We catch up with Studio Wildcard co-founder Jeremy Stieglitz to find out how the developer and its popular dino-centric survival game have changed over the past 12 months
What has been the biggest challenge in continuing to develop and improve the game since launching in Early Access a year ago? Has being available to consumers changed your approach to development / priorities at all?
Treating the game like a ‘service’ has been our biggest challenge. Between Xbox and PC, we usually have about more than 60,000 players online in the game at any time, and during peak times it can reach over 100,000 players.
This has been ongoing without interruption for over a year, and so players are essentially treating this title like a persistent MMO, putting multiple thousands of hours into it. Even though there are no subscription fees or in-app purchases, they reasonably expect MMO-style service, with a 24/7 customer support team and well-moderated servers.
Data loss or server resets on these persistent online worlds would be an unacceptable event, which is especially challenging given the game is still in highly volatile pre-beta development. When we launched Early Access in June 2015, we were just 10 full-time employees, and so becoming a service-oriented company has involved significantly rethinking how we do development. I now wake up everyday feeling like we have to 'earn our audience' for that day. It’s a challenge.
We’ve been taking it a step at a time, and slowly hiring based on critical need. This measured approach has allowed us to do more, but also retain the special “rapid iteration culture” that makes Studio Wildcard so special.
What has been the most significant change to the game since launching a year ago? How did it affect your roadmap?
On PC, that would be modding. We didn’t originally plan to support modding in Ark – at the time it wasn’t even really possible in Unreal Engine 4, and required significant technical changes to the engine make it happen.
But once we experimented with it internally, it was clear that supporting robust 'stackable' mods, maps, and total conversions – which allow players to overhaul just about any aspect of the game – would extend the replayability of the title tremendously via Steam Workshop.
Now there are many thousands of great user-created Mods available for Ark, adding everything from IP-questionable comic book superhero outfits, to 'Star Wars inspired' laser swords and jetpacks, to amazing new maps. There are even total overhauls that let you play a 'pirate' survival game complete with sailable ships, or survive on the moon with moon rovers and oxygen-vacuum management.
The creativity of the Ark modding community has been a beautiful surprise and now is a major factor in how we design new gameplay systems: we now ask ourselves, how will this system make modding more powerful and provide those content creators with new capabilities?
Have there been features you originally planned to add, but have since dropped?
The biggest internally-debated feature to get the axe – for the time being – based on community feedback has been vehicles.
When you look at a movie like Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World, they’re driving around motorbikes, weaving in and around the dinosaurs, it looks really fun. But in practice, the community’s response to the vehicles feature was that it would take away from the desire and uniqueness to ride dinosaurs. Who wants to stomp around as a T-Rex, when you can drive a tank? Well, I would, but apparently not enough players thought that would be balanced.
We even prototyped vehicle driving with a Halo-style dune-buggy, but ultimately just released it to the mod community – which created various vehicle mods – rather than make it an official feature. For the time being, at least.
Are there any feature you’ve pushed back in order to concentrate on other areas the community is more interested in?
The story-related features have been continually pushed back. We have them internally, lots of cool “Explorer Notes” you can find which detail the backstory of the Ark, and a neat mechanic to actually discover these procedurally as you explore the environment. But as we’ve added more content to Ark, we’ve continued to expand our plans for the story, and in any case we’ve decided to avoid tipping our hand to the game’s rather unique backstory too soon before its ship date.
Considering we don’t believe that the story features are the key selling point to the game at the present time or necessarily add a ton of replay value for the hardcore player who’s been following the game since launch, it’s made sense to concentrate on rolling out core mechanics until we get closer to our launch, while we continue to flesh out the story-oriented features in the background.
Data loss or server resets on these persistent online worlds would be an unacceptable event, which is especially challenging given the game is still in highly volatile pre-beta development.
How have you handled the pressure of constantly showing progress to Early Access users? Has this affected your roadmap?
There’s definitely an impetus to make sure we get core-gameplay features into player’s hands at the fastest rate possible, rather than focus on ‘niceties’ which won’t necessarily be of tremendous value to the current veteran player-base, such as tutorials, user interface refinement, story, and general presentational polish.
That is, of course, a double-edged sword because it can make this rather-large game imposing to new users or ‘casual players’. So we still have a lot of work to do in those areas in the months ahead prior to shipping, which will necessarily target a wider swath of players.
But the benefit has been that our hardcore players, which have kept the game in the Top 10 Steam games essentially non-stop for over a year, are constantly getting new stuff that enhances the core experience for them. And those long-time players are ultimately the ones who have made our studio a success since Ark’s launch.
How has the game’s success helped you grow the studio? What has this enabled you to do that you couldn’t before?
