Since Ark: Survival Evolved first launched on Steam Early Access on June 2, 2015, a player named Vör has clocked over 8,600 hours of playtime. To put that in its proper context, there are 8,760 hours in a year. We reached out to Vör to ask how he could possibly have played this game for nearly half its existence.
Like many players, Vör is frustrated at recent changes to Ark. Can Studio Wildcard win their community back?
“When Ark came out I was at a particularly low point with my health,” Vör tells us. He had been diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease almost a year earlier: an illness that makes your immune system attack your intestines, causing various knock-on symptoms.
“Crohn’s Disease affects many people, and in different ways. Each has their own journey,” Vör explains. He suffered many of the more common effects: anxiety, joint pain, back pain, overproduction of stomach acids, and above all, severe lack of energy - “What would be a simple task for someone without Crohn’s would be hugely draining for me,” he says.
It also gave him a form of psoriasis between his legs. “My skin began literally falling off, and I got huge crevices and razor sharp sores, which meant that I simply could not walk for over six months.”
Vör could not work, and spent most of his days bedbound. Surgeons removed some of his colon and put him on a course of immunosuppressant drugs to control the inflammation in his gut - a necessary treatment, but one that made him more vulnerable to viruses and germs.
The first session
This was the horrible context in which Ark arrived in Vör’s life. He took a chance on it the very first day it was released into Early Access. His first session was half a day in its PvP mode, which did not take - “there were trolls everywhere and so much aggression and competitiveness” - but in its PvE game, he found an important, even essential, coping mechanism.
“Ark provided the right level of distraction. I could focus on trying to achieve something in the game, instead of the pain I was constantly in.” He did play other games on occasion, including Evolve, but ultimately it was only Ark that “seemed to give me what my brain needed.
“I could pick and choose the pace at which I played, and the things I did. It was the perfect distraction from the pain of the surgery and as such was a welcome relief, at first.”
Vör’s unique relationship with Ark began as a way to keep his mind off his pain, but game mechanics, perhaps inevitably, took over.
“The more I gamed in Ark, the more I needed to maintain what I had achieved,” Vör says. “The number of dinosaurs I had spiralled out of control. At one point I had over 1,500, and they all needed to be fed.” Vör says he fed them all, every single day, “which, all told, has taken up hours and hours of my time.” Of his 8,600 hours, Vör estimates that he was actively playing for around 95% of it. “I wouldn’t ever risk being logged in for a long time whilst being AFK. I value my ascendant sword way too much for that.”
Vör’s commitment to the game escalated again when developers Studio Wildcard nerfed stasis feeding, causing him to spend yet more time tending to his dinosaurs. “The game was designed to cost me time, and I had to think of new ways to become even more efficient to minimise the impact on my energy levels, as Crohn’s Disease is a fatigue-based illness.”
It might sound like a painful position to be in, and indeed Vör describes it as “a necessary evil that began to ratchet out of control.” And yet, when his health took a turn for the worse, he needed a distraction more than ever.
Further health challenges
Not long after Ark first released, Vör went to sleep one night, and woke up struggling to breathe. He rushed to the hospital, where doctors told him he had suffered a spontaneous pneumothorax - one of his lungs had torn a hole, emptying nearly two litres of air into his chest cavity. The doctors performed an aspiration: they pierced his chest with a needle to suck out the air. It was an emergency, so there was no sedation, and Vör was awake through the whole ordeal. It “has remained with me as one of my worst ever memories,” he says.
When he got back from the hospital, he once again dove into Ark, to take his mind off the pain. His health “seemed to level out a little for a while. I managed to get into a manageable routine where Ark would give me a reason to be up at a certain time of day. It became something I knew I needed to stick with, and putting my effort into this game would ultimately prove to be a great form of therapy for me.”
A year later - summer 2016 - Vör’s lung collapsed again. “Aspiration was rejected this time, as it seemed that something bigger was going on.” Scans revealed that diseased lung tissue - he had been a heavy smoker - would cause the problem to recur, so a bigger operation was required. Vör’s lung was to be fused with his chest cavity so it could not collapse. He had to live in agony for six weeks with a collapsed lung while waiting for the operation, taking strong pain medication, not knowing whether he would wake up each morning. Once again, Ark was his escape in “one of the hardest times of my life.”
The operation came - “the anaesthetist explained that it would be as painful as childbirth” - and, cruelly, failed; after Vör was discharged it was discovered that the lung had not fused properly, and it collapsed yet again.
“I had to stay in hospital for another six days with a drain coming out of my chest while the fusion happened all over again. I went into shock, and as my left lung collapsed further, I nearly passed away. I could barely breathe at all, and it was only thanks to my sister and best friend managing to find a doctor in time that I was put back onto a morphine drip, and the doctors were able to re-inflate my lung and save my life.”
The social side
When news of what Vör had been through spread on his server, people came to help him. They would feed his dinosaurs for him so he could go exploring, taming the odd creature now and again. He could play at his own pace. “I met some of the most amazing in-game friends you could wish to meet.”
They set up a Mumble chat room together. It was Vör's first experience of playing with a mic, and it changed everything. “I could be open about what had happened, and I could ask for help if I needed it.”
