It’s Time for ARK: Survival Evolved to Get it Together

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.    

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A Week in the Life of ARK: Survival Evolved – Part One: The Taste of Noobs

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Okay, so if any of you are old school Gamemoir readers (do we have those? Is that a thing?) you might have noticed my enthusiasm for the long-delayed PlayStation 4 release of Studio Wildcard’s prehistoric survival sim ARK: Survival Evolved. The early release game took Steam by storm, earning allegiance from millions and a truly outstanding collection of entertaining user reviews filled with insane and captivating stories. It currently resides in the top ten most-played games there, occasionally surpassing even the mighty Grand Theft Auto V. Not bad for a game that isn’t even finished and has been largely ignored by the gaming media.

The months of waiting for a game PC and Xbox One players had been playing ate at me, as did the cancellation of the free-to-play multiplayer mode Survival of the Fittest, but suddenly word came down that ARK was coming to my console of choice in three days. The wait was over. As a dinosaur fanatic with MMO aspirations, I was on cloud nine. But even with all of the word-of-mouth hype and anticipation, I was not prepared for the first week of this game. The following is the first half of a journal of the first seven days of my life after ARK: Survival Evolved happened to it.

Day One: You Died

Today I woke up with the knowledge that soon I would be playing my most anticipated game of the year. I love that feeling. 2016 has had a distinct lack of truly great games, and I had a feeling about this one. That feeling did not do it justice. ARK combines the best and most addictive elements of games like Minecraft and Elder Scrolls with the infinite promise of an MMO. Oh, and Dark Souls in single player. Because if you don’t die almost constantly in this harsh and horrible world at first, you’re doing it wrong. Plus, you can get all your stuff back off of your own corpse if you can make it back.

Unable to get online right at the start (something I haven’t had an issue with since the aforementioned GTAV), I settled for learning the ropes in single player. What I learned is that this game just doesn’t give a damn. It’ll spawn you in the pitch black dead of night right in front of the jaws of a gang of predators just to say “tough luck there, buddy”. While From Software is a vengeful god who crafts worlds distinctly to misdirect and harm the player, Wildcard is an uncaring Lovecraftian elder god. Our petty needs and concepts of fairness are nothing to them. The world of ARK simply is and whether we live or die in it is none of its concern.

Today, after having my “Welcome…to Jurassic (P)ARK” moment watching a gigantic sauropod rumble past I was chased into my beachfront hut (a lifelong dream) by a velociraptor who then began tearing my day’s work apart. I escaped out the front door while it raged at the walls and sprinted up to a ridge where I saw the enraged predator continue smashing down my house. As I despaired the loss of my hard-won assets and my pet dodo, I heard a roar behind me and turned around just in time to see a carnosaur end my life. This is ARK’s singleplayer in a nutshell.  

Day Two: Anarchy in the A-R-K

Early in the day, I managed to get onto a multiplayer server. I was really excited to be getting in on the ground floor of an online community as it is being born. The tales of tribal cooperation and warfare on Steam are legendary. What I found waiting for me was a bunch of idiots in their underwear brawling on the beach. I shouldn’t have been surprised, really, but there’s enough to kill you in-game already I’d hoped that the multiplayer would be less PvP-ish. The baddest of the bad managed to craft axes and they felt that made them cock of the walk. Then this sheriff came to town with a spear. They literally fled from me. That’s right. Run. Run from the man with the shirt and pointy stick, you savages!

When night fell in-game, I was cooking some meat around a campfire and two imbeciles assaulted me with their bare hands. By this time I’d crafted a slingshot so I knocked one unconscious while backpedalling and then stabbed his friend to death with my spear. I finished off the unconscious one, chopped them both up and cooked them for supper. Yes. One hour in multiplayer and I’ve already acquired a taste for noob flesh. It occurred to me too late that I may have been able to defecate (there is a command for that) on the unconscious one, then pick up my own shit and feed it to him before I ended his life. I really regret not testing that out.    

After a few hours, the server disconnected and I couldn’t get back on so I decided to go back into singleplayer, where the carnosaur that killed me last night appears to have taken permanent residence in my neighborhood just to make my life miserable. I almost never see it coming until it’s too late. Once I swam out into the surf and climbed a rock where it couldn’t reach me (like The Shallows with a dinosaur instead of a shark) and began raining stones from my slingshot on it. The bastard turns around, marches straight to my newly-rebuilt hut, and begins smashing it while I scream “NOOOOO!!!!” in real life. I think it may be time to move.

