Since its release into early access on Steam over a year ago, Ark: Survival Evolved has been immensely popular, remaining steady with sales on Steam and even transitioning onto consoles. It has a little bit of everything: a large, open world, survival mechanics, base-building, crafting, a PvP or PvE environment, and DINOSAURS (which you can ride). It’s one of my most played PC games and as of writing this piece, I’ve logged over 400 hours of play time. So, when I and my fellow diehard fans who have logged hundreds and thousands of hours in this game’s world start screaming at the top of our lungs about its current state, you know there’s a problem.
On September 1st, Studio Wildcard, the developers behind Ark, released DLC for the game called Scorched Earth. Priced at $20, the DLC was nearly as expensive as the main game which sells regularly for $30. The fact that Wildcard released DLC for the game isn’t quite the issue. Most of the gamers I know would gladly pay for DLC if it meant supporting a game we loved and it’s obvious from the amount of time we’ve spent in-game that we do love it. Thus, with so many fans of Ark, why have gamers turned on Wildcard, leading to posting so many negative reviews on Steam that it would make No Man’s Sky look positive by comparison?
THE BAD PRECEDENT
For starters, Ark releasing a paid DLC for a game that is still very much in early access sets a horrible precedent. Currently, on Steam, there are no repercussions for an early access game who decides not to follow through on their promises. For every Starbound or Divinity: Original Sin that makes good use of the early access system, there are ten more Towns or Spacebase DF-9’s who take consumers’ money and run for the hills. And then there are games like DayZ or 7 Days To Die that seem perpetually stuck in the early access stages, never to reach the glory that is a finished product.
With Ark now selling DLC to fans of the game, what’s to stop other early access games from doing the same and taking advantage of their loyal fanbase? Constantly pushing updates to an early access game (for oftentimes years) can get expensive and I’m sure the opportunity to make more money from DLC is a tempting offer for many developers. Up until the advent of the early access system, games and their DLC went through a more stringent publishing process because “being good” was the only way to entice consumers. However, with early access as it is now, developers can simply promise changes to a game in order to entice buyers and as it stands, there is no way to hold them accountable once you’ve spent your money. Steam has already tried to monetize the mod community, so they, as a publishing platform, certainly aren’t going to start putting rules on who can and cannot sell products to consumers because that would also limit their cash flow. The only real recourse for gamers is to get a refund, but as is the case with Ark, most of the fans fall outside of that two week window, and usually developers wait months or years to pull the rug out from under them.
THE PAY-TO-WIN SCENARIO
Another area of concern with Ark’s new DLC is how it affects the main game. When fans buy a game that has a PvP system like Ark does, we want to make sure that it runs a fair system based on ability, not disposable income. No one likes to play against griefers who have access to all the best items simply because they bought everything the game had to offer. We trust developers like Wildcard to ensure that a game remains balanced enough to still be fun and challenging.
However, Ark has essentially done the opposite with its Scorched Earth DLC. The content itself is limited to the desert island seen in the DLC, loaded with new dinosaurs and crafted items. However, that new content is not relegated to DLC’s island. Players can “take” those items from Scorched Earth back to the main island and use those advantages against players who haven’t purchased the DLC. Wildcard has stated the intent behind this move was to show off the new content while “enticing” other gamers to buy Scorched Earth. In essence, they want to manipulate gamers into spending another $20, otherwise, they’ll be at a disadvantage to those who did fork over the cash. It’s a deceitful act, one that reeks of cash grabbing for the sake of, oh, I don’t know, paying for a gigantic T-Rex display at PAX.
But the biggest kicker to this issue is…
AN INCOMPLETE GAME
More than just being an early access game, Ark isn’t finished. Sure, it has enough content to entertain gamers for a few hundred hours, but believe it or not, gamers who dip into the early access market tend to be very patient people. We read that big ass banner that says “early access” and take the bugs with the good, hope in hearts. We truly believe we are helping the developers with testing and quality assurance, with, of course, the added bonus of getting to play a game early. But make no mistake, we still PAY for these games, so when we decide to buy into early access games it’s with the agreement that one day this purchase will come to fruition.
