Deserted Islands? A Return To Stranded Deep

Returning to Stranded Deep [official site] after eight months of early access, I’m more surprised by what hasn’t been fixed or changed, than by anything that has. The survival sim which drops you out of the sky near a network of islands showed a lot of promise, but an awful lot more bugs, glitches and limitations. I had hoped, coming back after a good while, it would be a far more cohesive thing – it really isn’t. And yet I’ve still ended up having fun pottering around.

Stranded Deep does not stray far from the standards of survival-me-do gaming. You’ve three meters – health, food, and water – and some basic provisions to begin staying alive in a super-fast day/night cycle. Beginning with a pocket knife, a lighter and a bottle of water, you paddle your inflated raft to the nearest patch of land, and begin scavenging. Islands provide wood, palm fronds, coconuts and crabs, along with binding materials from yukkas and the occasional potato plant. From this you can fudge together simple tools, fire pits, and even rudimentary shelters. But to get serious, you’ll need to investigate the many wrecked boats that dot the region (a strange phenomenon, considering the calm waters and absence of any fantastical elements). Inside you’ll gather less organic materials, like engines, fuel containers, duct tape and medicines. All these various bits and pieces can be combined in the game’s still dreadful crafting, hopefully allowing you to stay alive long enough to find out if there’s actually anything to live for.

It’s just downright peculiar what’s still not right here, though. You can now craft an outboard motor for a homemade raft, but you still can’t make a fishing line. You can stab a great white shark to death, but you can’t safely store items in your inflatable raft when paddling. There seems to have been a very misguided effort to focus on some big picture elements like a variety of biomes, before the absolute basics are in place.

Physics remain absolute bonkers. In order to craft, you ridiculously have to drop the items you might need to use in an enormous pile on the ground. Each stick, frond and rock has its own desire to obey the physics rules it’s been given, and as a result these piles tend to be madly trembling framerate-eaters, ready to burst their contents in all directions at the slightest provocation. You too will be sent into mad spasms, or even forced to jump up and down on the spot, when – say – walking over a stick. Using fires becomes especially tricky when the game is determined to fling you onto it, rather than let you stand next to it. That’s the sort of thing I’d like to be sorted before worrying about whether rain noises are appropriately muffled underwater.

Fires have other problems, too. They’re a mess of bugs, whether it’s the hopelessness of trying to balance an item to cook on an open fire, or a firepit complete with spit which decides to keep casting out the light of a fire, but to have no flames and no ability to be re-lit. (Saving, quitting, and reloading fixes this one – not a great way to play.) Even things as simple as correctly labeling items – surely the simplest fixes – haven’t been done. It remains the case, as it was in January, that when you’ve drunk from a “drinkable coconut” (one you’ve removed from its husk, then cracked with a blade) it keeps that title, despite being empty. A tiny detail, but when you’re playing, a really tiresome error.

For me, that issue with the inflatable rafts is the saddest. You have eight inventory slots, and the ability to hold four of the same thing in each. It sounds a decent amount, but it’s very limiting. If you’re holding water, food, your lighter, a machete and a hammer, then you’ve not much room to pick up any interesting finds on a nearby wreck. So the obvious solution is to drop things into your raft, and then sail them all back to base. Or, of course, when moving to a new island. But the moment you sail, the items try to stay in the same place, and eventually fall backward out or simply ping out of existence. It’s such a bummer, as the idea of being able to carry my haul with me seems so appealing, as well as an important aspect of feeling a sense of belonging in the game world, but there appears to have been no effort made to make it work.

Crafting, as I mentioned, is daft. There’s a good degree of sense to saying, “Here’s all the stuff I need in this place,” but in practice, when they’re all jostling for their role in the physical world, and you’re mostly incapable of moving across them when they’re strewn about in the sand, it’s a pain. Worse, the UI for the crafting relies on your already knowing what the required ingredients are, and the crafting button doesn’t appear as an option until all ingredients are present. Which is utterly silly. It’s like setting out to make a cake without a recipe, and only being able to mix them once you’ve correctly guessed at the right amounts of flour and eggs. If I know what is needed to make a shelter wall, why the hell can’t I have access to this knowledge – and thus a notion of what I need to go collect – before everything’s in one place?

