Feature Article

Dinosaurs Invade Esports: How Ark Is Evolving

Dino might.

Ark: Survival Evolved was one of the most unexpected breakout hits of 2015. Its lush, open world map teemed with tamable dinosaurs, craftable weapons, and ever-advancing technology, and its largely unstructured approach meant all these elements could collide in surprising, often hilarious ways. And while Ark challenged players to simply survive in whatever ways they could, developer Studio Wildcard quickly realized its world could be adapted to more competitive aims as well.

Enter Survival of the Fittest, a last-man-standing arena-based multiplayer mode the devs happily liken to The Hunger Games. Though it started life as a mod, Studio Wildcard recently launched a fully standalone version on Steam Early Access. While it retains Ark's dinosaurs, crafting, and more, it also adds a host of multiplayer-specific features, including spectator tools, matchmaking, custom tribe flags, and a streamlined UI. The developers have already hosted a series of tournaments, complete with cash prizes.

With ranked matches of up to 72 players and private games that support up to 250 (with a four hour time limit, no less), it's clear Studio Wildcard is serious about making Survival of the Fittest a substantial competitive offering. But its ambitions don't end there. According to studio co-founder Jesse Rapczak, the team absolutely considers Survival of the Fittest to be a viable esport. We sat down with him at last week's Game Developers Conference to find out more.

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So first, how did Survival of the Fittest start, and why have you now decided to turn it into a standalone game?

Rapczak: It was really the people who were playing the game--the streamers and the fans. They came up to us at E3, and they were like, "Hey, can you guys run a tournament? Like a Hunger Games-style tournament?" We were like, "Actually we can." This was never going to happen as a mod, so we really had to break it off, and it's got a whole separate branch now. It's got all these code changes to support all of that stuff.

How similar is Survival of the Fittest to the base game?

It still has pretty much all of the mechanics of the base game. You've got the taming and riding aspect with the dinosaurs, and the taming is sped up a lot. You still have to gather resources, craft things. Building is a very important part. You've got to build shelter or places to hide. Places where you can do the crafting so that you're not being ambushed. That's still a big part of the game. This is probably the only esport where you can kill someone by forcing them to eat poop.

This is probably the only esport where you can kill someone by forcing them to eat poop.

Jesse Rapczak, Studio Wildcard Co-founder

That sounds pretty unusual for an esport.

We're calling it a multiplayer online survival arena, and it really rang true in the tournament because so many people just died from the environment. Like, piranhas, monkeys--the random events that happen. That being said, the same person won all three tournaments. There is an element of skill to surviving and handling all the randomness. It's like the opposite of what you might think of an esport because everything is usually so regimented and there's a certain way to play the game.

Given that games like DOTA and League of Legends are so regimented and rigidly structured like traditional sports, are you concerned esports players might not embrace the openness here?

I think there's a risk of that, but we're taking a look at that risk and making a bet that there is another type of esport where the rules are simpler and it's just more sandbox-y. We don't want people to have to come in and understand the complex rules of the game to play or spectate the match. It's obvious what's going on when somebody is getting chomped by a dinosaur. Seeing that is very understandable versus having to understand a lot of complicated rules and things like that. If you're watching a League [of Legends] match and you don't play League, chances are you have no idea what's going on.

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I also think not a lot of games try to be esports without trying to be the traditional esport. We're hoping that as one of the few, we can stand out and be unique and attract a lot of people who do want to play this type of game, who appreciate the kind of the randomness and the Hunger Games-style of everything.

Can you tell us a little about the process of adapting Ark's open world formula to a competitive structure?

Based on the game before it became stand-alone, we've made everything shorter. A big push for this was shorter game times. Total re-balancing around that. We spent a lot of time balancing the shorter game. 30 minute matches and stuff like that, so that you can still get all of the stuff out of Ark that you want, like the taming of the creatures and still having to use the crafting and the building and stuff, but everything is tuned.

Has anything changed on the technical side?

We've actually optimized the game quite a bit. The irony is for some people it's going to run worse than ARK for them because we enforced certain graphic settings so that it's more homogeneous across all the players. If you were playing it medium or high on Ark, you would notice a pretty big performance boost now in Survival of the Fittest versus the base game.

Unfortunately, the flip side is if you're playing on low settings on Ark, you don't have that option anymore. Again, it's back to competitive nature. We may change that to allow you to have your settings on unranked servers lower, so people can still enjoy the game and enjoy the performance improvements, but just enforce those on the ranked server so that everybody has got a more even playing field.

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It seems like you guys are constantly updating the base game, so can players expect the same stream of updates here?

We don't plan to make a lot of rapid content changes like we do in the base game, just because our focus is going to be balancing and bug fixing and creating more of this competitive environment. People aren't going to play this as a competitive e-sport unless it really is a competitive esport and there's really something on the line.

Are both Ark and Survival of the Fittest going to remain free-to-play?

At some point we'll want to monetize the game. Probably with cosmetics and stuff that you can also bring back to Ark. I think "free-to-play" has the connotation that you're going to be buying things, but there's nothing to buy, so literally the game is just free at the moment. Later we're going to see what types of things players want. Everything that's in the game now will always be free. [If] you're playing the base game, none of this stuff is suddenly going to become pay in any way.

It seems like a lot of what you're doing is the kind of stuff gamers dream about: direct reaction to fan feedback, full transparency in development, games that are truly free-to-play…

We're inundated with questions from triple-A studios now on how we've been so successful with our community. Can we talk to them or their community people about this, that, or the other? Can we give them development seminars to their dev team? It's pretty crazy. It's something that nobody expected, the success of this game from a small team like ours.

I think it comes down to shipping a product that people want and having them be involved with it. Not worrying so much about going away for two years and trying to make something perfect and then coming out with it at the end and being like, "Ta-da." I think there's many lessons from Ark, and we haven't learned them all ourselves. I think it's a relationship with the community that's not…it's like a real one. It's kind of like we're all in this together.

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Scott Butterworth

Yes, his mother is Mrs. Butterworth.
ARK: Survival Evolved

ARK: Survival Evolved

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