The Soapbox: The sorry state of ARK Survival Evolved
When ARK: Survival Evolved came on the scene in June 2015, it was met with enthusiasm (dinosaurs!) as well as some skepticism (Early Access). But Studio WildCard quickly won over many fans with the game's delivery, which included frequent updates (and dinos of course). And we do mean frequent! The studio was cranking out meaty content and bug fixes at a rate never seen before in any other EA title -- sometimes updates were multiple times a day! Stuff came so quickly it was hard for server admins to keep up with at times. Many of us started holding ARK up as an example of early access done right. Why couldn't other studios do early access more like WildCard?
But over time, that sentiment changed. A year and a half later, folks who have championed long for ARK -- including me -- have taken a few steps back. Enjoyment is giving way to frustration. Fans are giving up and leaving. Why is that? Bugs? Devs? Shifted priorities from finishing to milking money? Different eyes might see different causes, but the one thing stands out: The development process has changed. What was once so great is now not so great. And you have to wonder if this spells trouble for the studio.
Perhaps the first signal of trouble appeared in the update schedule. In the beginning, updates were so plentiful you'd almost wish they would slow down. You'd have content and bug fixes just pouring forth. Being incomplete and in Early Access, we all knew there would be bugs. Heck, we get a fair share of bugs in live games! Early on Studio WildCard was vigilant in squashing bugs. Sometimes fixing a bug caused other bugs, but the team still stayed on top of things, and players felt that great effort was being put into building a great game.
Unfortunately, over time, that enthusiasm to fix things appeared to wane. Updates became fewer and farther between in 2016, slowing down dramatically. We knew devs couldn't keep up a break-neck schedule, but surely there was a happier middle ground than where we are right now. A slower update schedule would certainly be understandable if the product had been nearing completion and launch -- but it wasn't. In fact, launch has been pushed back multiple times. Add to that the fact that updates no longer happen when we're told they're happening, and people lose confidence. Remember the cool werewolves and vampire bats of Fear Evolved 2? Neither do we: It was canceled. And about building with bridges -- denied. Even though they were slated to get in the game eons ago, they still haven't arrived.
Speaking of content, it feels like the team is still basically gung ho to add new content, which you'd think is a good thing, right? Except it's not. Over time, the influx of content almost seems like a way to try to distract people from the quality-of-life-ruining bugs. Adding new dino and after dino and new feature after feature without fixing the current bugs just seems to be making everything worse. The bugs have bugs.
On top of that, new dinosaurs were making older dinos obsolete. And really, the island is only so big! Couldn't new dinos be added as content releases after launch when things are running more smoothly? We hear that things will be balanced and fixed, but it keeps not happening. Instead, we get more dinos. We also have bizarre things like hair that grows (and can be made into fur clothing). Now, as someone who really loves the dinosaurs, I hate to say this, but the addition of more "stuff" really needs to stop until stuff that is there gets fixed! I don't need new things now; I need the things that I have now to work properly with regularity. I need my dinos to not randomly poof without cause. I need items to not disappear, appliances to stop randomly quit working, and loot bags to stop falling through the world! Losing hours upon hours and even days upon days of progress in a survival game is one thing. But losing it all to the same bugs over and over and over? It's insanity.
Losing hope after the lawsuit
I'd be lying if I said the lawsuit that first came to light last April hasn't affected how I see WildCard. Initially, I was in the crowd that wondered whether Trendy was just trying to make a fast buck since ARK turned out to be so popular. I questioned whether the accusations had merit and maintained my innocent-until-proven-guilty position. After the companies settled the court case, some fans protested that this settlement was totally unfair and WildCard should have fought back harder.
But it turns out that fighting back most likely would have cost the company even more as Jeremy Stieglitz outed himself as guilty of breaking his contract. He changed his name on Steam, revealing that he was the lead developer Drake who had been posting on the ARK page since the beginning. He even blatantly began signing his posts "ARK Lead Designer, Lead Programmer, Development Director, Co-Creative Director, Co-Founder." By his own admission, there's no question that he was a part of the project from the beginning when the contract he signed with Trendy stated he couldn't be. In a recent discussion, Stieglitz defended doing so on Reddit, saying:
"For me, the thing about video games is this: when you're a game designer and you have a fun idea, then you feel you have a creative obligation -- almost a moral obligation -- to give that idea virtual form: to make it happen, to will it into a reality. All other considerations fall by the wayside. In order to make ARK into a reality, I and the other brave folks at Wildcard had to walk through some kinda hellfire. But for ARK to exist, we could do no less."
