As Ark: Survival Evolved gets ready to leave Early Access, Katharine Byrne speaks with Wildcard Studio’s co-founder Jeremy Stieglitz about its upcoming retail release, which is being distributed in the UK by Exertis.
Ark’s seen a huge amount of success since it first launched in 2015 – how does the final release differ from the game that released two years ago?
While Ark: Survival Evolved today bears the same DNA as the Early Access version which launched two years ago, it’s now a far better running, better-looking, and feature-rich title worthy of providing hundreds – or thousands – of hours of engaging gameplay.
Whether you’re a veteran player or a newbie survivor, you’re going to find something exciting and new to discover on the Ark come launch day. Over the last two years we have worked through our roadmap, point by point, to meet all of our goals for the game’s design and content – and far exceeded our original scope in most cases. Also, as an aside, it’s not the final release so much as the 1.0 version, which represents the feature-complete game. Beyond 1.0, we’re planning many updates to come, both in terms of further Arks to explore, creatures to encounter, and additional gameplay features.
What were your initial launch plans?
We had originally hoped to release after about one year on Early Access, so approximately August 2016. When it became clear that the game was a huge success and player expectations for the title had increased, we correspondingly broadened our own ambitions for the title beyond our original goals, which consequently took more time. This increased feature set includes far more creatures than we originally intended, as well as hundreds more items, structures, and secrets packed into the Ark, as well as a whole extra Ark to explore, called The Center. It’s taken more time, but from our perspective, has been worth the effort to deliver a bigger, better adventure.
What are the marketing challenges of gradually releasing a game over such a long period of time? How did you maintain the game’s momentum?
ABC: Always Be Creating. Essentially, continually add major content upgrades to the game, every week or at latest every month. Never let the title go stale by constantly evolving the long-term meta-game with new strategies. For example, the addition of ‘platform saddles’ to enable players to build structures on the backs of dinos completely altered the advanced gameplay, and more recently the addition of a creature that can climb walls literally turns the game upside-down.
How did you build such a successful community, and what would you have done if Ark hadn’t taken off in the way it did?
If Ark didn’t take off the way it did, we still would have enjoyed developing it all the way through, but probably would not have been quite so ambitious with the game’s ultimate scope and long-term content plans. But thankfully, the community took off at lightning-speed immediately upon launch day.
Our tireless, brilliant community management team stays in direct contact with the hardcore playerbase hourly online using social media, from which we derive immense development benefits including game-balance feedback and immediate notification of any critical bugs or exploits. Use of a variety of social media is important too, because players across the various game platforms tend to have different ways of getting in touch with us: Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Steam forums, and our own forums at SurviveTheArk.com – all such conversational channels are monitored and highly active.
With so much community feedback coming in, how much work actually goes into sorting out and appraising your scorecard system?
This is where our community managers and fantastic volunteer test team come into play. When we have a new feature, we tend to first evaluate it internally and then post on our forums for feedback. Finally we consult a volunteer test team of hardcore trusted players, which comprises about 50 people. That feedback is combined into an ultimate scorecard review for how the prospective feature is evaluated.
Usually we tend to only evaluate propositions that are likely to succeed, which saves time. We also leave much of the legwork to our internal test team and balance team, who also happen to be our community managers. They are in close contact with core Ark player community, and able to effectively run through the evaluation process. That way, we keep the internal development team focused on content production rather than feature evaluation.
With such a strong digital presence already, why did you decide to release at retail at all?
As large as digital is today, we believe there is still a large segment of players that buy physical game discs in stores, who very likely have not even heard of Ark yet. And we hope to change that.
When there’s been so much buzz around the game for such a long time, are you worried people might be confused by a final release and think this is an old game?
There will be some exciting new surprises dropping in the game, specifically on launch day to mix things up, and then we have an aggressive content development and roll-out plan that will keep Ark very interesting in the weeks and months after launch.
How do you plan to maintain the current community post-launch?
It’s all about new, exciting challenges: we have content planned which will make use of all the skills players have mastered thus far, and then go further to test their mettle and encourage the development of additional ‘survival gaming’ skills. I think that veteran players who believe they’ve become the ‘ultimate survivor’ will be looking for such experiences.
What’s the difference between front-loading updates during Early Access and adding free updates as post-launch DLC? Were you tempted to adopt the DLC path at any point just to get the game out earlier?
Thankfully in the case of Ark it’s fairly easy to distinguish what should be DLC versus a free update: if it’s a core feature that should exist on all Arks, then it should be part of the base game as a free update. If it’s a new expansion Ark or a cosmetic, then it potentially could be a DLC.
Aside from ensuring that our proprietary Cross-Ark travel system worked with DLC, which allows players to dynamically move their characters and progress between maps and servers, we never found a need to move core features into DLC. In fact, post-launch it’s our intention to continue to freely update the base game with new core features, content, and improvements.
With no Game Preview or Early Access program on PlayStation 4, how do you plan to market the final release on this platform?
The Xbox One and Steam versions will officially leave Game Preview and Early Access respectively, and become regular retail and digital titles. For PS4, the game will then be clearly denoted as ‘Content Complete 1.0’, rather than ‘Work In Progress’ as it currently indicates on the digital PlayStation Store, and will also see a full physical retail release alongside the Xbox version.
Finally, do you have any plans for a Switch version?
Not at the present time, as all our effort and focus is going towards the existing ARK platforms. But it is a very fun console and I own two Switches myself, so if the retail release of ARK is successful on Xbox and PlayStation, I’d be inclined to do a Switch port!