers will end up in a mangled heap more often than more experienced drivers. 
Despite the intimidating nature of Rust, a hostile world where death, frustration and humiliation happen on a regular basis, 1 million people have bought this game.
Rust, in Early Access alpha development by Garry Newman of Garry's Mod fame and his studio Facepunch, abandons preconceived, tailor-designed structure: quests, skill trees, narrative arcs, level designs, etc. are all out the window. Everything revolves around a straightforward crafting system and your ability to live and learn on Rust Island.
What Rust does provide is the foundation -- the crafting system and the island -- for players to build a social framework, to have experiences and interact with one another in a wilderness survival setting. Facepunch is a small team of developers, so creating framework and countless systems and producing endless content wasn't really an option. Just as Rust conforms to the way players play, it conforms to the way the developers develop.
As someone who doesn't typically play (or "get") "these kinds" of games, Rust has opened my eyes to virtues of emergent design in games with large groups of people. It's "missing" a lot of features we've come to expect in video games, and it works wonderfully. Here are a few of my experiences and a few takeaways from this game, which still isn't even close to being done.
Rust diary excerpt #1
Welcome to Rust Island
Woke up, at night, alone. No clothes, that was interesting. Lit my torch. Ran through some scratchy grass for a little while. Calories dropped to near zero before a similarly naked stranger hit me a few times with what I presume was a rock. Whoops, I'm dead.
There is no tutorial in Rust. You learn from playing, which involves a lot of dying. Lesson learned here? I probably need food to replenish calories -- but how? And why did someone hit me with a rock? Maybe if I hit a deer with a rock enough times...
Rust diary excerpt #5
Pant-less paranoia
Made pants today, so happy. Naked stranger killed me with a rock, unprovoked. Woke up, pants gone. Now pant-less and paranoid. Whenever I see someone nearby, we watch each other, strafing sideways, until we're a safe distance from one another. "I'm friendly, I'm friendly," we'll yell. Sometimes the last thing you'll hear.
At this point, you're starting to understand that you'll have a hard time trusting anyone in this game. And you understand that no one trusts you, either, pants or not.
Rust diary excerpt #6
Arms race
Got cloth from a deer I'd hunted. Gathered some wood, more cloth and even some stone. Made a bow and arrow. Was so happy. Dude hit me with a rock and killed me.
It's kind of unnerving in Rust the way that you do feel more powerful, and dominating of others, once you possess more powerful weapons. But a rock was still pretty effective against me with a bow and arrow. Even if you have firearms, it doesn't guarantee your safety. In fact, if you're running around with your shotgun out, you might become more of a target. So even if at first you feel like a "bad ass" when you make your first gun, you're often quickly put in your place. You typically feel disempowered in Rust, but that's ok.
My first bow
Rust diary excerpt #11
Short-lived recruitment
Weird day. Ran into guy named "Texas" at the warehouse. All of us were unarmed, but he told me to get my rock out, makes me look more aggressive. Sure, ok let's see what happens. Followed him down the road to meet his friend. Ran into three guys with rifles, they told us to get to the side of the road. "We're dead, we're gonna get executed." Riflemen started throwing us all kinds of supplies and weapons, with no ammo. Appealing to someone who's never had anything. Took us back to their place where they locked us in a room for 15 minutes or so. They came back, opened the door. I took off. Texas, my fellow captor, shot me in the face, killed me. Said it was an accident.
This was the first of many tangible social connections that I made in Rust, a real, "what the heck just happened here?" moment. Only immediately afterwards did I realize how having nothing in Rust made having "something," so much more appealing. And when that "something" -- like weapons and armor -- gives you leverage over the people who have nothing, out of naivety, you tend to want to side with the people with the power, even if you're being dominated yourself. Finding out who's a friend and who isn't involves forging an actual relationship.
Texas and his friend, unconscious (with censor.nudity false)
Rust diary excerpt #25
Finding a friend
A friend of mine now lives somewhere on Rust Island. No map, no coordinates, stars tell me nothing about direction. Found each other using landmarks. That was pretty great.
We're so used to features like minimaps or even on-screen arrows that tell you exactly where to go. Finding a friend (my neighbor in real-life) on the big virtual island, especially when you're not really familiar with the place, is a reward in itself. You lose the convenience of a typical game feature, but you gain back a sense of gratification.
Rust diary excerpt #30
The homeless shelter
Some kindly folks with houses by the hangar have a nice little one-room house they call "the homeless shelter" - has a furnace, sleeping bags, campfire. Even got the code to the place so we can come and go. Hung out there, it's nice, esp since our wooden shelters were raided.
This isn’t the only instance in Rust where other players are actually nice. More than a few times, someone would just drop a bunch of food or supplies down for us, just to help out. When you do the same, you have potential to make strong alliances. I like how people will ask in chat, "How do you team up with people?" as they look for some kind of built-in system to group up. Facepunch doesn't have that system, at least yet. You have to go up to someone, ask if they want to team up, and hope they don't smack you with a rock, or shoot you. It's purely social, virtually "face to face."
Rust diary excerpt #40
Raided and disappointed
Getting the hang of collecting and crafting. Lots of supplies in our small place, took hours to gather and create. Got raided in the middle of the night, C4 to our side wall, most everything is gone.