The method is frustrating too. You long-left-click on your pile of debris, while remembering which tool to hold in your hand, and then pick from an awkwardly scrolling popping-up menu. I can see, again, the notion of realism that comes from directly interacting with the items you’re using for crafting, but you can really see why the vast majority of survival games go for something like a book of recipes. It’d make things so much more fun if Stranded could adopt the method used by The Forest, for instance.

Yet, I’ve had a pleasant day trying to get established, dying of starvation because I couldn’t figure out how to make a spit for the fire, starting over, fruitlessly starting work on a shelter on an island with about three trees, getting in a fight with a tiger shark, figuring out fire spits and cooking piles of crabs, and then making my way off to other islands…

At which point the game’s greatest failing rears its head in the worst way. For presumably technology reasons, distant islands are all rendered exactly the same size and shape on the horizon, no matter their size and distance (and indeed no matter your graphics settings). Once you get close enough, they pop into reality, revealing that they’re right next door or forever away, and half a mile long or a little blip. That’s annoying, but you can cope… right up until it’s time to head back home. Because now your base island is just a placemarker shape on the horizon which looks like everywhere else, and if you’ve become spun around at all, good bloody luck getting back there. The lack of a compass or sextant, as Salt superbly offers, means there’s no hope of using coordinates or vague directions, and crushingly no chance of usefully mapping a region.

And oh, that makes me so sad. Because that’s what keeps me from liking Stranded Deep. Sure, the idiotic bugs with the fires, the weird crafting, the way they’ve STILL not fixed the labelling of palm fronds from saying “log” once they’re ready to be chopped up – you can get past all that even eight months after going into early access. But not being able to see where you’re going, or how to get back to where you’ve been – that just breaks the whole thing for me. Developers Beam Team are being very open about their development, right down to letting you see their Trello page for bugs and balancing. But sadly none of the entries there convince me their priorities are at all in the right place for quickly fixing the simplest of frustrations, and working hard at solutions for the tougher ones. You can see that some of my concerns could one day be addressed in their less immediate Features board, but my complaint remains that this far in, the basics just aren’t getting quickly tidied. With over half a million sales, you have to assume the resources are there to see it all happen. I really hope it does.

33 Comments

  1. Sam says:

    Adding new features is more fun than fixing existing ones. So it has always been, so it shall always be.

    Early Access amplifies that problem because your core (and most vocal) fans are those that have struggled through the bugs and gotten used to them or found workarounds. Players that see it to be a buggy mess of a thing will bounce off and check back in 8 months. All the while those that don’t mind the bugs are whispering evil thoughts of procedurally generated coral.

    • SD_Passerby says:

      In some sense, part of playing a game before much of it has even been developed is being willing to overlook such things. If the bug seems easy to fix, it probably will be. If a gameplay mechanic is bound to be replaced further down the line, there may be no real reason to address the bug at all.

      The unsolved mysteries I generally worry about are the ones that shouldn’t have been part of the game to begin with. Samurai robot kittens or some such nonsense like that. Some of the buggiest games are built on random tangents that consistently take away from the core game. The only thing that’s felt out of place in SD was the sea forts but those were done rather tastefully (if illogically) in the end so I haven’t really minded.

  2. Blackcompany says:

    Thanks for providing this information. Saves me the time of looking into the game myself.

    More and more I begin to wonder: Do any of the numerous developers who currently have a survival game in Early Access actually intend to finish said game? How much longer can this nonsense sustain itself before even the most dedicated fans of the genre begin to see this for what its really become, as opposed to what they want it to be?

    • Frankovich213 says:

      “Thanks for providing this information. Saves me the time of looking into the game myself.”

      Misinformation more like it. The reviewer negated to realise the experimental branch of Stranded Deep even existed which is obviously where all the work has gone for the last 8 months. Quite frankly, I’m not sure why this review hasn’t been retracted yet. Very harsh treatment of SD by RPS.

  3. Perjoss says:

    I quite liked this game, there was something really nice and peaceful about just being out there stuck on islands and trying to survive. I just could never used to how long it took to chop a tree down and break it into logs etc, I’ve played a ton of games where you chop trees or mine rocks but this was the first that made me think to myself “ok, this just feels like boring work”.

