Ark: Survival Evolved Dev Talks Frame Rate Issues, PS4 Version, Comparisons to Minecraft

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Ark: Survival Evolved is a dinosaur game no one in the public knew about a year ago, developed by a studio you probably still do not know exists. Now, it's sold millions of copies on PC and the Xbox One version off to a fast start as well following its launch in the middle of December. These milestones are particularly noteworthy given the game isn't even done yet. Far from it, Studio Wildcard co-founder and creative director Jesse Rapczak tells GameSpot as part of a wide-ranging new interview.

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On PC, Ark is available through Steam's Early Access program, while the Xbox One version is one of the few games in the console's Game Preview system. Ark is also coming to PlayStation 4, but Sony only allows certain games into its alpha program--and Ark isn't one of them (more on that later).

This level of openness and transparency represents something of a new wave for big-game development; the more traditional method is to spend years behind closed doors before releasing a finished product. That's a fine model that works well for many games. While early access is nothing new on PC, Ark is one of the first games of that nature on consoles--and it's enjoying success along the way.

GameSpot recently had the opportunity to catch up with Rapczak to discuss Ark's unique development model and more. Our conversation covers Ark's success so far, some of the challenges it's faced (frame rate concerns among them), plans for lots more seasonal and event-themed content, comparisons to Minecraft, why PS4 players will benefit from the Xbox One early access period, and more.

You can see our full interview below.

You've been out for over a month now. What kind of feedback are you getting?

Players told us that this is their favorite game ever. It seems weird to say that but it's not something that I've ever heard on any game that I've worked on before. You get a lot of people I think that are surprised that a game like this is on console with this type of game play, that they hadn't played a game quite like this before. A lot of people going into it I think didn't know what to expect and were finding themselves sinking hours and hours and hours into the game and being like, "Wow, this is just crazy. I've never played a game like this before." It's really interesting to see that coming from the console gamers because there wasn't really a game like this [on console]. On PC of course we have all these other survival games, multiplayer survival games that people are playing all the time. On console I mean, a lot of people are comparing it to Minecraft or something because that's kind of the closest thing they have in a lot of ways. We've heard things like, "This is like Minecraft for adults," which we love because I mean of course obvious reasons, Minecraft is awesome and blew up huge.

A lot of people have analogies with Minecraft's development path which is interesting to us because you know when Minecraft first came out it was a little rough around the edges for a while and then as they got more polished it spread from the PC to the consoles and everything like that. I think some people see some parallels they're making in their minds between the two. It's just been really interesting to hear that feedback.

Some have raised concerns about Ark's frame rate. What's your response to that?

The interesting thing about what's happening, you know Digital Foundry does an analysis of the game.... As a developer the game's not even in alpha as far as we're concerned. We still have a lot of features to add, you just talked about the game being open-ended, which is true but we also have kind of a backstory the players can discover that we're putting into the game, next month with Ruins and Explorer Notes all around the island, and this is a major system that's not even in the game yet.

Not to mention of course we still have a bunch of dino content to add, and also an end-game with bosses. If you just look at the games development objectively stepping back, that's like a third of the features that aren't even in the game yet. I think because Game Preview is so new and we're in Game Preview earlier I think than most of the other games that have been in Game Preview, we still have many months to go until we're actually focusing on optimization and polish.

Rapczak
Rapczak

Our plan was to be in alpha around March and then have a couple solid months of alpha and the move to beta with final polish and bug-fixing. And then to finally release in summer on Xbox and PC together. And so, from our perspective, we're not even in the optimization and polishing phase yet.

But because we're released on console and we've had such high player counts and the game's on top of the store on Xbox and stuff like that, I think people are looking at it now and reviewing it as if not a finished game, a game that's in alpha or beta and is about to be finished.

That's just not true, and there's nothing to really compare it to, to say otherwise, except that people are just going to have to wait and see with this new model, especially on console, that in the next six or seven months, the game will go through a much more different development period I think than period are used to seeing when they're playing console games earlier on either Xbox One or PS4.

Is it a problem of messaging?

Well, I don't know if you can message it more. When the game first came out, I know when they do an ad on the store for Xbox for example it actually goes to a blocking page before it even goes to the store page where it's like full page, "Hey this game is in development, are you sure you want to continue looking at this game?" Then you have the free trial download. I think that there's a lot of messaging around it, and to message it any more would be kind of like overkill a little bit. I think it's more people's expectations of what they might be getting into at this stage. we're definitely focusing on the gameplay first right now; that's why we have a lower resolution and the frame rate can ... especially, I think Digital Foundry probably did their analysis in single-player which is much less optimized than multiplayer ironically because it has to run the whole server calculations of the island on the single-player map.

