Ark: Survival Evolved
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Open-world survival mixed with crafting and available now via Early Access: it’s the call that millions who by now might know better still find themselves helpless to ignore. Ark: Survival Evolved sold over one million copies in its first month and yet is built on a familiar formula. Anyone bailing on Rust or Stranded Deep in search of something less rough-and-ready will intuit the rules, punching trees for wood, rocks for stone, and dodos for meat. They’ll take these materials and use an in-game recipe book to spawn tools that beget bigger, pointier tools with which to fend off dinosaurs and provoke the neighbours.
En masse, however, small departures from the template suggest that there may be more than swagger behind the subtitle. This is evolution through interbreeding rather than spontaneous change: each of Ark’s core systems has imbibed some part of the RPG, from player progression and crafting to death itself. Ark’s vocabulary shares almost as much with MMOGs as survival sims, packing in tribes (guilds), rideable reptiles, and a defined endgame for those who want closure. A lowlevel group boss named Brood-mother is already in place to provide the latter.
“Let me say that I don’t think it’s a problem for players who want that [traditional survival] gameplay,” says Wildcard Studios co-creative director Jesse Rapczak. “But to open survival up to those types of players who want more of a progression or more of a point to what they’ve done, I think it’s good and it’s important to provide that. Where we’ve tried to differentiate with Ark is to give that reason to play that’s not just, ‘I need to eat more, drink more, protect myself from the weather.’”
As tradition dictates, upon selecting your first server, you wake on a beach with nothing, not even clothes. The next few minutes involve some dabbling in the shallows, some pressing E to extract berries from vegetation, and some fleeing from the T rex you spawned by. Then the unexpected occurs: you level up, and a point becomes available to boost your stat of preference, including health, lung capacity and crafting speed. Also unlocked are points to invest in ‘engrams’, neurobiological jargon (appropriated by Scientology) that slyly justifies your sudden mastery of bushcraft. Engrams are the staple recipes that chew up resources and spit out axes, walls, spears and smithies.
Crucially, you can’t learn them all, meaning you’ll need to work with others if you’re to stay ahead of dinosaur and human predators. Meet your end, however, and though your items will be long gone by the time you find your body, this knowledge stays with you.
Death is intended to be less demoralising while still something to fear. Like an MMOG,
Ark aims to keep people logging on even after catastrophic defeat, their level and knowledge a public display of commitment. And yet Ark servers still easily become petri dishes for the savage behaviour of fellow players, and Steam reviews make it clear that there’s discomfort with the loss and unpleasant encounters that can result from free-looting PVP.
“We’ve done a lot to make it a very community-driven game,” Rapczak says. “It’s community choice on any given server on how you want to play. Now, that being said, the average person who’s never played a survival game before and joins an official server may be a little bit shocked by what PVP survival games mean and what our default mode is!”
Ark’s solution is twofold: in addition to handing admins a full toolbox with which to customise their servers, characters can be transferred to any other server that allows immigration. If you invest 20 hours before Hannibal Lecter suddenly moves in next door, leaving the neighbourhood won’t cost you your progress. And it’s not just admins being invited to tinker – Ark’s Unreal Engine 4 modding kit is already in public hands.
“This is the Minecraft generation,” Rapczak says. “A lot of people in this industry have come from modding and got their first start in modding, and so there is a huge wealth of talent there. People are planning to create entirely different games inside of Ark, which is completely possible with the mod tools, and this stuff couldn’t make us any happier.”
That focus on longevity and community is what Wildcard intends to set Ark apart from other games enjoying dino-vogue. Horizon:
Zero Dawn’s blend of survival and spectacle may have the rapt attention of PS4 owners, but Rapczak is grateful that Early Access allows Wildcard to postpone that kind of polish, making personal and collective attainment Ark’s priority. Its tameable beasts are Warcraftian status symbols as well as deadly predators, while top-level blueprints (distinct from engrams and a way to save your commitment there for other skills) can only be discovered in dark corners of the default island map. The random stats bonuses they offer might be seen as a cynical attempt to increase Ark’s lifespan, but serve a secondary purpose of drawing people out to explore a dangerous hand-made world, a risk that’s either unnecessary or uninteresting in the game’s procedurally generated cousins.
Wildcard is well aware that the community isn’t always on-side when it comes to Early Access. When you occupy the same space as
The Stomping Land, which fossilised middevelopment, every update is nerve-racking. Rapczak estimates two-thirds of Wildcard’s resources are spent reacting to feedback, the remainder going on feature updates, such as the forthcoming swamp and snow biomes.
“Our team has been trying to make people understand that we are not one of those [high-profile failures]. We’ve got our partners on console and Steam – they know what our ship dates are. We’re pushing for a target of next June; we’re pushing to end Early Access tinkering by the end of this year. We’ve really tried to treat it as a phase of development that we’re exiting at a given time.”
The hunger for unfinished games offering primal survival and dinosaurs suggests that hitting release alone might be enough, but Wildcard is also investing in the dead space that comes after survival – what happens when the environment has been mastered. At this stage, much is drawing-board ambition, and whether this vision for an endgame will get players cooperating and competing as intended is unknown. But it no longer has to: even if future updates fail to grip, or Studio Wildcard folds, positioning Ark as a platform for modders and admins at the peak of its hype has guaranteed that survival won’t come through this process without new traits.
Rapczak estimates two-thirds of Wildcard’s resources are spent reacting to feedback
The deeper into the default island’s woods and caves you venture, the hungrier the glares you’ll feel on your neck. Not that the starting beaches are a safe haven: T rexes and venom-spitting dilophosaurs treat them as a buffet of fresh meat
Jesse Rapczak, Ark’s co-creative director