As the game found success, we definitely needed to grow to meet players’ expectations. Figuring out how to scale up appropriately has been challenging, but thankfully we work with some excellent external contractors – Efecto Studios in Colombia, and Instinct Games in Egypt – that we have longtime relationships with whom have provided us a buffer against needing to rapidly scale up internally.
We have a small technical/design office in Gainesville, Florida, and a larger art-oriented studio in Seattle, Washington. Financially, we have a lot of resources at our disposal relative to a studio of our size and age, but fortunately co-founder Jesse Rapczak and I both have a lot of experience – both good and bad – at studios large and small, so we’ve avoided the temptation to expand too quickly which can cause a lot of problems for a close-knit indie studio.
So we’ve been taking it a step at a time, and slowly hiring based on critical need. This measured approach has allowed us to do more, but also retain the special “rapid iteration culture” that makes Studio Wildcard so special.
Many games on Early Access are accused of using the system to release unfinished games that will never leave Early Access. What have you done to avoid this/assure your audience? When are you aiming to come out of Early Access?
Continual updates are our way of showing our players “whether or not you trust us, we’re going to prove to you daily that we are on top of this”. We’re a new studio, so we don’t necessarily expect to be given the benefit of the doubt. We have to earn that every day, and sometimes we’ll fall short but more often than not, I’d like to think, we do right by our players.
The creativity of the Ark modding community has been a beautiful surprise and now is a major factor in how we design new gameplay systems: we now ask ourselves, how will this system make modding more powerful?
I imagine that some developers view Early Access, and Early Access survival games in particular, as a quick path to get into player’s virtual wallets. I don’t think players are too keen on that however, and the times are changing with regards to how Early Access is perceived. The Xbox Games Preview program is helping a lot to 'legitimize' the concept of Early Access games and ensure they have a certain level of polish before reaching consumers; I would love Sony to initiate a similar program. I think it would do the industry considerable good.
Valve, of course, has paved the way on Steam and I think on-balance, Early Access has tremendously benefited the way some of these games are developed. I believe that the Early Access games that have been completed and are wonderful – Prison Architect, Kerbal Space Program, and so on – make up for the few high-profile failures. We might not see those great games otherwise.
We’re aiming to have Ark’s launch game content finished this year. Shipping is going to be a matter of how fast Microsoft and Sony can enable us to release through certification, so the ultimate release date is a little difficult to predict (we’d like to do a simultaneous launch of the completed game).
Ark was one of the first games in Xbox Game Preview – Microsoft’s attempt at getting the Early Access model to work on consoles. What has your experience of this been like?
It’s very similar and Microsoft has been amazing in terms of how much flexibility they’ve provided with regards to iteration, rapid updates and hotfixes, and simply letting us have total control over what we want to put into the game. This has been astonishing, frankly, to me compared to how console development used to be, which was a very locked-down, regimented process, even for digital titles.
Xbox Early Access takes a bit more technical planning than Steam – there’s a bit of a certification delay in terms of releasing updates – but compared to what it used to be like to release a console game/content update, it’s night and day. It takes days, not weeks. It’s truly a new era over there and I believe that Xbox Games Preview program is going to make an impact as more indie titles flock to it. Certainly for console players, it’s a great opportunity as well to be able to effectively participate in the development of a game.
Ark started as a PC game. Did the shift to console affect development at all?
Yes, primarily benefitting the game’s optimization actually. Ark uses far less memory and runs far better than it did at launch, on all platforms.
And a lot of this is due to shipping on console, because it is a lot easier for us to analyze performance using the development tools available to us on Xbox One, and with the fixed hardware specifications. This enabled us to track down a lot of performance sinks that we then brought back to the PC version. That work is still ongoing too.
Of course, now we do also consider gamepad controls whenever we design a new mechanic, as well as console memory limitations -- but those considerations benefit PC as well, since not every player has an 8GB RAM machine. All in all, from a technical standpoint it’s made us better, more thoughtful developers.
Xbox Games Preview program is helping a lot to 'legitimize' the concept of Early Access games – I would love Sony to initiate a similar program. I think it would do the industry considerable good.
You’ve avoided offering/selling DLC so far. Why has this been important?
Meeting our players’ ongoing expectations on the core game has been our No.1 priority since launch. That said, while we don’t consider it worthwhile for us to put silly paid content out there – we prefer providing cosmetics as “special event” rewards – we have had some plans in the works for full-on Ark expansions for some time.
When we launched Ark, we really were not sure what to expect – we were quite concerned that the game, which cost about $2m to bring to launch, would be a financial loss. In hindsight it’s easy to think it would be a “sure thing”, but every day the team, Jesse, and I try to put ourselves back into that “hungry and ambitious” mindsight: we need to earn our players and their precious gaming hours all over again. For me, at least, that intersection of creativity and concern is where the magic happens.