I think it's looking at that stuff and for us we want to finish our gameplay features and get all that stuff in there, make sure all of our systems are working together before we go back and pump up our frame rates, and pump up our resolution, and do all of that stuff. Otherwise we're wasting work. One thing people don't know is we're planning to do a whole other path on the island, moving some biomes around, moving snow over, making it bigger, taking out some of the swamps and replacing with redwood forests and things like that. If we had already optimized the current state of the island all of that work would have been thrown out the window. It's just the state of where we're at.

I think the game has been out for a little over a month; we've updated a few times, initially around the holidays, just to kind of patch some stuff right when it came out, and then we had our second update a couple weeks ago, or last week I believe, to do the newest content. I think the messaging as we continue to update, and continue to add more stuff, and continue to fix bugs, and continue to respond to community's feedback, I think the messaging will change a little bit because people will see that what it means for a game to be in development likes our is, and responding to the fans, and changing. I hope that will help people understand how this is different from some of those other games that are out there just in an open alpha, or open beta, or something. Or closed alpha, open beta type situations.

Do you have any specific targets in terms of what you'd like to achieve with frame rate and resolution? 1080p, 60fps?

No concrete goals yet, but we definitely don't want to ... you know, where the game's at now we don't want that to be what it's like when it launches. We want people to look at the game and feel like it's appropriate for the generation of hardware it's on. Considering we're doing a lot of things that other games don't, like fully dynamic destructible world and lighting, and seventy players, it's kind of hard for people who are in development or people who aren't as technical of understanding game design, like the type of things our game does that other games don't have to worry about. I think there's some messaging around that, but most people wouldn't care. We just want to try to make sure that we're on par with some of the things the players expect from this console generation, even if it ends up being on the low end a little bit of some of these other games like a Call of Duty or something like that where they're targeting high frame rates and high resolution. That's also not really as important to our game considering the gameplay and stuff like that.

We have some basic technical issues to that we do want to fix; it's not just optimization, it's also quality. Things like drastic pop-in, and things like that that's currently in our game. That's because that was the easiest way for us to get it onto the console quickly and going through the next several months we'll be looking at maybe that system performs the same but it looks better, you don't see the stuff popping in as close, or we have stand-in models, proxy models, that take over past a certain distance and stuff like that.

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What's the breakdown between free and paid Ark players on Xbox One? And what are your player levels like right now?

We haven't been out long enough to know all the details of what's what in the backend yet. I mean there's like a forty-five day delay or something until we get all the final breakdown of everything [as it relates to sales numbers]. What we can see kind of on a daily basis which is really amazing is our player counts. Our daily unique user count has been hovering around 105,000 a day. One thing we do know is that can't be mostly free players because you can only play the trial for an hour. Considering every day we're seeing peaks around that, the game has way more concurrent players than the PC game ever did, even at its highest peak of like 85,000 or something like that.

You have to consider also the game is much cheaper on PC [Ed note: the PC edition sells for $30, but has dropped to $18 during sales, while the Xbox One versions goes for $35]. There's not a free trial, but still, I mean, players are able to get the game on PC on discount sometimes quite cheaply. It's harder for us to do that on Xbox because we don't have as much flexibility with pricing; it legitimately is a lot more expensive for us to develop on Xbox. Even that being said, we've never had player counts this high on PC and that puts kind of our peak cross-platform player count lately around the high hundred thousands--you know, 175,000, 180,000, kind of creeping up towards 200,000. It's pretty amazing. We're still continually amazed by the console reception of the game, so as much as people are out there nitpicking technical features, I mean, more people are playing the game than we ever thought would be at this point. It just keeps growing.

For us it's just more motivation to make the game that much better and live up to everybody's expectations. I think more types of gamers are playing the game than we thought when we set out to make this game, and so it's not just the types of games they like to play but also early access and what not, what their expectations are from a game. It's kind of like the thing on PC where people were playing the game and turning all the graphic settings all the way down just so they could play the game, voluntarily. Now players don't have the option to do that on Xbox; you're kind of stuck with whatever we set it as. You'll see people on their tablet PCs on Steam like turning everything down to minimum settings and playing at 12 FPS just because they love the game so much and it's like, "Well we can't probably do anything in the long run for those people; they probably just have to get a better machine to play the game once it ships." Still you know, it's been pretty amazing to see.

Switching gears a bit, while some games are doing away with split-screen, you're embracing it. Why?

