PAX West 2017: ARK Survival Evolved on optimization, the Aberration expansion, and future development
This past summer, ARK: Survival Evolved finally officially launched, ending its stint as an early access game just three days before PAX West, then promptly announced its second expansion on the first day of the convention. There wasn’t even a week between launch and the second expansion’s unveiling, and there will be fewer than two months between the two launches; Aberration is scheduled to launch in October.
While at PAX, I sat down with Studio Wildcard Senior Producer Navin Supphapholsiri, who thanked fans for supporting the game: “We really appreciate the support for the past two years. Just to see how far we’ve come along, it’s all thanks to the community.” Then we talked about the launch, about Aberration, and about the team’s focus going forward.
Anyone who has followed or played ARK for a very long time knows that launch was a long time coming. The game actually missed a few previous launch dates, but now is finally in the hands of players. And we do mean in the hands of: PlayStation 4 and Xbox One players can purchase a physical copy of the game online or at local retailers, not something that many Steam Early Access titles can say. So now that launch has happened, we wanted to find out about the reception of the game, optimization, and the team’s focus.
Supphapholsiri believes the reception of the game since launch has been really good. “If you look at our CCUs, our concurrent user base, we are up from where we were. That’s success to me,” he said, then added that ARK had passed 10 million copies sold since it was first introduced if you include all expansions and all platforms. Supphapholsiri attributed the game’s success to releasing a good game and launching early access during a really good window, that meant it wasn’t competing against massive titles. Also, the game had dinosaurs, which wasn’t a subgenre really available in the market at the time.
The launch wasn’t without its troubles. Supphapholsiri admitted that the studio had some trouble getting the new servers online. Additionally, some gamers have questioned how much optimization happened, especially after all the assurances that the main game would get lots of attention and optimizing before the launch but actually had new content (like the otters) and apparently a full expansion receiving development attention as well.
“We spent the last month and a half fixing like 1,300 bugs,” he assured me, further indicating that the game is now much better optimized. Folks who aren’t seeing a difference might have their rig to blame. “That stuff depends on what machine build you have. But honestly if you want to compare from like initial launch of the game to now, you’re looking at 25 to 60% performance increase on the game. And we’re one of the few games that has SLI running.” And optimization hasn’t ended, either. “We’ll continue to optimize the game,” he says. “As Epic improves their engine we’ll always be pulling down code and improving our game. So we’ll continue to support the game whether that includes content, server optimization, or game optimization — we’ll continue to work on it.”
When asked about how much focus was on veteran players vs. new players, Supphapholsiri said, “The 3-4 months leading up to the 1.0 launch we focused all on the new player experience. We definitely want to focus on the new players.” Supphapholsiri emphasized that the team wants to work together with the community to create the best dino survival experience. There’s no getting around the fact that some people won’t be happy, however.
“We’re always gong to have people that are going to be mad about something, regardless of what you do,” he admitted. “But we try our best to provide content for both the seasoned players and the new players.” In the end, he said, “We know we might not do everything that the community likes, but we hope that you understand the reason why we do certain things.”
The new expansion map really does sound very interesting. Instead of being a flat island, it’s really an enclosed cave with some holes in the ceiling where players can reach up to the surface biome — a biome that happens to be extremely dangerous and hot with the sun scorching it. “One of the features that we are really happy with is actually the climbing mechanic,” Supphapholsiri explained. “You actually won’t be able to use fliers in the map. [There’s] a crap-ton of verticality. It might not be as wide as the other maps, but vertically, you can climb on almost anything you can see. It’s pretty nuts.” He also described the new apex predator for this map and how it will be able to climb on every terrain. Oh, it’s also really fast and really strong.
As you might expect with caves, the map is dark. Supphapholsiri said there will be your usual light sources, but there is also a new unique mechanic; this new light source also comes with added gameplay features. This mechanic will be charged light (name subject to change) that players will have to gather or face consequences if they don’t. Supphapholsiri explained, “There are creatures that – if you don’t have this specific course of light – are going to come out of the ground and attack you.”
Now that the game is launched and the second expansion is almost launched, I asked about future plans. After all, we know that the seasons pass includes three expansions, so I inquired about that third expansion. “We have an initial design document for it; we have a good idea,” he answered. “But for right now we are focusing on Aberration and getting that out.” Would he provide any hints about the new one? No. “I can’t give any hints,” he said.
So instead, I asked about the focus going forward. “Once we finish the launch, which we have, and once we get back from PAX, we’ll be working on a lot of stuff that people have been requesting,” he said, adding, “We’ll continue to push out content for the game as usual, but all of the features of the game we will improve now that we are at 1.0; that will be our main focus, of course, along with the expansion packs that we’ll be focusing on as well.” Optimization will remain an ongoing issue as well.
There are various features that the community would like to see more attention on, so I inquired more about procedurally generated maps (that are plagued with bugs), building improvements, stasis changes, and added attention to dinos. Supphapholsiri replied, “We’ll always work on optimization, we’ll continue to work on procedurally generated ARKs, and we’ll continue to do what we call a dino TLC pass.” Could there be procedurally generated maps for the expansions? It could be tough for the newest expansion. Supphapholsiri noted that the other maps are pretty easy to create for because the terrain is mainly flat, but because of the verticality and all the stuff hanging from ceilings, Aberration would be difficult. “We’ll work on it to see if it can be done.”
The TLC pass is definitely something players have been looking forward to. Supphapholsiri gave an example of one possibility: taking the Triceratops and adding a charge attack to make it more interesting.
Related to the TLC pass, I wondered if the adjustments for the big bird nerf were finally concluded. “Yeah, I’d say so,” he said. Wildcard feels good about where the birds are but will continue to look at and watch them. He then added,
“That’s something that we should have done from the beginning. I think it was a mistake on our part to give something to the players then take it away. If I were to go back and do it again, I would say we should probably underpower them and then buff them to a certain degree. Because I think players don’t like it when they have something and then you take it away. “
Supphapholsiri did point out that even after all the negative reviews and complaining that occurred with the nerf happened, the number of concurrent users is still up.
Building improvements are also a big player request. “We will definitely do a better job in the future in later updates regarding construction,” he said. “We’ll be looking into that to make sure it’s a little more friendly and simpler.” Specifically, the team is looking into fixing snap points.
Players can expect the game and maps to continue to improve as well. Supphapholsiri stated, “As the engine continue to improve — because Unreal 4 is a rather new engine — and as we’re working on the maps, we’re getting better and better at it. That’s why each map continues to run better and continues to look better.”
Going forward, there will be more ways for players to get their ARK fix. An interesting thing I learned was that Studio Wildcard is working on merchandise for the game, like action figures or plushy baby dinos. I don’t think I am the only person in the community who would buy a baby dino plushy!
Of course, there are always the expansions to purchase. Getting the season pass offers a discount compared to buying each individually, assuming you end up wanting all three versions. The season pass comes to $44.99, which breaks down to $15 per expansion. Buying each separately at $20 apiece adds up to $60 total, a full $15 more. Even better, as of August 29th the season pass on is discounted by 33% if you already own the Scorched Earth expansion, costing $29.99. Supphapholsiri said the same discount is available on all platforms.