In June of 2015 Studio Wildcard quietly unleashed an unfinished build of its prehistoric survival simulator ARK: Survival Evolved through Steam’s Early Access program. Since then, it has sold millions and consistently been among the most played games in the world on that platform, topping both Team Fortress 2 and Grand Theft Auto for third place as I type this. Its release on Xbox a year later, and finally a few months ago on the PlayStation 4 was met with similar aplomb and servers that were routinely packed to capacity.
Now bear in mind that this was done by an independent studio with almost zero help from the mainstream media. If you search for “ARK” on IGN, the game is the tenth result down, it has no wiki on that site, and the total number of all-time articles referencing the game is around the same number you get covering Overwatch every month. For a game with a lot more people playing it than Overwatch, that’s pretty nuts. And it’s not even finished yet. It’s still an early release game, so you can’t find it in stores, you have to go looking for it online, and the entire advertising campaign consists of posting the occasional bare bones Youtube video of new features. I wonder how many AAA games would fare as well with these handicaps?
But I also wonder if all of this underground success hasn’t made Studio Wildcard complacent. Their game could only have been a bigger success if the gaming media wasn’t built on a pay to play model (how else do you explain how the third biggest game in the world gets almost no coverage?) and, you know, maybe if it was finished. But it’s been around a year and a half since the Steam Early Access launch and still no official release date in sight.
Now the game is already the single most addictive thing I’ve ever played, and my praise for it has been unending. In fact, I could pretty much have just turned my column here into a weekly ARK journal (which I did do for two weeks) if I was feeling lazy and been fine with it seeing that it’s damn near the only thing I’ve played since December and I’ve still only scratched the surface. And this from a gamer that seldom sticks to one game for more than a few weeks. ARK’s deliriously possessive nature and Minecraft meets Elder Scrolls MMO gameplay has had me locked down tight and unable to tear myself from its grasp.Until now.
The devs have always played it fast and loose, releasing paid DLC expansions, making questionable tweaks without notice, and allowing griefers to run rampant while their game continues to be buggy and laggy as hell. But hey, it’s early release. The whole point is to observe, experiment, and figure out what’s going to happen in the game so you can fix it up before it’s ready for prime time. But I’d say two years of that across three platforms should be enough.
It’s not really buggier than Skyrim was nor laggier than Overwatch was when they released and I’d argue that including the expansions, ARK possibly has more content than those two games put together with comparable graphics. Throw in some tutorials and better menus and you wouldn’t think this game was unfinished at all. Just flawed, which is pretty universal. Although, to be fair, their attempts to fix the crashes and lag on the PS4 have somehow only made those problems worse than when it first came out.
A lot of gamers have decried the constant influx of new content while these problems remain as though a) new content is a bad thing, and b) the people making the new content are the same ones working on fixing technical issues. The lack of engagement from Studio Wildcard has been an issue too, but frankly with millions of players on three platforms all yelling in your ear, I don’t think answering every message board post or personally retrieving every stuck or lost tame dinosaur (as they used to do) is really an option anymore.
But recently the developers did something so insane that they’ve almost lost me. For a while they’ve been toying with the animal spawn rates. Personally, I feel like it was pretty perfect at the start, but having set up shop on a PvE server (where people can’t destroy bases for shits and giggles) means there is a high population with a lot of buildings blocking dino spawns. After a while, there just weren’t many animals around anymore. People complained about a dinosaur game with no dinosaurs, and fair enough. So they fixed that problem. They fixed the FUCK out of that problem.
So last week I’m pretty much playing Dynasty Warriors: Survival Evolved. There were dinos and prehistoric mammals everywhere. All over. By the dozen. My base was under constant assault, traveling overland meant wading through an insane melee of creatures battling to the death and running a gauntlet of predators and aggroed herbivores rushing me from all sides. Three rexes taking on five mammoths, packs of wild sabertooth tigers and wolves by the buttload, all vying for death at my hands. Mountain passes were so choked with traffic that the only way through was chomping a path with my T. rex, Teresa, stopping every so often to dump off some of the hundreds of pounds of meat I was accumulating. A week prior, I was having problems finding enough meat to feed my pet carnivores. Now I had so much it was a nuisance.
ARK was always meant to be a challenge, but this was just stupid. Were the devs trolling due to the complaints about low spawns, or are they really that inept? Anyways, combine the sudden overpopulation with the existing issues and you now had a game that ceased being fun for me. It’s one thing to get randomly disconnected from the server when there’s a small chance of being attacked before you can log back on, but it’s another situation entirely to get dropped from the game when your avatar is constantly surrounded by mobs. I can’t imagine having hundreds more AI animals on the server at all times is helping the lag and crashing either.