These two things combined cast a bit of a pallor over the company. No one can blame fans for being wary of any promises or commitments when history has shown that these aren't honored. The studio obviously has given up some of our trust.
And speaking of trust, are curious about why the connection with Snail Games is being kept so hush hush? Players already knew about the Snail Games partnership that's bringing the game to China and into VR format with Ark Park, and then comments made around the time of the lawsuit spawned speculation about WildCard's acquisition by a Chinese company with deep pockets. Fans digging around through the internet and lawsuit court records determined that in fact, Snail Games USA bought WildCard back in December 2015. That certainly would explain the reason/excuse WildCard gave about the Fear Evolved 2 patch not getting done because the studio's founders had to unexpectedly leave the country. But honestly, why so secretive? What is there to hide?
As much as dishonesty may turn fans away, perhaps the biggest nail in the coffin of ARK confidence was not the lawsuit but the introduction of a paid expansion before the game even launched. The announcement of Scorched Earth caused quite the brouhaha. Not only were there a plethora of bugs that still needed fixing and a game that desperately needed optimizing, but fans got to learn that focus was on creating a new product for them to purchase. This time, the content update wasn't even something players were getting as a part of joining early access; they'd have pay for it. Let me reiterate: Fork out more for an expansion to an unlaunched game!
I certainly don't blame folks for getting riled up about this. Even though we were told that a separate team worked on the expansion, thereby not drawing anything away from the base game, doesn't it stand to reason that those resources could have been put to use on ARK itself? Perhaps many of those problematic bugs could have been squashed. Perhaps ARK could have been cleaned up and launched. We can't know for sure, but it just doesn't look good for WildCard here.
And then there is the added problems that came with the launch of Scorched Earth. From the moment that patch hit (and you had to download it whether or not you bought into that expansion) there have been serious problems with ARK. These problems seriously downgraded the quality of that game, even keeping some folks from being able to log in and play. Worse, these problems were ignored for months; to this day they still haven't been adequately addressed. It honestly seems as if the majority of development attention went to this expansion. For a while, the updates were majorly centered on Scorched Earth and fixing its bugs. Understandable because it was a new product? Well, that product didn't even need to exist yet!
Between the expansion, the two console versions, and Ark Park, the company definitely seems to have many tongs in the fire alongside the original PC game. Is there enough attention to go around? Despite everything, we may yet see ARK actually launch this spring. Perhaps development has reached that point and ARK will finally finish (as much as online games finish). Stieglitz recently said,
"Certainly all is well over here, and we'll have a lot more official news about our plans upcoming at GDC -- completing ARK: SE and making it a satisfying start-to-end adventure."
Now, I just sincerely hope he means ARK: Survival Evolved and not ARK: Scorched Earth. I'll give the benefit of the doubt here and look ahead with a twinkling of hope that the optimization will finally come. One would have to question though, how many fans have stuck it out this long, or how many will be willing to come back after having already lost interest/hope?
WildCard used to be king of the hill. It had a wildly successful survival game. However, it seems to have lost its perch. Through the various happenings of the past year, many players have lost faith in ARK and the company. But is WildCard itself worried?
Consider that the much-hyped Tek Tier was delayed yet again. Now the fact of it being delayed repeatedly is not unusual (as noted above). It's the date it was delayed to. You see, the Tek Tier launch coincided with the launch of the much-anticipated Conan Exiles. It feels even less coincidental because for once, WildCard announced the delay well in advance of its most recently scheduled release. See, usually the studio just lets the release time pass before saying anything, so this was definitely unusual.
And finally, WildCard announced a pretty hefty ARK sale to also coincide with the competition's launch. Sure, it can be good business to have a sale (except it annoys those who just recently bought it on the recent Steam winter sale as this discount is much steeper). Maybe the studio just wants to ride the wave of folks who are hyped for a survival game. Maybe. Still, the timing feels more like "look over here at me instead!" And that just doesn't exude confidence.