    I’m not sure if it ever got patched but it used to take 10 swings of the axe just to bring a tree down, I think they could have easily changed it to 5 swings without making the gathering feel like it was happening too fast.

    • SD_Passerby says:

      It still does take quite a few hits, though I don’t think they’ve had any particular reason to adjust it yet. There aren’t enough elements to balance the time activities take either. Part of this particular issue is that the wood itself doesn’t seem that valuable to us yet. If you had to go out of your way to acquire it and if you needed more of it to make your shelter and if your shelter was actually important for survival… well then the time it takes might seem more worth it.

      They haven’t really done much for the actual balance of survival lately. Most of their work seems to be in building the foundation for a more lively environment. Dynamic waves are the most recent release and those will add the possibility of larger open-ocean waves, storms, and dynamic shorelines. Considering how big a part the ocean plays in the game, these contentless changes have an added importance beyond that of the basic gameplay elements that can be added afterwards.

    • rcguitarist says:

      So you want a survival game that is like minecraft. Have you ever cut down a tree in real life? 10 swings to take one down is giving it to you easy. If this was realistic, it would take you more life 50 swings. Then your character would need to rest for about 15 minutes afterwards.

      • thsscapi says:

        So you want a survival game that is like minecraft. Have you ever cut down a tree in real life? 10 swings to take one down is giving it to you easy. If this was realistic, it would take you more life 50 swings. Then your character would need to rest for about 15 minutes afterwards.

        You can’t compare the number of swings in-game to real life, simply because time passes quicker in-game. 10 swings is reasonable if you look at how much in-game time you spent. That said, Minecraft’s tree chopping *is* less realistic, though that game is more about building than it is about surviving. You could mod it and make it longer if you wanted anyway.

  4. SD_Passerby says:

    John, I would highly recommend opting into the experimental branch before you lock in your opinion on the game’s recent changes. I can see from the screenshots and the features you describe as being new that you’ve entirely overlooked the huge improvements there. The game will still lack finished content there but at least you will see how dramatic “big picture elements like a variety of biomes” can be in the finished game. There have been quite a lot of complaints about the gameplay balance and content falling behind but those often neglect the state of the game and even overlook the screenshots released through the update blog. This will likely still be the biggest downside to the game but I think the experimental branch will help remind you that the game is not meant to be complete and playable at this stage.

    *The game does actually have a compass. It’s been in there forever. Learning to make a map on a piece of paper is actually quite interesting, though time consuming. The island thumbnails are still annoying but they’ve added at least a middle rendering step recently to make them a little easier to identify.

    I know it’s also extremely tempting to assume that making decent money means the developers should be able to essentially buy a bigger game but I don’t think that’s an entirely honest assessment (more a byproduct of the early access format’s failures, as great as those may be!). Expanding a game after development has started has proved to often be an extraordinarily bad idea for many early access games out there and I hope you understand that there is merit to holding true to your original ideas, especially when there are so many fans out there able to put forward their own suggestions. It’s tiresome watching developers cave to bigger and better dreams only to be bogged down by disconnected features.

    What’s more, many startup developers work for years without payment and would probably very much like to have a cushion to support themselves (and their families) in their future projects. Having capital set aside for the future is something players seem to be holding against developers and it’s not a particularly sincere sentiment.

    As far as I’m aware, the developers of SD have expressed an interest in continuing to develop the game even after the first has been released. I realize how difficult it can be to predict the outcome of early access games thanks to a handful of rotten eggs in the first batch but for my part I see this game as being on track.

    They’ve also recently hired at least a third member of their team and may be intending to hire more. Regardless of whether it’s turning into the game you’d like to play, it is impressive that two people could manage even this much with the massive crowd breathing down their necks.

    Hope this helps a bit. Early access has been a really awful format thus far to both players and developers and it bugs me when that bleeds over and makes us exceedingly wary of everything under the sun.

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      John Walker says:

      It’s odd how much you’ve missed what I’m saying. I’m not suggesting for a moment they should be making the game bigger, or investing in huge new elements. The whole point of this piece is to point out that the most *minor* issues with the game have remained in place for eight months.

