When ARK: Survival Evolved launched back in June 2015 in the Steam Early Access programme, modding was at the forefront of Studio Wildcard’s mind. Within the first month of release, there had been over 1 million downloads. But it was the modding community who took to it like a Megalodon to water.
“We released the dev kit very early on in the games life cycle,” says Jeremy Stieglitz, lead designer, programmer and co-creative director of ARK. “It was about two months after the game came out when we launched the dev kit and we were definitely pressured to do that by the community. We’d announced at the outset that we were thinking of supporting modding but we still weren’t entirely sure how we would do it. And then every day was ‘when’s the dev kit coming out?’ So it became a quick priority.”
“It was always the goal for us to do mods,” adds Jesse Rapczak, technical art director and also co-creative director. “It even came down to one of the reasons we chose the engine we did because we knew we could make it moddable. There was this precedent that if we build the mod support, they will come and develop for it. It will increase the longevity of the game, the likability of the game, the diversity – That was the biggest motivation from the beginning.”
ARK has such a huge player base, the best mods bubble up and it’s really evident which ones are the best
Jesse Rapczak, Studio Wildcard
The new Sponsored Mods program aims to provide both advice and some fiscal support for people who are modding for ARK. “Modding is kind of a tough job because it takes a lot of time,” Jeremy says.
“It’s really no different from game development,” Jesse interjects.
“Right,” Jeremy agrees, “it is a job for a lot of really passionate modders, but at the end of the day people have got to eat. So they want to put some time into their work and when there’s no way for them to support themselves they are faced with the decision of whether they spend all their free time making a mod, or do they get a day job and put food on the table. We can’t solve this problem single handedly but we figured we could at least help out.”
The team at Studio Wildcard will be selecting 15 mod projects every month and those selected will receive $4,000 to help with ongoing development costs. “If we can identify, with the help of the community, the qualitatively best mods out there and provide them monthly financial support,” posits Jeremy, ”we can enable them to, if not make a complete full time job out of it, spend more time to make these mods higher quality. Indeed, even finish them and ultimately benefit the overall ARK community as a result.”
This isn’t Studio Wildcard’s only dabbling in incentivising modders, having previously offered a $60,000 prize for mods that would be adapted into the game, it’s also thought long and hard about what works.
“One way to do it would be paid mods where the end user can buy a mod,” Jeremy says. ”But ARK isn’t really that kind of game, plus it’s been really controversial in the past. We figured it’d be better to go directly to the source. We’ve been experimenting. We’ve run some modding contests; we’ve even hired modders as part of what we call the ‘Official Mods Program’ as a precursor to this that involved us outright buying mods.
“But the problem with that is it’s not scalable. We can’t endlessly buy mods and endlessly hire people. When we take mods in-house, that way
we have to support them forever, run servers for them and it’s just not a scalable system. We want something we can scale for ten, twenty, maybe a hundred mods one day without having to grow the team that large.”
Adding mods can invariably change the gaming experience. Of course you can get improvements, the extra benefit of another person’s creativity or an idea you’d never even thought of. But there’s a balancing act to make sure you don’t cause game- breaking bugs and errors. The lack of control and fears of user mods not working ‘the way they should’ was one of the reasons Sony initially didn’t allow modding support for Bethesda’s games on PS4.
“I wish there was a better pipeline for console mods,” says Jeremy. “Like lighting and stuff in Bethesda’s Fallout. It’s really tough, they have to build an entire infrastructure themselves to distribute and maintain. It’ll be interesting if the platform holder themselves, Microsoft and Sony, could build more infrastructure to natively support that.”
“Microsoft are trying to do that,” Jesse adds. “I think all of us as developers want to enable that middle ground between a hobbyist and a professional game developer. Because there are a lot of people who are really talented and they just don’t have a job that lets them either put their passion into it, or show their talent. So modding is a good way to do it.”
I asked if they were worried at all about adopting these mods and changing the experience. “That’s the great thing about modding,” Jesse says. “It doesn’t have to fit into what we see as the game’s core story or development.
“ARK has such a huge player base that the best mods bubble up by how many players are playing them, who’s subscribing to them and it’s really evident when you go through all of the Steam Workshop pages for all the mods which ones are the best.
“It’s kind of a thing that takes on a life of its own outside of the core development and we love that. Because it’s all this stuff that maybe we think is cool or maybe like to do but it’s not on our roadmap.
“It’s definitely one of those double edged swords where mods will make a game look crappy if they design a level that looks really bad. And they can see all our dirty laundry, they can see our test files, our statistics. Everything but the source code is available to the public. But it’s okay, that creates a lot of transparency and we don’t have anything to hide because of that.”
The game has grown to become more of the sum of its parts and Studio Wildcard is always trying to find ways to compensate its dedicated modding community. But as Jeremy concludes, the potential to mod your game should be your primary concern as a dev.
“We can’t do everything that players want to see in the game. We’re just not that big or that omnipotent, so mods are really a way for players themselves to plug the inevitable gaps. If you’re developing a PC game specifically, you’re really selling it short if you’re not thinking about mods.
But what if you’re a modder? “Don’t be afraid to jump right in,” Jesse offers. “As a toolset, the Unreal Engine is not uncommon in the industry. So you’re not wasting your time learning something super proprietary. If you’re making ARK mods, you’re doing some of the most complicated modding you can do right now with and industry standard tool. You’re building skills that you’ll be able to apply in your career and in other games that enable modding or use the Unreal engine.”