There's really no safety net in this game. If you die, the best you can hope for is to respawn at your sleeping bag or bed, if you made one or the other. You'll lose everything on you, though you can go to your body and hope it wasn't looted by the time you get back. This particular instance with my friend and I stuck out in my brain because it forced him to change the way he thought of the game -- he had to willfully mentally adjust to "living" on Rust Island. "I just find myself getting too nervous and anxious about losing everything, constantly. From now on I'm just going to accept that this is what this game is about, and if I lose everything, that's ok." That's a wonderful revelation to have about a video game.
Rust diary excerpt #60
Moral dilemma with "stings2pee"
Tim told me recently about a guy who lives next to our main three-story base. The guy goes by "stings2pee" but he's friendly enough, exchanged food and supplies with him with no incident. Today another friendly we know told Tim about a raid on a house, supplies still there for the taking. Tim went along, found out it was nice-guy "stings2pee"'s place. He didn't feel right taking the stuff, but the "friendly" armed raider insisted, "Take it! Take it!"
Another instance in which there is no moral system in the game aside from the system you take into it. So you end up with real actual moral dilemmas. Tim intended on giving the raided goods back to "stings2pee," but we haven't seen him since.
Rust diary excerpt #68
A message from MrZero (me)
Nighttime. Random friendlies turned out to be random hostiles. Started hitting me with rocks, killed me near base. Tim was in area, told him BigMatt was the one who landed killing blow. Tim caught up with him, laughing "This is a message from MrZero!" and one-shotted BigMatt with a pickaxe.
Tim was no Liam Neeson in Taken here, but this tiny meet-betray-revenge loop was hugely satisfying and hilarious (because really, you do get tired of naked jerks hitting you with rocks). The situation emerged and was over in the course of about five minutes, yet is one of the more memorable experiences I've had in Rust lately.
Rust diary excerpt #81
Home invasion
Pat joined Tim and I tonight. We've plenty of supplies these days, getting him up to speed was no problem. Random hostile attacked Tim up by the warehouse, Pat and I came up to see what was happening. Hostile chased Tim into the base. Locked hostile in front room. Hostile made it through our maze of a house, killed Tim a couple times, hacked through a wooden gate with a stone, crafting wood barriers behind him to slow us down. Invader made it to our roof, laughed at me just as he finished crafting a crate, which he used to jump over one last barrier. He screamed, laughing, "THANKS GUYS!" as he made off with Tim's new MP5.