      • SD_Passerby says:

        The whole point of my post was that your benchmark for the progress that has been made in the last eight months is an outdated release of the game. I was recommending you actually try the most up-to-date version of the game to see what the developers have been spending their time on. I’m glad you’re willing to give the game a shot and review it–I’m only trying to help give it more accuracy. I don’t doubt that the new bugs will seem excessive, so perhaps you may want to wait for the next stable release to update afterall.

        As an example, you specifically point out that they haven’t changed the visible name of a palm leaves when you’re cutting them. Were you to play the experimental branch, you’d find this of little concern as you currently can’t even cut down palm trees. The addition of a handful of imperfect and crooked palm tree models as well as their current work on a new, rebalanced approach to shelter crafting necessitates some updates in the tree cutting system. For the moment, they’ve introduced alternate trees that can be cut as well as piles of driftwood placed liberally along the shore to facilitate easier testing until the world generation has been cleaned back up.

        I apologize if the rest came off differently. I frequently try to rationalize the negativity surrounding early access games in the hopes that it will eventually fade. It’s unfair that fans of finished games can pop by to promote their games while decrying the failures of others while those of us who are actually looking forward to these games get shunned for defending them. I’ve seen people call SD a failure because you don’t have to use the bathroom like you do in ARK. I hope you understand how frustrating that line of reasoning gets.

    • Borodin says:

      Are you a member or representative of Beam, or just a devoted roadie? You seem to have inside knowledge on the aspirations and intentions of the developers beyond what I would ordinarily expect

      “The game does actually have a compass. It’s been in there forever.” I think it would be useful to explain how to access that compass, given that neither John nor I, nor presumably many others, have been able to find it.

      “Expanding a game after development has started has proved to often be an extraordinarily bad idea for many early access games out there and I hope you understand that there is merit to holding true to your original ideas, especially when there are so many fans out there able to put forward their own suggestions.” But that is precisely John’s concern. Rather than getting the game working, Beam appear to be focusing on window-dressing and enhancements. You even begin your post in the opposite vein, by lauding the content of the experimental branch and features like biomes, which to most players will be just so much irrelevant embellishments while the basics of the game don’t work and are unpleasant to use.

      • EyooCal says:

        He’s neither a represantative, or a “roadie”, he’s just reading update notes. Something that seemed already too hard a task for John Walker.

        How can you take this “review” seriously, when he completely fails to mention the existence of the experimental branch, which features completely new ocean and island mechanics, and revamps many of the systems. Which is the reason why many of the initial bugs and quirks are untouched in the stable build, because they’re currently being re-worked for the new engines.

        Don’t you think that’s something at least worth mentioning, when you do a review? But of course, it’s easier to ignore this, to have a clear message right? I mean even the response by a developer in this comment section, went completely unnoticed. I wonder why….

        And regarding the compass, it’s regular loot. It’s as simple as that, it’s not even particularly rare. Anyone who’s played the game for a couple of hours, and/or actually explored the islands or surrounding wrecks, is able to find it with ease. I won’t go so far to say that you’re lying when you try to tell me otherwise, but you most likely pulled a Walker, and just ran around aimlessly for a limited time.

        It’s really just a misguided opinion piece, or a bad review, depending on how much credit you want to give Walker for re-installing SD.

      • SD_Passerby says:

        1. Open chests until you find a compass. Hold compass. Read compass. Stop arguing about the existence of compasses.

        2. How is the terrain engine (“biomes”) irrelevant to a survival game? Survival is player vs. world! If the world looks like the pile of sand that you poor out of your shoes after a long vacation, why would you want to play it?

        *0. The bulk of my experience comes from replying to those who speak from their scars rather than from their minds. Early Access sucks for a lot of reasons. Your inability to locate a randomly generated item in a chest does not explain your eagerness to argue about it. Declaring my enjoyment false is neither productive nor informed.

    • h_ashman says:

      Also, having read up on the compass, it seems a mid/late game element anyway, being primarily found in lockers underwater, when honestly I see it as needing to be a very early game item, if not a starting item as important as the lighter.

      In fact, thinking about it, I’m not sure I’d have ever realised there was a compass had I just kept playing. I think it’s pretty vital for early access (especially survival games) to provide some degree of help to the player regarding whether basic items exist, even something as simple as a loading screen prompt. Thinking about it, the compass could even have been put into the little tutorial section on the plane (you could still lose it, but it gives you the hint that it exists AND how to use it).