While making a simple supply run to fortify my new base on the northern coast of the island with a sea pen to store my soon-to-be-tamed ichthyosaurs and megalodons and protect from the constantly rampaging wildlife, I lost my tribemate along with my oldest, most faithful mount, Lil Suzy Carno, when they got stuck on a rock and then assailed by a pack of high level direwolves. I then tried to avoid the choked mountain pass by going an alternate route over the mountain, and while evading multiple rexes of unknown level I ended up stuck in a crevice packed with trapped sabertooths and allosaurs, which I killed.
While raging and trying to deduce a way out (turns out blind anger and fast critical thinking don’t always mix), a massive rex came in and killed me. The fate of Teresa Rex and the massive amount of supplies she was carrying is currently unknown as I made multiple passes on my pteranodon (in the freezing cold in my underwear, no less) to locate her when I respawned and was unsuccessful. There’s no message in my tribal log that she was killed, but that enemy rex was really high level and came in from behind her so she was defenseless. Anyways, having to remake all of my gear, gather the resources to do it, and then having to gather even more and resources to recraft all of the supplies for my seabase to do it all over again and maybe tame another rex for another try at this simple run and perhaps meet a similar fate again….just no.
And my mobile base that I built on my paraceratherium? Ha! The idea was a platform base on the back of a giant herbivore with some guards so I could log off on the road and feel safe, but now no place is safe as multiple rexes will likely kill any number of guards and then my basebearer. It’s worthless now. Even stepping outside of my base to cut some wood is a major risk with roving bands of poisonous troodons sneaking about to ambush and render me unconscious in seconds. Everything is a pain in the ass, and not in the cool way it was before.
I would have thought that after this long since the Steam release, Wildcard would have a handle on this sort of thing. I was hoping that the benefit of playing on the last system to get ARK would be a more polished experience, but after dying so often because the server disconnects or the game crashes and now with the game not even being that fun because exploration and gathering resources and food is now a joke since it either throws itself at you en masse at every single turn or is not worth the risk, it’s clear that’s not the case.
Naturally, there are a lot of players cheering this change because now there’s no need to hunt and everything they need for the early game once they’re established just flies into their lap. Casuals get to sit in their bases and not have the challenge of hunting for rare animals to tame (as they’re everywhere now) and can just kill, kill, kill all day long. But that’s not the game I want to play. I want a survival game where encounters are unpredictable, every animal you meet is a surprise, either pleasant or unpleasant, and starving is an actual possibility. Teresa Rex doesn’t want to be fed. Teresa Rex wants to hunt. And so does this gamer.
Whether the devs are trolling and this will all go away, I don’t know. They’ve just added more content, including some much-needed avatar customization (one thing that was and is SORELY lacking) in the form of hairstyles that persistently grow (mind the ‘fro) and science fiction technology so you can have a frickin’ rex with frickin’ lasers on its head, but until they get it together, I may have call it quits for now. It’s great that they keep releasing new free content, but for the final product to be what it needs to be, they need to handle their balancing issues.
Too few dino spawns is lame and unpopular (if more realistic), but turning a survival sim into an action game when there are way better action games out there is a signal that the developers themselves are either not sure what the hell they want this game to be or they are just not taking it seriously.
After a year and a half in early access, it’s time to start prepping for a real release, and this isn’t how you do that. The experimental phase should be over. They need to be concentrating on tweaking minor issues, fixing major glitches and stability, and more customization for avatars, not overloading the game with dinosaurs for lulz or because a bunch of noobs are whining or alpha tribes say they can’t find enough meat to feed their twenty spinosaurs or whatever, even though pretty much whatever you want do with twenty of them in one base, you can do with two.
Like I said, ARK has been all but ignored by most large gaming sites, and while it has flourished without the spotlight and manufactured hype AAA games take for granted, it’s easy for people to write it off as some “early access forever” game that’ll never be up to snuff, and seeing the devs release paid DLC for an unfinished game gives the wrong impression, even if the DLC is far more impressive than what people pay more for in other games on the market and the unfinished game is deeper as is than anything else on the market by miles.
As successful as it has been, Wildcard needs to get it together and get this thing released to the wide world. As an online social experiment (think Lord of the Flies meets Jurassic Park) Survival Evolved is fascinating to say the least, but until the game is on shelves, a large segment of the population isn’t going to see it as a ”real” game. And its faithful players who have struggled with the lag and crashes are beginning to feel the fatigue, especially when other aspects of the game start going wonky too.
ARK could be the single best hardcore gaming property of this generation, and its massive, persistent, and still growing playerbase is a testament to that. But if they want the rest of the world to hear them roar, Studio Wildcard has got to focus on polishing this game’s existing features instead of scrambling to react to complaints (which will never, ever stop) and dicking around with things that should have been set many months ago. They’re breaking things by trying to fix what wasn’t broken when they should be getting the final version of the game out the door. Yeah, the game has already made a ton of money, but if they want ARK to reach that next level and prove itself to be the fittest to survive in the current gaming landscape, it’s time to step up.