So this was humiliating and hilarious at the same time. It was basically The Three Stooges trying to stop this guy from infiltrating our place. Our home, which we thought was decently-designed for defense, was not. We've renovated since.
"Social cruft"

A comment from a developer on another wilderness survival game sticks in my head as I think about Rust, and why it's been such a memorable experience. Kevin Forbes of Don't Starve developer Klei Entertainment recently told us the following, so I'll leave you with this parting thought:
"I've read of some players bouncing off [Don't Starve] because it doesn't offer a standard progression model: people will die after hours and hours of play and lose everything they have accumulated in-game," Forbes told us. "They ask: 'What was the point? I have nothing to show for my time!' Well, they had the experience of playing the game, and the knowledge that they gained from it. If that wasn't fun or worthwhile while they were playing, no amount of digital trinketry will make it so. I think that a lot of the social cruft that we've added to games in the past console generation is a distraction that detracts from the joy of playing."

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Stephen Dinehart
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This is great Kris, thanks for posting. It sounds like "Rust" has all the tokens of quality experience design. I've been reluctant to drop a 20 on it, but increasingly your reporting has me convinced.

Kris Graft
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Don't get me wrong, it's rough, especially if you're alone. Just DM me if you do end up getting it!

Amir Barak
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Been meaning to check Rust out (though I'm not really one for social/online gaming). This write-up might just be the thing to push me over to try it!

Very well written; highly entertaining :D

Sam Stephens
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"They ask: 'What was the point? I have nothing to show for my time!'

I must agree with this sentiment. Rust, like DayZ and Minecraft, is more of a simulator than a game. There are no standards and nothing to work towards that is not set by the player themselves. That's fine. Some find that kind experience satisfying. There is no real challenge however. Sure, survival can be difficult, but there is no context for it; no reason to survive. It's all about what the player subjectively finds valuable which is, in my opinion, a bit indulgent and meaningless. It does not have "interesting choices," so I see why many ask "what was the point?"

Kris Graft
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Even though I really like this game, I totally see where people are coming from when they ask, "what's the point?" I think that Rust will end up being one of those games that a ton of people are completely befuddled by, and uninterested in, yet it'll still be hugely popular. Either you "get" it or you don't.

Sam Stephens
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Perhaps the reason why some don't "get" Rust is because it is much more like Animal Crossing (without the cutesy aesthetic) than Resident Evil, which could be confusing and betray expectations. It just does not scratch that itch that comes with structure and mandatory challenges.

steven mathers
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This is a super-interseting topic for me.

The point of these games is the innate self-made goal of 'improvement'. This goal is implicit in a lot of games but in Rust and Minecraft and so on, its laid bare.

My last blog post addresses this very thing at

Sam Stephens
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"The point of these games is the innate self-made goal of improvement."

Some players may find it in themselves to get better at the game. But how does one actually improve if there is no standard set to measure the player against? What exactly is there to get better at? That's the problem with self-defined goals in a consequence free space. The only expectations players can live up to are their own, which is not very incentivizing.

steven mathers
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Sorry, I was using terminology from my blog post. 'Self-improvement' where the 'self' part means the players situation in any game they are playing. Call it Situation-improvement.

Ricky Bankemper
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@Sam Stephens

I must agree with this sentiment. Rust, like DayZ and Minecraft, is more of a simulator than a game. There are no standards and nothing to work towards that is not set by the player themselves. That's fine. Some find that kind experience satisfying. There is no real challenge however. Sure, survival can be difficult, but there is no context for it; no reason to survive. It's all about what the player subjectively finds valuable which is, in my opinion, a bit indulgent and meaningless. It does not have "interesting choices," so I see why many ask "what was the point?"

I am completely baffled by this assessment.

This is similar to asking why players play any game beyond the developer set goals? Does a developer goal mean more than a personal goal? A developer goal is more challenging?