      Problem is that sort of thing is very much a late-development cycle thing, after all it’s only documentation right?

  5. badmothergamer says:

    The inability to distinguish between islands from afar was my biggest problem with the game when I was playing it several months ago. It really made going beyond the first circle of islands immediately surrounding your home base almost impossible, even if you found a compass. However, there was really no reason to go beyond those first islands anyway. There were enough resources around to build a small base and I generally found all the special items there were to find within the first 4 or 5 ships I scavenged. After that, there wasn’t anything left to do. I did watch a quick video the other day and see the larger islands, which is a nice addition.

    I don’t regret my purchase. I paid $15 and played for 15 hours. But I don’t see myself installing it again.

  6. clickmatch says:

    Yes, the experimental branch includes a new ocean, new crafting (still in it’s infancy) and hand crafted islands. They are also starting to finish up the full player model in extreme detail. The plan is to divert from the old cookie cutter crafting and get into more a more customizable crafting system. New Island: link to imgur.com This is an image of the new ocean asset “Ceto” link to forum.unity3d.com

  7. rickenbacker says:

    Not surprised. I tried it, and previewed if for a Swedish mag, a while back and the whole thing struck me as a case of the devs not knowing what kind of game they’re making. It’s very pretty, and fun for a while, but I’m afraid this shows all the signs of a game that will never be finished.

    If you want a pretty survival game with frequent updates, try Subnautica, which is now making major strides in the right direction.

  8. Universal Quitter says:

    Since Early Access games are clearly labeled as such, I’ve never really understood the logic that says “if you sell something, it MUST make sense to review it!” Much of the time, it just creates an awkward, useless review, forever lost out of time in the depths of the internet. But this is your job, and you are good at it, so I hope you don’t take this as some kind of personal attack.

    That being said, I agree that the development has been excruciatingly slow. I’ve been following it just about weekly since launch, and I even have my own ‘game breaking” bug that is yet to be fixed, to my knowledge(the inventory backpack zipper sound is deafeningly loud compared to everything else, and there’s no way to adjust just sound effects).

    I think the “problem” is a byproduct of the small team size, and the under-the-hood work done for the switch to a newer version of Unity. It’s the DayZ “Enfusion engine” problem, but on a much smaller scale.

    Also, the game has had a compass since the very beginning. It’s a “loot” item. Off that you mention Salt (which I also love), because a compass is much easier to acquire in Stranded Deep than in Salt, with it’s lackluster combat system.

    • Universal Quitter says:

      *odd, not “off.”

    • Borodin says:

      I don’t see that either a small team or a delay due to migrating to a different engine can be givenb as a reason for prioritising major enhancements over basic game functionality.

      And the compass in Salt is much less important as it’s easy to navigate by sight in that game. Availability of a compass is just one way that Beam could make up for all the Stranded Deep islands looking identical as soon as you’re a stone’s throw away. It’s ironic that that is a hack to reduce graphics load when their major work seems to have been on making the visuals more elaborate.

  9. spraycanmansam says:

    Hi John,

    Sam from Beam Team Games here. Just wanted to say that it
    might be worth checking out our website here: link to beamteamgames.com for more info on why the “the most *minor* issues with the game have remained in place for eight months”.

    There’s been a lot of core changes due to community requests for large features that weren’t planned for, but we decided to incorporate as they complement Stranded Deep’s overall theme and will make for a better game. These changes have required us to essentially rebuild the game from the ground up – new terrain system, new ocean system, new crafting system, etc – and we’re right in the middle of it all on our experimental branch.

    The whole motivation for the overhaul and adding additional features is that we want the game to actually grow, progress and evolve with development, not turn into another Early Access game with regular ‘updates’ that never actually progresses into anything more months later. Ironically though, the time we’ve had to take to lay the foundation for the new changes has made it ‘appear’ like exactly that, with no notable progress. However, in the next few months Stranded Deep will be a vastly different and improved beast compared to the first release. (I’d love to suggest you try out the experimental branch but I suspect it might be a bit too buggy for you at the moment ;) )

    Hopefully you can understand why we decided against hanging or adjusting pictures on the walls while we were in the process of knocking them down to build new walls ;)

    Kind Regards,
    Sam

    • Cunemous says:

      To be honest Sam, I am used to looking on steam news only, and I also knew nothing about the experimental branch. It seems it could’ve been mentioned more clearly because I think most players have missed that bit of information. Now that I saw experimental I realize a lot of hard work has been done. But I’m sure more of your community and reviewers would know about it if you would tell people about the experimental branch through steam.

