Studio Wildcard: 'We're the anti-eSports eSport'

Studio Wildcard: 'We're the anti-eSports eSport'
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

May 17th 2016 at 11:41AM

Creative director Jesse Rapczak explains why random events will elevate Ark: Survival of the Fittest above other online multiplayer titles

It’s hard not to hear tales of the millions of players – and millions of dollars – that go into a major eSports tournament and not want a piece of the action. But while most studios attempt to recreate the winning formula of leading MOBAs such as League of Legends, Studio Wildcard is more than happy doing its own thing.

The developer behind Ark: Survival Evolved is currently working on a competitive multiplayer spin-off, Ark: Survival of the Fittest, that pits players against each other in an arena teeming with prehistoric dangers – not to mention your opponents.

With a multitude of dinosaurs to tame, it’s already set apart from other online titles but Wildcard’s emphasis on players’ struggle to even stay alive – the studio drops the term ‘Battle’ and instead refers to it as a Multiplayer Online Survival Arena – is something the team believes offers a truly unique experience.

Speaking to co-founder and co-creative director Jesse Rapczak, we found out more about how random encounters are the secret to Ark’s success.

“For us, the survival arena aspect is the big differentiator – we’re kind of the anti-eSports eSport,” he told Develop. “Most eSports are really regimented, there are rules you have to know to play the game and there is a much more different mindset behind a controlled match. Whereas for us, there’s not really rules – it’s a sandbox and anything can happen.

“In our first three tournaments, we watched a lot of people get killed by monkeys and piranhas, and there were all sorts of random things happening. And yet the same person won all three tournaments – for us, that validated everything because there’s obviously a skill to being prepared for whatever scenario happens. You might not win every single time, but through repeated play and ranking, the best people will definitely bubble to the top despite the random nature of what can happen during the match.

“And having AI for all the creatures handled by the servers can make for some really funny moments. There was one match where a wild T-Rex was chomping down and chasing four or five of the contestants. They were fighting each other, and then they had to split into different directions whenever the T-Rex came in. He got a couple of them, then lost interest and started chewing on a pterosaur. We think it’s much more entertaining to watch a sport like this where you don’t have to know what the rules are – you just know that people have to survive while all kinds of crazy stuff is happening.

“Ark has become much more silly than we first thought it would, but we’re okay with that.”

Everybody I talk to has an Ark server at their company: Valve, Unity, Epic. I don’t know how that happened, how we made a game that all of our peers love to play.

The dino-taming antics of both Ark titles has attracted the attention of more than just eager consumers – it has even become a popular title within the industry.

“We find a lot of the people who are passionate about Ark are actually our peers,” Rapczak says. “Everybody I talk to has an Ark server at their company: Valve, Unity, Epic. People just set up a private server and play Ark on their breaks. I don’t know how that happened, how we made a game that all of our peers love to play.”

Ark: Survival of the Fittest and Survival Evolved are both currently in Early Access, but while the latter is charged for, the multiplayer spin-off is a free-to-play title. The studio plans to fully launch Survival of the Fittest later this year, but plans to monetise it are secondary to the quest for balance, Rapczak insists.

“As we tune and tweak the balancing and draw on player feedback about the competitive nature of the game, we really hope to get to the point where we can start monetising it but also having more structured tournaments, championships and stuff like that,” he says.

We think it’s much more entertaining to watch a sport like this where you don’t have to know what the rules are – you just know that people have to survive while all kinds of crazy stuff is happening.

“But we don’t want to make money from the game until we feel it’s a little more balanced and people have told us what they don’t like about it. We’ll never charge for any of the stuff that’s in there right now, and it’s a fully-featured game at the moment. We’re only going to do additive stuff, cosmetics like costumes and stuff, and try to incentivise people to want to play by allowing them to bring that stuff into Ark: Survival Evolved.”

Given the success of both Ark titles, Studio Wildcard has understandably dedicated itself to this IP, with plans for more spin-offs in the works. Rapczak reveals the team has even been experimenting with virtual reality, but won’t begin full development for this medium until they have something unique.

“We’re starting some VR projects around Ark,” he says. “Actually, I wouldn’t say projects because nothing’s a project yet, but we’re prototyping Ark VR experiences using the Vive and latest Oculus kits. It’s important for us to ship something that’s good for virtual reality, not just ‘Ark in VR’ which we’ve already implemented as a test – it wasn’t the best experience.”