It restored his confidence outside of the game, too. “Living alone and through so much pain for nearly two years meant my resolve was strong, but you do not spend two years indoors without some mental collateral damage,” Vör explains. By chatting and playing Ark with people, in time, “my personality began to bloom again, as I received so much love and encouragement from my friends.”
During his recovery, this community showed Vör a new side of Ark. They took on bosses together, shared knowledge and build advice, and supported each other through the darker side of online gaming: “Some guys decided to troll me even though they had heard about my lung operation. They came over to my base on a quetzal, dropped all their rexes on it, tried to block all my entrances, and began abusing me in the global chat.”
It was the first of many such incidents, which were made all the more painful because “they really did know what I had been through. They were told many times, yet they carried on and bullied me all the same.”
Vör and his friends reported these incidents, only for Studio Wildcard to take no action. The trolls “still come onto the server now, just to taunt me and prove that they are not banned.”
“This made me feel horrible,” Vör says. “My ‘happy place’, where I was trying to recover from a serious operation, was attacked by a group of heartless bullies. My friends were wonderful and defended me, but I could not help but feel utterly let down by the devs and community managers because, by not acting on that information, they accepted that bullying on PvE was okay.”
Vör is also worried about Wildcard’s impending decision to re-evaluate Ark’s servers. “The legacy server we all met on is at risk of being wiped, because the traffic there has absolutely nose-dived.” Unlike other players with less time invested, Vör does not feel able to start fresh. “It was hard enough with my Crohn’s Disease to do everything at the start of Ark the first time around.”
The new servers have also scattered Vör’s friends, who have “ended up in pairs across different servers. Some have lost the Ark bug completely, and are logging into Mumble just to say ‘hi’.” Because not enough new servers have been made available, they are full to capacity, leading to long login times and players idling to keep their spot once they are in.
The promise of technical support on the new servers - one not extended to the legacy servers - has also drawn people away. “The result of all this is that our amazing Ark community is lying in tatters, spread over not enough servers with only our friendship keeping us together in Mumble. That, at least, is one thing the devs cannot take away from us. I cannot begin to thank my in-game friends enough for the fun and support that we have shared. They are incredibly generous and funny, and wonderfully kind, and I truly do not know what I would have done without them.”
It is a bit of a tangent from Vör’s story, but I cannot say I know anyone who has played a game for 8,600 hours, so I have to ask: how does such investment in a game change your relationship with it? Are you playing for the same reasons any more? Is it still fun?
“The place that you get the fun from definitely shifts,” Vör says. “It really is just a routine for me at the moment. I log in, feed my dinosaurs, farm the bits and pieces I need to keep my base ticking over, then I try to help other players for a while. Before I know it, hours have gone by.”
After so much time, it should be no surprise that Vör’s in-game power is godlike. In lieu of any mechanical challenges to conquer - having overcome them all long ago - helping others has become Vör’s reason to play.
“Going up to a Titan and eating it within a few seconds because someone didn’t want it to stand on their base gives me a huge sense of well-being. That is what I enjoy most about the game: helping people. Meeting a new player, saying hello and helping out could last a lifetime, because that never ever gets old or stops being fun.”
At first, Vör saw Ark “as a way to exist temporarily until I was not poorly anymore, and was able to get out of the house.” In time, however, “helping people helped me to feel human again.”
(And he points out that, if Wildcard go through with a proposal to reset everyone’s progress to level one, he will not be able to do any of this. The thought fills him “with utter contempt.”)
“Before I got so poorly I was a musician,” Vör says. “I played guitar, I sang, I wrote my own songs, and I played blues harmonica. All of those things needed some serious lung power, but for two years I was unable to do anything with my lungs at all. My voice box was damaged in the operation too, and that has only just healed, a year later. I am able to sing a song or two now and then my voice gives way, but compared to where I was, I’ll take that for now.”
He still logs into Ark for a couple of hours a day, purely to maintain his work, but he is thoroughly burned out, and expects Studio Wildcard to wipe the legacy servers soon. So, he and a friend have plans to set up a private server, transferring their progress with save files they expect Wildcard to release. Vör will take a few weeks off during the transition - “I need that break so badly” - before launching this server with reduced feeding rates and structure timers “so we can play at our own pace, without the pressure the official servers put on us. The focus will be to have fun, without having to log in every single day.”
Vör mentions the teething problems of the new servers. Many have hit their dinosaur limit, so players cannot tame any more pets, while others are experiencing near-unplayable lag. “It really is a laughable state of affairs in many ways.” He says “people are signing up to come and join” his private server.
Vör is eating and sleeping better, though he still tires easily. His left lung is stable, but although he has not smoked since his aspiration over 400 days ago, the damage he has already done has put his right lung at risk. “Despite progress being slower than I would like, it has definitely been made. It might sound hard to believe, but I consider myself lucky to be here and things could have been a whole lot worse, so I try to keep smiling where I can.” He is looking forward to the release of the save files and the launch of his private server, when “I will finally be able to enjoy the game again for the reason I fell in love with it in the first place - to have a laugh with my friends.”