The Survivalist: ARK’s latest exploit highlights how cheaters ruin official servers


Let’s talk exploits. And no, this is definitely not a how-to guide! For shame! If you are a person who exploits, a pox on you. No, we are going to discuss how exploits — and more importantly, how those exploits are handled — can seriously harm, if not irreparably damage, a survival game.

This exact principle was highlighted this week with Studio WildCard’s announcement and its accompanying emergency update for ARK: Survival Evolved. I applaud the studio for jumping on the fix, even when it meant a surprise major version change that locked folks out of unofficial servers until they updated. However, how the exploit and the exploiters were handled is a different matter. In survival sandbox games, cheaters can ruin the long-term experience for the entire server, as does the subsequent action (or inaction) against those cheaters.

ARK’s exploit

In order to delve into the topic, let’s use the example of ARK’s recent exploit that highlights the subject. Per WildCard, the studio just discovered a vulnerability that has existed basically since the game began. Being that it’s 2018, this August 2015 vulnerability certainly gave exploiters a chunk of time to take advantage. The official announcement stated that “multiple ‘mega-tribes’ across multiple servers were taking advantage of it.” That fact was disputed by a player who openly admitted to utilizing the exploit unashamedly for serious personal gain; he indicated only a few actually could access said exploit, but duped items were shared. Whether the exploit was grossly widespread or not, the nature of the exploit meant that tons of ill-gotten gains were distributed widely across servers.

What was this exploit? How bad could it be? The player who outed himself claims that it basically gave players admin-like powers on official servers. Benefits included building bases in the mesh under the terrain, seeing all enemies and creatures, and using the cooking pot to create all sorts of materials, summon bosses to crash servers, and craft test meat for instant tames. While he also indicated that this exploit has been used for about six months since the new servers were launched, you can see how this would be a big, big problem even if used for even a day or two. And that leads us to how dealing with such an exploit can seriously impact the game experience.

Fostering an uneven playing field

You know how games have been closing because they can’t break into the genre or pull in enough players to be sustainable? The last thing developers should want to do is any action that would drive players or potential players away. Unfortunately, not adequately addressing cheating is one of those things, especially in the survival genre. Perceived or literal, an uneven playing field will turn non-cheating players off from a survival game. (Obviously the cheaters would love to have an unfair advantage.)

Studio Wildcard demonstrated what not to do in this situation. As per the announcement, no wipes or bans will occur because of this noted major exploit. None. That means all the people creating an unfair and unfun environment for everyone else are in the free and clear, and all the duped items that have flooded servers giving only certain people unfair advantages get to stay in circulation. Tell me, how is this a good thing? Wasn’t this a core reason for developing the Legacy servers while making new fresh start ones, to even the playing field from old exploits that were just too much to deal with?

WildCard said, “We believe it is the best move to make for the health of the game and our Official Servers.” I admit am actually a bit confused by this one. In my mind, this decision does the opposite. Removing cheaters makes for a much better experience for other players (the non-cheating variety) not to mention the integrity of your game. Yes, I can see how it could empty out some official servers if it was truly as widespread as the studio is stating. Also, no one likes to lose stuff in a wipe — trust me, I am one of them! It is very disheartening to lose countless hours of work and favorite items/pets. But folks also don’t like being at a permanent systemic disadvantage that could be prevented. No one likes if they have no hope of ever having a fair chance let along coming out on top. If that’s the case, why bother playing?

How does not wiping and banning improve the health of the game and the official servers? WildCard already has the money from those people, so new funds would be from new players — players whom cheating and unfair advantages chase away. So often it feels like decisions have been more of a screw you veterans in favor of new players variety, why is this one different? Perhaps the point is not banning large tribes who are folks you are counting on to buy more expansions? Other suspicions abound, but whatever the reason, for survival games to survive in a healthy state, they cannot support uneven playing fields.

Offering bug bounties won’t help when cash is involved

In another case of exploiting, the lure of cheating went far beyond just having an advantage in game. One player admitted to selling duped items using PayPal. We are talking getting some cold, hard cash due to your exploiting. Those those specific remarks were deleted once a dev jumped in the thread, though the replies are still there. In the dev’s reply, the seller was offered a bug bounty for turning in a report of the problem so it could be fixed. Now I tell you, what do you think the answer would be? Sure, a bounty of $200 would be pretty sweet to a regular player who isn’t riding the dishonest train, but why would this duper give up hundreds more in perpetual income by pointing out the problem? The bug bounty-type programs are doomed to fail if real-world profits get involved.

Official vs. private servers

This latest situation emphasizes why survival games need privately hosted servers. While many have the capability, I think all need it. When a population is relatively small (and most survival games are under 100 per server), one cheater or jerk can have a huge impact on the entire server. Personal admins with the power to enforce a more level playing field even when the developers don’t is crucial. Just look at ARK: The lack of action on blatant cheaters and the destruction exploiting does shows clearly why I would never play on an official server nor recommend anyone else to do so. Official servers are not a level playing field, and that can totally spoil the experience for the new players and non-cheaters alike. Heck, WildCard’s announcement outright admitted that players are forced to cheat just to keep up with the exploiters; it said amnesty was available “whether your motivations were malicious, or to put yourself on even grounds.”