Ark is not a complete game. It’s one of the most poorly optimized games I’ve ever played (worse at times than Arkham Knight at launch); bugs are rampant, leading to unexplainable deaths, the loss of one’s best gear, and dinos that glitch into walls forever. Even if you are running a top-of-the-line rig, you can’t expect to play at peak performance. It’s an honest-to-goodness mess. BUT, we play games like Ark because there’s potential–serious potential–which is why it hurts so much to see these breaches of trust occur.
WE TRUSTED YOU
When Ark first released, it was one of the good ones. Wildcard was transparent about their process with detailed updates every few weeks. (Very early on, updates were close to twice a week, but even I’m not naive enough to expect indie developers to stick to that schedule.) As developers go, they were incredibly involved in the community, communicating with fans on Reddit and the forums. Whenever someone asked about how to “do” early access games, Ark was the shining example. Then, somewhere along the way, things got lost. Instead of fixing the game-breaking bugs, the focus was on cramming Ark with new modes (like Survival of the Fittest) in an effort to draw in more users, and then filling it to the brim with new and exciting dinosaurs. These methods worked. For a time.
Wildcard then opened the gates to the mod community and Ark felt brand new again. Frustrations with poor optimization and bugs were eased with the aid of mods that made the low framerates more bearable. With modded help, Ark was shiny and new again after a year of dull updates and the delayed promise of better optimization. But we stuck with them because Wildcard saw the beauty in the community additions, even adding some of the mods to the main game itself, and we thought, “They’re listening to what we want.”
Through it all, the same statements were repeated by developers: “We’ll optimize and fix bugs once we’re ready for full release.” As much as I like the new dinosaurs and crafting, it’s all we’ve ever truly wanted as fans. We’ve been patient and understanding, believing that the updates we were given were the easy fixes and that the bigger updates were in the works for final release.
And then the hammer fell. The surprising announcement everyone waited for wasn’t the big update with patches and optimization. It was DLC; DLC that admittedly ran much better than the main game; DLC loaded with the fixes we’ve been waiting over a year for (but only for the DLC portion), and it felt like a punch to the gut. They weren’t listening. And understandably, fans are pissed.
Fans have taken to the forums and steady reviews, knocking the game down from “Mostly positive” to “Mostly Negative” in less than five days. (As you can see in my image from above) In only a few hours, fans who defended the early access banner on Ark’s steam page revolted, tired of waiting for promised fixes that we’re still unsure if they’ll ever arrive. A fan conversed with a dev on the Wildcard Slack channel and things got angry quickly, leading the dev to saying, “Your entire post screamed of rage because you are too cheap to pony up 20 dollars for a game worth 60 which we undercharged for in the first place.” (This dev did later apologize.)
Somewhere along the way, something changed the relationship between Wildcard developer and Ark gamer, and it saddens me to even write that. Maybe we were too entitled, we asked too much, and that pushed them to the edge. Maybe the DLC release was planned for the future and the final release of the game but the lawsuit with Trendy Entertainment forced their hand early. I can’t really comment on the why’s of the act, only how I, as a consumer and a fan, feel.
There’s a part of me that hates this community and what has happened because it’s only fulfilling a prophecy. It’s true that if we want to make a statement about our wishes, we need to vote with our wallets because sadly, in the game industry, being vocal isn’t enough. While Ark’s Steam reviews have taken a nosedive, with the release of the DLC and the sale of the main game, it remains high on Steam’s best-selling list, proving the developer’s point that we may be angry but people are still buying into the game.
And honestly, as angry and heartbroken as I am, I’m afraid what these actions mean for the industry as a whole. Will Ark’s early access DLC set a precedent for the community? Only time will show. But I know one thing for certain: I’m standing firm and refuse to buy DLC for a game that doesn’t care about its player’s voices.