E3 2017: ARK Survival Evolved on scope creep, Xbox One X, and leaving early access

    
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So ARK: Survival Evolved is going to be the first big survival sandbox not named Minecraft or Don’t Starve to not only make it to launch but to get there from Early Access development. Leaving EA is something we rarely see, which is why readers may notice I’m quite critical of games that ask for your money, sell you an incomplete game, and then spend years defending their EA status while continually making money on an unfinished project. To hear that a company once known for making paid DLC for an unreleased game is willing to shake the security blanket that is Early Access fills me with joy and a little trepidation.

Normally, this is where I’d tell you I’ve written up the interview, which is still true. However, as this was in a small group setting, not only do we have a writeup, there’s also a YouTube video for the few of you who have thirty minutes to wade through the (mostly) raw interview. You’ll see ARK’s Community Manager Cedric Burkes in person, hear daring press try to ask hard-hitting questions, and cringe as my terrible hat hair makes a quick appearance at about the 27-minute mark.

MMOHuts recorded the above video of the press group interview I participated in during the show and were kind enough give us credit within it — the dude asking most of the questions is me!

Approaching launch

MJ was disappointed she couldn’t ask any questions in person, but of course I brought along a few she shared that I hadn’t come up with. I’m sure those who play ARK with her on the MOP server know she was curious about Studio Wildcard doing a TLC pass on older dinosaurs, but sadly they’re linked with the studio’s repeated answer of “no massive overhauls on basic systems” response. Burkes thinks they’ll look at functionality and balance, but players shouldn’t really expect anything as “grand” as the flyer nerf. Tweaks are possible though.

One of the issues the game has struggled with, at least on the developer end, is “scope creep,” which is a problem I wish more games had. However, the developers realized they could be adding features forever and decided they nearly had the right aspects of the game done well enough to launch. Burkes joked that if they kept going down their scope-creep path, they might “end up with this MMO or something.”

When asked about how the team goes about choosing to add new features that sometimes build on features that are still buggy, Burkes said the team uses a grade list, but that admittedly “it isn’t always literally used.” Part of those criteria are asking reasonable-sounding questions, such as “Is it beneficial to players?” or “Is it beneficial to shipping the game?” or “What kind of resources and time do we have available?”

That brings us back to the question of what features the team wanted complete before releasing the game in a launch state. Specifically, I was told that there were four features the game predominately featured on Steam that were the driving force behind finishing up the game, but no one present could name them. I couldn’t find them on Steam, despite the team telling me I could still see these features on the Steam page. (We’ve tried to follow up with the studio to see if they can clarify this, and we’ll update this article as soon as someone gets back to us.)

One thing that Burkes kept stressing was the team’s desire for a physical, boxed product that’d be in stores, and I get that. I love the work I do on MOP, but few people in my community understand what a blog is or even know the games we cover. It’s all digital, and for people bound to the physical world, digital things don’t exist. The higher-priced copies of the game are only for physical retail, not online copies of the game. And those price points are steep. That being said, we’ll see news about season passes for Early Access owners on Steam in the future for those who want the retail versions’ game content.

Speaking of release, the newly announced Xbox One X version will be fully optimized to take advantage of the new system’s power, though obviously it can’t quite compete with high-end PCs. However, if you already own it on Xbox, you’ll have access to the game via cross-play, letting you play on multiple modern Xbox systems and Windows 10. Because of this, you will be able to host servers for the Xbox version of the game on your PC instead of needing a spare console.

Solving the early access problem

Naturally, the upcoming launch is a relief for the team, but there’s also pressure. The team’s focusing on sticking to core “stuff” because it was adding too much and needed to scale down the scope. That doesn’t mean what players are playing right now is release, though, nor that launch means the game will be finished. There’s still another big patch coming in, including the final boss and things that will “tie the world together,” including more optimizations, not some small bug fixes. Even after that, you’ll see more bug fixes and small additions later on.

Burkes also mentions the frustration that other developers feel about Early Access. For them, there’s frustration that people sometimes bought the game thinking it was done when it’s labeled as not, and I get that to an extent. I also know that modern game development is one of the only retail/product fields where you were once asked to pay for the product before it comes out and now may also request cash before its final form has actually been formally planned, and Wildcard’s reps understand this. To use HEX developer Cory Jones’ analogy, the cake is sold in unfinished pieces as devs finish, and that’s weird for everyone.

That being said, exiting EA to get the company’s first major release out the door is a relief, but also stressful. It’s not just the stress of wanting to do well, but because the game will exist in a physical space. It can’t disappear like other titles as easily, which is also what makes the decision to have done EA and to exit it more respectable. When your product is digital, remains digital, and needs no additional costs after exiting EA with players’ money being the only reason the game even exists, it’s frustrating to think that players basically made an investment but reap only the finished product. That’s without assessing whether it’s even worth the cost. I personally don’t need the kind of physical loot fans may want from ARK’s collector’s editions, but it’s nice that the team’s gone the extra mile to make those things possible, and I say that as a fan of another game doing something similar, and yeah, I shelled out for swag on that one.