I find it is completely reversed, at least for multiplayer games (which Rust is). Players set the standards in every multiplayer game. Dota 2, Dayz, Dark Souls, Any FPS, Mario Kart, any fighting game, Final Fantasy, Diablo (1,2,and 3) and on and on. Some single players transcend into player vs player with time trails or increase restrictions. Pokemon series has extremely popular player made challenges. The greatest challenge in any game, will always be against another player.

My Dota 2 player rating is 4k. I want to eventually get to 5k - 6k+(where professionals are ranked). Valve didn't tell me you should want to get to 5k+ to be satisfied with Dota 2. From software never said you need to beat Dark Souls by only using a 2 handed weapon and no armor. In the same way, Rust never told me I had to build the biggest base, become the server police, or become powerful enough to enforce taxes on my neighboring players.

I always tend to explore a game well beyond what the developer set out for if I truly enjoy a game, (I don't know how many times and ways I have beaten Final Fantasy Tactics). I believe we always play a game for our own goals/reasons. The fact that Rust doesn't provide you with any, takes nothing away from it.

Sam Stephens
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"Does a developer goal mean more than a personal goal? A developer goal is more challenging?"

Absolutely. Players don't have to live up to their own goals. Therefore, they usually are not challenging themselves as much as they could be in a structured experience. Tetris is not about arranging blocks in a pretty pattern. The designers felt that creating a specific way to measure player performance within the space created more meaning. Challenges create the context for meaning to arise.

"Players set the standards in every multiplayer game."

This statement could not be any less true. The developers still determine what is important here. Let's use Halo as an example. In classic Slayer mode, teams win by getting the most kills. In King of the Hill, players have to stand within a designated spot and hold it in order to score points. Though getting kills in this mode is helpful, if players are not focusing their decisions on the goal, they will never win no matter how good their K/D is. Players can always become better and there is no limit to their skills, but ultimately this happens within the strict space the designers created. A game like DayZ only provides the space for people to make their own games (like the Battle Royal mod). There is no context to focus the player interaction beside the ability to role-play.

"Some single players transcend into player vs player with time trails or increase restrictions."

Yes, but speed-running and player vs player interactions work much better within a set of standards. You cannot speed-run DayZ or Rust. With the Pokemon example, the metagame still exists within the core framework of the game. K/O your opponent's Pokemon using selected moves. Rust does not have such a framework because there are no goals. So there really can be no metagame in Rust since it is all up to the player to begin with.

"Valve didn't tell me you should want to get to 5k+ to be satisfied with Dota 2."

It's the fact that there is a ranking, that players can be measured that is important. I never said that players don't take initiative to better themselves and reach the highest level of play. Designers don't have control over that. But they still create the mirror by which players can judge themselves. They still set the standards. If they did not, no one would care about rankings because there would be no rankings. Ranking implies something is being measured by some standard.

And that is why I believe that Rust and titles like it are a fundamentally different experience than gameplay. There is hardly anything to conform to; nothing that gives player actions any meaning beyond what they find important (no "interesting choices"). That is not to say that Rust is not valuable in whatever it does or allows. It's just not very good as a game (or not even a game at all).

Luis Guimaraes
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If you can game it (i.e. manipulate the system towards a desired outcome) it's certainly a game.

If Rust is not a game then Tetris isn't either. Nor are Killing Floors or Horde-Modes of any other game. Nor Canabalt or any infinite-runner or any infinite game.

They all have the same goal – to get as far as you can – and they all have systems which you can manipulate towards that desired outcome.

"nothing that gives player actions any meaning beyond what they find important"

What is "meaning"?

Sam Stephens
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"If you can game it (i.e. manipulate the system towards a desired outcome) it's certainly a game."

Yes, I definitely agree, but what is the desirable outcome in Rust? Whatever desirable outcome that comes out of Rust is set by the player. That is, the player can make a game out of Rust. It is a sandbox that gives players the tools to create there own structure.