Day Three: Man Plans, ARK Laughs

Down the beach there are no carnosaurs. But there are dilophosaurs, whose M.O. is to spit poison in your face and then rush you down while you’re blinded. They’re also fond of group tactics. But at least I can handle them. There’s nothing I can do about the towering monster who destroyed my home. Yet. Besides, my new goal is to train an army of dilophosaurs to do my bidding.

My first try is a success, I slingshot the smallish predator, sidestep the poison, and backpedal when it rushes me, pelting it with rocks until it’s unconscious. Then I drug it, let it gorge on dodo meat until it loves me, and then name it Phlegmy. Easy peasy. Soon, Phlegmy is joined by Loogie, and my dilo-posse is rollin’ thick. My hut is now surrounded by spike walls to deter larger predators (I’m looking at you, carnosaur!), and the scope of my ambition is taking shape. I shall be the god-emperor of the Dilophosaur Kingdom. Those who resist subjugation shall be spat upon and summarily devoured. So shall it be written. So shall it be done.   

But Phlegmy and Loogie have a bad habit of savagely murdering their own kind after I’ve knocked them out. And I want to win hearts and minds. So I tell my bodyguards to stay back as I approach my next conquest. After a few stones to the gourd, this dilo decides it’s had enough and sprints in the other direction. I give chase and am hit from the side and blinded. I run like crazy while being attacked from god knows where and find out that there’s one thing that can take out a posse of dilophosaurs: a bigger posse. As I run for my backup, I’m hit again and blinded, coming to just in time to see at least four of them savaging the species traitors as I die.

And those spike walls around my hut? Turns out dilos can squeeze in between them and get glitched between those and my hut’s walls and they can attack me from the outside. I literally ended up dying on my own spikes trying to do something about it. Screw you, irony.   

Day Four: The Lost World

Whatever the dinosaur equivalent of the internet in ARK is, I’m convinced somebody on it has been posting “predator party at Nick’s house!”, but the good news is that now the servers aren’t disconnecting anymore so I can play multiplayer. In singleplayer, I’ve hardly seen any of the island because I am constantly under assault. I tried wading through the swamp near my base and got stuck with about five giant leeches and murdered by three terrifying new species of predator at once. This was in one minute. In multiplayer, I don’t need to outrun a predator. I just need to outrun the guy next to me.

I spend hours just exploring. This game is massive. This game is beautiful. This game is amazing. The population has settled down and players are now calmly going about their business so I don’t have to constantly worry about some jerk with a hatchet killing me whenever I go into my inventory. There isn’t too much cooperation apparent, but I see evidence of some really amazing stuff. Irrigation pipelines spanning mountains watering farmland, multi-level fortresses, and the like. I really want to join a tribe, but nobody is home. Those individuals I do meet often reach for their weapons to defend their stake, but only seem willing to attack if you are aggressive. It’s progress, at least.

I end up on a beautiful river with perfect spear-fishing, ample resources, and some industrious neighbors. Also, a roving giant scorpion. I avoid that for now, although some day I would like to start a giant scorpion biker gang. But I need to build a bed to spawn at before I get too cocky. I build my nicest house yet, but the lack of wildlife is a double edged sword. I’m not constantly bein attacked by predators, but I can’t find anything non-fishy to kill to get the hides to build the bed either. I made a sleeping bag, but that’s a one-time use item. And it gets used that night when I turn around and find that scorpion standing right behind me waiting for the jump scare like Michael Myers.

An epic battle ensues where my neighbor jumps in to help and I stupidly attempt to knock the bug out to train it instead of going for the kill when it goes on the run. I pursue and corner it against my home and beat it with a club (thinking it’s almost done for) and then it suddenly turned and stung me. Funny thing. One sting from a scorp can render you unconscious and helpless. Duly noted.

When I respawn I make an amusing discovery. The massive T. rex that has been stalking the opposite side of the river and menacing our sister community has made its way over here and we’re all dead now. I respawned at a random point and then spent five hours wandering the wilderness and every river bank I could find trying to remember where the hell my home was. The in-game map is like a real map. That is to say that if you don’t already know exactly where you are it doesn’t help you. Fuck you for treating us like we’re grown-ups, ARK. Also, you’re awesome.  