Sadly, finding a good private server can be an ordeal in itself. You should be able to trust official servers to be fair, but when you can’t, private servers are definitely the way to go.

In the survival genre, there are at least 1001 ways to die, and MJ Guthrie is bound to experience them all — in the interests of sharing them with you! The Survivalist chronicles life and death struggles against all forms of apocalypse, outbreak, mutation, weather, and prehistoric wildlife. And let’s not forget the two-legged enemies! Tune in here and on OPTV to see who feeds better: MJ or the Death Counter.
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Mark Mealman

I never got around to playing the official servers. They always sounded horrible. Luckily the game has had great private server support. I even ran my own for several months for a small group of friends. I can’t really bash on the game given that I didn’t pay much for it and have gotten 300+ hours of play out of it.

Though if I were Wildcard I would’ve just put a wipe up for a public vote. My guess is people would’ve overwhelmingly voted for a reset of the official servers.

Jonathan Greer

I tell you, I have never understood cheaters. Any “victory” via cheating is illusory. All cheating says is “I’m not good enough to really win.” How anyone can get a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction from that is beyond me.

Melissa McDonald

One should never try to understand evil.


In a game like Ark the victory is as real as it can get in a video game no matter how it was achieved. Players spend thousands of hours making very personal investments into the game. Whether it be customizing housing how they want it, extracting stats from different lines of dinosaurs or unique loot that was discovered from running drops in dangerous locations.

Someone can come and destroy that in a matter of hours over an evening. I’ve seen players cry from the losses. The ever present danger from the environment is stressful enough to contend with while building up. To lose it is emotional to some. That is what the “victors” relish. Aside from beating someone in a tournament for money, few other games offer the ability to really sting your opponent as he loses. There are games where you can destroy something someone made, but few where you can actually take it and disappear to another server leaving them little to no knowledge of where to get it back.

Melissa McDonald

Wondering about the top image – from the game or altered? I creep around the island watching the animals interact and have seen some amazing battles. This super-res picture was taken using Nvidia ANSEL and it shows the aftermath of a titanic struggle between a hulking Stegosaurus and a huge bipedal carnivorous bird, probably Gastornis or Diyatrima. The predator bird took a bite out of the Stego’s leg, and then it was on like donkey kong. I nearly died trying to get close enough for a great picture and was swiped by the Stego’s spikey tail. Eventually a monstrous swipe of the spikes ended the massive bird’s life, and then the Stego stood over it in triumph, but drenched it its own blood from the repeated attacks and wounds the predator bird caused. This is a very large picture so give it time to load, shared on a drive, anyone should be able to view it:


It’s that kind of thing that makes me want to try Ark but everything I hear about people sinking dozens of hours into tames and then losing them to griefers keeps me away. Great screenshot, that’s going in my wallpaper folder!

Melissa McDonald

ANSEL requires you to play in an single player mode, and you can still have as much fun as you want in that mode without any fear of PvP. But it’s not remotely safe. It’s like being turned loose in Jurassic Park.

“Out there beyond that fence every living thing that crawls, flies, or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubes” :)


I played in an Alpha guild for +- 7 months and we owned the server with just a handfull of people.

This game was doomed from the start due to the incompetence of Wildcard.

We never cheated btw, but when it became so horrible that other clans surpassed us while 4 of our guys played 14 hours a day it was time to pack our bags and move out.

Never looked back and i will never support another alpha or beta survival game so a lesson well learned.


This stuff was rampant for years on officials. The “mega”tribes share the info amongst themselves as there are many players using many accounts. I was in a tribe that was very strong in pvp and we had incredibly dedicated farmers and breeders.

During beta the game eventually boiled down to being forced to join one of two alliances. We remained independent for as long as we could using our best in the game breeding stock as bargaining chips where we could to both stay relevant and be left alone as long as possible. The absolute biggest bone of contention we had as a tribe was how to deal with the cheating. I’ve personally seen a Chinese player blow a piece of floor from underneath the map and crawl into a building through solid rock. We had Aussies building into and underneath the mesh. Then Brazilians remotely take control of turrets on an allies base. This left us with the decision as to whether we would participate in the duping of Dinos and mats or stay clean. Frustration with fighting against cheaters eventually got the better of some of our members. Alt accounts were created and impregnable cave bases of enemies were raided from underneath the world, millions of ingots worth of building supplies and top tier weapons were duped, and servers were lagged out on command.

As much as some of us really enjoyed the game, when it launched it was an opportunity to leave it behind. Wildcard had relationships with some of the offending tribes and that further complicated things. Really enjoyed the year and a half playing that game. My ptera breeding line was the highest on officials for a long time. Had the highest giga once mutations came out. Spent way too many hours raising thousands of baby dinos and raiding so many bases.


It can take a night or two to find that decent private server, but when you do, it’s really worth it. I’ve never trusted the devs anymore than I have server owners I can actually interact with and gain some idea of how they act and run things.