  10. ThePixelPirate says:

    It seems to me that the writer of this article didn’t bother to have a look at the changelogs or any other information about the progress of the game (otherwise he would’ve found the hint that there’s an experimental branch) apart from the weird trello pages, which never really reflected much of the real progress of the game.
    After all it’s Early Access, where you usually spend a little more time with how the game gets built and what’s new or what isn’t and so on.
    I have learnt to be patient with Beam and SD after they announced they will overhaul the whole system with all the new stuff coming to Unity 5 (GI lighting, speed tree and so on) and that they are looking for artists to hire (the latest concept art and models looked very promising btw).
    The critism in the article would be valid IF it was a finished game. Which it isn’t. Early Access, man.

    • Borodin says:

      You have unusual expectations of the software development process. So what Beam have been doing is updating a promising but barely-playable game to a much more attractive but still barely-playable game

      Creating a product that is beyond the original vision at the behest of the community just doesn’t make business sense, and much reduces the likelihood of there being a saleable product at the end of it

      As the initial commenter, Sam said, “Adding new features is more fun than fixing existing ones.” And I’m thinking he is probably right

      • ThePixelPirate says:

        @Borodin: (late answer, sorry)
        My unusual expectations (very nice euphemism here, btw! :)) might stem from my own daily struggles as a game developer. Granted, we’ve mostly done contract work so far but the process still has to fit to the product you’re developing.
        In Beam’s case, it’s a survival game with a strong focus on the environment and its systems. If the ocean and the islands are not how the developers planned them to be and also the customers wish for a lot more variety and complexity especially for those systems, then why would you create content that works with the old systems but doesn’t really fit into the “new” world?
        I agree that the Stranded Deep iterations are quite big ones and they might also be very risky business-wise but I hope that Beam knows what they’re doing and they obviously have received enough cash from EAccess for such big reworks of their systems.

      • SD_Passerby says:

        Do you just call everyone’s opinions weird and complain about the developers making the game look better?

        If oceans, island rock formations, beautiful graphics, and crafted shelters were unexpected, where DID you think this game was going? To the moon? All of those things were evident right from the start and it come as no real surprise that the developers have chosen to continue pursuing them.

  11. Neurotic says:

    I’d like to emphasise what Beam Team’s Sam said above, which only one or two other people have said, and that is that this year has seen the game move over to an entirely different, more capable engine — this is no small task. So whilst it is entirely reasonable to expect to see some progress in an eight-month period, I think that in this case, it’s understandable why there hasn’t been as much as one would expect.

  12. psiclone says:

    I find the fact that it’s hard to navigate part of the challenge of this game that others make too easy. I found it frustrating, at first, but then realized I could simply make an arrow using fronds to point back to the island I just came from. What I did find annoying, was that I could build a boat engine, but had no way to make a simple map or a better boat. Loading my boat to carry stuff simply made it capsize, because of the weight…which was both frustrating and very cool at the same time. However, I don’t like where the updates are taking this thing…there are far more bugs due to the last update (experimental) than before.

    • SD_Passerby says:

      Navigation is both one of the most frustrating and most intriguing parts of the game right now. It forces a lot of really creative workarounds, though eventually it would be great to see it fixed for good.

      For the rest, as always the only effective antidote is patience and a smidgen of imagination. If it seems obvious, I generally assume it is obvious and that they’re aware of it. I was impressed with how smoothly the last stable release seemed to run for me, though it took a good amount of self control to overlook the lack of balancing and incomplete gameplay in many areas. I’m hoping that they’ll clean up the current systems to match that previous level of cleanliness and proceed on to the “minor issues” that are ruining the game for the reviewer.

  13. Zedblade says:

    The author needs to point out that there is an experimental branch build that is an updated version of the game, that is if he wanted to give an honest impression of the game and provide all the facts to the readers.