Could ARK: Survival Evolved finally be launching? That’s a question many survivors would love to see answered soon. Unfortunately, we can’t provide you with any date as one hasn’t been announced. But it appears there could be a light at the end of that tunnel thanks to a Studio Wildcard interview earlier this week in a podcast dedicated to the survival genre.
If you are a fan of survival games as I am (and chances are high if you are reading this!), you might really want to check out Infection – The Survival Podcast. ARK fans especially will be interested in this week’s episode 122; it features a lengthy discussion with Kayd Hendricks, the senior technical game play designer. Hendricks touches on many subjects, including the team, early access, wipes, launch, narrative, and more. Even without a launch date, it’s really worth a listen/watch; a couple of his remarks really struck a chord with me.
Don’t forget the story
As much as ARK is about surviving in a land of prehistoric beasts, it also has a story. Admittedly, it is pretty easy to forget that there is a narrative woven into the game when you are running from the salivating jaws of a Rex. But I appreciate that there is a story behind it all, and I am very interested in discovering and learning it. How will the narrative play out? That I don’t know, but I was heartened to learn that Hendricks’ favorite games were the Balder’s Gate series precisely because it was a well done story telling, narrative driven game. Hey, I know it doesn’t guarantee anything, but is nice to know that the devs do understand good story-driven games
Hendricks did share some tidbits about the narrative. He explained that the additional mods and modes, The Center and Primitive+, are not a part of the narrative of the game. They aren’t canon. However, the DLC Scorched Earth will be important. When asked what the purpose of Scorched Earth was, Hendricks noted that there are many answers, but in general, “It informs an important part of the narrative not only currently but in the future retrospectively it will inform more of the narrative.” He stated that the DLC is important to Ascension. Ascension in ARK is the process of completing all the bosses in the game, learning about the true nature of The ARK, and moving on to a higher level (which will in turn raise your level cap and make bosses harder). But what about those who only buy the base game? Not to worry: He also emphasized that the core Ascension loop will be available to anyone who buys the base game; the DLC will have a greater narrative bit, but it isn’t necessary for Ascension.
Early Access as a tool
Perhaps what struck me most during the interview were comments made about Early Access and players’ involvement in the development process. Hendricks said, “Early Access as a platform needs more people to use it as a tool for making a better game and communicating with the community and less as a method of funding.” Here, here! Isn’t that what we read in many an EA description, that it’s for players to help take part in development to make a better product? Developers on projects that take the money and go silent or worse tell players off with “This is our game we’ll do whatever we like, who cares what the community thinks” really rub folks the wrong way.
I’ve personally always had a bit of a hard time with that last train of thought. True, the game does belong to the devs, and sure they can do what they want, but I never understood how alienating your players could be a good thing. Yes, maybe you save the artistic integrity of your vision, but if no one is playing your game, what’s the point? You certainly can’t continue development without a player base! That’s why I perked up when Hendricks started discussing the symbiotic nature of players, developers, and the Early Access model. Hendricks talked about the reality of game development, saying,
“Players, when they get a game, always turn that game into something different. And by that I mean players choose how they play your game, and as soon as they make that decision the game is a little bit less yours and a little bit more theirs. And when you look at what the players are making out of your game you can discover a better game.”
He continued, “Realizing that the players who play your game will decide what that game means to them opens up a lot of avenues for you to go, ‘OK, so here’s our plan. Here’s what we expected out of our game’.” Hendricks emphasized that Early Access has given Studio WildCard the means to have a dialogue with players. Even more, that dialogue has, in his opinion, not just provided information but has in every respect “improved the overall game that we are providing.” Have devs always listened and done what players wanted? No. You can’t do that. He said sometimes you bite the bullet and still address an issue that goes against what you have envisioned for game even if it really upsets players, and sometimes you have to cave in because the fans are right. Hendricks added that you have to find a balance between supporting how players choose to play the game and making the game exactly as the devs envisioned.
The million-dollar question is, When will ARK launch?! Hendricks didn’t give a date, but he did offer some information. He stated that the upcoming v258 is the last large content patch coming out before launch. After that, “the next several months” will be dedicated to bug fixes, touch ups, polish, and performance improvements. That has to be music to fans’ ears, fans who have been waiting a long, long time for said fixes and improvements. During that time, plenty will happen. Hendricks noted that the big bird nerf was still not finished being balanced. There’s also a list of things to do to give the land dinos better roles, through balance or mechanics.
Will the studio have enough manpower to pull it all off? Hendricks noted that the team has grown from around a dozen devs when the project started to a little over 30 now. There’s a content team in Seattle and a technical team in Florida, with less work being sent out to external sources. Hendricks conversed a bit on how the Studio is striving to not grow too fast and risk destroying the culture.
Part of that culture is that there is direct access to technical teams and leads so that ideas can be explored and issues can be resolved. He described how the team is able to quickly offer hotfixes after content releases to address problems: “Our reactiveness is largely supported by the fact that as soon as we put out any content we make sure that everybody from the internal Q&A team is ready to triage any issues that come up.” He noted that the team scours everything from social platforms to forums to livestreams to find any issues so problems can be sent to the engineers immediately for fixes> he also indicated that lines of communication are open. (Some of that openness is also seen in how devs can communicate with the community directly instead of through PR filters, but Hendricks did acknowledge that there have been a couple of incidents with that where staff needed to be talked with when they weren’t representing the company well.)
It was refreshing to hear a studio give appreciation and acknowledgment to the modding community. When asked why Studio WildCard would pay folks to make mods, Hendricks stated that the mod community is valuable. He acknowledged point blank that “their mods are monetarily valuable to us.” So why not share that wealth and ensure great additional content? Hendricks explained his view that shutting down folks who mod can essentially be taking great ideas and throwing them in the toilet. “I think that as a whole the gaming community, especially from a development standpoint and not from the community standpoint, would be richer if more companies embraced modding and gave up their kind of paranoid control over their intellectual property.” He added that “[modders] can only add value to the game.”
Wipes: Will there or won’t there?
OK, so that is the question too. And the answer is: There is no answer yet. Many folks want to know if there will be a launch wipe on the official servers, and Hendricks acknowledged that either way that answer ultimately goes, there will be plenty of folks who are unhappy. He stated that the time will come when the team will sit down and seriously talk about it, and the answer will come out then. When pressed, however, Hendricks did say that if it was up to him and only him (which he emphasized “fortunately it’s not just my voice at the table and the discussion for that will be far broader than just the things that I think”), he would wipe the servers. Why? “There have been so many issues that have caused the state of the official servers to become not great for gameplay,” he explained, “that have allowed for people to entrench themselves incredibly deeply and almost irremovable due to having unlimited supplies due to any number of things.” Simply put, “The health of the game I think could use it on release.”
Hendricks touched on even more topics. He noted that Survival of the Fittest is basically in a stasis chamber until the team has time to put more effort into it, but there is just too much else to do right now. While he can’t quantify how much has changed with the early access development, Hendricks also discussed content creeping and dropping, sharing examples of things that came into game that were not planned in original design (such as the DodoRex) and other things that were dropped down (like underwater bases) because of technical constraints. Hendricks also noted the reason why DirectX 12 isn’t fixed is because the team simply does not have the engineering time to devote to it.
Did you catch all that? Don’t forget you can hear it all for yourself by watching the embedded podcast. I don’t know about you, but I am excited to hear that the content influx is ending (just until launch — there will be more after!) and the optimization, bug fixes, and polishing is going into full drive soon. I am eager to see ARK slough off its Early Access and become a launched game, and to see where that leads the The ARK.