You know with Ark, there are a lot of families that play Ark together; a lot of people have bought multiple Xboxes, multiple TVs, multiple room, so that they can play games together. With Ark being more of a sit- down family-type game in its co-op mode, it's really important for us to enable that split-screen so that people don't have to separate, go into another room, or whatever. They can still have a good experience playing together and something that's like relatively ... it's becoming more rare on consoles to be able to sit down and just hit Start and hop into a game like Ark that's a first-person game and take over a guest player basically, and be in the same world and help out. It's really intended to be like a co-op feature; the way it functions, it doesn't work in any of our dedicated server modes, so like official servers and things like that. It's more for local play and non-dedicated multiplayer. This is currently capped at four players but we're going to increase that probably with this patch coming in mid-February with split-screen to a maximum of eight players, which is something that people have been asking for to just have more player support in that hosted multiplayer mode.

"Like anything, performance is probably just going to be okay when we first launch but it will definitely get better over time" -- Rapczak on Ark's split-screen and expected frame rate issues

We want to allow all those people to connect and play split-screen as well so you can have four people playing if you've only got two Xboxes in two rooms of your house, or your friend's house, or whatever. You can get a lot more people together and playing; you're not limited to the number of Xbox Live accounts you have, and Xboxes, and things like that. That's kind of our main motivation behind it. Like anything, performance is probably just going to be okay when we first launch but it will definitely get better over time. In addition to optimizing the game we also have to optimize for split-screen, but I think the feature is big enough that as we optimize it, and people give us feedback on how it works, and what they do and don't like about the functionality of it, we expect it to be a really big kind of differentiating factor for the game.

It's not only of the first online survival games on console, I think it's definitely the first split-screen online multiplayer survival game, maybe ever. I think it's pretty important for us to do that just because of, like I said earlier, the way people are associating with Minecraft and things like that. They just like to hang out in the game; it's kind of one of the things that helps enable that.

Ark was released around the launch of Jurassic World, which you've said probably elevated its profile somewhat. But Ark has endured. You've stayed popular and are growing. How?

You know, I think part of it is that the game is like evolving over time. There are a lot of players playing the game, especially on PC, and in their own way creating mods, having custom server settings. And then on Xbox where we don't have that ability yet, players are seeing the new content come in, they feel like the game is changing with them, there is always something new to see in the game, it's not like you played back in July and had 12 hours of gameplay and you've been there, done that. I mean the game changes so much all the time, we really are trying lately to take the dinosaurs that are even in the game from before, give them better AI, give them new behaviors, and stuff like that, that's more in line with how they're described in our dossiers and stuff like that. People have a lot to look forward to with the game, not just what's been happening with the game.

I think because of that it's very sticky, it's kind of the thing that's ... you know Ark was the number four game on YouTube last year. It's the kind of thing that people just love to create content for whether it's role-playing, or combining mods and coming up with new ways to ... come up with games to play, or ways to entertain their fan base or community if they're streamers or content creators. It just seems to be one of those games that's almost for everybody, whether you're a content creator, a player, a streamer, a casual gamer. I mean it's really funny, I got my family Xboxes for Christmas because none of them had Xboxes; they all had Nintendos and PlayStation 3s and things like that, they didn't come into this generation ever because they're like, "Well there's not really a game that I really want to play or a reason for me to upgrade." Now they're always playing Ark. I don't even tell them to play; I can't even play with them enough because I'm too busy making Ark and they're just always hopping on, building their stuff together. My mom plays; she has never played a shooter in her life, it's just really funny. None of them have ever been that into a game I've made before. If they're doing it I know I must be doing something right.

I think the regular updates you've done have probably helped keep Ark popular. Do you have plans for more? Valentine's Day is coming up...

Yeah, so we do have some fun stuff planned for that. Another reason I think people like the game is we do tend to do those things. We do events, and fun stuff, I would say on average once a month if you think about it but it's probably more like every two months. It just seems like we had once a month for the end of the year because it was Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. We do want to keep the game fresh and live with events like that as well, and then I mentioned earlier modding. We're running another mod contest too that's starting, it's an international mod contest this time. We're a little restricted in the number of places that could submit last time, but this time anybody can submit a mod. We see the game changing in other ways as people create new game modes and things like that.

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What are your goals in terms of content parity with PC?

We're going to try to keep it very close. One of the reasons for that, that we haven't talked about yet, is you know on PC we have private-hosted servers and we don't have that on consoles yet. We're working now to allow both players and third-party hosting companies to host Windows-based Xbox servers. That actually most of the people that play Ark on PC play on private servers; we could just never pay for all the servers for the players that are out there. That's especially true on Xbox; it would be enormously expensive to keep these persistent servers up basically forever. Players start a character on there and that's where their progress is. We're really excited to get that support out there, and part of that will be to make sure that the Xbox version and those servers are kind of kept up to date with the PC version, and really allow those players to take advantage of the latest stuff. And when they're hosting their own servers and stuff like that be able to configure them with the newest content and kind of customize it to the way they want.