For the future and PvE

Recently ARK added the Ragnarok map, one of the fan mods developed thanks to Wildcard’s sponsored mods program, notable for removing the need to punch trees among other features. Not only does it match the game’s style with “realistic” looking monsters (I still love the Pokemon projects), but adds environmental damage, such as volcanoes that periodically go off. Server hosts can not only decide the frequency of eruptions but whether they’ll erupt at all. It’s weird how the “realism” of the map is constantly stressed as what made it stand out among other mods in a game with living dinosaurs, sharks with laser beams, and teleportation all found in the same world, but whatever.

No promises, but after that, one potential new mod based DLC Burkes is looking forward to a Moon-based player mod. It takes players off of a regular planet, deals with aliens, different motion properties, and in general, sounds like it’s filled with cool ways to show off what’s possible with ARK. 

But Wildcard itself has its hands in other projects, and they haven’t always been well maintained. Who can forget Primal Survival or ARK: Survival of the Fittest?

I asked Burkes about these projects, and he admitted that the team’s limited expertise in raw combat prevented Survival of the Fittest from being as good as they want it. It’s a similar situation with Primal Survival. The games were originally easy to make and didn’t require a lot of resources, but as they became popular and issues popped up, these side games became a distraction. Burkes said the team will revisit them later if there’s interest, but Primal Survival in particular is one people keep saying they want. In fact, Burkes says he hears about it “every day.” Somewhat related, but Snail’s ARK Park is something the team doesn’t really have much to do with these days, but like players, Studio Wildcard is interested in seeing how it does.

Survival of the Fittest is harder for the devs, though, as they’ve experimented with unique types of servers before but they’re not always successful, like the failure of their hardcore mode. MMOHut’s Darren Henderson suggested a PvE focused server with time limits for reaching certain milestones, something educational survival game ECO is doing at its core. Burkes mentioned wanting to pass this suggestion along to the team since he feels there is a “need for more PvE type things.” If that sounds cool to you too, maybe tweet or quote that line around social media to show Wildcard some PvE player power.

At this point, I had to chime in about PvE, especially since I know the MassivelyOP server had random PvP taken off. We have a big PvE community here on MOP, but even as a self-identified PvP player who isn’t above ganking, my issue with most survival games is that there isn’t enough “life” to make death in these games matter. The ease with which established players can die and lose everything makes it feel like the “sandbox” aspect is nearly literal, as every beautiful thing you can create can be smashed as easily as a real-world sandcastle.

But ARK has an actual PvE endgame, with a final boss. It requires raid-like coordination, sometimes server wide. What that’s done when compared to pure PvP experiences is that it helps unite people, to give them reasons to unite. One thing the team’s noted is that servers will band together to protect themselves against newcomers since the ARK transfers began letting people keep their characters but change their server (though of the same server type). It’s made PvP more team-based. As the fragile alliances that have been created for multiple reasons, including PvE progress, become threatened, people are banding together. Things aren’t perfect, and it’d be nice if people banded together more, but the developers are watching.

I still have questions unanswered about the game’s release, but I feel like I understand ARK’s perspective a little better. I’m still not fully onboard with Early Access being sold to the masses in its current form, but I respect Wildcard’s willingness to go ahead with the kind of launch consumers outside of gaming can process. It’s a big risk, but one I feel they’re prepared to take.

Massively Overpowered is on the ground in Los Angeles, California, for E3 2017, bringing you expert MMO coverage on The Elder Scrolls Online, Black Desert, and everything else on display at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo!
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Tanek

Thank you for this. I have not had time to watch through the interview, but will do that later.

One of my big disappointments when it comes to the “scope creep” and them saying that there will be no big changes to the systems at this point is that it feels like they abandoned things they were going to fix.

One of the ex-Wildcard employees said that “it was standard response for us to let people know there were plans to do a quality pass on the building system at some point in the future”. I have received similar responses about the “dino TLC pass” that was supposed to bring some of the older creatures up to the standards of the new scope-creeped ones. These are two things that matter to me as a player. things that, I think, make the experience of playing the game more frustrating than it should be.

Seeing modders try to fill in the gaps in Wildcard’s development of these systems is great, but it is no substitute for having the base game be fixed by default.

I hope Wildcard finds their way to addressing the problems after launch and does not just focus on the new DLC they will be selling. We’ll see. As I said while waiting on this week’s big patch, I do believe that Wildcard is a good bunch of hardworking people, but when it comes to their estimates of what will happen in what time frame, if they told me the sun would rise tomorrow morning at 6am, I’d plan for at least few days of darkness just in case.