My first four days playing my most anticipated game of the year did not disappoint. It was a brutal tutorial for me and plenty of other players. But through the literal dog-eat-dog gameplay, I’m beginning to make out a fantastic vision of how great this game could be, even as it kicks my ass again and again. Stay tuned for the second half of my Week One experiences playing this remarkable game next week. Same dino-time, same dino-site.

The Trials and Tribulations of Waiting for ARK: Survival Evolved on Playstation

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Last year I happened across a trailer for a video game that has been one my most-anticipated releases ever since. It just looked….really awesome. Basically, it’s an MMO version of Minecraft’s survival mode with full current-gen muscle and it revolves around my favorite thing since I was a child: dinosaurs. You could fight them and, if you were too badass to stop at that, you could tame and ride them into battle against your foes. Who wouldn’t want to play that?

ARK: Survival Evolved went into Steam early access a little later and sold a million copies inside of a month, quietly becoming a massive hit. And I mean really quietly. Looking on IGN, there are only ten articles involving it on the entire site. Compare that to Overwatch, which seems to get that many a week over a month after release. There was very little available in the way of updates, but in December I became aware that the game was also in early release on Xbox One because a coworker of mine wouldn’t shut up about it. The dude was really hyped to be playing this game, and that sort of enthusiasm is contagious as hell.

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Do I want to start a giant scorpion biker gang? So much.

After hearing it talked up to such extent, I went looking for info and found that the PS4 was getting no early access love, but went to preorder it at Gamestop anyways. The employee looked baffled and informed me that it was a digital-only release set for May. Think maybe you could have told me that, internet? Oh well. Something to look forward to, right? Then the release got postponed to “late 2016”, which in my experience means “sometime in 2017. Maybe. If you’re lucky”.

Normally when a game gets pushed back my reaction is “good” because it means they are taking the time to properly polish the game and deliver you the best possible product, which is as it should be. But with ARK, it’s different because everybody else gets to play it but me. And oh, the tales that have been told. Tales of tribes of merciless griefers imprisoning players and forcing them to commit fecal suicide or feeding them to their feral pets like action movie villains. Tales of riding giant sharks like Aquaman and soaring through the sky on pterosaurs. OH MY GOD, I MUST PLAY THIS GAME!

In March, it was announced that the game may be pulled from sale altogether, because of course. By that time it had sold some four million on Steam and over a million on Xbox One and the full game wasn’t even close to the full release yet. That is no joke for an indie release, and it’s no surprise that people would be trying to get a piece of that pie. In this case, a former member of ARK’s development team at Studio Wildcard had been under a no-compete clause with another company who were looking to cash in on that fine print. Fantastic.

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Do yourself a favor and browse the Steam reviews for Ark. I promise you will not be disappointed.

In late April, it was announced that Sony would be the first to host a free-to-play standalone multiplayer build of the game called Survival of the Fittest that would be all about PvP and release July 19. Other gamers had had to pay for their early access, but we are going to get a chunk of it for free! Or are we? Once again, the lack of coverage leaves me baffled. An update on the Playstation Blog states that the release has been put on hold in order to focus on the full game. Really?! I don’t know. I can’t seem to find any confirmation of this fact a less than a week from the title’s supposed release. Every site reported the announcement of the release date, but this supposed cancellation just got an updated annotation on the old announcement article on a single site; not even it’s own article. Am I ever going to play this game?    

Eventually the lawsuit was settled out of court, so at least it won’t stop the game from coming out entirely, but this has been a lot to go through for one indie game. The constant shuffling of release dates and taunting from PC and Xbone gamers and the search for updates has left me feeling a bit burned out. But thanks to our early access friends, the game’s number of prehistoric species has increased from seventy to over a hundred and the game has expanded in all directions as a result of its success, so at least there’s that.

With any luck, Sony gamers will be riding T-Rexes and imprisoning noobs in fecal death pits like our gamer brethren by Christmas and won’t have to suffer through the gameplay bugs and growing pains of a game in development. Better yet, those of us who have been reading the chronicles of their adventures and get in first will be prepared to quickly form up tribes and consolidate power so we can be in charge of griefing new players. Hey, survival of the fittest, man. You want to play on my server, you’d better EARN that shit.  

While daydreaming of my future conquests and horrifying deaths and awaiting more news on when we can bring them to fruition, now just seemed like the time to reflect on a game that came out of nowhere and has kept people more captivated in its pre-release state than most games ever will. It’s been a strange road waiting for it to hit the PS4, filled with delays and disappointments and I’m more ready than ever to play what may be the best dino game of all time. Let’s ride.