How we are now, we're probably two or three weeks behind on the Xbox updates, but we plan to continue that; I think that's keeping it pretty up to date with PC. As we're in early access, you can think of PC as the lead kind of platform right now, and making sure we get all the gameplay feedback somewhat ironed out before we go and do our console update, which is a little bit of a longer process. Submitting to Microsoft and doing all of that stuff.

Can you explain how using an extra Xbox One as a server works?

So you can now have a dedicated Xbox [hosting] up to fifty players. There's not a 100 percent reliability for people to connect to those servers; that will also help alleviate some of the crowded server issues once we get that fixed. The idea behind that is you can fire up an Xbox as a dedicated server, and leave it running 24/7, and people can use it just like a normal kind of official server on Xbox right now. You have a little bit more control over how the game plays with [dinosaur] taming times, and multipliers for everything scale as you want.

You come from Microsoft and you worked on the HoloLens team. Do you have plans for Ark to support VR and AR in the future?

Yeah we definitely have plans for VR; Oculus support is currently in there, it's been in there, we just used it last week when we were reviewing something. We do plan to have at least a pretty good VR solution implemented when we hit our final launch after we redo our user interface and everything like that to make it a little more VR-friendly. We'll have that in there for PC for sure. On PS4, we've announced more Morpheus support so we're looking forward to that as well. As far as AR goes, no specific plans yet; there's a lot of stuff we could do but I think that's a little bit further behind, even VR, when it comes to commercial adoption so we'll probably kind of wait and see with that to see when the right time is to think about it.

You've described Studio Wildcard as the studio "that never sleeps." What's it like internally now, as you're firing on all cylinders? It sounds like you have kind of a startup vibe.

It does feel like kind of a startup mentality. The game grew way faster than we did in terms of our actual on-site personnel. That being said we still have about 60 people working on the game, and part of the reason we say we're the studio that never sleeps is because we've got people in almost every time zone. There's always somebody working on something. We've got the guys over in Egypt, we've got guys in South America, in Europe. At some point in the day, regardless of what somebody's schedule is, somebody is always working on something. Internally, we're adding a lot of new members to the team as we grow and kind of parallelize some of our development as we start optimizing things on console and adding our final content into PC. We're growing some of our key roles in-house, probably doubling our staff size in our Bellevue studio now. Then as we go towards launch when we we spin up some of our extra stuff that we're doing with Survival of the Fittest, we're putting that as it's own game mode, getting some partner help with that.

"We're just trying to do more and more with the IP; we don't want to rest on our laurels" -- Rapczak

We're just trying to do more and more with the IP; we don't want to rest on our laurels. The game IP has been extremely successful and the only thing that makes sense is to continue to invest in it and to find new avenues where people can enjoy the game, and new game modes, and new whatever, right? People want mobile apps, people want better websites; it's really becoming quite a big production. That's one of the reasons we're expanding is because, if we still had the team we did when we launched, we'd be having all sorts of problems with just scalability. We've just recently brought on more customer service capacity to really help with server issues on our official servers and things like that, so we're growing in kind of all directions right now.

We haven't heard much about the PS4 version, and maybe this is a question for another time, but how is that edition shaping up?

We're pretty excited about PS4. We wish Sony had an early access program, and a lot of people have been asking us for it. We just kind of got to say, "Well you know, it's not really up to us. It's the way Sony runs things, the game pretty much has to be finished." There are a few exceptions that we're not quite sure why they made an exception for one game or the other, but Ark is in the state where at present time unless it's finished, it's not coming out on PS4 until they have some other program that allows us to do that. That being said we are really excited about it.

It feels weird to say this, but fortunately the Sony players will benefit greatly from the Xbox early access. Even though they're different platforms, they're both consoles. Console gamers have lots of similarity; it doesn't matter what platform you're playing on. That being said, all of the feedback we're getting from Xbox is really great for whatever console we ever launch Ark on. It's unfortunate that some gamers can't experience that right now and take part in development as the Xbox players are, but you know, I do encourage anybody who's a PlayStation fan and has a PS4 to ask Sony for the program; maybe they'll decide to let a game like ours be in an early access-type program. Also if they do want to be involved there's still PC. Even if you've got an older PC you can still play the game on PC, give us feedback. A lot of the changes that we're making on Xbox will be rolled back into the PC version eventually like the way the controller works and things like that.

It's not like they can't get involved; it's just like, "Hey find a PC that you can play Ark on and try it play it there. Know that eventually it will come to PS4 and you'll be able to play it there as well."

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For more on Ark, you can check out GameSpot's early access review. Additionally, a $60,000 worldwide modding contest for the game is currently up and running; get all the details on it here.

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