"They all have the same goal-to get as far as you can"

As far as I know, this is not measured by the game in any way (correct me if I am wrong). Tetris, Canabalt, and Gears of War's Horde mode all have scores and explicit structures that the player immediately recognizes.

"What is meaning"

Games have, as you say, "desirable outcomes," which means that some actions and decisions are more viable than others. They either are helpful or harmful in affecting that outcome. That is where the meaning comes from. For example, in Pikmin, red units are resistant to fire. Choosing a squad of red Pikmin to defeat a group of Pyroclasmic Sloochs defending a pile of bridge parts has meaning because it is better to do this than using yellow Pikmin. The meaning here is that red Pikmin are better at dealing with fire than yellow Pikmin and that there are consequences for not adhering to this in play. It is an idea that is communicated to the player and then is stressed through the structure of mandatory challenges.

Take away all desirable outcomes (that are not determined by the player) from this example, and it has significantly less meaning. The idea (red Pikmin better than yellow Pikmin) is still there, but it is not stressed in anyway because losing Pikmin is no longer objectively undesirable.

I was wrong to say that there isn't any meaning in Rust, but that meaning comes from what the player subjectively decides is desirable. That brings me back to my initially point from the first comment. People ask "what's the point?" because there is no inherent point. It is up to the player to decide what is desirable (and therefore what is meaningful) which means that it is a drastically different experience from that of structured gameplay. This is not a bad thing. I actually have a lot of fun with DayZ. Its just different, that's all.

Ricky Bankemper
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Sam Stephens
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"I don't understand your attempt to belittle or separate Rust from your view of what is a standard in gaming."

How am I "belittling" Rust? I just described the experience and how it is different from structured gameplay (and therefore tried to answer some of the concerns raised in the article).

When I say "interesting choices" I am referring to the Sid Meier's quote about how goals and challenges inherently make some decisions better than others. Without goals or an objectively desirable outcome, no choice is better than any other. This is in no way subjective. Sometimes the better choice is relative to player skill (better with the rocket launcher than the sniper rifle), but it is always measurable in how harmful or helpful it is.

"Should I build my base in this traffic heavy area"

That is certainly an "interesting choice." Building a base is the desirable outcome and choice of where to build it will positively or negatively affect reaching this goal. But it was you who decided that building a base was a desirable outcome. It is not mandatory and does not fit within a larger objective (unless your overall objective is to survive, but that is still what you have decided is important and is not really stressed by the game). If Rust or DayZ had an objective to survive ten in-game days without dying or had some other objectives set by the designers, then it would be a whole different ballgame.

I will stress this again. Never did I say that Rust or DayZ would be "better" if they had more structure. If that is the tone you are getting then I am sorry and it is my fault for giving off that signal.

Ricky Bankemper
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Yeah, your response to Luis cleared your meaning up for me :) and is why I deleted my comment (I thought before you had replied lol)

Sam Stephens
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It's all good :)

Ron Dippold
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And now it has another 'missing' mandatory game feature: zombies. Strangely, this was brave and controversial ('How can you have opendynamicworldmultiplayerzombiesurvivalgame (DayZ for short) without the zombies, bro?'). But zombies are boring and lazy and didn't add anything compared to wildlife and other players. This little tweak immediately makes it somewhat more interesting than the rest of the pack.

I'm curious - did you do your play this week after they'd been removed, or did you just not notice them or think they were worth mentioning?

Kris Graft
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I just didn't think they were worth mentioning, though I know for a lot of players, it was a Big Deal that the zombies were removed. Thing is, we've all known for a while that zombies were just placeholders, and that the red animals that replaced them are just placeholders as well. The zombies did not add much to the game at all, for me, although it was kind of fun to go out "zombie hunting" to get some higher-tier items (which the red animals give up now).

I've tried getting a hold of Garry because I'd love to chat with him about community management in a game that is still in alpha (he's pretty busy, I imagine). Seems that a lot of the audience doesn't understand the concept.

