“It’s the best-selling game in Early Access – and that’s a problem”
Ark: Survival Evolved raises questions of how we evaluate Early Access games, argues Phil Iwaniuk
For anyone with the DayZ standalone sitting (uninstalled, of course) in their Steam account, it’s tempting to deem any title that ever actually leaves Early Access a roaring success. DayZ has been there for about four years now. Judged by the incredibly low bar set by Dean Hall and Bohemia Interactive, Ark: Survival Evolved is the stuff of ticker tape parades and Time magazine covers. It drew out its time in Early Access longer than Van Wilder did in college, yes, but its final release has now arrived. Looking at the sales figures alone, even before that final release, you’d have to say Ark is a massive success. $10 million in revenue in its first week of Early Access. Nine million players across all platforms this June, at the twilight of its pre-release period. It’s the best-selling game ever to grace Steam’s Early Access program. And that’s a problem.
It’s a problem because Ark has already made its money and found its player base, which makes any usual discussion about the final release’s quality feel a bit redundant. Who cares if the new player experience is still clumsy and baffling? Or if there’s still rampant DDOSing across PvP servers? The time for evaluating its design, execution, bugs, and mechanics has been and gone at this point. And the real catch-22 is that in the first few months of Early Access when these discussions would most naturally arise, they have that enormous ‘This game is not finished’ caveat hanging over them. You just assume everything’s going to be fixed. Eventually.
Which means there’s no good time to evaluate a game like Ark. Early Access games simply defy traditional criticism. By the time we’re ready to assess a finished game, players have already made up their minds so we need to find a new way to talk about the games during and after their WIP phase, that holds their creators accountable.
Truthfully if PlayerUnkown’s Battlegrounds never graduated from Early Access I’d feel I already got my money’s worth at this stage – but the knock-on effects of that attitude are evident when you consider the graveyard of ambitious projects that never made good on their promises. For developers, it must feel as though games that don’t garner huge crowds and profits in the first month or two of Early Access are failing, and why flog a dead horse? It runs contrary to the intended goal of Early Access, in which continued community feedback shapes a game, but until we find a way to measure the real quality of these titles along the way, creators aren’t being held to account.
“The time for evaluating its design, execution, bugs and mechanics has been and gone”