Game Design

raft is a video game about raft-building, not survival

Raft is a raft-building game first, and a survival game second.

The open world video game was developed by Redbeet Interactive, and published by Axolot Games.  It was released on Steam as an early access title in May 2018, and remains in that status after almost four years.

There are some fragments of a story, through scattered codes you can discover through exploration.  But lately, the developers appear to be leaning into what actually makes the game engaging, building the coolest raft.

When I think about survival games, I think of the stressful, punishing Don’t Starve.  I see that black circle getting smaller around my character if I don’t have fire.  Or the monsters growing in the shadows as my character loses sanity points.

Despite being billed as a survival game, Raft is the opposite.  It is way less harsh on players than Don’t Starve, and instead provides a peaceful experience floating through an endless ocean as you gather debris and build an ever-more-awesome raft structure.

Image from: Redbeet Interactive AB

The difficulty curve isn’t demanding either, with the focus more on repetitive tasks than on levelling up skills and abilities.  One can easily get absorbed in this repetition as a mindful activity, like knitting or gardening.  But too much of this stagnant gameplay without the increasing challenges to maintain “flow” state can make a boring game.

Yet, Raft play sessions are long, despite the skill level being rather stagnant.

In the Video Game Raft, Interruptions Refresh the Player’s Desire to Continue Performing Repetitive Tasks

Once I stopped thinking about Raft as a survival game and looked at it from the raft-building perspective, I was better able to understand how the game can be engaging for long periods of time without greatly increasing its difficulty level.

In Raft, things don’t get punishingly more difficult until you succumb to the elements.  That’s not what the game is really about.  Instead, Raft provides little moments of interruptions.

These distractions have an important role in a game like Raft, which has mostly a flat interest curve.  Players experience a peak of interest or stress away from the peaceful raft building.  So, returning to the familiar raft building after the event resets any boredom and can even feel like a relief.

Interruptions, rather than the survival mechanics, spark and sustain the interest in continuing to play Raft.

1. Survival is a Distraction, but not the Focus, in the Video Game Raft

Image from: Redbeet Interactive AB

At first, it seemed like survival would be the main mechanic of the game, but I think it’s there to prevent the player from getting bored.  The game is forgiving with it survival mechanics so that you can spend a long while not worrying about food or water.  But having to purify water or cook food comes as a forced interruption to whatever wing of your raft you were planning next.

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2. Bruce the Shark is a Necessary Evil in the Video Game Raft

Image from: Redbeet Interactive AB

The shark that appears every few minutes to take a chunk out of your raft is the most obvious distraction from raft building, and it’s also the most annoying.  But as much as it’s frustrating to have to stop what you’re doing to run to the spot where Bruce is attacking the raft, this interaction is necessary.  It puts players into a higher tension situation to break them out of the immersion of raft building.  This creates a peak on the interest curve, and is also more stressful than many of the game’s survival mechanics.

3. Islands Spark Interest in the Video Game Raft

Image from: Redbeet Interactive AB

The appearance of islands on the horizon is a good distraction and a good opportunity for players to take an actual break from the raft.  Unlike the survival meters and the shark, islands are an optional interruption, giving players an out to go explore it only if they want to.  This way, players can decide if they need a break from their current activity, visit the island and return with more materials to the raft.  Otherwise, perfectly contented players are able to drift by the island with no adverse consequences.

4. Wildlife is a Good Visual Disturbance, and Makes the World of the Video Game Raft Feel Alive

Image from: Redbeet Interactive AB

Update 13: The Renovation Update was released on June 21, 2021 for Raft.  I was impressed with the patch notes as they showcased the designers’ keen understanding of what was working and what wasn’t in their game.  One of their updates was the introduction of wildlife like dolphins and whales into the game.

To make the world of Raft more immersive and alive, we have added more wildlife to the game! Once in a while you will be visited by whales, turtles, dolphins, sting rays, jellyfish and bird packs! They are all friendly and just want to hang around.

These animals add visual variety like the islands, populate an empty and vast world, and perform the all-important task of distracting the player.  The player’s eyes are drawn to movement in the water or the sky.  At this point, they take a breather or mention the animals to another player, which could be enough to get them reinvigorated when performing menial, boring tasks.

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Raft is a Video Game About Raft-Building, Not Survival

Although Raft is in early access, there are signs that it has a good design direction.  The Renovation Update also included numerous new building blocks and tools.  This is a departure from previous updates that focused primarily on story.

This points to designers taking feedback from the community, through what they’ve posted online and through game metrics.  From someone who’s experience involves several 5×5 rafts, sometimes with a second floor, it’s downright impressive to see the scope of raft creations from the community.  There are mansions, cathedrals and all manner of highly-improbably yet visually-pleasing raft structures.

Game design is often unpredictable, and designers need to be flexible.  Usually, it’s better for a game for designers to find the fun, whether through playtesting, learning, or listening to their players and metrics.  That’s what early access games are about.

It takes a level of self-awareness and humility to steer a game away from what might have been the original direction, because something else in it is more compelling.  But this is often the best choice designers can make for the game’s success.

Image from: Redbeet Interactive AB

Appropriately, Raft has a creative mode where players have unlimited health and supplies so they can focus on building.  This is the mode where the game shines for what it’s good at.

It’s a positive sign that the game continues to evolve, even though it may deviate from the path of being a survival game.  Choosing a direction for your raft may not be important in gameplay, but picking a direction is a necessity for game designers.  At the end of the day, assigning resources and development cycles to what makes Raft most fun will ensure that the game does not remain adrift in early access mode forever.