Sjoerd Bergman
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I read the original post wrong. Never mind this.

Jeremy Alessi
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It sounds like Minecraft. These "crafting" games are great little abstractions on life though. Everyone finds their own different point.

Gord Cooper
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Games like this make me happy, it's essentially the evolution of the rogue-like mentality. Looking forward to seeing this come out of alpha, and seeing if community adoption changes up the scope of play to any noticeable degree.

Jesse Tucker
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Really interesting presentation with this article! Thanks for writing it.

Jason Fleischman
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I love the feeling of discovery games like these impart.

But, I may be a minority here when I say that I enjoy having my hand held a bit at times. Offering no direction or overarching story makes me feel like there isn't much purpose to what I am doing. What exactly am I trying to accomplish? What is my goal?

I am thrilled that players can jump into these unstructured games and enjoy themselves. Minecraft and Rust are both immensely successful in this formula, and it's a major victory for the designers in creating interesting enough worlds where people can "choose their own adventure". But I think it's beneficial for these games to have and present some discrete goals for our players to work towards. For example, the addition of achievements to Minecraft (which presented some goals in branching paths) dramatically improved my personal experience with it while still retaining the unstructured and "open" approach to the game. So, perhaps that is one method...

Alexis Hallaert
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I am reacting to excerpt #5. It's like EVE at prehistorical times. By placing time limited skill limited humans in an empty space world with an economic and alliances framework, we reproduce the behavior of capitalism and territorial war. By placing lone humans down to earth, we provoke one on one encounters creating similar motives and fears as the ones taking place in prehistorical times or when tribes hardly knew each others and crossing territory was a no-no. It's extraordinary to be able to genuinely experience this. It reminds me of things I read in the book The World before Yesterday.

Mutlu Isik
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Isn't most of this also true for Day Z? I'm very tempted to buy it, but I just bought Day Z recently, so if it's too similar, I'd rather not. Do you think the two experiences are different enough to warrant another purchase? Thanks.

Kris Graft
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The main difference is Rust has a much greater emphasis on crafting, and establishing yourself as a resident of the island. DayZ is more about scavenging, with very limited crafting, and, and least when I play, you don't expect to really take up permanent residence anywhere in DayZ. I've had fun with both games though.

Leonardo Ferreira
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A game is a thing that often happen for accident, in the space in between the player agency and the limitastions of the system. Maybe that's why supposedly "pointless" games often have some much game on them. That said, that's hadly praise-worthy, since, for indies, making a conterpoint to the hand-holding of the triple-As is less of a statement and more of a necessity. And also, that style of game design is really nothing new; just look of the evolution of the sandbox genre, or the online RPGs of the 90's and early 00's, from Ultima Online to Mortal Online (the latter is startling similar to Rust, except being unlucky of not coming to life in the Youtuber Era).

Aaron Stout
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Any way that I could play with that Tim guy, he sounds freaking nice. Need more people like him in Rust.

Brandon Kidwell
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Great article!

Games are meant to entertain. If you can do that without maintaining standards set in other game then more power to you. However, some games suffer from not including certain mechanics or set standards because that is what made it more entertaining. For example a lot of MMORPGs are lackluster because they introduce something "new" but do not bring with them all of the successful components that made past MMORPGs entertaining.

Rust, Minecraft and similar games allow the player to define a goal. Giving the player a goal isn't terrible as well. I would actually prefer to see more games like Dark Souls where there are plenty of mechanics and interesting details in the game but it is devoid of "quests." You can establish content through context.

Basically people are starting to understand that a lot of developers treat players like they are stupid. Players are not stupid, if they want to figure out how to do something they will figure it out. Nothing needs to be handed to a player, they really only need information to help them along their way. Again, in Dark Souls the NPC in the beginning basically says "Ring two bells to progress the game." Let the player go from there.

Joshua Darlington
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THis game sounds extremely structured from your description.